Friday, April 13, 2018

What I Learned by Looking Back

by Emily Conrad

Stomach tense with nervous energy, I descended the stairs from my writing desk on the second floor of our house down into the basement. I edged around the Christmas tree we left set up to get into the old coal room, which we use for storage.

I slid the box with my wedding dress off another large box of memorabilia from my childhood, reached in, and pulled out a large binder labelled “High School.”

I remember high school as a time of struggling with friendships and fitting in. I remember myself as awkward and totally not in control of my own hair (hello, frizz).

And this binder, well, that was bound to contain a pure reflection of just how awkward and young I was.

The binder is packed with short stories I wrote between 1997 and 2001.

Most writers have a manuscript languishing in a drawer or a box or a hard drive. They vow it’ll never see the light of day. I have some early novel manuscripts that I have no intentions of ever trying to publish again (I did try to get at least one of them published back then), but those were written after these short stories, making these stories more likely to be cringe-worthy than any other old fiction I’ve tucked away.

But, I wanted a story about a knight and a lady. I only needed a few good sentences so a character in a current story of mine could read them off. And yes, I dabbled in stories about knights and ladies a couple of times in high school. Why reinvent the wheel?

As soon as I cracked open the cover of the binder, I saw why: this was bound to be embarrassing. The covers I’d drawn back in high school were pretty cheesy. Tense, I flipped through the stories and read a snatch here and there.

And then I started to smile. Excitement replaced the nerves. I’d been unfair to my high school self.

Whatever else may or may not have been going on, there is a still-recognizable reason my friends passed around my stories, reading intently. Looking back as an adult and a published writer, I was actually impressed. I found myself surprised by dialogue or twists I’d long since forgotten writing. Man, was I brave, writing scenarios then that I'd shy away from now, too well aware of details I don't know, too bound by reality to let imagination fill in so much. I found a note from a teacher who wrote, “Fantastic story! I love your sense of intrigue!”

Was some of it goofy? Yes. Was some of it eye-roll-inducing? Eh, yeah. Did I use passive voice and totally skip some moments of interest? Yes and yes.

But in those pages I saw not everything has changed about my way of storytelling. I love to hint at secrets and reveal them slowly. I tend to gravitate toward focusing on heroes over heroines. I still favor some of the same character traits.

I've learned a lot by looking back.

We shouldn’t be afraid to be a beginner at something. A beginner's enthusiasm and authenticity go a long way. Let’s attack our passions without self-consciousness. Let’s just go for it in bravery, love the process, enjoy the steps along the way, and take it one stage at a time. We won’t get it all right, but when we pursue God-given passions wholeheartedly, maybe we’ll get more right than we realize at the time.

We shouldn’t be afraid to encourage beginners. When I saw that note from my old teacher, I had no memory of it. I don’t know which year I wrote the story, or which teacher issued the praise. But I do know they ignited excitement in my young writer’s heart. I know they made me surer of my calling. I probably went home and dove into writing more, bit by bit developing that sense of intrigue and that passion for story. Would I be a writer now, if not for that teacher? Probably. But you never know. Harsh criticism that early on may have stopped me in my tracks. Experiences early on can have far reaching effects.

We should look back on ourselves with grace. We were not who we are today, but we were on our way. God was molding us then into who we are now, and He’s molding us still into who we’ll be tomorrow and into eternity. There’s nothing wrong with growth. In fact, it’s a good thing, right?

Let’s just go for it in bravery, love the process, enjoy the steps along the way, and take it one stage at a time. @emilyrconrad #amwriting #courage #newbeginnings


Ruthette said...

This is great. Two years ago or so, I dug out a Civil War romance "novel" I wrote in tenth grade. So embarrassing.

Emily Conrad said...

I had an American Revolutionary War story in my binder :) If nothing else, they're proof we were paying enough attention in history class to be inspired!

Jody said...

Love this! There's a story in every old memory and piece of memorabilia. Great read.

Pearl Allard said...

Emily, I love what you said about giving our past selves grace. And how wonderful to enjoy stories you’ve written in the past!

Emily Conrad said...

Thanks, Jody! Yes, I agree! Probably why I have trouble letting some keepsakes go. :)

Emily Conrad said...

Yes, looking back with grace is so much more life-giving than the alternative, isn't it? And the stories were a pleasant surprise :)

Kelly Goshorn said...

"Looking back at ourselves with grace." Love that!

marilyn leach said...

I enjoyed your blog today, Emily. The line, look back on ourselves with grace spoke to me. Thanks and Cheers

Emily Conrad said...

Thanks for reading, Kelly!

Emily Conrad said...

I appreciate you stopping by, Marilyn! Glad you enjoyed the post!

Lila said...

I enjoyed this. First, because those dates you mention are my college years (so we're close in age). ;)
Second, because I still have a binder of all my old writing assignments. I read through them every few years. I haven't found anything that I can actually use, but it's fun to remember what I used to be into.

Emily Conrad said...

Oh, yes, we must be close in age! I'm glad I'm not the only one who hangs onto old binders ;) And yeah, mine hasn't proven usable, either, but like you said, it's a fun reminder.

Jerusha Agen said...

Fantastic post, Emily! I especially love this line (and the one after it): "We were not who we are today, but we were on our way." Amen to that! Lately, I've been thinking back on some experiences in my past that I wish I had handled differently, especially in terms of my Christian witness. I end up feeling very discouraged, but I maybe need to ease up on my past self by looking at those times the way you are--they were necessary stages in my growth to get me to the person who can now look back and see a better way. To a person who hopefully would do things differently now. But I'm sure that years from now, I'll look back at my 2018 self and see all the things that could've been better. But that's sanctification! And we have the promise that God WILL COMPLETE His good work in us one day. :) (Btw, I've also had this same experience of looking back on my old childhood stories and seeing the spark of potential and many echoes--or foreshadowing--of the author I am today. :) Not as much has changed as I thought!)

Emily Conrad said...

We have all failed in our witness, but I agree that as the Spirit convicts us of those, He trains us to better represent Christ next time. And of course, we are to share about our faith and act in righteousness, but as flawed humans, we can also find comfort in the assurance that God is bigger than any of our failures. So grateful for that! Amen that He will complete His good work!