August 2nd, 2011 / 4:34 pm
Craft Notes

It’s Okay to Hug Your Ten Years Ago Writing Self

I’ve been going through my older writing I never did anything with to see if I can send any of it out. In 2000 and 2001, I wrote my master’s thesis, a short story collection called How Small The World.  I wrote a bunch of other, mostly insane stories about, well, most of the themes I’m still writing about. I was 26. I was writing literary fiction for the first time after writing genre fiction, erotica, for years, so I was trying to learn the rules as I wrote and also trying to be less filthy. I only sometimes succeeded on that front. Some of the stories hold up in that I’m not totally humiliated.  Don’t get me wrong. There is embarrassment but I’ll survive. The stories are certainly workshoppy at times, a bit ponderous, slow moving, introspective, and far more sedate than what I’m currently writing but they’re also publishable with work. This is how I spent my summer vacation–identifying the strange preoccupations I had ten years ago and pretending I don’t have a whole new set of preoccupations now.

Sighing was a very big thing for my characters, especially the women. They sighed before speaking. They sighed while sitting down. They sighed during arguments. They sighed during sex, whether it was good or bad. They sighed while eating. They sighed while exasperated. They sighed at work. They sighed after looking at pregnancy tests. Sighing was a serious narrative device meant to communicate a wide range of dissatisfactions and sorrows, confusion or hopelessness.

There was a lot of action in the corners of eyes—burning, the welling of tears, dryness, aching, all designed to convey that characters were feeling something emotional they couldn’t quite articulate or surrender to.

Conversations never ended. Many of my characters engaged in Hotel California-like conversations for two or three double-spaced pages to fill in backstory and to explain, in intricate and intimate detail, their opinions on a situation, their motivations for recent behaviors, their issues with their mothers, whatever. My characters, at the turn of the century, were not afraid to talk shit out.

There was also a lot of dialogic exposition. She said pointedly. She said drily. She sighed happily. She laughed lightly. She said sternly. She said weakly. She said <insert adverb>, ad nauseum.

At the time, I was a pack a day smoker (and how I miss it). My characters smoked a disturbing amount and used cigarettes and the smoking, waving about, ashing, and extinguishing thereof as a way to insert a little action into “serious” conversations and emotional situations. They smoked in cars, on balconies, while pregnant, after shooting heroin, on road trips, at rest areas, in a lawyer’s office, at a strip club, in a bathtub, while sitting on the toilet, while sitting on the bathroom counter, on the balcony again. They exhaled their smoke in long thin streams, in perfect, well-timed circles, through their nostrils, in awkward clouds during a coughing fit, and while having an angry conversation. Their fingertips were stained yellow and brown, their teeth bore the yellowed evidence of years of tobacco and nicotine, their clothes held the heavy clouds of smoke they lived in. Smoking was very serious business, you see. It added subtext. This maybe hasn’t changed so much.

The eyebrows, they arched high and often and proudly. They arched to communicate irritation, amusement, bemusement, desire, sexiness, confusion, or anger. The eyebrows were the windows to the soul. They were usually perfectly shaped.

My love affair with the word “that” was very intense. That that that that that that that. Also, I was no stranger to “just.”

My characters were hellbent on having original names not on that Top 20 list of baby names the Social Security Administration releases annually. Case in point: Ursula. Case in point: Feliciano, but he also goes by Happy.

Lips were routinely wet with spit, while being licked, with droplets of water, with booze. Those wet lips were nuzzled against armpits, cheeks, necks, the backs of hands. Those wet lips often had odors. The lips, they were wet. Yes, I know how often boozy lips still find their way into my stories. Thanks.

My characters found solace and guidance in the moon, starting up at the moon, into the moon, thinking profound thoughts about the moon and it’s place in the universe, looking to the moon for answers and ways out of difficult situations, marveling at the beauty of the moon, enjoying that beauty while holding hands, making love beneath the moon, splashing in a dark lake under the moon.

In addition to fiction classes, I was also taking lots of theory classes and sadly, much of that theoretical language wormed its way into my stories. I wore out the word subjective. Wore. It. Out.

Sensations flowed. Gazes were intense. Desire boiled. Thighs clenched. Thoughts ran wild. Emotions soared. Hope floated. Emotions were very, very active.  This is awkward.

I used epigraphs to make meaningful statements about the narrative to follow. Along those lines, last year, I unearthed a 109 page project, Love and Other Anti-Depressants, from just before I started graduate school, one I do not remember writing, mind you, with the most ludicrous plot. I can’t get into it but it involved a lesbian art forger and a truck driver. I looked at this project again this week to see if it is redeemable and it isn’t, not even a little bit. The epigraph for this horribly titled opus came from Robert Louis Stevenson—”The cruelest lies are often told in silence.”

Stevenson, man. I have no idea.

Women spent a lot of time with therapists, often antagonistically. They started at the bald heads of therapists. They studied the therapists’ outfits. They studied how the therapists took notes, if the therapists took notes, if the therapists engaged with them inappropriately. Sometimes, they had sex with their therapists. Mostly they hated their therapists. Projection, projection, projection.

The violence was bone crushing, blood spattering, nausea inducing, body tearing, bruises deep and purpling, lips split, scalps throbbing. This also hasn’t changed much.

I had a terrible, terrible, mortifying habit of writing stories for people I was dating or wanted to date. As you might imagine, there were many stories involving friends who fall in love, friends with benefits who become something more, longing gazes, lingering touches, sparks at fingertips, unrequited passions that finally became requited, happily ever afters, happily ever afters, hello wishful thinking. The break up stories are funnier–lots of infidelity, rageful break up sex, ex-stalking, loneliness and bitterness, tormented begging to reconnect, elaborate revenge plots. One of these break up stories was published in an anthology so they weren’t all funny terrible.  I don’t do this anymore. I mean, I change the important details more than I used to. Mostly.

I… I wrote @copyright Roxane Gay <year> on my work as IF it needed to be protected for its preciousness and as if such self-administered imprimatur were necessary.

I know better now. Mostly.


  1. Chris 'Elmo' Emslie

      those adverbs are like termites. they just keep coming. I’ve had my fair share of adverb infestations.

  2. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      O man, when I started writing “in scene” more while working on the young adult novel, I was like… What the fuck do I insert here to add a beat between lines of dialogue? I felt like a complete novice. And yep, lots of sighing. Lots of arched brows. 

      It reminded me of this post Sean Lovelace wrote for his personal blog once where he was like, Flood your stories with physical objects. You will need them later.

  3. God and Michael Jordan: fans of revision | THE LITERARY MAN

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  4. Shannon

      Roxane I had the same habit for years.

      I spend a lot of time hugging my former writing self. I love finding bits of really old writing tucked away, makes me feel happy, like when I see a puppy.

  5. Samuel Gulpan

      Jesus Christ I loved reading this entry. Who was it that said Disqus needs a “love” button? I’m having a massive heart throb right now.  

  6. Ashley Ford

      This post gives me hope for my writing. 

  7. lily hoang

      love this, roxane. i often have a hard time hugging younger lily (we’ve talked about this), but i’m so glad you posted this. a decade ago: yes, cigarettes/nicotine, everywhere, and lips and being deep/philosophical and crazy/medicated/genius, oh, our younger selves! 

  8. Jason Plein

      Even years after I stopped smoking all my characters were smokers and they stood at street corners smoking and they sat at windows smoking and they watched the smoke go up to the ceiling or to the streetlight they were standing under waiting for their bus or dealer and they sat on the couch and smoked until there was an undulating mattress of smoke at the ceiling. None of my characters stopped smoking, even after I stopped, but when I was still stopping and it was hard my characters had nic fits and were dicks to people because they hadn’t had their smokes. Smoking was a big deal.

  9. Corey Zeller

      real nice post

  10. deadgod

      Staring at something can be a kind of mo-slotion startlement.

  11. Dawn.

      I wanna marry this post. Love it.

      My writing self 10 years ago was 14 years old. She was writing an incredibly awful fantasy novel full of impossibly gorgeous 17 year olds who smoked and drank and fucked a lot and each had their own special magical power that made them all outcasts and oh yes, they sighed a fuckload, and they traveled between two dimensions (faerie land and America c. 2001) frequently and somehow they were always having intense arguments with their mothers, who were alwaysalways disappointed in them, alwaysalways wanting them to be someone else (projection projection). I wrote over 100 pages and then dropped it and moved on to a (also unfinished) novel about a teenage loner poet falling in love with a gorgeous autistic mute guy (yeah, it was bad; the mute’s name was Beverly and they had “tender” virginity-losing sex). The fantasy novel was called Quartet, because there were four protagonists (I thought that was awesome, btw). I’m really sad that I don’t have a surviving copy. I would totally hug that shitshow right now.

      I actually posted excerpts of the Beverly fiasco on a teen writing message board and got enthusiastic responses and a pen pal out of it haha. We mailed each other letters and collages and photos and made each other mix tapes and IMed about writing for hours. Actually, we were “friends” for like three years. It’s funny. We really loved each other. I still remember her full name and address. I still have some of the books she bought me, boxed up somewhere. Aw. Now I’m all nostalgic. Damn it Roxane LOL.

  12. Roxane

      Thank you, Lily. I don’t know why but I am able to be pretty soft with younger writing Roxane. I know I simply didn’t know better. I’m far less generous with myself today because I do know better and sometimes I do silly things anyway. Alas!

  13. Roxane

      You are immensely talented. You should feel nothing but hope.

  14. Roxane

      Thank you, Samuel!

  15. Roxane

      We are not alone, Shannon. I am pretty charmed (with a bit of mortification, of course) by my old writing, and I’m also kind of impressed that I’ve kept all of it across countless computers, moves, life changes, and so on.

  16. Roxane

      Yes! I always feel like I need to anchor my characters in the dialogue, give them things to do. It’s hard.

  17. Roxane

      And how they keep coming.

  18. Roxane

      Smoking, I confess, is still a pretty big deal for me. The narrator in my novel smokes all the damn time.

  19. Roxane

      Thanks Corey.

  20. Roxane

      Dawn! Always hug your shitshows. I’m feeling “Quartet,” real hard,. That’s so young adult clever. I could see myself doing something like that. Don’t be afraid of nostalgia. Write your old pen pal a letter.

  21. Anonymous

      Yeah, my ten years ago writing self, age 25, could be kind of a dick.  He could use a hug.  I’ll give him one next time I see him.

      My ten years ago stuff is pretty irredeemable.  It has to get to five and six years ago before there is much potential there.  I find it hard to get through more than a page or 2 before all the cringing crinkles up my eyes and I can’t see.  

      I’m glad that in 2001 I was not techy enough to be doing any writing online.  Because that would mean the Wayback Machine would have it embalmed in digital amber forever, and that would be doing no one any favors.  

      I wonder if the young folks out there today will ultimately be helped or hurt by having various of their juvenilia out there in in googleable form, 10 years or more down the road?

  22. Katelyn

      I’m in favor of Feliciano/Happy, epigraphs, and lesbian art forgers.

  23. robots.txt

      User-agent: ia_archiver
      Disallow: /

  24. Guest

      yes, writers who managed to produce all of their early work offline before that public, global, searchable database came around should consider themselves very lucky

  25. bl pawelek

      Awesome post Roxane.
      I have a folder of a couple hundred pieces/poems that I wrote my last couple years of high school (circa 1985-86) and they are bad! Bad with like a “fucking” in front of it. At that point, I had no idea what I was doing, no concept of technique (nor trying to learn one). 
      I can not really read through them or show them to anyone, yet I have not thrown them away. 
      18-year old Barry still lives for now …

  26. Nicholas Liu

      Neither, I think, because it will be the norm and because, y’know, magazines die and consequently fall in the rankings.

  27. Tomes and Talismans

      Mining boxes of old papers this week I found the pages that were as good as I was capable of producing back then weren’t embarrassing – like, as long as I can see that I was working at MAX POWER then hang the results. A lot wasn’t good, some was.

      The good stuff I turned up reminded me how crucial it is to write every day. Because obviously I don’t remember where that good/old stuff came from now and I can’t recapture or resume it. Coulda been a contender etc.

      Keep calm and level up.

  28. deadgod

      They started at the bald heads of therapists.

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  30. DeWitt Brinson

      Roxane’s Genesis:

      In the beginning, they sighed. And their faces were dark, and eyebrows arched across the smoke of their faces. And they saw a therapist. And the therapist was bad.

      And let the friends split upon casual hook-ups and let the hook-ups lead to dating. The dating shall split the time of friendship and ex-hood. The exes shall stalk one another.

      And it was so.

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