Horatian exercise: digging up the past

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace, as imagined by Anton von Werner.)

On the weekend I was going through some very old files. I bought a floppy drive for 3.5″ discs about two years ago with the intention of locating and moving files I considered important to my other hard drive, or burn them to a CD or DVD. Well, two years later I finally opened up the box with the floppy drive and went through some of my discs. (And believe me, it took a while going through the house and searching for where I had put them.)

The first thing that struck me was just how many of them there were. The second thing was just how much writing I had done over the years. They contained files from a number of different jobs I’ve had (as a writer) as well as a lot of personal writing such as fiction and poetry.

Good grief! I wrote a lot!

I was mainly interested in the fiction and poetry material. Or maybe I should say I was sidetracked by it.

Three things characterized the material: 1) the quantity, 2) how dreadful most of it was, 3) how good a very small amount of it was.

I think I knew even at the time that most of it was rubbish. But it was interesting to see what mistakes I was making (primarily three) and how, over time, I eventually began to eliminate those mistakes. In other words, there was progression in the quality. That has always been one of the aspects of writing I like most: seeing it improve.

And what were the three main mistakes I was making? First, there was too much telling and little showing, at least in the early stories. Second, there was a great deal of over-writing which could also be rephrased as pretentious writing. Thirdly, and related to the second, much of it tried too hard to be cute or clever.

But that was the negative side of things. From the positive perspective, a good deal of it was damn funny! I could also see I write fiction best when I begin with an absurdity. For some reason, that triggers my creativity. For instance, I had a very, very short story called The Itinerant Town. It was about a town that every day was in a different part of Canada. It was, as you can imagine, very difficult to find.

It was a fascinating exercise and, in some sense, gratifying because while I saw how utterly awful most of the material was, I saw the few that were pretty good. And even many of the bad stories and poems in those files have some good ideas at their core. It reminded me of Horace (I think it was Horace) who wrote somewhere that you should take what you write and bury it for a number of years. Then, when you finally go back and look at it, you’ll truly know if it was any good. In other words, it’s difficult to judge truly in the moment. Time gives you a more objective perspective.