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Be Kind to Your Past Self (And Your Present Self, Really)

Some holiday ambiance, courtesy of kenmainr
It happens every so often: you decide to reread something you wrote years or months ago, just for fun, or to see if there's something worth salvaging, and instead of being delighted by your past self's work, or even just amused by your past self's writing quirks and favorite tropes, you start in on the cringing. And then the dismissing. And then the outright "wow, this really sucks. I can't believe I did this and this and this. Maybe this book would have gotten me an agent/sold to a publisher/sold to more readers if I hadn't done those things!" etc.

The cringing and the self-doubt probably happen to all writers, and generally, it's also probably a good sign-- after all, if you couldn't recognize the flaws in your old work, that would mean you aren't getting any better, right? Cringing at your old writing is a sign of growth. But the problem is, what if that old writing isn't just sitting in a folder on your computer-- what if you queried that project? What if you sent it to critique partners? What if it's published? What if it's out there, in the world, in some form or another, and you're now finding yourself cringing at certain parts of it? That makes the cringing a little more painful. A little harder to ignore, or let go of.

Maybe your work is still safely tucked away on your computer, and maybe it's not. But no matter what stage you're at, it might be a good time to develop a "be kind to yourself" policy.

It's important to form good habits early, after all, like brushing your teeth every night, or paying your bills on time. Somehow, though, I don't think we always acknowledge the power our negative thoughts can have over us in the long term. In the short term, saying "wow, this is terrible" about a piece of really old writing doesn't do a whole lot of damage-- but if you form a habit of looking backward and flinching, it may not just happen with really old writing. Or even sorta old writing. It'll happen with the writing you just did. Maybe even with the writing you're doing now. Maybe it'll happen with the writing you can't take back. It might even make you look with distaste at every achievement you have, whether it's finishing a draft or getting an agent or having a book on a shelf for other people to read. And that seems like a real shame, because those things should be celebrated, not cringed at.

I'm not advocating for being delusional. It would be foolish, and kind of arrogant, to look back at your work and think "wow, this is perfect. I am the best. Anyone who doesn't like this is an idiot." And if truly problematic things (harmful tropes! offensive portrayals! etc.) in your writing never make you cringe, you may not do what you can to correct them, which is a mistake. But there's a difference between beating yourself up over the problems that you find, and saying "that thing in my writing is problematic/not as well done as I'd like/not as well written as I wanted. But hey, I was just learning, and now I know how to do it better."

Past You may not be as awesome as Present You, but Past You worked really hard to get to Present You, too. Past You put in long hours of writing time, talked to friends and critique partners about writing and maybe just life in general, did a lot of research, bore up under a lot of scrutiny, edited a lot of drafts. Past You may not have had everything right, but neither does Present You, and neither does anyone else. It doesn't do any versions of you any good to devalue the efforts of your past self. Because Past You is still, at the end of the day, a part of you.

The world does enough beating us up, frankly. I mean, if you want to find someone who will criticize you, look no further than that guy with road rage in the other car-- and most of us can probably find a lot more examples than that. We don't need to do the beating up ourselves. Inside your head should be a safe space to make mistakes, to grow and change and learn, to find acceptance, forgiveness, and kindness.

Really, this only has a little bit to do with writing. This time of year is hard for a lot of people-- hard, stressful, lonely, intense, depressing, pick an adjective, any adjective. For writers, though, writing can be a haven, somewhere to flee when the hard times come.

But you actively create that haven, every time you try not to hate your own work, every time you just let the words go without nitpicking each one, every time you decide to just try something and see how it works. Being kind to your past self-- accepting that you are on a path to become a better writer, and that making mistakes doesn't mean you suck-- is another way to create that haven.

May your brain be a safe place for you to go. Happy holidays, everyone.
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  1. I love this. It's definitely something I need to work on.
    Happy Holidays and thanks for all the great posts this year!

  2. Yes! It can be tough to see it from the perpsective of, look how much I've grown! Some of the best writing advice I've received is to keep writing. If something isn't working or going anywhere, start a new project. You might learn so much through that next project that when you return to your old projects you see them in a new light with new skills. Writing is a craft; skills that are added to over time, seasoned with experience.

  3. This is a great and encouraging post. I particularly like the last line "may your brain be a safe place for you to go". It made me grin.

    I'm trying to see my writing life as a journey and not criticize past milestones, stops along the way, and deviations in the path. It all led me to where I am now, and where I am now will lead me all the way to publishing eventually. Though, when you're stalled out at a particularly unfriendly part of the highway, it's hard to get back on. That's why there are blogs like this.

    Thanks for the post! Hope the New Year is wonderful for you all!


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