I have been reading a collection of short stories by Graham Greene, one of my favorite writers. Greene is known for his novels including The End of the Affair, The Confidential Agent, Our Man in Havana, and The Third Man, which was made into one of my all-time favorite movies. He made a discerning observation in the Introduction to Collected Stories which had me pondering for quite a while and I’d like to share it with you.
“With a novel, which takes perhaps years to write, the author is not the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. It is not only that his characters have developed – he has developed with them, and this nearly always gives a sense of roughness to the work: a novel can seldom have the sense of perfection which you find in Chekhov’s story, The Lady with the Dog. It is the consciousness of that failure which makes the revision of the novel seem endless – the author is trying in vain to adapt the story to his changed personality – as though it were something he had begun in childhood and was finishing now in old age. There are moments of despair when he begins perhaps the fifth revision of Part One, when he sees the multitude of the new corrections. How can he help feeling “This will never end. I shall never get this passage right.”? What he ought to be saying is, “I shall never again be the man I was when I wrote this months and months ago.”
In this singular observation he explains to me why, when I return to work I wrote, or even art that I painted, several years ago I often feel so dissatisfied. It is not so much that the piece isn’t good or could be better, it is that I, the one who judges and evaluates, has changed. What I once considered good is now being measured against different standards and found wanting.
There are poems that I’ve written that I’ve revised and polished so many times there is nothing left. Little stories I’ve written that now embarrass me with their awkwardness. Maybe those original efforts weren’t perfect, but they were honest. In my search for perfection I judged them unworthy and killed not only their little spark of life but also a bit of my creative spirit. Good editors know when to polish; great editors know when to stop.
I think this is also what happens when we look back on our lives – particularly those periods that were perhaps challenging – and say from our current perspective: That was stupid. I shouldn’t have done that. How could I have been so selfish. Or, I wish I could do that over again. We can drag the past behind us like a ball and chain.
And situations don’t even have to be dramatic or important. Look at the photos you took ten years ago. How could you have worn clothes like that, or that hairdo! How could you have ever dated that guy or gal? Well, if it were today you wouldn’t.
When we turn our eyes to the past, it is best to look with compassion and release the desire to edit, rearrange, excuse or reformat who we were and what we did. We did the best we could at the time. We did the best we could given the circumstances and the options available. Turn the page and move on to a new chapter or better yet start a new book. Know when to put the editor aside and become the creator.