Sep 20, 2018

stop denigrating your early work

I came across this conversation between Porochista Khakpour and Salman Rushdie last year, and the character of this exchange about Rushdie’s first novel stayed with me:

Khakpour: I’ve been thinking a lot about your first book, Grimus, actually…

Rushdie: Nobody really liked it when it came out…except Ursula LeGuin. She’s been my loyal critic from the very beginning.

Khakpour: I think it’s a great first novel.

Rushdie: You do? Well, thank you. I’m not so sure myself. [Laughter.] After it came out and after its really quite poor reception, I did a lot of rethinking about what I think is wrong about it, never mind what other people said. And that process of rethinking is what led me eventually to Midnight’s Children. It was partially a way of rejecting what I was trying to do in my first novel [in] that I found my way. So in my head that’s a book that I rejected in order to discover my path. I think it’s a book in which the author has not found his voice yet. I think it’s kind of erratic. There are passages that I think are really embarrassing. So I don’t look at it very often.

Here’s the whole interview in Poets & Writers magazine. What’s revealing about this is how Rushdie is equivocating between that familiar feeling of embarrassment about one’s early work and the clarity to see that the first completed projects are usually (at the very least) a pathway to what becomes possible afterward. I just wish Rushdie could end on the more satisfied note instead of the hand-wringing.

And why? Because experienced creatives owe it to younger people to resist denigrating their early work. It’s a disservice to everyone when you try and erase the universality of growth and change. And it’s really a disservice to obscure the fact that imperfect things have to be given a chance to live if you’re going to grow as an artist or writer. It’s critical that people starting out hear the painful fact that you have to let projects come to earth, to let them be called done—and not housed not in the utopian version that can live forever unfinished in your head.

No—some projects are done when they’re simply in the structure that they can live up to here in real life, the best version one knows how to make at the time. Younger people need to see that some work has to go out even when it only reaches some mostly-there fraction of its potential. Because to finish—to let a work be called done, and then to learn from it—this is how creative people expand what they can do. For experienced artists to look askance at their own past just makes it harder for beginners to shore up their courage and try.