Agonizing dread arrests most writers at the prospect of revisiting their old work – especially an essay collection. Our revision reflex activities and work that was due but (at least in your mind) not necessarily done is suddenly in need of a fresh coat of paint. We obsess over what we could have said, done, structured differently had we known what we know now, if we were who we are presently, and had we amassed all the life experience we currently amassed.
But no, our published pieces are captive to the amber of time, words that were written can’t be unwritten. Your writing is out there naked in the world colliding with the viewpoints, critiques, and skepticism of others.
Returning written words to your imagination isn’t an option, but embracing those words is, no matter how imperfect you might perceive them. An essay collection just might make for the perfect embrace.
More than just an exercise in self-aggrandizement, or a nonfiction writer’s greatest hits, an essay collection can trigger reflection, contemplation, and self and societal assessment in a reader. Essential ingredients for both individual and social betterment.
No, not everyone’s essay collection will have the might of Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard, but, of course, not everyone is Toni Morrison. But your resurrected work can provide readers with a unique way of looking at their life, this world, and the people they inhabit it with.
But choosing exactly what to include out of your massive archive of writing can provide a unique challenge. What stays and what goes? How do you organize it all? And will any of it still resonate with readers after all this time?
These are questions I was forced to answer while gathering the essays that comprise my collection, Readying to Rise. Hopefully my hard earned knowledge can assist you with building your own essay collection.
1. Embrace the Past
Reencountering old writing can be scary, in no small part because you’ve hopefully evolved as a person, writer, and thinker since you put the final punctuation mark on a months or years-old essay.
A friend says old writing can be like bumping into an ex. You’re different and so are they, but no matter how the relationship ended, whether you wish it had concluded differently or not, you have to make peace that you made an impression upon their life, and they yours.
You were who you were during that time period. And that is completely okay. Chances are, the thoughts, experiences, and interpretation of events then still ring true to someone encountering a similar circumstance that you previously wrote about. One person’s past is another’s present, afterall.
Maybe you would’ve even drastically changed things had you written the same piece today. But remember writing is like Virgina Madsen’s description of wine in her monologue from the movie Sideways: I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity.
Don’t deprive readers of the taste of your past work, the work you were uniquely able to craft on a singular day, just because your own tastes have evolved.
2. Make Order Out of Chaos
Most of your work was probably intended to live as stand alone pieces without regard to potentially being bound together one day in a single essay collection.
This means you have to go about the business of organizing disjointed columns or essays into something that a) makes it look like you knew what you were doing all along and b) doesn’t completely jar the reader’s sensibilities. Going from a scarthing piece on FEMA’s missteps following Hurricane Katrina to a musing on overcoming severe halitosis probably isn’t the best sequencing.
Once you’ve identified all the pieces you found fit to reprint, you want to ensure that you’ve categorized them under comprehensible themes. They don’t necessarily have to be grouped by a concrete topic (e.g. politics, culture, art, etc.) but a reader should be able to implicitly understand why an essay was placed where it was.
I originally chose to group my essays under three categories: Tribulations, Trials, and Triumphs that corresponded with essays dealing with my mental health struggles. I eventually decided it would be better to sort them chronologically.
You shouldn’t try to shoehorn a piece into a category. If you have enough pieces that seem out of place, there’s nothing wrong with simply creating a new category called Random!
3. Pick That Which Endures
With an essay collection what’s old is new again. A piece you wrote five years ago about the destigmitizatizing mental health in professional sports may now have new relevance given the recent stances of athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. Likewise, a profile you wrote about an Afghanistan War veteran’s return home a decade ago might provide an illuminating insight into the recently concluded conflict.
In both cases, it’s not only that each story has a renewed news peg, it’s that each story deals with underlying issues that will be ongoing long after your book is planted on someone’s self: The normalization of discussing mental health in the workplace, and America’s role in conflicts abroad.
You want to do your best to ensure that what you’ve selected can add to those continuing conversations.
4. Your Vulnerability is Someone Else’s Strength
My favorite writer, James Baldwin, once said that a primary reason he wrote was so that long after he’d departed, hopefully someone who was looking through the wreckage of the past for words of inspiration, comfort, and affirmation might find refuge in his work.
Black, gay, and atheist at a time when just one of those identities would invite scorn, prejudice, and even death, he left a goldmine of words for others to find who dealt with racism, homophobia, bigotry, and alienation.
Writing about your life’s struggles is never easy, especially when you might still be dealing with those struggles.
However, resharing them in the form of your essay collection can potentially make a difference in someone’s life. It can allow them to know that they are not isolated in their experiences. Your words can make someone feel like their life is seen, heard, felt, and potentially rescue them from a dark place.
Add your words to what people might find when they rummage through the past.
5. Take Stock
You’ve spent years writing. You’ve persisted through criticism, negatively, doubt, and frustration to arrive at a body of work that you should be proud of. While others waited for the muse to strike, you set your butt down solidly in your chair and produced.
Was everything you wrote Nobel laureate worthy? Of course not.
But in all your writing, you’ve surely crafted something that has the potential to uplift someone, change their bullheaded beliefs, increase their empathy, or just put a smile on their face after a particularly craptastic day.
The fact that you amassed enough work that can be bound into a collection is an achievement worthy of celebration. It also means that your work as a writer most likely matters to someone, whether dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people, but who cares.
It all means that you haven’t written in vain. And sometimes we all just need a testament to that.
Marcus Harrison Green is the author of Readying to Rise, the publisher of the South Seattle Emerald, and a columnist with the Seattle Times. Growing up in South Seattle, he experienced first-hand the impact of one-dimensional stories on marginalized communities, which taught him the value of authentic narratives. After an unfulfilling stint in the investment world during his twenties, Marcus returned to his community with a newfound purpose of telling stories with nuance, complexity, and multidimensionality with the hope of advancing social change. This led him to become a writer and found the South Seattle Emerald. He was awarded the Seattle Human Rights Commissions’ Individual Human Rights Leader Award for 2020. You can follow him on Twitter or connect with him on Facebook.