Since moving home to California for the summer, I've taken up listening to audiobooks during commutes from my parents' house in Thousand Oaks to work in Studio City to my girlfriend's apartment in Silver Lake. I stick to the novels I can find for free online, so it's largely an exercise in catching up on classics I pretend to have read a long time ago. I'm not prepared to debate the merits of audiobook-listening as a substitute for old-fashioned reading, and I've admittedly endangered other motorists and myself by trying to rewind Notes from the Underground to distinguish between character names, but the whole practice makes my two daily hours behind the wheel feel fruitful and significant, even sacred. Rather than blurring together, towns and landmarks along the 101 have become, for me, inextricably bound to pivotal moments in great novels. The brothel at which the Underground Man meets Liza sits just off of Parkway Calabasas next to Lovi's Delicatessen—much, one presumes, to the chagrin of Lovi; the beach on which Camus's Meursault succumbs to murderous impulse is actually the lawn of the big nondenominational church I grew up attending in Westlake.
The short story that earned me a call from Linda of Glimmer Train—a call that, incidentally, interrupted the free online Nicole Kidman-voiced version of To the Lighthouse at the Coldwater Canyon exit—is six pages long, but it began as a two-page bit of a nine-page story I had written almost a year prior. The original nine-pager was bad—cartoonish, amorphous, emotionally confused. I had, upon "finishing" it in May, patted myself on the back for "finishing" a story, and had then promptly gone about the work of forgetting it existed. But when the following March found me in a funk of uncreativity and time constraints, I reopened the file at random and was shocked to find that, though I'd correctly appraised its beginning and ending, the middle section was less cartoonish, morphous-er, and more certain of its emotions than the parts that contained it. It was a monologue spoken by a man in a crashing plane. I thought: this could play. And, having worked so hard at forgetting I'd written it in the first place, I could easily disassociate it from its source material. I could re-write it, grow it, give it the reverence I'd shirked in May.
Revisiting old work and wanting immediately to baptize it with fire is perfectly natural, perfectly healthy. It means you've spent the meantime improving. You've heard that before. But the slightly more complicated lesson I've recently learned (and so the only one I feel justified thrusting upon you) is that, beyond merely accepting our old badness and taking solace in how far we've come, we ought sometimes to run back into the flames and drag re-writable ideas from the rubble. Every now and then, we ought to put a bit of our newfound genius toward distinguishing the worthwhile concepts from the silly ones, and giving the former their due.
It's this: don't be too proud or pure to take scraps. By all means, order yourself a physical copy of To the Lighthouse (because you'll want to hold that particular book in your hands), but occasionally listen to a masterwork in half-hour fragments on the freeway. By all means, let bad work burn, but occasionally try to rescue a salvageable page or two from seven you cringe to recall. At best, this philosophy will enrich your writing life and earn you many auspicious rush-hour phone calls. At worst, it will imbue gridlock with the beauty of iconic prose. Either way, it will improve your commute.