I think most writers have a tendency to discount their early work, especially those pieces that were written when they were first starting out, when they were just figuring out how to write a short story in the first place.
In some cases, we're probably right to discount those early efforts. I know, for me, there's a certain cringe factor involved. Sometimes simply remembering the basic premise of one of those early stories is enough to make me shake my head and vow never to look back. Still, I've recently begun to wonder whether my own tendency to always look forward—to always believe that my best work lies before me, that the fiction I wrote five years ago isn't nearly as good as the fiction I'm writing today—doesn't prevent me from recognizing the potential value in some of those old unpublished stories that are just sitting there on my hard drive or collecting dust in a folder.
I'll give you an example.
A few years ago, I was putting together a packet of stories to show my girlfriend. This was a little ritual we had. I'd show her a bunch of the stories I'd been working on, she'd read them, and then tell me which ones she felt were ready to "send out," and which ones still needed more work. On this occasion, I decided to throw in an additional story, a story called "Departure," which I had written when I was twenty-three, over ten year before. For reasons that are probably too complicated to explain, "Departure" was actually one of the few stories I still possessed from my early twenties, and it was a story I had held on to more out of a sense of nostalgia than any type of conviction about its literary merits. To be honest, I can't even remember what possessed me to give it to her in the first place. I probably thought it would be interesting, or amusing, to see what she thought. After all, I hadn't looked at that story myself in over ten years.
When she got back to me a few days later with her comments, however, I was surprised to learn that she had not only liked "Departure" the best, but that she felt it was definitely better than any of the other stories I had sent her. In other words, the stories I had been working on that past year. I must have laughed. I can't really remember. All I know is that I didn't believe her, and so I sent out the same packet to another reader, a friend from graduate school, who got back to me a few days later with exactly the same reaction. He liked all of the stories, he said, but "Departure" was definitely his favorite.
Though still skeptical, I eventually did an extensive revision of "Departure" and sent it out to a few magazines, and was surprised, a few weeks later, when a magazine I had admired for years decided to accept it. A few months after its publication, I learned that "Departure" had won a Pushcart Prize and, a few months after that, that it had been selected for NPR's Selected Shorts. In short, it soon became my most successful story to date, and yet the more good things that seemed to happen, the more perplexed I was. All I could think about was how long it had sat there in a dusty folder at the bottom of my desk, how long I had ignored it.
Sometimes it's a dismissive comment from a friend or editor, sometimes it's the sheer quantity of rejection slips piling up in your drawer, or sometimes it's simply your own conviction that a story you had written years before couldn't possibly be as good as the story you're writing now. There are any number of reasons for why stories get orphaned and forgotten, why they get sent to the darkest corners of our hard drives. Sometimes they may belong there, but other times I think they remain there simply because we've chosen to forget them, or worse, because we've given up on them.
At the end of each semester, when I'm talking about revision in my classes, I always tell my students that they should never give up on a story out of frustration. If they lose interest in a story, that's one thing. If their initial impulse to tell the story is gone, that's fine. Those are both legitimate reasons to put a story to rest. But if they're giving up on a story simply because it's not working the way they want it to work, or because it's taking too long to revise, or because they're confused by what they want to do with it, they shouldn't close the door completely. Maybe they just need to put it away for a while. Give themselves a few months, or maybe even a year, away from it. But if there's something at the heart of the story that still interests them, that keeps pulling them back, that still haunts them years later, then that's probably a sign that there's something worth struggling for there, that somewhere, in the midst of all that mess, they might even find some of their very best work.