As a teacher, I constantly give pulse checks to my students. In my classroom, a “pulse check” is a start-up activity or pop quiz, in which I ask broad questions that let me know where the students are – how they are progressing with projects, what they are reading (or not reading), what has overwhelmed them, what has surprised them, and what they think adds or detracts from the class.
I do these every other week or so; and over the course of the semester these pulse checks tell me something that the individual papers cannot. Collectively, they show me how far my students have come: in their thinking, their writing, what they find important or unimportant. One pulse check tells me details of the moment they’re in; an accumulation of pulse checks shows me their trajectory.
Last Saturday night I got a pulse check of my own, and when I least expected it. I was printing out my NaNoWriMo script when I found I was in need of some divider tabs. I fished around in a desk drawer and found them, buried underneath an avalanche of construction paper. When I pulled them out, however, I discovered the tabs were already labelled with old story titles. Story titles, moreover, for book ideas I had not thought of since college. Book ideas that, at the time, I thought would launch my writing career.
Need I say it? The titles were horrible. Every one of them.
Don’t think so? Then let me tell on myself for a moment. Here is the full list of what my College Self considered “promising material” for future publication:
Devil at Death’s Ridge
The Unpredictability Factor
The Pirate Conspiracy
Summer of the Vikings
Flight of the Predestine
Raising Cain in East Wigging
The worst part of discovering these labels was knowing that, once upon a time, I had a working rough draft for every one of these underwhelmingly banal ideas. Every. Single. One.
Now, if you’re not laughing at me, you might be tilting your head to one side and thinking “Well, that one doesn’t sound so bad; I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of that title elsewhere – or something similar to it…”
Which is one of the reasons I find all of these titles so cringe-worthy: first, because they are all so neutral and generic sounding; and secondly because I remember the general concept behind each book, and they were all monumentally bad. Even if the titles themselves were all right (only the East Wigging title still makes me smile a little bit), the stories would not have lived up to any marketing hype. Not even close.
I looked at the divider tabs, and thought about the ideas they represented. Then I glanced back at my NaNoWriMo manuscript, for which I needed the divider tabs in the first place. I hardly knew whether to laugh or blush. In the end, I was encouraged, not the least because the reminder showed me a couple things about myself:
* I’m glad I wasn’t published while I thought I was great. Obviously I was infected with some serious “delusions of adequacy” at the time I wrote those labels. I thought then that I had grand, new, cutting-edge tales to tell. Ideas that no one had ever considered. I, with all my inherent creativity, would write those books and wow the world. My Present Self looks back at that season of life and says an earnest thank-you prayer that the Almighty prevented me from taking any of those manuscripts through to the end. I shudder to think of the consequences, had I tried to seriously submit any of those earlier ideas.
* I’m glad I lived a little before I truly knuckled down with my writing. Since making those dividers, I’ve traveled to five continents, been a sign language interpreter, and learned how to cook hard-core vegetarian and vegan food. I’ve played flag football in the woods at night (and got a killer bout of poison ivy as a result). I’ve had an herb garden, been mistaken for Sigourney Weaver, and helped take apart (and reassemble!) a Chevrolet motor. I’ve been cussed out over the phone by an irrational customer. I’ve skied in the Andes and hiked in the Alps, been camping in a snowstorm, and read copious amounts of Viking sagas. I had a pickle-canning fiasco that ended in stitches and a tetanus shot. I’ve played poker for Skittles and won.
Such experiences gave me a wider view on the world than ever before; and when the time was right, those experiences didn’t just trickle into my writing – they leapt and flew and wrangled and erupted onto the page. Marvelous eruptions, in ways my Present Self still can’t fully understand or explain.
But I have a hunch my Future Self knows very well how it will end. And when that Future Self sees what sort of literary litter I am leaving behind now, she will take another pulse check, blush a little, and say “My, how far I have come….”