Go Back and Read Your Past Work — Here’s How to Do It

I’ll admit it, in my short time on this planet, I have created a lot of content — content that I have little interest going back and enjoying. While one reason can be that I have way too much to do now: creating new material and reading, watching, and listening to other (more talented) people’s work; another more restraining reason is that I’m not convinced that it’ll be enjoyable. 

I believe that anything I create creatively, I make for myself, I’m the first audience member. That is how I pick my creative projects. I want my investment in time to pay off down the line. I create it with the intention that one day in the future I can enjoy it again as an audience member who has lost all connection with the initial creation process. 

While that is my encouragement to put in the time and effort — blood, sweat, and tears — I don’t know when it is safe to return to that piece of work. I worry that I’ll cringe. I worry that I’ll get critical. I’ll worry that I will see all the mistakes that I’ve made before and become unable to let go. Yet, I want to look back and see how far I’ve come. I am pulled and tugged by how I want to approach my corpus of old work. 

I start to wonder what successful creators and artists approach this aspect of their work, the revisiting phase. 

The Producer: Don’t Treat It Like A Job 

Perhaps the most famous incident of an artist claiming to have not seen his own work is Johnny Depp in an interview with David Letterman. 

Johnny Depp: In a way, once my job is done on the film it is really none of my business. […] I stay as far away as I possibly can. If I can I try to stay in a profoundest state of ignorant as possible. […] I just don’t like watching myself. I prefer the experience — I mean, making the film is great. The process is all fine, but then… he’s up there. You know what I mean?  

To me, there is a sense of freedom to that: to be able to create without the need to critique his work. As a copywriter, I can personally relate to that. I have a workman’s mentality to a lot of stuff I create. I don’t write a blog post to necessary go back and enjoy while sipping mai tai on a beach. I write it. I got paid for it. My obligation is done. Obligations are not enjoyments, and if you see your work as such… you might lack the fulfillment in your craft that can propel you forward. 

Perhaps that’s why some may think that Depp’s work today is derivative of his best from the past. If you start treating your creations as simply work, then yes, there is never a personal reason to go back and watch it. Then again, you should think about the work you are picking. 

The Fan: Make it for Yourself First 

Then on the other side of the spectrum is Samuel L. Jackson. There is a reason that Jackson is in so many fantastic movies, it’s because he has a brilliant philosophy for his work. 

In an interview with GQ magazines, Samuel L. Jackson said, “I like watching myself in movies….if I am channel surfing and I pass a movie that I’m in, I’m watching it no matter what. I have a drawer of nothing but my DVDs, so if nothing else, I can just go in and pull one out and put it in.”

When asked why some actors don’t enjoy watching themselves, he responded, “That’s bullshit! Actors that say, “I can’t stand to watch myself”, well if you can’t stand to watch yourself then why the f*** do you expect someone to pay $13.50 to watch you?”

Like chefs who cook food for others, that they would not eat themselves, an artist who is unable to enjoy their work should be viewed with slight suspicion. As if to say, “Oh, your work isn’t even good enough for you?” 

The Critic: Identify Errors

Sometimes you look back at your work and all you can see is the mistakes you’ve made. And in some pieces, the errors stand out more clearly than others. However, it’s sometimes better to bite the bullet, watch what you’ve made, and analyze why you dislike it. 

In a 2011 interview with Time Out, Lady Gaga speaks about her current relationship with her hit Telephone: “I hate ‘Telephone.’ Is that terrible to say? It’s the song I have the most difficult time listening to. I can’t even watch the ‘Telephone’ video, I hate it so much. Beyonce and I are great together, but there are so many ideas in that video and all I see in that video is my brain throbbing with ideas and I wish I had edited myself a little bit more.”

Trust in your taste. If you don’t feel the way Samuel L. Jackson does when reading, watching, or listening to your own work, ask yourself what you dislike about it. If you are blatantly ignorant, you may never learn to improve. And if it is more than just a paycheque for you, like it clearly is for Lady Gaga, then you must analyze the errors and do better next time. 

The Exhausted: Take A Long Break From It 

If the idea of consuming your old work is causing you to cringe, it might simply be the fact that you haven’t had enough distance from it yet. 

Talking to Rolling Stone back in 1993, Kurt Cobain stated: “It’s almost an embarrassment to play [“Smells Like Teen Spirit”]. Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains… I can barely, especially on a bad night, get through ‘Teen Spirit.’ I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away.”

Like eating the same meal over and over again, creating content or performing can feel repetitive. As a filmmaker, after spending so many hours in the editing room watching the same scenes over and over again, getting it just right. Once it is completed, the last thing you would want to do is sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch the movie from beginning to end. The same goes with a writer writing and a singer singing. 

If you don’t take the time to put that piece aside, hide it in the dark, then you will feel fatigued from it. Your creation might be as delicious as chocolate, but if all you’ve been eating is chocolate for the past three months, maybe a piece of celery is what you need to cleanse the palate.   

The Historian: Treat Your Old Work As Snapshots of Your Life 

When you create something, you create in the present. You put your current emotional state into it. You choose words and form sentences in the way you currently know how. You tell stories and evoke emotions that relate to the person you are. When you look back on it, you are certain to see the changes, not only within the work but in yourself as an older writer. 

“It was interesting to come back to something I’d made and find how much it had changed,” writer, George Saunders tells New York Times about revisiting his collection of short stories CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. “Though we think we are making permanent monuments against which our egos can rest, we’re actually making something more akin to a fog cloud. We come back to what we’ve made and find out it’s been changing all along. We’ve changed, the artistic context around the story has changed, the world has changed. And this is kind of wonderful and useful. It made me remember that the real value of the artistic act is not product but process.” 

Like looking at an old photograph of yourself, for no other reason, revisiting your older work is a powerful way to understand the person you once were. The thing this exercise can achieve where simply looking at a picture of yourself can’t is that a picture can only show you what’s on the surface, but a piece of writing can show you want is underneath it all. 

At this time, I am debating with reading some of the work I have written, that I have worked so hard on: mainly those that I have published on Amazon. They haunt me in a way… but I think I might crack it open soon and see all the problems I made, my ability to entertain myself, and the younger man who was simply trying to express himself. 

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The Education Center: On Making Decisions

When to experiment and when to focus

Summer of 2016 

The web of my job had blossomed out from content writing. There was nobody at the time reporting to me. I just showed up and did my work, which consisted of coming up with an idea, researching the topic, writing out the content, and publishing it on the company blog. I didn’t want to think of it this way, but I was the lowest on the totem. That all changed in a few short months. Things started moving fast. 

Before David left we were working on a few projects that I never fully understood. Now and then I would be looped into a meeting, but I was mainly focused on creating content and never had a say in the encompassing strategy. That was at least how I felt. After all, I was just a humble writer. I didn’t even think of myself as a marketer at the time, let alone a marketing manager. 

During this period, I was getting a bit tired of the content I was writing. There was only so much I had to say about credit card chargebacks, and there was only so much an audience wanted to read about that topic. 

Where I was given some freedom was when I was allowed to try different things. I made videos, infographics, and at one point even a few podcast episodes. I’m glad that I was given the opportunity to try new things for the company and I was grateful for that. In a way, I was doing growth hacking without knowing that I was doing it. I was experimenting. Throwing multiple darts and seeing what stuck. I feel I need to do that as a new employee at a young company. 

My job as I saw it before responsibility was thrust upon me was to come up with a productive way to kill time. As imaginative as I was, killing time was not hard. I had content: blog, video, and podcast to produce… along with the education center. 

The way Evan described it, the EDU was supposed to be this gated second blog that viewers had to enter their email address and sign up to before they read any of my writing. I like to believe that people would enter their emails. I’m a professional writer, what I produce has value. I like to believe that, but that is pure optimism.

In the EDU, there would be content that our users will find helpful in growing their business and handling payments. The question then for me is, am I creating better content than our knowledge base? Will it replace the knowledge base — also known as the support page — where we, at the the time, were using a service called: Userbase. It was there that all our How to’s and FAQs were. Will the EDU replace that and if it should, why would it be gated? Nobody was going to enter their email to see any FAQ page. 

David and Evan could never seem to come to a consensus on what the EDU was going to serve. Yes, we need to produce content and we needed a lead generation channel, but we were not going to be able to create support content that is better than what the larger companies that we serve has produced. We were an add-on, they were the hub. 

The EDU was aptly named because in the learning-on-the-job classroom it was my first test. When David and Evan left, the wheels for the EDU page were already in motion. Terry had spent countless hours working on it. As time went by, I began to work more closely with Terry, the front end developer. When I started in the industry, I didn’t even know what front end or back end developer was. I literally felt handicapped as a digital marketer because I didn’t know how to code. I was in a wheelchair and Terry was pushing me along. He had been a great sport the whole time and I would go on to waste more of his work hours — and that stressed me out a lot.   

I remember sitting down with Terry for at least five meetings deciding how to configure the EDU so that it made sense. 

Here was where I had to think about being a marketer in a whole new way. I started thinking in terms of resources and in terms of competition. What can we do and what are the trends? I went back to thinking, yes we needed to create content, but why did I have to split up my resources? Why should the blog have to compete against another entity? 

I would look at blogs like Hootsuite and see that they have webinars and courses. We didn’t have a team or a department to create all the content like Hootsuite. Eventually, every company will need to be a media company on top of what they build and serve. I believe that. I love that idea because it’s such a hopeful future for us content creators. 

But I can guarantee you this, before Hootsuite had their fingers in all those different projects, they had one solid blog. Before you take on another project, you make sure what you are doing is performing well. There is no reason to double down on two failing ventures. There is experimenting and then there is careless spending. I’m fine wasting my own time discovering and testing, but I’m not okay wasting others. 

The EDU, which Evan and David couldn’t even come to a conclusion on the name for — was it going to be the Education Center or was it going to be the Academy? — became the bane of my work hours for probably three months. It was the first big project I had to put the hammer down on. It was not the first time I gave up on a project, but in my position at the company, it was the first time I made a decision to avoid loss of more money and resources. I recognized sunk costs and I prevented more waste. 

I consider it one of my proudest decisions I made in my first quarter or even year at the helm. It was a leadership decision. I thought critically about what we were doing and decided it’s not worth doing. However, I would quickly learn that it is much easier to kill someone else’s brainchild than it is to kill your own. I was just at the start of my journey and it was already intense. 

This has been based on my personal experience. Details and names have been changed in respect for privacy.

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