Don’t Delete

An essay looking at the benefits of keeping old pieces of writing, and why you shouldn't delete past work in a knee-jerk reaction.

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I saw a callout recently for poems about menstruation for an anthology, and thought, darn it, if only I hadn’t deleted a recent poem. The reason I had deleted it was because I wasn’t happy with it, like so many writers who find that certain pieces of work just niggle away at them until they are so frustrated with them, they never want to see them again.

As artists we crave perfection, we crave smoothness, we want to carve out a perfect thing, polish our words as much as possible. I wonder if part of the reason for becoming a writer can be to impose your order onto the world, even if it’s only imagined. But, that eye can become too critical, too cutting, too familiar with the work. It can destroy the innate soul of a piece; that thing you can’t quite put your finger on that gives your piece its breath, that makes it tangible.

Recently I have been attending virtual critiques, and while they are massively helpful in making me push the boundaries of my work, I realised the voices in my head telling me what to do when I was editing my poems wasn’t my own, and that I wash chopping things up like a jolly butcher, leaving nothing but tatters. Sometimes a piece of work was right for the time you wrote it, in my case a good poem for the views, ability and situation that I had at the time of writing. Something that I’ve found very hard to accept is that writing doesn’t have to be perfect to have value, but it’s true.

One should also not be quick to delete work because of all the memories within your writing. Looking over your writing history can have the same effect as looking over photographs, you’ll remember loved ones, good times, how you got through things, what the socio-political situation was then and what your state of mind was. Your past writing may even help you understand or examine yourself, especially if it is in the form of a memoir or journal.

There is also the idea that perhaps you shouldn’t delete past work because your work may be valuable for others. This was never clearer to me than when my mum ripped up all the poems she had written. She had written them after the death of a loved one and they were so fragile and precise, like icicles. My mouth was hanging open as she did this. As a poet I always enjoy hearing about the different interpretations of my work, which reinforces this point.

Finally, it’s not helpful to delete work because it doesn’t fit into a collection or with the rest of your body of work, same as it isn’t helpful to scrap something just because it doesn’t meet your expectations of yourself. It doesn’t have to fit. Let it be, let yourself be. Funnily enough, I think one of the motivations for wanting to delete work is that people think they will feel embarrassed from beyond the grave should someone access their computer. Chances are, you’re not famous enough for that.

In conclusion, we like to live clean, streamlined existences, and making our writing conform is part of this. But this is an unrealistic goal that will only result in regret should you scrap old work. Keep it in a separate folder, sure. Don’t look at it for a while. But there may be gems there in the dirt you can reuse. You may end up falling back in love with old work, which is a wonderful feeling.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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