To Promote My Book, I Had To Get To Know My 25-Year-Old Self
Casey Plett on the Distance Between Author-Selves, Ten Years Apart
This April, my first book, A Safe Girl to Love, got a reprint. It’s a short story collection about young trans women originally published in 2014. I wrote it in a frenzy at the ages of 25 and 26. The original publishing house, Topside Press, was dysfunctional in the fashion of fly-by-night micropresses—it disappeared without warning, I never got a royalty—so when my current publishing house Arsenal Pulp offered the re-print, I was all Kool-Aid Man happiness, dopey-smiled and crashing through walls and shit. My old book’s coming back!!! Oh yeah!!
Then the high (and the advance check) wore off, and I had a different feeling: Dread. Oh shit. I’m gonna have to promote a book I wrote in my mid-twenties.
Do you, dear reader, want to hang out with the version of yourself from a decade ago? Over the last six months, that’s what I’ve done: I wrote a new afterword, did a second copyedit and a blessed junket of interviews, and—this one I dreaded the most—narrated the audiobook—that is, read out loud, word-for-word, the version of myself from a decade ago.
Happy as I was, I’d girded myself a bit at the outset too. I didn’t have good memories of the time period from which the book sprang. I remembered being a sad, bitter person during those years. (Among other things, I was just a couple years into transition back then, always a weird period no matter how much you have your shit together.)
I envisioned myself squirming at re-engaging with this text, both from simple stuff like craft choices I’ve since dispensed with—run-on sentences in long paragraphs, using verb formulations like “gave a hoot” and “made a smile” (today I’d just write “hooted” and “smiled”)—as well as deeper things like the anger of the characters, their anxieties surrounding their new transitions, their dashed hopes for a cold world, their explicitly bemoaned inability to process trauma. Their youth. Their youth. Juvenility.
That’s the word right there. I was afraid I would re-read this book and feel that both in style and content it was juvenile. I was deeply afraid of this. I have some ideas why.
Lorrie Moore once said she’d stopped looking at her earlier work, because the last time she did, “it left me cringing. If one publishes, then one is creating a public record of Learning to Write.”
A decade after Calvin and Hobbes ended, a reader asked Bill Watterson if he’d change anything about his globally beloved comic, and in taciturn Midwestern fashion he said, “let’s just say that when I read the strip now, I see the work of a much younger man.”
These are just two versions of a common sentiment I think I’ve grown to internalize, and as the reprint for this book drew closer, I assumed I’d feel like Lorrie and Bill.
I didn’t though. When I first re-read this old book of mine last summer, juvenility was not the feeling that approached me. Instead, I felt a deep, deep love and sense of marvel for the unhappy girl who wrote this book 10 years ago. I wouldn’t write a book like that again, but it’s not because I’m embarrassed by that past girl’s writing, or “cringing” at it, to borrow Moore’s term. It’s because I couldn’t write what 25-year-old-me wrote even if I wanted to: That girl was dancing to an inner music I don’t hear anymore.Twenty-six-year-old me wanted to write a different way, and rooting around with her style choices didn’t feel fair to her either.
There’s no regret in this feeling, no glum nostalgia or anything—I like the stuff I’m writing now—but more a kind of fascination at who I used to be, what I was creatively drawn to, what I wanted to talk about. I didn’t want to be her again, but I didn’t want to avoid her either. Perhaps I felt protective of her.
It also then turned out I had to copyedit way more of the book than I imagined (see above: dysfunctional fly-by-night micropress). During this go around, my editor suggested sweeping changes—changes that were eminently sensible, an opportunity to rewrite a lot of the book in keeping with how I’d write now … but I quickly realized I did not want to do that at all. Because 26-year-old me wanted to write a different way, and rooting around with her style choices didn’t feel fair to her either.
Recently, I finished narrating that dreaded audiobook. As we were recording, I found myself not feeling like I usually do in such venues—as a writer performing my writing—I felt more like I was acting—making someone else’s words come alive, because that’s how the stories in A Safe Girl to Love feel to me now, like they belong to someone else, the words of some strange ghostly sprite crying and drinking and working late in cold and wintry cities, somebody who doesn’t exist anymore. Narrating those stories, in other words, didn’t bring the cringe I was fearing. It was like hanging out with an old friend you parted ways with, and sure, maybe you parted ways for good reason, but it turns out it’s nice to shoot the shit with them one last time.
This manner of re-engaging felt curious and radiant, even fondly zany. One story in the book involves a talking cat. One story involves a Millennial trans girl fighting with her biological mom… who is also trans, and came out in the ’80s, before her daughter was born. One story revolves around a young, quiet girl who stays on a strange woman’s couch from the Internet, then steals her hormones and her passport, then becomes her best friend, after which the young girl demands the woman pretend to be her cis girlfriend when she goes to visit her family closeted. I narrated this in the recording studio with a kind of inner bemusement: Ha, these stories are bonkers! Steals her passport! She makes her pretend to be her girlfriend! Who would come up with something like that?!
I’ve been thinking with some disquiet lately about the way we treat young writers. I worry that my fear of juvenility is not uncommon, and bleeds into the way that established authors talk about younger writing. I do wonder if it can border on infantilization. The headline “Should There Be A Minimum Age For Writing A Memoir?” is an indicator of this. Can you imagine how nonsensical it’d be to debate whether Taylor Swift, at 22, was too young to write Red?
I think Lorrie Moore might have been wrong. It’s true that I wouldn’t want to write A Safe Girl to Love now, but I also couldn’t even if I wanted to. It’s that inner music that’s different now, a music that’s just moved on and changed tune. It’s less a thing of regret, more a melancholy and ache I can feel in my body now.