The Treasure in the Box


This morning I had a bit of a breakthrough.

I’ve been grappling with an idea for a new story…trying to figure out how to tie things together, looking for a thread. The idea came to me on my trip across the country, when I was driving across the southwest, and it’s been in the back of my mind, just sitting there. This morning I read a blog post that made me think of another story I’d started a long time ago—in fact it was my very first attempt at long fiction—and I thought of something in that story that might help me connect the dots in my current idea.

I wondered if I kept that long-ago manuscript, and I knew if I had, it would be in “the box,” the one I keep under my desk, the one labeled Phase I (I wrote about it here in The Goodbye Box). That box holds all my early drafts and ideas from my early forays into fiction: from the time I was in college, studying journalism, all the way through to when I was writing middle grade fiction as a young mother.

In the stack of folders, at the very bottom, I found the folder labeled simply: BOOK. Inside, I found almost 200 pages held together with a rusty clip. I wrote this manuscript over twenty years ago, and during that time the paper and metal had fused together—perhaps in some inanimate agreement that no one should ever open and read the pages… because…

The manuscript isn’t just old, it’s also bad. Incredibly bad. But this is a good thing. It was, after all, my first attempt at fiction. I can clearly see I’ve improved. Not just in writing but also in story and in complexity of ideas. The entire story is sketched out in a multi-page outline, but it’s simple and pretty boring. Interestingly, an old journal is intrinsic to the story, and old journals are also key to the storylines in two of the three adult manuscripts I’ve written most recently! It also involves a mystery, an historic southwest train robbery (the key piece I was looking for when I opened the box), and a dog named Homer.

Here’s a brief excerpt involving Homer:

I was interrupted by Homer running triumphantly into the room carrying my dank, filthy jeans that I’d left on my bedroom floor. Before I could say anything, he started growling and shaking them as though they were a small rodent. I jumped out of the rocking chair and ran toward him. “Homer drop those right now,” I said, which had about as much effect as a flea biting an elephant. Matthew’s uproarious laughter filled the small apartment as I chased Homer around the room. Homer took one look at me and decided I was ready for a good game of chase, which I was not. But every time I got within an arm’s length of him, he dashed in another direction. It is a frustratingly idiotic dog game that felt even more idiotic played in front of an audience…

I told you… it’s bad. You don’t want to read more (me neither). Clearly the real prize isn’t the manuscript, but I’m glad I kept the folder with those early pages. Not only did I find the information I wanted that could provide the missing link I was looking for, but I found something much more important in those pages. The real treasure in the box is the tangible proof of my progress and growth as a writer—cringe-worthy though it may be—bonded together forever with the rusty clip.

Have you ever found old work of yours that makes you cringe and/or makes you realize how much you’ve grown as a writer? Do you, like I do, keep everything you’ve ever written?




  1. Lisa says:

    I love this. I occasionally look back for inspiration, but sometimes that just frustrates me more.

  2. I’ve kept a lot of my old, hand-written stories and poems from grade school and high school that make me cringe. Oh, the angst!

    • Boy am I envious of your grade school and high school stories, Jessica! I got rid of all that stuff about 10 years ago in a clean out effort. I wish I’d kept it all, cringe, angst and all. Lucky you!

  3. Boy can I relate…. I look back at the first novel I wrote, and I cringe, thinking that I sent it to agents (even though, amazingly, I had a nice handful of partial and full requests). Still – like you – I can see just how much I’ve improved, and it makes me excited to think about how much further I can still go to hone craft.

    I love the rusty paper clip photo – and mostly that you were able to come up with some ideas from past work about the book you’d started dreaming up when you were out my way. That is FABULOUS news!

    • It IS exciting to consider how far we can go as writers, isn’t it? Glad you can understand! (As an aside, I absolutely cannot imagine the cringing I’d be doing if I knew I’d sent this particular manuscript out. EEEEKKKKS! That’s really scary to think about!) Glad you enjoyed the rusty paper clip — and it really is fabulous to get more of a handle on the southwest story I dreamed up on the way across the country… another WIP in the pipeline!

  4. Cynthia Robertson says:

    Oh, I love this post, Julia. You’ve come so far! I notice how beautifully you write now. You wrote entertaining pieces when you began blogging, but now they are so very polished and lovely.

    The rusty paper clip is great. Don’t throw it out! Keep it as a reminder of the long path you’ve trod to get where you are. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Cynthia. And thank you for your kind words — you really made my day! As for the rusty paper clip, it’s not going anywhere. It’s still firmly fastened to that manuscript and it will now be in plain view all the time!

  5. I just recently had this happen, actually. I pulled one of my early novels off the shelf just to see how it read, and I immediately started marking it up with my mental red pen. Funny part is that I remember polishing the heck out of it, but still the prose is weak and lazy. I’m with you; it’s wonderful to see that I’m improving (both at writing and at self-editing).

    • Funny you’d mention the red pen, Annie… at first I was going to include the beginning of the manuscript in the post, but I honestly couldn’t bring myself to even type the words without editing as I went. I laughed pretty hard when I read it to my husband, though. Glad you can understand, and here’s to more improvements in our future!

  6. I’m afraid some of my old attempts have gone out with old laptops. They weren’t saved — or they were saved on a flash drive that has since been lost. How fun to find it. And what a great reminder how much you have grown as a writer.

    • I wonder the same thing about some of my old attempts… gone with old technology. I have recently been scouring old drives and disks to put everything together, but it’s hard, so I know your fear, Jamie!

  7. Shary says:

    It hurts my head to look back at some of my earliest attempts. And I’m afraid that one day I’ll feel the same way about what I’m writing now, which is a huge roadblock to creativity. Thanks for the reminder that it’s part of the process. And if I don’t write crappy stuff today, I won’t get to the good stuff tomorrow.

    • Believe me, it hurts my head, too! Maybe the secret is to wait long enough (20 years!!) that you can’t help but laugh. Seriously, it’s so interesting to look at writers I admire — their books from earlier to later — and to marvel at how they’ve changed, which I had just done with a well-known author. Maybe that’s why I thought of this not as a roadblock but merely a snapshot of me at a different writing time.

  8. Julia – I laughed when I got to, “The manuscript isn’t just old, it’s also bad. Incredibly bad.”

    I don’t have a box that I keep everything in, but I do have a Lexar thumb drive that holds my thoughts and ideas. My husband (who works for Apple) suggests that I back them up in “the cloud.” Since I’d be sharing with several million other users, I think I’ll take a pass…

    • I’m glad you laughed, Laurie… I certainly did, so hard that as I was reading it outloud to my husband I had to wait until I stopped so he could understand me. (As for the cloud, I’m taking a pass as well. Some of my work is only in print form at this point anyway after many an old OS has bitten the dust!)

  9. Kudos to you! I don’t have the courage to go back through many of my old manuscripts. Some of that stuff is soooo baaad and I thought it was sooo goood at the time. Sometimes I think it’s a blessing that I didn’t realize that I was writing drivel. If I had, I might have given up. So many times we don’t want to do things we’re not already good at.

    Homer sounds like a little rascal. 🙂

  10. We ALL have those manuscripts we keep in a drawer, Julia. I actually can’t part with mine, either. Though I REALLY, really should! 🙂 But what’s fun is that sometimes the themes still pop up in our newer works.

    • You are sooo right about the same themes popping up, Jolina. It’s pretty amazing when I look back, being able to see over and over again what I am fascinated by in life and writing. I think one of the values of the old manuscripts is seeing how my interpretation and presentation of the themes has grown over time. I’m with you — can’t part with them!

  11. Christine m Grote says:

    Good post, Julia. I’m glad you found your treasure box. Since I came rather late in life to this party, I don’t have a drawer full of old manuscripts (unless you count class work from 6 or 7 years ago). You all get to read my embarrassing early writing right now.

    • First of all NO WAY is your writing embarrassing… and I suspect you’ve been writing in one form or another for many years, like I have. It’s so interesting to me that it seems that no matter where you start, it’s possible to grow as writers and look back and see the change. I love that — about writing and life.

  12. Great post, Julia. Isn’t it fun to have a “yardstick” of past work to measure our growth as writers? Not to mention finding little story gems that we can draw on later! I love the fused clip/paper image…some might call that a “waking dream.” 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Cindy, and the yardsticks are critical, no question, as we write in our insular world. I love the paperclip as well and waking dream indeed — feels like yesterday I put it on there!

  13. That is so amazing, Julia. How exciting to look for the manuscript and find proof of your journey as a writer.

    I never throw anything out; not even digitally. If I want to delete something from a draft I put it into a “recycle” folder in case I ever want to reuse any of it. In rare cases, I’ve plucked a sentence or metaphor or two from one draft’s recyclables and found it works for another WIP.

    I also never throw out hard copies, but I did somehow lose an ENTIRE binder full of the very, very, very first pages of stories that would become Chasing the Sun, which I wrote in 2005 in college. They had my peers’ and mentor’s notes on the pages from workshopping, and I kept them all in one binder. Before I moved to Texas I searched everywhere for it, even my parents’ attic, and never found it. Luckily, I still had many subsequent drafts in my possession. Turns out those were terrible when I went back to them six years later and started rewriting and shaping it into its current version!

    • OMG, your loss of the binder sounds like a worst nightmare (and also like a movie or book itself… didn’t that happen to Hemingway? And have you seen The Words, movie?). What a process: to rewrite or revise something without your notes. I’m sure it was a fascinating process (after you got over the frustration) and clearly led to a wonderful book! What a story!

  14. Nina says:

    Reading that early work is a treasure, yes, and a torture. I’m aware of both when I happen on something older and when I glance at an old journal, too. Like you, I’m intrigued by old journals. Mine and other peoples’ too!

  15. mrsugarbears says:

    I hope one day I will be able to look back on the things I have attempted to write this year and find something worthy. Thank you for your post as it gives me hope that I will continue to grow as a writer if I just keep trying.

    • Thank you so much for your comment and for your visit to my blog! As for the hope to continue to grow as a writer, I feel the same exact way… each manuscript and WIP a point on the way. Here’s to writing and getting better as we go, mrsugarbears (p.s. I love your name!).

  16. Leah says:

    Isn’t that the truth?! I look back at some of the articles and early blog posts I wrote and see how far my writing has come. I guess that’s the best reason of anything to keep writing – you’ll just keep improving!