Recently, I traveled back in time 30 years or so, where I met my younger self. I’m an expert in time travel, so I’m well acquainted with the prime directives, in particular never interfere with anything concerning your younger self. Good advice, but there I was and there he was. I recognized him of course, in his author picture, even though he was 35 pounds slimmer than I am now and he had a weird haircut. When I read his first book, Time After Time, I found this young, callow me making the same writing mistakes that I now warn others against and rushing heedlessly into situations that should have been approached with caution. Time travel rules aside, I could no more remain aloof from this young fellow than I can resist meddling in the lives of my own children. So I decided to lend him a hand—nothing big—a tweak here, a minor correction there. After all, where’s the harm?
What was I doing blundering around in my past? I had resolved to read some of my early work, in particular a series of five time travel books that began their published life more than three decades ago, a series that I was considering putting up in Kindle format. As I began reading the first of the series, Time After Time, I recognized much of the material, albeit hazily, but it felt to me I was reading the work of another man. Me, yes, but 30 years ago I was certainly another man. That young guy was brash and unafraid to tackle any subject on the page. He was struggling with some punctuation issues (shaky on his semicolons), used too many clichés (but were they clichés in those days?), and tended to yammer on at times far longer than his present editor-self thinks advisable. But he was clever and funny. His breadth of knowledge was extensive. I was impressed.
But there were problems, most small, some larger. Nothing factual, mostly questions of style. Should I fix them? Would doing so violate the prime directive of time travel: change nothing? Did editing, and possibly rewriting an earlier work, fly against some unwritten rule that what we have once written must stay, if not carved in stone, at least inked on paper? Ah, who cares?
I deleted some scenes where I was showing off my research but slowing down the action, changed some words I now consider less than optimal, and touched up the prose in other, I hope undetectable, ways: basic stuff, no major rewriting. It became an editing job just like any other. But by immersing myself in those books I became aware, as I was many years ago when I wrote them, that the act of writing about the past is in itself a form of time traveling. You research until you can see, hear, and feel the period. You come to know it until your characters can walk and talk in this land, the past. As I’m sure any author who sets his books in another time will tell you, when you are deep into the work you are more there than here, awake or asleep. When ordinary life calls you back, it can be like waking from a swoon.
So far, there have been no time-related disasters from my meddling. No WWIII because a sentence or two was cut. The butterfly flapped its wings, but no hurricanes resulted. In the end, I think the young man’s books are now better for the old man’s experience. But they haven’t really changed much. Not so you’d notice.
I recently read that Philip Roth decided to go back and read all his life’s work, which generated a life-altering decision: he had said it all, he would write no more. I haven’t gone that far. My meeting with my younger self was interesting, invigorating even. Yes, I would put his work up on Kindle, where he could take his own lumps, fly or fail. And I would write more of my own. After all, we are two different fellows, he and I. Good luck to the young me. And the old.