The other day I was looking for a notebook. I have a lot of notebooks, because I often write longhand, and I also keep lists in them (‘buy milk…email someone to shout at them…write bestseller’, that sort of thing) I wanted to find the notes I made on a screenplay idea. It wasn’t as easy to find as I’d thought – I’ve narrowed it down to six possible notebooks. I have only the vaguest idea when I did the writing and I’m not very good about dating or filing my notebooks. I am not as organised as the heroine of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, who kept five, colour-coded.
What I did realise was I’ve written a hell of a lot of words over the years. I’ve been writing on and off since I was nine years old. Excluding some things I’ve thrown away, it amounts to a lot. This much, in fact:
I’m not sure how the dog sneaked into that one.
A life’s worth of writing, some fiction, some journaling, some embarrassing pages and pages of moaning about my boss and mooning over a boy I liked who inexplicably didn’t like me. I do all my first drafts by hand, feeling my way into the story, shaping it like a sculpture rather than with mechanical cut and paste of the computer. It stops me fiddling, and keeps me looking forward, and I can’t get distracted because the notebook doesn’t also have a Twitter app. I love buying notebooks and I often give them as presents to friends who write. I didn’t get my own computer until I was 23, and until then I hand-wrote all my university work too. So the majority of my work is in that box. In a few more years I imagine I might install a secret cave, so when I pull out the right book the wall will spin round and reveal them all. ‘Behold…the graveyard of ALL MY DREAMS!’
I was talking to a writer friend about my box and they said, ‘But aren’t you worried there might be a fire or something?’ I’d never really thought of that (now added to the great and growing list of writing neuroses, so thanks for that) but in truth I’ve lost far more data over the years to crashed laptops (four in the past four years), lost or exploded USB sticks, and unravelling floppy discs (yeah, remember floppies? They were crap weren’t they. Bless them.). But if I ever lost that box of scribbled words, I’d be bereft. At times I have decided to delete work, or throw away notebooks, and I bitterly regret every single lost word. Even if they were awful. Especially if they were awful.
A few times at writing events I’ve been asked about how to cut your work. What I do is put it all into another Word document, which I might call ‘cut bits’, or ‘extra bits’ if I feel my own psyche might be fooled by the euphemism. When I wrote my first book it was the only way I could bear to get rid of what I felt to be my precious and perfectly crafted passages. Of course, I never put them back in. In time I forgot all about them (because they were awful). But psychologically it let me take them out – the techy equivalent of that big box of old words above. So if you’re in that situation, just try it. It might work. And never get rid of your work. Even if it’s awful, and cringe-making, you never know when you can use that idea again, or recycle that sentence, or even just read them through with misty-eyed nostalgia for the pretentious young scribe you used to be.
So many stories in those books. There was my first, about some friends at school who were nine. I had no story and didn’t get past page 2. There was the novella about a teenage girl fancying a boy, who turned out to be lovely and kind and not at all like the local farmers I only ever seemed to meet. There was the one about the 19 year old girl from a dull town who meets a fabulous and exciting family – 10 chapters (all lost somewhere. Massively regret this, though it was probably dire. I was going to call it Travelling Hopefully. Vom.) There was the one about the three twenty-something girls living in the flat and having twenty-something issues – 40,000 words. (Basically I just wrote whatever my life was at the moment – one day you’ll read my opus Living in the Suburbs and Buying a Flatscreen).
Then there were others that might still have legs. The one about the two sisters, one pregnant and going off the rails, hiding a trauma from their childhood. The one about a terrorist attack, and people going missing in Africa. The one about the artists. More recently, I’ve written two books that I thought might get published. The first literary one, about the Irish family. The third psychological thriller. So far they haven’t been, and I’m starting to realise this might never happen, but it might be OK. Maybe they were just books I needed to write to get somewhere else. Letting go is an art, but sometimes, all you have to do is close your eyes and open your hands, and it’s gone. As they say, if you love something, set it free. I would amend that to, if your book is truly crap, let it go, but never ever ever throw it out. That shit could be worth millions when you get famous. Then they’ll see. THEY’LL ALL SEE. Excuse me while I retreat into my cave of abandoned novels.