In December, I announced that my latest literary project was to transcribe my first novel, written thirty years ago (literally: between January and April 1987), which only existed as a manuscript first draft in a very fat ring-binder.
The novel, which never had a name, was in the classic tradition of being semi-autobiographical. It was a fictionalisation of a two-year period in my life when I had lived away from home for the first time, during which I had fallen in love with someone who didn’t love me, but to who I was a close friend during a year when her boyfriend/fiance was out of the country.
It was an ideal, self-contained subject for someone who’d never even got close to completing an extended piece of work, and whilst the preparation was long-winded and awkward, the actual writing turned out to be relatively easy. I was producing two chapters a week, and proving to myself that I was capable of consistent, disciplined writing, driving forward a relatively complex story, and reaching the end.
That was invaluable in itself: every writer needs to hit the incredible words ‘The End’ at some point! But more than that, and this was at least a subconscious intention behind the entire thing it exorcised a ghost that I had been carrying with me since the original events upon which the novel was based.
Which was the main reason that the novel didn’t go any further forward. There was no second draft: the impulse was gone, fact translated into people and places and events that hadn’t actually happened, but which represented various elements in my life during those years. It would be over a half decade later before I again wrote something of that length, this time directly autobiographical, by which time I had learned how to redraft, and revise.
Occasionally, down the years, I’ve thought of typing up that book, but never followed through. It’s the best part of those thirty years since I last read it, during which the ring-binder has been stashed, visible but out of the way, on top of wardrobes or bookcases.
But in the past few years, I’ve struggled to write fiction, and thus I decided to finally undertake this project, to give the book a more permanent form of existence, instead of only a wodge of handwritten, narrow feint lined sheets of paper in a ring-binder. And I announced it to make sure that I actually went ahead and did it.
As I’ve already said, it’s been a fascinating experience. I began by setting myself the target of transcribing one sheet – that is, two sides – per day, on which basis I estimated it would take me until June or July to complete. Then I started doing two pages a day, one before my shift, one after, and the odd extra sheet at weekends, and now I’m almost obsessive about it. I am midway through Chapter 15, of 23, the opening chapter of the third and final phase of the book, and I am writing several sheets a day. At this rate, it’ll be finished before the end of March.
The thing is, I’ve got hooked on the story! I want to know what happens next! If that sounds weird to you, then so be it, but I am reading something I wrote thirty years ago and which I have barely even scanned since, and apart from a few ‘highlights’, I have no memory of how I treated my history.
I’ve limited myself to a chapter at a time: hence the urge to hurry through a transcription, because only once that is completed can I take the next chapter out of the binder and read another portion of the book!
As I’ve already observed, I have had a mixed reaction to the actual writing. This is a thirty year old piece, just under half my lifetime gone, and in many places it is exactly as I feared: clumsy, overwritten, repetitive, so many chances overlooked for a richer, better reality, a thicker story. I keep wanting to change things.
But at the same time, there are more good things in this book than I feared. Thirty years ago, this is still me, and there are lines of demonstrable quality, and subtleties of expression, which hint at deeper things than are exposed on the page (or, at least so they seem to me, who knows about the subtleties of the real thing). I am still recognisable in this prentice work, very much so.
What I am doing is transcribing, literally. Some errors are being corrected, silently, as I go along, but otherwise I am just copying myself. But at the same time, I am seeing many chances to rephrase, to add, to hint and suggest at lines of development that will feature in the now-inevitable second draft, and these I am interpolating, in a different colour font, so that I can pick up on these later. Slowly, a partial skeleton of a different version of the book is being built.
When the transcription is complete, I plan to create duplicate documents, a kind of definitive ‘first draft’ text, which I shall publish privately through Lulu.com, for my benefit only. I will then start to rewrite, with the intention of completing a book that I will publish through Lulu for general access. If anyone is in the least bit fascinated by these necessarily cryptic accounts, I hope before 2017 is out to give you a chance to read the book.
However, there is one aspect to what I’m doing that I had not foreseen and which, had I realised, might very well have made me reconsider this project. I spoke earlier of the first draft exorcising ghosts, very effectively. What I hadn’t realised is that immersing myself in this book might have the effect of resurrecting those ghosts, still with the power they exerted all that time ago.
I have been drawn nearer to those days than I have been for a very long time. In a way, the world of the story has taken over from the world of actual memory, which is now close to forty years ago and therefore dim. But these fictions have drawn me in, and even if it is reminding me of the version of that relationship that I created between Steve and Lesley in my book, rather than the one between myself and that lady who I won’t embarrass, even this far removed, those feelings were powerful and it is dangerous to be so reminded of them.
I have gotten so absorbed in these hybrid creatures that I have begun to speculate about what happened to them after the story ends: does this relationship thrive, does that survive, does this character go on to be successful: where are they all now, in my fiction and in their own lives?
And then there’s me. I may be Steve in this book, and he’s an improved version of myself, because I couldn’t be that indifferent to art as opposed to reality, but there’s a hell of a lot of me in him, and it’s a me that I would really rather not have been, and which I am still, to a degree that frightens me. Some of his dialogue, his musings, could come out of my mouth now, in my years of depression, and it’s horrifying to realise that there are aspects that I have still not grown out of, even this far removed.
But it’s too late now to go back. Things learned cannot be unlearned, except by unusually precise traumatic amnesia. I have raised my own ghosts, and I can only hope that they can once again be captured by print, even if it takes two books to do so.
It was Alan Moore who put it perfectly: when you open a can of worms, one thing is certain: you need a much bigger can to put them back into.