Going through these old boxes of notes is a chastening experience. I’d forgotten how bad my early attempts at writing were. I suppose it’s progress, of a kind, to be able to recognize putrescence in your own work. There are writers I know who hold on to successive drafts of manuscripts in the hope that some day someone – preferably a wealthy university in America – will buy them for their archive. Personally, I’d be more likely to pay to keep mine OUT of an archive – of any kind.
And yet. It’s comforting, as Margaret Atwood says in her introduction to The Paris Review Interviews Vol. 3 (ed. Philip Gourevitch) to know that even the immortals write what she calls ‘clunkers’ from time to time. One of the joys of reading the interviews is, as she points out, the knowledge that ‘I am not the only one who has viewed the page with loathing’ (ix). One of the tenets of any writing workshop for beginners is the reminder that nobody gets it right first time. Talent isn’t everything, we say, we all have an apprenticeship to serve.Even Joyce and Beckett wrote some pretty turgid stuff in the beginning: they had trouble finding publishers. Nobody bought their early books except their families and friends, who weren’t always thrilled about the contents. They had no money. They lived on handouts, they borrowed money and clothes and places to live, felt despair. I think it’s safe to say that they sometimes drank a little more than is now considered healthy.It’s not all prizes and book tours and glamorous readings, you know. You learn it by doing it, and that means you have to be willing to embarrass yourself. Over and over again. It takes time. It might take years.
There’s a great story about Pablo Cassals: After a concert, a fan came up to him and said, “I’d give anything to be able to play (the cello) as well as you do.” Cassals said, “I gave it my life.”
Still and all, I don’t feel inclined to offer any of my own personal tat to future readers just so that they can feel better about themselves, thanks very much. There’s something wonderfully exhilarating about shredding it, bringing it to the recycling centre and leaving it there. It’s probably not ecologically sound to be driving all that distance to recycle paper, but there, that’s twenty-first century Ireland for you. And there’s a pleasing symmetry to the notion that my most earnest and clunky confusions will be compacted and recycled, along with zillions of other ideas, statements, queries, opinions and the odd shopping list; that it might even return to my desk in some future ream of paper: virginal, expectant. Ready.