When we put a manuscript away, in that mythical drawer, we don’t always expect to get it out again. Indeed, it can be a big decision when to let an unfinished draft rest, when to work on it, or even if we should. Sometimes it might seem easier to begin again, completely, rather than patch up or reinvigorate or get re-enthused about something that seems to belong to another part of our lives or another frame of mind we were in, and, which now, we can’t quite tap into.
Happily, I can say that my recently published novel, Down to the River, wasn’t one such piece of work. Written over 20 years ago, the manuscript had to be reworked, but the story at its centre had never dimmed. There were, of course, things to consider. 24 years is a long time. Although the subject matter – that of child sexual abuse – hasn’t changed much over those decades, our society’s response to it has. When I wrote the first draft there was certainly no Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Nor was a child’s word about abuse always taken seriously. Much of what occurred was either ignored by adults, or swept under the carpet.
All of that, particularly recently, has changed dramatically. And, as Down to the River was in the final throes of being edited, news bulletins were dominated (it seemed) by the subject of paedophilia. Reports of testimonies from the Commission, judgements from current cases, and items about accusations made against notable people, were laced through the news. It was such a hot topic that to be writing about it was both gratifying and daunting. And since Down to the River is about our response to paedophilia – the way our community deals, or doesn’t, with those that commit the crime – to have it being discussed so widely and so often, made me hypersensitive to both legal matters and historical shifts in attitudes. I wondered if what I had put on the page all those years ago still applied.
What I realised about what had to be changed and what could remain the same in Down to the River was surprising. Concerns our society had around paedophilia nearly a quarter of a century ago were based, largely, on a fear of the stranger. There was far less awareness than now about things such as the grooming of a child, or what a trusted relationship with an adult could lead to. However, I was surprised to find that changes in social attitudes have largely occurred on the surface of things rather than intrinsically. While expectations have changed around behaviour, mores and language – not to mention modern gadgetry (the internet has played a major role in the issue of child abuse) – other things such as emotional responses to betrayal, the power of adults over children, the insidious nature of obsession that leads to such a crime, have remained the same.
To this end, if a story has an emotional exchange in it, it will always be relevant. Struggle and triumph, hope and despair, weakness and resilience are the things of literature, and the reasons we read.
But there’s also some other quintessential, almost unconscious, process that’s going on while we get ideas or scenes down on the page. It’s rather like a well with a source that springs from somewhere deep in the ground. And, it could be said, that people who are involved in creating art are tapping into that within themselves.
It’s also true to say that when I dig out things from the drawer, I’ve often found the essence of what I want to capture is still there, intact, in that original piece. Even if it needs reworking, I will be reminded about what it was I was thinking at the time, why I discarded it, and, even more importantly, what the effect of the piece was supposed to be.
I guess the lesson in this is that, as a writer, keeping everything you put on paper, no matter how badly written it is, is essential. I’ve found long-discarded pieces that have a freshness that I now long for. They may even remind me of why I write and what has always been at the centre of my creativity. This is why the first draft, no matter how sloppy it is, is so important. For me, it’s the blueprint of the idea behind the novel, or, to put it another way, why I thought this novel was worth writing.
Keeping things doesn’t just apply to whole novels or short stories or poems or even jotted-down ideas. It applies to words, phrases and sentences, paragraphs and chapters, things we are writing currently and have edited out. I’ve deleted parts of novels, then wondered (as I worked on them) where a thought or notion or action disappeared to and, because I keep a trash file for every piece of work I do, I am always rapt to be able to hunt back through my discarded work to find it. Particularly that sometimes rewriting – if we’re not careful – can remove that specific emotion or meaning we wanted to capture. So the great challenge about writing we get out of the drawer is to make sure it remains as fresh and as potent and as essentially true to the intention we had when we initially wrote it.
SJ Finn is an Australian writer. Her latest novel is Down to the River (Sleepers Publishing). More information about her work can be found at www.sjfinn.com