What’s In Your Drawer?
October 18, 2010
I’ve just finished a memoir by Diana Athill called Somewhere Towards the End, a set of musings about what it’s like to be nearing ninety, what it’s like to know that you have very little time left. It’s a work of wisdom and reflection, forthright and unsparing, yet hopeful. It’s a work worth reading for those of us who want to think about how to incorporate reflection into our work, while still telling the story of our lives.
Athill talks briefly about her life as an editor, a famous one – she edited V. S Naipaul’s work and Jean Rhys’s, among others, and she talks about her tremendous good fortune in learning that she too could write. After retiring from a long life of editing, she turned to the writing of memoir. And she speaks about how turned some musings that she had in her drawer into publishable works.
“Then, looking for something in a rarely opened drawer,” she writes, I happened upon …two pages, and read them. Perhaps, I thought, something could be made of them after all, so the next day I put paper in my typewriter and this time it wasn’t a blip, it was a whoosh! – and Instead of a Letter, my first book, began.” The book, she says, turned out to be an account of a broken heart. The writing of it was extraordinary; after she finished writing, she was happier than she’d ever been in her life.
So. What do you have in your drawer that you could pull out, take a look at, and turn into something you could share with others or use as the basis for another work?
Early in her life, before she was Virginia Woolf, when she was still Virginia Stephen, Woolf wrote a piece called “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn.” It’s a work about a woman who comes upon the journal of a woman. I read it when I was researching my dissertation, which I turned into my first book, Virginia Woolf’s First Voyage: A Novel in the Making about Woolf’s composition of The Voyage Out. I decided to read everything that Woolf wrote – published and unpublished – before and during her work on that first novel.
Woolf never published “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn.” She kept it in her drawer, as it were. (I co-edited it for a journal and it was published long after Woolf’s death.) Woolf could easily have reworked this preliminary effort for publication, yet she chose not to. But it acted as a kind of ur-text – a writing before a writing that paves the way for future writing. It contains many of the themes Woolf would take up in her first, and subsequent novels – the inequity between women and men in a patriarchal society; the difficulty women have in writing, yet how excellent their work is; their inhibitions in publicizing what they’ve written despite its worth; the fact that many women’s desire to write gets derailed by the claims that marriage and family make upon them; the untold history of women’s writing in England.
“The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” is an example of writing in a drawer that the writer uses as a way of understanding her themes that she chooses not to publish.
I have just such a text in my drawer. It’s called “White on Black.” I don’t remember when I wrote it – twenty years ago I think, I really can’t say. But I do remember sitting at the computer in a kind of trance and pounding it out one summer, day after day after day. When I finished – or rather, stopped – I had about seventy pages of writing about my childhood. The title referred to my Southern Italian grandmother, who always dressed in black, sitting in a corner of our dining room crocheting a white tablecloth – hence, white on black. I wrote about my grandmother; about how my father went to war; about how he returned from war an angry man; about my early relationship with my mother. The tone of the work was elegiac – I’ve often argued that memoir is often elegy (a song, as it were, for the dead, or for what is long since gone). This was my elegy.
I remember finishing it – or rather, coming to a point where I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t a book; it wasn’t a piece; it didn’t seem to be the beginning of anything. The writing was diffuse. I hadn’t yet written memoir. I’d just finished writing my book about Virginia Woolf as an incest survivor. So I took it, and put it in a drawer, and there it stayed for a few years.
When I was asked to write a memoir, years later, I dug it out. But I knew that its tone was altogether wrong. Still, there was something in it that compelled me to use its substance, if not its wording, again. For a while, I kept trying to work on it – to use it as the basis for the memoir I was writing. But I soon learned it was the wrong approach. This, I realized, was an ur-text – the work that told me the substance, but not necessarily the shape or the voice, of the work I needed to write. And so I read it, let its meaning seep into my consciousness, and then I put it back in the drawer. It informed the writing of my first memoir Vertigo.
I pulled “White on Black” out of that drawer four more times. When I was writing Crazy in the Kitchen and I knew my grandmother would figure importantly in that work. When I was writing On Moving and I knew I wanted to write about my mother’s moving us from the apartment we lived in when my father was deployed to an apartment next to her father and stepmother. Again, when I wrote a piece called “White on Black” about my grandmother’s handiwork. And yet again, when I began writing my current book about my father going to war. It acted as an ur-text each time.
What I’ve learned from having “White on Black” to go back to again and again and again is that we don’t necessarily need to take an early, and perhaps quickly written work, and try to turn it into a work in and of itself. I got more mileage out of this ur-text than I would have if I’d tried to fashion it into something publishable. It’s been my reminder of what I need to write about through the years. It’s served me well, just as I believe Woolf’s “Joan Martyn” served her.
But there is the example of Diana Athill too. She turned the scribbling that she’d stored away into a work in its own right. And she did this again and again in her writing life. She didn’t initially think they were worth working on – she’d hidden them away. But when she looked at them again, and discussed them with others (in the case of two of her hidden manuscripts), she became convinced that the works were worth bringing to fruition.
So what do you have stored away? Why don’t you dig it out and read it and think about it and talk about it with your writing partners. Is it an ur-text like “Black on White” – something you’ve written that can inform you about what you need to write? Or is it, instead, a work, like Diana Athill’s scribblings, that deserves to be brought to fruition? Only you can decide. But I do believe that unless we honor “the work in the drawer,” it sits there, drawing energy from what we’re trying to work on, unless we give it the attention it deserves. We owe that work respect. It can often tell us precisely what we need to write.
Dig your work out of that drawer, and see what it tells you.