Of Paper, Pencil and The Paris Review

I’m still a paper and pencil man when it comes to first drafts. Sometimes I’ll sit down at the computer and start writing something I’ve been thinking about, but mostly it goes in the notebook initially, and more often than not it’s written in pencil. My hand-writing is appalling – you may wish to add to that! – which often makes the copying up onto the computer a creative activity rather than just a chore.

But even in my best Marion Richardson, which was always shaky, what goes down in pencil doesn’t always come up in type. In fact, I’ve noticed on several occasions recently, that rather than simply copying up a manuscript, I’ve re-written the story, starting almost from scratch. It’s as if that pencil version was in some way the series of events, or the memory of them, and that the typing has become, not so much a re-telling, as the original telling, and has been inspired, or prompted by the notebook tale.

I’m not advocating such a process, merely noticing that it’s one I use, and began to use without intending to, or even noticing that I had! When I worked with ‘creative writing’ students – which is all I am, after all – I used to tell them that no particular process was important in itself, but only in so much as it was the one that worked for them. It was reading The Paris Review interviews, collected in a four volume selection more than a decade ago and published in paperback by Picador, edited by Philip Gourevitch, which brought me to that point of view. Over the four volumes you get a glimpse of the thinking behind poetry, plays, and prose fiction both long and short, by fifty or so writers you are likely to have heard of, if not read.

It’s a while since I’ve read them as an item in their own right, but I dip in from time to time, looking for half remembered quotes that will reassure me I’m on the right track – often when someone whose opinion I value has suggested that I’m not! They are a good and varied read, but from this writer’s point of view their greatest, and most useful attribute is that they give voice to someone famous (or ostensibly successful, whatever you think that means), who is promoting exactly what you want to do. And, if you’re trying to do something quite different, you’re likely to find someone else, equally well known, who used to do just that too!

Of course, you might be one of those writers who doesn’t need the encouragement of precursors – and there are some examples in there of that as well.  

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