In my ‘office’ there is a set of three drawers containing various bits and bobs, in the bottom drawer of which you will find folders of loose sheets of paper and handwritten notebooks with story ideas, chapters from novels, some typed up later, some not. Then there are the electronic files of first drafts, revisions, notes on characters and snippets of dialogue, scene descriptions etc. The trouble is I have these files stored on two laptops and an external hard drive with copies of copies and folders within folders all with the same name and I’m never sure which is the latest version or even if there is a latest version – frankly it has got rather out of hand.
I decided I was going to have a sort out and deleted as many redundant copies as possible along with old drafts of Blackfeather and Immortal and some of my short stories because I figured they were no longer needed now the books have been completed and published.
Then this Thursday I attended a lecture by Dr James Bainbridge entitled Texts and Variants in which he talked about the differences in similar texts produced by A.S.J. Tessimond over several years of his life. Tessimond was an accomplished poet, copy-writer, womaniser and mystery. Throughout his life he used over forty alternate identities, fell in love with prostitutes and models at the drop of a hat, even travelling to Rome after tracking one model down from a photograph he discovered in a shop in London having decided ‘She was the one’. When he died he left a friend in charge of his manuscripts, but there was one problem – there were no manuscripts.
It was Dr Bainbridge who discovered Tessimonds lost archive of letters, photographs and writings in an attic in Lancaster. He has been writing and researching the man ever since.
In his lecture, Dr Bainbridge showed us several versions of the same passage written by Tessimond over three years. Each one had slight variations, going through the process of editing and revision as any writer does with their work, but in one the final passage had something missing. Tessimond had been reminiscing about a time when people travelled on open topped trams. In the first version of his tale he wondered what they did when it rained, speculating that they either put up umbrellas or retreated to the lower deck, but in the final version he missed this crucial information merely stating that people travelled on open topped trams and that wearing hats would provide some protection. The reader, without access to the first draft, is left wondering protection from what?
Tessimond underwent electro-compulsive therapy during his life to treat severe depression. You can see from the deterioration of his handwriting how this ‘therapy’ effected him. He once said: ‘I’ve been writing for weeks now and I can’t understand a word I’ve written.’ It also made him forget large parts of his life, wiping both short and long term memory so that in redrafting parts of his writing he could no longer remember what the initial point of his story was. Hence the non-sensical final draft of the passage about his early life. I felt incredibly sorry for Tessimond and wrote on my notes ‘he is starting to disappear’. At the time I thought, there’s the kernel of an interesting story in there, but if I got any further with the idea I have forgotten it!
I’ve contemplated throwing out the piles of papers and books in the bottom drawer, but haven’t quite been able to bring myself to do it. I think now I’ll hold on to them. If anyone ever finds those scribblings or what’s left of my files on some computer hard drive or other I imagine they’re going to be incredibly annoyed at my deleting the stuff I have. I feel a bit regretful myself too now. They are, after all, an archive of my progress from first starts to final edit. In future I shall make sure to keep a copy of everything – but only one – OK maybe two, just in case.