After I got rid of my old computers last month, I realised — too late — that one of them had my first ever novel on the hard drive. It was my only remaining copy of it. It doesn’t matter too much because it was a bad novel and I wouldn’t want anyone to read it but it would have been nice to hang onto it for sentimental reasons, like my first school report or my bronze swimming medal.
I’ve lost a lot of works of fiction over the years. The thing I most regret losing is a collection of short stories that I wrote on a Remington typewriter. They were themed around a night club called The Dug Out Club, which used to be in Bristol but is now long gone.
I read out one of the stories in a writers’ workshop once. I was 22. It was a very popular group at the City Lit in London. Every week there would be different faces there and the huge room would be always full. Some people had been going for years and knew each other very well, but the rest of us were strangers drifting through.
The workshop leader was called Carol and she used to recommend dashing away from a good conversation to go and scribble notes in the toilet. Lock yourself in there, she said and ignore anyone bashing on the door. If you’re short of ideas, she once said, try standing on your head for half an hour. I’m not sure she ever recommended standing on your head in the toilet but, if she had, some of the people there would have done it. They hung on her every word.
My story was about a woman who has a fight with her boyfriend, who slams the door in her face by accident. She is not really a feminist but this fight makes her stop and think and she goes on a reclaim the night march with some friends. While she is on the march, the commotion, the shadowy figures moving in the darkness, the blurry lights, the kindness of her friends and the sudden separation from her boyfriend, are all too much for her and she starts weeping.
It’s a simple story.
After I read it out Carol said, “You will never write any better than that.”
I just stared at her. What did she mean? Actually I was disappointed. I thought the story was phoney but had some sort of potential, I just wasn’t sure what. I thought there was a basis there for improvement. I thought I was on my way to making some progress as a writer. I really needed someone to tell me: your characters aren’t real, they are shallow and two-dimensional and don’t live on the page.
The characters weren’t real. I didn’t manage to capture in the story the details that would have made them come alive. But if I were to write that story now would it be any better?
I told Lanying I’d accidentally thrown away my novel and she said, “So what. Don’t look back, look forward.” Then she said something in Chinese.
(jiù de bù qù, xīn de bù lái.)
It means you have to throw out the old stuff before something new can come.