I have finally finished shredding my novel.
It had been the work of many days, feeding it into the machine sheet by sheet and watching the pages re-emerge as linguine. It’s not surprising the story was bad. I wrote it soon after my husband died, leaving me with three young children, so the raw ingredients by weight were exhaustion, desperation, false hope and uncertain talent. It was a testament to one thing only: the discipline of writing every day. It was not a Jeanette Winterson creation – ‘a long story, and like most of the stories in the world, never finished’ – but brisk and banal.
Although the manuscript had been sulking in my filing cabinet for a decade, I mostly forgot about it, sometimes for years at a time. With each sighting I’d recall a newspaper cartoon of a radiologist outlining a patient’s diagnosis: ‘You don’t have a novel in you.’
I’ve read the classics reaching back to Homer and Virgil, forward to Arundhati Roy and David Mitchell, sideways to Patrick White, Virginia Woolf, Nadine Gordimer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve read the Russians, the French, many Australians, some of the Americans and Günter Grass, who introduces the unforgettable Oskar Matzerath with the words: ‘Granted: I am an inmate in an insane asylum’ in The Tin Drum. However, revelling in fabulous characters written by others had not equipped me to create and sustain excellent characters of my own. In this chewed-up novel of mine, which I did not re-read until I’d completed, a confusion of boring people collided with one another and I found I had named five of the minor characters ‘Tony’.
For years I’ve hoarded notes written against the possibility of unborn stories. Many are in scrawling shorthand, whose codes are now uncertain, though isolated phrases are decipherable and might still please me. But in the absence of a bigger idea, they are exactly as useful as confetti without a wedding. I have also collected timetables, tickets, maps, exhibition notes, postcards and other ephemera. Perhaps one day I’ll need a tropical setting and empty my Darwin file or I’ll add authentic texture by referring to the maintenance records for a Mitsubishi Sigma.
During one periodic purge, I disposed of personal papers by firing up a friend’s pizza oven. I watched the pages burn with deep satisfaction and slight regret that no profound insights flamed during the process. The novel escaped that inferno. But a ridiculous nagging possibility grew in me that if I didn’t get rid of it, I would die suddenly, and people would sift through my filing cabinet, find the story and think that it was the best I could have written.
What to do? A few weeks ago I filleted a couple of passages and started disposing of the rest.
The process of turning a manuscript into compost is straightforward. In addition to the secondhand $15 strip-cut shredder, I needed a skewer and a garbage bag. The shredder spoke in two notes – grind and whine. The grinding was produced by a row of small, paired blades rotating in opposite directions to chomp through the work. Whenever I heard the high-pitched whine, I had to turn the machine off and use the skewer to extract bits of paper that had folded over and over themselves and choked the feed. According to the product sticker, I could only use the shredder for two minutes continuously before allowing it to rest for 45. On days I pushed it past its limits I could smell the mechanism over-heating; if I was not alert enough it simply switched off. It claimed to be able to shred five sheets at once but that was an exaggeration by a factor of about five.
The machine ate my 80,000 words though I, too, ingested plenty of them in the surprising amount of dust generated. Eventually, I was left with a jumbo-sized garbage bag of pleasing airiness.
The short bursts of the shredder’s fierce appetite have stimulated a hunger in me to rid myself of more writing. I’m throwing out journals, reconsidering half-finished pieces and looking critically at the next long story I’ve written. It’s about a female Australian wannabe writer and much of it is set in Berlin. Not long after I’d finished the first draft, Gail Jones published A Guide to Berlin, about a wannabe Australian writer who goes to the German capital to write her book.
But I am reluctant to scrap this one completely. There is one character in it, not the woman but a vulnerable young man, who has potential. Does he deserve the opportunity of a fictive life or should I knife him and garnish my imagination with who he might have become?
Note 1: The Jeanette Winterson comes quote from lighthousekeeping.
Note 2: Some of the novel linguine is now boosting the growth of my herb garden.
Image: Confetti / flickr