Sunday, March 10, 2024


Having planned a trip to Oxford for a few days, the perfect exhibition for me was announced: hosted by the Bodleian Library, “Write, Cut, Rewrite”, at their main Weston Library in Broad Street until 5th January 2025, displays various examples of the creative process that led to the major works being sold in the Blackwell’s bookshop next door, from John Le Carré’s cut-up typed pages of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” to Mary Shelley’s copperplate script of “Frankenstein”, and from Franz Kafka’s overwriting of the third-person with “K” in “The Castle” to Ian Fleming’s scribbled-out false start of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”.


The comparatively brief nature of these articles means I don’t have a set creative process for creating them – a few notes on my phone or in a book, a notion of an idea, or simply being faced with a blank screen and a deadline. With admission being free, I visited the exhibition twice, looking for pointers.


I first noticed the spaces these writers gave themselves to exercise: a painting made by the poet Alice Oswald in a notebook gives way to the words she is looking for; Percy Bysshe Shelley drawing a landscape and a cartoon of a man’s face on one side of a double-page spread, then “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings” on the other side; Raymond Chandler’s list of similes, like “No more personality than a paper cup” and “As soothing as a piano salesman”, a line put through them once a place was found for them; and Samuel Beckett’s filling of a page of dialogue for a play with doodles of weird-looking people, and a tune written in 6/8 time on a wobbly musical stave. It is important to keep the mind working on putting absolutely anything on the page, no matter its worth at that moment, rather than waiting to form what you think the right words should be.


It was heartening to see how messy big-name writers can be, or can become, amid forming their work. It was not surprising to see the exercise book containing Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”, a highly-ordered set of numbered statements on the relationship between language and reality, is written neatly in pencil, the only levity being a hand-written “Schluss!” (“End!”) on the typed version, the author stopping himself from adding to it. An example of “The Watsons”, by Jane Austen, showed thick lines driven through discarded passages in a novel that was itself unfinished. It was also good to see the scribbles and ripped-out pages in one of the Moleskine books used by Bruce Chatwin, simultaneously undercutting and reinforcing the romantic story of “capturing reality in movement” that the Moleskine company, inspired by Chatwin, uses to sell their books today.


Any creative writing I try is usually in longhand on paper. Use of a word processor is almost the final step before anyone sees it, with any printout eventually attracting penwork to correct or re-order what already looked complete, something the typescript of “Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy” proved, with different-coloured paper, passages cut up and staples, different coloured pens used, and so on. Eventually, you do have to say “Schluss!”


Finally, there was only one person who I could see had used a ballpoint pen, and that was Ian Fleming. Everyone else used water-based ink and, unlike me, who only had the Bic four-colour pen in their rucksack for a few days, did not experience the extra little bit of effort in forcing oil-based ink onto a page – if the ideas are flowing, you don’t want to feel that in your hand too much.

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