Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I knew there would be a point when my love of sixties girl groups and history would meet.
It always feels wrong to delete words or sentences or paragraphs that I have written. That is particular the case when those words have come slowly. The Prince of Tricksters, the book I am now finishing, has taken the best part of a decade. For most of this time the words did not come easily; for much of this time they did not come at all. Writing has been laborious; ideas have been slow to form; I could have carved words in stone faster than I have typed them into a laptop.
Then there is a tipping point. Somehow the terrifying tyranny of the blank screen has become too many words. Not too many for me, you understand, but too many for a book that really works. They have to go, but it seems wrong to delete phrases and sentences that I struggled so much over. If writing is a creative endeavour, then it is hard to acknowledge a place for the destructive process of highlight plus delete.
I have destroyed something approaching 60,000 words over the past three months. They have gone, and as much as I pretend otherwise they are not coming back. Many years ago I would not delete anything. Instead I would cut words and paragraphs out and paste them into another document – one with a euphemistic file name that held out the promise of redemption. Now I labour under no illusion as to the beauty of my florid prose or the importance of those oh-so-interesting tangential arguments. It is not quite the case that anything can go. Still, I am much better at understanding what is necessary and what is not. Keep your eyes on the prize and the destruction is easier.
Those 60,000 words are gone but not forgotten. All writing is rewriting: remember? Without them there would be no book. This seems like a daft thing to say, but so much of the process of writing is actually about thinking – exploring ideas; trying them out for size; seeing what works and what does not work. I should have counted how many of those words were the equivalent of clearing my throat before actually saying something, or dodging the important question before actually answering it. It is hard to delete words not because they are elegant or insightful, but because I often remember exactly where I was and how I felt when using them to work through something I did not understand. Cutting removes the traces of my labour, and the memories of my anxiety at that desk looking out over that view.
The first cut is the deepest. It gets easier after that. The first cut is the deepest because it destroys the illusion of completeness that we spend so long struggling over in our articles or chapters. Writing history as aesthetics: a draft looks complete because each word of evidence and analysis seems to add up to a coherent argument. Writing history as jigsaw: a draft looks complete because each word is a piece without which there is nothing. Remove one piece or one word and the illusion is revealed to be just that. The first cut might seem small, but it has the effect of disassembling the whole. Once everything is up for grabs losing words is the least of your worries.
The first cut is the deepest. It leaves you with nothing but fragments. It reveals the lazy expediencies on which your arguments rest. It denaturalizes what you wanted to think of as a complete chapter. And it leaves a nagging doubt: if cutting one word or phrase from a draft can do that, then could the same be true of what we think of as the finished product?
When I lived in Liverpool my downstairs neighbour chatted to P.P. Arnold in a club in town and told me all about it when I bumped into him on the stairs at two in the morning. He was very drunk but apparently she was very lovely. This is my spurious (but only) claim to fame.