I notice from the news yesterday that John Le Carre has donated his archive to the Bodleian library. Amongst the collection are original drafts of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (you can see a part of a handwritten MS by following the link). Personally, I find these hand written drafts fascinating. The British Museum has some of the Beatles’ lyrics on display, although what I find exciting is not so much the chance to see the crossings out and the changes, but the scrappy pieces of paper on which the words are written. It’s funny to think of an ordinary envelope being picked up and having words that will someday be sung by millions scrawled across the back.
One thing that amused me about the news report was the following:
Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director of the Bodleian Libraries, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the collection showed how “just how much industry, effort, craft” went into the works of a writer of Mr Le Carre’s stature.
He said, for example, that on one page of the manuscript of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, only about three lines had not been altered, corrected, amended, deleted or rewritten.
I wonder how much industry, effort and craft people realise goes into the work of other writers? I often talk at writing workshops about my own rewriting process, which is as follows: after three or four drafts my wife reads and crits my work. I then redraft two or three more times before sending the work to two other writer friends who will then make comments. After more redrafting the work will then be rechecked by my wife before being passed to my agent for comments and then another rewrite. All this is before an editor gets hold of it.
This is common practice amongst writers, in my experience, and is, I find, a pleasurable part of the writing experience. One of the things I really enjoy is having got the shape of a story nailed, and then going back and filling in the details, expanding the characters, or – something that really appeals to me – cutting out as many extra words as I can.
Of course, there has been a significant change between Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and now, and that is the word processor. I write entirely on a word processor, I only use a pen for writing down ideas in my notebook. And of course, when you use a word processor, all those crossings out and changes that you can see on Le Carre’s MS, are never to be seen.
A little bit of a shame, I think.