Every writer has a first book lying in a drawer. So we are told. And we are also told that it is better thus: the book didn’t get published because it wasn’t worthy. That may well be the case. At present I have three novels ‘in the drawer’, and the second one will certainly stay there. The third, I hope, will eventually find a publisher, perhaps after I’ve done more work on it. But what about the first?
At the end of May, I was preparing to leave the United States permanently. I had cleared out my house, and the night before my departure, I was going through my cupboards, making sure I had left nothing important behind. In the darkest recesses of a closet in which I kept my modem and router and a Gordian knot of cables, I found two briefcases full of writing, most of which I had done in grad school. And amongst the early versions of stories and essays that would later be published, I found a novel that I had written in the first semester of my last year—and promptly forgotten about. As far as I can remember, what happened was this: I wrote a comic romance, in a spirit of great playfulness, quickly, workshopped parts of it—which my classmates found funny—and then decided that it was not serious or literary enough for my thesis, and started work on another (which would become the second novel in the drawer.) The odd thing is that although the failed second novel was never forgotten, perhaps because I spent years working on it, the first was, almost completely. I remembered that I had written it, and had enjoyed writing it, but in the intervening years I had never re-read it, and didn’t know if I had even retained a copy of it. But for some reason—I suppose curiosity, but perhaps nostalgia played a part too—that night I sat down and started reading it.
To my surprise, I still found it funny. It had likeable, larger-than-life characters, and a strong plot, with plenty of drama, crises in the right places, and a couple of amusing sub-plots too. Considering that it was a first draft, it wasn’t badly written. I couldn’t claim it was original, since the plot was the classic comedy one, going back to Menander, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Helen Fielding. Still, I read it at a sitting, and decided it would travel in my hand-luggage with me to Portugal the next day. And thereafter, I found it so much on my mind that I started working on it, revising it with considerable gusto.
The novel is finished now, by which I mean it’s as polished as I can make it, and I have begun to submit it to agents, so far without success—so perhaps it is destined to remain in my drawer. Nonetheless, whether the book has any merit or not, I’m grateful for the experience. Why? Firstly, because, as the truism goes, nothing is ever wasted when you’re writing. I believe I taught myself a great deal when writing that novel, both in grad school, and in the past few months as I’ve revised it. I learned how to construct a novel with a coherent plot, drama, and engaging characters. But second, and more importantly, because it was such fun to write, and comedic—and I am by nature a serious, some would say intense, person—it has taught me the value of play, of whimsy, and fantasy.
Maybe the novel will never reach the bookshops, but I hope that something of the spirit of this novel will pervade my future work. Most of us, and especially those of us who have been through graduate creative writing programmes, feel constrained to write books that we think our peers will approve of. But the only way we can fully reach our potential as artists is to disregard that many-headed monster, the public, and explore every facet of our own minds and spirits, especially the ones we tend to keep hidden. So if you have a novel lying in the drawer, it might be worth taking a second look at it.