Should Writers Burn Their Old Stuff?

Media, Observatory, Reading & Writing


They used to say that England was a country held back by its own past. I think that can happen to writers, too.

As my flat is fast running out of storage space, I decided to do a little life-laundering and get rid of some things I was pointlessly clinging to. First out went my physical reviews – the bits of paper that my mum liked to keep, which ran to several boxes. Believe it or not, there was a time when I appeared to be functioning as some kind of a style guru for gormless magazines, and would be called up and asked what I thought about pointy shoes or retro-chic bars. I can do without keeping all that ephemeral toss.

I decided to keep my correspondence with other authors because the letters I received were often very funny. Today, I threw out all the scripts that were ever written from my books, hurled into an immense bin bag, because they were all uniformly dreadful. But now I’m in a quandary. I’ve discovered four unseen novels, all written before I ever got published, none of which are very good, and I can’t decide whether to hang onto them. My instinct tells me to dump them and grow. You can’t move on without burning a few bridges.

This will just leave the ‘other’ pile – ephemera like articles, photos, notes, comedy sketches, the kind of stuff I can’t imagine anyone being remotely interested in. I’m going crazy trying to decide what to keep – when my parents moved house they took nothing with them, even leaving behind family photos and clothing, and they said it was the best decision they ever made. Would you do the same?

Here’s one photo I may keep. It was shoved behind a set of the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopediae, and showed a party at Fowler Towers. I think it was quite late, which is when everyone fell over. All I remember is arguing about politics on our rainswept terrace and ruining a very nice Ozwald Boateng shirt.



12 comments on “Should Writers Burn Their Old Stuff?”

  1. Mike Cane says:

    Oh god no. NEVER throw stuff away. And if you must cut down on the physical stuff, at least SCAN it first then ditch it.

  2. Henry Ricardo says:

    An author’s detritus is almost always valuable. I would love to get my hands on some of the stuff you’ve described.

  3. John Shea says:

    When I first began working in publishing, I had a job with a company that published facsimiles of old books and manuscripts. My job depended on the fact that Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, et al., never burned their old stuff. Keep an underpaid editor employed, DON’T BURN!

  4. Jennifer says:

    No, no, no, no, no! As an historian who depends upon archives–and drafts, in order to establish the evolution of thought–I am horrified by even the idea of ditching the details. HORRIFIED! I agree with Mike Cane. If you must throw stuff out, scan it first (and hope against hope that the format in which you are saving things will remain accessible).

  5. Mark Elliott says:

    Keep – or donate to your local university library. Some day they might be able to sell it and build a new wing or something and your name will live on. Where would Jesus be without his donation to Cambridge University?

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    Judiciously, weed out judiciously.
    But keep those early novels, you may on a different day find they have a use. Recycle what you’ve work on. Didn’t “Darkest Day” turn into…. And where did “Hell Train” come from?
    You shouldn’t be like the two Collyer Brothers who saved everything. Remember them? If not look them up as its worth it. Their stuff killed them! One brother was able and one was enfeebled. One day some of their ceiling-high stuff shifted and pinned the up and about brother down. That left the bedridden brother to starve to death. (This became a U.S. bestseller called “My Brother’s Keeper” in the late 50s.)
    Don’t rent space to save the past. Don’t become a Sisyphus pulling, rather than pushing, the past behind you. Or select a historian to become your official biographer, box up the stuff, draft a contract, and then ship it off.

  7. Steve says:

    I’d keep it. I try to keep everything….but I have to hide things from my wife. I’m a pack rat, she’s not.
    I’ve got a notebook of my grandfather’s hand-written music that’s over 100 years old. I’m glad he never threw it away. It’s not about the music itself so much as the history.
    It was found squirreled away in the attic when he died – looks like he had a similar issue with HIS wife.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    My mother always said to throw stuff away and it was a principle her mother lived by. She kept pretty well every letter she received and I have a family story going back to the early 1930’s with one or two before that. You don’t want to keep everything but you don’t know what will happen. Just think of the picture of Kings Cross changes that could be derived from this blog – but it is fading away from the bottom as we speak, I imagine.

  9. Ken Murray says:

    Things find their true value when they’re left behind for those who follow us. Besides a little while back my 93yr old aunty told me, when she moved house years ago, she threw out an ORIGINAL Lowry oil painting as it was ‘old fashioned looking’… I lie awake nights sometimes, hoping it wasn’t true and just some crazy mistake!

  10. Stephen Groves says:

    I’d like first dibs on the bin bag.

    All Best

  11. John Howard says:

    Boateng is always good. I still pull out my Boateng tie at every opportunity. Bought at the time we were getting our son to a special treat shirt to go with his good suit on his wedding day. The only reason I was able to tack my purchase on was because the colours (sorry Dan, colors) matched the wifes dress.
    The photo is a must keep. That looks like a genuinely happy time. As for the rest of the “rubbish” I’m sure Dan and I can sort through the dross for you…..
    You could always donate the manuscripts and other jottings to an archive library. Why not the Bodleian? I’m sure there could be an English degree built on “the Fowler style and development”. Discuss.
    Reminds me of the time years ago when I was standing in line waiting to get a signature on the latest Ian Banks (or it may have been an Ian M Banks) only to find that the couple who were ahead of me were studying The Wasp Factory at college. (Its all about the Vietnam War you know..) There is hope yet admin.

  12. Liz Rose says:

    Or at least save this blog post, so the poor young person trying to write a thesis will be able to explain the lack of surrounding material. I’m with those who think you should donate your papers; I’ve seen mention of writers a lot less (IM not so very HumbleO) capable than you donating their material to various universities.

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