Hands up – who’s got a secret manuscript? No, I don’t mean that novel you’ve had half-written for years in a drawer, waiting for the perfect ending or the will to finish. I mean the real secret manuscript, the one that you delight in writing – maybe even taking time away from your ‘proper’ writing to write – into which you throw all your worst clichés and ham-fisted phrases, your most stereotypical and devastating characters, your wildest dreams and your uber-wildest dreams. That manuscript: the one you’re never going to show to ANYONE, EVER. In fact it’s possibly the only Word file on your computer which is password protected with the name of your most embarrassing crush.
Naively, it didn’t really occur to me until quite recently that the secret manuscript must be a common thing. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that a lot of us must have one. In my recent break from writing to do a bit of archaeology work, I took my current Work In Progress abroad with me, sure that I would get round to some editing in the evenings. I didn’t.
What I did instead was write my secret manuscript. I’m not, of course, going to tell you anything about it – honestly, you probably can’t imagine how ridiculous and derivative and devastatingly fantastic it is. But I did confess to a fellow writer that I was letting myself write a whole story that purposefully isn’t for public display. Or any display at all, in fact. And my correspondent didn’t think that was at all strange. She referred to it as playing, and noted wisely that we should all give ourselves time to play.
We talk a lot about playing in writing, and I tend to assume we mean playing games – mostly structured games, with some actual purpose. Word games. Imagination games. Little challenges designed to open up our minds and help us learn how to navigate our ways around the realms of our subconscious. I guess I was thinking of playing as being a preliminary stage in the actual writing of actual stories.
But my secret manuscript isn’t that at all. It’s an end in itself. It’s pure lazy pleasure. The writing is purposefully outrageous and horrible. The characters are anything I want them to be. If I want them to be different, they change immediately. If I can’t be bothered to write a bit, I don’t write it. If I want them to break off what they’re doing and have an in-depth discussion of what causes bone splints in horses, then that’s what they’ll discuss.
And oddly, for something so self-indulgent, my interest in the secret manuscript wanes and waxes. It reached absolute fever pitch while I was away, to the extent that for a week or so I wrote about 3,000 words a day, in the time when I should have been taking an afternoon nap. It’s sort of faded away, now, although I’m sure it’ll be back.
So what was it was all for, that frenzy of imagining, of writing? The answers are simple. It was for fun. It was to remind me that I can be so excited about a story that I don’t want to talk to anyone, don’t want to think about anything else. It was to remind me that in the realm of my imagination, anything can happen, and it doesn’t have to make sense or be realistic or only use one adjective where seven will do perfectly well.
The secret manuscript is having a well-deserved sleep, just now, and I feel much happier about turning back to my real Work In Progress. Because I think the best thing the secret manuscript reminded me of is that I started this writing lark because I enjoyed it, and because my imagination was a place in which I could roam free. It still is that, and it always will be. So the editing I’m currently doing can’t be that hard, or that bad, can it? I’m only editing a story I wrote because I wanted to write it, and it came from a place I controlled, and was happy in. It can’t be as awful a task as I became convinced it was.
Although saying that does remind me that perhaps the best joy of all is that the secret manuscript will never have to be edited. Those adjective strings will stay, the bone splints will stay, the absurd and the heroic and the irredeemably impossible will stay. It feels like a very dirty, guilty, horrific, wonderful, glorious, marvellous, time-wasting secret, except I’m 99% certain that most of you will know exactly what I’m talking about…