My first proper outing, post-tonsil-removal, was to an enormous rubbish incinerator. Please don’t ask why.
I still can’t get over the row of absolutely gigantic rubbish pits, into which lorry-loads of black bags are dumped before being fed into the incinerator. There was something so astonishing, so humbling, about walking above these enormous pits of rubbish. They are on such a different scale to normal life. It made me feel tiny, as though I’d just drunk the ‘drink me’ liquid in Alice and Wonderland.
(Incidentally, the incinerator is more eco than it sounds – the heat from the burning rubbish powers steam-driven turbines, which create electricity. Magnets extract ferrous metals for recycling, other residue is used for building roads, and numerous filters mean that all emissions are well within environmental limits.)
What a huge amount of rubbish, I kept thinking. But the lady who gave the tour kept stopping herself from saying ‘rubbish’ or ‘waste’. She made herself use the word ‘materials’ instead. She explained, ‘Nothing that we get really is waste, because we use it and turn it into something else. All of this,’ she gestured down at the pits, ‘is really our materials.’ And just like that, the huge pits of rubbish are transformed into great piles of materials – no longer waste, but things of use.
How optimistic, I thought, how inspiring. How remarkable that changing something’s name really can change one’s whole perception of it.
But what about waste that doesn’t come in big black bags? What about rubbish writing, for instance? Just think about all those words, all those stories, all those descriptions, dialogues, pieces of action, that get cut from books and thrown away. Well, what happens to them?
When I started writing my novel, I envisaged it in three parts. The first and last parts would be set in London, and the middle, most crucial, section would be set in India. The novel is, you see, all about a young London artist who goes to India and happens to arrive on 7/7, the day of the London bombings.
So I began writing all about her life in London – her friendships, her relationship with her mother, the parties she went to, the whole East London scene – as she prepared to leave it all behind and go to India. I’d spent a few months in India before, but had booked another trip for research. It took me a while to summon up the courage to ask for the time off work, to answer the inevitable questions about why I was going – ‘Oh, you’re writing a book are you? How interesting. What’s it about?’ (Particularly painful as I was working in a publishing house at the time.) So the trip wasn’t until around ten months after I’d started writing the novel. This left me with plenty of time to work on the first section, ages to polish it, re-polish it, cut bits out, add bits in, move things around. I couldn’t move on to the second section until I’d been back to India.
So I went to India, returned and wrote the second section, wrote the final section and completed the first draft. The whole thing had taken around fifteen months. It was only once I’d written the second section, which grew much longer than I’d anticipated – over twice the size of the first section – that I realised I needed to rethink the structure of the book. You see, the first section was actually not particularly interesting. Who really cares about someone’s preparations for going away? I’d much rather read about the trip, the actual experience, rather than the anticipation. And how much more dramatic to begin on 7/7, the catalyst for the drama, rather than enduring two months of build-up.
I realised I had to do quite a difficult thing. I needed to cut the whole first section. That first section was around 20,000 words – around 90 pages of a double-spaced word document. It was months of getting up very early in the morning to work on it before going into an office. It was the result of so much thought, so much work, so much time. And now it was just going, deleted, gone. What a waste.
This realisation was not long before I quit the publishing job and started working in a bookshop. I found myself doing several shifts with another writer and, on quiet mornings, we’d chat about our works-in-progress.
‘God I had to do this really awful thing,’ I confessed.
She was all ears.
‘I had to cut the entire first section. It was 20,000 words and I just had to get rid of it all.’
‘Oh you mustn’t worry about that,’ she said. ‘Haven’t you heard of Hemmingway’s Iceberg Theory?’
I hadn’t. I expect you probably have, but, if not, the idea is that a writer can omit a great deal of what he’s writing about, leaving it for the reader to infer. Like an iceberg: one sees the tip of it and knows that there’s a lot more underneath. Or, in Hemmingway’s own words, from Death in the Afternoon:
If a writer of a prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
So, it doesn’t matter that I had to get rid of those 20,000 words because I know that they happened. Thanks to those 20,000 words, I know about the main character’s friends and family, what clothes she wears, what parties she goes to, what her paintings look like, how she decided what to pack. I don’t need anyone else to read all about them in that much detail, but I just have to hope that a sense of what’s gone on, before she went to India, comes across in the rest of the writing. I’ve submerged most of the iceberg, making it glide around with more ‘dignity’. Well, I hope so.
So I suppose that first section isn’t really rubbish, or waste, it’s material. It’s still part of the novel, but buried underneath it. While I was writing the second draft, I tried to fold in little bits of that first section – occasional reminiscences and fond memories, the odd passing reference – glimpses of the tip of the iceberg.
But what if the work gets sunk by icebergs? What if, while cutting bits out of a work, paring it down to an elegant white tip, too much gets omitted, too much is lost? Or what if the icebergs aren’t good enough? What if I finish the novel (icebergs and all) and then nothing happens to it? What if it doesn’t get published, if nobody reads it, if it ends up no more than a file taking up some space in my computer, sheets of printed-out paper that end up in those enormous rubbish pits, ready for incineration?
Well perhaps the Iceberg Theory can be extended to outside a piece of writing. Even if this novel becomes nothing more than ‘material’, ending its life as a spark of electricity, or is recycled and turned into the humble fibres of a newspaper sheet, then the novel will be my very own iceberg. Admittedly, if the incinerating/recycling fear is realised, the novel probably won’t be very good, but I still will have written one. I will have given up all that time, all that thought, to something. And that will continue to affect everything that I do – reading, talking, working, thinking … The novel won’t ever be completely lost, completely wasted, it will just be submerged in the past. And even if I do decide to completely bury it, to move on to something utterly different, I’m sure its little white head will still be poking out.
I hope so, anyway.