Friday Writing Experiment No. 29: Great Annotations


A fascinating article called ‘Writers’ Second Thoughts’ in today’s Financial Times describes a remarkable auction that’s being organised by rare book dealer Rick Gekoski on behalf of English PEN:

J.K. Rowling is one of more than 50 authors who have agreed, at his invitation, to go back to a first edition of one of their books and annotate it at will. However unlikely it sounds, that a writer would revisit a work he or she finished decades ago and risk uncovering its errors, to say nothing of the potential agony of rereading a younger self, this is exactly what they have done. The resulting copies, with their anecdotal scribbles, deleted paragraphs and occasional exclamations of self-loathing, are to be auctioned at Sotheby’s next month in aid of the writers’ charity English PEN, which defends the rights of writers and readers and promotes freedom of expression around the world.

The list reads like a roll call of major British, Irish and Commonwealth authors from the past half-century, including 16 Booker prize winners and plenty more shortlisters, two Nobel laureates and winners of other literary gongs. Seeing the spines all lined up on a shelf at Sotheby’s is like seeing a collection of paintings made by a collector with a judicious eye: Julian Barnes, Seamus Heaney, Tom Stoppard, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Bennett, John Banville, Joanna Trollope, P.D. James, Howard Jacobson, Philip Pullman, Nick Hornby, Frederick Forsyth, Colm Toíbín, Helen Fielding, Nadine Gordimer, Graham Swift and many more.

Do read the original article in full; I imagine many writers, readers, and editors will want to read some of these annotated texts, where the great and the good offer insights into their own creative process and maybe even have second thoughts about what got into print first time out. The doodles alone would be fun. You can get glimpses of some of the pages at the auction’s website: First Editions, Second Thoughts.

It also makes me think how in the age of ebooks it’s going to be easier to produce director’s cuts and variant editions, possibly all bundled into one text.

In this week’s writing experiment, let’s reread our younger selves. Take a piece of writing from your past – probably not from something you’re currently actively working on, but something older. If you’ve published work before, that might be particularly relevant, as it will force you to face down any atoms of self-loathing, or perhaps allow you to give yourself a pat on the back.

Then go to town with your own annotations. Delete, insert, cut final sentences (I once did this for a story of mine at proof stage, and this was a story that I’d had kicking around relatively unedited for a couple of years, and I know the story gained much from it). Add rewrites in the margins, rewrite on the line. Scribble, doodle, illuminate initial capitals, correct typos or continuity errors (oops). Add notes of commentary, explain a point of origin for a particular image, or just say where and when you were when you got the idea for that piece. Use Track Changes and Comments, if you’re working in Word, or simply find your favourite pen and fill it with your favourite colour of ink (mine: Levenger’s Always Greener). If you are feeling bold, you could even write your former self an editorial memo offering deeper suggestions. Maybe this could lead into an entirely new work …

If you can, share the results with a reader of the original text.

Also support the work of PEN!

Updated 18 May 2013: The Guardian has a gallery with close-ups of what seem to be most of the annotations. As I type this, the Lynne Truss selection is labelled with a misspelling of her name (happens to me all the time …).

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