Mistake No. 47: Forgetting your first time (and line)

The Easter pause gave me cause for reflection, and I slipped into daydreaming about my career path – where I’d been, where I was, where I was going.

But mostly it was about where I’d started.

I’d started with a story for a free London magazine for office workers in the mid-nineties. At the time, I had vague notions of wanting to write professionally, so had taught myself to touch-type. With a naive idea in mind about writing an office-based comic novel, I took some casual work in the City, partly to research, partly to make ends meet, and partly as I knew not what else to do with my life. The article was a humorous piece about my experiences of working as a temp, at a time when it was a female-dominated domain.

As I thought back at it, I realised I’d forgotten most of what I’d written – including the opening line.

So I dug it out. And read it. And cringed a lot. Little beads of sweat prickled themselves into existence at my temples. There were feeble jokes. And these made me laugh more than the better jokes. There were strings of weak writing. There were words I wish I’d never used. There was a double entendre which I’ve convinced myself must have been inadvertent (my mind is so much filthier now than it was then). There were dozens of memories. I was surprised to be pleased with my opening paragraph.

With it was the acceptance letter from the editor. And suddenly I was channelling that feeling of fifteen years ago when I tore the envelope – “… we would be pleased to publish… hope the sum of £100 is acceptable…” – and felt unable-to-breathe happy.

It was the first thing I’d ever submitted. Had it been rejected, who knows, I may have just given up. I went on to receive more acceptances from the same editor, who then recommended me to her colleague when the latter was looking for a columnist, and later a sub-editor. I won’t bore you with more, but I can trace virtually everything I’ve done since to that one acceptance.

Furthermore, the editor and I later became friends, and we still see each other, maybe twice a year, with colleagues, for wine and nostalgia and industry gossip.

Revisiting that first published piece has put some fizz in my bloodstream. I guess I’m urging you to do the same – particularly if your memory of yours is hazy.

Doing so has reminded me of why I do what I do and why I want to keep doing it, and that it’s still possible to feel excited about the business we’re in.

It’s also been a salutary reminder of the march of time. I’ve improved and matured as a writer and achieved modest success, but I still want to improve and mature and I still want to succeed more. Years pass swiftly – fifteen have gone in a flash – and if I want to do these things I’ve just got to do them, and not drag my heels or think they’ll keep until tomorrow, or next week, or next month.

It has reminded me of the value of cultivating contacts and maintaining friendships.

It has reminded me of the value of holding on to your clippings (I barely bother these days).

If you’ve only recently published or are unpublished, perhaps go revisit an early draft of something you wrote, or the first article you submitted, or even your first poem or an old school essay. Anything that will make you pause and reflect. Anything that will make you look back – then think forward.

And if you have published, I want to know your first sentence in print – for no other reason than curiosity. Mine was: “My father wanted me to be a doctor.” I don’t think he thinks that any longer.