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Walking in their Footsteps

I visited the Lake District in September. The natural beauty of the landscape is breathtaking, very inspirational and well worth a visit. While I was there I visited Hill Top, Beatrix Potter's most famous home. The 17th century farm cottage was gifted to the National Trust by Beatrix upon her death with the expressed wish that it should not become a museum, but be preserved in the condition of how it looked when she lived there. Her furniture, including her writing desk, are on display and it is easy to imagine Beatrix walking through the rooms and writing her children's books. Several parts of the cottage, including the oven range, inspired Beatrix's illustrations and can be easily recognised in her tales. She wrote many books, initially unaware of the success they would become...

“I am aware these little books don't last long even if they are a success."     Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter's home isn't the first writer's home I have visited. That accolade goes to ...

William Shakespeare's birth place in Stratford-Upon-Avon. William was the third of eight children and was born in 1564. Following his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582, he continued to live in the house with his parents. When his father, John Shakespeare, died in 1601 William inherited the house and leased it out. The start of William Shakespeare's career is unclear, but what is known is that by 1592 he had an established reputation in London and would go on to be the world's greatest playwright and poet. Although the house appears substantial for the time (his father worked as a glove-maker and held important civic positions in the town), the rooms are small and it would have been quite crowded with so many children and, in later years, two families living there. Once again, it was easy to imagine William spending his formative years in the house, chasing his dream of becoming a play-write and eventually fulfilling it.

Of course, not all stories have such a happy ending. Anne Frank's Diary was written during a time of terror and it's author, a young Jewish girl forced into hiding during the rise of the Nazi Party, never lived to see it published. She used the diary as a way to escape the oppressive ordeal which lasted years. As Anne said in her diary...

"The brightest spot of all is that at least I can write down my thoughts and feelings, otherwise I would be absolutely stifled."  Anne Frank

I visited the secret annex in Amsterdam several years ago. Anne, her family, the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer lived under tense and cramped conditions, yet I could still imagine the young teenager attempting to keep sane by writing her thoughts in her diary in a small corner of a room. The book, which she painstakingly edited, rewrote and re-edited, would eventually become one of the most translated books of all time.

Extracts of Anne Frank's original diary, with all its editing and re-writing, was on display in the museum. The rough drafts reminded me of the time I saw the original draft of one of Winston Graham's Poldark novels. It was on display, along with his typewriter, at an exhibition in Cornwall to celebrate his life and works. I was both surprised and reassured to see how rough his first draft was as it is easy to think that all amazing authors only write sentences worth their weight in gold. Sometimes, it seemed, even gold needed to be polished first. Winston Graham once shared his experience of writing Poldark and said...

"Sitting there in the grey old empty bungalow, I felt like a man driving a coach and four,
roughly knowing the direction in which the coach would travel, but being pulled along by forces only just under his control."  Winston Graham

So what have I learnt from visiting the homes of famous writers and seeing their first drafts?

I have learnt that their environment was often humble, with no hint of what would be eventually created in those rooms
I have learnt that each writer had a drive and wrote from the heart, despite the tense conditions, the self-doubts or busy lives they led.
I have learnt that although they dreamt of being successful, none could imagine the final extent of their success.
The final lesson that I have learnt is that even a classic writer's first draft can look rough around the edges, but they are content to edit and re-write to create their best work.

So if you are a writer who writes on a laptop balanced on your knees due to the lack of a study, have a family who scoffs at your dreams or are in that phase of being thoroughly depressed with the state of your first draft, I say to you, dear writer, have courage.... for you are just following in the footsteps of those writers who have gone before.

Originally published on the Novel Points of View blog by Victoria Cornwall