Douglas Adams' note to self reveals author found writing torture

Note in which Hitchhiker’s writer reminds himself he will finally get pleasure from process to be part of book based on his archive

He was one of the most wildly imaginative writers of any generation but even for Douglas Adams writing could be a torturous process, requiring a “general note to myself” that he would finally get pleasure from it.

“Writing isn’t so bad really when you get through the worry. Forget about the worry, just press on. Don’t be embarrassed about the bad bits. Don’t strain at them,” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author wrote to himself. “Writing can be good. You attack it, don’t let it attack you. You can get pleasure out of it. You can certainly do very well for yourself with it!”

The general note to myself by Douglas Adams.
The general note to myself by Douglas Adams. Photograph: St John’s College/PA

The fascinating note will be in a book based on the abundant trove of unseen letters, scripts, jokes, poems, ideas, ID cards and to-do notes in the archive left by Adams after his death in 2001, aged 49.

The crowdfunded book shines light on his best-known work, including Hitchhiker’s and Dirk Gently, as well as unrealised projects such as a dark theme park ride at Chessington World of Adventures.

A number of documents reveal how horrible the writing process could be for Adams, not least the “general note to myself” with which he reminded himself that he would get there in time.

“I love it, but I just wish he’d read it to himself more often,” his sister Jane Thrift said. “I think it [writing] was a tortuous process for him, not all the time, but when it was difficult for him it was really difficult.”

On another page of typed notes, Adams wrote: “Today I am monumentally fed up with the idea of writing. I haven’t actually written anything for two days, and that makes me fed up as well.’

He goes on to reference the legacy of Hitchhiker’s. “Arthur Dent is a burk. He does not interest me. Ford Prefect is a burk. He does not interest me. Zaphod Beeblebrox is a burk. He does not interest me. Marvin is a burk. He does not interest me. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a burk. It does not interest me.”

Typically for Adams, his complaining quickly morphs into an imagined conversation with a dragon called Lionel.

The archive includes ideas for things that have now come to pass: e-commerce, Wikipedia, online gaming and so on. Seven years before the Kindle was invented, Adams wrote: “The real electronic book will be a standalone device which connects wirelessly to the net.”

None of which surprises the family. His brother James Thrift recalled going to see films or plays with Adams. “You’d come away and talk about what you’d seen and you knew he’d seen something completely different from the rest of us. He just had this ability to look at the world from a different angle. It is now that you realise he was just looking at the world 20 years ahead of us.”

The ideas did not come from an attempt to predict the future, said his sister, they “literally came from an excited ‘this is what would I like to see’” place.

The book is entitled 42, which, as any Adams fan knows, is the answer to to the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

It will be edited by Kevin Jon Davies, who first met Adams in 1978 and will also feature letters to the author from friends and fans including Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman and Caitlin Moran.

Adams’ archive, 67 boxes of stuff, is held by St John’s college, Cambridge. James Thrift said: “People have been dipping in and out of it for various projects but the discussion has always been what is going to happen to it?”

The book will be published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher where people go to the website to order before publication. Once a certain level of sales is reached, about 1,000 in the case of Adams, the book then goes in to production.

Mathew Clayton, head of publishing at Unbound, said: “Finding a new way to unlock the archive of one of the most creative thinkers of the past half-century in a way that directly engages his fans feels like the reason Unbound was invented.”

Crowdfunding, Clayton added, “is exactly the sort of revolutionary strategy that Adams would have embraced”.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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