The Perils Of The Default Setting


There is a point in the middle of a book where I always feel very alone. I’m too far from either the end or the beginning to hear any voices of encouragement. I’m in the middle of a featureless plain with no real clue about where to go, not certain if I’ve come the right way anyway. There  is no one to help, I got myself here, I’ve got to get myself home again.

It was especially bad yesterday because I was writing about a little boy in my bear bookwho has just made a hasty decision out of sheer brewing fury, and then has to live with the consequences. For the first time in his life he is alone, without the support and direction of his extended family, with no one telling him what to do. And at first it terrifies him. Then he realises that this is really where he wants to be, that in this alone place is where he belongs.

I think that’s the process many writers go through…mid book, mid career, mid week, mid day…we feel our alone-ness because to be a writer you have to be alone (mostly…but I’ll come to that) and there are moments when it’s bleak and terrifying. But then we take a breath and remember that this is where we are comfortable, that for whatever reason – personality, history, luck – bad or good, alone is our default setting, and that without time alone, a lot of time alone, we are not truly ourselves.

There are people who write as a communal activity. I have two friends who do it very very successfully. That  fascinates me. I ask them about it and get only frivolous answers ‘he does the verbs I do the nouns’ or some such silliness. I think they fob off enquiry because they’ve found the  way they work together actually defies any kind of description or definition. Just as, when you are at the point of causing words to electrify the link between your mind and the page, that moment is beyond conscious description or definition. How does that moment, that process happen when it’s two minds and not one? I’ve always assumed that I don’t know but I guess it’s partly what I do when I work with a group of children – we write something together, they think, I facilitate and together we make something that neither side could have done alone.

It’s something that makes me more happy than almost anything else,and I often wish I could replicate it in my proper published working life and  have a regular writing relationship with just one other person, work ‘a deux’. I’d like to think so, but there are two things that would get in my way. One is a kind of terminal shyness: its like trying to actually speak the many words of Italian I know, impossible (just ask my Italian publisher!).  I revert to my six year old self out of sheer self conciousness…and my six year old self was very solitary indeed. There is something else too. And this is a pretty shabby admission. It’s about possession. If I wrote with someone else, how would I know what was mine? It’s fine to say to a class of eight year olds, yep that’s all yours, but could I let go enough to work with a grown up and still maintain my self belief? You can imagine the rather unattractive process I have to go through with picture books and editors can’t you? On bad days completely negating my own contribution and thinking of them as only the work of the illustrators. In one of my picture books, I wont tell you which, there is a line, a rather good one and I can’t remember if it was my idea or my editor’s, and it grates on me like a spade on concrete.

Somebody (very nice)  very sweetly asked me this year if I lived in a little stone cottage in the middle of no-where. I’d like to. I reeeeellly would.  But it would mean giving way to my default setting of alone, so totally that I’d be filling a supermarket trolly with gin, dogfood and pipe tobacco in no time. I’d be burnt as a witch.

It’s a good thing then that work, and not living in the middle of nowhere, pull me away from my desk. Last week working with kids in schools in Pembrokeshire and being restored by conversations with my friend Jackie Morris. This coming weekend to Norfolk for a project with musicians and composers and a group of young people from North London. I will have to write with other people, sing with other people and generally share, smile and not be alone. And of course I’ll LOVE it.

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