Sorry, my little MacBook Air — I didn’t mean to insult you. Until now you have played the role of my cafe-computer, my travel toy, frequently in use but never taken seriously.
This week I’m using you in earnest as my primary, well to be honest, my only computer. You have never had quite enough grunt to do any of my “serious” work. Those video courses are on the back burner while your young sibling MacBook Pro is at the hospital. For another week. Another WEEK! Imagine that!
Deep breaths. Zen calm. Farewell to self-imposed deadlines. Farewell to that illusion of urgency. Nothing is urgent. I could die tomorrow. Meanwhile this time is dedicated to lightweight management chores, catch-up tasks, and pleasurable self indulgence.
Such as writing this kindly letter to Air. I appreciate you more than ever, little one. Even as you front up to temporary promotion, you have forced me to r-e-l-a-x and admit that what I call work is never anything but pleasurable self-indulgence.
Thanks sweetie. You are doing fine. And even at the advanced age of six and a half, you are still utterly gorgeous.
It began in high school and continued to puzzle me for a few more years, those non sequitur answers to a stock Eng Lit question: “Why did the author write this book?” These are examples of acceptable answers:
“To show a peasant class being destroyed by industrialisation”
“To criticise Victorian notions of sexuality”
“To show that fate and a character flaw can bring tragic unavoidable consequences.”
In the 1950s this was a standard way to approach a work of literature. In retrospect, we may as well blame Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, whose influence on the teaching of English literature was global and decades-long and prescriptive and perhaps absurd — his approach was the only show in town. Just saying.
Anyway, to a future novelist, the convention was most alarming. It implied that we must have a noble theme shaped and polished before we dare to lift a pen. A high-minded morally superior world view and an evangelical urge to win hearts minds and souls were prerequisites for every novel. Obviously I was lacking. I’m still lacking.
The second Eng Lit question: what themes?
We were also asked another question that was more transparent but equally odd and tunnel-shaped: “What are the themes in this novel?” Theme-spotting is a nice game to play, but I could never believe that themes were cut and dried, correct exam answer or not. In the authoritarian culture of our high school, gut feelings (like “this is too facile, this doesn’t ring true) had to be squashed down. Or so I believed at the time.
Sloppy thinking from above
Eventually I got it: apparently my teachers assumed that the two questions were interchangeable, perhaps because apparently the only conceivable reason for writing a novel was to express a theme. Most of my English teachers loved literature with an infectious passion, which I suppose was ultimately more important than their theory. But this closed-questioning did confuse and worry me — because I accepted neither the premise or the implications, both of which frightened me as a budding writer.
Naughty thoughts keep a creative spirit steady
Secretly I continued to think my secret thoughts, naughty thoughts, heretical thoughts such as, “You have no idea what the author was really thinking!” and “You’re not a writer, so how would you know?” and “You’re just analysing a text after the event, and that’s not how people write!”
By identifying with the author, not the analyst, somewhere deep inside I stayed true to myself.
On the other hand, I could thoroughly enjoy myself and even be myself in exams and essays. I relished the game of literary analysis, because it was fun, and because I knew the rules and I knew it was only a game.
But I always needed that private world where you can quietly brew something brand new, all yours, using your mind and hands alone.
You know, I think everyone needs that private world. Not just writers. It gets called many things, for example, “me-time” or “space” or “a shed”.
All through high school I had a stomach ache. I was a “happy, normal” girl (they say, and I thought so) yet in retrospect, a low-level anxiety was my default condition. I only discovered this after a few weeks at the University of Canterbury, when it dawned on me that I felt different. Some self-study revealed an interesting fact: I felt different because I didn’t have a stomach ache. Intuitively I knew why — five years too late.
Every day at high school we had a load of homework. A typical day would chuck us three or four of the following: maths problems, a chemistry chapter, an essay to write, a list of French, German or Latin words to learn, a geography map to draw… I was a conscientious kid who tried quite hard, but it was so difficult to keep track of this weekly silo of obligations, and life beyond school was so full of duties and delightful distractions, and my mind had other intriguing matters to think about, such as the boy who mowed the lawns next door.
Every bit of forgotten homework meant a detention — oh dear oh dear oh dear oh dear oh me oh my, I abided for five years in a vicious cycle of effort, panic, blame, guilt, and punishment.
Our teachers were mostly admirable or likeable or at least well meaning, and included some brilliant women. They did their best according to the educational culture of the time. Nevertheless I left high school with the puzzling knowledge that I was never as smart or successful as they expected. I disappointed them. In a way I knew that was their problem, not mine, but that was no cure for the tummy ache.
I adored my friend Ailsa, who laughed at blame. She would call the teachers’ bluff. But I was a vicar’s daughter with a strong sense of duty, and I also had my own little cross to bear.
The 1940s–50s were peak IQ-test years. At primary school I’d come to the attention of teachers as too stupid for schooling. They suggested that I belonged in a special farm/school for the “mentally handicapped”. My parents responded by getting my IQ tested again and again and again. My highest score had me cast as a so-called genius. (I know, pathetic problem — but it was further proof that grown-ups can be very silly sometimes.)
Consequently my high school teachers didn’t expect me to be merely very good, but extra super stunningly brilliant at every subject always — in an elite class of an academic school. Ridiculous. I did try to use more of my brain at high school, but I still needed some daydream time. Seems the inhabitants of my gut knew this situation was not healthy.
Free to study for fun
When I discovered my tummy-ache-free status, it took about ten seconds to guess the reason. Bingo! My university professors didn’t care whether I passed or failed! Apparently that was my business, not theirs. I had assignments, and I did them, but for my own reasons. Suddenly I loved studying! Free at last — autonomy suited me and my gut.
Yesterday I rewrote an old half-forgotten poem about the pressures of high school, as I experienced them. Nowadays I aim to keep my poems very simple (on the surface, at least), so I think you’ll enjoy this one.
Don’t feel sorry for me: I survived into happiness. But what about my classmates? Maybe the poem will set you thinking about the feelings that bubble up when you think about your school days — whatever they are.
What prompts you to write a particular book, a specific book? For example, why did I write Fixing Mrs Philpott— rather than a memoir, a book about ageing, or a novel from scratch about an entirely different character?
“Why did the author write this book?”
This is a stock question at any writers’ festival, and authors learn to answer in a way that satisfies the audience. But the “reasons” we trot out are usually a minefield of guesses, coincidences, fictions and facts. They are excuses, not reasons. We shape our reply for the audience and our own needs, and it’s as true as we can make it. Behind that carefully constructed answer is a mystery and a puzzle. Which is not a bad thing.
My high school English teachers used to ask us this standard question about every poem and every novel that we studied, and it puzzled me deeply. Especially as they seemed utterly confident they knew the answer, and that there was only one correct answer. Even at the age of 12 I was astonished at their answers and their certainty, because I was equally certain that they were wrong.
Unpicking some reasons for writing Fixing Mrs Philpott
Circumstances played a part. A few years ago, my sister told me that her 80-year-old friend was looking for some mildly erotic short stories to revive her lost sex drive. I was very busy at the time and certainly didn’t have time to write a novel … but it occurred to me that I could handle short stories. They were short, that’s why. And I could write them one at a time.
So I gathered true confessions about real life sex from friends and acquaintances (but why?). I elaborated (but why?), I embellished (but why?) and the result was Scarlet Heels: 26 stories about sex.
Then at the Frankfurt Book Fair, publishers and agents advised me with one voice to reverse-engineer the short stories into a novel. With 26 random characters in eight different countries? Yeah, right! What a ridiculous idea.
Nobody forced me to jump through that hoop, and yet I did. (Why?) After three false starts (modelled on 1001 Nights, an Agatha Christie house party, and The Canterbury Tales) I finally hammered the stories into a single entity by using the Hero’s Journey screenplay model. A single male character was added to the mix. Eventually I had a plot and an earthquake-resistant structure, instead of a string of episodes:
Odd little Mrs Philpott has a couple of problems on the back burner. At 70 she is convinced that her life is over, plus she has a “relationship problem” with her husband Bill — and then the earthquakes begin. So off she goes, a small woman in a large car dragging a yellow caravan. On a shaky road trip around Canterbury, she receives a torrent of all-too-personal advice from an ever-expanding community of friends. Further disasters test her to the limit. In a final violent confrontation, she must either prove that she is well and truly fixed — or lose everything.
But these are not logical reasons
Would you have perceived a lack of time as a reason to write short stories? Would you have written the short stories just because your sister asked you to find some for a friend? Would you have struggled to create a genuine, well plotted novel out of those maverick short stories, without a contract or commitment from agent or publisher?
I like to think I select my own path as a writer, but my feet carry me inexorably along peculiar tracks to odd destinations. And that’s exactly how I like it.
How about you? Are you more logical, more sensible than this? That’s fine, because we need all sorts of writers. Or maybe you know exactly what I mean.