Why do we write the books we write?


I look at my latest novel and I think, why? Why did I write it, that book, that particular book in that particular way? Why didn’t I write a different novel, or write it in a different way? Why didn’t someone else write that novel? Why do I write any book at all nowadays?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Fixing Mrs Philpott, and lots of other people have told me they do too. (Allow me to toss in a few encouraging adjectives from my 24 fans: exuberant, giggling, positive, terrific writing, great fun, feminist, intrepid, life-affirming, adorable…) I love my funny worried self-deluding heroine and the cover and the entire concoction of stories and characters and earthquakes and sex and unstoppable tips from friends and strangers. Nevertheless, I’m puzzled about why I wrote it.

Not about why I write books in general: that’s fairly straightforward (on the surface). I love writing books, that’s why. I get high on the adventure, the puzzle, the impossibly difficult project. It’s how I get my thrills— intellectual (as half-formed ideas stretch out and colonise my brain), emotional (fear, pride, fear, the ecstasy of Flow), and aesthetic. That’s enough reason, surely?

But still, why writing instead of say, mathematics or scuba diving? A bunch of writing genes, a library habit, a ready-made audience of five sisters? No, because then we would have six poet-novelists in the family. Maybe some credit is due to aphantasia, leading me to compensate for mind-blindness with extra skills in language, narrative, and abstract thinking. That’s a stretch. Maybe the fact that my mother was briefly engaged to an eminent poet. (What? No. No!)

Who cares? I write books. I can’t help it. It’s a habit.

You are different. You write for your own particular reasons. I wonder what they are… maybe you’ll tell me…

That leaves the specific question: why did I write Fixing Mrs Philpott? I’ll leave that for another day.

The blessings of a big sister


This week my dear big sister Jill turned 80, and this is the poem I wrote for her.

Poem for my big sister Jill

I wanted to give you a poem
eighty years back
when you were first-born
and armies were rising
and peace receding.
You learned about consultation
in the womb.

I wanted to give you a poem
to thank you
for protecting me
and holding my hand
and showing the way
and making peace
without any fights or feuds
or atom bombs.

The poem sat in my head for weeks
waiting for Mother’s attention.
On a short dark day
lop-sided day
turn-around day
a fence of shards and sand
and shrapnel sprang up
between the poem and me.

So I clambered over the fence
ripping my shorts
on splinters
lost a shoe
and clambered back to you
the almost perfect baby
to give you what you lacked
the one thing all big sisters need:

your very own big sister
just like Jill
to shelter and protect you
and hold your hand
and take the lead
on dark days
and on bright days too
the way big sisters do.

with love from Rachel 23 June 2016

poem and photo Rachel McAlpine cc by 2.0: feel free to share or quote, but include my name as writer

Growing into or out of those childhood labels

Did you have a label slapped on you as a child? It’s common, goodness knows. In large families they are kind of useful as an identity short-cut for outsiders. I used to think that such labels were all bad, constricting and sometimes condemning us to be a certain sort of person. Now I’m toying with the opposite idea.

We’ve just had a terrific family reunion. It’s like a very large (65 people) relaxed 2-day house party plus conversazione plus school camp plus home made entertainment. After the reunion, three of my sisters, one husband and I went to the magical village of Puponga in Golden Bay (aka Shangri La) for a few days.

And there we reminisced about our childhood labels. To my astonishment, those labels are quite accurate descriptions of one aspect of our personalities even today. Guess our parents knew us fairly well.

Which is which?

Jill, the oldest, as I remember was labeled “the helpful one” or was that “the responsible one”? This is the doom and burden of oldest sisters everywhere, and is completely unfair. Yet it is true that Jill was famously helpful and thoughtful even as a child, and has spent her working life and beyond using the same skills of management and caring and communication. It goes without saying that there is far more to my beautiful oldest sister than this label, but that’s not the point.

Deirdre, number two, was “the brainy one.” As a pre-schooler she decided she wanted to be a maths teacher, and now is writing her second book on alternative economics. Brainy? It cannot be denied!

I’m number three, and one of my labels was “the dreamer.” Well deserved at the time, and hey, what else would I be, as a writer?

Prue was apparently “the pretty one” and indeed she still is! “Pretty” implies lively and friendly as well as good looking, don’t you think? But I can assure you, she is certainly not just a pretty face.

Lesley was “the quiet one” who didn’t speak at the usual age, and when she finally burst forth in speech, declared that she had hitherto had nothing to say. Where is the kernel of truth here, I wonder? Well, Lesley is a famous listener. When she listens to you, you feel 100% heard. She is not the noisiest sister. And when she speaks, she says something worth hearing.

Penny was “the little one” and she is little no longer. But she had exactly the right personality and skills to get her own way without being big: charm all the way, I tell you!

Even a harsh label can have an up-side

Not all labels are so kind and some you completely grow out of. Yet sometimes even an incongruous label can have a message for us.

Example: I was also labeled “the clumsy one”, maybe because when you are day-dreaming you tend to crash into things. Anyway, I was sent to ballet for a year. What gorgeous therapy! Strongly recommended.

I’m still dancing. And I’m still perhaps clumsy. At the family reunion one of my children (who constantly goes too far) predicted, “If anyone is going to hurt herself, it will be my mother, because she always goes too far.”

Sure enough, I came home from the family reunion with lurid bruises from acrobatics on the waterslide and a mildly uncomfortable intercostal muscle after playing volleyball for possibly the first time in my life.

I am keen on going too far. And I wouldn’t want my children to hold back either.