I visit schools a fair bit and I work with children on writing projects. Because they are children and especially because they are at school, where learning to read and write is the central activity from which most other scholastic activities derive, they take the word ‘writing’ literally. As soon as I say ‘writer’, ‘write’, ‘writing’, they pick up their pencils. Writing is a thing you do with your fingers, laboriously. A kind of handicraft. They look very suspicious when they hear I write on a computer. They are usually too polite to say so, but I can tell they think that’s cheating.
They are even more suspicious when I tell them we’re not going to write anything, not for ages. We’re going to talk. We’re going to make stuff up. We’re going to imagine things. We might have an argument. We will definitely have a laugh. We might even—sharp intake of breath—throw most of this week’s ideas out the window next week and start again in a new place. Clearly they think that is going backwards. They are remarkably attached to the first ideas they have—even though they must, at some level, know that anyone’s first stumbling, exploratory moves to do or make anything are unlikely to survive the process and are only moves to be made, ideas to be had, in order to be thrown out so that the creator can go on to have better ideas, make more nimble moves.
Whatever about writing as an activity they might, however grudgingly, agree to participate in, they are implacably opposed to the idea of rewriting. When they hear the news that most writing is actually rewriting, they are appalled. They cheer up immeasurably, though, when I tell them they won’t need their pencils. I’ll type it all up as we go along and I’ll make the amendments we agree also. The cheat is suddenly OK. They think the work has been dispensed with. Hah!
What I do in the classroom seems at odds with what I do privately when I sit down to write at home in my own study. I don’t write communally, as I ask the children to do. I don’t begin by talking, except of course to myself. But these methods I use at school, I begin to realise, are indeed versions of how I proceed myself, only obviously they have to be adapted to a situation where there are many writers, not in a hushed and hallowed study but in a noisy classroom.
In my study I sit alone and think, sit and tap, sit and look things up on Google, sit and think, sit and tap, sit and sit and sit and sit and then it is—how could it possibly be?—lunchtime, and I’ve rattled out a thousand words, or squeezed out a hundred and thrown fifty of them out. I will most likely throw the remaining fifty out after lunch and start again. And I’ve forgotten to stand up and move around for a few seconds every now and then, so my body has taken on the shape of my chair and straightening up is a slow and creaky business. I know I ought to go for a walk after lunch—not just because I need the exercise, but because I know from experience that walking is a kind of peripatetic writing; all kinds of solutions offer themselves, as I walk—and yet I don’t want to walk. I want to get back to the writing. I’ll just finish that paragraph. I’ll just take half an hour and then walk, I tell myself. And then I look up and it’s dark, and my body is chair-shaped again.
This private, unrelenting grappling with words looks—is—quite different from the public contention I ask the children to take part in in the classroom. And yet it is the same. The arguments, the struggles, the jostling to be allowed to keep one’s pet idea, the temptation to throw the whole lot over and sulk for the afternoon—it’s all there, only now it’s going on, mostly inarticulately, in my own head, and I am playing all the parts: the pushy one, the sly one, the smart one, the beguiled one, the creative one, the amazed one, the shy one, the exasperated one, the delighted one.
The conditions for writing are time, space and three meals a day. A deadline is also very useful. Mood plays no role. If one relied on mood, nothing would get written—ever. Detrimental conditions are conflicting obligations, and they are many. Life is complicated. Writing, for all its problems and challenges, is at heart rather simple. It’s just a question of getting chair-shaped in pursuit of whatever it is that the subconscious throws up—and it does throw things up, eventually, if one if one sits and thinks and sits and taps for long enough. At least, that is how one finds the material. Then there’s the application of the craft. Shaping the sentences, building the paragraphs, beating out the dialogue, structuring the story, tuning the narrative voice. This is the part that has to do with being a writer rather than any other kind of artist. It is engaging with language as a potter engages with clay or a dancer engages with dance. As an editor, a teacher and a translator, I come at this craft from different angles, in my own practice and in more public engagements. These commitments are—unlike the life stuff—not in conflict with the writing, but rather feed into it. One learns from one’s students. One learns from the authors one is editing or translating. One even, oddly, learns from oneself. One hears oneself explaining a concept or a skill to a student, and suddenly a solution to an entirely other problem proposes itself.
Most of my writing is for children. This is not a choice, much less a career move. It just comes out that way. I don’t draw on particular childhood experiences—nothing, I suspect, is less interesting to today’s children than adults’ memories of childhood. What I do remember is much more general but also, I think, more useful: I remember what it feels like to be a child. And for all the changes there have been in the experience of childhood over the fifty-odd years since I was a child, the essential emotional weather of childhood is, I believe, constant from generation to generation.
As to the purpose of all this, even as a children’s writer, I don’t think of myself as primarily a storyteller. Fiction involves story, of course, but I find the idea, that the true and only end of fiction writing is storytelling, futile and depressing. The story is a way of structuring the work and a supremely useful way of engaging the reader, but that’s a technical consideration. Not that I think little of the technicalities. Puzzling out the plot and drawing the reader into the web of the story is immensely absorbing work, and the better that work is done, the better the fiction is likely to be. But whatever it is that I am about when I sit chair-shaped and eke out my words, it’s not storytelling.
Sentimental as it may sound, I would have to say that the true purpose of all this is—enchantment.