I had a lovely weekend in Devon, visiting friends and attending a rather special 70th birthday party. I arrived home with several boxes of junk, which an old lifeguard pal had been storing for me for the past 16 years, and had at last offloaded into my car boot.
Wondering what might be in the boxes, I was particularly keen to find out if any of it might be sellable, things having descended to a level of dire threadbareness that’s increasingly hard to hide. Unfortunately, what was junk all those years ago is just older junk now. Except that nestled among the old towels and balled-up holey socks from yesteryear, I did discover my writing history.
It begins with a holiday diary I kept when I was six or seven; there’s another journal I wrote when I began secondary school at 11; after that, a wodge of typed and handwritten papers contains various attempts at storytelling, dating from my early 20s to my mid-30s.
My childhood diaries are quite charming, but other than that, contain plenty of spelling mistakes and lots of reports of what was for dinner during the early 1980s. None of it would make me think, ah, yes, this is the early work of someone who would end up becoming a writer. Except that all of it is readable. It is – I sat down to have a flip through, and hours later, was still consuming a story about a boy and his pet ‘homing’ mouse.
Readability is King/Queen
Turning to my early diaries of 40 and more years ago, what stands out for me, isn’t a splendid style or gift with words, because neither is apparent. If there’s anything there, I’d say it’s an ability to convey, without really intending to, how I felt – it’s not what I said that creates the spark that brings these snippets of writing to life for me, but what I didn’t say.
Take this, from 15th December 1983. I’d been ill in bed:
“In the evening, my little brother had a school carol service. I’m glad I didn’t go because the violins couldn’t keep in time.”
I would have loved to have been there to witness the unholy scraping of violin strings in the church. What 11-year-old wouldn’t? Imagine the hilarity of it, a half dozen kids, their brows furrowed in concentration, making the most unholy cats’ chorus out of Silent Night. I’d have relished it, but missed out and had to hear of it second hand – it was a joke I wasn’t in on. I was disappointed but didn’t want to admit it, so I wrote one thing and meant the opposite, and that’s what makes those lines sing for me.
Fast forward nearly 40 years, and, turning to my debut novel, Fulmar, my protagonist, Jacob, comes through the door of the flat he shares with his mum to find her watching daytime TV:
“‘Hey, Mum, you’ll never guess what.’
‘Some dude gave me a surfboard.’
I guess becoming a writer is the process of learning how to make your characters say stuff without actually saying it. You engage your reader by making them work to fill in the blanks.
Speaking of which…
Blank is what I’ve been. People keep saying to me – and it’s lovely that they do – why don’t you blog more? But the more they say it, the harder it is to think what to write about. And yet, without getting myself ‘out there’, nobody will ever know I wrote a book, and nobody will buy and read it. This simultaneous need for ‘an audience’ and my cringing embarrassment at the thought of it is further exacerbated by my writing this stuff in the first place. It’s my own fault!
How will I manage book talks? I should feel pleased to have the opportunity to talk about my work – I am pleased – and I’m sure it will be fine once I get going, but the thought is a terrifying one.
As well as a writer, I’m also a keen hand tool woodworker. Someone recently ordered a set of the seahorse shelves I make. I completed the order – busted a gut to meet my self-imposed deadline, packaged the shelves with extreme care and posted them off. I spent the next several days in a state of trepidation, imagining the customer opening my package and viewing the contents with disappointment and increasing rage.
After a week, I could no longer bear the tension. I contacted the guy and asked if my shelves had arrived and hoped that they were OK. His response: they’re lovely, and my three-year-old is beside herself with joy. I was relieved. All this self-doubt is exhausting, and when things hit a certain fever pitch, I can’t write anything. Luckily there are a couple of things that help. One is what I call ‘the earth cure’.
The earth cure
Whereas some practise the noble art of gardening, and others opt for no-dig simplicity, I go for the ‘no-gardening’ approach, which is to say, I frequent my allotment for the purposes of weed clearance and seed scattering and then let nature take its course, only returning spasmodically to utter words of despair, flail at the undergrowth, and pluck a few withered runner beans.
Over Easter, I met a lovely friend of mine for a spot of digging on our respective plots. I favour a tool which I call the ‘hacker’ because I have no idea of its real name – it’s like a half-pickaxe thing with a flat blade angled for hacking. You can do everything with it, from severing weeds from their roots to digging holes and trenches and even, when swung wildly, for scything through long grass. Fantastic thing.
After a couple of hours with the hacker and having laid waste to an insect and worm-rich micro-ecosystem with every swipe, I was about ready to fling down my weapon and declare a ceasefire on nature. My friend, who tends a very splendid plot, had also had enough, and so we moved on to relaxation, part two.
The pebble cure
This part of relaxing involves wandering slowly towards the beautiful beaches at the mouth of the River Helford while moaning to each other about trials and tribulations of life, she because her employer is working her to death, me, mainly because I’m a fantastic moaner.
I love that part of the Helford dearly and swim there as often as I can. It’s more than stunning, it’s a tonic for the soul, and, what with the hawthorns breaking into their white spring blossom, the path is a shimmering garden of God’s own creation.
We arrive at the beach and slump, exhausted, onto the flat pebbles and lie there, legs outstretched, no longer complaining but bathing in the soft late afternoon sun, the heave and sigh of the lapping waves soothing our frazzled spirits.
After a moment or two, our peace is disturbed by an older couple walking a couple of handsome – and very well-behaved black dogs. As the dogs play in the water, the lady throws sticks for them. Probably in her mid to late seventies, she’s a tartan skirt-clad, knitted cardigan, sensible shoe-wearing, no-nonsense dynamo.
He’s of a similar age and, one suspects, beginning to flag. He spotted us and flung himself down next to us as if in solidarity.
“Oh, it’s been a long day,” he sighed as his wife berated one of the hounds for its failure to keep up with her stick chucking.
We concurred, and for some minutes, the three of us lay there like beached seals resting from the relentless ocean storms of life.
Back to it
In the end, the guy’s wife announced she would return to the car, and, in short order, she was off, dogs trotting obediently behind her. Sighing deeply, he heaved himself to his feet and followed in their wake. One suspects he’ll never quite catch her up.
As for my friend and I, the sun went in, and so we wandered back to the car park, and as we walked, we sowed our conversation with small hopes for the week ahead, and all was well. I am so very fortunate to have a paradise in my backyard. Does it make it easier to overcome the unease and uncertainty I so often feel? Well, not really, but it does give me the headspace to get over myself and finally write something down.
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