An emu in a tutu

I was never designed for work in the sense of having to go somewhere in the morning, having to be somewhere all day, having to be the someone everyone else was, having to do something I didn’t in the least want to be doing for hours. And hours. And hours. Then slouching home too tired to do anything else. I did it, of course. I had to. Not even the break most women take for child-rearing.

I don’t think I’m lazy. I don’t sit in front of the TV all day, watching one lot of drivel after another and pigging curly crisps from a cardboard tube. Actually, I got a couple of those tubes for my sister and brother-in-law when they came over from Canada. They’re so salty. How does anyone manage more than three of them without downing a glass of water? I don’t play Bingo on a phone app and I wouldn’t know where to start in one of those high-octane war-games. Most of the time when at home I am working, but after my own peculiar fashion; a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A bit of writing, a bit of feeding the cats, a bit more writing, a cup of coffee, a bit of tumble-drying, a bit of ironing, a bit more writing, a walk to the post box, a bit of reading, a sandwich and a yoghurt, a bit more writing, yanking a year’s worth of grass, mud and wiggly-woos out of the storm drain (this morning, yuk!) more writing, collecting ideas for writing, planning longer bits of writing; something-out-of-a-tin on toast and half a tin of stewed apple with a yoghurt on the top; feed the cats again, watch The News, more writing, more reading…

I work more effectively left to my own eccentric devices than I ever managed  whilst  corralled into an office with a massive stack of torn cardboard files full of legal stuff behind me, a word-processor and an ever-ringing phone in front. I run on inspiration rather than application. I can concentrate, ferociously and for long periods of time, but only on what interests me. Nothing else sticks.

So, when I was younger… well, ‘cool’ wasn’t a word then, except in connection with summer drinks and cotton blouses, but I did want to be a ballet dancer. This was after I felt I needed a horse in the back garden, where it would be quite happy. Also after my tentative and unsuccessful request for an acoustic guitar, to be paid for at 1/- a week from my pocket money.  The ballet-dancing ambition was down to Lorna Hill. Lorna Hill was an author of children’s books, mostly about ballet. I have since learned that she started writing the ballet books when her daughter Vicki (Shirley Victorine) left home to be a ballet student at Sadler’s Wells. Lorna missed her, and started writing stories about young ballerinas at Sadler’s Wells. She started with A Dream of Sadler’s Wells (1950) and just carried on at the rate of one a year: Veronica at the Wells (1951), Masquerade at the Wells (1952), No Castanets at the Wells (1953), Ella at the Wells (1954), Return to the Wells (1955), Rosanna Joins the Wells (1956) and so on. She carried on writing until ill-health forced her to give it up, dying in 1991.

I just hoovered these books up as a child. My parents and grandparents, seeing there was nothing much else that interested me, apart from books, all joined at once and handed their tickets to me wholesale. I think at the time you were allowed five tickets per person so I had in my sticky little seven-year-old hands … four times five… twenty tickets, plus my own. I’m not sure whether the grown-ups had fully thought this through since it gave me instant, unrestrained and unmonitored access to the adult side of the library. Once a week I would stagger the mile and a half to the library (mostly uphill) with my old library books, having read all day, sometimes, and part of the night, with the traditional torch under the covers. I remember I had a torch which could be adjusted to shine red, green or white, which added a certain something. A while later I would stagger home with more books, some of which were children’s, others distinctly not. I remember trying to puzzle out a book called The Venial Sin which had pictures of men and ladies doing funny things on or under silken sheets. I never did puzzle it out. The librarian gave me a dark look when I returned it.

In the children’s section, I simply headed for ‘H’. Even now, I can picture where ‘H’ shelving was, and even where the Lorna Hills were within that shelving. That also happens when I’m hunting for quotes inside books.  I can remember whether the bit I am searching for was on the left or the right-hand page, at the top or the bottom, whether there was white-space on the page, indicating the end of a paragraph. Recalling the page number would be more useful, but I have no memory for numbers.

So, I lived every moment of these little ballet books, and the triumphs and anguishes of their heroines. I pictured myself in a netty pink tutu doing arabesques and twirly-things all over the place; sitting on the studio floor darning the toes of my pink silk shoes the way ballet dancers must, winding those long pink ribbons around my long, pink legs and scraping my wild, pre-Raphaelite locks into an elegant chignon (whatever one of those was, it was always elegant), doggedly practising at the barre till my muscles cried out and my poor little ballerina toes were sore and bleeding…

The only problem was… well, there were a lot of problems but the most glaring was that I was tall, horribly tall, even as a child. With a six foot four father and a five foot seven mother, there is no escape from tallness. I was also somewhat… large boned. Not fat, you know, more Statuesque, more Junoesque. I was the sort of child that came in useful for fetching things down off the tops of high cupboards. I still come in useful for that. My mother was having problems with the changing of the clocks the other day. She remembered it was the day to do it but not how to do it, so of course I ended up doing it. She told me not to even bother with the kitchen clock as nobody could reach it. I reached up and hooked it off, without even stretching. This seemed to astonish, almost offend her. Yet how many years has she been looking at me? Dementia logic. I’ve shrunk so you’ve shrunk, at the same rate and to the same size. We have become one interconnected being.

At some point I discovered – allowed myself to discover – that a ballerina had to be under five foot seven, have a tiny smidgen of a waist and a tiny thigh measurement. Realistically, how was a male ballet dancer ever going to lift a great Emu like me? Tiny thighs have never been within my grasp. An elderly doctor once reassured me, when babies were failing to come along, that I would surely prove fertile because I possessed those Great Child-Bearing Thighs. Pervy, unnecessarily personal and, as it transpired, medically incorrect. Do thighs have any relevance to success in child-bearing anyway? Mostly, it would seem to involve lying down and screaming.

I asked for ballet lessons but, as in the case of the back-garden horse my request was declined. Piano lessons would have been a better choice, for a child like me, but we didn’t have a piano and my parents didn’t think I would stick at it, and they were probably right.  Someone later told me I had piano-player’s hands. Probably all those years of typing had given me those since, unlike the rest of me, my hands are flexible, steely and honed. That Vulcan Live Long And Prosper thingy? Not a problem. Not much of a problem. But all I could ever play on the piano was Chopsticks. No doubt I’ve even forgotten that now.


Things that stop you writing. Pamela Frankau came up with these lists in the 1960s:

‘the devils outside’

…bright sunshine, cricket, the Times crossword, a luncheon date…

‘the devils inside’

…sheer listless reluctance; pain; worry; the flat morning mood; a sudden lust for new clothes; deep melancholy; wild happiness; bad news; good news…

I remember a sudden lust for new clothes striking a chord with me when I first read her book Pen To Paper, but then I was fifteen and clothes, at fifteen, are everything. That need to shop, right now – is that just a female thing? Something to do with our gleaning and gathering instincts. Lust is the right word for it. Luckily, the lust for new clothes tends to wear off as you get older.

Sheer listless reluctance Yes, that’s the biggie. You simply don’t want to write. You’ve written enough for several lifetimes and what have you got to show for it? A blog. Sheer listless reluctance is really a combination of writers’ block and laziness. They say the only way out of hell is through it: and the only way out of sheer listless reluctance is to write, write, write. It doesn’t matter what you write when you are in this frame of mind as long as you do. Start with a nonsense poem or a shopping list. If that doesn’t work type pangrams over and over again till you get so bored you find yourself writing something else

  • The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog
  • Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs
  • We promptly judged antique ivory buckles for the next prize
  • Cozy lummox gives smart squid who asks for job pen

Pangrams are called pangrams because they include every letter of the alphabet. When learning to touch-type that Quick Brown Fox becomes an old friend.

Freewrite. Just write what comes into your head, and don’t stop to think. You are constantly talking to yourself whether you realise it or not, or rather one part of your mind is talking to all the other parts. Just tap in on that and don’t stop till you run out of steam. Usually, by the time you do, you will have come up with several topics for writing, or you will have overcome the listless reluctance thing sufficiently to continue with your epic novel.

Pain It depends what sort of pain. If it’s migraine or raging toothache give up all thought of writing. Lie down in a darkened room or make a dental appointment. If it’s susceptible to painkillers, take painkillers and write till they wear off. You may actually discover that writing is a natural pain-killer.

Worry The best cure for worry is writing, if you’re a writer. It’s not writing per se it’s any creative activity – painting, singing, dancing, basket-weaving – simply because creative activities are absorbing. I remember reading in a book about Zen that to calm the mind, one technique would be to inspect each worry carefully, then imagine oneself placing it gently in a black sack and tying the neck of the sack, then putting the sack to one side. You tell yourself, I can worry about the contents of that sack at any time I choose, but just for now… just for now I will not. And it works, sometimes. Writing works always.

The flat morning mood – depression, really. And the difficulty of actually getting started on something. The thing with mornings is the long list of stuff you feel absolutely obliged to work your way through. Fascinating stuff like washing up, loading the tumble-dryer, making the beds, ironing, filling the bird-feeder up with peanuts, reading all your emails. Evening seems a long way off and it’s so difficult to get down to writing. Writing is hard. It’s wearing. It sucks the energy out of you if you’re doing it right, so you keep putting it off. You really don’t want to have the energy sucked out of you this early in the day. The thing is to get on with the writing – at least make a start – because until you do you’re not going to be happy and you’re not going to be able to relax. You’ll be doing all those other things – ironing, bird-feeder-filling, email-reading with today’s undone writing in the back of your mind. Guilt. Frustration. Not-writing is an unnatural state for writers.

Deep melancholy – I’m not sure I agree with her about this. Sadness is one of the best sources of material. Gobble it up. Use it. However, shocking things like bereavement are best not written about for a while, mostly because what you write is unlikely to be any good. Writing uses two parts of your mind in tandem – the creative, emotional bit and the crafty, editing bit. You can’t write good stuff with the crafty bit turned off. You need them both. You need to digest sad and horrible stuff for a while. Wordsworth described it as emotion recollected in tranquillity.

Wild happinesspossibly worse than deep melancholy for stopping you writing. Almost impossible to write anything decent when first in love. Just enjoy it.

Bad news, good news – we’re back to the black sack thing again. Take a little while to think about whatever the news is. Take a deep breath. Freewrite.

As for the devils outside – the cricket, the bright sunshine, the Times crossword, the dinner date (does anyone have dinner dates anymore?). Make a plan. If you want to go to a cricket match, go, but get up early to write, or stay up late afterwards. If you are a Times crossword fan schedule in an hour in the evening after you have written, or cut out all the Times crosswords and save them in a manila folder for the weekend, or for your holidays. Imagine, lying on a beach in Spain with a manila folder full of aged crosswords and a large, sand-filled dictionary…

Probably the worst thing of all for writing is other people. Other people are a real pain and unless you have a very intimate friendship with them you will not be able to write. Fifty years of marriage would do it. By that time you will scarcely notice each other’s presence in the room and will have chatted about absolutely everything any two human beings could ever need to chat about. Frankau actually lists the sorts of people to avoid when writing a novel. Evasive action should be taken, she says:

The company of the devitaliser. That friend who takes from life rather than enhancing it, the mental blood-sucker, the strong marauding personality. The early-morning chatterer on the telephone. The disorganised chaos-bringer. The one who wants a long, serious talk.

To be avoided also, she says:

…the swaddle of the Sunday newspapers, the opinions of agitated atheists, the gin-and-tonic before lunch, the reading of novels or book reviews. The correct literary diet alternates the Gospels with Whodunits.

And you know, she might be right about that.

I would also add, from my own experience, physical tiredness. You do need to look after yourself, as best you can, and allow enough time for sleep. Dreams, and the thoughts you have in that half-asleep, half-awake state, are the best inspiration of all.

There’s also perfectionism. You can’t be perfect. Even if you are perfect, no one will notice. And if they do notice they’ll hate you for it. The thing with writing is to write gloriously badly in the first place, then look at what you’ve got and make it better. You will always be able to see how to make it better – it will come to you. And after that you will be able to see how to make it better still. It happens in layers, in stages. The thing is, no one is ever going to read the gloriously bad stuff you began with, because all that’s screwed up in little white balls on the study floor, or donated to Mr Dusty Bin on your computer, so you needn’t be inhibited by how bad it is.

Work – I have found throughout my life that paid work stops me writing. Any arrangement that means I have to be somewhere from nine to five and paying attention, and can’t go anywhere else, escape or daydream – and the writing goes out the window. But, money being necessary work too is necessary. And I have never solved this one. Work, the toad work:

  • Why should I let the toad work
  • Squat on my life?
  • Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
  • And drive the brute off?
  • Philip Larkin: Toads


Montaigne also wrote:

I hear some people apologise for their inability to express themselves, and pretend to have their heads full of good things which they cannot bring out through lack of eloquence. This is a delusion…these are shadows cast upon their mind by some half-shaped ideas which they cannot disentangle and clear up inwardly, and therefore are unable to express outwardly; they do not yet understand themselves.

Best keep your mouth firmly closed until you know what you are talking about, then. But it’s not always that easy.

I always seem to be three steps behind in conversation. Even if I have a bright idea, by the time I’ve found a gap everyone’s moved on and my solitary insight is greeted more often than not by an irritable silence. And then everyone starts talking at once, as if they may just have heard Tinkerbell tinkling – or was it a gnat? Writing is better for me. No need to keep up, no need to compete. Once I have written something down its flaws jump up at me from the page. I can then rewrite it and no one will know whether it took one draft to get it right, or fifteen.

Many, maybe all, writers write because they are damaged. Some deep wound in the centre of them, the psychic equivalent of our Desert Island’s hypothetical ravine, is in the process of growing its own bridges; patiently, laboriously, stitching itself back together with words. Papermice, I call them, and imagine them, way past the witching hour, dipping their little feet into poisoned ink and, in agony, dancing upon the paper. Papermice do not so much need readers as time, and to be left in peace.

And then there are the rest of us: confused, mediocre, neither craftsmen nor artists but unholy hybrids flip-flopping between wanting money and adulation and needing to express ourselves. We love words, but the bills needs paying. We would rather like to be published but just can’t quite bring ourselves to switch to soft porn, How To manuals and romances set on ranches in Texas.

By the way, if you haven’t yet read Stephen King’s On Writing there’s a lovely passage in which he describes a time when he and his wife were out with their baby daughter, who had an ear infection and was feverish. They knew what would cure it, liquid amoxycillin or The Pink Stuff, but at the time they had no money to buy it. By the time they got home the child was burning up against his chest. Stuck through the door of their apartment they found an envelope containing a cheque for $500 for a story he had written, which meant they were able to pay for a doctor’s visit, a bottle of The Pink Stuff and one decent meal.

It’s no use pretending that money isn’t important. Unless you are lucky enough to have private means or live on a desert island you must earn money, if not from your ‘art’ in its pure form then by prostituting and diluting it; or in some completely unrelated profession which means having little time or energy to spare. In an ideal society the Government would pay poets, writers, musicians and artists some kind of grant, but no point holding your breath. The idea of some glorious El Dorado to be attained through writing still haunts me at times. It’s hard to rid myself of the illusion that my scribbles are destined to be my salvation. I cling to this with some tenacity, having no other talents, bankable or otherwise, and no other inclinations either.

All my working life I’ve taken any job anyone was misguided enough give me and honestly did my best to live up to everyone’s expectations, if only because it was so humiliating when I couldn’t. But writing always tripped me up sooner or later. Either the job suppressed completely my ability to write, or it left me no time to write, or writing – having that sadly specialised kind of personality – interfered with my ability to do the work. Daydreaming/ wool-gathering/ creative visualisation – whatever you like to call it – doesn’t get you through a pile of word-processing or equip you to deal with a call from a stroppy client, and it positively disadvantages you when it comes to negotiating the white-water rapids of office politics.

Writing is possession – maybe demonic, maybe angelic – and when your angel or demon feels thwarted he either strikes you dumb or spills out of your mouth a stream of weird words, wild imagery and confabulation, neatly bypassing all those translation protocols it took you a lifetime to construct. Writing isn’t something you do, or even something you are, it’s something that is you. It’s a disability, in this particular version of reality, but there are other worlds. You already know your way around them, and in them you have wings.