As Tigger very nearly said: the wonderful thing about writers… is writers are wonderful things.
Er, no. Let’s try that again. (Some of them are wonderful; some of them aren’t. At all.)
The wonderful thing about writers… is that writers are full of wonder. And if they’re not, they jolly well should be.
Who else in this world is full of wonder (or jolly well should be)?
Perhaps, right now, as you’re reading this blog, you are not feeling especially full of wonder. Perhaps you are meant to be writing something. Perhaps you are struggling. Perhaps the stone doesn’t feel remotely stony; perhaps the stone isn’t there at all.
What you need, struggling writer, is a dose of Childlike Wonder™. You need to be curious about the world again.
Well, the really excellent thing is that you were a child once. And if you stop being a bloody adult for two minutes, you can remember quite a lot of what being a child is like. As the Jesuits famously said, ‘Give me the child for seven years and I’ll give you the man’ (which would, frankly, be a miraculous achievement if that child happened to be a girl, you sexist old so-and-sos) and as Shakin’ Stevens (all the high culture references on my blog, readers!) nearly said : there’s a whole lotta shapin’ going on… in those formative years. (He didn’t say formative years, of course. In fact, where was the shakin’ going on? Was it all just in Shaky’s trousers? Life is certainly too short to google a Shakin’ Stevens lyric.)
Q: Why is a writer like a child? A: Because s(he) is
spoilt, demanding, and self-centred to the point of alienating everyone s(he) knows eternally curious. Any one who’s raised a child, or indeed sat within earshot of one on a bus or train journey, knows that children ask lots of questions. Why is the sky blue? Is the moon following me? Can you please provide, in front of these people on this train, Mummy, the answers to the following: how the train works; why the sun shines; where babies come from; why that man is having a baby; why that lady’s drawn those funny eyebrows on her face. Etc. And so on. Forever.
Funny, but sweary bit from Louis C.K. on the wonders of childlike wonder.
Asking questions is a writer’s modus operandi. The writer’s job isn’t to answer those questions (hurrah!), but simply to formulate the questions ‘correctly’. (Here I’m paraphrasing Chekhov on Tolstoy.) Literature aims to provoke thought, not tell you what to think. We leave that to the school teachers. Bastards.
So, for writers, it’s not what you know, nor even who you know: it’s what you don’t know – but really, really want to find out – that makes for good novels. The writer needs a ‘grain of stupidity’ (said Flannery O’Connor). And a willingness to think about things for a really long time. And perhaps you know that the moon isn’t really following you, but a story in which the moon did follow you might be kinda interesting, right?
The State of Wonder: where all the good shit happens.
Go on, let’s pretend we’re still kids for a minute. Let’s look at some picture books.
Was I freakishly weird, as a child, or did you too sit staring and staring and staring at your favourite pictures until they were seared on your brain? Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Tiger Who Came to Tea… These are books you may have read yourself. You, too, might have pushed your miniature finger tips into the holes left behind in the fruit by the ravenous – and titular – caterpillar.
Perhaps you, too, had a secret longing to feed finger sandwiches to a tiger.
All good fun. But two of the books in our house that I stared, and stared, and stared at were slightly less jolly. They gave me a frisson, a thrill, when I looked at them. The first was the Butterfly Ball:
and the second was Kit Williams’ Masquerade.
Excuse me while I have A Moment here. Since the internet was invented, I’ve never once thought – till now – to google the Butterfly Ball, and I’m feeling a little peculiar seeing the pictures again.
Wikipedia tells me The Butterfly Ball was not only a book, but a poem, a concept album and a rock opera. Well, I never. This post has all the pictures, if you’re brave enough… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that illustrator Alan Aldridge may possibly have been within sniffing distance of a psychedelic drug or two.
This, I think, was my book porn. Something I felt a bit weird about wanting to look at (like the nudie lady weighing herself on the cover of a ‘health and well being guide’ my parents had… I don’t think that’s a euphemism; you’d have to ask my mum and dad) but, weirdness be damned: I couldn’t quite stop myself wanting to look.
I was nine, I think, when I got my copy of Masquerade, and by then the famous riddle contained within its pages (go here if you’d like to know more) had already been solved, and the treasure (a gold hare) retrieved from its grave, near the Catherine of Aragon monument in Ampthill Park.
Not that I’d ever have solved it in a million years. I’m a numbskull. (It had something to do with fingers, and eyes, and blah blah blah: I couldn’t even concentrate long enough to read the solution, let alone deduce it myself.) But I was very drawn to the pictures. They gave me the goose pimply feeling the insects did in the Butterfly Ball.
More, importantly, though, they were perfect writing prompts. I was twenty, and finishing up my English degree, when I wrote an odd story inspired by a curious mix of these two pictures:
And as for this boy gazing dolefully at a jelly…
This mightn’t make sense in a logical way, but I think there’s a bit of this picture – a bit of the feelings it makes me feel – in everything I write, somehow. (I like feeling my way through a story, not puzzling it out like a sum.)
I’ve a theory. It’s this. The things that you see when you’re young, you see forever. We adults – we’re here, we’re there, we’re everywhere: we’ve seen everything twice already and, yawn, it takes something incredibly shocking, or rude, or unusual to make us really see. But the writer must keep hold of, or retrieve, that State of Wonder. Wide-eyed wonder.
You may not have owned the Butterfly Ball or Masquerade. But the odds are you had your own pictures you loved to pore over, and, equally, the odds are you’ll find them somewhere on the internet (if the pesky old paper copy’s gone walkies). Who knows what might inspire a story, a scene, a character?
I’ll leave you with Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House, and my own realisation that even a pop-up book can seep so thoroughly into a child’s subconscious that she ends up – very slightly, subtly, not so anyone would ever notice – borrowing a little something something from it for the novel she’s writing thirty-five years later.
Come play with my comments box, children, if you read these books yourself as a kid. Or have weird ‘uns of your own to share…