Monday, 11 March 2013

Whispering To A Boy Who Imagines He Is Clever

Once upon a time, if I were at a party, someone might say, ‘So what do you do for a living?’ and I would say, ‘I’m a writer.’ They would look very interested and say, ‘Really? What sort of thing do you write?’ to which I would reply. ‘Children’s books.’ Whereupon they would immediately look disappointed and change the subject.

This reaction changed completely after the success of J K Rowling. Nowadays everyone always wants to know everything about the business and, above all, how they can get published. I am constantly coming into contact with people who are consumed by the desire to be a successful children’s writer.

What surprises me is how few of these people have actually read any children’s books since their own childhood. I’ve taught courses on writing for children only to find that ninety per cent of the students, who have usually paid substantial fees to be there, have scarcely read anything except the first Harry Potter title and one or two of the Narnia series. So what is going on here?

It seems to me that people are seduced by the glamour that has somehow attached itself to children’s writing. This is laughable since if you were to be a fly on the wall at a meeting of children’s writers you would witness a singularly unglamorous bunch of people. For the most part we aren’t young or sexy or well-dressed. We are people with holes in our sweaters, people in need of a decent haircut.

So where does this illusion of glamour come from? I think it arises from two sources: firstly, there is the glitter of wealth; secondly there is the mystery of creative fulfilment.

The notion that writing children’s books might be a way to get rich quick is, as anyone who knows anything about publishing will tell you, entirely ridiculous. The truth is that only a very small proportion of children’s writers even make a living out of their work.

The promise of creative fulfilment is a more substantial attraction and it’s undeniable that fulfilment is to be found in practising any art from. But you have to ask yourself this question: why children’s books? If you’re not already reading them then possibly that’s an indication you’re not really interested in this field - and you won’t get fulfilment from trying to succeed at something that doesn’t interest you.

I am a children’s writer because childhood is the place where I reside most naturally. I watch as the youngest of my grandchildren begins to learn to crawl. I see her rocking back and forth on her hands and knees, practising the movements that will soon allow her to move across the room and I find myself propelled back into my own childhood, recalling the way the paving stones rolled away before me as I sat in the push-chair.

Or I do some drawing with my older grandchildren and out of the corner of my eye I see the tall, shadowy figure of a nun standing over me, regarding my clumsy efforts with disdain. I know what she thinks of me. She thinks that I am a boy and, a such, an entirely undesirable object. Worse than that, I am a vain, talkative boy who imagines he is clever and does not listen to what he is told. This understanding renders the drawing that had pleased me so much a moment ago, nothing but a worthless scribble.

I want to reassure that boy. I want to tell him that one day this woman’s disdain will not matter so much; but even as I stand beside him and whisper, I know that he cannot hear me.

For me, therefore, writing is not primarily about money or about creative fulfilment. It is a story being told to a child who no longer exists.


Jo Sandelson said...

Terrific post. It's so true isn't it that one is so often writing for the person one was. I like your description of the paving stones beneath your push chair. Children are so close to the earth, I remember being fascinated by what was below, though that often resulted in me walking into things.

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks, Jo. Yes, everything looks different from down there.

Paul said...

Brian, you have given me a lot of fuel for thought here. I think I finally understand why my cozy mystery stories are not coming together. I really don't read the genre.

Thanks (dammit!).

Brian Keaney said...

Hi Paul
Good to hear from you. Yes, I tried writing crime and could never get it to work. One day my daughter said, "Dad, you hate crime. Why are you trying to write it?'

Kate Willis-Crowley said...

Fantastic. You've hit many nails squarely on their bonces. Well done.

Brian Keaney said...

Thank you Kate. Very nice to hear from you.