Posts Tagged religion

How to Grow a Writer

If you want your child to become a writer it is imper­a­tive that you treat it to a con­found­ing vari­ety of soli­tary and strange expe­ri­ences. It is a good pre­cau­tion to make sure that the child never gets a chance to form alliances. Also an excess of hap­pi­ness is very dele­te­ri­ous to the cre­ative juices, so it is wise to sub­ject it to emo­tional jolts at reg­u­lar inter­vals, with­out ever explain­ing what hap­pened, what is about to hap­pen or why. Any sense of auton­omy might give the child the notion that it can have some influ­ence in the real world, and you may end up with a politi­cian on your hands. Or some­one who can fit in, earn money, marry, have well-balanced chil­dren and a happy life. Appar­ently there are peo­ple who want that for their offspring.

I was the last, very likely unex­pected, child. My sis­ters Jocasta and Judy are 10 and 7 years older than me respec­tively, con­fi­dent, loud, glam­orous and best treated with cau­tion. My brother Christo­pher is just four years my senior.

My par­ents and I lived in China, Xia­men and then Hongkong. We stayed in Hongkong for 18 months, where my mother taught in the Kennedy Road School. For some rea­son she refused to allow me to grad­u­ate to her class when the time came, with the happy result for me that I briefly became a very clever seven-year-old and scooped all the school prizes. I hardly ever saw my sib­lings. They were shipped off to board­ing school when Christo­pher was seven, and stayed with Mrs Dabbs in Fowey dur­ing most of the hol­i­days. How per­verse. Why have chil­dren at all?

In the UK I was sent to a con­vent school, which cured me defin­i­tively of reli­gion, not that I was ever deeply afflicted. Expe­ri­ence of nuns left me with an abid­ing hor­ror of reli­gious hypocrisy, a frisky flight or fight vis-à-vis the gloat­ing self-righteous finger-wag, and the cer­tainty that redemp­tion lay in not get­ting caught. How could you attach your­self seri­ously to a reli­gion whose most pas­sion­ately upheld tenet con­cerned wear­ing a hideous brown, yel­low and blue striped blazer, and white gloves in public?

Jocasta used to come home on brief raid­ing sprees dur­ing the Uni­ver­sity hol­i­days. She would bor­row my things – clothes, jew­ellery, a cute lit­tle card­board suit­case given to me by my father – and I might get them back even­tu­ally, usu­ally minus some vital part.

When, as a rounded nine-year-old I asked her to write in my auto­graph book, her response:

‘Miranda may be a fat

Girl, but she’s none the worse for that’ cured me com­pletely of auto­graph books.

Judy was kinder, but had a con­sci­en­tious head-prefect’s sense of duty. She was always telling me to do the things that I had hith­erto mirac­u­lously man­aged to avoid – wash­ing up, hang­ing out wash­ing, lay tables. And she would always put you right on dates and what peo­ple said. I devel­oped a Fear of Facts so severe that when I was inter­viewed for a place at Brighton Uni­ver­sity, I could not remem­ber my name.

When I was a rotund and cred­u­lous crea­ture, Christo­pher fed me chill­ies telling me they were sweet­ies. Appar­ently, when I was still a small but chunky human blob he took me out for a swim head­ing across the South china Sea in the gen­eral direc­tion of Jalisco in Mex­ico, and it is only due to my mother’s long-sightedness and sprint power that I am still around. I have a sus­pi­cion that he also sys­tem­at­i­cally broke every stick of fur­ni­ture in my doll’s house. His con­ver­sa­tional gam­bit was to say ‘prove it’, to what­ever inno­cent opin­ion was voiced by any­one younger than him­self. Me. So I steered clear of boys, became wary of show­ing peo­ple my trea­sured pos­ses­sions and gave up express­ing audi­ble opin­ions. How­ever, a con­stant wit­ter in the head is a cru­cial tool for a prospec­tive writer. My highly respected ex-editor at coun­try Liv­ing, Deirdre Mac­Sharry, used to describe Ire­land as being full of writ­ers talk­ing out their nov­els. I sus­pect that most writ­ers keep their words locked within, build­ing up pres­sure, until they are forced to com­mit the stuff to paper.

Being part of my par­ents’ bag­gage meant that I did not have much opti­mism where friend­ship was con­cerned. There was Carol Aylen and Fiona Mac­nab, but no sooner had we bonded over cen­tipede dra­mas and eat­ing con­densed milk from the tin than I was snatched away to some new rainy coun­try where I couldn’t speak the lan­guage of my fellow-pupils. Out there — For­mosa (now Tai­wan) — was a lonely and dan­ger­ous place. It was far far safer to spend those lonely hours sit­ting beneath my father’s desk wait­ing to go home – wher­ever that was – with my imag­i­nary friend.

I’m shar­ing this mis­ery mem­oirette because it was some­where here in that mis­fit, soli­tary child­hood that the seeds of writ­ing were sown. Plainly life was nasty and brutish, and the safest place was within my own head. I became a lolly stick nerd. I used to invent sto­ries, and make tiny gar­dens where minis­cule dra­mas were enacted – which is where the lolly sticks were handy. Diminu­tive picket fences for a bon­sai paradiso.

One good rea­son to write – no one could take my imag­i­na­tion away from me. I issued no pass­ports for entry into the mad minia­ture world where I was top despot. My thoughts were my trea­sure, pre­cious, secret, and very often vin­dic­tive. Revenge and anger are high-octane fuel for a would-be writer.

Another fab­u­lous aspect of writ­ing, is that no mat­ter how weird is the thing you absolutely have to get off your chest, you can do it. You can closet your­self with your com­puter and spew it all out, and no one will inter­rupt. My his­tory of occa­sional loud sib­lings has left me with a con­vic­tion that there is no point in try­ing to tell any­one any­thing. So many times I would launch into some anec­dote only to observe that every­one had left the room, or turned on the tv, or felt a vio­lent need to hoover. It gave me a wispy feel­ing of unre­al­ity – so often I would won­der if I had actu­ally said those fab­u­lously witty things aloud, or had they just remained in a thought bub­ble float­ing above my head.

Mar­tin Amis claimed that most writ­ers have at least this in com­mon with Nabokov: ‘I think like a genius, I write like a dis­tin­guished author, and I speak like a child.’ The obses­sion to write must so often grow from a small unat­tended child jump­ing up and down, pulling parental coat-tails, and shout­ing ‘me, me, me, lis­ten to me.’

To be lis­tened to, to be heard, to elicit echoes of recog­ni­tion, to find an inter­ested audi­ence – this is for me the most thrilling aspect of writ­ing. I love get­ting emails from readers.

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