Who holds the pen?
Who holds the pen: can my unhappy past inform my work?
I’m often asked about the building of character in Call Billy. Are they modelled on real people – people I know? I have to say, no. No-ish.
There are good reasons for this. I grew up in a family hushed by violence. I have strong opinions and reactions to the people who shaped me. When I find myself slipping under their skin, rather than into the mind of the character in my novel, I lose what I believe is essential objectivity, and as a consequence I risk blurring both my boundaries and my judgement.
So who holds the pen? How, if at all, does my personal history help me as a writer? I am my past, sure, but if I see a room full of friendly faces as a threat (as they once were), and react with a flight or fight response when I’m about to do a reading, well, I’ll not get a return invite, let’s put it that way.
But can corrosive, life-crushing instincts help my writing? Sure they can. Over the years, and with considerable help, I’ve tried to root out my childish coping strategies and replace them with more helpful ones. But did they vanish? Hell no. I packed them tidily away in the natty, well painted, Ikea storage unit in my mind, where I can keep a beady eye on them. I’m a tidy person, I can’t settle down in a mess. This means I’m often dusting them down, checking them for moth or escapees, and thoroughly enjoying the freedom their confinement allows me. In other words, I have access to them, and when I need them to set fire to my writing, I trot them out for a bit of exercise.
So yes, in a controlled way, the experience of my past adds hugely to the authenticity of my writing. But controlled is the word. Because, in my experience, to write a good story, I need to be as balanced and considered and dispassionate and reflective as is possible for me to be.
My husband says with unnerving confidence that he’ll put the word ‘Tenacity’ on my grave. Granted, he is a lot younger than me, but still, I do a lot more yoga, and cycling for that matter. But fair’s fair, he’s right – I am. Against all the apparent evidence to the contrary, as a child, I stubbornly believed in happy endings, in my happy ending. That was tenacious. And so it goes on. If I wasn’t tenacious, I wouldn’t deconstruct a sentence thirty of forty times before finally slinging it out. I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be a story if I wasn’t tenacious. Having said all that, I often toy with the idea of banishing tenacity to the wardrobe, to be stored between or alongside ‘suspicion’ and ‘mistrust’, because then I might get out more, spend more time with the family, and plant a lot more trees. Now that may be something worth putting pen to paper for.
On the other hand, as Tenacity is still running amok with my emotions, it’ll have to be all my own work. Ugh.
I live by the sea, in a hut perched above mature native woodland. It is spring. Just now the woods are a sumptuous blend of purple bluebells, wild white garlic, and delicate spring leaves of every shade of green against a wash of blues. In winter the sea glitters through naked trees, the pools of silver light on gunmetal water a gasp of delight.
I’m sitting at my desk, trying to wriggle myself into the mind of a fifteen year old, who is about to get wrecked with a boy she’d been obsessing over for months. He is twenty five. I need to know where it’s going. Will she have sex? Or will she panic at the last minute. Or will her mother come back from work early, and the drama of the scene be postponed? I have an ache in my tummy. I don’t plan the minutia of my character’s life. I know the broader brushstroke of her: that she’s a lovely girl, a thinker, that despite everything, she still wants the family to get back together. But I also know that the events of the past months have forced her way out of the comfort zone of happy endings and this new place is full of strange possibilities. With everyone she trusted now engrossed in their own despicable dramas, she has begun to look elsewhere for reassurance and love. And why not – she’s almost sixteen, old enough to make her own decisions and mistakes – and so it goes on.
And yet, I must take the plunge. I must have her answer the door-bell, have her press up against him and see if I can find the one and only truth of the moment, and record it.
And then I look up from my screen, disturbed by the thwacking of rope on canvas as a sail is lowered. Through the glass door I glimpse my trays of parched lettuces. I should plant them out this afternoon. Yesterday I took the quad and flailer over the hills to cut broad pathways through the emerging bracken – and got it stuck on a sap-slick-slope and left it there, along with the key. I check my weather app, Abi’s dilemma draining from my concentration, like water down a plug hole…
Inspiration doesn’t just happen. It’s a slow build. Dumping Abi, I decide on a place for another scene. I may chose the rocky coast north of Tarbert, or the skaggy beach in Oban, where fag packets and scratchings of plastic get me in the mood for, er death. Or maybe just sand… yes, sand…
It’s many hours later, I look up from my screen, a silver moon is hanging there, over the sea, a pool of—oh for God’s sake, just don’t …
The following morning it’s raining. Good. I flex my fingers, rub my palms together in preparation and dive in.
Hours later, I’ve got something down: a U-turn.
“He’s not even coming is he? I make myself hot chocolate and get into bed, stare at the balloon pattern on my duvet. ‘Virgin’, my whole room shouts ‘virgin’. I hate my life. The twisted paper tip, which I should have chewed off, flares and drops, melts a small hole in one of the balloons. I take a puff and nudge it around, so what if I burn the house down …”
It’s a start.
I’m delighted to see a yellow crack in the cloud cover, a zag of reflection on the water and remember the quad I abandoned on the hill yesterday with a jolt …