Well, it’s lovely to be back and blogging again, with my first post of the summer. This post was originally going to be more about writing craft than it ended up being, but if stories, inspiration and ideas are part of the craft, then that’s what it is.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling a bit bleak recently. Those of you who live in Britain or have been following what’s going on over here can probably imagine why. I’m not going to get political on you here, but let’s just say that the UK has known happier times. Add to that everything that’s going on in the wider world, and hope feels in low supply. I’ve kept waiting for summer to arrive, and bring my optimism with it, but so far my corner of the world has remained mostly wet and cold.
There’s a lot of talk in our media, too (at least there was, before the EU referendum subsumed literally everything else), about the way arts are being taught in our schools – with especial reference to creative writing. English and Literacy seem more and more to be focused on rules and tests. Children are having their creativity, their imaginations and curiosity, squeezed out of them by the suffocating force of dangling modifiers and conjunctive adverbs. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it does seem to be getting worse. And as someone who’s spent most of my adult life doing creative work with children and young people, it makes me immensely sad.
When there are so many reasons to be losing hope in the world, and when we, as creators, are having our work devalued and reduced to a series of ‘right or wrong’ answers on a test sheet, you have to hold onto the one key truth:
This is why we do it.
The other day, I read an article by children’s author (and writer for the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony) Frank Cottrell-Boyce, entitled, ‘What’s the point of culture in Brexit Britain?’ and it brought tears to my eyes. Because in amongst the author’s dismay at the state of our country, its politics and its arts sector, is strong, determined hope in the power of creation. The main subject of the article – at least, what I took from it – is the way in which pieces of writing and art spark other writing and other art, the ways in which stories spread and are handed on. He describes the giving of stories to children as ‘laying down strata of fuel, fuel studded with fossils and treasures’.
He also tells us the story of Mariella Mehr, a Roma woman and activist he once interviewed, a woman who spent her childhood in Swiss institutions, who was almost given a lobotomy, who had her own child taken away from her, all because she was Roma. ‘How did you know there was something to rebel for?’ Cottrell Boyce asked her.
‘I read Heidi,’ Mehr answered.
This is why we do it. To give children something to rebel for. And that’s needed more than ever at the moment.
We can’t turn away from the injustices in the world, and we mustn’t ignore the crimes and tragedies that seem to be happening almost every day at the moment. I urge everyone to stand up for the desperate and the oppressed as long as they have the strength. But I also urge you to look for the joy, for the fossils and the treasures.
Today I spent the afternoon on the island on which I work – not actually working for once, but waiting for the tide to go out so that I could once more drive across the causeway. It was warm and muggy; we had one brief rainstorm before the sun came out again, and we walked along a dirt track lined with drystone walls and wildflowers, until we reached the high point where the watchtower stands. From there we could look back towards the castle and the ruins of the Medieval priory, or out the other way at the blue water and the seals bobbing around, and the even tinier island where, over 1000 years ago, St Cuthbert once had a prayer hut. I stood there with three of my colleagues, who are warm and funny, and are my friends as well as my work-mates, and I remembered that the world still holds as much joy as it ever did.
We, the creators, the writers, have to put that joy into our work. It isn’t always easy, especially when we don’t feel very joyful. But the spark is always there somewhere. Sometimes it’s in the lines of the story that fired our imaginations as children, sometimes it’s in the way the sun gleams off the water of the North Sea, sometimes it’s in the company of people who make us laugh until we cry, sometimes it’s in our favourite film, or in the fun of a mobile game that incites us to explore the real world. Sometimes it’s in ourselves.
‘The engine of innovation is reckless generosity,’ Cottrell-Boyce writes. So let’s be generous. Let’s be joyful. Let’s keep the stories coming.