I’m having another go at getting my autobiography published. It’s been to three publishers and although they were all very very nice about it, the bottom line is that it didn’t cut the mustard. It’s not, according to two of them, an easy book to distribute – it doesn’t really fit in the usual autobiography genre, being written in the voice of an eight year old, then a nine year old, and so on until I reach 17. The third said something similar but offered to consider it as a book for teens. Hmmm. But it isn’t, and so I said a polite ‘No thank you’. The biggest consideration in publishing now is not if the reader is engaged but how the book will be marketed. Which section will it be displayed in at Waterstones? Online , will it go into the comedy (“We would target it here except that you have a baby’s death”), the serious autobiogs (too light hearted, not erudite) , the celeb memoirs (nope, never courted celebrity) , the real crime blogs (damn, all the people I could have killed)…
You see, as in life, in book-form I don’t quite fit anywhere.
In my little church I occasionally tell the children a story. It’s a five minute slot, and the grown-ups listen far more attentively than the children do, a sort of ‘Listen With Mother’ for adults. I suppose that over the last 4 years I’ve told quite a few personal stories – from nearly being shipwrecked, to getting my foot sliced and trapped by a broken coke bottle in the Med, to hitting a fox going far too fast (the fox was going far too fast, I’m a paragon of slow driving discipline), and I still have a few up my sleeve (crash-landing at Orly airport, the tent blowing away on Beachy Head one Christmas Eve etc) . After one such story, one of the older women in the church asked me, incredulously, ‘Did these things really happen?’ as if I would wander to the front of the church to reel off a whole load of outrageous and deliberate lies just to fill an idle moment. Her amazement when I said yes, they were all true, made me wonder if my life has been a bit out of the ordinary. I think it has.
Is that what makes a dramatist? A life of drama? My life has been without any drama for the last 20 years or so and I’m perfectly happy, very content to have this humdrum life, but hang on…. recently I have written only these blogs and stories for the children, a couple of radio plays… the big dramas have slipped away from me. It would be interesting to look at dramatists en masse, to see if their lives were unusually full of incident and adventure, and how long it took for their writing, their creativity, to wind down when the real-life drama had gone.
Has my life been full of drama, conflict, good vs evil, comedy, big characters, high heights and low lows? Or am I just spinning something out of nothing? Well…..
I lived in Cyprus at the age of about 4 or 5 and I knew all about Eoka terrorists, hand grenades, kidnapping. We Brit kids travelled most places with an armed soldier. At the age of 6 I was in Egypt where my Dad was run over by those who hated the British Army (still a lot around) and then, because they feared he was still alive, they backed the stolen landcover over him. Fortunately he was so drunk (being the mess sergeant) that he didn’t go into shock and, apart from some steelwork in his skull, he came out of it unchanged. We used to travel to the Army school in Fayid in ten ton trucks with machine guns mounted on the front and armed soldiers in the back with us. Not exactly yer usual school bus! My favourite pastime in Egypt was infuriating an old shepherdess so much that she would lift her face veil (heavy with coins and medals) and waggle her black teeth at me. At which point I’d run, screaming, through the maize field that bordered our house, there on the banks of the Suez. It was my version of ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’
So life started out pretty unusually, even for a child of my post-war generation. When I was 5 my Mum started to go blind and when I was 7 she died, and that’s when the really painful drama started. So, yeah, what made this writer is probably all the excitement and turmoil and loss of those early years leading into the pain and fear of the next few years, leading into a disastrous marriage where both of us were as bad as each other, leading into a difficult second marriage…. Hmmm. Here’s the question:
Would I have been a dramatist if my Mum had lived, if I had subsequently been loved and wanted, if life had been secure and cosy? If my Mum had lived and I had grown up with her guidance, or with a dad who was at least present, would I have been less useless at school, would I have been classed as normal rather than educationally sub-normal, would I have avoided falling into the arms of the first man who wanted me? And instead of starting to write at 39, when the first play was about the suicide of a loving father, and the first film was about child sexual abuse, and the second film was about abandonment, would I have been too well balanced, cosy, smug, secure, and comfortable in my own skin to even think of writing a play? And if I’d started to write, what would I have written about? How would I know about death, abuse, abandonment, and all the rest of it? Would I have been content to watch the dramas that other people wrote?
I know people in their 50’s and even 60’s who still have both parents, who have never lost anyone close, whose children are all grown and healthy, who have never known abuse or violence or cruelty, never been cold and alone. How can they know what it’s like to experience any of these things? And so, how could they even start writing about it in any meaningful and truthful way? How can they begin to understand the reality and personality of the people around them, to detect the undercurrents of relationship, conversation, social interaction? All the things that make for a good and truthful scene. I learnt to see motives and to detect cruelty and anger, impatience and dislike at a very young age. It was a self-defence mechanism, necessary to avoid trouble. It’s not a comfortable skill to own, but it’s useful. It hasn’t made me a loving and good friend, but it’s kept me safe. It hasn’t made me a nice person, but maybe it made me a writer.
I have a very very successful friend, in showbiz, who once said to me that she couldn’t write a drama because she had always had a happy and contented life. Maybe I can write drama because I have had the very opposite.
But see, I have the tense wrong in that para. It should read ‘Maybe I could write drama because I have had the very opposite.’ because it seems that I am too content now to write scripts. That’s the hard truth. I love writing, I want to write, but I am too content. The things that once hurt and rubbed and twisted my heart and my thoughts, no longer fill my mind. I am learning not to listen for the sub-text, not to fear some sudden flash of anger and not to want to vanish into the shadows, unseen. I’m learning to be the me that maybe I was always intended to be. The most important part of my life now is the Eternal, I want to learn and listen and obey and grow and be full of inexpressible raucous rollicking happiness . That’s what I want. More of Him, and less of me. And life is changing. Painful as it is, it’s good, this change.
I still have a way to go, and if it means – as I think it does – saying goodbye to the writer in me, is that a price I’m willing to pay? To be a writer or not to be a writer? That, my little snodgrasses, is the question. It’s been the bloomin’ question for the last four bloody years and I seem no nearer to finding the answer. Sadly, it’s a question no one can help me with, because, like grace, writing isn’t something you can strain for. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.
Don’t start me on rain again.
Night night. God bless.