I was lucky enough to be one of the listeners at Neil Gaiman‘s short story masterclass c/o The Word Factory. Among the many points that made me think was his continuing need to outwit himself in order to create.Back in the 1980s, word-processing was the way of not taking writing too seriously, of playing at it. He recalled ‘the joy of not making paper dirty’. Anyone who like me wrote in the era pre-computers will most likely know what he means – words on paper had to be ‘proper’ – not evidence of messing about.
By using the new and somewhat suspect technology, there was a thrill of something illicit. Like playing on the wasteland behind abandoned mills, or making dens inside overgrown hedges, it was a playful space.
Thus he could persuade himself that was he was doing was ‘gloriously trivial’.
Interestingly, it’s handwriting that lets him into that place nowadays. By using a notebook, he avoids the sceptical gaze of the expectant readership, with its arms folded gazing over his shoulder. Longhand allows him back into the ‘what-if space’.
I have a strong visual memory of a gate in a hedge with a living arch growing over it. Only a neighbour’s privet hedge with a spindly metal gate on the outskirts of Leeds – but it’s stuck with me. (The oldest I can have been is five.) It’s an entrance into fairyland, dreamworld, Alice’s rabbit hole…
On a good day, the gate’s open and we sneak off to play, the muse and I. It was never a problem to slip into let’s-pretend on the school playground, or in my hawthorn-roofed den beside the beck. Strange child that I was, it was never a problem on rough paper. Let me have the back of a spoiled bit of typing, and I was off.
‘Laiking’ we called it in the West Riding of Yorkshire. As anyone with a good memory or knowledge of childhood knows, play is both fun and deadly earnest at one and the same time. That’s when I know it’s going well – when there’s a sense of skiving-off with the muse to do some serious messing about. I almost expect to get in trouble when I get back.
That’s what I need, and what all kids need to be creative, the space to have adventures both literally and figuratively. Not something a regime of constant examination and criticism can ever achieve.
Becoming published has made writing a lot more serious for me … and I am very conscious that play is becoming less and less a feature of my process to its detriment. It becomes harder and harder to abandon one’s self to the story, to forget one’s reality because of the overwhelming expectations now sitting on one’s shoulders. The best day is when I can forget everything and just mess about. And then words appear magically on the page.
Perhaps I’m right to pull back from worrying so much about ever getting published, Candy. Thank you for being so honest.
Remember – like Mr Gaiman, you do know when the muse *is* playing along.