It’s been a long January and now we’re well into February, with bees clearing out winter nests and snowdrops and miniature irises appearing under the trees, everything feels more spring-like. Post-Christmas finances, the grim weather and a lack of daylight all conspired to make staying at home in front of a fire seem a good thing. It’s not only nature that is stirring into new life now. In the last two weeks several unsought commissions have been dropping into my in-box. It’s encouraging to get paid for something you like doing, something you spent three years training to do, and it’s an ego boost if an editor seeks you out to do it and puts money into your bank account as a result. Even after 25 years earning a living from writing I never cease to be surprised that people read, and appear to like, what I produce. Shutting oneself away behind a laptop screen doesn’t feed one’s soul, however. I live in a lovely place – it’s quiet, a rural idyll that’s not too far-flung, where few disturb my thoughts. My very artistic husband, occasionally, will ask if I’d like another coffee or remind me we’ve not stopped for lunch. It ought to be a writer’s heaven – indeed, it would be the ideal location for a writer’s retreat and it’s very useful for my day job – but is it inspiring imaginative fiction and does it make me think about who I’m writing for?
It’s not a thought that’s new to me, but perhaps I’ve not really acknowledged the nagging feeling at the back of my brain. In order to spark plots and provoke daydreams I need a chance to observe (slyly) the goings-on of unknown passers-by and a reminder that there are people out there who read. Essentially nosy, I like to snatch snippets from the everyday lives of urban folk. My creative cogs start turning as I stand on a station platform, or wait at a pelican crossing. Here are characters to write about – here’s an audience to write for. So yesterday, as I drove up St Giles in Oxford, past The Eagle and Child – literary second home to the Inklings, whose number included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, I was already feeling the clank of creaking thought on rusty imagination. Once I’d parked and started walking along the street, I ear-wigged other people’s conversations (what a wonderful invention the mobile phone is – half an exchange of dialogue delivered in a public space – leaving the other half to be imagined). The population of Oxford is a quirky mix of foreign visitor, eccentric don, too-young student, elderly blue-stocking, yummy cycling mummy, serious scholar, earnest curator, muscular sportsman and terribly thin artist. The clothing that they wear, or affect to wear, includes silk scarf wrapped around canvas bag, brown boot, tan brogue, crepe de chine skirt, Converse trainer, tweed suit, red hat and black gown.
Of course, it would jolt anyone back into a creative phase if the person they were meeting for a mid-week lunch happened to be artist and novelist Roma Tearne – a one-woman walking wake-up call, whose output includes books, videos, paintings and lectures on the literary circuit. While we’re sharing a platter in the roof-top restaurant at The Ashmolean exchanging gossip, catching-up on several months’ news and speculating on who is doing what with whom and why they’re meeting, the grey skies are forgotten, the rain is elevated to a water feature on the outdoor terrace as it imparts a sheen on the sodden tables and chairs and gushes through gargoyles’ mouths. Apart from a trip to sunnier climes, is there any better way to shake off the winter blues? A descent through the atrium stairwell into the new galleries, glancing at the beckoning treasures of the world brings stories to mind. Who could fail to be inspired?
Afterwards, I drove home to the humdrum, past the girls from St Edward’s School in their unfashionably long skirts, overtaking a Tesco lorry and postal van to dutifully perform the school pick-up before the routine of supper, homework, music practice, bed. Cyril Connolly’s “pram in the hall” is often cited as an excuse for a lack of creativity. His quotable quotes survive him, however, and in common with many male writers, he had wives who got on with the child-rearing and housekeeping, leaving him free to earn a living in whatever way he chose, or was able, to. I don’t believe the pram is the only barrier to getting out of the door, or that children are the thieves of time; what really stifles, constrains and contracts our thoughts is the lack of opportunity to connect with the outside world. The rushed journey into the office (or the dash downstairs to the desk), the need to earn a living, the whizz around the supermarket, each push wordplay – or in my husband’s case, painting – towards the bottom of the priority pile. If wordplay and painting were always at the top, the children would go unfed, the house would be filthy, there would be nothing in the bank account (ever) and I’d probably sink into a routine of writing in an exercise book with a pencil (there being no money to pay for electricity to charge my MacBook), while my husband would be re-using old canvasses to get his creative fix. But there’s a balance to be struck. Would I write if I didn’t think I had an audience? Probably. Would I get satisfaction from it? Possibly not. Do I need to earn a living? Yes. Is writing how I’ve done it for 25 years? Yes. Am I lucky that my day job dovetails nicely with my aspirations? Um – yes.
Yesterday’s trip to Oxford was a wake-up call. I need to unplug my i-Pod, open my eyes and dust off my notebook. Switch off the internet, drink my latte and get creative. The only person stopping me writing fiction is myself.