Saturday, 21 January 2012


To write is one thing. To cast spells another. How to do it? Aged three years old, I used to tell stories to the children next door, weaving fantasies by means of my imagination. Those children were big ones who went to school and could read and write - but they’d line up on their side of the wall to ask what happened next. They were desperate to know but couldn’t for reasons I didn’t understand figure it out themselves. It fell to me - the little squirt peering over her garden wall - to tell them.

There’s a knack to casting spells over the imagination. I didn’t know that then, but I do now. Not everyone can do it. But there are a greater number of people who can than do, and it’s not just the hard work, time and effort required that puts people off.

It takes a supreme act of self-confidence to believe that the stories going on inside your head are of interest to anybody else. At three I never questioned that they were, but at nine - when I started my first few secret stories - I was full of questions and self-doubt. Never once did that doubt stop me writing, but in order to be a ‘proper writer’, as I saw it, I had to sound like someone else. The innocent days of story-telling over the garden wall were over. I spent my childhood, even right up to my early twenties, trying to write like A.A.Milne, Hans Christian Anderson, Emily Bronte, Dylan Thomas, J RR Tolkien, Graham Greene – whoever I admired at the time, in my desperate attempts to sound like a ‘proper writer’.

It didn't work of course. I learnt a lot, not least to take the art of writing seriously, and I certainly worked hard. But casting even the most mundane spells, let alone electrifying ones that might capture imaginations and set people on fire? That didn’t happen. In my early twenties - under another name - I succeeded in getting a book of short stories published. One kindly reviewer said this author will win prizes one day, but the review I really remember is the one who said my toddler dropped this book down the toilet, and I didn’t know whether to bother fishing it out.

Reviewers, hey? I didn’t know then what was the problem, but I do now. It was all to do with voice. In an attempt to make my short stories seem literary and important, I’d pitched their tone somewhere between Tolkien and the King James Bible. Every time they’d sounded remotely like me, I’d rewritten them, unable to believe that anyone would want to read them if they were by a novice like me. So my natural voice – the one that came out of me unchecked – was removed, and the strangulated tones of badly-written ‘old-man’ prose went in instead. And I thought this was being a writer.

I was wrong, of course. As wrong as anything could possibly be, but it wasn’t until many years later that I saw this for myself. By then I was the mother of five young children, with very little time to write. I'd had a few successes with articles in magazines like Homes & Gardens, but that was all. Then one day, absorbing some magazine's house style for an article I planned to write, it came to me that I was doing what I'd done since I was child - taking on other people’s voices instead of using my own.

This was my breakthrough moment. The moment when my writing career really took off. Given freedom of choice and expression, what did I really want to write? My mind went immediately to a short story I’d written about a hot air balloon flight. I dug around and found it. ‘Ben the Balloon Man’ it was called. I read it through. It had come directly from heart to page in a burst of inspiration, and it definitely had my voice.

This was my inspiration for writing ‘Midnight Blue’ - not just the balloon flight, but the willing acceptance of my own voice. And I’ve never looked back. When people who know me claim to hear my voice in my books, I take that as a compliment.

So, how about you? You may write stories too, but do you cast spells? Completely apart from whether you have talent, there's a dimension to writing which is there to be run free with or disallowed. What makes your stories different? What makes them special? It’s your voice. So, have confidence in who you. Don’t try to be somebody else. Take what you’ve got and work with it.

Recently I brought out the 21st anniversary edition of 'Midnight Blue's Smarties Book Prize win. All those years ago I never would have thought I'd even get it published, let alone win a prize. And as for electronic books, or bringing them out myself - it's all a far cry from where I started. But everything began with trusting my own voice.




dirtywhitecandy said...

Lovely post, Pauline. It's funny, this circle of style we move in, isn't it?
When I was a kid I used to like changing my handwriting. I'd spot an interesting stylistic flourish in someone else's and adopt it for a few days - certainly it made lessons more interesting. After a while I'd find it hard to keep the borrowed style, and anyway I'd found another I wanted more.
When I started to become aware that others' prose had these flourishes I wished I had, the whole cycle started again. It took me many years to realise that I already had a voice of my own - in the way I wrote when I was enjoying myself, unselfconsciously, in letters to friends.
Your post told a very familiar story - thanks!

Karen said...

Interesting post, Pauline, and one I really identified with. I loved Midnight Blue, great to see that it's still captivating readers today.

Susan Price said...

A quite moving post, Pauline, and a brave confession - thank you! I think many people will indentify with what you say.

madwippitt said...

I enjoyed this - took me right back to the days when I tried to write a bit like Caroline Akrill (and failed miserably)!

Pauline Fisk said...

Interesting comment about the handwriting. Mine changed completely at seventeen. In fact, it changed the day a significant person in my life died, though I never realized the change happened then until many years later, going back through my teenage diaries.

Those diaries are full of my early writing attempts, poems, scraps of stories etc. Writing was a strange passion/obsession for a child who came from as unbookish a family as mine. Hardly surprising I didn't dare trust my own voice. In those early days there was very little to encourage me.

Pauline Fisk said...

Except the writing itself, which was its own encouragement, and other books of course [just realised how pathetic and self-pitying the above might sound!]

Jennie Walters said...

Fascinating, Pauline - this really resonated with me. You're obviously a born storyteller; thank goodness you stuck at it! I can remember a girl called Jane Somerville at school years ago telling us a really scary story about someone who fell down a lift shaft. I've often wondered about her, and whether she wrote later on.

Dennis Hamley said...

Pauline, this is a classic account of the writer's progress and it will resonate with many of us. It certainly resonated with me: I recognised so much of it. Great - and thank you!