Over the years I would tell myself and a number of people in my life that I wanted to be a writer and then this terrible voice inside would boom back to me: “No” and that was it, really. No. So I did other things. Sometimes I did other stunning things and I ran around the world and all that and I watched soft white clouds gently roll in to nest in high up mountain valleys and I followed a lizard in a desert. All sorts.
Six years ago, a friend fell ill suddenly and dramatically and she was overwhelmed by fear. As a symbol of support I said I’d do something that made me feel scared too and so I wrote a story for her. It came out as a tale for children which is something I hadn’t done or thought of before but, hey, it worked.
One of my closest people offered to edit it which sounded good and wise but I turned that offer down because I was already world-class excellent at judging myself negatively about a whole gigantic host of stuff and primarily about my writing which I totally sat on and refused to let out because I feared I was so monumentally bad at it the skies would blacken the moment I touched pen to paper and then dragons would emerge from the earth’s belly I suppose or something like that and then, oh yes, most certainly life as we know it would end and all because I dared.
And I guess that whole exercise six years ago was about me stepping into my fear in symbolic support for my friend and I kind of thought that Frieda editing my words would make it her work and not mine and then if anyone said they liked it I would tell myself it was Frieda’s skilled editing they were admiring and then I would have changed nothing. I had this need to stick it out there naked.
A magazine editor liked my story enough to bring a professional illustrator on to the project and then to print it in chunks over a three month period.
The illustrator emailed me from Cape Town to say hi and ask what children’s books I’d written.
Can you imagine????
You’d think that spurred me on to write and write and that now I’m in the middle of arranging my third book signing but in fact I stopped writing then. It was like being pregnant and craving yellow melon and cherry tomatoes and salty, milky plain yoghurt and then the baby is born and the craving has vanished.
I didn’t write for me again for another six years and then only because something so emotionally vivid happened between me and my twelve year old daughter, Fox, that written words spurted out of me almost before I could even recognise what I was doing and not as a story or as a diary entry but just as words on paper without a label.
I related the vividness vividly to a wise person I know and, a few days later, I told her I’d always wanted to write which was a fact I hadn’t revealed to her previously because I’d forgotten all about that me.
I told her the Fox incident had sparked something off and now I was writing a book. I presented my concept and she nodded like we nod when we totally get it and her eyes focussed on a space in the distance as she listened to me present and she nodded and nodded robustly and emphatically and said: “Yeah, yeah” in that tight, efficient way people do when you don’t have to explain further, and all that meant so much to me because she was giving me the affirmation I was looking for and also because this wise person is a thinker who is out there in the world: on Radio 4 and in the Guardian and guest speaking at events where the great and good gather and now here she was nodding and saying “Yeah, yeah.”
She suggested I ask someone to be my reader – to give me constructive feedback in a positive way.
I thought of a couple of nearest and dearest friends but decided they knew me too well to receive my words without blurring in everything else about me.
Then I thought of Mill’s sister, Harper, who is a generally well balanced human who likes to read and has some time because she’s not working right now. Plus, she doesn’t know me so well. A bit, obviously. We’ve met over the years and once the girls and I celebrated Christmas in Harper’s house which looks as though they’ve just moved in perhaps because time has passed but still they haven’t got round to hanging up any pictures or mirrors; but, we’ve never had that direct chat where we’ve swapped autobiographies and displayed the inside of our souls to each other.
Although I have her number, I realise I have never before telephoned her.
“Oh, hi! Did you mean to call me or did you ring my number by mistake?”
“I meant to call you.”
“Okay … this is a bit random, but here goes …”
I ran through my out of the blue idea to write a book.
She said: “I’d love to be your reader.”
So then I rattled through my first majorly rough draft of my book and settled on a title: “April and Fox: essays on living together”.
Then something else must have happened.
What was it?
Oh, yes: I walked in the park one Sunday afternoon with Layli and we had one of our universe shifting chats basically acknowledging that “people like us” have a tendency to think we’re not allowed to step out into the world and to imagine that others are; but not “people like us” because we’ve never managed to let go of this devastating fear that we have nothing to say of any relevance or no one wants to know and so we flail about, silently drowning in our artwork gone fetid, our tear-soaked manuscripts – while others roar by guffawing and swigging champagne because they think they are allowed to and they’re shouting to the world: “Look at me: I’m an artist! I’m a writer! I’m an actor! I’m a singer! I’m a film maker!”
Maybe it was that talk. I can’t remember, but, anyway, all of a sudden, all I could picture was me secretly working on draft after draft after draft of my oh so precious book hoping that one day I’d be able to muster up the courage to show it to Harper and then maybe – who knows when? – three years or something later I might think it’s sufficiently presentable to send to literary agents but by that time the book industry will have shrunk to the point where only ten books a year are published globally and then maybe eight years after that, my book is published because someone has taken pity on me or I’ve scraped enough cash together to self-publish and then I might see the book title and my name on Amazon or the actual real life hardback itself covered in dust on a shelf in a rare book store thick with cobwebs somewhere remote.
That all felt so unappealing to me. So miserable.
I went to the Barbican recently to hear some essence-of-life-stirring jazz. It was the night the US played another team in the World Cup. I really can’t remember which team they were up against. Maybe Bulgaria or something like that. Or Belgium.
Anyway, this miracle making jazz musician, Wynton Marsalis, fielded a Q&A session before the orchestra played and before, I’m guessing, he returned to his hotel room to watch the football match or maybe he didn’t do that but I was with Mill, Harper, Fox and an American friend who enviously supposed that’s precisely what he did.
So, someone asked: “How do I make it in the industry?”
Wynton Marsalis replied words to the effect of: “If you want to make it, know what you want to make – what you want to do with it. Figure it out then pursue it.”
“What do you think of this blog name: “The Greatness of Life”?”
My fourteen year old, April, smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I like it. It’s good.”
I asked our twelve year old friend, May: “What do you think? “The Greatness of Life” or “Greatness of Life”?”
“Greatness of Life. It’s more snappy.”
I ran it by Fox. “Greatness of Life. What do you think?”
She laughed. “No one’s going to read that.”
I read up on blogging and got that you’re expected to include some blurb so people know what you’re writing about. I find the blurb idea off putting but can see the point.
Madalyn said the blurb should include words people commonly key in when googling.
So I came up with this:
“A single mum’s powerfully inspiring blog on creating the richest, most magical life with her teen girls.”
Lou didn’t like it. Fox said she’s not a teen, she’s only twelve. Jeanne said it touched her heart. Layli said it wasn’t bad but it was too wordy and, these days, people don’t have time for all those words.
Rani and the amazing Pixie Lee, who has agreed to design a picture for my blog, didn’t get it at first but when I explained what it was about they both felt differently.
Pixie Lee helped me end my blurb-related fretting. “Look, it doesn’t matter. Nothing’s set in stone. You can always change things. It’s not a book.”
Frieda panicked me momentarily about copyright which I then read up on and understood that my words are all intrinsically copyrighted and belong to me with or without the copyright sign – and, anyway, I reasoned, if I’m going to worry about that on top of everything else I ain’t ever gonna get started.
I don’t know Bridget so well but I like her so much. I saw her at a party this weekend and told her what I’m doing. She said: “Great. What’s it about?”
I was suddenly embarrassed and told her so.
Layli was there. “Good. This is good practice for you.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay. For years, my friend has told me she watches how I am with the girls and that she puts what she sees into practice with her own daughters …”
Bridget agreed. “Yes, I’ve really noticed how you are with them too …”
“I’m embarrassed saying this because it’s not something I’m aware of. You know, it’s like someone saying: you wait at the bus stop really well. Or, you know: you pour boiling water into that cup of instant coffee really well …”
Layli is at my side. “Don’t get distracted. Go on …”
“And there was a young woman at work and whenever I wanted to relate something that the girls had said to me first thing in the morning, I’d look around for someone who might think it’s funny and I’d always end up sharing my anecdotes with this particular person. She told me she really liked hearing my stories about the girls … also, I know this really wise and intelligent woman and practically every time we talk, she says I have an “unusually rich” or an “extraordinarily rich” communicative relationship with the girls … and then, something happened with Fox and I wrote it down and then I had this idea for a book but then all I could see was closed doors, time passing and cobwebs so I thought: I’m going to start a blog … Fox thinks no one will read it.”
I laughed and shrugged.
Bridget said: “I’ll read it.”
“My blog name is “Greatness of Life”. It’s about how great my life is with the girls – you know: day to day living together.”
Bridget nodded. “Yeah, I get it.”
Fox obsessively follows a handful of Youtubers – in her case, young people who’ve set up Youtube channels and either vlog – video blog – diary style or, for example, there’s an incredibly talented US-Asian girl who enacts sketches based on her family life.
Fox is deeply embedded in aspects of these modern times that are alien to me in a way that April isn’t at all really so I rely on Fox to educate me.
I’m aware she’s constantly privately vlogging (making videos about cupcakes or how much she loves Niall Horan or whatever not for public consumption) and that she recently set up a Youtube channel. She’s also on Instagram and maybe Snapchat although I’m not sure if that’s her thing anymore. Her things seem to be mainly Youtubing and Instagram and she’s forever updating me on the number of subscribers or followers she has or other people have and giving me stats about likers and “thumbs down”.
I was raised in a world where haters had power and were to be feared so I’m completely fascinated by Fox’s take on them.
She told me that one of her favourite Youtubers has four million subscribers. She showed me one of that Youtuber’s videos and said that this particular film had attracted two thousand dislikes.
That sounded horrific to me. “What does she think about that?”
Fox scrunched up her nose and shook her head dismissively. “She doesn’t care.”
Fox showed me another vlog by a different Youtuber. She said this young guy has forty million subscribers or something like that and then she showed me one of his videos with more than sixty thousand dislikes.
I absorbed it all agog. “What does he think of that?”
Fox pulled a face and used the tone she uses when she’s explaining the way of the world to me and is semi frustrated and semi astonished by my lack of awareness. “Mum, no one cares! Haters hate. It’s what they do. No one cares.”
I pictured a heap of pacman-esque haters, discarded and irrelevant. I had to remind myself not to feel sorry for them – not to set up a home for them or a charity to champion their rights with a Hollywood actor figurehead.
“So, anyway, Fox: May thinks “Greatness of Life” is a good blog name.”
Fox shrugs and asks: “What if no one reads it?”
Fox can be achingly protective towards me.
I say: “If you like playing the violin, you’ll play it even if no one’s listening, won’t you? And if you want to draw a picture, you’ll draw it even if no one else is going to see it. Yeah? I hear you upstairs singing really really loudly in your room all by yourself. You love doing that – and I love seeing or hearing my thoughts come out as words. Me writing this blog is basically like a guitarist who’s spent her life playing alone in her room upstairs because she thinks no one would want to hear her play, even though she loves it. And then, one day, she picks up her guitar and she takes a chair from the kitchen and she goes outside and sits in front of her house or maybe outside the bakery on the corner or by the entrance to the park, and she plays.”
My blog, I explain, is basically me busking. Acoustic writing.