Friday, 29 April 2016

Guilt and Inspiration - John Dougherty

Guilt, it's inbuilt, and I'm in it right up to the hilt
If I'm working day and night, then I pay the bills all right
But I don't have time to write the things I want to write
Which is never what I'm working on right now
-from The Writer's Anthem by Jo Cotterill

I spend a lot of time feeling guilty. 

There are all kinds of reasons for this, not least that when I was a kid my family was dysfunctional and my school wasn't much better; and it's always easier to tell a four-year old that he's wrong or stupid or naughty than to admit your own mistakes and try to correct them. And one of the things I feel guilty about is that, whatever I'm doing, I should be doing something else. If I'm answering emails or doing other admin, I should be spending time with the kids. If I'm spending time with the kids, I should be doing housework. If I'm doing housework, I should be writing. If I'm writing, I should be answering emails...

You get the picture. And as my lovely friend Jo's wonderful Writer's Anthem - one of the songs, incidentally, that we perform together, along with Helen and Paul Stickland, in our author band First Draft - makes clear, guilt is very bad for the writer. Not least, it's very unhelpful when you're seeking inspiration. The more I feel I ought to be starting on a new idea, the less likely I am to find one  - however much I wrack my brains.

And then something happens that makes you want to write, or inspires you in a quite unexpected way. Something like that happened this week. I've been wrestling with a few ideas for a new story, unable to settle on one, and feeling like a bit of a fraud - after all, what is a writer who isn't writing?

And then, a couple of evenings ago, I was helping my son with his GCSE revision and we read together a poem called 3AM Feed, by Steven Blyth. It's a lovely piece about a father feeding his baby in the night. We read it a couple of times, and discussed it, and, well, I found myself getting quite emotional. This almost-man, this 15-year old pointing out the cyclical structure of the poem and analysing the poet's use of imagery, had been my baby once. I'd warmed his milk, held him in the crook of my arm, listened to him sucking, just as the poem describes. And those times are gone forever; I'll never have them back.

I think I was still feeling emotional the next morning when, before settling down to work, I started browsing the web. Of course, I felt guilty about it - I should have been writing - but, still, I browsed. And that morning, link after link pointed me towards articles about the Hillsborough case.

One particular article, by David Conn in The Guardian, grabbed me and wouldn't let me go.  It takes apart the lies that were told, tells how the innocent were blamed by the guilty for the deaths and how the powerful protected one another. And suddenly, for the first time in several days - if not weeks - I found myself with something to say. I wanted to write. It wasn't what I "should" have been working on, but I didn't care. 

By the time I sat down at my desk, a poem had begun to form in my head, and with very little teasing out it took shape on the page. And then I wanted to share it with other people; so I created a new page on my website for grown-up writing, videoed me reading it, and posted it there.

It wasn't what I "should" have been writing, but it was what I needed to write. And sometimes, that's more important.

 The latest in John's Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP, is Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story Nickers, published May 5th.

His other new books in 2016 will include the sixth Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face title, his first poetry collection - Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones and published by Otter-Barry Books  - and several readers for schools.

First Draft will next be performing at the Wychwood Festival in early June.


Joan Lennon said...


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Lynne Benton said...

Good for you, John!

Jeff Gill said...

I first saw your poem on Chris Riddell's blog. It's very powerful. Thank you for listening to the inspiration.

I totally relate to the guilt. I'm juggling family, a job, freelance graphic design and trying to write and illustrate a book. No matter what I'm doing, there's always something else insisting that it's actually more important right now.