Thursday 28 March 2019

Do you think one day you’ll stop writing? – Clémentine Beauvais

That question arises quite often when I do school visits. ‘Do you plan to stop writing some day?’ ‘When will you stop writing, do you think?’ (I try not to take it as a Britishly polite way to say ‘Please do us all a favour and stop writing’.)

I find this quite an interesting question, especially as it’s more often asked by the younger children, say 7-13, than by teenagers. At that age, maybe, they see hobbies and activities as transient, quickly likely to get boring. But at the same time, it is surprising, because they often also have quite strong views about what they are definitely going to do their whole lives, and it involves very certain, very definite things, a clear career, getting married, a house to live in, stability. Personally, I don’t recall ever asking a grown-up if they thought of quitting their day job, or indeed their hobby.

Beyond that, the question is interesting because it involves a kind of doublethink. I don’t currently think one day I’ll stop writing. There may be good incentives not to (though it is not my main job, so I don’t technically depend on it). I’ve always written, so I can’t quite imagine a world where I wouldn’t. However, I also know that existential shifts of this magnitude do happen from time to time, so I would never give an absolute ‘No’ in response. 

Furthermore, when you’re a children’s writer, there are a fair amount of good reasons, more or less independent of your own volition, to stop writing. First, ours is a literary business tied to a fickle market, which may change beyond recognition – at least beyond our recognition. It might reject our work in the process, or we might feel so uncomfortable with that market that we elect to retire from it.

Or, we might feel like we just can’t talk to children and teenagers anymore. Already at thirty I sometimes feel less comfortable tackling topics that I had no trouble tackling at 22 – I was, for instance, much more explicit about sexuality, much more frontal, because in a way I was describing practices that were my own too – ‘my generation’s’. Today’s teenagers aren’t my generation. I try to connect with them on different levels – reaching more for the universal than for the particular. I try to get, in literary ways of course, to what might constitute the core of that experience of childhood and adolescence, the newness, the intensity, the excitement, instead of composing literary ethnographies of practices. In this way I see my writing has evolved with my age, but I still feel comfortable with it. 

What if one day I can no longer feel that this 'universal' is within literary grasp? Either because I can no longer see it – or because it was never there…

Or, publishing might simply take on new formats that we no longer have the literacy competence to tackle. Whether through technology or through advanced hybridity of format – visual, verbal, typographical, who knows what House of Leaves-style books may emerge in the next ten years – it is not unlikely that the children’s and YA literature of tomorrow will leave the multimodally illiterate writer behind. Or at least, the ones not versed in contemporary forms of multimodal literacy.

Or, all children and teenagers might stop reading, costing us all a job. When I suggest this, they all say ‘Noooooo!!!!’.

Or I might decide that this writing thing has run its course, and try my hand at something else. It is not as fanciful a proposition as it sounds, we all change.

When you make a list like this, it quickly becomes vertiginous, that possibility. To stop writing. 

Maybe. I don’t think I will. But I don’t think I won’t, either. Between the things that depend on us, and those that don’t. But I like that uncertainty, because of course it’s life. 

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels in English are Piglettes (Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018).


Penny Dolan said...

Ckementine, so many good points in your post. Thanks.

I think that the "How long will you go on writing?" questions also comes - though masked politely - from the pupil's sense of continually being asked to write (and often with an imposed or remote purpose) both in school and as homework. Even if they don't mind writing, they know others do and recognise that it can be a tedious practice - as well as something satisfying and joyous.

Ann Turnbull said...

This is a very interesting post, Clementine. It certainly resonates with me at the moment as I seem to have stopped - well, stopped writing novels, anyway, after 45 years with a break of a few years when I was a mum with under-fives (I did wonder, at that time, whether I would ever re-start.) I can't imagine not writing at all, but can well imagine no longer caring about publication.