Saturday, 29 August 2009

Learning To Write Karen Ball

I was once challenged at a party: if you don’t have children of your own, how can you know what to write for them? Once I’d overcome my urge to slap the man’s face, I tried to explain that I didn’t need to have given birth in order to create fiction. I once had a childhood of my own. Okay, it was a long time ago now, but I can remember it. Just. One of the delights of writing children’s fiction is that it forces us to think back to what life was like when we were young. I’ve really enjoyed revisiting times in my past and my sisters often spot those moments in my writing that come from our shared childhood. That girl with the long blonde plaits? My sister, Mandy. The child who always knows the right thing to do? My other sister, Tracy. And the mums in my fiction – reassuring, kind, warm characters. We all know who she is. I also come into contact with children through my friends. I have a god-daughter with beautiful strawberry blonde hair and a talent for the piano. She has a sister with enough personality to fill a room. But even if I’d been locked in a cell, starved of contact and with my memory wiped, I think I could probably turn out a story or two. But could I write if I’d never read? I’m not so sure. As a child, I adored the thrill of reading ghost stories and would then go off and scribble some of my own. Whilst still a teenager, I scoured women’s magazines and tried to write articles. I was imitating – yes, copying. And learning. It’s what I still do today. I read other people’s writing, admire it, fall in love with it. I try to analyse what makes it so satisfying. I adore the mystery of black ink on white paper; why one word put next to another word beside a few more words can make me burst into tears. Isn’t that a marvellous mystery, the poetry of writing? On some levels, beyond analysis. But on other levels, a lesson to writers who are learning their craft. This is why it’s so important that children are given access to books, that they are lying around in the home, or that the library visit becomes a childhood routine. With books in their lives, children are not only learning how to read or imagine. They’re also learning how to write. All those years ago, tucked up in bed with my ghost stories, I was learning to write. I didn’t know it then, of course. It’s why I know what to write today, even if I don’t have children of my own. I write stories.
Those two sisters of mine are in this photo. (Ah, the 1970s!) Tracy’s the one with the book. The book she’s holding upside down. She doesn’t know it, but she’s learning to write.
PS Adele mentioned Jane Brocket in her last post. Jane's latest blog entry has a very sweet moment about fruit in Enid Blyton books - and links to a few plum poems.


Dolly said...

I always wonder about people who ask stupid questions like that. Do they think that crime writers actually murder people in their weekends to write good books?

Stroppy Author said...

Bizarre, isn't it? When I wrote about the history of hunting and was criticised for it becauce I don't hunt and don't approve of hunting. How could I research the history of it, my critic wanted to know, if I wasn't prepared to try it? I pointed out that historians of the Holocaust are not expected to commit genocide, but he did not think it a funny or valid comparison.

Of course you can write for children without having them, just as you can write books elderly people will enjoy before you are elderly, books men will enjoy if you are a woman (and vice versa)... these people don't seem to understand that imagination and empathy are the key skills involved, not lived experience of everything we commit to paper.

Jon M said...

It's often the kids who stop me writing for kids! Loved the post Karen, fascinating to look back for those clues and influences!