Today, I’m republishing three mini-essays which give glimpses into how I became a writer–a process that I was hardly aware of as a young person and which even now still seems mysterious, in the big picture sense anyway. It’s only in these little glimpses that you begin to get a feel for it–at least, that’s so for me. Hope you enjoy!
Becoming a writer: three mini-essays by Sophie Masson
One: ‘Write about what you know’
As an eager scribbling kid, being given that classic bit of advice, ‘write about what you know’, I felt like this was one of those rules that adults invent to keep children in their place. I certainly didn’t want to write about school and squabbles with brothers and sisters and trying to avoid parents’ washing-up rosters. I didn’t even want to write about flying across the world to visit our family back in Europe; didn’t want to write about family secrets. Nobody else would be interested, I figured. Heck, I wasn’t interested myself. I wanted to write about princesses and curses, criminal masterminds and dashing young musketeers, magic wands and priceless jewels handed down through royal generations. I wanted to write about the world in my head, the enchanted, exciting world of my voracious reading, that made dull routine disappear and the limitations of being a child vanish in a puff of fairy dust.
So I did just that. I ignored the advice, and my writing went at its own pace and my writing worlds passed through childhood fairyland and adventure to teenage love tragedy and myth, hoovering up every influence going, from Russian novels to Tintin, Celtic love poetry to Norse saga,. Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, Moomintroll to Bilbo Baggins, The Affair of the Diamond Necklace to Great Expectations, along with just about everything else I could pick up as I wrote reams of poetry, short stories, comics, songs, and embarked finally at the age of 17 on a major undertaking—a huge fantasy novel which would take in as many of the world’s mythologies as possible, and feature characters who came from the four corners of the world. I filled two exercise books and then ran dry unable to finish,but nothing daunted went on with many more, and at last finished one. And then two. And then three, and finally I was taking the plunge and sending my darlings out into the wild seas of publishing, trying to find safe harbour..which eventually appeared on the horizon.
But this is really about the gradual realisation over the years that ‘write about what you know’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean write about your everyday life. ‘What you know’ can mean what you know in terms of your family history, the rich freight of story and event, of comedy and tragedy, carries in the wake of its life down the generations. It can mean what you know in terms of your reading, just as I’d first instinctively deduced as a kid; it can mean ‘what you know’ from observation and plain old nosiness. But most of all it means ‘what you know’ from the inside. Your emotional life. The song of your heart. Of your soul. The emotions you share with every other human on the planet—and the ones you don’t. ‘Write about what you know’ was about that emotional heart without which every literary work, in whatever genre and however elegantly written, means nothing. It was about being true to the heart—because only then could you reach other people. Only then could your characters really live and breathe. It didn’t matter if you were writing about broken marriages or broken kingdoms; about office bullies or Dark Lords; that was merely a choice, an inclination. But the emotions had to ring true, whatever world your characters came from. You and your readers might never live the life of a young prince unexpectedly elevated to the throne; but all of us understand what it’s like to be suddenly thrust in a situation we weren’t expecting. All of us can sympathise with the nerves and doubts and excitement. All of us can feel what it’s like on the inside, even if we don’t all reach the same conclusions about it. Even if we feel differently about these things. It still feels real, and that’s what counts.
No, ‘write about what you know’ wasn’t a restriction; it wasn’t a hobbling, as I’d thought it had been as a rebellious child—but I still had to reach that conclusion in my own pace, at my own time, and the way I’d got there had been enriching in itself.
So that’s what I know now—that ‘write about what you know’ is indeed good advice. It is, indeed, true. But just as the best writing is understood with the heart as much as the head, then that’s how that classic little aphorism should be understood. Don’t restrict yourself—let your imagination soar. But write about what you know—from the inside.
A love song to libraries
I love libraries. Not only readers are nurtured there—but writers, too. This is a hymn of praise to those libraries, private and public, that have been instrumental in my own development.
The first library I remember was my father’s, in our beautiful old house deep in the countryside of south-western France. This was a hallowed place, a place of light and shadows, cool in summer, warm in winter. There was a fireplace and a large winged chair beside it, a desk made of fragrant Indonesian wood, quills and silver inkstand and leather-bound blotter at the ready; blue toile de Jouy curtains featuring scenes of 18th century country life; a Persian carpet decorated with birds alighting in trees; and of course, books. Books in large wide open shelves of beechwood, built by a local artisan; books in a large antique bookcase with doors that were like fretted screens, so that the books behind them looked as if they were in a kind of beautiful prison; books behind glass and in sandalwood chests. You weren’t allowed in on your own; but sometimes Dad would call you in, sit you on his knee and read from some old collection of Perrault’s stories, or the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, illustrated by Gustave Dore. Other times, he would take down the huge volume of reproductions of Hieronymus Bosch’s art, and point out to his quaking offspring the hellish consequences of misbehaving, or else, driven by another mood, pull out from the sandalwood chests bound copies of 19th century magazines and read out ancient faits divers, or human interest stories.
We children had our own ‘library’ of books elsewhere in the house, shelves crammed with the pink-backed children’s classic hardbacks of the Bibliothèque Rose, and the green backs of the more modern Bibliothèque Verte; dogeared paperback collections of traditional stories from all over the world, and magnificent illustrated editions of mythology; well-thumbed copies of Tintin and Asterix, and, later huge 19th century novels: by Balzac, Hugo, Feval, Gautier. On those shelves were journeys and escapes and spells; but they weren’t what we called the library. That word, spoken in rather overawed and excited tones, was reserved for Dad’s library. In that room was all the mystery and strangeness and ordered beauty of another world; a world you had to earn a place in, through patience and the gaining of wisdom, a world that beckoned, whose enchantment made time stand still. It is an image that stayed with me, and every time we went back to France as children – which was at last every two or three years – after having rushed around to rediscover toys and bedrooms, it was always the threshold of the library that drew me, to stand dreaming and hesitant looking in at the books, waiting for permission to be invited in.
In Australia, Dad had a room full of crowded bookcases, but it was not the same. The books were much less glamorous, there was no atmosphere in the room itself, and besides, I’d discovered another enchanted place. For the other world that drew me in Australia was our local public library. The children’s section was probably not very big, really, but in my memory it was huge, an enchanted kingdom, far away from the dull routine of school. At the rather modest Catholic parish primary school I went to, the only ‘library’ was a couple of sets of glass-fronted bookcases in the senior primary room. Insatiable reader that I was, I’d soon have dessicated from the need to imbibe stories if we had not discovered the local library. That was my real education in English, the library; left alone by Maman to make my own pathways through English-language children’s books, I made wonderful discoveries, but also missed out on some marvellous things. Magic and fairies and giants and trolls and other worlds and mysteries always attracted me; anything that smelt of mundane routine I cast aside, and thus it that was I met, and loved dearly, Tove Jannsson and CS Lewis and Alan Garner and Patricia Wrightson and Leon Garfield and James Thurber and a host of others; but missed out as a child on Laura Ingalls Wilder because I was sure a book with ‘house’ in the title must be about housework! (though I read the books as an adult, to my kids, and both they and I loved them).
I loved my high school library too. It was new, bright, sunny, airy, and the librarian was a very keen reader who did a lot to extend my reading range. Because in an earlier high school, I’d been severely bullied, I’d also taken to the library as a refuge from harshness and cruelty. Libraries had always been associated with pleasure for me; now they also became islands of calm in the turbulent seas of
The first novel I ever wrote – for I had written lots of poetry, short stories, plays and illustrated tales before, but not novels, thinking I could never finish one – was started thus, at the age of 16, in the library. It was a vast fantasy novel – I’d discovered Tolkien and his ilk by then – in which I tried to incorporate as many of the mythologies of the world as I could manage! I never finished it, but I still have it, and I still remember those afternoons in the school library, bent over my notebook, lost in another world.
When I finished school, I left home after one too many arguments with my fiery father, and struggled in poverty for quite a while. I was trying both to meet the requirements of a tough university degree specialising in Middle Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, medieval romances, and Icelandic sagas, and to keep food in my mouth by doing all kinds of odd jobs, from folding clothes in a laundromat (where once a customer, seeing me read in a quiet moment, said to me, What! You work in a laundrette, and you read a book!) to delivering junk mail to looking after kids to trying to clean flats (me, the least domestically adept person ever!) to working in cafes and restaurants and in a candy factory. None of these jobs ever earnt more than a pitiful amount, and I was really quite poor. But I never felt poor in our local public library, which I had joined as soon as I could. There were many days when I felt very much like giving up the struggle and crawling back to Papa; but the library always put new heart into me. Not only was it free entertainment; but it also provided information on all kinds of literary possibilities. I entered many competitions advertised on its noticeboards, and spent many happy hours continuing on with my various enthusiasms. The library reminded me that there was a world beyond flat wallets and gritty pavements and people who thought laundry assistants must be illiterate. It gave me heart, too, by reminding me that somewhere, sometime, people had cared enough about literature and about their destinies as writers to struggle through even the most difficult periods of their lives. No way did I want to follow the safe and dull careers of routine that had been proposed for me; in the reckless way of youth, I wanted to do what I felt I was born to do – and the library, so quiet and demure in appearance, but with such a multi-chambered, raging heart of tumult and vision and destiny and heartbreak and magic and joy, gave me the courage to continue, and not to lose hope.
Since that time, libraries have continued to be amongst my favourite places. These days, I am a regular of the public library in our high cold university town in northern NSW, and I have a large and messy library scattered in all of the rooms in our house. I also love trawling through the vast virtual libraries that one may find on the Internet. I continue to follow overgrown, wild, exciting pathways through magical lands and undiscovered countries; many of my novels have started from something seen by chance in a library book. I have had a great deal of very pleasant interactions with librarians, and admire their great dedication, erudition and kindness to me who is often a rather disordered and awestruck traveller in their domains. Though I still love magic and mystery, I have come to understand, as I’ve grown up, fallen and stayed in love and had children; built a house of our own with my husband and cherished the garden we have made, that the world within the world incorporates all those things, that the flesh and the spirit are tightly woven together, and that the spell cast by the library, the spell that seems to stop time, is the spell not of old paper or old magical formulae, but of imagination, that greatest of all qualities, which makes us both fully human, fully mortal, yet immortal too. The library is the record, the garden, the house of souls; but it is also the place where the soul is helped to emerge from its chrysalis, to spread its wings and be truly free. And there is no price that can be put on that.
Three: Other people’s books
You sometimes hear writers say they never read the work of other authors, especially writing in the same genre as they are, and especially if they’re currently in the process of writing a book themselves. The reason given is usually that they are afraid of being influenced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by the other writer’s work. There’s a kind of fear that originality may be somehow diminished, and that your pristine work may be contaminated, as it were, by foreign authorial bacteria, or that a kind of helpless plagiarism may happen, which will then destroy your own literary integrity. Underlying this is a deeper fear: that you may discover that those other writers’ books are actually vastly better than yours, leading to a major paralysis in imagination and the feeling that as they’ve said it all anyway, why bother?
It’s a fear that is common in modern times—writers in Elizabethan times, for instance, rarely seemed to harbour such insecurities. And I understand those feelings—the writing life is quite often competitive, stressful, and prey to many fancies and fears–but I don’t share them. Partly, it’s because of the way I write: a process of complete and utter immersion. When I’m writing, I’m completely in the story, nothing else figures or intrudes, I’m away with the fairies. It quite blanks out anything going on around me–to the great frustration—and delight– of my children when they were growing up. My daughter says she could have asked for a huge rise in pocket money when I was in the middle of writing and I’d have said, Yes, dear, whatever you want, vaguely; and my youngest musician son loves to tell the story of the day he’d spent an entire morning practising drums loudly upstairs, and when he came down for lunch, and I emerged blinking from my work, I asked him brightly what he’d been doing all morning! Equally, though, it seems to blank out what I’ve been reading—perhaps because writing is such a different process to reading, perhaps because that’s the ‘safety switch’ that clicks on in my mind when I start to write.
But it’s only partly my experience of writing itself which makes me feel that those common writers’ fears are not only unfounded, but actually dangerous. Because how on earth can a writer not be a reader too? Though they are so different, the two things go together. Wide and frequent reading of other people’s work leads to the enrichment of a writer’s mental furniture, the deepening of their emotional range, the texturing of their intellectual potential. Whether that be classic authors or modern ones, reading what other people have written, thinking about it, engaging with it, makes all the difference to the strength and power of your own writing. An author without ”influence”–if such a mythical beast can truly exist– would write merely hollow, navel-gazing books which would most likely fail to click with readers.
I can’t begin to estimate just how important other writers’ influence has been, and is, to me. From the very beginning, when as a non-English-speaking migrant child newly arrived in Australia, I was introduced to English-language children’s books, I was off and away on an extraordinary journey through the world of literature. I devoured books as fast as I could get them off the library shelves. I read in both English and in my native language, French, racing through CS Lewis, Hergé(Tintin books) ,Tove Jannsson, Leon Garfield, Alexandre Dumas, Roger Lancelyn Green, Jean de Brunhoff(Babar), Patricia Wrightson, Philippa Pearce, Louise May Alcott, Jules Verne, Enid Blyton, and lots lots lots more. From early on, I wanted to emulate my favourite writers, and wrote little comic strips a la Tintin, fairy stories, school stories, all sorts of bits and pieces, totally influenced by what I read. Later, when, as a teenager, I got into poetry and plays, I also tried my hand at writing in the styles and forms of those poets and playwrights I loved best: Shakespeare, Yeats, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Tennessee Williams, William Blake, Robert Browning, and so on and on. I counted sonnet lines and tried my hand at shoe-horning verse into ancient bardic forms, tried to write snappy dialogue and tragic scenes. I devoured Russian novels and Gothic novels and swashbuckling French novels and tried to create characters in their mould. And my writing was highly influenced, highly coloured by what I’d read. But not only was I enriching my mental furniture by reading, I don’t think I could have found a better way of practising to become a writer. Challenging and extending myself, not staying within the narrow world of home-school-home that I lived in as a kid but roaming the wide worlds of my, and other people’s imaginations.
And so, unconsciously, as I grew up, I came to understand a very important and liberating thing, which has stood me in good stead all my writing life. And it’s this. Voice, which is really where a writer’s originality lies, does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, like Nature, it abhors a vacuum. Instead, it comes straight out of that rich mix of individuality and influence.