Wednesday 13 June 2012

Why We Write – Alison Boyle

Question 1: Why should we write?
Answer 1: Because we must. 
Question 2: But why must we?
Answer 2
: Eco-nomic necess-i-ty?
For most writers across the world it's flying in the face of economic necessity to spend time on writing.
Question 3: So why keep going in the face of hours of commitment that may end in a rejection?

I refer you back to
Answer 1.
Balaclavian public art. Was it a Sassie who swooped on
the Northern Quarter in Manchester, England,
to paint this street furniture, then disappeared?
If we write picturebook texts and they move from the realm of our personal computer or notepad to the public realm of a printed book or eBook or app etc, our ideas and the way they're expressed have the potential to be remembered. They can get people thinking and talking and can provide the foundations for so much more.

If you are fortunate to have had one book published you'll know the thrill of either seeing it discovered by a 'new' reader or re-discovered by an 'old' reader.
PICTURE THE SCENE World Book Day 2012. A four year-old girl waits patiently for an exceedingly long snake of young children to be guided into the classroom for a Visiting Author session. I am the Visiting Author, I've brought some books with me that the school wants to buy. They're in my bag...
Four year-old Girl: What do you do?
Me: I write books, including for children.
Four year-old Girl: [Long pause, looking round at her classmates]: We're children.
Me: You are.
Four year-old Girl: Have I read any of your books?
[If she can read she is doing well for her age, and if she can't then I enjoy knowing that the grown-ups in her life are valuing her contribution]
Me: Maybe.
[Visiting Author scans the classroom, and seeing two healthy-sized wooden boxes of picturebooks, walks over with a mixture of trepidation and hope. Four year-old Girl watches Visiting Author with that question hanging in the air.
In under ten seconds a book by Visiting Author is located, and it's a well-thumbed edition. Four year-old Girl, who looks intrigued]
Me: I wrote this book.
[I did, I did, and it's in my top three and I've never fallen out with it, and I really liked the editor and the illustrator - this, as all published picturebook authors will know, is not guaranteed - and
it's been borrowed thousands of times from libraries across the UK]
Four year-old Girl: [Smiles]
Me: [First I listen to an introduction by the teacher, then I launch into my World Book Day session, telling the story of a classmate who incited me to rummage through the class's book box.]
PICTURE ANOTHER SCENE A close friend I met in publishing leaves to qualify as a teacher and build a school in a remote part of Ghana with an inspirational Ghanaian woman. Literally build it, cement scooped into the boot of the Head's car to avoid it being syphoned off overnight before water can be added and bricks can be stuck together to make some walls.

Whilst over in Scotland my friend volunteers at a local primary school helping children who have additional needs, often due to their family circumstances.

The Volunteer Teacher asks a Seven year-old Boy to go to the bookshelf and choose five books...
Volunteer Teacher: 'Oh, you've chosen a book written by one of my friends.' [Note: No product placement involved]
Seven year-old Boy: [Looks askance at Volunteer Teacher] I don't believe you.
Volunteer Teacher: No, really.

[They read all of the books together]
Volunteer Teacher, friend, and biased-towards-me person: Which is your favourite out of those five?
Seven year-old Boy: This one.

Of course the chosen book is the one I wrote. If it hadn't been I wouldn't have heard the story. I protest to my friend that the boy was trying to impress his new teacher, whom he likes. The response was that the boy never chooses anything just to go along with the teacher. I don't think she's completely right, but I don't think she's completely wrong either. (By the way, it's the same book as in the first example.)

All writers have stories about how their words and ideas get people thinking and talking. Whether shared or not, these experiences bring sporadic energy to the ongoing labour of writing. Many authors are strapped for cash and finding it increasingly hard to make a living out of their art, due to fewer offers, lower advances and unsettled routes to market. But this is also a time of opportunity.
Writers need to survive for new writing to happen. I write because I have to, but it isn't just about me. Many children who are keen to read our books can't even get to school. If they can get to school and the schools are good ones, our books can make a difference.
Question 4: What can we do to reach readers?
Answer 4
: We can write.
Question 1: Why should we write?
My Right Honourable Friend, I refer you back to the answer I gave some moments ago -
Answer 1)
There's a story or two you might like to read on this website. If you look deep enough you will find the foundations.

On the side wall of a car park in Manchester, England,
an enormous bird perches; cement supports the painting's base.


Rosalind Adam said...

A lovely post, Alison. How satisfying that must have been for you as the visiting author. I received a tweet recently telling me her son went to bed clutching my pb every night. That's why we write!

Abie Longstaff said...

Such an inspiring post. Sometimes I get so bogged down in word count, edits, pacing, spread that I forget why I'm doing it all! It is lovely when someone likes your book. For me school visits are the nicest part of my work: all those cute little upturned faces, still free of cynicism!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Alison. And I agree with Abie. I love primary school visits and the children's enthusiasm for everything (including books and sometimes one's own books) is catching. It certainly helps you remember why you're doing it...

Alison Boyle said...

It's good to hear that you've had a similar experience, Rosalind. Thanks for sharing it. These individual responses go a long way for authors, don't they.

Alison Boyle said...

I'm glad to hear that this chimed with you both, Abie and Juliet. It does help to get out sometimes!

I've found that when I visit secondary schools some of the students might appear to be surly and uninterested, their faces hidden by long fringes rather than being upturned towards you, but when you talk to them afterwards or hear from their teachers, the reactions aren't so different from those cuties.

Paeony Lewis said...

The economics of writing are often pathetic. But yes, it's such a fuzzy happy feeling when somebody says in a surprised (slightly incredulous!) voice: "YOU wrote that? But it was X's favourite book. I've read it so many times..." :-)

Alison Boyle said...

I think you've touched on something important there, Paeony. The identity of picturebook writers can sometimes become lost when they aren't illustrators too, and yet as we know the text and pictures make the whole.

Moira Butterfield said...

Thank you, Alison. Your blog is beautifully written, and I will reread it more than once today, I think, as frankly I am going through one of those hard 'what am I doing' phases. I loved the art examples, too, and the fact that it had been put there for the pure joy of it. Makes me want to go out and do some 'secret writing' and leave it in a public place...

Alison Boyle said...

That means a lot Moira, to hear that as a discerning writer you aim to come back and read the post again.

I think your idea of guerrilla writing is excellent. I hope you'll include the Northwest in your tour so I have a chance of discovering those words.

Jenny Alexander said...

What a wonderful post! I think it will resonate with every author. For me this is a background annoyance/concern, not dramatic moments but a daily awareness, that the hard and demanding work I am doing today may never be published, or if it is, may not make me enough money to pay the bills. amazon reviews and readers' emails make a massive difference, reminding me of the true value of what all of us, as writers, do.

Lynne Garner said...

A great post and I always take it as an enormous compliment when I'm told someone has enjoyed one of my books. I recently met up with a friend who has a three year old. She asked him "what is your answer to everything?" He smiled, looked at me and quoted a line from my last picture book.

Alison Boyle said...

Thanks so much Jenny. As you say, not dramatic moments, usually more of an undercurrent. Or following the theme of this post, dare I call it a 'foundation' for ongoing travail?

Alison Boyle said...

Lynne, that compliment has impact!

Linda Strachan said...

Lovely post, Alison.
I had a moment when I was visiting a school in Cairo recently. I spoke to lots of different ages of children from nursery to teenage while I was there. In one session when I was speaking to a large group of older children (Yr 5, I think) one of the teachers stood up at the end and said he had read one of my books hundreds of times.
I began to wonder which book he could be talking about and then he held up one of my picture books and showed the class, telling them that it has been a family favourite for years and he was delighted to be able to meet the person who wrote it.
Interestingly the other day I was sent some copies of the 10th Brazilian edition of this same book, in Portuguese.
Lovely to think my words are reaching so far away.

Alison Boyle said...

We all have those family favourites don't we. They can be as few as a handful of books that for a myriad of reasons we feel compelled to come back to. Your contribution on translated copies across successive editions adds some hard business facts to what Paeony calls that 'fuzzy happy feeling' - both aspects of the same state. Thanks Linda for providing this perspective on continuity across the world.