Friday 12 May 2017

How to write with feeling - finding the still points of a turning world

by Addy Farmer

Just imagine that you died. Yes, I know, it's weird but you're a writer so indulge me. You died; in fact you knew you were going to die and you were definitely not going to go gently into that good night. You raged. But it went dark anyway.

I don't want to go

Then you came back to life.

number 10

You woke with all that knowledge of dying and the knowledge of how you didn't want to go. Just think how you would feel; all the big things and the small things would rush upon you. I can't articulate this better than a children's author called Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
When I am feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world ... after having been dead. I imagine how sentimental I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. Oh, there’s a light switch! I haven’t seen a light switch in so long! I didn’t realize how much I missed light switches! Oh! Oh! And look — the stairs up to our front porch are still completely cracked! Hello cracks! Let me get a good look at you. And there’s my neighbor, standing there, fantastically alive, just the same, still punctuating her sentences with you know what I’m saying? Why did that bother me? It’s so… endearing.
Can you imagine it?! All that relief and gratitude and love for life in all its variety, renewed and reinvigorated. Hmmm, I wonder how long that would last? I have never actually died and come back to life but that poignant piece in the excellent BrainPickings really made me think about how my child reader might begin to view her world - with joy, with amazement, with despair, with puzzlement, with a shrug.

What's going on again?

For me, writing for children is a remembrance of not just what happened but crucially how it felt when it happened. As adults we carry baggage of various weights and sizes but as writers we should be able to rummage around and find the bit which takes you to a place or a person or event when you felt something for maybe the first time.

Remembering anew

Italo Calvino would have us believe that, “every experience is unrepeatable,”. That may be so but as writers we must seek to use that experience and enhance our stories by recalling how it felt to be five or fifteen. Can you easily recall any childhood memories? Try a sample of mine from childhood:
  • remembering my grandmother's voice and how she once told me that curtains were the work of the devil 
  • waking up from a bad dream and seeing balloon monsters at the end of the bed and no voice to call out
  • a party ending and not wanting to go and being lovingly mother-handled down the drive
  • moving house and waving goodbye to my friends through the rear window of the car
  • getting lost on a birthday trip to London and being told off when I was finally found
I don't remember all of these incidents in detail but rather what sticks is how they made me feel - confused, terrified, furious, sad and relieved/unhappy/bewildered (that last one still gets me). It's not so much a case of write what you know but write what you feel you know.
Chris Riddell - tells a story every time

The still turning points

Occasionally the past can pierce the present. You might experience one of those amazing occurances where you just couldn't make it up (of course you can). They are what T.S. Eliot called 'the still points of the turning world'. Helen Shapiro writes:
At the end of the first evening at a large retreat, an old man approaches as I’m packing up my books and papers for the night. He looks at me with such warmth and love. Do I know you? Startled, I glance down at his name tag. I raise a hand to my mouth, then stand and hug him hard, wordlessly. He had been my first piano teacher.
The chance meeting took her back, without warning, to a happy time with a formative person in her life. Her reaction was wordless and all the more affecting because she felt it. Apart from this being classic, 'show and not tell', this is a lovely example of how a story can start or end ...

lost and found - Oliver Jeffers
Have you ever had a hand-to-the-mouth moment? Something which stirs a forgotten memory. Something powerful enough to transport you backwards in time to a once important person or a place?
  • A meeting with someone you knew or someone a close relative or a friend knew
  • A scent, a smell which brings it all back in an instant 
  • A found object which evokes a past you wanted forgotten or had forgotten you had - a photograph, jewellery, a lock of hair, a toy, a shabby item of toddler clothing ... the list is endless
  • A place, taking you somewhere awful or delightful
  • A song, a poem, an extract from a diary
So many ways to stimulate your story brain and it's all inside you!

Not all memories are pleasant

Sometimes we have to really dig around and find those memories. That sounds ominous. But you know what I mean. It's the suppressed memories - the ones you really have to mine for - that often provoke the greatest depth of feeling. It's a little bit painful to try and prod these into being. I did a writing exercise which made me think about this.
  • think of something you are ashamed of having done
  • why do you think it happened
  • who made you think it was shaming?   
I won't regale you with my shameful past. Although some of these 'shameful' episodes seem funny now. But at the time they made me hide my head ... all right, just one. I was playing outside in someone's back garden. We had a football and I used to pretend that I knew everything about football (such a lie!). Anyhow, I told my friend I could kick the ball further than him. I kicked it into his kitchen window (classic). His dad came out and raged at his son and I stood there and let him. He never dobbed me in but he gave me such a 'look' and never talked to me again. Now, that may not be exactly how it went but good grief I can recall the disappointment of losing a friend through being cowardly. It's fine - I forgave myself a couple of weeks ago.

So, I hope this helps a bit. Remember - you are an individual writer with individual memories and feelings. And this lovely baggage is what gives you your individual voice.


  1. Awww. Spot on. Remember the bit in 'It's a Wonderful Life' where he kisses the broken bannister knob*?
    *there is a word for bannister knob but I can't remember what it is.

    1. Thanks, Alice. I've never watched It's a Wonderful life'! I must! Is it newel post or finial - I don't know but I'm intrigued now.

    2. Don't wait til Christmas!! Source a copy and watch it now! Think finial was the word I was searching for. Thanks.

  2. Lovely, simply lovely and evocative. Yes it made me think. Thank you

  3. What a beautiful blog post! It's funny how one thinks, oh I don't remember anything about younger me but the truth is who we are today:a jumble of all those experiences!

    1. Thanks, Candy. The Brain Pickings blog is especially good for having a good old think. And beautiful as well.

  4. I was going to comment on the excellent blog but I'm reeling - You have never seen A Wonderful Life! How is this possible???

    1. Sit down, Maureen, before you fall down! It's utter madness, I know but it will be remedied toot sweet.

  5. Great, Addy. I really get that 'returning to life after being dead' thing. I nearly died in my 20s and although it was really horrible at the time, my attitude to life since then has been much better and happier. I've been mining some childhood memories as you suggest. But WATCH IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE! x

  6. Lovely post. There's something very satisfying about using memories creatively. You can invest the random with subtle relevance by varying the context.

    1. Thanks, Ana. Yes, having random memories ambush you at random times is a good thing! That are there to be used and they are all yours.

  7. Great post, Addy. Your opening gambit reminded me of the recent documentary film The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson in which the rock guitarist was given a terminal cancer diagnosis but then unexpectedly didn't die and is still alive today. In that initial period after accepting the imminence of death, his experience of the world became almost overwhelming.

    We're surrounded by so much sensory input all the time, but as adults we've learnt to tune much of it out. But I do think that children's authors sometimes FEEL things more acutely than others, which is perhaps why we do what we do.

  8. That was so interesting, Nick. And yes, I do wonder that myself sometimes. Then other times I think I'm just working out a few issues (although I like to think that what I write becomes more than the sum of my past). Thanks, Nick.

  9. Beautiful and very inspiring. Thank you, Addy (& thanks to Zoe Thomas of Welsh SCWBIes for sharing your post on FB - which is how I found it!).

    1. Thanks so much, Sara and to Zoe! I'm glad you found your way here!

  10. Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing.


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