Thursday, November 29, 2018

Writing (but not a book).

Life - What obstacles, if any, did you encounter on your road to becoming a writer? And how did you overcome them?

By Catriona

This spring, my sister, niece and great-nephew came to visit and I dragged them to the railway museum in Sacramento. I always try to make guests go there; it's one of the best, most interesting, most well-conceived and executed specialised museums I've ever encountered. But a typical conversation goes like this:

Guest: What will we do today?
Me: Let's go to the railway museum in Sacramento!
Guest: Trains? Really?
Me: It's great!
Guest: I didn't know you liked trains.
Me: I don't! Particularly. That's how great this museum is.
Guest: So . . . Napa?

But with a twenty-month-old baby boy in tow, I carried the day. He loved it. He stood in front of every train and delivered the same thoughtful analysis - "Choo-choo". Or rather, every train except one. There is a train in the museum that's so huge a little boy of not yet two literally couldn't see it. He could see the shiny black wall in front of him, reaching to a dwindling point on either side of him and up into the sky above him but he couldn't perceive it as a train. He didn't mind. There was a cute little steam engine on the other side of the room. He could see that and knew exactly what he thought of it. "Choo-choo."

The first obstacle on my path to being a writer was much the same. My house was full of library books when I was a child. And I read every day from the age of four. Books were treasure. Books were miracles. Like beaches and stars. 

By age seven, I knew better. Books had another name on the front as well as the title and I knew what the name was. The author. I now knew that books were written, like paintings were painted and music was composed. But somehow, at the same time, the idea of people doing the writing was unthinkable. However something as perfect and thrilling as a book was made, it was nothing I could ever understand. I could no more imagine the process than the baby could see a monster train six inches from his nose. 

When I was a bit older - old enough to know that Daphne Du Maurier lived in Cornwall and Jane Austen wrote on a round table - I wasn't much closer to clearing the hurdle. At age ten, say, I knew that writers were real people. Just not people like me. No one I knew had written a book. And I didn't know any authors. (And those two statements were still distinct). I might not have been able to describe what made a writer but I knew it was something to do with being posh, confident, English (Agatha Christie had a lot to answer for) and most likely dead.

What made the difference, in the end, was a class in the school library when I was thirteen. The librarian talked us through the back of the title page - copyright date, printing history, publisher's address - and it hit me like a thunderclap. I finally understood that all a writer had to do was write words on a piece of paper (and I could do that). They didn't need to understand how make pages stick together at the inside or make covers be the same size front and back. 

Daft as it sounds now, that librarian that day in the school library sent me flying over the first obstacle on the writer's path. I believed I could help out the makers of books by providing the words and that someone else would do the mystifying bits.

Every time I see a cover design, read a royalty statement, listen to a discussion of meta-data and algorithms, or peek at a marked-up proof, I feel the same. I'll keep doing the easy bit and feeling grateful that someone else keeps all the pages the same size.

1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

Step by step into becoming an award-winning, immensely popular crime fiction writer. Leaving the hard bits to book makers. I never thought separately about the writers and the producers until I started fishing for an agent and realized it wasn't magic - I write, and it appears, properly edited, kerned, and covered! Lovely post, Catriona.