On writing

The Italian writer Umberto Eco once wrote that authors are simply the medium that books use to reproduce themselves.

I like that. It puts the writer in his or her place. While writing literature does require reaching in to your own subconscious to pull out fragments of everything you have experienced, it usually also necessitates researching your subject in odzens or hundreds of books and, in the decades since Eco wrote those words, you can add online searches to that list.

The writer absorbs words, sentences, stories, and regurgitates them with the words in a different order. In the process the conclusions in one book are steered towards a new conclusion in another book. The words somehow find fresh meanings, in the way that raindrops trickling down a window pane create random paths and detours, coalescing and surging, as they grow and negotiate their downwards trajectories.

I was reading the manuscript for Time to a Wake, a book I wrote in 1999, while preparing material for the website.

Mangoes hang from the trees like spent yo-yos I had written on my travels in Nigeria. The time it had taken me to create that original sentence had crystalised what I had seen in a concise way that a longer more precise description would have lost. I had forgotten the way mangoes hung from trees but the words mailed it.

I was travelling with a family of Nigerian friends, one of whom is married to an American. The American is a sweet guy. Like me, like us all, he brings cultural baggage to the table. At one point, in a van travelling through the bush, he turns to his wife.

‘What was the name of that restaurant we went to in London, Honey?’

‘Macdonald’s’ she replies a little tersely.

‘Yup, that was it. And d’you’all know what I paid? Ninety nine pence for a burger! Hell, back home I’d have had me two for that money.’

In those few words we hear a husband showing he is well travelled, a wife gently underscoring he is not as sophisticated as he is making out, and a parable about over-eating in America.

I keep a diary whenever I travel abroad or, as my spell checker has attempted to suggest, I keep a dairy whenever I travel abroad. I would recommend anyone who wants to write to do the same; the diary bit obviously, trailing a dairy along can be burdensome, though Swiss men occasionally turn up for military duty with their herd trotting behind them. For the record, all Swiss men have to do military duty for a few weeks every year and for some alpine farmers this can be an inconvenience that they enjoy sharing with their commanding officers. To make a point. Where in an army camp do you put thirty seven cows?

Those hours spent waiting at international airports or sitting on trains are great people-watching opportunities; you don’t need to be poking a camera in someone’s face to be recording your experiences.

Someone has suggested that human beings should be called homo narratus rather than homo sapiens. Not simply because calling humans sapiens, or wise, is fraught with risk, but also because we are so obsessed with stories, so obsessed with knowing what happens next. That desire to know what happens next is key to our love of literature.

There is something unique about being immersed in a novel, in a world painted in words that shape everything while leaving all the pictures to be formed in your own imagination. A world where, however fantastical the setting or the plot, something will happen next. A world where there has to be a conclusion.

We humans love playing with words. My nephew when he was four or five-years-old asked his mum to explain the pictures in his pillow, and learned about the world of dreams. At a similar age one of my daughters referred to tall pink birds as flyingmingoes. In our house when someone is leaving to go somewhere we say I am an egg. This is a multilingual household; I am half- French and half-English. I am an egg has emerged as a result of saying I am oeuf instead of I am off . We don’t ask if the front door is locked we say Is front door? Since there is almost no other reason to raise the subject of the front door’s status, the rest of the phrase is deemed irrelevant. Just saving time.

All of us have a rich personal vocabulary within our families that provide a shorthand to collective experiences and enrich the ties between us. I freely admit that some of these appear in my writing.

Whether writing children’s picture books or adult thrillers or humorous fiction, I just love writing. I write because I love playing with words, because I love being lost in a story (writing a story is like reading one but much much slower), and because I want to change me and change the world. I love reading for the same reasons.

Writing changes us because the act of formulating something in words brings new meaning and new understanding. Writing changes the world because it feeds the exchange of ideas. Of course, YouTube videos, films and television also do that you say, and you are right. But that does not negate the power of words. The internet simply enables words to orbit the world faster than ever before. Most of those words are simply chatter, or poorly written, or misinformed. But that has always been true.

Those who predict the end of the novel are, I think, unnecessarily pessimistic. Written stories are here to stay.