Writer’s Block….. no joke!

Writer's Blockpic

Joan Aiken was a skilled artist and produced some beautiful pastel drawings while brooding over her plots, some of them can be seen here, but this little doodle on the back of an envelope suggests a rather different, very un-fertile state of mind, brought about by the distractions and endless pressures of daily life (Gas in barn? applesauce?) and recalls the dreadful to-do list that accumulates unbearably when you have something you would really like to be getting on with, but can’t let the ‘shoulds’ go – or in Joan’s case, the ‘oughts’.

Here’s a selection from one of her many TO DO lists – a very personal expression of her state of mind, and by no means the whole of it, emerging furiously from her typewriter!

To Do list

And she goes on: “Somehow one’s crazy conscience always relegates the really important job – the getting on with one’s book – to the last, as if it were a piece of self-indulgence.”

Although she produced an enormous range of different work – plays, short stories, articles and introductions, poems and talks – there would always be, seething somewhere at the back of her mind, the current repository of all the hopes and dreams, the great obsession that called itself  ‘The Book.’

In her adult books you can sometimes hear Joan’s personal voice quite clearly,  she put a good deal of herself into some of her heroines, as for example the heroine of The Ribs of Death.   Aulis, or Tuesday as she is also known, who is described by one reviewer as ‘a feckless sophisticated, cheerful, courageous little tramp of a girl’ but she  is also the victim of a major case of writer’s block, having had extraordinary beginner’s luck with a risqué experimental novel she wrote at the age of seventeen and been unable to produce anything since that her publishers would even consider.  Not only is she oppressed by her publisher’s expectation that she will obligingly produce half a dozen more in the same vein, but she is also forced to deal with the snide comments of people who assume that tossing off a novel is something any fool can do in their spare time – and in this case it is the ice cold – or in Tuesday’s mind ‘cool as aspic’ – Doctor Eleanor who needles her mercilessly on one of their first meetings:

Writer's Block

This is clearly drawn from  her own experience, but despite the cold fear it expresses, Joan Aiken was also familiar enough with her craft to have learned how to avoid coming to a total standstill in her writing, by having more than one string to her bow, and as the list up above suggests, she always managed to keep several projects in hand in case one of them stalled.

Having, like her heroine. also been published at the early age of seventeen, and managed for most of her life to earn a living from her work, she had obviously learned how to strike a balance between the dreaded ‘to do’ list and the project that was really close to her heart – writing The BOOK!

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Have you heard about The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize?

Find entry details here

Are you managing to press on with your own book despite current distractions?

Perhaps it will be the saving grace that whisks you away to a world of your own…

 

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A Japanese Joan Aiken Picture Post

jap-whaler

A Pop up Nantucket Whaler from Japan.

Joan Aiken has inspired, and herself created, some beautiful art work, often with Japanese  and also sea-faring connections.

This exquisite cut out card came from a devoted Joan Aiken fan, Kayoko, and arrived fittingly on Valentine’s day. A new edition of the Dido Twite adventure Night Birds on Nantucket has recently been published in Japan – a labour of love for the translator who had to to convey Dido’s cockney slang, nineteenth century whaling jargon, and the little island’s old fashioned Puritan speech patterns…

Joan Aiken’s books have flourished in Japan and inspired some beautiful editions:

jap

Another translation, of Cold Shoulder Road, a later book in the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido’s younger sister Is, was stunningly illustrated by graphic artist Miki Yamamoto. Here in a dramatic sea scene she captures the moment when a Tsunami rolls into town:

yamamoto

Joan’s early memories of her father, poet Conrad Aiken included being carried on his shoulders to look at, and listen to his stories about, the many Japanese prints on the walls of their old home in Rye; a favourite was known as ‘The twenty-seven drunken poets.’ Here are twelve of them:

drunken-poets

Conrad also supplied her with some very fascinating picture books, which inspired some of her own drawings – here’s an early Christmas card –  it could almost be a Night Bird?

books-bird

Rye, an old sea port also inspired an illustrated poem she produced for her father:

rye-ships

Although the sea and sailing ships often feature in Joan Aiken’s books, one story which was particularly near to her heart, was set in the countryside close to her childhood home.

The Cuckoo Tree, another of the Wolves Chronicles, in which Dido Twite returns from her various voyages at sea, has inspired unknown numbers of Japanese followers to visit this part of the Sussex countryside and try and find the miniature tree that is the setting of the story. That was how I came to meet Kayoko, who I took there, and who later sent the beautiful whaling card. Near the village where Joan grew up, it was a favourite private haunt of her childhood, a place to sit and draw or write, and perhaps appeals to these particular fans  because Joan herself was so diminutive – there is just room for one small person:

writing cuckoo tree

Joan Aiken would probably be astonished to know what devotion, and artistic creation her writing still inspires…long may it continue!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all, and many thanks for the lovely letters:

japk

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Find out about all the Wolves Chronicles on the Joan Aiken website

Read more about visitors to the Cuckoo Tree here

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A Winter Solstice Poem – Midwinter Song

Hedgehog

 

Many thanks to all of you who have visited and shared your thoughts here throughout the year!

I do hope you will come again  – and bring your friends…  Here is a poem and drawing by Joan to celebrate the passing of  Winter and the return of Spring.

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Visit the website to see more of Joan’s Art

The Source of Inspiration

Gorey Cuckoo Tree

This original Edward Gorey sketch for the cover of Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree (which sadly I don’t own..!) was in fact inspired by Pat Marriott the artist who originally illustrated Aiken’s ‘Wolves’ series, and who had been introduced to her in the 1950’s by publisher Jonathan Cape. The artists’ styles do have a certain similarity, and often Pat’s illustrations have been mistakenly attributed to Gorey, or even to another Edward – Ardizzone who was also popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. Coming from the pre- internet generations, Pat never had a website to immortalise her work, and although he original illustrations are still included in the UK editions of the books, thanks to the current classic Red Fox paperbacks,  I would like to make sure Pat Marriott’s timeless images are remembered!

Here below is Pat’s drawing, much more closely related to Aiken’s story, and which clearly inspired the later picture above; while hers shows characters one recognises from the story,  Gorey’s has a stylised small girl in a frock – a frock???  Dido Twite is usually dressed in her midshipman’s garb, and only willingly wore a frock once in her life, when dear Sophie made her a new blue merino to wear to the fair…   But Gorey does bring to life the overhanging threatening trees as seen by Dido,  and they echo her own eavesdropping on the evil plotters while under the effects of the hallucinogenic Joobie nuts – very much  as Marriott first imagined them.  It is certainly fascinating to have the opportunity to compare the two.

Cuckoo Trees

The partnership between Joan Aiken and Pat Marriott lasted for forty years, during which time Joan Aiken wrote eight of the twelve ‘Wolves’ chronicles,  for which Pat’s illustrations received reviews as positive as those for the books themselves, as did her work and covers for all of Joan’s classic collections of fantasy stories, also published by Jonathan Cape, in a handsome set of black white and gold editions .

Collections

This partnership was so inspired it deserves to be more widely celebrated, like that between Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl, whose depictions of characters like Matilda or the BFG seem to belong to the writer and illustrator inseparably.

  Joan Aiken writes about Pat, and other fruitful illustrator partnerships here.

There is however, one original piece of inspiration that is even less known.  When Joan Aiken sent off her first stories in the early 1950’s, she also included illustrations of her own –  as used to expressing herself in chalk and pastel as in words, she had no qualms about including her own pictures. The Editor’s reply was friendly but firm: ” Thank you for including your own illustrations to the stories.  I am afraid I cannot use them as they are – for one thing it would be difficult to reproduce them adequately – drawn as they are in blue ink – but they will be invaluable as a guide to the artist we eventually select.”

Singeing JA

Joan Aiken’s drawing of the unicorn and raven from an early Armitage story

Joan Aiken’s response when she saw Pat Marriott’s drawings and cover design of unicorns for All You’ve Ever Wanted – that first collection,  was:

“They are delightful, full of character, and exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for…I should like to congratulate the artist.”  Her only reservation about one drawing –  “The governess is a little too sweet and amiable…”   A premonition of evil governesses to come, perhaps?

Their friendship was to last a lifetime.

All You've Ever Wanted

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See the full collection of Edward Gorey covers for the Wolves Series here.

And some of Joan Aiken’s own work.