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 2019?

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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Wolves…the beginning

Wolves original

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has become a classic which for more than fifty years has thrilled and delighted readers all over the world, but the book itself has a story almost as dramatic as the adventures of its two desperate orphan heroines – this was a book that nearly didn’t get written.

It all began one autumn day in 1953…when she gave herself a wonderful birthday present.

Having survived the dangers and difficulties of World War II, and after living for some time in an old Greenline bus,  Joan Aiken was finally secure in her own house in the Kent countryside with her husband and two small children.  One afternoon as she was out chopping wood for the fire, she thought:

“Now at last I can write my book, and make it the most marvellous adventure ever!  I can fill it with all my favourite things – not just one dreadful villain but a whole pack of them; castles  and dungeons, banquets and ballrooms, shipwrecks and secret passages, and above all – indefatigable orphans facing unbelievable odds and triumphing over it all!”

She bought an old table, installed it in a corner of her bedroom, and on her twenty-ninth birthday – the date, Sept.4th, proudly inscribed at the top on the first page of an old exercise book – she began to write.

But just as in those stories she had relished as a child, disaster struck.  She lost her husband and her home, and for nearly ten years the story she had so eagerly started to write had to be put aside.  When she was finally able to take it out again, she said, reading that first page took her straight back into the world she had imagined years before, with its “winter dusk” where “snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”

Even after so long, the story poured out in an unstoppable flow: she stepped straight back into her own imagined historical age where train travellers carried muskets or fowling pieces to defend themselves from attacks by ravening wolves, where the rich dined on oyster patties in their furs and diamonds – but where a reversal of fortune could lead to ruin and starvation. Her  own years of struggle and responsibility had immeasurably  deepened her writing; no longer just a tongue in cheek parody of the melodramas she had once revelled in, the book now reflected her own experience of tragedy, poverty and grief. It was with mixed feelings of relief and hope that she was able to complete it and send it off.

But then she patiently waited a year before she dared enquire about its fate – only to discover that it had been lost, left on a windowsill and forgotten!  And the first publisher who did look at it thought it was much too scary: “Could she take out the wolves?”

Of course she said no…

The next publisher loved it, and recognised its parodic style, but also its very real dramatic impact – the only problem was the title, so Bonnie Green became The Orphans of Willoughby Chase, and then the more memorably alliterative The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

The book was finally published, in England in 1962, illustrated by Pat Marriott, and then the following year in the USA where it appeared with its wonderful cover  by Edward Gorey, now itself a classic image, and was duly hailed by Time magazine as:

“One Genuine Small Masterpiece”

Gorey small

In the hope that this story might inspire other

would-be writers, Joan Aiken’s daughter and her agents, A.M.Heath launched

the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize in 2019

The winner ‘Harklights’ by Tim Tilley is being published in 2021

Read about “Wolves” and all the following books in the series

 On the Joan Aiken website

Read that first page as Joan Aiken originally wrote it – spot the changes..?

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New editions of the book continue to appear –

Look out for a new Puffin Book, and a Christmas Folio edition.

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Sharing Aiken Gold with Fellow Writers

Way to Write cover

     It would be perfect  if Joan herself were here to write this blog!  With her many years of experience from her own early days of struggle and rejection slips,  her wide reading and appreciation of all kinds of life and literature, and her great sympathy for fellow writers, she would have had so much to share.

     She valued her peace and privacy, and had already firmly rejected the computer as a writing tool, preferring to handwrite and use a familiar typewriter, so I don’t know how she would have taken to the world of social networking and instant internet communications. But I also know she was a faithful correspondent and replied to hundreds of letters in her lifetime; she valued letters from her readers enormously, and wrote many appreciative and thoughtful reviews of other writers’ work.

     Joan was at one time persuaded to write a book about writing for children, and although writing methods and publishing possibilities may have changed since then, what she has to say is still both inspiring and encouraging – even if the world is now flooded with more information and advice for writers, in books and on the internet, than any of us can possibly make sense of – she still has treasure to offer,  and I am very happy to pass it on. She dedicated it to her wonderful friend and mentor, Kaye Webb, the Puffin Books editor who did so much to promote new children’s writers.

Here is a short sample from The Way to Write for Children (not her choice of title, of course, she said there are many, many ways!) which I hope will spur you on:

     What should a children’s writer write – and not write?

       “A children’s book is not something that can be dashed off to order – children have huge needs…which reading will help to fill.  A good children’s writer may be particularly well equipped to do this…as a kind of lunatic or poet…they are the sensitive points in a civilisation.”

Way to write 1a

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Read more about Joan’s The Way to Write for Children  on the Website

Published in the USA, but you can find it here

And scroll down to find lots more posts on Writing Advice from Joan Aiken

Prize 1

Don’t forget the 2019 Joan Aiken Future Classics prize is now open!

  Find all the details here