Years ago, you put a clean sheet of paper in the typewriter and set about filling it. On a good day, you had something in your mind you wanted to write. On a day when the Guardian Angel was on duty, you could sit in front of the blank sheet and thoughts would come and assume creditable shapes and you’d thank your lucky stars, your gods, your shades. And your fingers would clatter (this is before electric typewriters let alone keyboards). On a good day, you’d be asked at 11.00 for 750 words for 2.30 and you’d have 800 hundred words at 2.00. If God was really rooting for you, the miserable devil you had to offer it to liked it.
I rewrote less than anybody I knew but then they would never admit that they didn’t sweat, toil, discard and rewrite. It was a kind of labourers’ honour that nothing came easily. So I shut up about it, worked as hard as I knew how and kept my own counsel.
However on a bad day you put the clean sheet into the typewriter. And it stayed blank. It leered at you. You couldn’t find a way in. So you’d try something and go off to put the kettle on, come back, look at it and throw it on the floor. On days when the Guardian Angel was otherwise occupied or on strike, you couldn’t get that far. So you learned to begin somewhere, hoping to take a run at the thing or sneak up on it. Then you’d lop off the intro and give it a shape. Or you left the intro on and your editor (if he was anything like mine) would say furiously” There’s a point in there but it doesn’t begin for four paragraphs …” I used to thank heaven there was no way he could see down the phone how confused and desperate and utterly discombobulated I was. But I did it. I faced the Battle of the Blank Sheet and filled it.
Now we have the blank screen, a machine that wants to correct everything except spelling, that blinks eerily at you while you wonder what to do and a keyboard you can’t attack because it just goes haywire.
I am hugely indebted to every single person who has ever read this output because you enabled me to find somewhere in my shrinking soul the courage to go on. Various friends, some I have never met, formed a sort of collective Sancho Panza and kept me trying. You fed the mule , foraged for supper and let me go on tilting at windmills. I learned a lot and I bless you for it. Mostly I learned a lot because I had nobody but myself to please – and that isn’t quite as self indulgent as it sounds.
I read, I think and I’ve spent 35 years communicating what I read and thought in a variety of media. I don’t always regard what I have written with joy but occasionally you hear the rustle of wings. Sometimes you look at a phrase and know you hit a home run. (Pam the painter is my “reader” and moving her – whether to laughter or tears – is a benchmark.)
When I was in radio, I used to be asked had I ever been stumped ? What did I do if I didn’t know how to answer ? And I used to say “Talk about it.” Which is how this piece began. A friend said “I think you’re wonderful, the way you think up things to write about.” In that case, file me under less than wonderful today. So you talk about how you work, what’s good and bad and frightening about the strange business of stringing words together. You recall how you used to work, and how it’s changed. You recall how you used to work, and what hasn’t changed.
I began in magazines, they were my first great journalistic love but they were more general interest, wildlife and political than women’s own. And what I try to offer when I get to grips with the blank screen that needs filling is what I often think of as “the space between the words” – the small things we wonder and think about. The touchstone is to write for real, the best way you can.