The Habit of Art
By Eleanor Knight
About a million years ago when I was at primary school, every Monday morning after assembly we’d troop into the classroom, sit down on our tiny chairs, get out our ‘News’ books, locate the business end of a pencil and write down what we’d got up to over the weekend. I loved it. ‘Mummy burned the toast and the fire brigade came’ (illustrated). ‘My friend Susan has such big ears she can fly.’ And, ‘A man who lives on our road is so fat that two other men come with him to the bus stop and have to help push him inside. We watch them from our kitchen window.’ My teacher, Mrs Sellars, began to write in red biro, ‘Are you sure?’ at the end, or ‘I don’t think this can be the Susan I know.’ She never actually called me a liar but after the first parents’ evening there was a very pointed discussion over the tea-table about the importance of telling the truth. My brother was out at judo at the time, so it was obvious my mum and dad were talking about me, and I remember the feeling of shame worming its way down into my stomach along with my beans on toast. News was supposed to be about truth, and I had told lies. And not just told them, but written them down in my best handwriting and even drawn pictures.
The next time I opened my News book, I stuck to the facts. I wrote, ‘On Saturday I went to ballet. On Sunday we went to church. In the afternoon I went to Sunday school. Then we had tea and went to church again.’ I wrote more or less the same thing for the next four weeks, though one of those weeks featured, as a special treat, eating celery sticks in front of ‘Songs of Praise’ on television. I wasn’t having nearly as much fun as my classmates. Mystifyingly, the children sitting either side of me were licking their lips as they wrote up family outings to swimming pools, zoos, campsites, which were all, incredibly, taking place on a Sunday. Don’t tell me that was possible! But where was theirred biro moue of disbelief? Reader, they got a tick.
On the fifth Monday morning, Mrs Sellars asked me to give out the pencils as usual and then told me to follow her, she had something to show me. She took me out of the classroom and into the corridor where a small, square table, with a chair tucked under it, was wedged up against our class’s duffle coats and anoraks. On the table was a new, clean, exercise book. Mrs Sellars produced a black marker pen and wrote my name and the word STORIES on the cover. She pulled out the chair for me to sit down and, when I’d got myself settled, said ‘Just come back in when you’ve finished.’
In adult life I have found that the habit of art is a bulwark against the relentless tedium of a hundred and one real-life things that I ought to be doing and a thousand shouty writing course imperatives such as ‘Conquer Your Fear!’ ‘Write!’ ‘You – Yes You, Would-Be-Writer! Get Up Off Your Ass – No, Actually, Sit Down On It!’, the sort of shouty imperatives that drill a hole in the conscience of all those of us who fear we’re never quite doing our bit. It’s all too easy to turn writing into something that has to be got done. ‘I hate writing,’ many writers will tell you, ‘I don’t know why I do it,’ ‘I’m only here for the biscuits,’ and so on until they win a major prize and are told by their publicist to try sounding a bit more gracious, if only for the sake of sales. Approach the blank page with the gut-gnawing fear of failure (look, there are all your favourite writers at your shoulder, waiting to see what you come up with) a fragile sense of your own competence and a word count to hit before bedtime and it’s not surprising that the other to-do list starts to call us, like a siren song, towards such scintillating vistas as the washing line, the draining board, perhaps even (and really, steady on here) the shelves of the local supermarket. Oh, how tantalising the purchase of a box of cornflakes can seem when there are a thousand words to get through. Surely it will do me good to spend half an hour walking down to my local soopy and half an hour home again?
Dear writer, oh dear, no. For fear and obligation have curdled within you to form the rancid yoghurt of inertia. Look, I just don’t care what you think about my use of ludicrous gastronomic metaphor, I’ve had to sit through the recipe for bread cooked over human excrement (Ezekiel 4 vs 12).
When that voice of obligation gets going, dial it down and concentrate on pleasure. Think specific. Think, for the next however long I will consider not that I need to go to the Post Office or check my Whatsapp messages, or worry about how many words I’m going to write. I will only wonder how a shy acoustics engineer called Victor might behave when a clever and chatty museum curator called Nancy invites her to join him for lunch in central London in September 1938. What fun I will have. There will be steak and kidney pie, nervous laughter, gravy spillage (obviously) the discovery that they both hate Brahms (not so obviously) a hint that Victor might be engaged in some secret work that he can’t talk about at lunch, a hint that Nancy may be engaged in some secret work she can’t talk about at lunch, an amusing twiddle of off-duty typists over in one corner, some dowager shoppers in another. A portly man is reading a newspaper while feeding a little dog the topping from an apple crumble under the table. The waitress asks him to desist – it’s not hygienic! – the man is embarrassed and begins to apologise and gets up to leave but Nancy – now here’s a surprise – Nancy interrupts to say that she’s terribly sorry, it’s actually her dog. So sorry, all her fault. He is such a nuisance, going around scrounging food from everybody. By now she has the dog (it’s a Dachshund, why not?) firmly wedged in her lap and Victor is wondering – as are you, as am I – what on earth would cause Nancy, on a first date, to lay claim to an apparent stranger’s sausage dog? And why does poor Vic keep getting left out of interesting plot developments?
Well, there we will have to leave it because we have now finished our bit for the day and it is time to go to work, pick the children up from school, go to the Post Office, hoover the stairs, or maybe even go to church (if you haven’t been there quite enough already). Who cares at this stage if Vic and Nancy’s lunch date never makes it into the novel? You have created a story that wasn’t there before.
Everyone needs an inner Mrs Sellars, a patient and kind presence to turn us gently away from the disappointing monotony of the everyday, one that, without imperative or agenda, responds generously to the appeal of invention and pulls out a little chair for our imaginations to sit down in. Real life – and there really is so much of it just now – is never going to go away. All the more reason, from time to time, to leave it all on the other side of the wall and sit there quietly amongst the coats.