I was sixteen. We were leaving Scotland for Africa, forever, in a few days. Our house had been sold, the furniture distributed; only a rusty wheelbarrow remained in the garden, forlorn among the weeds, (but with a beautiful view of the gentle Pentland Hills). I sat for a while, sadly, and then I thought I might write a book.
That book became – after many, many rewrites – a story for young readers called Rainbow. Writing it got me through some difficult days – and I enjoyed making it, although I quickly began to realize what very hard work it was.
The story involved a boy, busy climbing a tree. Without warning, he is struck by a falling rainbow holding an enticing, many-coloured rope with which to climb to adventure. The only connection with reality was the old apple tree I was looking at when I had the idea. The finished book held echoes of practically everything I had read as a child.
Maybe all first books have to be like that, especially those written by young people. Writing is not an easy craft to learn and – like most crafts – it has to be learned by doing it. I know where the images come from of a potential author gazing out of a window, quill pen in hand, and suddenly seeing how the spring time garden can be turned into a host of golden daffodils. The image lingers on of writing as some sort of inspiration that descends without warning, taking the writer by complete surprise and resulting in a splendid story, or the beginning of a trilogy.
Rainbow undoubtedly surprised me, but it was a long hard slog to write. It was useful mostly for the things it taught me, the many things I didn’t know. Because to write successfully, you really have to examine what the poet Mary Oliver once called ‘the machinery of your wits’. You need to offer yourself up completely to the process. Many years later, when I had practiced for a couple of decades, I once again wrote something that was, really, just for me, about that same time of change and disruption in that garden where my first book began.
Here it is …
I remember one day going to our old house, empty of everything now, and sitting alone in the garden on the wheelbarrow, which was neither worth selling nor worth taking to South Africa. It was a very still early summer afternoon and clouds of midges spiraled in the faint sunshine. I was quite comfortable in the wheelbarrow, swinging my legs idly and contemplating the future. Maybe I wanted to distract myself from the unknown, but there suddenly came to me, quite out of the blue, an idea for a book. It would be about a boy who climbed up a rope he found in a rainbow one day. It would be called, I decided after a pause for thought, Rainbow! Nothing more happened to the subsequent manuscript for about twenty-two years, but it took my mind off things very effectively.