I’ve been lucky enough to have had many tribes over the years. A fair few more than the ones I was born into, clan Grearson and the Poole horde.
There’s my Schoolgirl Six. My jaeger-fuelled Queens’ lot, and their counterpart, my adoptive SPC massive. My volunteering gang. My Nigerian family. My VSO vintage workmates. The huge web of love drawn tight around my little girl.
So many of my facebook photos are of my pea-head cheesing out of group shots, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But lately, for work, I’ve been a lone wolf. Obsessively drawn to stuff that can’t be delegated, that no-one else can do. My paintbrush, my business. My words.
So it felt brilliant to find my latest tribe, two weekends ago, at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference: story-telling nerds like me, all of us gathered in suspiciously beautiful Winchester. (I talk a bit more about it for their online magazine, Words and Pictures, here.) There were talks, workshops, critiques. There was a book launch. And fancy dress. But better than that, there were so many friendly faces. Everyone I spoke to was warm, kind, and hugely passionate.
My personal highlight had to be David Almond, author of the aching Skellig and one of my top five Geordies, talking to us about the uncertain adventure of making books, in his words, those ‘half-real, half imaginary’ things.
A life spent writing and illustrating can feel half-real, half-imaginary. Us fabricants make things exist that weren’t there before. We spend a lot of time hearing voices in our heads, seeing things that aren’t there. And for everyone still to get their words or pictures out into the world, you can’t help feeling a bit fictional yourself. Sometimes I feel like the tiny people living on a speck of dust in Dr Seuss’s story, who must yell out to prove they exist, or they’ll get boiled in Beezle-Oil. I AM HERE, outside world, honest.
Part of it is having the swagger to own a label. Like Ashley and Jerwayne say in Phone Shop: ‘If man say ‘im a ting, ‘im a ting.’ You write? You’re a writer. For me, one of the best gifts of the SCBWI conference was simply being able to be there. To feel seen. And to get in another group photo, obvs.
Before something can be real in the world, it must be imagined. David Almond talked about his boy self, going into Felling library in Newcastle, and picturing the day when he’d take down a book from the shelves and see the words ‘by David Almond’ on the cover. Today he can do just that.
Writing a book is an act of optimism, he told us. An act of love. As I stagger on with my current story, getting ever deeper into the woods, I know what he means. So do many of the people I met in Winchester, the other lone wolves of my pack.
Like love, a story is a gift that gives itself because it must. Your whole world, laid in a basket of bulrushes, and pushed out into the reeds.