Bookplate by Tenar McDermott
In a few days’ time my novel, No Season But The Summer, is coming out. It’s a contemporary re-imagining of the Persephone myth within the context of the climate crisis. It’s also a love letter to my mother, and to motherhood. It only took twelve years. In fact, it will come out almost twelve years to the day since it was conceived. I know this because it was conceived in the same week as my son, and he is now eleven and a quarter (do the maths – add on his gestation).
I am telling you this not because- or rather not only because I want you to go and get yourself a copy (full instructions below) – but because I hope it will give you hope, and goodness knows we need some of that right now. The existence of this book is evidence. Before the final copy came out (the one which you are going to hold in your hands very soon) I was sent a ‘proof’ and then even a ‘super proof.’ My book is super, tangible, incontrovertible proof.
“But proof of what?” I hear you cry, as if this blog were a kind of Panto, and you its vocal audience.
What exactly does it prove?
Well, the obvious answer is that it proves it is possible to mother AND make at the same time. To grow – and birth, nurse, rock, carry, wipe, feed, clothe, comfort, battle, bathe, sleep beside, collect toy trains for, home school, support the burgeoning gaming passion of – a child, or two, AND write a book, slowly, but surely, at the same time. In fact, it’s even possible if your child(ren) turn out to be the high needs kind, that make mothering into a sort of extreme sport. This is all true. The only problem is, if I dig a little deeper, I am troubled by what other subtler, seeming truths, my novel could be used to prove. I fear, in fact, that it could be used as evidence against me, or against what I hold most dear. I am scared, in true Panto style, of who might be creeping up behind me.
Because my story of mothering and making, over twelve years, could, almost seamlessly, slide into a story of steady self-determination and effort, of following a vision and realising it, against the odds. And this, in turn, can all too easily be co-opted by, and used as proof to support that favourite mythical character of capitalism: the self-made man (see who’s creeping up behind me – shout if you spot him!). This story says that if you set your mind to it, you can achieve your dreams. You just need grit, individuality, strength in the face of adversity. You just need to persevere. You just need to do your best, until you are the best.
What I am exploring here is something to which I have learnt to pay attention, thanks to Improbable. I have come to understand that there are always two stories present in any work of art: the primary story relayed by the work itself, and the secondary story that tells how it was made. A pantomime, in fact, is a genre that makes a point of foregrounding the presence of these two tales, that deliberately makes the audience aware of the play and of the players, playing it. These two stories are always intimately connected: the music and the band; the painting and the painter; the book and the writer. The secondary story is a kind of origin myth of the first. And, I believe, these origin myths matter. It’s clearer with a show, perhaps, than with a book, that if you look after the story of the making – the relationships of the performers to one other, and to the production – then the production will, fundamentally, take care of itself. But I believe taking care of this secondary story matters whatever the artform, and that, like a watermark, the work carries the story of its origins within it, and that it will have a profound impact on its future passage through the world, and on the third, unfolding story, of how it is received.
My fascination with the power of origin myths is embedded in my novel because it is already about one: the Persephone-Demeter story is the Ancient Greek origin myth for how the seasons came to be. I think all myths, to an extent, are an attempt to understand our origins, to explain ourselves to ourselves, so that we can go on being here. At present, whether we can go on being here or not, and how, is a rather pressing question, and I believe this is driving the upsurge in mythical retellings, because, like some great global pantomime performance, we are desperately trying to wake ourselves up. Never before, in the whole history of humanity, have we been able to cheer or boo so loudly. “Look, whose behind you!! Right now!!!” we keep screaming to ourselves, before turning around with painful slowness, only to find the villain’s vanished yet again, too quick for us to face.
But we must keep trying to face ourselves. And my novel is another attempt to do so. Which is why I do not want the story of its origins to be secretly stolen, while I’m not looking. I do not want the story of a mother, muddling through, making something on her children’s bedroom floor, to be swapped for a narrative that is altogether more coherent and controlled.
I am keenly aware of this as publication date approaches, because whether I like it or not (and part of me likes it, and part of me doesn’t), I can feel the well-oiled machinery of the industry, the business of booking-selling, wanting to pull me into it, and turn me into an Author, with a capital A, who is the Hero, with a capital H, of a story very like the Self-Made Man one (he’s behind you!). In this story, I am an Autonomous Artist. And my book is meant to be original. Gripping. Thrilling. Stunning. And lots of other exciting, heroic words like that.
This comes as rather of a shock. It shouldn’t (what did I think would happen?) but, you see, I read English Literature at university in the early 90’s, and even back then, The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes’ seminal 1967 essay, was old news. I thought the idea of the Author, as a stable origin of meaning in a text, was long dead and gone. But apparently not. He snuck back onstage, when no one was looking, and is upstaging everyone.
My publisher sent me a ream of ‘bookplates’ on each of which I was meant to write my name, so that they can be stuck in the front of books, creating a stack of Author-signed copies. As if my signature serves as another kind of evidence – proof that the Author does exist, a sign that (s)he touched these pages, and is important, even famous (in defiance I let my 6 yr old daughter forge my signature on some). But we all know how that origin myth goes – the one of the creative genius. God-like. Except, that myth isn’t the one I want to tell. The gods in my novel didn’t create the universe, the earth and everything upon it in six days flat. And it isn’t how I wrote the novel either.
So, what is the origin myth I want to tell, instead? Because it’s not (just) a humble mum story. I’m not trying to be self-deprecating. I want to tell it as it is, or was. But how to name what ‘it’ is? I have been struggling with this. But last week I think I found an answer, not in a mum at all, but in a Patron – Improbable’s: Keith Johnstone.
Keith, who died last month, played a major part in Improbable’s origin story. Phelim McDermott did a workshop with him back in 1986, and Lee Simpson, and some others, who hadn’t done it, wanted to find out what they’d missed. Improbable began out of a mix of Keith Johnstone and FOMO (though that acronym didn’t yet exist). The day after Keith died, I went onto his website and watched his Tedx talk. It’s called ‘Don’t do your best.’ In it, Keith talks about how terrible it is to live in a culture in which everyone is always being taught to do their best. How debilitating it is to have to strain after originality. Keith was an Author too, of Impro but in his book ‘A’ stands for Average. That was one of his key teachings – be average. And if you do this, he suggests, then wondrous things might start to happen. Be obvious and something brilliant might occur. Might. No guarantees, of course.
It made me laugh and cry, listening to that talk. Because I recognised the story I want to tell. In the novel. And of how I made it. Yes, I worked hard. Yes, I was determined. But the reason I got up every morning, and, as soon as the children were fed and dressed – and quite often, truth be told, before they were fed or dressed – I sat down to write on their bedroom floor, is that it was the next obvious thing for me to do. That’s how it felt. I wasn’t white-knuckled when I picked up my pencil and notebook. I didn’t grit my teeth. It was just the next task of the day. And each word I wrote was the next average word that needed writing. If I had waited for the extraordinary words to turn up, I would still be waiting. I wouldn’t have a book to share with you. I wrote thousands of average words. And I didn’t do it alone. That’s the other teaching of Impro – the understanding that the stories emerge, not from a solo stunning Author, but in the gaps, betwixt and between everything, and everyone. In the synapses inside me, in the gaps in a day- between leaving the house and arriving at the shops- and in the spaces between people – between me and those that helped me, between me and the children, between me and you, reading this.
And being a mum is, as it happens, excellent training for these things – for doing the next obvious thing that must be done. For being average. For recognising that the gaps are where things grow. For being patient as they do. For being in relationship…..
……Which is, I think, all we really wanted all along, even or especially when we were trying to do our best. We want to feel connected. To see and be seen. And that’s a story I can sign my name under. A sign, a signature, not of lonely genius, but of being human – obviously so – here and now, booing and hissing and cheering and weeping, with the rest of us. Turning around quick enough at last to realise that even the villain, even the self-made man just wanted to be cared for. No one can make anything all by themselves.
So please do go and order my book. It’s up to you how the story goes from here. You might think it’s brilliant. Or awful. Or average. But you can take it as proof. Positive proof that doing the next obvious thing that needs to be done – getting dressed, making breakfast, clearing a space on the bedroom floor, calling into the next room to see if my son has what he needs – is not a mundane distraction. It is both how to begin, and how to keep going. It’s how things get made. It’s how, if anything is going to change, it will.
So, I leave you with a question: what’s the next obvious thing for you to do?
And while you are considering that, here’s how to order my book:
You have options:
Or – perhaps best of all – you can go to your local bookstore and ask them to order you a copy. It’s out April 13, but you can pre-order it now, and it will make a difference if you do.