I don’t like Christmas. In fact, I make Scrooge look like Santa. I don’t put up decorations (I think I’m allergic to the aesthetic properties of tinsel) and only grudgingly display cards, counting the days until I can reasonably take them down and dust the shelves whereon they stand; however, I have been known to come over all Martha Stewart and make gift tags from them for future festive seasons. It’s easier to admit them over the threshold if I know they’ll be sacrificed to a higher purpose.
High points this Christmas will be watching my adorable one-year-old nephew open his presents, and getting to drive my beloved housemate’s superior car all over the country while he is on vacation in Thailand. Low points will be the weather (which won’t be cold or snowy enough for my romantic notions) and the fact that I have my own personal NaNoWriMo going on. My next historical horse novel is due at the end of January, and for the last two months I’ve gaily been assigning the lion’s share of the writing to the week between Christmas and New Year; only now am I wondering if a target of 8,000 words for nine consecutive days is a trifle optimistic for this time of year when, Scrooge though I am, friends and family will have high and understandable expectations of enjoying my company. My long-suffering companions are very tolerant of the times when my International Author commitments take over from my day-job. I’m allowed to cancel arrangements at minus-minutes notice, ignore my phone, and generally hide my face for weeks at a time. Miraculously, when I stagger back into the daylight, bleary of eye and trembling of typing finger, they remember who I am, remember what we used to have in common, and act like I’ve just put a couple of long days in at the office.
It’s this combination of respect and good-humoured forbearance that is the greatest Christmas gift I could ask for from my friends and family. I don’t mind if they don’t read my books – after all, I don’t follow my long-suffering companions to work and offer an opinion on their computer programming or investment advice. Writing is my job, it’s what I do when no one else is around, and I get more than enough feedback from my editors. Even after four years of wearing the T-shirt, I’m still faintly surprised when someone asks for a copy of one of my books; I have an overweening desire to reciprocate with, Sure, and do let me see that amazing spreadsheet you made the other day.
That’s the weird thing about being a writer: I have NEVER been to a party and revealed my profession without encountering someone who thinks she (and it’s more often than not a she) could do my job with enviable ease, if only she wasn’t so busy with everything else on her To Do list. I have no doubt you’ve met them too. It’s usually a woman of a certain age, rosy-cheeked from one glass of Semillon more than she’s used to, with children who’ve just gone to college which has prompted her to venture into their rooms with newfound confidence, hoping to discover the mysteries of teenage life. Unbeknown to her, all those mysteries of teenage life have been shoved into the bottom of a backpack and hauled safely away from the parental home, so she finds nothing more than a warren of dust bunnies and a shelf of well-thumbed books from that golden age of childhood when you’re gripped by the endless alliterative adventures of a veterinarian’s daughter who has a knack for tripping over sick or imperilled animals (a thousand festive points to those who can name this enduringly popular heroine).
This prompts nostalgia for the days when dewy children fresh from the bath climbed into crisp nightwear and begged eagerly for stories about wizards and ponies and plucky (and strangely independent) children solving major crime. And the newly chickless mother thinks…I could do that. Such a Damascene moment leads not to a considered assessment of contemporary children’s fiction, followed by several months’ dedication to crafting a clever, original and highly commercial manuscript, but to a kind of dogged wistfulness that prompts them to tell anyone with the merest whiff of publishing about them that they’d love to write a book if only they had the time. Friends, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – and I’m equally sure you have to resist the same urge as I do, which is to smile back and say, Gee, I know what you mean. If only I could find a spare hour in the day to rattle off that 40,000 word script in between the demands of a real job.
And yet, and yet…in between these rosy-cheeked women are people who regard writing with awestruck reverence, who step back with mouths like o’s and view rapid-fire, 2am-desperate typing as some sort of alchemic process, as if the very words writers use are somehow different from any sequence of letters they could come up with. It’s the nearest thing I’ll ever get to sanctification, that’s for sure, and doesn’t sit with me any more easily than the casually I could do that too but for the pressing need to tackle that stack of ironing attitude encountered at social events. But goodness me, it’s useful when everything else has to stop for the sake of a hurtling deadline. And I’m very, very lucky that this is how the people closest to me treat what I do for a living. I’m fortunate to have a life relatively unfettered by domestic burdens, but I still couldn’t do this without the tireless support and gratifying pride my favourite people offer to me daily
I still don’t like Christmas; I’m not going to bore you with the clichés about excessive commercialism, absence of spiritual meaning, or the environmental damage resulting from all that wrapping paper and those retina-destroying displays of electric light. But it’s as good an excuse as any to look up from my keyboard and tell my friends and family how much I love them, and how I’d never have been able to write a word without them shadowing my footsteps. Just don’t tell them that writing isn’t quite as mysterious and alchemic as it looks…
Hugs to you all (and go on then – Happy Holidays!).