This Week’s Bit of String: A Boy’s Hilltop Breakdown
On an unexpectedly sunny Sunday, we climbed the Worcestershire Beacon in the Malvern hills, turning the last upward twist to find the summit already crowded. Dogs checked each other out, dads promised junior travellers ice cream once they reached the bottom again. A multigenerational family group posed for a photo at the Jubilee monument. And two women tried to corral the five overtired children between them to a bench for a rest.
Four of the kids obliged, but a wiry little boy with a flushed face refused, trying to pull his hand away, protesting in a voice so strangled with distress I couldn’t make out the words.
‘All right,’ his mother said. She had a clear, somewhat upper class accent. ‘If you want to sit here, we’ll sit here.’
They all perched on the rim of the hilltop. She pointed out the view’s attractions to the other children and speculated on what wildlife might be around.
She had folded the boy into her lap, and while his feet still scrabbled at the ground as if desperate to dig himself in, his fingers clung, curled over her shoulder so tightly they whitened.
And despite her calm tone, I suspected she was clinging back. She seemed well-practised at handling this type of meltdown. Perhaps her son’s difficulties were recurring and lay somewhere on the autism spectrum.
The feeling I got from the scene, her secret wish that pervaded me, was to grasp him up here forever, long after everyone else had climbed down and found their ice creams. To keep him high above the noises of the world, where the rabbit-nibbled grass was soft and the few rocky outcroppings formed seats and benches. To let him be free of the world’s eyes that judge difference so harshly.
Isn’t it the most gut-wrenching thing, releasing our children, with their peculiarities so cherished by us, their vulnerabilities so beloved, into view of everyone else?
Create, Revise, Release, Repeat
The works we create as writers are often portrayed as our offspring. We love them and view them as extensions of ourselves, so we want to protect them. It can hurt—a lot—when the world gives them a less resounding reception than we’d like.
But I think sending work out is not so very fraught. When stories bounce back to us from an unsuccessful competition bid or magazine query, we can patch their scrapes and even perform major reconstructive surgery on them without causing anyone pain (apart from maybe ourselves).
Sure, we write about characters to give them a voice, and we want the world to listen. But the characters themselves don’t know the difference. Rejections apply solely to us, our work and maybe our voice, no one else’s. We learn to carry this burden: personally, I let loose some of my least impressive language under my breath, go off and do something else, then before long I get back to the work and make changes.
We learn a bit of ventriloquism, don’t we? To throw our voices a little and see if that does our characters more favours.
That’s nothing compared to seeing our kids in pain. I remember my son’s agonised scream, his whole three-year-old body going rigid, when a helium party balloon slipped his clutch and drifted skyward. His grief over that balloon pierced me at least as sharply as any rejection letter ever has. Then there’s the odd bullying incident. A romantic break-up. Merely recounting these is too terrible.
We don’t want our kids to have to modify their voices excessively. We don’t want the world to perform its nips and tucks. We may change our stories to be worthier of the world, but we will toil endlessly to make the world worthier of our children.
So when we wax poetic (hyberbolic?) about the strain of sending stories out into the world, let’s remember there’s little to fear. Nothing is at stake but our own pride, and nothing is beyond reach of repair. Send your book out there! It can stand the risk.
And maybe we can use our writing, if we keep tweaking it to deeper efficacy, to influence the world and make it a gentler place for people like the boy on the hilltop and his mum.