My life as a river

This is an article I wrote a few years ago for the Children’s Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook. It’s being reprinted again this year.

An illustrator’s life

It helps me to think of my life as a river: water is a symbol of creativity, and I want my career to be long, with breadth and depth, and I want my work to be beautiful and useful. And a river is heading somewhere – it flows, just like a story flows, always new, yet always recognisably the same, a dynamic whole, like a life.

I was born in a dull suburb of an ugly town, and even when I was tiny I was aware of the soullessness of my surroundings: there was something wrong, something missing. I have been in search of soul ever since: I want magic, resonance, meaning, beauty, a feeling of connection – it is a spiritual need.

My father worked in the steelworks, my mother was a teacher – but they were both misfits aspiring to a better life and not sure how to get there. I had five brothers, all of us very close and inclined to be inward-looking too, and our parents encouraged us to draw, write and make things – and we had amazing, rambling conversations about everything. My father used to describe himself as a ‘nature-worshipper’, my mother is a devout Catholic. The home developed a strange hothouse atmosphere, fertile but stifling, and we grew up a bit odd. But I had no doubt that my life was full of meaning and purpose: I had my own ideas about religion, art and spirituality, my own answers. I read obscure books on magic and mysticism, and I spent most of my time drawing intricate pictures and writing fantastical stories. I was like an underground stream, winding through secret caverns, my work grotesque and dark.

My father applied to art college to study design, and we all moved to London. But he always felt like an outsider; he lacked role models and never saw how he could really fit in. My mother became a head teacher and did ground-breaking work teaching damaged children, but as her career blossomed so my father withdrew from the world, and the marriage fell apart.

That turned me even more inward – I swirled about in darkness. I wrote an illustrated fantasy novel – a terrible book, I’m sure – and the one publisher I dared to send it to sent it straight back with a standard polite note. I began to be aware that the answers, the certainties, I had clung to were restrictive, suffocating and airless; I just hadn’t really lived. I was afraid of living. To grow, I needed to leave my ‘cave’.

When I went to art college it was as if I had suddenly burst into the open, into the light: the spell of my sealed world was broken and I began to see how much catching up I had to do. I wanted to fit in, to be normal, fashionable, cool. I did my best to forget about magic and fairy tales and spirituality.

Modern artistic culture is liberal, atheist, materialist – doubt and questions are valued above answers and certainty, fragments are valued above wholeness, and any sort of spirituality, any belief in real purpose and meaning, is looked on with suspicion, as if it can’t possibly be authentic, as if only doubt and questions are truly authentic. That is the culture I tried to fit in to – and it meant tearing my old self in pieces. So I did.

And it was liberating suddenly to question everything. My watery nature is impressionable. Told that nothing was fixed or stable, I found I was good at being fluid, good at being chaotic. I was like a mountain stream, splashing from rock to rock. My drawing was empty, ugly, fragmented. I had lost faith in stories, in wholeness. I found it very hard to finish anything and I changed my drawing style every few months. My work might have seemed refreshing to some stray traveller in the hills, some similarly lost soul, but it was thin stuff.

After college I got some illustration work. An editor saw potential and I illustrated a picture book by Ted Hughes – in a loose, empty style. I did some work for design companies and worked in greetings cards – my chameleon style changing from job to job. Unable to decide who I was and what I wanted, unable to bring things into focus, I could still convince myself that doubt and questions, fragments and open-endedness were signs of ‘seriousness’ as an artist. So I drew constantly, often angrily, my whirl of activity never settling into a meaningful whole. I was going nowhere fast. And it was easier to keep going than to stop and think.

But years had passed now and tensions, questions that I had been afraid to answer, were becoming impossible to ignore: it was becoming horribly clear that my ceaseless, restless activity itself was a trap. I was heading over a cliff.

A waterfall. Everything suddenly turned upside down: for a few months everything seemed to go wrong at once, both in my personal life and in work. All sorts of factors combined to tip me over the edge. I let go. I was sure I had failed. At last, I stopped. I’d never been good at doing nothing, but now I was like a reflective pool, no longer flowing, just staring at the sky, the honesty of failure preferable, somehow, to my previous avoidance strategies.

I had been keeping a journal for a few years, in a bid to make sense of things, but it was a mess of scrawls. Now I began writing clearly, neatly, in well-formed sentences. I began to try and define who I was. I could see my life as a river – as a story – but how did I want it to end, where did I want to go, what did I want to say? Our lives are short, our abilities are limited. Fear of being defined, of admitting both our strengths and limitations, is the fear of death. I tried to imagine how I’d use my time if I knew I had only a short time to live. I knew that, above all, I wanted to be whole, true to myself, I wanted answers not questions, and as an artist I wanted to create wholeness, beauty, something that had real meaning.

I began writing stories again, fairy tales, spiritual fables: children’s books. I set myself the simple goal of making the most beautiful books I could in whatever time I’d been given. Creative energy must be channelled, a river without banks is lost. Defining myself, defining my goals, I was learning to channel my energy at last and I began to flow on, deeper, calmer, stronger.

I found inspiration again in the medieval art I had loved as a teenager, in folk art and oriental art: art that is animated by profound spirituality, art that is decorative not just to be beautiful, but because pattern-making is like a sacred ritual, a magic spell of connectedness.

Human nature is the same across every culture and across all of time, our interconnectedness is a hard fact, and in discovering the deepest regions of our souls we reach those dark subterranean layers that link us all. The deeper I look into my heart the more I know that we are all the same, we all have very similar problems, each of us is always torn between opposing forces, we have to cope with the same tensions in our lives. Being honest about who I am, speaking from the heart, I could be confident that my work would resonate with others.

My first book, Halibut Jackson, was about a chameleon-like character, going to great lengths to blend in wherever he is. He makes a mistake, everyone sees him for who he is and he finds the courage to be himself, at last. I’ve been making picture books ever since. And perhaps I’ve become something like a grown-up river, at last. But rivers twist and turn, they are meant to be turbulent.

I need questions. For me, the beginning of a story idea is a swirling current of energy, an inner conflict that I am struggling to resolve. A good picture or satisfying story is an answer to that question, a resolution to the conflict, the discovery of a new, unexpected point of balance, a happy ending. But, as Heraclitus said, everything flows. Happy endings aren’t forever, balance is only ever temporary (at least from our time-bound, mortal perspective). The ending of one story becomes the beginning of another. An old answer becomes a new question.

But good stories, good pictures, show that balance is possible, that fulfilment, wholeness and authenticity are achievable. The best art offers neither monolithic certainties, nor a jumble of random fragments, but something fluid, sparkling and richly, miraculously alive. I am still working on picture books, but the more I learn about human nature, and the more I learn about how stories work, the more ambitious I want to be as a writer.

My writing remained hidden, bubbling somewhere deep underground, until that ‘waterfall’ moment when I saw how to make myself whole. It was a confluence of words and pictures and those two streams have been intertwined ever since. I am often told by publishers that my ideas are too ‘sophisticated’ for picture books, yet my romantic world-view, my belief in happy endings, makes me a natural children’s writer.

I have published one longer story, The Lying Carpet, an illustrated fable that is my own mix of words and images – and I have been writing other fables, and a fantasy novel. And if that works out I will have fulfilled those first teenage ambitions. Really it’s just a matter of seeing what depth and breadth I can achieve before I reach the sea!

Posted in Art, Ideas, Uncategorized, Writing