I completed the first draft of my new book almost exactly a year ago. For the last twelve months, my writer’s life has been one of editing and proof-reading, punctuated by meetings with marketing people and a belated education in the ways of social media. Apparently, it’s all about the hashtag these days. (My last trade book was published in 2008, a lifetime ago). With all due respect to Oxford University Press, for whom I’ve done a study guide, I have not written a single creative word.
In the past, I have moved onto a new project as soon as I handed a finished manuscript to my publisher. I loved the sense that whatever was happening to that manuscript, I was making something new. (I can’t say it made production problems or harsh reviews any easier to bear, but at least they were not the only thing crossing my desk.) But not this time. I tried pretty much everything from buying a new notebook (don’t laugh, it’s worked in the past…) to a lone cycle ride from St Emilion to Barolo. The notebook remained almost untouched, and all I acquired en route from Bordeaux to Piedmont was an even greater love of really good wine and a new appreciation of anyone who cycles – rather than walk – up the Colle di Sestriere.
The final throw of the dice was to take myself off and do something completely different, during which time I would honestly contemplate the possibility of Never Writing Again. Here’s what I wrote in the midst of that experience:
I have not had a cup of coffee for weeks. Nor have my lips touched wine. Instead, I breakfast on jasmin tea, with fruit and small pastries bought from a stall in the market across the road, and not just any road – the terrifying National Road 1, the embodiment of anarchy. I sip my tea while a couple of fishermen lazily search the ponds below me. The sun rises, and the cool, fresh early morning disappears.
I lunch on rice and vegetables, supplemented by a handful of honey-coated cashew nuts from my secret stash; this particular vegetarian’s protein supplement of choice. I usually dine on more rice, more vegetables, but this time with a sprinkling of peanuts. Some things don’t change, however. I look forward to, and then enjoy, my one cold ‘Angkor’ beer in the evening even more perhaps than I used to enjoy a glass of wine.
You’ll have worked out that I am not in Oxford. The market is in Prekeng, about 10km south of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and the river is, of course, the Mekong. Keep going on National Road 1 and you’ll get to Vietnam. The climate here is hot and humid, although everyone here keeps assuring me it’s really very cool at the moment. Since when is 34 degrees ‘cool’?
My mornings are devoted to teaching English to small children. Through play. Those who know me well are confused. It’s no great secret that I am not the most tolerant or patient of individuals when it comes to small children. In fact, I am one of those rare parents who prefer teenagers to toddlers, and I am ecstatic that my daughters are now adults. More importantly, I am rubbish at ‘play’. Even when I was a child, I wasn’t that good at it. I liked projects, and tests, and competitions. I devoured the classics of literature at a stupidly young age, hardly understanding a word, but loving that feeling of tackling a ‘grown-up book’. My imaginary worlds were telling: I played libraries, complete with complex filing systems, but that was nothing on ‘swim to China’. Once in China, I would set up a shop. I still like deadlines, and spreadsheets, and exams. I like working on my own, in a corner of the library – or coffee shop. And I remain horribly competitive, although I like to think that I can also be a gracious loser.
But…everyone can change. And these past weeks have seen me dancing around the classroom, making colourful posters, playing ridiculous (non-competitive) games, and singing at the top of my voice (or humming when I simply cannot remember the words to ‘One Finger, One Thumb’ and other classics of the pre-school repertoire). It’s been fun.
Maybe the children have learned a bit of English. Maybe I’m learning to play?
I’m now back in Oxford. I am still not sure whether it was the journey, the kids, or just time doing that thing it does, but no matter – I’m writing again.