Every human being has a kaleidoscopic array of identities: we are seen in distinctly different ways by all the people we meet, depending on our relationship with them. Our perceived identities are constantly shifting, as we move between separate groups and environments. This can be illustrated by the mother who says goodbye to her child at the school gate, the friend who catches up with her neighbour, the commuter who nods at her fellow passenger, the employee who sets up a meeting with her colleagues. This individual is one and the same person, but she becomes many different things to many different people in the space of a couple of hours at the start of her day. Her identity is not perceived the same way twice and, as she goes about her life, the essence of her personality is embraced by everyone she meets in a myriad of ways.
As a writer I am fascinated by the shifting nature of identity. Clearly, I am not the first to be intrigued by this concept; I must admit I am in rather intimidating company, especially when it comes to artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is a curious fact of existence that we are always the same as individuals, or we feel we are the same, yet we are constantly perceived differently by everyone we encounter.
A writer’s identity may seem more multilayered than most, or perhaps it only appears that way, because in most cases writers are painfully self-aware. Some may call this a navel-gazing tendency, which can lead, unfortunately, to unhealthy introversion. Writers analyse things; they simply can’t help it, as this is part of the creative process. So, writers end up analysing themselves — and I am afraid I am no exception to this unwritten rule. And most writers perceive themselves to be ridiculously complex.
I have always been intrigued by astronomy, perhaps because it is a science I find both challenging and disconcerting. The more we discover, the smaller we feel. As a result of my astronomical interest, I like to use metaphors that refer to this field of study when considering the elusive nature of identity. It sounds fanciful, but I see my identity as an expanding universe of colliding worlds. When different identities of mine bump into each other, or when two of my worlds meet, there is an inevitable impact on my work, which is usually positive. Creative energy and inspiration are born.
When I think about my creative life what I think I do is write but, inevitably, I am so many more things than just a writer. I am also a parent of three twenty-something children, a grandparent of a rumbustious toddler, a friend to some wonderful people and, at work, a colleague of a whole cast of assorted and diverse characters. That’s just for starters. Acquaintances I see occasionally, and strangers I meet fleetingly, will all form distinct and individual impressions of my personality from any contact they have with me. This will leave its mark. All my different identities and interactions as a person will feed into various aspects of my writing experience, hopefully enriching my work.
In the three decades of my life as a writer, I can easily identify eight distinct worlds that have collided with each other on a regular basis. There are probably many more of these worlds but, for the sake of this piece and the reader’s patience, I will be selective. I would categorise these eight worlds and their frequent collisions in the following way:
1. Parent vs Writer
2. Grandparent vs Reader
3. Friend vs Editor
4. Colleague vs Reviewer
I will deal with each of these in turn, beginning with the collision of ‘Parent vs Writer’. This is fundamental to my understanding of myself. My identity as a parent has shaped my choices as a writer; practically speaking, my working week has been dictated by family concerns for as long as I can remember. I write for children, and for twenty-five years, since the birth of my oldest son, my focus has been dictated by family schedules. This is a practical constraint, but one that has taught me to be efficient and not to procrastinate when it comes to starting a piece of work. These are invaluable skills. Throughout my writing career, I have been keenly influenced by my own children’s learning needs, special interests and obsessions. To take just one example, the dyslexia that challenged my daughter led directly to a fruitful working connection with Barrington Stoke, a children’s publisher that specialises in producing books for young readers with specific learning difficulties. I wrote three stories for this publisher; they are some of the books of which I am most proud.
Secondly, I will consider the identity collision of ‘Grandparent vs. Reader’. In my relatively new identity as a grandparent, I now have the luxury of time to spend on ‘unpractical’ tasks with my two-year-old grandson. I say unpractical, and by this I mean any tasks that are not directly related to the essentials of keeping him clean, warm, well-fed and healthy. Opportunities to read were harder to come by with my own children, due to inevitable pressures of time. I can read to my grandson at any hour of the day (he just about lives round at our place), which enables me to observe which storybook texts work best for his age, and why. I can appreciate the effect of picturebook classics on three generations of readers, myself, my son and my grandson. This understanding feeds into my work, and it is an invaluable reference point for creating new and interesting stories for the current crop of children.
Thirdly, I turn to the identity collision of ‘Friend vs. Editor’. A lengthy career as a children’s writer has taught me good editing skills, if nothing else. When I assume my identity as a friend, I am in constant demand to help edit job-application letters, student personal statements, essays, dissertations and the like. Perhaps this is a common situation for writers to find themselves in, regarding their friends. I am usually more than happy to help but, when a book deadline looms large, it is not always so easy to find the time. Doctors complain that friends and family are always asking for a quick diagnosis, and many medics refuse to provide one on principle. Somehow that is acceptable for a doctor, but a writer would be deemed churlish for refusing to help redraft a friend’s prose. However, it’s not all bad — over the years, I have learned to edit my friends’ work as quickly and efficiently as possible; this has helped to enhance the clarity and directness of my own communication skills.
Fourthly and finally, there is the identity collision of ‘Colleague vs. Reviewer’. As a writer, I am a natural loner and relish my own company. But this is not always the best way to gain a sense of distance or perspective on my writing and therefore to review it effectively. I have a part-time job in a local sixth-form library, which helps me keep a useful connection with young adults. Taking on my identity as a work colleague, I find that my co-workers are keen readers of my writing, helping me to review it more accurately. They road-test my stories and books on their own conveniently aged children, providing an independent response that is of great value. At work, I can bounce my ideas off people who are interested in what I do, but not unduly biased towards me or emotionally invested. In other words, they will say what they really think. This may sometimes be painful, but it usually helps me reach an objective view of the strength of my ideas and the viability of new projects.
The four ‘collisions’ of identity that I have described are a regular feature of my adult life, and I believe they have had a constructive effect on my writing. The various identities I possess, and the multi-faceted ways in which I am perceived by others, enable me to connect every day with a range of different worlds. In consequence, these worlds have a positive and lasting impact upon my creative life and work.