Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo was nine months old when this was written.
It was one of those minor lightbulb moments: a sudden glimpse of something that should always have been blindingly obvious, a small epiphany, if you like.
And it came about, I think, because of this baffling business of being a writer.
Let me explain.
As a novelist, one of the things you very quickly discover is that it’s not enough to have a story to tell. In order to give it context, make it real, you have to know at least a little of the way the world works.
So a big part of what you spend your time doing is observing, studying, thinking about the world around you; you find yourself questioning it in ways, perhaps, you never quite have before.
And it’s not the big stuff of life that occupies you entirely.
An inordinate number of a storyteller’s waking hours are invested in exploring, explaining, describing the banal – the nuts and bolts, the mechanics of the everyday. It’s what helps to make your stories vivid, grounds them, allows the reader to connect with them. In many ways, I suspect, it’s what’s most important.
For example: a character needs to come to a door, reach for the handle, push the door open, walk across a room, sit at a table, raise a cup to her lips, replace it, begin to talk. How exactly does she do each of these things? What kind of door is it? How does the handle feel to her? What kind of room is it? How does it sound as she walks? What does the woman look like as she crosses the room? What’s she wearing? How does she move? Where do her eyes go?
These and a thousand such questions need quickly to be addressed for each unfolding moment of a novel. And choices – most of them instinctive – have to be made. What to include, what to omit; what adds something, gives new insight; what’s trivial but essential; how do you make such detail heighten, rather than dilute, the dramatic tension.
As a writer then, you become curiously obsessed with the everyday, the workaday; you watch the world, try to understand how small things work.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Because it’s one thing to describe the door, the room, the cup as it is lifted to her lip – it’s another entirely to try to know what’s going on inside the woman’s head, her heart.
So, what is she thinking as she crosses that room? What’s she feeling? Anticipation? Hesitation? Surprise? Love? Fear?
To make these feelings true you have to have lived them, felt them, seen them, understood them. So you draw on your well of memories; and – just as you do with those ordinary, workaday things – you watch, study, absorb, try to remember what you see around you.
It goes further still, of course.
Because it’s rarely enough to understand your character in isolation. You need to know how she will react in a situation, interact with those around her.
What will she say to the man seated, waiting anxiously for her at the table? How will she greet him?
And this brings me back to my lightbulb moment.
Because it’s in writing my novels over the last few years, thinking about such reactions and interactions, that I have become more profoundly aware of something than I ever was before.
It seems to me, that so often, in the most important moments of our lives – moments of love and loss, surprise and joy, shock and discovery – our most honest and immediate response is rarely with words; and it’s not with ideas, concepts, thoughts.
It’s with either tears or laughter.
She gets to the table and laughs at him, derisively, scornfully: she gets to the table, her eyes filling, forgiving him.
Tears either of pain or happiness, laughter in all its many guises – at the risk of sounding overly portentous, I have believed for some time they are at the heart of the human experience.
To elaborate on the point, let’s leave the tears aside and concentrate for just a moment on the laughter.
There’s a laughter researcher – now, there’s a fun job – and his name is Professor Robert Provine. He says: ‘Laughter is a mechanism everyone has. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way.’
The great Danish comedian, Victor Borge, said it more succinctly: ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.’
I believe this; I believe that tears and laughter form a universal vocabulary and that they connect us more than words ever can. And, as I say, I’d come to this in the course of writing Love, Love Me Do and Imagine.
But there was something about the truth of this conclusion that I hadn’t quite considered before.
And hence, my small moment of epiphany.
For what I suddenly realised was that, of course, they are at the heart of the human experience. They have to be. It all goes back to the beginning, doesn’t it? Because tears and laughter do come before everything else; not just metaphorically, but literally.
We cry from the very first; we then laugh from the age of about four months; but we are unlikely to utter our first word until after our first birthday.
Crying has to come first – it’s primal, it’s about urgency and need; laughter, joyously, comes next and it’s about recognition, gratification and connection.
But all the rest, all those teeming words, have to wait, come later. In the order of things, they are simply not that important.
And this essential order of things is what we carry deep within us throughout our lives.
It is, I know, something of a glimpse of the blindingly obvious. After all, it’s what every mother has always known cradling her baby in her arms. But it was a new thought for me – or at least a new articulation of a thought.
And it came to me, Theo, early on Christmas morning. When you woke with tears and then later when, in my arms, you found a smile.
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