At school, whenever there was a new topic, they asked us to pretend to be someone else. A child or young person from history, it would be. The idea was to introduce us to the world of the period we would be studying.
‘Imagine that you are a young woman called Victoria,’ they’d say. ‘And on this frosty morning in 1837, you awake to the news that you have just become Queen of England. Write a diary of your day, include as much detail as you can. You must write at least one page in your green exercise book.’ Then off we’d go.
As one voice, the whole class would describe the rubbing of the eyes, and the yawning, and the feeling like it was just another day full of maids and staring out of windows, until a breathless messenger arrives. We would always refer to the many pillows. And, we would always mention how cold it was in the bedroom. We knew that in the past, the floor was always absolutely freezing cold. Everything was just so cold all the time, unless it was unbearably hot, in the past.
The task that most sticks in my memory is the time I had to pretend to be a Roman child.
‘You can be a child from a noble family,’ Mr Hill told us. ‘High status. Life of luxury and ease. Or you can be low status; a child who lives as a servant in a wealthy household. They used to do that, you know. Children your age lived as servants in this very town. Just imagine!’
That was the whole thing, just imagine. ‘Imagine how it would feel to be a child, just like you are now, and live in those terrible conditions. Where do you sleep? Who is there for you when you are afraid at night? Do you eat from a bowl with a spoon, or with the dogs? How does it feel to see the rich children playing, when you yourself have nothing? How does it feel to see them eat, while you go hungry? Imagine being freezing cold all the time.’
I went home, sat at the table in the kitchen and scratched out my feelings. Like the unwitting Stanislawskian I was, I already knew I had to think about my body as I was writing – what did the iron scale of Roman Britain do to my skinny little legs. Mr Hill had instructed us to consider how cold our bodies would’ve been.
I wrote about my life in the barn, the hay, the hard floor. About a dog that growled and tried to bite me, and the cruel man who cheated me out of my ration of bread. Perhaps, I wrote, one of the rich children will take pity on me and leave me a coin, but there was no coin. In my imagination, I brooked no such charity. There was just a smile and an apple from the gardener. I ended the day exhausted, pleased to have the quiet, at least, the sparing warmth of the horses and the sight of the peeping moon through the gaps in the roof.
No record of what I actually wrote down exists, but I have been doing this homework ever since – whenever I’m trying to write, especially if it’s going badly, I like to remember that it is still just the work of trying to imagine what it would be like…
Except now, I think less about historical figures, and more about my teacher.
Imagine being Mr Hill, a primary school teacher. Imagine the agony of a marriage that has slipped away from you. Imagine how cold it is. Imagine being Mr Hill as he imagines all the little indentured children who were so cold and died so young. Your thin waves of hair, like a spaniel’s, that cling to the folds of your head skin. You play the piano in the school and in the church with equal flamboyance and charm, the same creased smile no matter the song. Do you feel joy or embarrassment when you switch from ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ into the James Bond theme?
I feel like I should be ashamed in some way to admit that this is what I call my craft. The craft of indulging a broken, faithless memory, and allowing whatever fungus is in there to flourish along with the flesh.
I worry that this is not helpful advice to other writers, at least it feels impractical compared to the endless good wisdom I see out there. But I cannot trade in writing tips. The better the advice seems to be, the more it becomes an irritation, and the creative journey becomes a long walk home with a stone in my shoe. Storyboarding, character studies, the application of sound writing principles, all of this must come from the instinct to pretend. Otherwise, the process becomes a chore. I do not want to present to the world my good washing up, or my cleaned toilet. Also, I’m sorry, but I cannot work with those index cards. They are not in the practice.
Does it count as a practice to just sit down, shake off the day job or the argument you just had, or whatever, and pretend to be someone else? Is this a craft? Is the act of complicating a perfectly nice daydream a craft?
If it is, then the next stage is the craft of searching the imagined world for more answers. To get up close to the dogs and cruel men, and to quietly admit that the dogs are hungry, and the men are desperately trying to keep body and soul together. The craft of making the room always cold until you can find a way to bring some warmth to it.
Of course, there is more to this imaginative work when I am editing. But again, I feel rather exposed in claiming this is a craft. Editing is, as much as anything else, the act of becoming sure. The editorial voice is always asking: Are you sure, Ben? Is it true?
When I have asked myself this question, I must respond proactively, and I have to be honest in my answer. What if I’m not sure? What if I am not sure of any of it?
What if I am still there, in the classroom? But I am not me, I am Mr Hill. I am Mr Hill and I have blinked in the middle of explaining to the children (one of which must also be me) that only by committing to the imagined world can we make it into something worth sharing. What if my whole life, as Ben Pester, has been just a projection in the mind of the real me, Mr Hill, as I follow the homework I’m assigning to its conclusion?
Imagine being that boy there, young Ben Pester, with odd socks and small trousers and hanging dark bags under his eyes, imagine him as he leaves this classroom and goes home to do the homework. Imagine everything from that moment forward for about thirty-five years until I reach the point, this moment now when I, Mr Hill, have to open my eyes and return to my own life.
I have to finish this lesson. I have to strategize for the difficult conversation I am about to have with the headmaster about that smell on my breath. I’ve been blinking, that’s all. Ben Pester – his whole life was simply a blink. I’ve made the real world disappear for three and a half decades, I’ve lived that child’s life.
To keep the imaginative work going takes a lot of concentration. To keep it interesting enough to believe in takes a lot of continuous editing. I know that at some point I need to bring the story into line; it needs shape and texture. Is the morning section too long? The dog feels under-played. The headmaster’s office is a cliché – is it the ‘smell on the breath’ or the whole thing of being called into an office that doesn’t work?
Is it still a craft if all you’re doing is pretending? Hoping that when you open your eyes, you’re still there, and what you’ve written is true.
Photograph © Max Nathan