It’s that time of year again. The beginning of the school term. Too many bodies in too small spaces in too hot rooms. Seismic fluctuations in temperature. Immune systems off-guard after the long summer break. Bugs are breeding. Tennessee got her first cold: nose streaming, eyes watering, throat raw, sinuses blocked, a raking cough. She’s been waiting for me to make it go away, like she does when she’s hungry and I bring out her milk or like when she’s tired and I put her to bed or like when her nappy’s full and I change her or like when her gums hurt and I rub them with teething gel. Mummy makes things better. That’s the deal. Except this time, I can’t (beyond force-feeding her Calpol). So, instead, Tennessee has decided that I should join her. We’re quite the pair with our runny noses and croaky coughs and red-rimmed eyes. Oh, and she thought it would be fun to steal my voice too.
I don’t get ill. I’m the healthy, strong-immune system, eat-well, sleep-well, exercise-regularly type. But then it’s been a hard summer. Not a day’s break. Interrupted nights. Ready meals. Moving house. Editing books. Planning lessons. And if there’s one thing you can’t avoid when your a mummy – or the kind of mummy I am – it’s cuddling, kissing, holding close: sharing bugs. So, I was a sitting target. I caught Tennessee’s cold. And she stole my voice.
I’ve never lost my voice before – and I haven’t experienced anything so frustrating in a long time. I’m the sit-at-the-front, put-my-hand-in-the-air, ask questions, contribute to discussions, share ideas, start conversations kind of person. When I croaked my frustrations at him, Hugh said: ‘Just listen instead.’ And I do listen. I love listening. But listening is part of the process of talking. If you listen well, you respond, you acknowledge, you question further.
Try teaching when you’ve lost your words. Even if you’re a teacher who promotes class discussions and independent learning, you still need to set things up, guide, explain, advise. Or leading a creative writing session – my writing buddy, Helen was my voice, working through my plan for the session. I itched to step in, explain, expand, provide a caveat to this or that point, encourage a student in her wonderful contribution. Or having lunch with an interesting colleague. I did it once. Sat in front of a wonderful man in charge of the Old Wellingtonians. I wanted to ask him a thousand questions and instead listened, nodded and occasionally strained, whispered a few words and then gave up. And then there’s dear Tennessee. I usually talk to her all the time. Sing to her. Read to her. The silence between us is odd and I can tell she’s unnerved by it too.
Yes, it’s frustrating. But as with all frustrating situations, it’s got me thinking about what I can learn from this experience, especially as a writer.
Writing is all about voice. Your voice as an author, the voice you give your characters, the voice your characters give to people and situations who don’t have the chance to speak for themselves – like Gran in What Milo Saw, whose words represent all those wonderful old people in the UK who we don’t love and value and care for enough. Like Tripi, the Syrian refugee, who longs to make his home in a new, peaceful land. Like Sandy, the single mum, traded in for a younger, more glamorous model, who’s trying hard to raise Milo as best she can. Like Milo himself, dear little Milo, who wants to fix the whole world as he struggles with his eyesight.
Giving voice to those who might not otherwise be heard is one of a writer’s greatest privileges. It’s part of my quest for compassion. And losing my voice and experiencing all those frustrations of not being heard, of straining to communicate my thoughts, of being spoken over and misunderstood and ignored, just makes me all the more determined to create great stories and great characters that speak to the world.