In Chaucer’s time, the word for a poet or author was ‘a maker’ - as witness the Scots poet William Dunbar’s luminous ‘Lament for the Makers’, in which he lists poet after poet taken by ‘the strong unmerciful tyrant’, death:
‘He has done piteouslie devour
The noble Chaucer, of makers flower;
The Monk of Bery, and Gower all three:
(In fact, damn it, go and read the poem first, and come back and read this after you’ve done.)
‘Maker’: I’ve always liked it. It’s less high-falutin’ than ‘author’ or ‘poet’: it links us inextricably – as we ought to be linked – with every other sort of human creativity. People make furniture. They make paintings, musical instruments and gardens. They make brain scanners, television programmes and films. They make homes. They make love – which as Ursula K Le Guin once wrote in the ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (go and read that too), ‘doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.’ None of these things (furniture, gardens, brain scanners etc) just happen. You can’t make anything worth having without a lot of effort. I should know, because I spent days this summer digging bindweed roots (thick, white, snappy coiling things) out of the rosebed. And last year I had to do exactly the same thing. But if I didn't, the garden would disappear under the weeds, and a garden is a lovesome thing, God wot.
My brother and I were part of the 'Blue Peter' generation (for North American readers, 'Blue Peter' was and is a much-loved and long-running children's TV show, showcasing an idiosyncratic mixture of outdoor adventure, topical interest, pets, cookery and model-making). My brother was fantastic at making things out of Squeezy bottles and cornflakes packets. He went on to construct balsa wood planes that really flew, and can now turn his hand to just about anything, including boats, house extensions, and beautiful, glossy musical instruments like this mandola. He’s also an accomplished folk musician who can compose his own tunes.
Me, I tried. I longed to own a model sailing ship, so I made my own very ugly one out of balsa wood, and painted it yellow. It had so many holes in the hull, it would have sunk like a stone, but I made it and loved it till it was squashed flat in a house removal. I wanted to own an exquisite piece of Chinese embroidery I’d seen, smothered in birds and flowers – so I got a bit of frayed blue satin and laboriously stitched away at a puckered, lumpy, clumsy bird.
I wanted a miniature Chinese garden like one I’d read about in a book – so I borrowed a tray and arranged gravel and stones and moss around a tin lid (for the pool) and stood some china ornaments around it till the moss dried and the tray got knocked over. Oh, and I wanted an eighth Narnia book, so I got an old blue notebook and wrote my own. (You can see it here if you like.) And though none of the things I made may have been any good (by some ultimate critical standard), it was the making of them that counted.
While I was still at school, teachers and other random adults would sometimes remind us that 'it doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game'. It did matter if we won or lost (and those same adults secretly thought so, and we knew it) so we didn't pay too much attention. Still, the moral was well meant. For winning or losing is pointless unless you already care about the game. I was no good at sports, didn't enjoy the game, and therefore neither cared nor tried: but sometimes now, if I'm talking to children in schools about writing, I tell them it's very much like practising a sport. You can have talent and do nothing with it. Or you can have talent and enjoy writing as a hobby. Or you can have talent, and practise regularly, and study technique, and with a bit of luck thrown in you may become a professional. Even in today's celebrity culture, children readily understand that you don't get to play for Manchester United, or in the Men's or Women's Finals at Wimbledon, without putting in a lot of hard work. (Maybe that's why sportsmen and women are so revered.) But it's all right to do things as well as you can. We should let ourselves off sometimes. Children (and adults) need to remember that it's all right not to play football as well as David Beckham. We have the right to enjoy doing things at our own level.
For me, the writing is what has lasted. I'm never likely to become an embroiderer or woodcarver. But it’s all making, and any child who hammers a nail in straight, paints a picture or bakes brownies knows how good it feels.
Here’s a poem by Robert Bridges which I learned by heart when I was about nine. It says, so beautifully, exactly what I feel.
I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them.
God hath no better praise,
And Man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them.
I too will something make,
And joy in the making,
Although tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream,
Remembered on waking.