Mavis Cheek: On Writing

Mavis Cheek: On Writing

If you’ve read one of our Mavis Cheek titles, then you know what laugh-out-loud writing looks like. But how did our comedic genius get her start in the writing world? Read on for a glimpse into the world of Mavis Cheek.

Like Shelling Peas

There is no doubt that I was given the gift of writing. That I knew, from quite an early age, how to put words together and how to invent stories is clear. I didn’t mark it particularly. It came easily. Just as well as I was a lazy child, or at least, a child not given to caring about things very much, not one to put my back into anything, so – to be good at words automatically meant I could just enjoy it. No-one required me to put my back into anything and no-one told me I was good at anything. I’m not entirely sure that anyone noticed. Certainly, at my infants school the writing was not apparent — I was learning how to do it rather than sitting down to write imaginatively. And later at my Junior school there was no particular singling out of my writing skills. Mostly the teachers concentrated on the boys — looking back that’s clear — and my compositions, which got reasonable marks, were not made much of.

I read and read and read. I loved stories. I loved Enid Blyton in particular, and Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’, and Paul Gallico — I used the local library every week, immersing myself in books. Until I was a teenager we had no television so books were everything, stories were everything. I do remember how much I enjoyed writing them and — much as my writing today — I don’t think I ever tried to write to please anyone else. Nowadays I write and hope the readers will like it. Then I wrote — not even caring if the teacher liked it or not. I wrote because I could and because it was a pleasure. That, surely, for any writer of any age, must hold true. If you are not enjoying what you are writing then how will anyone enjoy reading it? (This is not the same as enjoying the process of writing which most writers will tell you is a pain in the elbow — displacement activity, vacuuming the curtains, tidying a drawer, anything, anything to avoid sitting down and starting to write — but the words take over once you do and then you are off and you forget the elbow and the pain.)

Not until senior school did I have homework. I’m assuming that was when I found somewhere to write at home. Certainly there were no writing facilities when I was younger and as an eight year old none was required. We lived in two back rooms and the table was for meals and the preparation of meals — maybe reading the paper, maybe filling in the football pools, but not for sitting with a pen in your hand and paper before you and writing something of no use to anyone. I’m not sure how, once at senior school, I did my homework. There was no desk nor room for one in the living room and the bedroom had a double and a single bed crammed in — a chest of drawers — and that was it. I probably did sit at the table but I don’t remember sitting there with a pen.

It was at senior school (secondary modern, B stream, 11+ failure — twice) that a couple of teachers recognised that I was good at essays, good with words. And when the school held a concert I wrote the verses to a song which two friends and I sang — the words and the rhythm came as easily as shelling a pea. The teacher organising the concert was impressed. I think I was surprised that she was impressed. Why? It was what I could do and very easily.

Interestingly, when, at twelve, I edited our younger pupils’ magazine, and wrote an editorial full of confidence and big words, the maths master, one Mr Della-Rocca, was highly sceptical and asked the class if I had written it on my own or whether my father and mother had helped me a lot (my maths skills were so poor that I can see why he would be incredulous). The class, in unison, said, ‘she’s good at writing, Sir.’ And then I added, thereby crushing any further Della-Rocca jibe, that, in any case, I did not have a father. Innocently offered as information but — looking back — the perfect way to silence an uppity teacher.

After school I wrote no more stories. Of course I wrote agonised teenage poetry — who did not — but the imaginative side of writing was, for the most part, buried again. Except for the fact that there was no internet, no email, no smart phones, and we didn’t have a telephone at home; instead there were letters and the post. Throughout my teens and into my twenties I wrote letters copiously, and I loved writing to my friends. I sometimes created completely arbitrary worlds for them in my letters — inventing surreal happenings and totally imagined situations — all for fun. Seldom did I write a letter which was purely informative in the strictest practical sense. I made friends laugh and many of them have said since that they kept my letters and still have them. It was all so very easy and enjoyable.

Those, then, were the years that shaped my writing without my having a clue that it was an amazing talent and an unusual gift — and that one day I would become a novelist and earn my bread by what I found came so naturally and enjoyably.

As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN with which Agora author you’d like to hear from next!