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Sue Townsend a woman I admire

Sue TownsendI once had a wonderful conversation with Sue Townsend the author on a ferry.  It was at the end of a course on writing which she had taught and I attended.

You don’t have to know somebody for a long time to know if you admire them.

We were travelling from the Greek island of Skyros to the mainland.  A journey of about 1 – 2 hours and we just sat the whole time and had a conversation that still inspires me.

An initial lack of confidence about her writing.

When Sue first started writing she used to put the paper under the cushion on a sofa so that her then husband wouldn’t find what she had written.  I can’t really remember if he was against her writing but she definitely wasn’t supported, and also felt awkward about what she was writing.

I certainly could identify with that feeling of wanting to keep writing personal.  I do think many of us often don’t own up to the greatness we could achieve.  This may simply be part of the journey and is quite natural unless you are very focussed and exceptional.

She had a lively sense of humour.

It can be one thing to be amusing on paper, or in front of an audience but quite often those people are depressive or joyless in real life. Sue was funny in her books and funny in real life too.  I always feel more comfortable if I can laugh, and it encouraged me a lot that an author famous for selling millions of  books about Adrian Mole as well as screenplays and plays  was able to have a good chuckle, and didn’t take life too seriously.  As she had diabetes and was losing her eyesight and feelings in her feet it was especially remarkable – and humbling.

Sue was a great teacher.

I learnt two fantastic aspects of writing which I still remember. We had an upstairs room in a Greek tavern to write in, but Sue wanted us to find our own place to write.  So we dispersed to cafes, beside stone walls, on the beach and elsewhere to write.  Then came back together. I love writing in strange places as well as where I am “meant” to write to this day and owe that to Sue’s influence.  The other aspect was to do with editing.  She maintained that no matter how good you think your writing is, there is always something you can edit.  She was an advocate of writing in a notebook in blue or black, and editing in red.  By my nature I am not so much of a perfectionist editor so it was a useful lesson for me to learn.  I applied it to only one verb in one piece I wrote then, and was amazed by the powerful change.

Writers notice details.

She told me that she used to walk to school with a friend when she was young, and one day  commented on the peeling wood on a gate. Her friend hadn’t noticed it. She stated  that “writers notice details.” I listened to her telling me the story and imagined she must have extra powers which I as a mere mortal did not have. Then I remembered an incident which was remarkably similar.

I was walking to school with a friend.  In the village street there were big wooden doors between two houses which were sometimes closed.  When they were open you could see stone steps leading up to little doors, and alleyways leading to fields.  I always hoped the doors would be ope as I loved looking at the scene.  One day the gates were open and I could see in. I was so pleased and said so to my friend. I was astonished when my friend said that she had never noticed the gates before.  I could hardly believe we lived in the same place.    Because the situations were so similar it gave me a sense of belonging and finding another person who felt the same way .. and the thought began to trickle in that I was a writer, too.

Other connections

We had a number of other connections, too. She read and loved the Just William stories by Richmal Crompton as I did.  In fact I encouraged my children to read them as well, and many car journeys were in the company of Martin Jarvis reading them aloud.

Another connection was that she was published by Methuen which was the publishing company I joined when I left teaching.  Our paths didn’t cross, but it felt like another coincidence.

The most powerful aspect of our conversation on the ferry was when we told each other a bit more about our lives including about our children and failed marriage. As part of this conversation she mentioned that her own mother had died when she was an eight year old child, and that a lots of writers  – Shakespeare included – had lost their mothers at the age of eight.  She wondered if there was something about losing a mother at that age which encouraged the child left behind to write.  I can’t now remember the names of the other authors she mentioned, but I have a plan to do some research about this.  Because my mother died when I was eight.

My conversation with Sue Townsend included a lot of laughter as well as serious issues and is one I treasure.  She died in 2014 and was described by the actor Stephen Mangan who played Adrian Mole one one of the “warmest funniest and wisest” people he knew. Warm, funny and wise are wonderful ways to describe a woman, and from my own experience of her I would add  the word “inspirational”.

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13 Replies

  1. Jean

    Good to hear from you Susan. Just to say, I am Jean not Nicky! Glad you found the post easy to read especially important for blogs which are read anywhere sometimes on a hard-to0read- screen. So pleased you are enjoying the blogging challenge despite all the work you are doing! You must have good cultural differences to write about especially if you grew up in a Scottish town.

  2. Thank you Nicky. I cannot remember if it still in the long version of my bio on my website or if I took it out… but one school essay I wrote turned into an adventure story. The teacher didn’t like that it took up nearly all of my ‘composition book’. I suppose I understand that now – with about thirty of us in the class if we had all written that length LOL.
    So, it is comparatively recently when I ‘fell into’ fiction writing. (About five years ago, maybe a little more.)
    Unlike your author, my husband was my ‘cheerleader’. In fact, as I check the galley-proofs for book two in the series I smile when I see his suggestions. (Yes, some made it into the text.)
    By the way, I didn’t lose my mother as a child, but I did suffer emotional abuse. My imagination, and living in an historic Scottish town perhaps compensated.
    I enjoyed you sharing, and your writing style. Very easy to read!

  3. Jean

    I so agree. Integrity is such a great thing and I always want it to go right through the person. Funny on paper funny in person was a real thrill! Female comedians are less man-bashing today I find, which is also refreshing!

  4. Jean

    Thanks for the reminder Amanda! I am including my own creative writing in an online product I am developing. Watch this space! Glad you found it inspiring, too.

  5. Jean

    Thanks Nicky. Yes she certainly inspired me, and I am glad it came through in the writing.

  6. Jean

    Thanks Ngaire yes it certainly felt like that. So many coincidences it almost shocked me.

  7. ngaire

    What an incredible author and may her stories and tales have a long lasting impression on people. Somehow our paths are meant to cross and it seems that your paths indeed had a deeper meaning to cross.

  8. What a wonderful privilege to have met this remarkable lady. I really enjoyed reading this. It was heartening. A very interesting point about losing a mother at such a young age. Thank you for sharing such a warm and inspirational story.

  9. Inspiring story Jean. I look forward to reading your next book!

  10. Jean

    Yes I agree. And they are appearing on quiz shows and being witty and quick, not just man-bashing!

  11. Sarah Seymour

    How interesting to meet a well known author like that and to be able to have such a long conversation. Glad to know she was funny in real life as well as in her writing. I love the fact there are many more female comedians now. So much more engaging to other women than only having men. Completes the picture.

  12. What a wonderful encounter, Jean. It’s strange we come across the most influential people in strange environments, or on holiday. The fact that you got a chance to speak with her at length was most beneficial, only to find out how much you had in common!

    Do you think that both my parents being still alive could have an influence on my writing? My father couldn’t write because he had severe dyslexia, and the solution to that in Australian schools in the 1920s and 30s was to beat you. My mother went to a totally inappropriate boarding school where her only hope was to become a governess. (Yes, really!) So she focused on art rather than writing, and having a foreign widowed mother with a limited English vocabulary didn’t help either.

    There are plenty of people who write in secret. Many because they get no encouragement from their family or friends, or because they are embarrassed at what they produce. Not all of us have the opportunity to meet famous authors on holiday. Well done Jean!

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