The “Hitch” moment

The “Hitch” moment – when our best plans take unexpected, and often unwanted turns


There’s a moment in the film Hitch when Will Smith (Hitch) takes Eva Mendes to Ellis Island, in New York, to impress her on a first date. He’s found a distant relative of hers that passed through the border control and helps her find his name in the ledger. To his horror, she starts sobbing and runs away. Unbeknown to him, this relative is a murderer, “the butcher of Cadiz,” the shame of her family. Taken aback, Hitch turns to the security guard and says, “I saw that going differently in my mind.”

This scene sticks in my mind because it sums up such a lot of life (and writing). Our expectations, our plans, our visions turn on themselves, and take unexpected twists and turns. What we think will happen, doesn’t, or if it does, not in the way we imagine. Of course, the plans are important because at least we set out in a direction. Writing is the same. You think you are starting a particular kind of book, and before you know it, it has a life of its own, and starts dictating its own direction.

When writing, I see it mostly as part of the mystery of the creative process. In life, sometimes it can be harder to stay open to the flow. How do we stay open to the world that doesn’t answer our dreams, hopes and expectations? Without dreams, we become trapped in a very drab place. Maybe in the end, it’s how we hold our hopes. We have to decide when it’s worth waiting, when it’s the time to adjust, or when it’s the moment to fight for them.



Why authors get rid of parents?


Down at the Foundering Museum, it’s a sobering experience, as you learn that in the 18th century  75% of children in London died under the age of five. On its site, the Foundling Museum remembers the first charity in England, and first ever public art gallery, raising funds to support “exposed and deserted” babies, who would be brought to its doors by destitute and desperate mothers. Here they might have a chance at survival. These babies were known as foundlings.

Over the walls in the Foundling Museum are papered lists of names, including characters from books and films, of people who lost their parents one way or another. There were so many well-known names. In real life, the grief of losing a parent is life-changing and can mark you. I read once that grieving a mother is like having to suffer the pain of shrapnel; it must come out slowly, all the pieces slowly and sharply making their way out through the body and flesh. Standing at this wall of names, it struck me, why do authors so often kill off parents? What narrative and psychological function does it serve? Here are just three that came to my mind. There are many more.

First of all, it suggests the child has a hidden parentage, perhaps a special one. Harry Potter was raised by ordinary Muggle relatives but actually came from fine Wizard stock. A secret destiny must be discovered. Magic powers or knowledge lurk deep inside, waiting to be unlocked. Surely, as small children we all wish there was a royal or magical inheritance? That way, we aren’t just ordinary.

Secondly, it must tap into our worst fears to see a child left on their own to fend for themselves. No parents, no one to nurture or cherish them in this world. It exposes a child to the harsh elements of reality, the best and worst of human nature and requires the child to dig deep to develop resources that would never emerge otherwise. Characters have to fight for themselves. We get to see what they are made of in the face of loss. It’s a bitter lesson to live so young.

Thirdly, death and grief can be such powerful drivers. What you have lost, you search for, albeit in different forms. A purpose, a purpose, a destiny, a story… These characters in the books don’t mess around. They are forced into becoming, creating and relating to other people. They get on with the job of living or, in some cases, dying. All of us will lose our parents at some stage, unless we go first. J. K. Rowling wrote that the one part of her first book that made her cry when writing was when Harry Potter sees his deceased parents as living people in a magic mirror. J.K. Rowling lost her mother before her immense success as an author. Her mother never saw what she achieved.

No wonder orphans make such conflicted and compelling characters on the page. And perhaps they might just be able to guide those that suffer the terrible loss of parents in real life.

When you can’t past the first line

In The Shining, Wendy finds Jack’s manuscript, the book that he’s been working on at the hotel. Instead of a story, she discovers that he’s typed the same sentence – over and over again.

Perhaps one of the reasons this famous scene is so disturbing is because we secretly relate to Jack – stuck in the same thoughts, repetitive actions, worst of all, without even realising it. Suddenly, a week, a month, a year, ten years have slipped through our fingers. Whatever we were supposed to have started, the work remains unfinished. Life and our creativity has closed in on itself. No wonder it’s the stuff of madness.

As a writer, aside from not having anything to say, this deep-seated anxiety must be up there in Top 10 Fears. What if we can’t get past the first line? What if everything we write has been written before, or offers nothing new. It’s like the character in Albert Camus’ The Plague, Joseph Grand, who spends the entire book crafting one line in slightly different versions.

My hunch is that we’ve all been there.

When we abandon ourselves

antony gormley image

At the exhibition Found, at the Foundling Museum, Anthony Gormley has created this tiny new-born baby sculpture lying on the floor. Iron Baby – it tugs at your heartstrings. Who could have left it here, abandoned, lying all alone? Surely it’s in the wrong place. This baby needs to be held and suckled by its mother, not left alone on a cold, hard floor, forced to curl up on itself and seek nurture when there is none. Its vulnerability makes you want to scoop it up and comfort it in your arms. There are so many real babies that face this tragic fate, it’s heart-breaking – but seeing this baby on the floor got me thinking about a different kind of baby and whether they also get abandoned.

Creative babies.

By creative babies, I mean ideas or notions that come to us, in a new-born state, delicate, unformed, asking for our attention. An idea for a book, a business idea, an insight, a creative opportunity. This unformed creative baby arrives in a flash, in a whim, then passes like a cloud, and if we don’t see it or value it, then it slips away barely noticed. In the busyness and rush of the everyday, it’s easy to ignore these ideas that come to us. We may not realise their importance. But tiny gems could be turned into something, with attention, craft and work. This can only happen if ideas can be held and nurtured in the first place.

Imagine if J.K. Rowling hadn’t listened to the creative baby that arrived to her on the train? Or if Steven Spielberg had ignored the creative babies that visited him in the shower or car. Or Mozart switched off when the tunes arrived? Or if Robert Louis Stevenson hadn’t bothered to write down the strange dream he had about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck,  who made the incredible film, The Lives of Others, recounts one image that came to him – a man listening to a piece of music, moved to tears by it, knowing he was forbidden to listen to it. Donnersmarck knew this image had to be followed in order to make his film. Jony Ive, Chief Design Officer at Apple spoke about Steve Jobs, his gift of understanding the delicate nature of the creative process and how ideas needed protection. There are countless writers, artists, musicians, poets, film-makers, scientists, innovators who follow such inspirations to see where they lead, a bit like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland (or in the Matrix). Maybe these ideas come to everyone. It’s just that only some people have the means to notice and take care of them.

On a smaller level, for those of us who are not creative geniuses, my question is – can we also learn to support our new-born ideas when they come to us and understand that they need looking after? Can we make a bit more space for the creative babies to arrive, or do we fill up our time with other less consequential stuff?  Our creative babies, on whatever scale or importance, need wholehearted attention and love, if they are ever going to have a chance to grow into something that can survive and stand on their own two feet in the world.