A few weeks ago, I performed in a ‘storytelling marathon’ in São Paulo. A Brazilian storyteller called Dani Barros told this story. She heard it while travelling in Burkina Faso and Mali…

There was once a path which led through a forest. At the end of this path was a village, and the village was famous for a particular reason. People said that whoever went there was changed in some way.

It was a long way to the village. The path wound through the forest for many miles. And about halfway along it, there was a house where a widow lived with her son. This was good news for travellers on their way to the village. Many of them would break their journey at the widow’s house, and sleep there for a night.

That’s exactly what happened one day. A stranger came walking along the path and, when he reached the house, the widow went out to greet him. “It’s a long way to the village,” she said. “Perhaps you’d like to spend a night with me and my son.” 

The stranger accepted. The next day, he carried on his journey.  

Several weeks went by. Then the traveller came back. “How did you like the village?” asked the widow.

“I was disappointed,” the man said to her. “I thought it was going to be special in some way. But it’s just a village in the middle of a forest. The people have very little. Nothing interesting seems to happen. So I decided to leave the place.”

 “Of course,” said the widow, and the traveller went on his way.

Only a few days later, another stranger came walking along the path, and the same thing happened. When he reached the house, the widow went out to greet him. “It’s a long way to the village,” she said. “Perhaps you’d like to spend a night here.” 

The stranger accepted. He spent a night with the widow and her son. Then, the next day, he continued his journey.  

Several weeks later, the stranger came back. “How did you like the village?” asked the widow.

“It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” he told her. “I couldn’t believe how colourful the flowers are and how tall the trees grow. Children run around freely, and the older ones look after the younger ones. Every night the villagers gather together to dance and tell stories. I felt so happy there, I’ve decided to go and fetch what I own, and go back to live there!” 

“Of course,” said the widow, and the traveller went on his way.

 When he’d gone the widow’s son said to her. “I don’t understand. One traveller came back and he told you he didn’t like the village, and you said, ‘Of course.’ Then the next traveller came back and told you he loved everything about the place, and you said exactly the same thing!”

His mother replied, “Well, that’s because everyone sees the world according to what they have in their heart.”

And the boy said, “Of course.”

Forest Burkina Faso 1

Writing secrets – FLYING CROOKED

I’ve been working on a second novel for teenagers. It’s a tough piece of writing (for reasons that will become apparent if ever I get to the end of it and it becomes a book.)

Recently there have been some days when I’ve flown along, covering lots of pages. But there have been plenty of other days when I expected to fly along, covering lots of pages, and actually found myself spending long hours on a single paragraph, or getting nowhere at all.

There’s an Oscar Wilde story I like. He said he spent an entire morning working on a poem, and all he did was put in one comma. Then he worked on the poem all through the afternoon, and all he did was take the comma out.

Oscar Wilde liked to exaggerate, for comic effect. But I find this story of his completely believable! Writing gets like that.

Some years ago, the difficulty…the stops and starts…and the getting-nowhere in spite of all the trying might have left me feeling dejected…perhaps pessimistic about what I was doing…probably frustrated with myself.

But I’ve been writing books for long enough now, to know that the bad days are intimately connected with the good days. You can’t afford to puff yourself up when it’s going well, or deflate when it’s going badly.

I’ve talked about this with my friend, the painter, Ed Gray. He’s described going through exactly the same good times and bad times when working on paintings in his studio. And he has a good little saying to deal with it: “The important thing is to show up.”

Sometimes I can ask myself if I’ve “shown up” for my work in recent days, and the answer is, “No.”

If I look back on recent weeks, the answer is “Yes.” And when that’s the case, I find myself feeling quite optimistic about the slowness, and the detours and difficulties along the way.

This poem, by British writer Robert Graves, has become a favourite:


The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
He has–who knows so well as I?–
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves (1895-1985)