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Three different kinds of fool 

On writing and foolishness

The origin of April Fool’s Day is unclear. I found various accounts of it when I looked online. My favourite is the one about the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in the 1500s, when apparently the ‘fools’ who continued to celebrate New Year at the end of March were derided and had tricks played on them.

I love Pamela Smith’s image of the Fool in the Rider Waite tarot deck, so I thought I’d reclaim April Fool’s Day, to say why I think writers are Fools. In fact, we’re three kinds of Fool. Forget about the practical jokes for a sec and consider why it’s good to be Foolish.

The Tarot’s Fool

There are of course many interpretations of the Tarot’s Fool card – one being that the Fool is at the very start of his metaphorical journey and as such is open to multiple possibilities. Another is that he is about to step off a cliff without looking where he’s going. In his 2005 book Creativity, Rob Pope rifts on E.M. Forster’s definition of the creative life: “leap before you look.” For me, the Fool card is an emblem for Forster’s “leap before you look.”

Living as a writer and the writing process itself are often about being foolish enough to “leap before you look.” We’ve got to begin, to turn up and writing something, anything at all, to establish a writing habit, to jump in and do it even though we’re scared. That leads me to the next crucial step after leaping. Turning up. Mountaineer William Hutchison Murray said, of climbing up cliffs rather than jumping off them:

“Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.” (From The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, 1951)

I’m not sure I agree that it’s ‘providence’ that moves to help us, but something more practical than that: there is a writing community out there that will support you, once you are Foolish enough to jump in, once you start to turn up.

The Court Jester

The Jester is there to entertain, to make people laugh, to be the one wearing a silly costume with jinglly bells. The writer is like a court jester in two ways:

  1. We make ourselves vulnerable when we put ourselves out there, and potentially open ourselves up to ridicule.
  2. We’ve made it our job to tell a good story or conjure up a thought-provoking picture – to entertain in the broadest sense.

The current cultural idiom about court jesters, whether this is historically accurate I don’t know, is that they could get away with saying things that others couldn’t, because they were saying it in jest. I’ve seen this ‘jester who can get away with it’ cultural idiom in Scooby Doo and Loony Tunes recently, for instance. I know that example says something about my frame of reference for the last 8 years, but it’s a valid point: if an idea has reached children’s television then it’s saturated popular culture pretty deeply.

In a sense, artists, writers included, are ‘jesters who are allowed to get away with it’. Want to chop a shark in half and pickle it? You can if you’re an artist. Want to write about a time travelling dyspraxic kid from Sheffield who watches his gran get killed by an alien with dead people’s teeth embedded in his face? You can if you write for Dr Who. It starts with letting yourself off the hook: give yourself permission to ‘get away with it’.

The Shakespearean Fool

This is the Fool who seems ridiculous but is made wise by his or her ability to stand outside the action and observe. Direct observation from life is one of the most powerful things you can do as a writer. I first learnt that on an Arvon course when I was nineteen and we were sent outside to watch something for forty-five minutes. It was one of the most epiphanic moments of my life.

This kind of character actually predates Shakespeare. Cassandra – cursed by Apollo to see the future but have nobody believe her – is another example. Rather than being revered, she is a figure of ridicule, treated as if she’s irritating, superfluous and unnecessarily gloomy.

Not all the time, but some of the time, take a step out of the ‘action’ of life and observe. If a writer has any job description at all, then this is pretty close to it.

Celebrate your inner Fool

Take the opportunity to reclaim April Fool’s Day by celebrating the Fool in you, and remember e.e. cummings described becoming a poet as follows:

“To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else […]” (from e.e. cummings: A Miscellany, 1965)

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