Trouble of Our Own Making

This Week’s Bit of String: Saturday morning movies

One of our family traditions was letting Mom stay in bed on Saturday mornings, and we’d watch a movie. This sounds simple, but we had to choose from our videotapes, mostly random stuff recorded from basic cable, plus Disney feature cartoons. I’m the oldest of four kids, with five years between myself and my youngest sister. Certain parties objected to anything in black and white, and it couldn’t be too “mushy,” and one gets creeped out by films with talking animals.

Whenever I vetoed a movie, my siblings would roll their eyes and admit annoyed defeat. “Oh sure, because they get in trouble.”

This movie’s still a nope from me. But the local vet’s window display was very cute!

It’s true, I was super sensitive about misunderstood characters in kids’ films, from Anne of Green Gables to Pete’s Dragon. Lady and the Tramp—I couldn’t bear that one (plus, it had talking animals so it was out anyway). It was the same with books: Curious George, for example.

I was petrified of getting in trouble for something I didn’t do, or even worse for something I did. I was the oldest child in a religious family, sensitive by nature, also traumatised by abuse. My dread of getting in trouble was so severe I couldn’t read or watch things where that occurred.

Causation vs Correlation

Lucky for me, in quite a few children’s films, things just happen. We ended up watching Peter Pan a lot (not the cartoon, but a slightly fuzzy tape of Mary Martin performing the lead in the Broadway musical). Plenty happens in that without the characters necessarily causing it.

It’s different as you get older. Characters must be autonomous, reflecting our quest for independence. This means everything that happens stems from protagonists’ decisions, overreaches, and failures.

Every crime-busting film from Miss Congeniality to Hannibal starts with the heroic detective disgracing themselves, and they must salvage their reputation. Every superhero film first establishes them as fallible; their powers are their only shot at redemption.

We love wonky, flawed characters. But do we have to make them responsible for everything?

Recently while I finished retyping my entire novel with new edits, I streamed Paddington and Paddington 2 to get through the copying. When I mentioned it to my youngest sister, she was like, “Wait, how do you watch those? Paddington gets in trouble all the time!”

Yeah, I kind of got over that. I had to, or else I’d never read or watch anything. Nor would I be working on my current novel, about possibly the most famous Character Who Gets in Trouble of all time: Eve, the original sinner.

As I edit the book, I’ve been reading about story structure. John Yorke in Into the Woods presents the prototypical story structure as a process of awakening. Initially, the protagonist does not deal well with revelations and things continue going wrong. I just finished Nikesh Shukla’s Your Story Matters, in which he emphasises the importance of causality: the plot springs from a main character’s action or deliberate inaction when faced with new knowledge.

In other words, the main character is SUPPOSED to make it all happen. It’s all their fault. They have to fall a long way in order to teach us how to get back up. Every protagonist, in a sense, is the author’s sacrifice.

Agency vs… Real Life?

Now that I recognise how it works, it’s stressing me out and reviving my aversion to characters getting in trouble. I put a film on and wait for the character to completely blow it. I’m anxious while reading because I know the protagonist is destined to screw things up.

There are a lot of things bigger than our characters and us.

I do like a domino plot, though, where each detail causes another; the way John Irving or Margaret Atwood spin massive tales of intricate characters and everything’s interconnected by the end.

As I go through my Eve book yet again, I’m wondering how to cohere the trajectory, Eve’s actions (or inactions) and their consequences. This is a myth retelling, so not everything is strictly in Eve’s control. She has God, Lucifer, and most chaotically, other humans to deal with. Plus, part of my reason for writing this is to repudiate millennia of condemnation. Maybe bucking the traditional structure is acceptable, or am I a bad writer if Eve doesn’t trigger every consequence herself?

I noticed that in Dune 2, the protagonist never fails at any new trick he tries. The developments in the plot are not of his own making—different from a Marvel film. Indeed, Nikesh Shukla notes that the character-triggered consequence story structure is a Western tradition. It makes sense, I guess, that main characters from other, more faith-based cultures have less agency to affect the plot.

We Westerners are obsessed with individuality—the downside being we can be persuaded that any trouble is our fault. In real life, it’s not. Not every time. How tightly do you like your plots linked to your character’s actions? Does it ever cause you anxiety, knowing a character is destined to get in trouble?

Non-Stop

This Week’s Bit of String: Dreams about reading

A Year 13 student informed me somewhat randomly, “It’s impossible to dream about reading books because you read with the opposite half of your brain from where you dream.”

Given she mentioned this after insisting, during a GCSE Maths Resit lesson on multipliers, “It’s impossible to have anything higher than 100%,” I should have taken it with a grain of salt. But I was intrigued because I do dream quite a bit, and I couldn’t think of any dreams in which I’d been reading a book.

Maybe it was true, a never-the-twain-shall-meet sort of thing. I often dream about getting lost while travelling. Maybe the signs and maps have no words, and that’s why. Have you ever read in your dreams?

Can one truly rest when words are present?

My subconscious launched into gear to prove me utterly and completely wrong. 

The first night, I dreamed about gathering reading material for a trip. There was a photocopied chapter about encouraging students to read, and I distinctly remember reading the title in my dream: “Reading is like getting a big hug!” As if that would persuade my actual students.

The second night, I was in a library with a dusty shelf containing all the stories I’d written, and I searched through for the right one to offer a friend. 

Whether this proves which brain hemisphere is in charge of what activity, I would not presume to say. Maybe words have permeated every function of my mind. Or maybe my subconscious is a stubborn and contrary creature.

All the Words, All the Time

When working with students in lower-set classes, sometimes I turn around to help someone else, reading an extract to them upside down. These kids struggle to read rightside-up, through no fault of their own, so this amazes them. 

I almost inhale words though. I’ve been reading since age three. If there are words anywhere in the vicinity, I will read them. I can barely help reading them.

The problem with reading somewhat involuntarily is that it goes beyond my control. Stories are bigger than we are, aren’t they? I think a lot of writers have difficulty shutting stories off. We rely on this, and it’s marvellous to get lost in a story. My problem is, I can’t stop the words in general. 

Might be nice to just look, not try to describe or capture…

My brain is always writing, if not creatively. It might be planning an email to check in with a friend, or working out how to explain developments to a student’s parent, or considering how to promote my own material, or thinking up character quirks. 

It could be going over what I’ll recount in my daily scribbles: Magnolia blooms like flocks of butterflies. Trying to pass the gauntlet of Key Stage 3 girls outside the toilets between lessons, their handbags pert like ship prows. These thoughts from a Year 10 special needs student: “This might be stereotypical of me, but if I went to Texas, do you think people there would be mean because I’m different? They might stereotypic me because of it. But everyone’s different in some way and can get stereotypicked for something…”

Waste Not, Want Not?

My brain has been programmed to optimise any free moment. It’s learned to write like I’m running out of time, except my body can’t keep up. The second I wake up, even when it’s still the middle of the night and it’s the third or fourth time that night… Words switch right on and I’m rocketing through lots of things to say or write. 

Oberon the baby-cat is responsible for many of these wake-ups.

To an extent, this helps me later on. I can remember how I decided to word that message for work, and I’ll remember the order I wanted to put things in when reunited with my journal.

But it’s also tiring, the constant torrent of words in my head, because it’s difficult to rest when it flows. Then the fog of tiredness is somewhat counterproductive.

Is poor sleep an inevitable part of creative life? Have I unwittingly rewired myself in a harmful way? If we took a machine and rerouted some electrics to provide extra energy to a particular function, then the other functions would not run so well. I’m worried I might have done this to myself.

I now have two weeks off for the Easter holidays. I may commit to the massive to-do list I’ve made which includes sorting the garden out and cleaning the house and stocking the freezer, plus catching up on reading literary magazines and (she adds breezily…) proofreading the latest type-up of my 330-page novel. Or I could try to catch up on sleep, see if I can pause the words, and then when it’s term-time again, throw myself back into the merciless pace of trying to proofread the novel and grow lots of veggies while working a rather intense job and keeping the house clean and meals cooked every day.

I have a feeling my subconscious has already chosen for me. It’s a good thing I’m rather fond of words and writing.

Do you have tips for getting control of all the words in our heads… preferably without stifling creativity?

Literary Mothers

This Week’s Bit of String: Villains in the woods

Growing up, we were always acting out stories. We played them with stuffed animals, listened to them on cassettes, and ran through the woods pretending we were heroes with baddies after us.

We lived beside a rustic, lakeside resort in New Hampshire, and its cottages were scattered above us in the forest, empty until summer. We’d patter along the footpaths, assigning different storybook villains to each cabin. Maleficent, the White Witch, the Big Bad Wolf, Snow White’s evil queen, and the Wicked Witch of the West all holed up in those cottages.

Which baddie might live here?

Mom accepted that we never wanted to play the bad guys ourselves, so she’d put on a crone voice and play the witch part, chasing us along while we shrieked excitedly. She always had to be the villain in our games and by doing so, she gave our games and stories extra potency.
 
As thrilling as Mom made our childhood, I could never write her into my fiction. I sometimes take people or moments that I irresistibly return to, and put versions into stories. But my mother wouldn’t work as a character. She’s too good.

Having devoted every second of her life to four brilliant (I mean, you should see my siblings) but very weird, needy children, plus helping earn a living primarily working with special needs students in elementary schools, plus volunteering at church and generally being a magnet for waifs and strays… She is the Most Patient Person in the World™ and my mother couldn’t be believed if she turned up in a book. 

In modern literature, she’d be covering up for something. Her good deeds would be belied by exerting painful standards on her children. But Mom is almost unfailingly patient, and while she sets high standards for herself, she loves knowing who we really are and accepts our differences. And she’s by no means boring, with her wealth of experiences and her exceptionally tolerant good humour.

The Good Ones

I aimed to do a round-up of good literature mums, and it was somewhat challenging. Just as many fairy tale villains are female, a fair few mothers in contemporary books are abusive (Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine or Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects), manipulative and self-centred (Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk), or detrimentally submissive (The Glass Castle and Tara Westover’s Educated).

This might reflect people being more honest about how hard parenting is. Not everyone is cut out for the job. So many other mums in books are consumed with survival. This absolutely does not make them bad mothers, but it makes mothering secondary to the plot. It’s like when a sitcom couple has a baby and the baby is hardly ever in the show. 

My Mom and my little Bear, 2007

I’ve been writing about Eve, the “Mother of All the Living,” and motherhood looms large in my work-in-progress. But she isn’t a brilliant example because she had much baggage, and no one to emulate. I love reading and writing about mums that know their kids well, mums who, even for a brief scene, play whatever silly thing their kid likes and enjoy it, even while admitting that a parenting day can be long indeed. After all, my mom was like that, and as a mum myself, time spent with my Bear–doing anything, really–is my very favourite thing.

So I’m thinking of Elizabeth Zott in Lessons in Chemistry, who is honest with her daughter about how tough the world can be, but tries not to pass her sadness on. Supporting, defending moms like in Wonder or The Fault in Our Stars

There are incredibly brave and devoted mothers like Mauma in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, who is enslaved but gives Handful as much freedom as she can. The mother in Room by Emma Donaghue whose son is her whole life, quite literally, for 4 years.

Across the Pond

British mums have a different vibe. There’s a looser family dynamic generally, which seems fine, and a sense that kids ought to entertain themselves a lot sooner. Every culture has its own ways. I’ve always appreciated the British phrase “she fell pregnant” implying that motherhood is some sort of disease, because aspects of pregnancy really do suck.

When Bear and I immigrated to join their dad, Bear was just turning 3 years old. Soon after, my mother-in-law complained to my husband that I was spoiling our not-yet-preschooler by playing with them too much.

Signs of spring for Mothering Sunday

My response was simply: “When, precisely, did this spoiling start? When Bear was a baby and toddler, when I was a single mum working full-time and finishing a degree?” My mothering, too, has been pretty survival-focused at times.

Still, I have plenty of British friends who clearly had children for reasons other than to complete housework.

British books have great mums, too: Agnes in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, for example. She seems to know her children on an almost supernatural level. “There is nothing more exquisite than her child.” Nazneen, fellow immigrant to Britain in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, feels similar wonder for her baby. She can’t protect her children from everything but she loves them desperately.

Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Amma in Girl, Woman, Other. I think of her quote as I miss my own kid, now on the other side of the ocean with my mother and all the rest of my family.

“the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some more noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
really”

That sums things up for me. Who are your favourite literary mothers?

The Wind-Up and the Pitch

This Week’s Bit of String: Playground tales

My kid had quite a flair for tales with a twist. Only, I don’t think they meant to be suspenseful; stories just developed that way.

Once, after a solo trip to the playground, they weren’t very forthcoming as I asked about what they did. They didn’t get to climb much, or have a kickaround. It took a bit more questioning before they said, “I didn’t have time to do any of those things… because H was holding my head down on the pavement.”

Now, that’s a statement that will hook a parental audience. 

Eventually, my little Bear explained that while they were climbing and swinging, one of their classmates and his big brother H thought Bear said something rude, and the boys tackled them. My kiddo ended up with a rather large local knucklehead sitting on their back.

Why the delayed reveal? Not for melodramatic reasons in this instance, but probably because Bear wasn’t sure what to make of the whole thing, and needed time before they could articulate such a shocking escalation.

Withholding Information

Deep into novel edits and following research into story structure, I’m still thinking about the most engaging way to develop the plot and the character trajectories. I attended an event a few years ago where the speaker said every story must have a twist, and that disconcerted me. I am not a mystery writer.

But this could be a twist of fate, a turn of events. There are so many types of suspense: suspense for the welfare of a beloved character, tension that an innocent may be misunderstood or that a character with baggage will trip themselves up into yet another mistake.

And there are reveals. Using first-person narration for myth retelling, in The Gospel of Eve the plot follows Eve trying to assert herself to her descendants without turning them against her. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout, building to her memories of taking the forbidden fruit, and essentially, losing two sons. I’ve saved the most well-known, pivotal moments for later in the book, hoping to build trust in the narration and suspicion that there’s a lot more to what we’ve been told before.

Twisting round and round

But it’s not just me stalling and building up. Eve isn’t ready to talk about it. It takes generations (people lived a long time back then, according to Genesis) for her to fully revisit what she remembers of Cain killing Abel. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or other stories like Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the speaker takes time to face up to things, and often events force them to as darkness comes to light.

Scaling Down

The balance between revelation and suspense becomes more confusing in extra tasks like crafting a pitch. At the start of February, I worked on a new, longer synopsis for a submission. A synopsis fully outlines the plot for agents/ publishers, so they know how it develops. It’s tricky working out which events to include and how to inject character instead of a dry summary.

A pitch is different: it’s shorter and you aren’t supposed to reveal everything. You want to hook an agent’s interest, persuade them to want more. (Why do we use the term “hook?” When a fish gets hooked, I doubt it wants to repeat the experience.)

Anyway, I spent the end of February working on a 100-word pitch. It needs to convey the character’s journey, establish the genre and setting, maybe include other titles for comparison, and preferably should all be done in line with the character’s voice.

Hooked!

Again, rather tricky. Ideas played through my mind, even as I did housework while listening to political podcasts. On an “Offline” episode, Jon Favreau (not the cinema Jon Favreau) talked about crafting difficult speeches for Obama. Sometimes, nothing seemed to work, so they’d rip everything up and restart from: “What are the truths we want to tell? Even if we can’t say it for political reasons, what are the truths?”

So I said to myself, “What do I MOST want to tell people about my book?” It took me a few tries, and it’s probably not totally there yet. But I kind of like it! Here’s the opening:

Fruit, fratricide, and feminism: Eve and her oldest daughter Ana retell the creation myth.
Think parenting is hard? Eve plots maternal interventions when at best, empowering her children could lead them to condemn her. At worst, her children will kill each other.

I’m not revealing anything that isn’t common knowledge. Hopefully I’m giving it fresh relevance, though. The fun thing with any story we start to read or to write is that we can never be sure where it will end up.

Do you have preferences over what gets revealed when?

Balancing the Dark

This Week’s Bit of String: Planet Buoy

On a rainy Saturday morning in St Ives, I’m shepherding 7 teens on a 2-mile walk with a seasoned photographer. We are nearing the end of our school Art residential; I’ve spent half my half-term supporting 3 very different students with autism.

Sand feathering

The youngest one is only 14 and prefers to draw comic stories or animals in pencil, so through most activities, he’s put his headphones on and played games on his phone. That’s what he did through the photographer’s introductory talk.

The photographer has worked here in St Ives for 45 years. He says its popularity with artists comes from the “pure, North light.” Standing on a beach he tells me, “The sand in St Ives has a sheerness, and reflects that light.”

Just then, the youngest fellow patters over murmuring, “Miss, I took pictures of the beach.” With his iPhone, he’s captured the effect the photographer talked about. The reflections of the squished-together buildings across the bay appear over the sand in his photo. I compliment him heartily, and he’s off.

He creeps toward gulls, grinning, asking, “Scuse me, can I take your picture?” He aims his phone camera through holes in stone walls that no one else has noticed, sticks it into pier crevices to capture puddle reflections. One of my older students, herself a photographer with autism, is inspired by what he’s finding and so am I.

Planet Buoy

He finds a buoy, pulled up and stashed on top of lobster cages. I join him to capture its weathering with my iPhone. It’s like a planet, with rust crops and barnacle mountains. This young artist is showing what I’ve always found, that once we start looking around with a photographer’s eye, we pick up on so much more.

Balance

It’s like that with stories sometimes too. If we get into ideas mode, we find them everywhere. When I’m out and about, I take pictures partly to remind myself of strands of description for my journal later. Waves blooming around boulders, rust-fall streaming down the lighthouse, Planet Buoy.

Pure light: View toward Chapel of St Nicholas

The photographer we worked with, Chris Webber, makes me contemplate other similarities or counterpoints between the arts of photography and writing. He tells the students: “Your camera has a lot of dials and buttons, but at its heart, photography is about balancing the light. Don’t be intimidated by the camera. You control it. You decide what to shoot.”

It’s a mixed blessing to remember that amid the vast structures of a story, with so many interplaying elements we’re meant to orchestrate—we are the ones who control the pen (or keyboard). It is, ultimately, up to us.

I also wonder if a story, at its heart, might be as simple as balancing certain elements. Except that a story is balancing the dark. As storytellers we wield light and seek to not obliterate dark (because then a story might be dull or saccharine), but to balance it.

Letting in the Light

I read more about story structure and trajectory before my latest novel edits. John Yorke in Into the Woods frames this as a trajectory of knowledge (which suits my creation story retelling, since Eve allegedly plunged us all into sin by gaining knowledge). A protagonist is awakened to something, they experience doubt, they reluctantly accept, they experiment, it backfires, until ultimately there is a reconciliation of the new knowledge: a reawakening and a total mastery.

Weaving: lobster nets on Smeatons Pier

None of this happens without light, and the light would be ineffective if dark didn’t precede it. Presumably, God would never have said, “Let there be light,” if They’d already had all the light They wanted. As creators, we first shine light into a character’s situation so they have to recognise the dark they’re living in. They may react by being overwhelmed; they’re not used to this illumination. Ultimately, we mould the light into hope.

Wishing you a torrent of creativity this week.

Depending on the story, we’ll allow a pinpoint or a whole widening arc of light/ hope. Also, depending on the type of writing, we’ll show the whole landscape or do a macro shot. Chris Webber does dawn photo shoots and landscapes but also food shoots, for catering outlets. He showed my students a picture he took of a sorbet scoop: “Sometimes you don’t want your viewer to paddle, you want them to dive in.”

I’ll definitely keep that in mind while editing. Which bits are especially important for readers to plunge into? How do we direct the light while also bringing out the exciting details?

Making Links

This Week’s Bit of String: Snakes and the sublime

“I held a snake!”

A Year 11 student greeted me with this after Christmas, while his classmates discussed gifts and excursions. This student’s family didn’t have money for those. But he found out how snakeskin feels: smooth, cool, strong.

I was supporting the student in his English class, and as an introduction to Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” the teacher sought examples of the sublime.

“What’s the most awe-inspiring place you’ve visited?” she asked the class.

With his classmates describing Alpine ski trips, island volcano walks, or seaside visits, my student felt sidelined. He told me again, “I held a snake!”

A formidable power: Vermont floodline summer 2023. See how the water swept through halfway up the trees?

After every contribution of wondrous landscapes from the other students, the teacher asked, “Did it scare you?” She established the connection between excitement and fear, the sublime power of nature.

I asked my student if he felt a bit scared holding the snake, and I said his mixed feelings reminded me of the class discussion. The boy’s face lit up and we decided he ought to share his story with the teacher. A snake is part of nature, right?

He held his hand up for several minutes while other students were called on. Reluctantly, the teacher let him speak just as she was closing the topic. 

“I held a snake!” he said.

The whole class laughed. “That’s not what we’re talking about right now,” snapped the teacher.

My student was devastated. He kept asking me, “Why did you say I should tell her?”

Finally I murmured, “Because I would have responded differently.” I don’t like disagreeing with a colleague around a student, but taking the kiddo’s side in this somewhat subtle way calmed him down. 

Essential Bonds

And I was angry, actually. This student can be quite challenging but his Educational Health Care Plan outlines the traumas he’s been through, the difficulties he has with learning, and strategies to help him access the curriculum. Even if a hardworking teacher doesn’t have time to check the documents again and again, surely making children feel included is just common sense.

Haven’t got any snake photos, but the pattern on these fritilleries is awesome too

It takes barely a second to say, “Interesting. Thanks for sharing.”  

After all, the English curriculum assesses students on their ability to make connections. Follow literary clues from an extract to deduce the writer’s motivations. Compare how poems show similar themes in different ways. How hard is it to connect the snake, a potentially deadly predator, with formidable but impressive landscapes?

Some connections will be firmer than others. We all make far-fetched ones sometimes, in our natural human tendency to see grand designs behind the events of our lives, hoping to place ourselves in the centre. But the ability to draw these links sets us apart as a species.

When It All Comes Together

One thing I love about writing is teasing out the connections. My first published story took place in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. In my research I learned the Creole word for earthquake shared its root with the mudpies eaten by the most impoverished people: , like terre, for earth. 

This term linked vast struggles of poverty and disaster with resourcefulness and survival too, and chained them up into a more manageable bundle. But it wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t looked into the native language, and if I hadn’t already felt a connection to the country, following stories about mudpies and Cite Soleil and the Creole language long before.

Keeping the sides connected: Houston’s famous Be Someone bridge

Sometimes my threads linking a character’s motivation to their actions aren’t strong enough. Or maybe they’re too coarse and unsophisticatedly blatant. Honing those connections is vital, and enhanced by cultivating connections in our everyday lives–by taking those moments to invite other people to share. Even if they just tell us they got to hold a snake that one time.

My latest story is on the wonderful Funny Pearls website. It takes the perspective of a girl with autism as she considers what connections to make, and how to do so. From building a bridge with Knex to practising facial expressions in the mirror and developing a felicity with the subtle burn, read how Sylvie makes links in “The Late, Great Jimmy Stewart’s Video Guide to Emotions.”

As with any force of nature (or predatory reptile), connecting with others and recognising our many links to the world can be quite frightening. It may mess with our pre-established plans to consider someone else’s challenges and let them in, but the consequences can be pretty awe-inspiring all around, too.

How do you build connections in your work and in your life? And does it sometimes scare you?

Seven Wanders of 2023

Hiking around and seeing new places inspire me as much as reading other writers’ work. I don’t necessarily end up writing new stories about the places I see, but glimpses of the spectacular keep some spark alive inside me when the rest of life seems a great stack of to-do lists.

Feeling like an adventurer in the real world can’t hurt our creative life, right? Here are some of my favourite explorations, why they ignited my imagination, and a smattering of my photos.

See also previous years’ top wanders: 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.

Festive Cirencester, Cotswolds UK 

We gave ourselves a couple hours’ break between getting COVID in December and finishing work and sorting out Christmas and travel preparations. Cirencester is fairly local and its alleys and Cotswolds stone lend themselves well to the festive season. 

A wander, the purchase of a jungly fern from a back alley shop overflowing with plants, and cups of hot chocolate at a specialty chocolatier renewed the season’s sparkle.

Widworthy Barton, South Devon UK

While staying near the Jurassic Coast in Southern England, I went out for exercise and discovered a fascinating little story as well. Uphill from the thatched farmhouse we’d rented, I came across an even smaller hamlet and a square-towered stone church with its graveyard. 

A lustrous black gravestone memorialised the village’s matriarch and her husband. He was a holocaust survivor and popularised the Rubik’s cube, and she bought the local manor house and revitalised the community, abseiling down the church tower in her 70s to raise money for roof repairs.

Dovedale Stepping Stones, Peak District UK

In late September we had a rather cold, frequently wet camping trip and finally explored a Peak District destination I’d wanted to see for some time. We were lucky to have a sunny morning at the Stepping Stones, casting a sharp, bright contrast between peaks. 

The stones are set firm and flat in the river like molars, and after crossing, we followed the path under trees and past sparkling reflections. There was a good climb up smooth-worn stone steps laid by Italian prisoners of war during WWII, and then a further walk along the river with pale bluffs on our other side, rising up like mighty ship hulls with dark bird barnacles. We later did a longer, more rugged walk to reach the Chee Dale Stepping Stones–those are quite scenic, too.

Newfound Lake, New Hampshire USA

For me, summer is most blissful at a New England lake. This summer we had a few days with the entire family at Newfound Lake. It’s the third biggest lake in the state and the deepest, reaching 183 feet deep. It’s thought to be one of the cleanest in the world, and the sunsets over low-slung mountains off in a corner were spectacular, the reflections pristine.

We had the trilling cry of the loons at night and that cool lake smell in the mornings. Woods of oak and pine separated the holiday houses, but we got a glimpse when we were out on our kayaks. One house even had its own massive inflatable waterslide tower out in the water, with “No trespassing” painted all over its base.

Portobello Road and Notting Hill, London

I don’t know if it’s hard for places like this to keep living up to their reputation. Do the streets made famous in Disney songs and late 90s films want a break sometimes, want to drop the facade? Well, we took a good walk along here and enjoyed the mix of shabby and cheesy and pushing the boundaries.

We perused stalls and shops selling everything from wool berets to sequined jackets, to prints made from photos of your iris, to last minute pumpkins for Halloween the next day, and we had lunch at a place called Egg Slut–absolutely delicious. Then we did a further loop through the posh neighbourhoods of Notting Hill, with big, pastel townhouses dripping with gauze webs and jack o’lanterns for the holiday. Imagine trick or treating here!

Brecon Beacons Four Waterfalls Walk, Wales UK

Another hike I’d been sizing up for a few years, this too proved well worth it. It was cloudy, but the falls are still quite spectacular. I guess we can thank the rather wet year for that. 

Because it’s quite a popular destination, we couldn’t always get close to the cascades, or behind them. Still, I love seeing how torrents slice through rock, and all the greenery that scales the damp cliff face around and behind the water. One waterfall had dozens if not hundreds of little rock cairns built in the stream below. 

To save backtracking the long, muddy, crowded access path at the last fall, we found a vague trail up the bank and did some rugged scaling. This earned us extra waterfall views from the top and made us feel quite intrepid. 

City Park, New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden, Esplanade Avenue, and St Louis Cemetery #3–Louisiana, USA

Did something completely different over the Christmas holidays and visited America’s deep South . We met up with our kiddo in Houston, then my husband and I roadtripped along the Gulf of Mexico and the bayou, and spent New Year’s in New Orleans.

Staying in the French Quarter, we had the experience you might hope for: strolling out for morning beignets under wrought-iron balconies trailing ferns, pausing to hear jazz bands in the street. Later, we stopped at City Park, a massive public space half again as big as NYC’s Central Park.

We were greeted by long-beaked ibises when we got out of the hired car, and we ambled through the Besthoff Sculpture Garden beneath live oaks dangling Spanish moss and resurrection ferns (ferns that go grey and curl, allowing themselves to survive losing over 70% of their moisture in dry spells). The statues combined cultural elements of the city’s past: a Rodin, a ghostly dress with a solar system model for a head, a conquistador helmet turned to a snail with a little boy riding its back, a glorious African woman, her garment a series of impeccably formed coils.

From there we walked down Esplanade Avenue, with pretty pillared houses and more live oaks, the trees so mighty they were busting up sidewalks and weighing down overhead electric cables. We came back through one of New Orleans’s famous cemeteries, with aboveground vaults since you can’t dig graves below sea level. Some vaults have lots of cupboards in them for family remains, and one had a small ornate frame fixed to it with a photo of the occupants behind a convex lens, like a locket, so you could see the faces of the African-American couple who passed away in the 1980s. It seemed a privilege to actually see what they looked like, and I wish that idea might catch on.

What were your favourite visits and meanders this year? How did you keep your spark alight?

2023 Reading Round-Up

I read 32 books in 2024. I’d love it if I’d had more reading time, but often when I set a high reading goal for the year, it makes reading feel stressful. I’m rushing to finish a book when really, I should be enjoying it. So, no regrets!

Here are my top reads from the year, and of course, my very favourite quote from each. Because I have tried over the years to savour books better, I always pause after finishing one and write down my favourite quotes.

As to how I mark the pages of my favourite quotes while I’m reading… I exercise my right of protection against self-incrimination on that.

Quote in my daily calendar for 2023

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
A master intrigue-builder, Harris sneaks suspense in through everyday details and seemingly idyllic settings. The setting here is a boys’ grammar school, secretly crumbling. Since I work in a school, semi-snarky descriptions of teachers and students amuse me.

“Although listening to boys is bad enough, listening to their parents is fatal.”

Cuckoo in the Nest by Fran Hill
I love Fran’s writing, particularly her hearty humour which is specific without being sharp. Her debut novel gives voice to a wonderfully insightful adolescent character entering foster care. This book is a real gift with its empathy to all characters involved.

“I could have done with help defending myself against the way Bridget would experience the emotions she thought I should be having.”

Not Quite an Ocean by Elizabeth M Castillo
Castillo deftly balances beauty and decay, peace and turmoil. Her latest volume explores womanhood through the metaphor of the ocean, inspiring us to reflect on our journey with awe and compassion. Women, the sea, what’s not to love? 

From “Who Will Hold the Ocean?” 
“Who will teach her that the darkest parts of her body are where creatures are the most boneless, and bright?
Who will dismantle the great, iron skeletons of conquest that lie rotting, eating away at her throat, and back teeth?”

Braver by Deborah Jenkins
I adore a story with a diverse cast. In some respects, this novel is as simple as a little group of people banding together to help each other out. But of course the tug of each individual’s needs pulls events into a tangle. 

“There’s the smell of grass and that scented summer air that drifts into your very soul and makes you believe in the safe familiarity of things.”

The Binding by Bridget Collins
Set in a world where books can only be made when a person is “bound,” surrendering their memory to the page. This results in all sorts of secrets and shocking twists. It’s also an incredibly moving love story. 

Summer Solstice 2023

“It makes one wonder who would write them. People who enjoy imagining misery, I suppose… People who can spend days writing a long sad lie without going insane.”

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison
This haunting epic takes place in a climate-wrought [near?] future dystopia, observed by a Shakespearean-style chorus…comprised of rewilded cows. Between flooded coasts and strict urban areas, various communities help each other and revive hope.

“We see you, boy
We see your gentle heart
Keep it carefully
It has work to do”

Game Changer by Neal Shusterman
A high school football player finds himself in an altered version of his universe every time he gets concussed. Each shift highlights issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, and raises questions. What makes us who we are–and how easily could it change?

“If life exists four hundred times smaller than we can see, it must exist four hundred times larger than we can see.”

March by Geraldine Brooks
The imaginary father of Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters in Little Women is the protagonist here. We see his part in slavery, Civil War battles, and early attempts at Reconstruction. Through him, Brooks unforgettably lays bare the national shame.

“And yet I do not think it heroic to march into fields of fire, whipped on one’s way only by fear of being called craven. Sometimes, true courage requires inaction; that one sit at home while war rages, if by doing so one satisfies the quiet voice of honourable conscience.” 

Goodrich Castle, Wales, June 2023

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Written during World War II, this novel alchemically combines some of my favourite elements: a precocious narrator passionate about writing, an eccentric family among castle ruins, class struggle, explorations of love and art. 

“‘Anyway, your father had a very distinguished forerunner. God made the universe an enigma.’
“I said, ‘And very confusing it’s been for everybody. I don’t see why Father had to copy Him.’”

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
A brilliant homage to David Copperfield transplanting Dickens’s expansive cast to coal country, western Virginia in the late 1990s/ early 2000s. It exposes the disadvantages and downright exploitation in rural areas, while also inspiring us with the resilience and compassion of many who live there.

“… Wanting to see the rest of us hurt because she was hurting–You have to wonder how much of the whole world’s turning is fueled by that very fire.”

Are any of these your favourites too, or do you have recommendations to add?

Antici…PAtion!

This Week’s Bit of String: Silent night

One of my earliest memories takes place at Christmas. My small New England town put on a Christmas pageant at the church, one of those crowned white ones on a pristine green.

Candles glow in frosty windows as Mary and Joseph journey to the manger and kneel respectfully. Junior high angels dance down the aisles, bare feet thumping over cast iron grates, and the kings stride in their colourful robes. 

At the end, the choir sings “Silent Night” as everyone files off the darkened stage. Kings, shepherds, angels and kindergarten cherubs. Joseph, penultimately, exits down the centre aisle and finally Mary, sombre and alone, disappears into a side door. The lights come up and everyone bursts into “Joy to the World.”

Some of my favourite ornaments, carrying lots of memories

Can you spot what they forgot? My just-turned-three-year-old self was keenly aware that everyone left the infant Messiah behind. The wooden box-manger only held a doll, but I was inconsolable; to me dolls were as real as anything. I was outraged at the abandonment, sobbing amongst the heavily coated crowd. 

My parents found the girl who played Mary, but I wanted nothing to do with that traitorous mother. Then I was introduced to the person who owned the Baby Jesus doll, and that alone calmed me down.

I still wonder at the order of that pageant, unchanged in decades. Through the ensuing years, I loved the pageant, thought it beautiful–but also tenderly sad. That’s Christmas for you, I guess; moments of quiet, of loss, of sudden delight. I was taught that when setting up a collection of short stories, you showcase the best ones first. Maybe it’s our instinct to start strong, but this can result in an anticlimax.

Maintaining Order

Four decades and an ocean now separate me from that distraught doll-defending girl at her first nativity play. I’ve been around long enough to know my ideal festive sequence of events, even if I can’t always control it.

The key is to avoid letdown. You have to hit your checklist in the right moments, before the season over-ripens to wistfulness. Most Christmas films have an element of nostalgia and wish fulfillment that’s too sad the day after Christmas. The build-up is the best part of Christmas, really. Putting ornaments on the tree is a lot more special than taking them down. 

There can be a lot of stress at Christmas, but Obie the Bosscat is keeping on top of things.

The word anticipate shares a root with capture. It means to grasp something beforehand. That’s quite exciting, isn’t it? Not like the tedium of just waiting, because at least we know that December 25th will, in fact, arrive (unlike a lucrative writing contract, for example).

I get Christmas tunes playing in my earbuds during hikes around mid-November, and the lights and decorations go up at the very start of December, so I can enjoy them for longer. Everything must be in place for the cosy moments between all the running around. At some point, I will be reminded that it matters more to me than to others, and each sparkle will disappear from centre stage.

Heightened Sensations

Christmas forms strong memories because it engages all our senses. We associate smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and feelings with the holiday. When a moment incorporates all senses, I think our memories cohere around it more firmly.

We’ve got Christmas songs, both jolly or deeply moving, we’ve got sparkly lights and shiny ornaments and the contrasts of crimson berries against sharp green holly. We’ve got smells of cinnamon and pine, and tastes of citrus and chocolate. We’ve got the sensations of warm hearths and fuzzy jumpers and the bracing chill from anaemic skies.

Stopping to smell the roses

Great storytelling engages all the senses as well, which is why Christmas stories and films and songs can be particularly moving. Listening, viewing, reading them, and even creating our own helps us to seize those moments because otherwise, we might forget the bits that turned out how we wanted, when some events inevitably proceed less smoothly.

I wonder if our relentless preparations are partly an attempt to find exactly the right combination of sensory stimuli that make us feel young, make us feel loved and valued as we believe we once did. We are desperate to capture something, maybe that outpouring that George Bailey finds at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, or the kindness and mutual appreciation of a goose dinner at the Cratchit family table.

What are your favourite moments to capture in the holidays? How do you manage to seize them, and do they fall before December 25th or after?

Checking the Story

This Week’s Bit of String: Sudden appearances

During a research project on Brazil, my Year 11 student enjoyed quizzing me with each fact he found. We learned it can rain up to 394 inches per year in the Amazon, and that the rainforest covers twice the size of India. He also took a few side quests with Google: the deepest hole in the earth, the biggest airplane.

Then he asked, “You know that Boeing 747 that disappeared?”

“Um… which one? Do you know what year it was, where the flight was from?”

“I don’t know. But they’ve just found it; look! Here’s the plane.”

Don’t believe everything you think–street art in Cheltenham

He angled his laptop screen to me. He’d put “Boeing 747 disappeared” into Google and then gone to the images tab. For all I knew, every picture was of a different plane and completely different circumstances and who could say from each photo whether that plane ever had, in fact, disappeared.

I follow political news avidly (it’s a not-particularly-healthy habit of mine) so I hear and worry about the spread of misinformation influencing elections, and about voters being in their own, social media-cultivated bubbles. But what I witnessed here drove it home in an entirely new way.

Suddenly it hit me, anyone can Google, for example, “Joe Biden senile” and the algorithms will present them with exactly what they want to see. And thus the course of human history could be affected.

Refining Terms

When we factor in the literacy struggles which some people have–why search for information to read when a picture will do? The problem is, a picture could depict anything and be from anyone. Someone could Google “Israel terrorists” and I hate to imagine what photos would come up. 

The intent can be ambiguous, too. “Israel terrorists” could mean terror acts against Israeli persons, or terrorist acts committed by them… And viewers of Google images might get both but assume all confirm their viewpoint. Sites label photos with whatever fits their agenda. 

Intent matters… Online algorithms are desperately trying to work out what we want to see, and it’s on us to return the favour by investigating the motives of people who post and share content.

Writers are infamous for spending our time on side research. Sometimes, it’s easier to check what wallpaper would be accurate for a time period than to actually write some plot. I generally don’t have much time to spare, so I keep my search terms precise. This is useful in following current events as well.

Just Asking Questions

Along with honing our queries to ensure we get the right information and checking the reliability of our sources, it’s crucial to interrogate our own motivations. I think we have an instinct to villainise certain people and idolise others. Once we’ve selected someone for those roles, we exclusively seek evidence supporting our decision.

An image is only a confined window from a greater story. Selfridges, London

Last week I had to resolve an altercation between a Year 13 student and a teacher. She calls him Scary Man and she and laughs about it with her friends to cover her fear about his shoutiness, and how it made her cry in one of his lessons.

When I talked to the teacher about her difficulties, he was spectacularly morose. “I don’t want to make children cry,” he kept saying. He knows they call him Scary Man. He tries to be gentle, and when they don’t appreciate this he snaps. They’re each as insecure as each other.

“It’s exciting to rally with our friends against a villain,” I said to my student in our discussion later. “But an inanimate one would be preferable.”

Goodness knows I’ve been guilty of the same thing, not least when I was her age; I signed someone’s yearbook thanking them for hating one of the same girls I did. Not very graceful or empathetic of me, but that too would have come from insecurity and from wanting to form a particular connection.

Humans tend to construct narratives. We like to see an arc of justice, and it’s reassuring when good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated. We love being right so much, we’re perversely happy to sniff out confirmation of our most bitter suspicions. 

Real life doesn’t often fit into these binaries and these smooth tracks, though. If things are lining up too well with what we expect and what we want, it may be worth looking deeper into the story, and looking behind the scenes of the presented picture. 

Pivotally, let’s try to keep sight of what underlying insecurities motivate those who seem like villains. We wouldn’t write a completely un-nuanced character without backstory, would we? We can’t assume real humans are without them.