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Writers with Day Jobs, Part 4: What’d I Miss?

This Week’s Bit of String: Vicarious holidays to India

“You have an unusual name,” the customer on the phone says. I was typing notes on his call when he rang back and asked for me again. He explains, “We met someone with your name when we were travelling in India a while ago. Spent long, happy days watching the Ganges flow past and drinking hot chai. Was that you?”

“I’m afraid I’ve never been to India—yet.”

My colleagues nearby look up from their keyboards, distracted by my conversation.

An eye-opening experience. Street art in Derby

“Well, I highly recommend it. And you understand—I had to call back and check. I thought, wouldn’t it be a shame if I missed the chance to find out?”

I absolutely understood, and thanked him for briefly transporting me from the office. Then I got sucked back into doing three full-time jobs at once, then went home to a flurry of housework, and it wasn’t until my family and I had chatted through a whole supper that I remembered this respite.

How many times have I not bothered making a connection, seizing an idea, or picking at a bit of string, because my thoughts are corralled and cornered by job worries?

On My Way to Get to the Bottom of This

There’s not much I can do about my workload while at the office, but I’m learning to take back my life after walking out the heavy, ID-operated doors.

It’s like pausing a speedy hike to study the oxidation layers on an abandoned doorknob.

To this end, I plan to fit reading back into my schedule, and to jot down three random observations daily. Whether it’s a funny name I heard, an interesting fact I read, a street musician I passed, or one of my son’s jokes. (Example: “I hate when people ask me where I see myself in a year’s time. I mean, I don’t have 2020 vision.”)

Don’t think me a complete slacker for not doing these things before. I finished writing a novel recently, and I’m still funnelling every spare moment into editing. I stopped reading while consumed by my own plot. That’s totally allowed.

For the last month or two, I was obsessed with my characters. In that advanced project stage, you’re trapped in a whirlpool, suffocating under the current, and the only way to relieve the pressure is through a tiny trickle—word by word. But you can only switch outlet on when you’re not in the office, when your family doesn’t need you, when the meals are cooked and served and cleaned up, and the laundry’s done.

I did what I set out to do, sharpening my focus and finishing The Gospel of Eve’s first draft. I wrote over 80,000 words in just 2 months. But it’s probably safe to broaden my mental reach again.

Engaged in a Battle for Our Very Soul

The unexpected call-back at work came just a couple days after I spent time an early Sunday morning reading cultural articles instead of catching up on political news or launching right into edits or filling out office forms.

I read the original Esquire article on Mr. Rogers from 1998, and an NPR article about 100-year-old Arabian Nights illustrations by Danish artist Kay Nielson. Both were a treat.

Letting the sun set on the office week: My Friday Five Miler along Stroudwater Canal

It’s hard to write when you’re fretting about customers and deadlines. However, it’s also hard to distract me from my characters. And work did that, every day in the midst of penning the climax. I’d walk to work plotting battle scenes or plagues or births—and once I got to my desk, the bombardment of emails, phone calls, initiatives from supervisors and questions from junior colleagues helped me forget Eve and her descendants.

After a while I forgot it works the other way around too. If I pick up a chapter and start editing, I can disappear into Eden and its aftermath. For tougher chapters needing more work, I can ease myself in by reading someone else’s—a short story in an online magazine, or an article from BrainPickings, LitHub or Artpublika.

How do you stay creative while buried under spreadsheets? Shall we hold each other to the standard of taking in one piece of art/ literature per day, and noting down three new observations? I’ll be back at the end of the week to report. Comment here, send me a Tweet, or comment on Facebook with any suggestions and if you need any encouragement!

Change Your Work, Change Your Country

This Week’s Bit of String: Allowing subtraction

My first novel was over 800 pages long. Even well-established authors would struggle finding readers willing to take that on. So I cut fiendishly, excising at least one line per paragraph, one paragraph per page. The latest draft is 400 pages.

Imagine if I’d gone to my Writers’ Group at the start of the editing process, and explained my plan. What if they’d been shocked, and horrified? Imagine them saying, ‘You can’t change your work! You have to love it as it is. To feel anything else toward it means you’re not a real writer. You might as well do something else with your scant free time.’

Sometimes we need to be more than the Way We Are.

After all, the option’s always there, isn’t it? We could keep every word we’ve written. If we’re lucky, maybe our mums would read them. In order to make our stories accessible and appealing to a wider audience, we cut out unneeded detail, clarify other points, strengthen character voices and sometimes swap point-of-view all together. Chances are, every time we look at a piece we improve it, and we enjoy doing so because we can see the work getting better.

The same flexibility is required with countries. I doubt even those voting for incumbent parties go to the polling station with no improvements in mind. But people have started saying ‘Like it or leave it,’ among worse things, about active politicians trying to change the country.

Allowing Detraction

I’ve noted before that the Declaration of Independence was overhauled at America’s founding. The Constitution went through massive changes as well, and not because the first patriots hated the USA. Sometimes they preferred the original to the final draft, but had to make drastic amendments (such as permitting slavery) to convince all colonies/ states to stay on side.

Racial bias played a role in this compromise. It’s harder to sacrifice millions of lives when you believe those lives are equal to yours. Recent comments about sending congresswomen ‘back where they came from’ are also racist, indisputably enough that I won’t make a lengthy case here.

Except to point out that racism operates like a plague. There’s Patient Zero, in this case the President, some close advisors, and the white supremecists who’ve joined his base.

Give me your complacent, your unquestioning, your grateful…

Around them you have those most susceptible. People who might be economically disadvantaged (or feel they are), who might have less education, or are down on their luck and need someone to blame. Anyway, they were easy to infect and they’re now happy to chant, ‘Send her back.’ Maybe they could be cured, but there’d have to be something in it for them. Universal healthcare, higher minimum wage? Who knows. The disease manifests differently in each patient.

The next circle out from Patient Zero are the disease carriers. They’re not exactly infected. But siding with Patient Zero is politically convenient, so they pretend he’s not racist. ‘He’s just speaking his heart. He loves this country so much he can’t stand anyone complaining about it.’

In a way, the carriers are the most insidious, and we must address their ‘like it or leave it’ mentality.

You can like a country and still want to change it. If anything, those with the deepest patriotic faith will trust a nation’s ability to improve. America was born in dramatic change, and continued to change over the years, by war and peace, by executive decree and grassroots movement. We Americans are still discontented revolutionaries, for better or worse. This drives both our innovation and our wastefulness.

Never Really Settled

Sometimes writers do leave stories undone. I decided to stop work on a novel two chapters before the end, because I wasn’t doing it justice. There are still bits in it I like, but my mind led me elsewhere.

Similarly, my heart led me to a new country. I still like a lot of things about the USA, but moving to the UK was the only way to bring my own family together. Even refugees desperate for a safe place probably don’t dislike their home country. People often leave because they need to, not because they want to.

Leaving isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

And getting into a new country is no easier than writing a new novel. What an irksome irony that the very people telling even native-born progressives to ‘like it or leave it’ are the same ones insisting asylum seekers return to desperate Central American communities. Even if you do dislike your country, even if you’re desperate to leave, it doesn’t mean a new one will let you in.

Include All the Things!

I’ve written before about the editing process and the many things we have to include in our written work. See here for a daunting list of every box our stories have to tick from the very first page. Likewise, a nation has to achieve many criteria for many people:

  • Safety
  • Economic growth
  • Support during emergencies (fire service, welfare)
  • Law enforcement
  • Justice courts for civil redress as well as criminal
  • Strong moral examples in leadership
  • Education
  • Fostering of communities and enterprise

We adjust these relentlessly for the diverse groups that have contributed to the country since before its birth. Basically, we keep tweaking to accommodate our audience.

Telling us we can’t raise objections, equating criticism of a leader with criticism of the whole nation, grants that leader absolute power. That’s a lonely and unrealistic role for any one person. Writing can be lonely too, and seem an impossible task—so we ask people to look over our work, help us take it where it needs to be.

And if we’re lucky, someone will tell us—as someone told me when my novel was still 500 pages long—“You can do better than this.” I completely changed the opening at that point. It’s okay to hear that. Don’t worry, America. We all have to keep trying. It’s just that we think you can do better than this.

The Great Circle of Literature

This Week’s Bit of String: Crime and Punishment

Spring 2003, early evening Eastern Standard Time/ late night Greenwich Mean Time. I pick up the wall-mounted cordless phone and ring my ex-boyfriend as arranged. Our son is occupied with Legos on the floor of my subsidised New Hampshire apartment.

His father answers his mobile in the London flat where he’s completing his masters. I refuse to let his voice thrill me this time; I’m giving up on waiting for him to re-articulate his interest.

We exchange the requisite weather updates and talk about our son. Then my ex-boyfriend says, “I’m reading Crime and Punishment. It’s quite good…”

Oh, are you? Instantly I’m hooked again.

Present Day, British Summer Time. I come home from work and husband-formerly-known-as-ex-boyfriend launches right in with his feelings regarding the latest twist in the John Irving novel I recommended. “I did not see that coming!”

Look at them all, conspiring shamelessly to keep my interest piqued.

Among all he and I share, reading is perhaps the most nourishing and positive. It fulfils us better than, say, watching TV together, because we’re using our brains a little more. Plus the flexing of empathy and imagination required to enjoy a book helps with the heavy lifting in a relationship.

There’s magic, too, from a book. We create a world in our heads, and what is more marvellous than subsequently talking to a loved one and finding that the same bits of magic worked on them, too? When you watch a film with someone, you see and hear the same things at once. Reading is more open to interpretation, so shared impressions are extra special and further observations are bonus insights.

Literary Connections

The unifying power of the written word seems to reach between books themselves sometimes, rather than just outward to us. Have you ever noticed that? I’ll read one book that makes the same historical reference my last, completely different read did. A couple weeks ago I read Benjamin Zephaniah’s autobiography. It immersed me in the activist, anti-National Front environment where he first started performing his poetry, with groups such as Rock Against Racism.

Then I read Kamila Shamsie’s (justly) award-winning Home Fires, about the tragic effects of radicalisation. It included a single line about a character’s parents meeting at a Rock Against Racism rally. Something I never knew about before, and suddenly my reading material conspired to bring it to my attention.

Home Fires is also a modern retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone, when before The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah I’d read Natalie Haynes’s rollicking The Ancient Guide to Modern Life. Its many cultural references included Antigone.

A couple of years ago I read a novel about George Eliot and then a novel about an affluent, up-and-coming German family in the lead-up to World War II. Quite different novels, set decades apart—yet characters from each travelled to Naples and stayed in the exact same hotel, and I happened to read the books one week after each other.

It’s as if books have their own invisible network of roots and fungi, communicating and passing nutrients to each other like some trees do. One book may seem isolated from another, but the survival of one can benefit the rest. Perhaps books know the more we read, the more our appetite grows. Ah, that tantalising moment when we get to decide what to read next!

The Roots System

Of course, there is a root system books connect to: our brains. Relatively recent studies show that brains’ ‘white matter’ is as essential to reading and learning as the grey matter. White matter are the neural pathways connecting parts of the brain (the grey matter). They’re named for the lipid myelin coating that protects some neuron parts. The wider these pathways are, the more easily signals can fire off from one long neural axon arm to the little dendrite roots on another neuron.

While having smooth white matter pathways helps us to read, reading in turn helps make the pathways smoother. It’s like a path in the woods; the more we walk down it, the smoother it gets. So improved connections in our brain is one of reading’s effects. It also improves our attention span, and anyone else who’s been married a few years (it’s fifteen for my husband and I now) knows a good attention span is useful.

Side note: My husband has been known to read things I wouldn’t. I read a lot I know he wouldn’t enjoy. That’s okay. Please never condemn a loved one for their reading choices. Or musical taste. Or even whether they like Brussels sprouts. Just please, let’s not.

The rewards of reading are somewhat analogous to a longterm relationship. There might be bits that aren’t as fast-paced. You’ve got to allow the narrative some descriptive time to set the scene. You’ve got to muddle through those dialogue bits my husband dislikes (and I love) during which, yes, unfortunately, a character’s thoughts and feelings may be exposed. And in the end, that effort is worth it because you’ve learned, you’ve laboured, and shared.

Have you found that books enhance relationships? Do you ever notice the pages conspiring with each other to broaden your horizons and change your fate?

The Privilege of Being Busy

This Week’s Bit of String: Haunted by to-do lists

When I worked in a care home, we had a particularly restless but bedbound dementia patient. She constantly asked, ‘Where have we gotta go? What have we gotta get out and do?’ And sometimes she’d say, ‘Can I just stop here a bit?’

We were told she’d been a highly reputable nurse to newborn babies. No doubt she devoted countless long shifts to her calling. She had no family of her own apart from a sister wandering the nursing home halls, stealing biscuits to feed her stuffed toy cat.

No matter how many times we reassured our resident that she didn’t have to go anywhere, she repeated her questions. She was haunted by the ghosts of her busy working life.

Today we don’t need dementia to be haunted–we have social media. Facebook pings ‘Event’ reminders, other mums depict homemade concoctions on Pinterest, and other writers’ word counts race upward on Twitter.

None of this is inherently bad. I, too, indulge in public boasts after particularly hard work: Busy Brags. I’m also ready to ‘Like’ your Busy Brags. As a writer, I’m interested in the minutiae of daily life as well as the big events, so I enjoy hearing what people get up to in a day.

Busy = Lucky

What I have to make sure not to do, however, is act as though I’m busier than everyone else.

Some kids (and adults) work ridiculously long hours in sweatshops. Some people work multiple jobs to ensure they can pay medical bills. Yet most of the Busy Brags I see in my social media bubble are about the nightmarish turmoil of preparing birthday celebrations for small offspring, or rushing back to work after an adventurous holiday. And I totally get that. But we’ve chosen this. So brag away, but don’t complain.

Cooking homemade meals and going on active holidays are choices. Even going to the gym regularly is a choice, albeit a healthy one, and writing is a choice even though it feels like a necessary response to what ranges from a nagging voice to rampant hunger. We may be utter grouches when we don’t have time to write, or exercise, but those are still privileges and most of us have enough moments of leisure, however small, that we can choose to prioritise things differently if we really want to.

Busy = Important

Fun fact: guinea pigs don’t yawn just to get oxygen to their furry wee brains when they’re sleepy. They yawn to show their teeth and scare off rivals or predators. Similarly, our society has transformed tiredness into a badge of honour. Whoever’s the most tired must have done the most work, and is therefore the most indispensable.

Watch out: fierce! Our guinea pigs, George and Fred.

I think most of us love being busy, and not just because we can brag about it on social media. To occupy our time means to take possession of it, that middle syllable of occupy coming from the same Latin word for grasp or seize, as in Carpe Diem. By filling Time’s wearying, wily moments, we feel we’ve mastered it in some way.

And of course we like quantifiable achievements so we can list in no uncertain terms how we’ve occupied, invaded, placed a firm stake in a day. Steps or miles run. Loads of laundry completed, meals packed into the freezer. Words typed. For me, I like being able to tick these off on a list. My day job is similarly oriented around clear targets: accounts billed, calls taken, cases resolved. Hours of sleep foregone.

Busy = Easy

These achievements are exciting and addictive. But am I the only one who has developed a fear, almost an aversion, to the incredibly important things that aren’t quantifiable? Spending proper time with people, caring for struggling loved ones. More than anything in the world I want to be there every second for my family when they’re hurting. But when I’m juggling office targets and word counts and submission deadlines and fitness goals the rest of the time, it’s hard to shut off that achievement addiction when a genuine crisis, something you really have to pour time into, comes up.

Moments meant to be cradled, not seized

The kind of Busy we brag about on social media is easy. It can even be a cop out. Writers will be familiar with the memes and jokes about how clean our houses get when we have writers block, because housework is straightforward and simpler than wrestling an unwieldy plot. But tricky as finding resolution for our characters can be, that’s still many times easier than getting friends and family through real-life drama. And entertaining readers sometimes comes more naturally than entertaining our own kids.

Looking back to our patient who had been a nurse, I wonder if on some level she was aware of how repetitive she was. Maybe her questions were her way of asserting her value in a somewhat demeaning situation; a reminder that she once had gone places and done things. Sadly, she never made a single reference to the babies and children she’d looked after, as if only the business remained and not the lives.

If the final stages of my life give me any choice in the matter, I’d like it the other way around. Is it possible to achieve relentlessly but not desperately?

The Persistence of Birds

This Week’s Bit of String: Trying to catch fish

I encountered a heron at the canal yesterday. First he was opposite me, silver-grey shoulders down and white neck straight, alert to passing humans rather than fish. He took off as I neared, his wings so great only a few ponderous beats made him disappear.

Then I saw him further on, bringing his sharp yellow beak close enough to the water to kiss his reflection. But something put him off—the cat stalking blackbirds on the bank behind him, perhaps, or the mandarin duck couple landing on the water.

The heron swooped across the canal and stationed himself on the riverbank instead. I watched him creep closer on his stick-thin legs, and lean down to check for fish. Then I pushed myself on for a couple of miles before work, wondering if the cyclists who soon passed me scared the heron off again with no breakfast.

Hurrying back I found myself right next to the heron. He’d decided, for some reason, to take a canal spot by the path but couldn’t tear his gaze from his surroundings long enough to lower his beak into the water.

He was too distracted by fear of predators to catch his own prey, and I wondered if we’re the same sometimes. Do we take risks for gains but end up so crippled by fear that we can’t act on our plans?

The Paralysis

Pulling together a successful writing career requires gripping several threads at once:

We have to actually write decent stuff (and it’s wicked hard).

We have to learn how to write decent stuff by reading decent stuff (which can be dangerously addictive).

We have to remind people on social media that we’re writing decent stuff, and we want to be decent human beings too, so we’ll spend time supporting other people who are writing decent stuff (and there’s some very decent writerly stuff out there, so this can be addictive too).

Finally, we have to get our decent stuff published or broadcast or featured somewhere, preferably on a semi-regular basis. This means scouring publications and, again, social media for competitions and literary magazines. It means querying agents and familiarising ourselves with rejection.

A lot of us handle all this while raising a family and working a full-time job. It gets seriously overwhelming. There are moments when I find myself motionless, apart from my eyes flicking down the Facebook or Twitter feed, watching other writers claim success while feeling as if I don’t dare lower my beak and take a brash snap at a fleeting competition deadline.

The Perch

This week I made a longlist but got no further, while seemingly everyone I know swooped to greater heights. I scanned the short list but caught nothing. I said ‘fuck’ several times under my breath. I got on with my day at the office but felt frozen inside.

Then ideas started swimming past. I reminded myself to move, to seek new vantage points and new submission opportunities. To catch something, we have to dip our beaks. We have to stop reading everyone else’s elated Twitter reactions (but Like them anyway, because we’re decent human beings after all).

Brave, brave Sir Robin

I went for a walk in the local park, searching for ducklings to cheer me up. I didn’t find any cute flufflets that day, but I did spot a one-legged pigeon hobbling around to the grudging admiration of some black-clad teenagers. And I saw a robin in a monkey puzzle tree.

I suppose if you’re quite small, big spikes don’t matter. I couldn’t see the robin’s feet, but I could see his proudly puffed rusty chest and sharply aware black eyes. I imagined his skinny toes curled around individual monkey puzzle thorns.

So it’s time to remember that having to start over brings the privilege of choosing a new path. There are plenty of spots to try, plenty of fish for us all to catch—all we have to do is dive.

Likeable, Shmikeable: Managing the Voices, Part 2

Interview with Helen Taylor, Author of Backstreets of Purgatory

‘My mother didn’t tell me we were leaving my father until we were on the plane from California. I was only five, I thought we were just going on vacation, and she brought me here to New England.’ Nate told me his story while we painted a cemetery fence in temperatures so hot the coating never lost its stickiness. It was our summer job after freshman year.

‘I was so angry I cussed her out in the middle of the plane. Later I found out he used to hit her.’

A year and a half later, he was the one expressing displeasure over losing break time while the school informed us a student had died in a car crash. ‘I don’t care,’ I heard him tell his friends. ‘Why take our break time over it?’

It was as if he was swearing in the aisle of a transcontinental plane again, utterly pissed off at an injustice. Nate himself died in a car crash a few years after graduation.

Recounting the story of Milja’s death in my earlier post, Nate and his seemingly heartless comment was an aside, almost making him the villain. But put together with the trajectory of his life, with the fact he met a similar untimely end, he takes on a new dimension.

In my previous entry I wrote about how we select our characters and try to portray those most hurt by a situation. But I also argued for ensuring we illuminate those who help, and those who look on. We need to accept that we ourselves aren’t always the victims, and find constructive ways to react.

That’s why we shouldn’t rule out ‘unlikeable’ characters. To help examine why we need characters who aren’t just ethnically and socially diverse, but also diverse in personality, I spoke to author Helen Taylor.

Helen recently published her first novel, The Backstreets of Purgatory. Set in contemporary Glasgow with a guest appearance from the artist Caravaggio—sometimes fun, sometimes thoroughly disquieting—the novel follows Finn, a frustrated and somewhat entitled art student, as well as some of the people in his orbit.

The story unfolds through 4 points of view, including Finn’s. It’s a raucous ride, and although all the characters make mistakes that hurt each other, they are warmly portrayed. We understand that the poor decisions come from pain or insecurity. Last week, Helen provided me with insight about tempering gritty realism with compassion—and vice versa.

Question: How did you assemble this crew? Did you add or enhance some characters for balance?

Helen: Finn was the first character I had and Kassia the next. The others evolved from them (almost as a way of fleshing them out). Tuesday McLaughlin arrived and stormed on to the page, fully formed.

In the end, I chose the strongest voices for the 4 POVs. The challenge came in ordering their voices in the chapters and achieving a balance between the competing perspectives.

Question: In a way that makes sense, because Finn and Kassia are basically opposites. It’s as if they need each other to exist in fiction. Finn is the one who interacts with Caravaggio, and he catalyses change in the other characters’ lives. Is he inspired or imagined? Did you enjoy writing in his voice the most?

Helen: Finn wasn’t dissimilar to a character who starred in a short story “The Kiss” I published in The Ranfurly Review several years ago. He’s purely fictional, but the fact he has popped up twice makes me think he must be inspired by someone. Although it pains me to admit it, because Finn isn’t the most likeable character, there are elements of me in him.

Writing in Finn’s voice allowed me to explore ideas about art and mental health. As the novel progresses, Finn’s language becomes increasingly elaborate and his thinking becomes erratic with loose connections. When I wrote those sections, it was like taking a stopper out of my brain and letting the contents flow freely. It was great fun. Especially inventing words.

It was much less fun towards the end, though, as things take a dark turn. One chapter had me in tears as I wrote it.

Question: So maybe writing our characters’ weaknesses helps us come to terms with our own. Did you feel pressure to make Finn or other characters “likeable?” What aspects were added or smoothed over to make them relatable?

Helen: Rather than feeling a pressure to make my characters likeable, I felt it was important that even the most seemingly nice of them had flaws. What I did find extremely difficult was having the characters say things I wouldn’t say myself. There are a few phrases that are casually homophobic or racist for example, which make uncomfortable reading despite being said (or perhaps because they are said) as part of the “banter”. It was worse when these things were said by characters I’m fond of (Tuesday and Maurice, for example). It took effort to leave them in because I worried that readers would think they reflected my own opinion or way of speaking. It was a tough decision because, in theory, I am in control of how my characters speak and act.

As I told my mother-in-law when she complained about the swearing, “It’s my characters that swear, not me.” Although she rightly pointed out, “It was you that made them do it, Helen.”

Question: I love your perspective on ensuring characters have flaws. All your characters are vividly flawed, but Finn is particularly self-absorbed. How do people react to his character?

Helen: There are readers who don’t like him at all, and those who are exasperated yet feel sorry for him. I’ve become more protective of him as time has gone on. Yes, he can be a total prat, yes, he is conceited and yes, he behaves appallingly. But, at least at the beginning, he recognises some of his flaws and can take the micky out of himself. And I would argue that his cruellest actions arise from good intentions that go wrong because of lack of insight.

The difficult truth is that many mental health conditions can make people self-absorbed and lacking in insight or empathy. Mental illness in all its forms can make people’s behaviour unreliable, can alter their relationships, and can fuel paranoia and feelings of persecution, whether that be schizophrenia, personality disorders, bipolar disorder or depression. I speak from personal experience. We can be hard to live with.

Question: You’ve done a great job of establishing the characters’ goals, and sharpening their needs with backstory, and that really engaged me in the plot. How integral were all those dreams and affections from the start?

Helen: As soon as I’ve established the basic characteristics of the principal players, I work out what their goal is, what challenges they will face, how they will overcome them (or not) and how their personality will be changed. Although I plotted The Backstreets of Purgatory in detail before I started, the story changed as the novel progressed and the drafts were rewritten. But I always had in mind that each character had their own trajectory and that they shouldn’t — they couldn’t possibly — reach the end of the story unchanged.

I’m very grateful to Helen Taylor for talking to me about characterisation and The Backstreets of Purgatory. I thoroughly recommend the book, available from the Unbound website (and you can check out what other projects you personally might enjoy helping to get published). It’s been great fun to get behind the scenes of a good novel, and to reaffirm our right to write not-so-pleasant characters. Sometimes they’re the ones that stick with us—as Nate always has for me, and as I suspect Finn will for many.


The Art of Being Away

This Week’s Bit of String: Marriage proposal on a t-shirt

When I immigrated to Britain my son was almost 3, quite active, and thankfully for our overnight flight we sat next to someone friendly. Our neighbour on the plane was a medical student from Bulgaria, on his way home to surprise his girlfriend.

She was expecting his best friend, also Bulgarian and studying with him in Boston. “She’ll come to pick him up at the airport,” our flight mate explained, “but instead she’ll get me!” He beamed and pulled a t-shirt out of his carry-on. It was printed with, apparently, “Will you marry me?” in Bulgarian.

I often wonder how he fared. He planned that the wedding would take place after his studies were complete, when he would return to his home country to work. “We need doctors in Bulgaria. I can’t keep that away from them.”

Have Gifts, Will Travel

With a bachelor’s degree in Writing and Literature, and a hodgepodge of hospitality, childcare, and administrative work experience, I didn’t feel I was depriving my home country by leaving. As writers we can set up work anywhere. And hopefully, eventually, we can positively impact people regardless of borders.

Mural depicting 19th-century immigrants on a ship as they get their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty
Mural at the House of Emigrants museum in Vaxjo, Sweden

Quite a few famous writers throughout history have been travellers and immigrants (articles here and here on great books written by immigrants). Even in an informal Twitter poll of writers I conducted this week, 35% of the respondents now live in a country different from where they were born.

This is partly reflective of our portable vocation, and perhaps of our general exploratory nature. Although as writers we’re often introverts, we feel an irresistible urge to discover and experience more. I think too, it’s possible we’re somewhat itinerant because we’re not the most boundary-conscious people.

Everywhere is writing territory. A train compartment, an airport queue, a historical landmark, a foreign restaurant. Inside someone else’s front garden, inside your head. We cross countless borders, sometimes with questionable authority, and with varying degrees of success.

And sometimes when we’re right there in front of you, we might seem to be somewhat absent.

Home and Abroad

For those writers who don’t take the ultimate leap of immigration, there’s still travel. The many writers who travel seeking adventure, often with children and often faithfully writing about it, impresses me (stunning examples here and here).

I just came back from a short family trip to Denmark and Sweden. At New Year’s we spent a long weekend in Seville. I didn’t write at all, on either of those journeys. I couldn’t even keep a daily diary. Feeding and entertaining my family, maintaining all arrangements and reservations, studying maps and routes and opening times and attractions, then processing photos afterward, those things take up all my time.

Mermaid statue on coastal boulders.
Den hille havfrue (the little mermaid) statue in Copenhagen, clearly dreaming of new adventure.

That said, I still believe travel helps us as writers. From a quick, hard-earned vacation I am reminded to utilise every minute, to watch for differences and similarities around the globe. New realms open up to me while reinforcing common human bonds.

The first story I published took place in Haiti, a nation I visited and fell in love with when I was 16. I love using writing to remember places I’ve seen, which is why some of my writing still takes place in my American home state of New Hampshire.

Side note, the word immigrant actually originated in New Hampshire, first coined in a 1792 history book there by James Belknap. It’s from the French, which in turn was derived from the Latin, for “to remove, go into, move in.”

Immigrant shares its root with the word emerge. To me, that’s possibly the most important part of travel: emerging from the stupor of our routine. We shake ourselves awake from our own story and flit through endless streams of others.

Glass vase etched with a woman hanging laundry in the wind.
In the Glass Museum in Vaxjo, Sweden: Seeing beauty in the mundane.

This includes the magical, like the peace of an old cathedral or a breathtaking sculpture, but also the mundane—how Copenhagen and Seville get rid of their rubbish via an automated vacuum system which sucks it through underground pneumatic tubes to a processing facility. While traveling we’re exposed to the dramatic—help the hotel raise money to provide safe rooms for victims of human trafficking—and the personal, like the mum at the table next to us in a Swedish burger bar, who must have been out for a birthday meal with her partner and adult son, but barely touched her food, sat composed and quiet the whole time, and prepared to leave by slowly pulling her celebratory bouquet from her water glass, one stalk at a time.

Then we return to the daily grind and the stories swarming around us come home to roost. While we’re checking spreadsheets, hanging laundry, or trying to ignore bad bus smells, suddenly we are whisked away again. Borderless, unfettered, we get lost in a new story. Please excuse us if we seem to be away again.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or someone who enjoys a good staycation, do keep exploring. We need your stories, the ones you bring back and the ones you return refreshed to pick up again.

To Speak or Not to Speak

This Week’s Bit of String: Crying at the Office

On Wednesday I woke from a nightmare just in time to get ready for work. I stayed in bed for a minute, horror seeping through me. But then the lesser stresses of sorting myself and my family for the morning urged me along, and the milder worries of roadwork delays distracted me from my greater panic.

At the office, an email awaited telling me how wrong my calculations were on a complex project that was new to my team. I’d had to find my way with only basic guidelines. The message, with several iterations in bold about how my work was incorrect, stung me and I fled to the bathroom. I could not stop crying.

Ridiculous, I thought. What an overreaction to a critical yet instructive email. That’s when I remembered my nightmare, and my surroundings began to resemble it. The wood grain of the door like 1980s bedroom panelling. The footsteps outside. Then I was really crying.

How could something from three hours ago distress me so much, when I’d been perfectly fine in between? Why didn’t I run out and get one of my lovely colleagues to help?

See Something, Say Something

On Monday I’d read an article about Terry Crews and his fight to be believed regarding a sexual assault he suffered. He continually faces speculation: “Why didn’t you use those big muscles to defend yourself?” “You’re not still upset about that, are you?”

It’s not unlike what Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford dealt with when she testified about her alleged assault from years earlier. “Why are you speaking up now?” “If it was so awful, why didn’t you report it to the police then?”

I’ve had my own experiences, at a younger age and with more trusted loved ones and without breaking away in time. It’s still not something I choose to talk about. The only reason I do now is to answer these questions—first, by flipping them around.

Crouching figure with the subtitle "Illumination"
Papercut art during Window Wanderland in Easton, Bristol

Would you tell someone? Honestly? When you cry, do you like people to watch? Do you want to be witnessed in pain, undressed, or helpless? When you suffer humiliation or betrayal, do you stride up to someone and let them know it happened, be it someone you admire or a stranger in authority? Congratulations if you answered yes to any of those questions. But I doubt many people are truly equipped to do so, especially as a child.

I can’t think of any other crisis after which we mercilessly interrogate the person who survived it. War veterans who hold down jobs and raise kids and reveal decades later the horrors they saw when fighting on the beaches or liberating concentration camps—I certainly hope they’re not greeted with, “Why didn’t you tell us this before? Why should we believe you now?”

When someone dies, we don’t issue their loved ones detailed instructions on how to respond. Have you cried enough? Have you lost your appetite and fasted?  You’re not going to step out of the house without wearing black, are you?

I know sexual assault is a crime and must be reported to protect others. But that perspective is lacking when you’re little. Furthermore, how does society reconcile its accusations of “Wait, that’s what you were wearing? Don’t you think you must have led him on?” with “How could you not tell? Didn’t you realise he’d hurt someone else?” When survivors are shamed for their clothing or behaviour, the incident is implied to be a one-off and there’s no one else to protect.

Calling for Help

It’s not just questions we face when coming forward. After we tell, there are executive decisions made over our heads, of which facility to send us to for “recovery,” of which people we’re now too damaged to be allowed near. And the assumptions that we’ll never be quite right, sometimes viewing us as so tainted by our experiences people presume we’d perpetrate them on younger children. And the vulnerability marking us as targets for other perpetrators.

If someone’s first response to me is, “Did you call for help?” the effect lingers, even if they recover with the standard offering “It wasn’t your fault.” By examining my actions first, they’re assessing my responsibility.

I understand where they’re coming from. They’re actually analysing themselves, wondering, “Would I scream?” When we hear a story, we imagine ourselves as the victim, not the aggressor, because most of us aren’t sexual assaulters. And when someone who hasn’t been through sexual assault hears from someone who has, they’re probably trying to reassure themselves they’d find a way out. When I read stories about genocide, I instinctively wonder, “How would I cope with this? Would I find a way to protect my family?” If I meet a Rohingya or Srebrenica or Rwanda survivor though, I’m not going to blurt, “Couldn’t you have just run away?”

The reasons people might not fight or call for help during a sexual assault are, I surmise, similar to reasons an entire group of people under threat of genocide don’t manage to escape. There’s trust in authority. We are happy to believe we don’t need help; we want to believe we can reason or charm our way through. Then perhaps there’s humiliation, as our rights or clothing are stripped away. There may be carefully planted ideas that no one is available to help. There may be shame and allusion to religious standards. Elizabeth Smart, once a victim of kidnapping and abuse, describes the effects of fear and shame really well. This article about her also has a great quote from survivor Natascha Kampusch on the subject.

Given our knowledge of history, surely it’s indisputable that hell-bent, harmful people exist. Say there’s a needy, greedy perpetrator versus a victim who’s either unsuspecting or has been hurt so many times they think the deserve it. In these cases, the former’s will to exert control overpowers the latter’s will to resist.

In my nightmare early Wednesday morning I went through it all over again, helpless and stuck. But instead of silently regrouping as I did in real life, in my dream I went to find my mother. She was sound asleep, and I crawled up next to her and made myself whisper what had happened. Because my subconscious knows, now, what you’re supposed to do. What everyone says you should have done. But I was desperately hoping she wouldn’t hear.

This was partly to protect her, partly to protect him, partly to preserve my reputation, partly to keep my secret which was the last semblance of control the trauma left me. Those are the reasons.

It’s like when I was hiding in the office bathroom. I sort of wanted someone to notice I was gone and offer a kind word—but I didn’t want them to see me crying. I mean, would you?

And then when the waterworks finally stopped, I went back to my desk and did a tonne of work without any wish to revisit it. I mean, wouldn’t you?

If you’ve had to face similar questions, or if you feel this has helped answer some you might occasionally pose, please do share.

2018 Reading Round-Up

I didn’t read nearly as many books as last year. It just slipped out of my routine. Don’t worry—I’m working on it. But I did read a broader variety of reading materials. A lot more nonfiction than previously, several classic short story volumes, and even some wondrous poetry. So, buckle up for a more diverse list as I reveal my top reads of 2018.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
I love a time- and continent-spanning epic. This covered over 500 years, and even better, traced it via a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, as an artefact. Apparently there’s a science of studying the physical properties of old books; learning about a time period by analysing the binding and ink and paper. This fascinates me, and of course the histories of the people—Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike—outlined in the story did as well.

“‘You sat in your nice little flat all through our war and watched us, bleeding all over the TV news. And you thought, “How awful!” and then you got up and made yourself another cup of gourmet coffee.’ I flinched when he said that. It was a pretty accurate description.”

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
A really useful little volume which gives a history of activism and includes the victories almost imperceptible at the time, which then influence greater movements. It’s a call to action in a time of environmental crisis and stifling capitalism, but it’s also an encouragement, a reminder that things take time and small steps are worth celebrating.

“Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.”

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
The perfect treadmill book: fast-paced, with witty insight into the workings of the media, other cultures, and how they perceive Americans. A Japanese-American is hired to make a series for Japanese TV about American family recipes, and each chapter explores a different family while secretly the documentarian investigates what these meats are actually doing to consumers.

“‘Stocking up’ is what our robust Americans called it, laughing nervously, because profligate abundance automatically evokes its opposite, the unspoken specter of dearth.”

Heart Songs and Other Stories by Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx is one of the most talented wordsmiths of the late 20th-early 21st century. Her characters are often spare in their divulgences, but she ensures we know them well. And she delivers us right to the setting of each tale. Lucky for me, a few of these were set in New England, so reading them was like going home.

“Santee longed for the cold weather and unclouded days that lay somewhere ahead, for the sharp chill of spruce shadow, icy rime thickening over twigs and a hard autumnal sky cut by the parabolic flights of birds the same way pond ice was cut by skaters.” From “The Unclouded Day”

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Another multi-generational epic. This one is about slavery and colonialism, and its effects both on those left behind in Africa, and those taken to America. It’s an important reminder that the atrocities lasted a terribly long time, and therefore their effects do too. I hope this story, even if imagined, helps restore the history severed by our old practices.

“Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
This tells Tara’s journey from a fundamentalist “prepper” family so anti-establishment she never entered a classroom until she managed to get to university. She now holds a PhD from Cambridge. Important takeaways some might overlook: She faithfully shows her estranged family’s positive attributes as hard workers loving as best they knew how, and also she provides an essential outsider perspective on higher education. While it benefited her, she also describes universities as cult-like because of the heavy expectation all students will react the same way to what they are told.

“No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue guilt, because it is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.”

Cathedral by Raymond Carver
After reading this volume of short stories, I agree he’s one of the greats. More unadorned than Annie Proulx, he chooses his moments well and narrates a character’s actions in detail if not their thoughts or settings. This to me makes it very immediate, while giving a sense that the characters are barely hanging on, just going through the motions. Perhaps this is clearest in the story “A Small, Good Thing:”

“They both stared out at the parking lot. They didn’t say anything. But they seemed to feel each other’s insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent.”

Paper Aeroplane: Poems 1989-2014 by Simon Armitage
So much in this collection: reflections on the meaning of art, poems about everyday life, about relationships, current events, nature—even translations of historic poems. I loved the later nature ones such as “Rain” and “Beck,” I loved the piece poignantly reimagining the Columbine massacre with the shooters randomly passing out flowers instead of bullets, I loved the recent “Poundland” which evokes the shop with brilliantly observed detail but couches it all in terms of epic-style narration that makes me laugh out loud. Hard to choose a single quote here, but I’m going with this one from Armitage’s earlier poem “The Civilians” because it shows his ability to set the scene with unexpected but vivid imagery:

“The golden evenings spread like ointment through the open valleys,
Buttered one side of our spotless washing.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
It’s different. It’s possibly not for everybody. But I’ve enjoyed multi-POV narratives told somewhat experimentally before (Cloud Atlas, for example), and just thinking about this one makes me want to dive back in. I loved Saunders’ detailed imagining of the afterlife, his intense portrayal of grief and its requisite predecessor love, the interlacing of genuine historical testimony, and every voice clamouring to be heard.

“Perhaps this is faith, I thought: to believe our God ever receptive to the smallest good intention.”

If you’ve already explored any of these reads, what did you think of them? Do you have any related recommendations?

Seven Wanders of 2018

So…2018. How was it for you? My year got a little ploddy. A little spend-all-the-free-time-dragging-through-housework-while-sleep-deprived-from-illness-and-injury-ish. A little every-outing-or-escapade-requires-double-chores-on-surrounding-days-and-heaps-of-TLC-to-convince-family-members-to-go-along-with-it-y.

That demolished my writing and reading routines for the last couple of months, and honestly, I kind of allowed it to. But while I haven’t got a finished draft of my current novel, or a publisher for my other one, and I was mostly long listed in 2018 with just a couple of shortlistings—those hard-plotted outings and escapades I cajoled my family into? They were awesome.

When I look back, it’s not the stresses my mind turns to; it’s the adventures shared. It was tricky to narrow down the top explores of 2018, but here they are, the ones that most charged up the imagination and, well, made life grand.

Hay-on-Wye: It’s got tonnes of books, and a river. Pretty much my two favourite things! Oh, and plenty of nice places to eat. Or just buy a Welsh cake. This year was my first at the late May literary festival there, and I took in such a fantastic range of lectures and interviews. I also enjoyed wandering the streets and soaking in the literary vibe, chasing waterfalls, and watching the sun set over the river.

Murder and Mayhem, a uniquely decorated thriller and mystery shop with hounds and a full moon painted below the window.
One of the many enticing specialist bookshops in Hay.

Me standing over the River Wye, on one of the bridge supports.
At the River Wye, always trying to get closer to the water.

A child climbs around the giant letters spelling HAY in the centre of the festival tents.
That happy festival vibe, fun for all ages.

Portishead/ Window Wanderland: Portishead is one of our nearer coastal towns, but we hadn’t explored it yet. Turns out it has a lighthouse, and a lido! Throw in some grand beach houses, a beach crissed and crossed with driftwood, and a brand new lifeboat station, all making this an exciting discovery.

Sunset over Battery Point Lighthouse
Sunset at Battery Point Lighthouse

An image of a soldier climbing a ladder painted onto the lido wall in memorium.
Street art on the side of the lido

It was the Window Wanderland event that brought us there in February. I’ve written previously about Window Wanderland, when neighbourhoods decorate their windows for all to come and see. In addition to the Portishead one, we also returned to the Bishopston area of Bristol to take in their window displays, because they truly are stellar.

Two-storey tree display made of paper inside a residential window.
A tree grows in Portishead

Paper window display of Mario
Bishopston’s unique displays included this Super Mario one.

Bristol: This has made my top seven before. But it holds such a wealth of routes and sights, I had to include it again. Plus, I’ve now had a piece performed there so I can feel I belong (maybe one day I can say the same about Hay). Just some of the ways Bristol reminds us life is good: street art to marvel at on every corner, diverse museum exhibits from Wildlife Photographer of the Year to African fabrics to Japanese woodblock prints, milkshakes at Rocatillos and pie or pizza at The Stable and roasted white hot chocolate at Mrs. Potts’ Chocolate Shop, and over 800 games to choose from at the board game cafe Chance & Counters on the lovely Christmas Steps.

Cormorant on a pier post, with Arnolfini Gallery and other harbour buildings in the background.
A cormorant enjoys the Bristol Harbour view.

Diverse murals on high rises by a steepled entrance.
A street of murals, by the historic St. John’s Gate into the old city.

Balloon-shaped lights above the shopping centre with a glowing Christmas tree ahead.
Festive homage to the famous Bristol Balloon Fiesta.

Canals, and More Canals: I know, this is a repeat, too. But my weekly hike along the Stroudwater canal continues to be a highlight, the resident waterfowl and the changing angles of sunlight affording new views in the same places every week. Plus we explored further on the Gloucester and Sharpness canal this year, climbing around the beached hulks at Purton’s ship graveyard and the marinas at Saul Junction and Sharpness. Finally, there’s the last remaining stretches of towpath on the Thames and Severn, from Stroud to Chalford, the beautiful little town carved into a hill, and then from Chalford to Sapperton, the longest canal tunnel.

A snowscape with swans swimming down the canal in front of a bridge.
The Ebley Swan family in the snow, Stroudwater Canal

Rainbow over bridge and gatehouse against a stormy sky.
Rainbow over Nutshell Bridge and gatehouse, Stroudwater Canal

Turbine over gleaming, choppy canal waters
Turbine at Sharpness, Gloucester and Sharpness Canal

Old exposed boards and rusted iron joins on a grassy bank.
One of the hulks in Purton’s ‘ship graveyard,’ Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. Old, disused ships were intentionally beached along the strip between the canal and the Severn river to stop erosion.

Mount Osceola: Following 2017’s excursions, I vowed to climb a higher mountain in 2018. And I did, conquering my first 4,000+ footer, in the White Mountains of my home state, New Hampshire. Climbing Mount Osceola was a bit like 2018: hard work scrambling over substantial scattered stones and patches of steep-ish rock face but in the end we had some incredible memories. And felt a tad awesome.

Summit views over the White Mountain range in the Appalachians.
The view from the top.

Outer rings of a tree stump, beside a patch of clover with a single blossom.
Smaller snapshots of beauty along the trail.

Minneapolis: One might not think of this Minnesota city in a top list of US destinations. However, we ended up there while taking our son to a gaming event, and loved it. Starting with the Walker Art Gallery’s wondrous sculpture garden, next crossing through Loring Park and Greenway seeing all the fountains and plant boxes and tiny free libraries and black squirrels (still can’t quite get over those…), we then traversed the city using the Skyway. The Skyway is a network of elevated passages between and through buildings in the city centre, allowing people to get about traffic-free and safe from the elements (in our case, it provided some relief from 100 Fahrenheit/ 38-degree Celsius temperatures). Using these passages, we found our way across the city to my first ever look at the great Mississippi River. Here, the river is flanked by old flour mills with an interesting history of rivalries, all chronicled in the Mill Ruins Park and Museum. I love a place that honours its ruins while progressing in an environment- and walker-friendly way!

Giant spoon bridged over a reflective pond with a bright cherry perched on its tip.
Viewing the city’s skyline from Walker Sculpture Garden, across the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

Fountain like a dandelion clock.
Loring Park fountain

Historic Gold Medal Flour building in the foreground, alongside the river.
Old mills and the Mississippi River

Seville: Talk about incorporating history. This southern Spanish city has Roman aqueducts still standing in the middle of busy roads. Its signature spire, Giralda Tower, was built in the 12th century as a minaret under Islamic rule. The cathedral’s incredible craftsmanship must surely have been financed through genocide and slave labour during the Age of the Explorers, when Columbus, Magellan, and their cohorts sailed triumphantly up and down the River Guadalquivir, welcomed by the Torre del Oro. The current Royal Alcazar Palace was largely built using moorish designs under a 14th-century Christian king known as Pedro the Cruel or Pedro the Just, depending who tells the story. It is still used as a royal residence 650 years later. We loved wending our way through the tight little warren of streets to these attractions, shaded by orange trees and palms and ancient gleaming facades affording us the occasional glimpse into ornate courtyards filled with greenery. Also, there was tapas. And sangria.

Roman aqueduct between lanes of traffic, including cars and horse-drawn carriage.
Part of the Roman aqueduct

Tower viewed from across the river, with boats in front of it and palm trees and other city buildings around.
The Torre del Oro, or Tower of Gold, at sunset

Tiles and mosaics in a moorish arch.
Close-up in the Real (Royal) Alcazar. I could spend hours looking at these patterns.

Rooftops of the old city
Seville’s roofscape at sunrise, Giralda minaret at the centre background

A year with this much excitement and wonder must have been pretty good. I’m looking forward to revisiting some of these locations in the coming year, discovering new destinations, and definitely putting it all to use in various tales.

Have you had experiences in any of the above places? What other spots have you explored in the last year, and where will the next one take you?