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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 the 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?

Managing the Voices, Part 1: Selection

This Week’s Bit of String: A Fatal Accident

At my smallish rural high school, tragedy was not uncommon. We all knew what it meant when first period was extended and extra staff stood at attention near the doors. In 11th grade the prepared statement informed us a Finnish exchange student I’d befriended had died in a car crash that morning.

Eventually released from the classroom, I held back my own tears thinking about Milja’s parents, thousands of miles away, receiving a phone call from someone who didn’t even speak their language to tell them…

And the students who’d been in the car with her, how on earth would they cope with this trauma?

I heard one boy complain to his friends, ‘I don’t care if some girl died; don’t take part of my break for it.’

So many people are affected by a tragedy. Milja’s memorial service was packed, and given her shyness, I suspected many mourners hadn’t known her well9. At the time I may have resented that a bit; how dare they trespass upon our more legitimate grief? But I do understand we can be touched by lives we didn’t fully participate in, especially when we’re young.

It seems sometimes there’s a race to the bottom as everyone claims to be a victim. We’re told by the President of the United States that this is a scary time for young men and that ‘women are doing fine.’ As writers we often take it on ourselves to portray those who suffer most. Is it a good idea now and then to get into the heads of those who suffer less? How do we determine who’s the real victim in a situation, who is the most voiceless?

Who’s Hurting

During the National Association of Writers Groups conference, I went to science fiction writer Ken MacLeod‘s talk, attracted by the workshop’s title: ‘Who’s Hurting? How to Choose Your Protagonist.’ He set exercises imagining a change in the world, and examining who would most be hurt by it.

Early morning web on a reddened bush
So many strands to follow…

I imagined a complete shutdown of immigration in the UK, and sketched out a variety of people. A British woman forcibly estranged from her Nigerian fiancé, an Iranian student worrying about his family, a British pensioner unable to fulfill her dream of emigrating to Australia and now stuck on a small rainy island which inexplicably continues to have traffic jams and strapped public services despite ridding itself of those pesky foreigners. It’s fun to put someone like that in, to mirror our most self-centred instincts.

I assigned the exercise to my writing group last week as well, providing newspapers so they could base scenarios on current events. I was treated to a great variety of snippets: about AI parole officers, neighbourhood sinkholes, post-Brexit deep sea fishing practices, and more.

Portraying Victims

Once we’ve seized a plot idea and mapped out its effects on potential characters, we need to reflect on how to convey those voices. Amid heightened awareness regarding appropriation, sometimes respectful distance is required. Considering different characters doesn’t mean we can or should pose as them.

At the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was struck by Japanese author Masatsugu Ono’s honesty about his novel Lion Cross Point, which concerns a little boy relocating after terrible trauma. When asked how he chose the point of view for his novel, he said he initially wanted to tell the mother’s story, but struggled to grasp her psychology. ‘Of course,’ he noted, ‘I am man.’

So he switched to her young son’s point of view, because ‘he had the most suffering.’ But then he shied away a bit. Ono felt that since he hadn’t been through what his child protagonist had, ‘it wouldn’t be fair to the boy’ to appropriate his voice. Instead, he gave himself some distance and allowed some doubt about the events.Main arch into the Cheltenham Literature Festival site at Montpellier Gardens

His rule for himself when dealing with the sensitive subject of abuse recovery was, ‘Never say definitely what happened, but perhaps.’

While I’m not a fan of intentional withholding in storytelling, his approach as recounted in the Festival’s cosy Nook venue made sense. As writers we want to ensure the most aching underbelly of events is exposed. But we need to do so without presumption. There’s so much we can’t know, and maybe we shouldn’t pretend we do.

Portraying Non-Victims

Mr. Ono’s talk made me think about how larger events are portrayed through literature. Take the Holocaust, for example. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about Europe in that era that doesn’t have a central Jewish character. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay links a privileged late twentieth century woman to a terrorised Jewish child under the Vichy puppet government. In Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, an American woman sets out to investigate the experiences of German bystanders like her mum—until (spoiler alert) she finds out that actually, her mother had her with a Jewish man who was then killed in the nearby concentration camp. So in fact she and her mother were perilously close to being condemned themselves.

Conserving Holocaust remembrances is vital, and we must keep working tales of the persecuted into our stories. But how many of us are really going to be victimised in that way? As culture wars and partisanship reach a feverish pitch, there’s a lot to watch out for: stealth legislation against immigrants, income inequality, climate change. Many of us, though, will remain free to post thoughtful Facebook statuses and campaign for paper straws and march for Planned Parenthood and then just get on with our lives.

So I wonder if we need a few stories about the ‘lucky’ ones. What’s the best way to help when other people’s worlds crumble? We see stories of infiltrating corruption from the top, or starting revolutions from the bottom. How do we sacrifice the comfort of the middle (admit it, there are comforts…) and join the battle?

When it comes down to it, tragedies affect us in various ways. If not directly then they remind us to care, like the people who turned up at Milja’s funeral. Or they force our indifference like the boy complaining about the minutes shaved off of breaktime. In choosing our characters, let’s remember that drawing attention to issues through our writing doesn’t allow us to be victims ourselves. It doesn’t replace taking other courses of action to help. Where do you find yourself in the race to the bottom?

Next time, Managing the Voices, Part 2: Collection. We’ll look at the ethics, or lack thereof, behind gathering material for our characters, and we’ll find out what happened to the boy who claimed not to care about Milja’s fate.

Plot Twist!

This Week’s Bit of String: Totally random, last-minute allegations

The latest U.S. Supreme Court nominee looked fresh out of central casting, just how the Republican President likes them. A prep school-educated soccer dad, a longtime federal judge who’d prosecuted Clinton and defended George W. Bush, Brett Kavanaugh would surely win confirmation by the required slim majority in a Congress dominated by his own party.

Suddenly, an opposing senator produced a woman who said bad things about the soccer dad! Total plot twist—who could have seen that coming?

Except, of course, that spontaneous plot twists rarely happen in real life. There are tremors before a facade breaks. The judge’s confirmation process in the Senate had already been contentious, with Republicans rushing procedures, and evidence Kavanaugh lied under oath about receiving documents stolen from Democrats during the Bush administration.

In the meantime, before the full allegations were public, Kavanaugh attempted to shore up character witnesses among former classmates.

Before that, when Kavanaugh’s name merely featured on the Republican shortlist of Supreme Court justice contenders, research psychologist Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford tried to get word to the Capitol via her own Congresswoman. Six years earlier, Dr. Blasey-Ford had confided to her husband and to a therapist that Kavanaugh had assaulted her as a teen.

This is the far-reaching timeline on the individual level, saying nothing of the conflict’s political roots. There was bitterness over President Obama’s nominee being blocked from even getting a hearing, but I suspect Supreme Court positions slid into partisanship long before that.

We’re sometimes told to put twists in our stories, a formula foisted particularly on short stories. But I’m dubious, not just because my own ideas tend to unfurl rather than wrench. Some twists are either overused or dropped in with insufficient forethought.

Twist vs. Mystery
A narrowing forest trail under beech trees
Twists ahead?

Any good story should move a reader. It might shake us up, or pry us open to new viewpoints, or rob our breath as we pursue the outcome. If a concept is fresh, I’m not sure it needs a twist, because there’s no danger of guessing the ending. And if the characters are engrossing, we’ll be biting our nails to see if they’re okay.

Twists have a long literary history, but there’s always a prevailing trend. For the ancient Greeks, the plot twist tended to be a deity (or in Iocaste’s unfortunate case, a son) in disguise. Shakespeare carried this on with his mistaken identity plot twists and fatal presumptions, and Dickens evolved this further by ensuring many characters turned out to somehow be related, often to someone with a fortune. In our current age of psychological awareness, many twists pertain to troubled pasts. Crime dramas usually have an insider working for the villain, reflecting increased distrust toward institutions.

Given these trends, twists can be predictable. But they don’t have to be wedged in just before a story’s conclusion. While at the National Association of Writers Groups conference a month ago, I attended a workshop on plotting and utilising twists. It was given by Simon Hall, a former BBC journalist and current writer of The TV Detective series.

Mr. Hall reminded us that suspense is of paramount importance and that twists can come in the form of unreliable narrators, or confounded conventions. Pace can be maintained by rows or chases. His advice for creating drama: “Corner your character like a feral animal.”

Trails crossing and winding around the Malvern Hills
Many paths, many options

I like the idea that a twist can simply defy expectations, particularly as my current project is a novel from Eve’s point of view. There’s a wealth of supposed knowledge to subvert. But I also think about the books I’ve read and loved. The ones that engross me do so because of the characters.

For example, I loved Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. The midway point-of-view change was the most shocking twist I’ve ever read, but she gave herself time to justify the complete reversal. I then read her latest book, The Paying Guests. It had no point-of-view switch, no misdirection, no big shocker. But I was completely hooked, terrified things wouldn’t turn out all right for the heroines.

Casting a Foreshadowing

I asked the Twittersphere how important twists are in non-genre fiction. Scifi/ fantasy writer Wilfred said, “I’m not a huge fan of twists that seem to come out of nowhere and only demonstrate the writer’s determination to stay one step ahead. I do love a twist that would still surprise me yet at the same time remind me of a previous chapter.”

Author and Road to Publishing blogger I.M. Moore agrees that “if a twist is way too obvious or comes completely out of left field without any evidence to back it up, I get a bit annoyed.”

Poet Anne Sheppard, whom I’m privileged to know off-Twitter as we’re in the same Writers’ Group, distinguishes between plot twists and suspense: “Not too keen on plot twists but I do like to be surprised.”

Author and micropoet Ellen Grace offered this reminder: “You are the conduit for the story. If the story has a twist in it, then it has a twist in it. But it’s never a good idea to shoehorn one in just because you think there should be one.”

And freelance writer Libbie Kay Toler echoes, “It’s your path to explore.”

Some paths are twistier than others. There’s a certain deliciousness in occasionally bucking the trend and letting a villain be a villain, without or despite a tortured past (like Voldemort, and maybe like some on the opposing side wanted Brett Kavanaugh to be).

We know how some stories will go—but we devour them, anxious to see how rather than what. Take Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, books with narrators reflecting over an incident. I’m more inclined to revisit a book like this than something with a more dramatic twist. After all, if a shocker is my prevalent memory of a book, I can never recapture that surprise. But when anticipation builds, I want to go back and savour those clues.

TV writing provides further examples. I’ve been re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (it’s an antidote for how Dr. Blasey Ford and other assault victims are being spoken to, and laughed at, in certain circles of power.)

Network of roots from an upturned tree
Roots in all directions

I love mining the show’s seams of foreshadowing. Near the beginning of Season 2, Buffy first fights with Spike. “I’ll make it quick. It won’t hurt a bit,” he sneers, and she counters, “No Spike, it’s going to hurt a lot.” No truer words ever spoken by characters destined to fall in love.

Part of my editing process is ensuring the seeds are planted. To lightly play up encounters that will later be significant, to ensure that a particular aspect of a setting is briefly noted ahead of time. John Irving’s books keep up the pace with seemingly random, entertaining incidents, but they all turn out to be pivotal plot points, as with “the Stunt” and the dressmaker’s dummy and the armadillo in A Prayer for Owen Meany. With him, the excitement is as much in finding how it fits together as finding out what happens.

In real life, twists tend to double back on themselves. Those who speak up can be brushed aside. It’s no surprise that the Republican party didn’t properly examine their authoritarian president’s Supreme Court nominee. Every dramatic twist these days gets bulldozed over rather than ironed out, and seems to make no difference. (Remember Omarosa’s tapes? Paul Manafort’s plea deal? All consigned to the red herring barrel.)

If there’s going to be a new ending, the clues are small and in the background. And maybe we haven’t spotted it because we aren’t following the right characters.

If You Like It Be Prepared to Find a Price on It

This Week’s Bit of String: Campus costs

Confession time: I finished my university degree illegally. In my state, people receiving benefits weren’t allowed to pursue the extra financial burden of higher education (sometimes ‘Live free or die’ translates to ‘Live free and let others fall by the wayside.’) I was a single mother employed in per diem work, so I depended on state medical insurance and also some childcare reimbursement.

But while doing as much work as I could find, I completed my studies in the evenings. I relished the variety of lessons at the local community college and appreciated the more mature student population, often keener on their studies than my cohorts at the university I’d attended before I was pregnant.

Even that community college cost thousands of dollars per semester. I read and wrote so much, I’m sure it improved my work. But the expenditure, the hectic schedule in my son’s first months, not to mention the risk of incurring New Hampshire’s wrath… Could I have learned those things through independent study, through the myriad of recently sprouted online support networks and through regimented practice? Did my degree increase my job prospects or pay grade?

Shopping Around
Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick
Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick

My son is starting A-Levels, the course of study in the UK for 16-18-year-olds. We’ve been doing research to ensure his subjects will be acceptable to whatever university he attends after. Maths and Philosophy degrees, Education and Psychology, a year abroad in Scandinavia…it reminds me how exciting it is to get sucked into the heart of a subject.

My reminiscences were enabled by a trip to the University of Warwick campus for the National Association of Writers Groups’ annual festival. En-suite bathrooms! Fountains and grassy rooftops! A Krispy Kreme counter in the campus grocery store! Exercise bikes and treadmills equipped with screens so you can Mahjongg while you run!

It’s a big deal here how much universities cost, but at £9000 per year it’s far less than American ones charge. And I’m hesitant to condemn the charge. I want my kid’s professors to earn a good wage, and I don’t expect the rather strapped government to fully subsidise this.

Tuition & Fees

Likewise, I want the speakers at NAWG Fest to be paid well. Writers’ pay at festivals is an issue of longstanding complexity. Quite a few attendees expressed concerns about the cost, and I sympathise, as there were a lot of pensioners among our gathering. But we must also consider that in addition to workshops and networking opportunities, our fees covered ample meals and reasonably comfortable accommodation, plus use of campus facilities.

Gardens and fountains at University of Warwick
University of Warwick campus

What price can we put on jumpstarting our creativity? I spent £180 for a night’s stay, four meals and two workshops. I managed to squeeze in a gym session before the gala dinner, and I skipped the Annual General Meeting to take advantage of the swimming pool. A double bed and a bathroom of my own—invaluable to any wife and mum.

The workshop instructors had lengthy experience yet were genuinely interested in our work and ideas. The whole conference, I think, is designed especially for people newly exploring the craft of writing. I recommend it to those starting out because there’s no snobbery, and plenty of accessibility and warmth.

As someone who’s not starting out or dabbling, the concepts introduced in workshops on characterisation and plotting were somewhat familiar. However, I can always do with certain reminders, of how to raise the stakes in my plot and how to probe a story’s What Ifs to find who’s really at its heart.

My writing life consists mainly of dragging myself through alone, in snatched moments often on a bus full of miserable, drunk, and/ or manic people. I get lost in what I’m writing (thank goodness) but as others can probably attest, we cling to our ideas especially when they’re few and far between in our crowded lives. It’s hard to put a price on having someone march in and say, “Oh but remember to consider this…”

Being in the company of other writers is perhaps the most precious thing. I love listening to people who come every year talk about their work, and people who’ve just taken up writing talk about what it means to them.

Selfie after the NAWG Fest gala dinner
Satisfied NAWG Fest attendee.

And it never, never gets old when someone takes an interest in my work. At the gala dinner and awards ceremony, I was assigned to a table with one of my tutors from earlier, and various writers, novice and veteran, from different parts of the country. They were all cheering my shortlisted story and me on, ensuring that even without the first prize trophy, I left feeling satisfied and invigorated (the chocolate cake may well have helped).

Maybe this could have been achieved by other, cheaper means. But as with attending university, the extra money could be worth it because we need the corralling, cajoling, and challenging that comes with a comprehensive experience rather than the usual bits and pieces we use to sustain our artistic existences. And we should expect those benefits not to be free when they come with the help of others or the use of their institutions.

What kinds of writing experiences have you paid for? What constitutes value for money, and what kinds of free activities help give you a boost?

The Borders of Generosity

This Week’s Bit of String: Fine, and you?

In my second year of high school I started asking friends how they were doing. I hadn’t really bothered with it before. When you’re younger, I suppose it doesn’t occur to you.

Asking the question felt like a revelation. This was so grown-up of me, so kind and engaged. After a dangerously needy adolescence, I told myself that by asking people three little words, I was finally giving back to the world.

I don’t think the world saw it that way.

Third period English class, I asked how my friend was as we took our seats. ‘The same as I was when you asked me last lesson,’ she snapped.

There was the real revelation. Asking a question, even if you’re listening for the answer, doesn’t mean you’re showing helpful or genuine concern. Lately I’ve witnessed (and been on the receiving end of) various interactions which may be well-intentioned at the start but either end up grudgingly made, or accompanied by the giver’s complaints behind the recipient’s back. Do you ever notice that?

We need to examine, both societally and privately when we look at our personal interactions: Are we truly capable of selfless interest in others?

People Aren’t Stories

This may be particularly relevant for writers. We’re nosey people. Introverts, sure; we might not actually want to talk to you, but we’d damn well like to hear about you. We hunger for stories as much as we hunger for compliments.

Baby girl's fancy shoe hanging from a tree limb
An intriguing story thread, yes, but there’s also perhaps a distraught parent and a baby with a very cold foot out there.

We are often quite empathetic people. I’ve blogged about empathy a lot. But our preparedness to walk in someone else’s shoes isn’t truly selfless or inspiring when in the back of our minds we might be considering walking them right into Chapter 3.

We’re also good at dramatising things. We invent funny memes about the toil of each WIP’s journey, and feel every rejection deeply. But we must always remember that we wouldn’t choose another way of life. Seeing our stories born, freeing them from our minds, make everything worthwhile and let’s never forget it.

People aren’t Audience Members

The modern age has boxed us into little thumbnail sketches on a screen. And many of us are obsessively competitive over who can be busiest (translation: who is the most indispensable). How many times have you seen someone copy and paste a generic Facebook status trying to gauge whether people are actually reading their posts?

“I SAY I’M FINE BUT I’M NOT!” Do they believe anyone else is doing otherwise? Do they feel any better when a handful of people respond with tearful emojis? We’d all like a quick attention fix. But attention is addictive rather than satisfying, particularly when it’s given in intense, but empty-calorie doses on social media.

For our own sakes, we should remember everyone else is in the same boat. Busy, sometimes just for the sake of being busy; lonely and tired and stressed. We can’t expect other people to meet our needs consistently any more than we’d really want them to expect that of us.

People Aren’t Charity Cases

Growing up in an evangelical family, the missions trip was a rite of passage. Everyone at church did one of some sort. A girl came back from a couple weeks in Moldova and revealed to the congregation her hardship of having to eat the food her hosts made for her—all of it!—so as to seem polite. Her talk about her trip seemed to have more inferences to her figure than information on the people she went to serve.

I’d gone on two trips to Haiti, myself. But I think (I hope) I recognised myself as the main beneficiary of these adventures. I was on a team ‘helping’ to build a school, although we also brought funds to keep Haitians employed building it.

Haitian people I met and remained friends with.
Just a few selfish reasons I loved my trips to Haiti.

There’s more consciousness, at least in some circles, regarding the efficiency of volunteering trips. We go into them pale and pudgy; porous; desperate to soak meaning into our lives. It’s perfectly possible to do some good while we’re there, and to make friends and carry home a fresh perspective. But we mustn’t pretend we’re martyrs for submitting to a long flight and some concrete brick-hauling.

(If you’re interested in helping people in Haiti, I recommend SOS Children’s Villages.)

People Aren’t Stupid

It doesn’t take long for someone to notice whether another party’s genuinely interested in them or not. After a few teams visited Port-au-Prince, I suspect the Haitian helpers developed a sense for which visitors would go home and boast about coping with cold daily showers in a country that was largely without running water. Likewise, kids grow up and remember which relative met requests to play with an eye roll. Junior co-workers will start to notice if the person volunteering to help them constantly complains about the burden, even if it is behind their back.

The remedy for this bitter insincerity is further self-examination. If we choose to do something, let’s choose it wholeheartedly, and remain mindful of how it affects others. If you’re in a job you don’t like, I feel sorry for your co-workers as much as for you, because I’ll bet they know it. If you give me a hand with something, you’d better want to or it isn’t worth it to me.

While visiting my family a few weeks ago, I had lots of grand plans and various others joined in, especially my youngest sister. She had other projects going on, and I tried to accommodate this by setting later start times on our day trips. But for our second excursion, she asked, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to leave the house until noon? Because you said we could leave a bit later yesterday, and I think you got stressed it wasn’t enough time on the trip.’

I appreciated her calling me out on this. I don’t want to be that person who offers something but then fails to maintain graciousness. I will keep trying to avoid that. It helps when someone else forces me to be honest about my intentions and needs—like my youngest sister, like my friend in high school.

So if I complain about something I’m doing, please remind me it was my choice. Maybe I’ll be brave enough to do the same for you if necessary.

Changing It Up

This Week’s Bit of String: New brake pads

The only car I ever bought was a used Ford Contour, back in New Hampshire (in Britain the model is called the Mondeo). I named her Shellby, inspired by her pearlescent sandy colour. But despite her shimmering finish, she was, to quote Stephen Moffat’s show Coupling, “a buffet of improvability.”

I had to get Shellby new brake pads in the middle of a spectacularly cold winter. Secretly I hoped that while ensuring I could actually stop my car, the garage might happen to fix other things: the door that didn’t open, the window that didn’t close, the inability to play music out of both speakers or get more than fifty miles on a tank if I put the heating on in 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Post-blizzard car, with snow almost to the top of the hood/ bonnet.
Poor old Shellby. I guess I can’t blame her for getting broken by winters like this.

Of course, new brake pads meant new brake pads and nothing more. But I still like to imagine fixing one thing will magically repair everything else. I go to the doctor hoping that getting rid of my third crippling cough in half a year will also disappear the side pain I wake up with every morning and the way the bones in my big toe don’t seem to fit together correctly anymore.

Changing the Story

When we churn out a story, I think we usually sense whether it works or not. Often it doesn’t, and while we can tell what’s wrong with it, we aren’t sure how to fix it. If we knew we would have written it better in the first place, right?

It would be nice if we could fix it by deleting or inserting a single element. But a story is (or should be) a tight conglomeration. Characters, plot, setting, theme, voice, everything wind intricately together, interdependent. It’s not like a car or a body where yes, it’s ideal if it all works together, but different bits do carry out different functions.

A story should be streamlined, speeding straight for the heart.

So when something’s wrong, it’s hard to fix without having to unpick everything else too, and that’s overwhelming. It’s cruel enough making us cut bits out; having to invent completely new bits is nearly beyond the pale. Recently one of my stories was rejected from a magazine, with the feedback that it was very well-written and engrossing—until the end. Put a twist in it, the editor said.

But the whole story is a twist, I thought. The point of view is a twist. I wondered if I could sneak a few sentences in here and there, a couple of details to emphasise the protagonist’s transformation.

I can’t shake the worry that something more fundamental is missing, so although I was proud of the story and the successes it had already, I haven’t found the courage—or time—to revisit it.

Change in Routine

My husband’s taken over the ironing recently, leaving me a bit of time on my hands—and, even better, more headspace. When I was ironing, I’d watch videos to entertain myself. Then I’d sit and finish watching whatever I’d started, sometimes for an hour. Now, instead of turning on YouTube, I write. I’m averaging 2-3 novel pages per day.

Wading in a New Hampshire river.
A clear river or lake, as everyone knows, Is the correct place for the bones in your toes.

Once you realise you can write between two and three pages each day while keeping your family relatively occupied and working full-time and even with your toe bones in the wrong place, then you might believe you can write three pages every day. Or maybe three-and-a-half. Or four, each day!

I’ve glimpsed these horizons before, when I wrote earlier in the year about developing writing habits, thanks to Writers HQ. But back then I still had to do all the ironing. The possibilities now are endless. Knowing my brain works well enough to churn out novel pages makes me think I might have it in me even to tackle that allegedly flat-endinged story of mine.

No Change Too Small
Graffiti on a back door in Bristol: "I hope, therefore I am."
Bristol back-door wisdom

I just finished Rebecca Solnit’s glorious little volume, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She reminds us that a movement unsuccessful in one part of the world can inspire one elsewhere that manages greater impact. Or a failed historical effort can germinate later and take root. By fighting for one thing, we never know what others will be affected.

Bearing in mind how all things could relate to absolutely anything else and remembering that uncertainty means potential rather than chaos, I can revisit my rejected story. “People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end,” observes Solnit. Maybe I’ve been too hasty concluding some stories, and I should explore additional What Ifs.

There’s a necessary balance between preparedness to take on big changes, and contentment with recognising small ones. Whether we’re trying to improve a story, juggle work and family more smoothly, or take on the whole world as activists, we must continue our efforts whether we see obvious results or not. Solnit warns us against striving for perfection. “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” So even without a definite improved ending in mind, I could tinker with a few lines as I’ve already reconsidered, and ideas for more effective changes may follow.

Have you discovered any magic fixes for stories (or life)? What’s your method for coping with the times when no miracle appears? Sometimes changing one thing leads to other things falling in place. Celebrate the small victories, people; we never know where they’ll lead.

 

 

Writing: A Family Affair

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

Beside a small but deep New Hampshire lake, opposite heavily forested hills framing each sunset, there’s a family resort with rustic woodland cabins, and a neighbouring converted farmhouse. That’s where I grew up—my parents rented part of the farmhouse, while my mother worked at the Lodge.

The lake and woods provided constant entertainment, but we were also fed a rich diet of stories and music. Bible stories, fairy tales, chapter books such as Heidi, Charlotte’s Web, The Borrowers, and more. I remember my father explaining A Midsummer Night’s Dream to me, very animated over who loves whom, his massive volume of Shakespeare’s works open tantalisingly between us when I was about three years old.

My parents also told us what went on in the world. Oppression in the USSR, famine in Africa, the Challenger. No matter how young we were, they couldn’t keep from us all the things that moved them.

Paddling toward the sunset on our favourite lake.
That’s what I’m talking about.

We saw our first musical when I was five, a Prescott Park outdoor production in Portsmouth. It was The Music Man, and we were enchanted that song could be integral to storytelling. Add to that my dad’s devotion to Grateful Dead and other similar groups; we knew no topic was too big or small to warrant a song.

From all these sources, flocks of what ifs fluttered through our minds. Every time we packed to visit my grandparents, my sister and I pretended we were orphans escaping a workhouse. We created fortresses between cabins, looting junk piles for crockery and defensive chicken wire. During the off-season, Mom walked us through the woods, imagining we had to sneak past a different Disney villain at each cottage. Our stuffed animals served as characters when we acted out the Chronicles of Narnia and other dramas.

I don’t remember many limits proscribed to our ideas. It’s only fair; if you ensure your child knows all about crucifixion as a pre-schooler, you can’t really criticise them for occasionally manifesting morbid fascinations.

When I was about four, my mother let me use her typewriter to write stories. I never finished, unable to come up with a satisfactory ending (a problem which sometimes persists). But I was given space to try, mentally and practically.

So it wasn’t that surprising, while I planned my annual, too-brief visit to New Hampshire this summer, that my dad suggested, “What if we had a literary festival of our own, in our family?”

And lo, the First Annual Short Stuff Showcase came to pass.

More Than Stories

We moved away from the lake almost thirty years ago. But for a few glorious days last week we converged in its cottages, holding our Short Stuff Showcase in front of Playwood, the little recreational cabin that has witnessed many a ping pong tournament and rainy day video session.

It was the first time some of our partners saw our childhood home, and we were accompanied by my sister’s boyfriend’s family. His brother-in-law joined in with a striking poem about raising children to love a fearsome world, especially poignant as his toddler climbed around him with a heart-melting grin.

Homemade posters for the Short Stuff Showcase
Not to be missed.

We opened with a trumpet-mouthpiece fanfare from my musician husband, who also contributed along with several others by keeping the small children occupied.

The programme continued with a variety of pieces from each of us: humorous and profound, original and recreated. My youngest sister enacted her favourite fairy tale with our old Cabbage Patch dolls, and my sister-in-law led us on the emotional roller coaster that was her diary from the summer she was ten.

My mother shared a song to convey her hope and faith for us, while my brother wrote a wonderful rhyme about establishing inner peace that can be reflected in art. I read out one of my lighter stories, “The Honorary Mothers League,” wanting to make everyone laugh. My dad mixed it up by both reading a silly song and then speaking about his appreciation for my mother.

At sixteen, my son might have been forgiven for eschewing the event, but the moment I’d mentioned it to him, he responded, “I’m in.” We’d discussed various ideas he could build on, and the night before, as we gathered round the hearth in our cabin, he scribbled a highly inventive tale about a bullfrog, a meerkat, and a crumple-horned snorkack. It was fun and also somewhat meta, defying the fourth wall.

Photo of us four children, across the street from the lake.
The Dream Team: 4 kids and a lake. I’m the one with the teeth. They’re better now.

My other sister had composed a poem about how we ourselves are the showcase, more than any small piece we produce, putting into beautiful verse a feeling that had warmed me throughout our gathering.

Living for a few years in an idyllic setting doesn’t equate to a completely idyllic childhood, and we’ve all had serious trials. There were plenty of instances, as we got older, when I’m sure our modes of self-expression caused our parents much more consternation than when I was four, pecking out a tale of a girl escaping a wolf.

And yet here we were, with beloved partners and children, with jobs we’re passionate about and the confidence to share. Our abilities to communicate and express ourselves through writing, and to empathise with others’ stories, have been indispensable bringing us to this point. We are the showcase.

Passing the Torch

When we weave stories, the ultimate tapestry will be partially comprised of bits of string stored since we were very small.  I’ve already passed a bizarre combination of music, film, literature, cuisine, and holiday traditions to my son, and he’s freely adapted it. He must barely have been in school when we got him a binder to keep all his different story beginnings in.

Checking in at the Twittersphere, I found a few writer friends had much less family support than I did. Some families see writing as a futile or worthless endeavour. I’m impressed by people who overcome that initial discouragement to devote themselves to a pursuit that doesn’t frequently offer encouraging results.

On the other hand, the historian and writer Christine Caccipuoti Tweeted that her family was supportive “1000%. They had a policy of never saying no if I asked to buy books (as opposed to toys), allowed me to stay up all night if I was writing, left me alone to do so when I asked, and fostered my love of acquiring pretty notebooks to write in.” Fantastic, I could use that kind of support as an adult. How did your early childhood and family culture contribute to your writing life?

For more tips about supporting kids to become writers, there are a couple of articles here and here. There could be a Short Stuff Showcase in your future, too!

Undimmed By Human Tears

This Week’s Bit of String: Plastic cutlery at hotel breakfasts

First morning in a Bloomington, Minnesota hotel. I’d been looking forward to this five-night stay: I wouldn’t even have to make my own bed! Already I’d run 4 miles on a treadmill in the fitness centre, and I was ready for my share of American plenty.

Breakfast smelled good; coffee and fruit and syrup, and the crank of the waffle iron sounded as well as the splutter of juice and cereal dispensers. But as our family negotiated the buffet, we found only paper plates and plastic cutlery to eat it with, and no receptacle to dispose of these things but the nearly full trash bins.

Endless criss-crossing hallways of Mall of America, Minnesota
Thine alabaster cities gleam… Mall of America

With about 100 rooms in the hotel, the three bins in the dining area would fill up more than once in the course of the morning. That’s a lot going to the landfill, especially as kids sampled everything from the buffet and hastily threw out the bits they couldn’t be bothered with.

On top of this, the hotel and even the rental car company persistently offered ‘free’ bottled water. In the midst of a heatwave, air conditioning units ran full throttle and few pedestrians walked Bloomington’s wide plethora of highways and sand-coloured routes. The roads were lined with massive office buildings and hotels, many with their own fountains and escalators. And shops. Massive Targets and any other shop you can imagine—even with alternative branches of the same shops in the Mall of America a couple quick exits along the freeway.

So much stuff—who buys it, who has space for it? How quickly is it thrown out to make room for something more? This level of consumption and waste can’t be sustained. For goodness’ sake, America, what are you thinking?

Confirm Thy Soul in Self-Control

I assume this lifestyle stems from corporate attempts at moneymaking, which officials across party divides seem to hold as the highest ideal.  The hotel wants to save on equipment and staff costs. Coca-Cola wants to peddle Dasani, which though scandalised and pulled from the market after just five weeks in the UK, is ubiquitous in the more accepting US. None of this should shock me.

Examining it honestly, what shocked me was how easily I convinced myself to go along with it. It’s just for a few days. My normal week consists of 11-hour stints out of the house for work every single day, writing or editing diligently on the bus, then managing laundry and food prep and cleaning the second I walk in the door at home. Surely taking a holiday could entail a mental, even a slight moral holiday as well?

White Mountain view from the summit of Mt Osceola
For purple mountains majesty…White Mountains, New Hampshire

Because waste and how we respond to materialism is a moral issue. It affects vulnerable beings and it influences larger habits. Instant gratification and material excess are staunchly defended, even encouraged, here; we invented the phrase retail therapy and were exhorted to continue with it even during the pursuit of very expensive military campaigns on two fronts in the Middle East.

America being a large nation full of juxtapositions and surprises, the allowances disappear the second a woman becomes pregnant in many states. Likewise, the constant amassing of assets is not available to impoverished persons from other nations, even those whose governments and economic stability were constantly jeopardised by the American need for cheap fruit.

A Thoroughfare of Freedom Beat

Self-serving agendas go way back in this country. In 1776, American ‘Founding Fathers’ decided against ending slavery, to mollify Southern colonies and Northern businesses, keep the states unified, and kick the British out. Thereby, these heroes scrapped independence for all in favour of independence for some.

Mrs. Spokescow lobbies for voting rights in a Ben & Jerry's factory display
Above the fruited plain…Ben & Jerry’s Factory, Vermont

I understand they genuinely believed their actions benefited more [relevant] people than they harmed. They felt they had the right, a moral duty in fact, to begin a nation that would serve as a beacon to others. No other democracies existed yet, not even fledgling ones. If they hadn’t ignored slavery and banded together to fight for freedom, monarchies might have flourished forevermore.

America’s history is littered with compromise: railroads built by overworked immigrants, industrial revolution on the backs of child labour, draconian Homeland Security measures to reduce terrorism, mass production that disregards environmental and animal welfare…That’s a lot of bending from a pillar of morality; a lot of cowardice from the home of the brave.

A lot of us have done pretty damn well out of these questionable practices. Progress comes with sacrifices, but will there be a point when the sacrifices are ours rather than someone else’s?

Crown Thy Good

As I said, surprises abound here. Despite the breakfast utensils at my hotel, efforts to recycle are truly widespread (so if people in the UK are still using America’s wastefulness as an excuse not to recycle, themselves—grow up and own your own bad habits!)

In fact, recycling in the USA continues despite certain obstacles. China, a major re-manufacturer of recycled materials, is clamping down on contamination in what it receives, so recycling companies are scrambling to accommodate this. We can help by ensuring that we recycle only what’s recyclable: no crinkle cups like those red Solo ones (or Dunkin Donuts ones, I expect), and no food takeaway containers. It’s known as ‘wishcycling’ when we contaminate the actual recyclables this way, and I suspect it’s rife in the UK as well as the US. This Colorado Public Radio article reminds us how we can enable recycling companies to do their job.

Big fish made of plastic waste
From sea to shining sea… Como Zoo, Minnesota

It’s nice we want to recycle rather than waste. But what we should really do is reduce the disposables we use in the first place. The UK and Europe have made great steps to cut down on plastic straws and grocery bags. The US is catching on too; not just in ‘liberal’ coastal areas but in places thought to be conservative. Here’s an article in the Des Moines Register (from the rural midwestern state of Iowa) about cutting down on straw use in cafes. We’re in this together.

And this can only improve with innovative campaigns that bring the dangers of waste to the public’s attention. Consider the Art to Save the Sea exhibit at the Como Zoo and Botanical Gardens in St. Paul, Minnesota: every big sculpture is made of pieces of plastic waste washed up on the Pacific coast.

Till Selfish Gain No Longer Stain the Banner of the Free

Beyond consciously fighting our wastefulness, we could try fighting our stereotypes about others and accept personal responsibility for ourselves. (Er…especially when we’re not on holiday.) America just had a birthday, and this first, experimental democracy is still not very old. Back in my home region of New England, a recent theatre project put on the show 1776, which tells of compromises made while writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. With their production, they actively spurred discussion and drew attention to truths about our founding.

Memorial to Thomas E. Burnett, Jr, who gave his life on Sept 11, 2001 intercepting the hijackers on Flight 63. His last known words were, "We're going to do something."
Who more than self their country loved…Memorial at the Mall of America

At our White Mountains campsite, a truck-sized trailer of white people practised swordfighting and rode bikes. A Latino group played with each other’s hair and chatted; an Asian group threw an American football around and fished for trout and cooked rice in an enormous Instant Pot using the bathroom socket. One tiny, adorable girl broke away from their party to talk earnestly to me in a language I didn’t understand. This country continues to learn and integrate.

Let’s remember these things when some people are cross about how the national anthem is sung, some people don’t want to bake others a cake, and indeed some people are upset about cakes not being baked for them…Let’s stop and remember that we DO have it pretty good, at the cost of countless, invisible Others. Let’s consider what it’s like for people who are genuinely oppressed in parts of the world (sometimes as a result of American economic or defense policy). Then can we sacrifice from our own entitlements—perhaps not pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour,” but at least being thoughtful enough to calm each other down?

 

Note: Headings and captions use lyrics from “America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates, obtained from this page, which, in yet another example of American juxtaposition, links at the bottom to a detailed history of Taylor Swift and Kanye West’s interactions.