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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.

 

 

 

Where the People Are

This Week’s Bit of String: Three kids and a saw

Visiting my parents’ New Hampshire town several summers ago, my husband and I wandered down the pre-re-vitalised Main Street. In front of a once fine, colonial-style house now leaning and peeling, a little boy stood barefoot on the drive, twirling a rusted coping saw. Two small girls watched from the weedy front lawn, their expressions grave.

A scrawny mum in a nightdress shouted at them to get inside and watch TV. My husband and I exchanged looks. Were these the Small Town Values politicians always banged on about?

Trees at dawn, towering over traffic lights
The Leafy Suburbs.

What bothers me about the Small Town Values spiel isn’t that it writes off the city as immoral; morality is irrelevant. (How dull would our writing be if everyone were moral?) It’s that it abets the impression that small towns are idyllic places where nothing bad ever happens. It minimises the challenges faced by those living there.

It’s the same on this side of the ocean. I worked in one of the biggest secondary schools in a large county, but our school was populous mainly because it drew on twenty-something ‘feeder’ primary schools, some from very small towns. Government inspectors seemed dismissive of our students’ issues because we were based in ‘the leafy suburbs.’

However, our area is also classed as one of ‘rural deprivation,’ with an exceptionally high incidence of substance abuse and mental disabilities. These places are still riddled with real people, living hard stories.

Finding the Ideas

In my writing, I like setting longer projects in small towns, or at least not very big cities. Yes, my life experience has been gained there, but also it’s easier to tie threads together. You get added layers when your characters already know each other, or at least pass each other by with some regularity.

Blackboard outside pub reading: Vacancy, Customers Required...
Also the Leafy Suburbs.

For shorter projects, though, the city is magic. Every person is a puzzle, and the way they brush by creates a range of potential interaction. It’s easy to find surprising juxtapositions: A mobile lingerie fitting shop setting up next to some well-jacketed, buttoned-up Jehovah’s witnesses and their pamphlets. A vegan Indian food stall next to one selling leather goods. Everyone is a stranger and capable of surprise; a twist here can easily be summed up in a sentence or a symbol.

I’m currently reading Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin’s tribute to women who don’t just explore the city, but absorb it. I picked this book up inspired by a recent Women Writers Network Twitter chat (see other great recommendations here) about women writing the city. Our reasons for celebrating this are best summed up by Sarah Waters in The Paying Guests. “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she walked, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments–these moments when, paradoxically, she was at her most anonymous.”

It’s possible that the more our selves diminish, the more our surroundings gain stature, free to sow new ideas.

With their relentless array of sights and sounds, urban areas are perfect for very short, or “flash” fiction. A flash piece is a kernel of story, minute and representative of possibility. The best ones are so tightly packed, you can’t unfurl them without damage. All you can do is peer at the coiled layers from the outside, maybe roll it on your tongue to taste the bitter or the sweet, never daring to crunch.

Bristol Flash Walk

I recently had a piece featured in Bristol’s Flash Walk, an event with flash fiction stories read at different points between the Harbour and Bedminster. All provided fascinating, quick glances into city encounters—past, actual, or merely longed-for. We strained over traffic and alarms and rivers and inquisitive children to hear each story, and this added to the excitement.

Bristol Harbour reading
Actor Christopher Ryan reads “The Prodigal” in the iconic Bristol Harbour, with Colston Tower in the background.

My contribution hovered dangerously near the maximum word count of 400 and was called “The Prodigal,” about the famous slave trader/ Bristol benefactor Colston. The opening line launches right in: “When Edward Colston revisited the city of his birth some three hundred and eighty years later, he saw his name etched blood-red across the sky.

After the reading, which met with great laughter and applause at the right places, my husband asked me, “So where did Colston appear from? The afterlife?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You don’t have to, with flash fiction.” I could be totally wrong about this. But to me, that’s what suits flash fiction to city writing. You don’t have to look too deeply because something else comes along. I don’t know if I could finish a long project based in a city; I’d become distracted, I’d sink beneath the weight of all the what-ifs.

Escape to the Country

I tend to leave a city with a handful of kernels as well as some possible story-seeds. If I transplant a person or scenario from a more populous area to a smaller town or to a rural spot, it has room to grow. I can also gain a little control over other affecting factors and narrow down plot ideas.

Tail to tail, the swans fortify their nest.
“No luck hatching them swans, then?”

When I polled Twitter, more than half respondents (58%) said countryside wanders were better than city ones for gathering ideas. I love the countryside, but I often need an idea already germinating in my mind for these hikes to be fruitful in terms of story development.

I just can’t invent things without people to base them on. Though it’s lovely walking with no one else around, I find myself assigning human psychology to my surroundings anyway. The other day on a canal walk, I wondered if the young swan families at different points along the journey receive news of each other. Does Mrs. Stratford Park Swan know she’s the last one waiting for her eggs to hatch? Do Mr. and Mrs. Dudbridge Swan know the Eastington cygnets are only just learning to dive, and that the group has dwindled to 4? And do any of them know the whereabouts of the missing Ebley Swans? I imagined cunning mallards passing these tidbits on. Possibly trading gossip for a prime beakful of algae.

I don’t know if this shows a lack of imagination in me, or a surplus of projection. But this is how I tend to work: tugging bits of string out from the city and puttering with them in as close to the wilderness as I can find. Or, in my daily smaller-town life, suddenly realising that the customer or bus passenger I keep seeing is a massive multicoloured spool of thread just waiting for my mind to get tangled in.

Minding Our Language

This Week’s Bit of String: Favourite swears

When I was thirteen and my youngest sister eight, she asked me, her eyes alight and eager, ‘What’s your favourite swear? Is it the f…u…c…k one?’

Even during a slightly rebellious phase, I didn’t swear for fun. I tend to swear when events leave me little recourse. Like when an amazing piece doesn’t make a competition longlist.

Back when I fielded my sister’s question, NYPD Blue was newish on the air. Blazing TV Guide editorials argued whether its use of the f-word was an appropriate reflection of the setting, or a symptom of the nation’s damnation. One letter compared the language on NYPD Blue to the moment in Gone With the Wind when Rhett Butler used the d-word.

Now GWTW is controversial for glossing over slavery, normalising marital rape, and glorifying the roots of the KKK. Not because a protagonist commented that he didn’t ‘give a damn.’ To me, this discloses a long habit of obsessing over language when the actual subject matter should be the issue.

A Tale of Two Comedians

Fast forward about 25 years (sheesh, 25 years!) and comedian Samantha Bee uses the c-word on cable TV. Is this just the progression of opening language barriers, from d- to f- to c-words? Is this one truly more grievous than other oft-used derogatory names for women that reduce us to a single body part?

Many have highlighted false equivalencies between this incident and Roseanne Barr’s recent racist tweet–the one about Valerie Jarrett, as there seem to be a few to choose from. It’s quite partisan. For every Roseanne I name, you can accuse a Samantha Bee. For every time I want to call out Ted Nugent or Scott Biao, right wingers may cite a rapper or pop star who bad-mouthed conservatives.

Large letters spelling out Woman, above a label: The Word.
The Word, Stroud: Right up one of our main streets, it changes regularly. Last week it was fuck. Before that it was suck. I’m not sure the significance of the teapots, either.

Trump—Weinstein. Deplorable—Libtard. It’s like tennis, but (to borrow a phrase from Four Weddings and a Funeral) with much smaller balls.

Let’s call the whole thing off. We can’t call it even, because having someone who says a bad word on one side isn’t the same as having a number of white supremacists on the other. Still, can’t we admit human beings are prone to loss of temper and excesses of vulgarity? It’s not about saying there are ‘good people on both sides,’ but we need to remember there are, in fact, people on both sides and stop reducing political opponents to animals or lady parts. We need to weigh the substance of those people’s message rather than the language it’s couched in.

What’s in a [Rude] Name

It’s perhaps unexpected, a writer’s blog suggesting we ignore words. Of course we spend a lot of time finding the exact right ones, and I get quite dorky about which are correct and preferable.

For example, I checked out some of these terms on EtymOnline (oh, my poor browser history…) In the 1300s, the c-word was a medical term for female anatomy, thought to come from pre-Latin words meaning hollow place, slit, or sheath. Not very flattering, but I’m unconvinced it’s more insulting than less reviled terms.

What about the relatively uncensored word whore, you ask? Its roots are early German, meaning ‘one who desires.’ This jolted me when I read it, because I’m working on a novel about Eve. Part of her curse was to desire her husband, who would then have dominion over her. Eve is basically characterised in the Bible as One Who Desires, and as Western religion assumes all women inherit Eve’s curse, all women are whores. How convenient.

It gets worse, too. The word seems to have sharpened its meaning by taking in a later German masculine term for adultery, and then a middle English word for filth. If all that injustice makes you want to swear, I won’t judge.

These aren’t the only words people haven’t delved fully into. Idiot used to be a disparaging clinical term for the mentally challenged, and berk is short for the Cockney rhyming slang equating to the c-word itself—yet it’s used in completely different contexts, even popping up in the Harry Potter series.

Unless we all want to look properly at the words we use, there’s not much point assigning a random few so much importance in the media.

When No Other Word Will Do

I turned to Twitter to see if other writers might disagree and assign swears more power than I do. But like me, whether for or against using them, no one had feelings so pervasive they wished to convert anyone else. Here are a few answers:

If I believe the character would swear, the character swears. I like to think my characters dictate their language to me.—historian, writer and actor Christine Caccipuoti

Painted on a wall beneath tall office buildings
Deeds not Words, at the Bearpit in Bristol

Some characters would sound false (to me!) if they said ‘oh dear’ or ‘oh god’ or anything else… Who decided these words were bad anyway?Jennifer Riddalls, copywriter and Writers Forum Flash Fiction winner 2017

What comes out of your mouth reveals what’s inside your heart / mind / soul, but I’m currently writing a story in which characters swear (a bit) because of who they are and the extremity of the situations.—Fantasy writer Marcus Bines, published in the Shadows of the Sea anthology

Even if I didn’t write YA I wouldn’t swear in my writing. I think it’s unnecessary but doesn’t bother me to read swear words in books. There are plenty of synonyms that work just fineKelsey Atkins, author of the YA fantasy series Finding the Light

I try to choose stronger words and rely on physical descriptions and reactions to convey strong emotions. —Literary fiction writer and Insecure Writers’ Supporter George R McNeese

I go by the same rule as I do for similes and metaphors. Once a page, tops, and only if you must. personally I find similes and metaphors far more offensive than a good swear…! —short story phenomenon and photographer Jason Jackson

In my current piece on William Morris in Iceland, the decision was already made for me: Morris was well known for his temper and swearing.Laurie Garrison, Founder of the vital Women Writers School

I enjoy a well-timed swear myself. It’s part of the joy of language.Alex Clark, Writers HQ rep and Cheltenham Flashers Club founder

Sometimes it’s more like a spoken punctuation rather than actual words —scifi and fantasy writer Mark Huntley-James

All words are permitted in proper context. Trust your reader.—Stephen Hines

Words are words and they are there to be used. However, on the page they can be a distraction and too many can ruin a good piece of writing. So I am selective but I use ALL of them.–Stephen Tuffin,  flash fiction author and writing lecturer who’s been known to give students a class on ‘Choosing Your Fucks Carefully.’

I respect writers who try to use words other than curses. It sometimes feels like a cheat, doesn’t it, to use a single, often body function-related word to encompass a grave situation? On the other hand, there are a lot of characters who will swear. And to all of us, the characters are paramount, not the language they happen to use.

In the end, words are just tools to chisel our characters. They’re the clothes we dress a story in to send it out to the world. We mustn’t get distracted by them. Let’s mind immigrant children alone in detention centres, plastics going in our oceans, racism in our institutions, intolerance in universities, hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, social anxiety in our kids, and guns going into our schools. Let’s mind all that, and let the language go where it must.

 

Making Hay

This Week’s Bit of String: Do the books make the town or does the town make the books?
Murder and Mayhem bookshop, with a hound painted on the front.
Check out this crime story bookshop!

The bus wound past hills dripping buttercups into golden meadow pools at their feet, and past chomping sheep, unabashedly sheeplike and not the least bit sheepish. I disembarked beneath the castle ruins in Hay-on-Wye. As I made my way through busy, merry little streets, I saw at least one bookshop on each.

I camped on the other side of the Wye, about a mile from the festival site, so for each event I crossed through town. Guitar players lounged outside cafes and pubs, the queue for the sheep’s milk ice cream parlour outlined the market square,

Stand offering notebooks with covers salvaged from old hardbacks and record albums.
Rebound Books. I’d take them all!

and a man with his inebriated accomplice tried to sell anti-religion t-shirts to a polite elderly couple. The local Big Issue seller wore a scuba diving suit in the rain, and sheep-shagging costume in the hot sun.

Houses on the Brecon Road to the festival got in on the game, hiring vending trucks or just selling packages of biscuits and copies of the Guardian. One stand offered wonderful notebooks made from vintage hardcovers. A church set up a facepainting marquee and chatted to visitors about their stories, sending them off with free books about faith. Another stand offered poems and prints thereof for sale.

Flowers in one of the festival courtyards
At the festival

The festival itself was a network of baize walkways and shining white marquees around courtyards of sun loungers and fairy lights.

With all this scenery to take in, I barely wrote a word during my weekend away. It’s tricky to balance time spent absorbing writing material while actually striving to write it down…or is that just me?

Books for Activists, Activists for Books

The first talk I attended was about finance. Partly to challenge myself, but mostly because Marcus Brigstocke co-hosted it. His frank, laid-back humour was evident as he interviewed a professor on the financial industry. David Pitt-Watson reminded us the financial sector uses our money, and we should make our wishes known to it. He suggests write to pension funds and other companies we may be invested in, to insist our money is in ethical causes, such as green energy.

The Poetry Bookshop
I bought The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah here from his former agent who knows him well.

Late that evening I came to Benjamin Zephaniah’s talk about his new autobiography. He exuded utter delight, dreadlocks swishing as he gifted us his rhymes. He says he created many of his poems out of anger, at racism and poverty. But he didn’t seem angry in the slightest. Maybe just for that night, because he was there at Hay with an enormous, rightly appreciative audience. Or maybe creating those poems helped dispel the anger somewhat while still adding fuel to his activism.

Hearing Voices

After a stormy night, I hiked various paths between England and Wales, coming to shelter from the downpour under a town centre marquee where a group of men sang sea shanties. Back at the festival in the afternoon, I got the most delicious smoothie of my life and attended an Ian McEwan interview. On getting story ideas, Mr. McEwan says, ‘I’ll hear an inner voice, and like the cadence of it, and want to find out who’s speaking.’

Dresses and flowers made of book pages and sheet music
A charity shop reflects the bookish theme with its page art.

I wonder if he ever finds the voices are giving a brief diatribe or vignette rather than a full story. That happens to me sometimes. Do I need to be more intrepid in tracking them?

Still, the incredibly successful novelist’s passion for finding out about characters was reflected, somewhat askew, in Jim Broadbent’s interview later. Intriguingly, the actor devised a plot for a graphic novel called Dull Margaret, based on a painting by Bruegel the Elder. This was recently brought to life by Dix, an illustrator for the Guardian. I was struck by Mr. Broadbent’s relaxed approach to story-writing, paraphrased here:

Big screen surrounded by cutouts of leaves and plants in an event marquee.
One of the busy festival venues

Audience member: So is the need for love, is that the message of the book?
Jim Broadbent: Message? Yes, I suppose it might be. It’s just the story, you know.
Another Audience member: Graphic novels are popular with young adults. Are they your target audience, or who is the ideal reader you had in mind?
Jim Broadbent: (Smiling) Well, me. I was ready to read it.

He was obviously very taken with his character, a mistreated woman who tries to get her own back. If only that passion for character were enough to get the rest of us published. Or are we just not quite sufficiently mad about ours?

Defining Poets

I went to Simon Armitage’s lecture on Bob Dylan’s Nobel for ‘creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ He assessed Dylan’s lyrics as less-than-spectacular poetry. But perhaps, he suggested,

Brick house on the Wye River
Would I get more writing done in this house, or would the river lure me constantly away?

Dylan’s ability to reinvent himself, his individual language and spontaneity, were a liberating influence. ‘The problem with sticking it to the man,’ Armitage remarked, ‘is that the more successful you become at it, the more you are the man.’

For the final evening in Hay I listened to a reading of WWI poet Wilfred Owen’s letters and work, stunningly presented by festival founder Peter Florence. I had no idea how raw and ahead-of-his time these were. And Owen underwent such a transformation. Initially he wrote to his mother that he didn’t wish to go to war, that he could serve the country better alive than dead, thanks to the spring of verse welling within. In the end he insisted he return to the front even after a head injury because the war made him a true poet.

Grand facade of the Richard Booth bookshop
Books from around the world! I bought a maths one to bring home to my son, about ancient counting systems and the concept of infinity.

It’s sad in a way, that he was right, that he is known as a ‘War Poet.’ But it was an incredibly important role. It makes me wonder what makes us artists. Is it our art’s substance (which largely is foisted upon us; the residue of past experience or that ‘inner voice’ appearing from nowhere) or the form we work to give it?

Look at Hay, though. A beautiful, hill-guarded town with lots of old streets intact and the Wye alongside it—yet it’s reinvented itself as a book and festival town, and that’s what brings most of us there. I seriously recommend it.

Writing in the Wild

This Week’s Bit of String: Faux cave paintings and hilltop views

“So what sorts of things do you write?”

Do you dread this question like I do? I’ve learned to summarise individual novels I’m writing, to develop extra-short hooks and elevator pitches. But describing my entire work, from plays to novels to flash fiction, from speculative fiction to mythology-based to contemporary settings—that’s hard.

I find myself saying, “Oh, I sort of focus on people, family relationships… life, really.”

Paintings and pages and sketches laid out over the tables at the Arts Centre
All our work on display at the Arts Centre

Last Friday I joined an Art-Making Walk around the nearby town of Wotton-Under-Edge, kindly invited by the sculptor Martin Clarke, co-chair of Under the Edge Arts. Three miles in the hills, 6 stops along the way. At each stop, participants got fifteen minutes to create a piece of art.

The walkers were primarily artists, rendering scenes in pencil or paint, a couple venturing into brief verse. The first person I met was local artist Nicky Hill, who’s come out with her own illustrated children’s book boasting loads of vibrant animal characters. Check out her page to see her wonderful paintings.

For this event, I didn’t trust my brain to kick into gear six separate times inventing new scenarios for each location. So I’d invented a character, devised some backstory, and brought her along with me. It would be easier, surely, to make each stop an episode in her story.

Sign commemorating the trees on Wotton Hill.
Site 1: Wotton Hill

Our first location was a windy hill crowned by a fenced cluster of trees—the originals were planted to commemorate Waterloo. We all found those first fifteen minutes too quick. For me, I barely got my characters started. But the limitations forced us to be efficient.

En route to the next stop, an older lady with a felt flower on her hat posed The Question to me. I embellished my standard answer with, “Some of my stories are more far-fetched than others.”

Charcoal sketches of sun and wild animals on the rock face
Quarry art: Site 2

“Well, people are quite far-fetched,” she observed. “So of course their stories will be.”

Clearly I was in the right sort of crowd.

The second stop was a quarry,  one of the only sites I’d seen before. Quarry visitors, probably youths, had used charred sticks to decorate the rock face, not just with the usual pentagrams and melodramatic song lyrics, but also with cave painting-style art. I pictured one loner, maybe a somewhat dorky teen separating herself from the pack to create them. That previously gained image was instrumental in forming my character ahead of time.

Wild garlic lining the woodland path
Trekking to Site 3.

We hiked through the woods, surrounded by wild garlic blooms like fallen stars, to our third site. That’s where the fifteen-minute stops, surprisingly, started to get too long. I would jot down the bare bones of my character’s encounter or revelation for that setting, and have a few minutes left, so I’d keep waffling, wishing instead it was enough time to properly edit what I’d done.

The third stop was also where I met Edna. She was perhaps the eldest of our group, with the most difficulty walking—which only proved she was the most determined. She was very self-critical, but I liked her painting of the forest trees; their straight dark trunks criss-crossed with dashes of green leaves.

Materials arranged for work during our session in the clearing
Site 3: Coneygres

“I like how you captured the haphazardness of it,” I said.

She was pleased. “It’s encouraging when someone recognises what I’m trying to do. And it is haphazard, the springtime, isn’t it? That’s a good word. I think it’s absolutely delicious, all these greens.”

Delicious. I thought she’d hit on rather a good word, too. We journeyed to a new hillside lookout for our fourth stop, above a slope still bearing the terraces where monks tended vineyards centuries ago. Now, velvety-looking black cows and calves amble there.

Terraced hillsides
Site 4: Coombe Hill

One group member was primarily a photographer. I asked her how she got on at this stop. “Well,” she replied, “We’ve already done hilltop views, so I decided to take pictures of snails on cowpats, since it’s not something we usually think of.”

Makes sense to me.

Old stone house with rows of hedge garden
Site 5: Coombe House

Our fifth stop was a fine stone home with gardens in ‘shelves,’ as its artist owner described it. I sat with Edna and she asked, “What’s your story about? Is it sad?”

“It’s got sad bits, but it’s not all sad. It’s about life, you know?”

“Yeah.” The old woman nodded wisely. “It’s shit, isn’t it?”

I thought I must have misheard, but she clarified. “I mean, even if you’re filthy rich, I reckon life is a bit shit.”

There’s an excuse for “dark” writing, if anyone needs one.

Pony
Site 6: Holywell Leaze

Our final stop brought us to a picnicking area with neighbouring ponies sulky for attention. My character’s journey ended with the walk. I’d thought of a pivotal moment for each stop, taking my protagonist from preschool, to teen years (at the Quarry, of course), to university, engagement, the failing health of a parent, and then motherhood. The story might not be worth polishing, but it did make a complete first draft with a few salvageable parts.

Display of paintings and pages
Final installment of today’s story

I’d like to try the same sort of thing with maybe a better backstory or character; visiting select locations to represent different points in the plot. It’s a useful device, and I recommend it.

The writing, in the end, was rather like how we’d described people and spring and life throughout the day: sometimes far-fetched, sometimes haphazard and sad, and sometimes, yes, a bit shit. It’s not just me, is it?