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Why You Might Not Have Created Your Crisis-Time Masterpiece…Yet

This Week’s Bit of String: The case of the disappearing underwear

In a rapidly changing situation, every family has that one day when things kick off. For us it was last Friday, from the moment I tried to put on the clothes I laid out the previous night, but couldn’t find my knickers. I’d seen them seconds before. Had I picked them up and put them down somewhere weird? Had I hallucinated them in the first place?

That was how I realised I had a high fever. Quarantine started that instant; coughing started the next hour. By the evening we also had an injured guinea pig and were debating whether my husband should sneak out to the vet. In the midst of that the government cancelled exams and our son’s post-secondary education was suddenly over. All in one day!

This butterfly landed on my hand in the backyard. It can’t be all bad.

Viruses are like stories—they accelerate and encompass exponentially widening groups of people, sometimes in unexpected ways. It seems this strange time would inspire us in unexpected ways, too. Maybe eventually it will, but I’m guessing others have found, as I have, that lockdown hasn’t fostered creativity. Here are the reasons why.

Time

Woohoo, no more commute! Many of us are still fortunate enough to be busy with work-related activities for much of the day. Working from home gives me a maximum of two extra hours per day, which so far I’ve spent being sick/ looking after family who are sick. Plus, meal prep takes up about thirty times more hours than usual, because you can’t predict what supplies will be in the shops and indeed if you’ll be healthy enough to go get them.

A Story Surplus

A pandemic—great material, right? Only it’s different when it happens outside your head, when it’s all anyone talks about.

Signs of support

As writers, we’re often widely read. It’s part of our job. Far be it from us to turn away from the many personal testimonies shared. A 38-year-old dying alone in an NYC hospital while his mum’s critical in a different one, and no one can identify any other family to tell. Domestic abuse rates rising by 30-40% during lockdown. Grandparents sharing air-hugs with the grandkids they normally look after, from behind their front room windows. Single parents trying to work from home and keep young kids entertained and educated, small business owners wondering how they’ll keep their livelihoods, musicians selling off prized instruments so they can eat when their gigs are cancelled. What’s happened to the rough sleepers I usually give a couple of pounds to and chat with? How will the millions of people already displaced by war and poverty be protected from this disease?

The weighty reality can bog our imaginations down. Who are we to invent fiction in a time like this? How do we choose one thread from the massive tangle?

Grief

Here we are, taking in all the other stories, desperate to support frontline workers and victims of the virus. We see the many people who have it worse than us. It doesn’t make us feel better though, does it? We’re all separated from people we love and have had to relinquish plans we looked forward to.

In our normal lives we work hard for the weekend, and an upcoming city break, literary festival, camping trip, concert, evening at the pub, keep us going. Those are erased from our near future while laundry, office spreadsheets, hoovering, and tidying guinea pig cages have not been cancelled. Somehow we have to keep not only our own morale up but also our partner’s and kids’.

Grounded.

You know when you’re pitching a writing idea, you need a USP (Unique Selling Point)? At the moment, we each have our UAG, a Unique Angle of Grief. For me, as an immigrant, I don’t know how and when I’ll see my family again. What if something happens and I can’t get to them? Are happy summer visits already out of the question? It can be very lonely.

So Now What?

We’ve all written pieces in hard times before. We’ve created while kids (and/ or spouses) climbed up the walls, squeezing writing time in between many other obligations. We’ve used our stories to channel loss and pain before.

But if that’s not working now, it’s okay. Let’s admit we haven’t gained the time we thought we might, and rest when needed to keep our strength up. Let’s listen to others’ stories without ulterior motives of trying to spin it into fiction. Let’s acknowledge our own grief and see if, once we’ve allowed it space and voice, it might ultimately turn into something new.

If you’ve managed to find a whole new grip on things through this crisis, and have kept on writing words, please do share tips and success in the comments. If you’re struggling, and want to shout about your UAG, I’d love to listen to that too. Listening is the best I can do right now.

An Ideal Population

This Week’s Bit of String: Trouble at the border

Returning to Britain after a week abroad in 2012, I forgot to fill out a customs card. This invoked the wrath of immigration officers. ‘Remember, we can terminate your Indefinite Leave to Remain any time we want,’ snapped the lady who grudgingly allowed me back on the Small Island I’d inhabited for years.

Previously I’d thought of indefinite as permanent. Now it was more literal: the opposite of guaranteed. I was a teaching assistant then, working a demanding schedule with needy students, and volunteering extra time to run school fundraisers. I paid taxes, I recycled, stayed fit, kept a clean house and cared for my family, who are British citizens. This apparently meant nothing if I neglected a rote slip of paper.

These migrants photobombed my canal shot, but honestly they’ve enhanced it.

As the Windrush scandal continues, we see that duration of stay doesn’t protect immigrants from deportation, and as Brexit is enacted, residents from neighbouring nations face losing their homes, dismissed as low-skilled for being low-earners. It’s important to fight these changes for the sake of immigrants themselves, but also for natives.

Why doesn’t the government invest more in education, so that British people and immigrants alike can qualify for so-called higher-skilled jobs? The Conservatives have set £25,000 per year as the salary threshold for immigrants, presumably believing that constitutes a minimally comfortable salary. Shall we eagerly anticipate, then, that they’ll lean on the many businesses offering zero hours contracts and much lower salaries, to incentivise them paying their British employees better?

Measuring Up

There’s a new points system to determine who can stay, and if I were trying to join my husband in this country now, rather than 15 years ago, I’d score only 10 of the 70 required.

So I’m proposing my own points system. If I ran a country, here’s what could get you in:

10 points if you deliberately step around worms or snails on the puddly pavement.
5 points for each book or magazine, online or otherwise, you read or listen to in a month.
5 points for each handcrafted or locally-made product you buy in a month.
7 points for every extra (not native to you) language you speak.
25 points if you recognise it’s none of your business what noise your neighbours make, or what time they open their curtains, or whether they occasionally have a visiting vehicle parked outside.
10 points if you make sure to get your full daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
10 points if you give the local chippies and sweet shops thriving custom.
30 points if you can fold a fitted sheet and do your hospital corners.
30 points for knowing how to unblock a toilet or stop a leaking tap.
30 points for knowing how to turn, dress, and comfort a bedbound person.
30 points if you can carry on polite, informative conversation with an irate customer.
30 points if you can both listen and think on your feet enough to calm a panicking student.
25 points for an ability and enthusiasm to discuss important, pressing issues of the day.
25 points for an ability to generate lighthearted escapism, or an enthusiasm to consume it.
70 points if you’re the reason someone already living here gets up every morning.

Yes, 70 is still the required number of points. I’d probably want my country’s visa applicants to pass criminal checks and perhaps come with job references as well, although I wouldn’t be picky about which job, or about income level.

Gloucester Cathedral exhibit from GARAS, Gloucestershire Action of Refugees and Asylum Seekers

To whom would I forbid entry, were I in charge? Could I bear to? I allow pretty much anybody in my fictional worlds. In reality, we need all kinds of people. Those with varying talents and specialisms to fill different job roles, those from diverse cultures to add flavour to our own, those with different mental and physical abilities to ensure we have a caring society.

The criteria a nation imposes on its outsiders reflect what it values from its insiders. Devalue contributions from immigrants and there are vast swathes of natives who will also feel belittled. In my imaginary country, it’s different. Who wants to join?

Seven Wanders of 2019

I’m late with this roundup, on account of doing proper authorly things such as slicing 80,000 words out of a novel. As I transition to inventing new short stories, though, I’m looking back on various places I was privileged to visit, the street art found and historical moments memorialised. So much fuel for the imagination, gathered in just a year.

7: Vaxjo, Sweden

I know–what the where? Pronounced something like “veck-ya,” this is a small, eco-friendly lakeside city in southern Sweden. My son participated in a gaming event there, while my husband and I visited museums, a very old church, and sculpture trails. And rediscovered chokladbollar. There’s a special pride in discovering someplace unknown to most people.

6: Bristol

It makes the list every year, because I find more. This isn’t just due to the city’s size incorporating former towns around it, it’s also because of the constantly blooming arts scene, on street and off. This year I explored more in the Southville and Eastville areas (shoutout to the Writers HQ retreat located at the latter), and revisited Clifton.

5: Matara Centre, Cotswolds

We attended an Open Gardens day before many plantings came up, but this was still a fascinating walk. Different patches foster tranquility while saluting traditions from different parts of the world. It was like visiting lots of places at once.

4: Cascade Trail, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Bonus points for thunderstorming on us while we hiked. We ascended the waterfall trail and had a good splash, loving the views without realising we hadn’t even hit the biggest cascades yet. I say, DO go chasing waterfalls—especially in your first drafts! (Then dry off a bit during edits.)

3: Sorrento, Italy

Sorrento is a small but busy city an hour south of Naples, along the gorgeous, rugged coast. It’s got mountain views (including Vesuvius), olive groves up the slopes and citrus trees along the streets, lovely old stradones and domos, and of course, fantastic food. Just don’t overwork yourself beforehand then visit with slightly watered down flu.

2: Jurassic Coast, Dorset, UK

Fossils and waves. There had been recent landslides from the massive coastal cliffs, so I could scurry to the rockfall and grab a promising sample without chiseling. Even a fist-sized chunk of this coast is packed with fossilised sea creatures, and you can imagine the waves carrying in more surprises.

1: Glasgow, Scotland

With bagpipes ringing in our ears, we took in landmark buildings such as the cathedral and the Lighthouse (actually an architecture museum). There’s also a tenement house museum I’d love to see, to reflect on how so many people lived, and I could spend a whole day at the Necropolis and come up with probably half a dozen different stories.

What inspiring adventures have you had in the last year?

Not This Crude Matter

This Week’s Bit of String: A Prickly Tribute

The Clifton Suspension Bridge stands 245 feet above the Avon Gorge. Its piers are an additional 86 feet high, spiking the boundary between the elegant shops and houses and the rugged cliffs. We visited in cold sunlight this week, and took lots of striking pictures. But I keep going back to a photo of a cactus in a plastic pot, placed in a viewing platform corner.

View across the suspension bridge to the cliffs.
Impressive, right?

It was left next to a bouquet of alstroemerias, fleshy pink and still unwilted, a memorial of sorts. Although the bridge is walled and postered with suicide helpline numbers, desperate people will find a way to make the jump.

I’m picturing a surviving family member or partner or friend, piloting through shock at a Lidl supermarket, and grabbing the cactus. Maybe they wanted something hardy. Maybe flowers just wouldn’t do their lost loved one justice.

Cactus left by pier base.
Intriguing, right?

Often it’s a small, unexpected detail that triggers a short story, and not a big, well-known structure. But my focus has been on quite big things, so this was my first short story idea in a few months.

Last week I talked about rekindling a broader vision and protecting our creativity from the ravages of stress by reading more, and writing three thoughts each day. I’ve managed to do that, and my cactus find was just one thing sprouting in my notebook.

A Thicket of Thoughts

Inspiration is a hardier perennial than we realise, and it self-pollinates. I was so excited to remember I’m capable of having ideas, I went and found some more.

It’s not that I wasn’t having thoughts before. There were vicious novel edits, and my day job takes a fair bit of mental agility. Parenting and relationships require constant consideration. (Shout-out to stay-at-home artist parents because that strains creativity too.) Thoughts are tracks leading from A to B, though, whereas ideas lead to destinations unknown. When we’re always thinking, consumed by purpose, we lose imagination’s spontaneous joy.

As writers, we have an extra career. Every time we lift a pen or open a laptop, we envision our target audience and, you know, target them. I’ve always eschewed journalling as unmarketable and therefore unuseful. This argument becomes more persuasive the less time you have.

So taking time at the end of a full working/ parenting/ editing day to jot in a notebook is a big deal. And I’m enjoying it. It heightens my awareness during the day, because I’m looking for things to write down. On Friday I had to work through lunch, but during a loo break I found myself inventing collective nouns for our trickiest multi-site clients, and returned to my desk with a grin.

The Luminous Beings Project

Forcing myself to reflect allowed me to better process what I read and learned.

I went to a presentation on occupied Palestinian territories, held at a local church. It raised money for the Olive Tree Project, which sponsors plantings for agricultural workers who can’t get to their old farmland due to Israeli checkpoints and settlements. This gave me much to consider, as I’m from a culture extremely supportive of the Israeli government.

I read through the latest volume of the online publication Cabinet of Heed. Pop open a drawer here. I especially recommend Mary Grimm’s “When We Lived in the Mall.” Her description of bedding down in a bookstore earned a place in my Book Quotes notebook.

Christmas tree ornaments: Santa bell, Yoda, Chewbacca, snowflake, fuzzy reindeer
Of course we have Star Wars figures among the cherished family ornaments on our tree.

It was a busy week of festive activities. I observed a younger family through their little bow-tied 8-year-old’s first piano solo in a community concert, and listened to support workers chat as they wheeled elderly people past a poppy-festooned tree at a Christmas Tree Festival. I fit in novel edits too (I’m now over 20% through the novel, and have already excised 35K, which is almost half my word-cutting target, so that’s…promising).

With all this going on, I didn’t do much overtime this week. Sure, I’m way behind, but building up an artistic life to rival the office one helps me let that go. Listening to Christmas music when hiking to and from the office resets my brain a little. Here’s a favourite, beautiful Israeli lullaby “Elohai N’Tsoar” from Pink Martini’s Christmas CD.

Of course, there’s no complete cure for work stress. I just woke from an awful nightmare about the office. I found myself on two phone calls at once, an angry developer who did not know her maritime alphabet and was shouting random words to spell out the business name (“Suck! Cup!”) on one line, with a mega-meter-mixup on the other. And I needed to search our system for notes on either client, but the office was a huge kitchen, with the phones on the worktop and no computers in sight, only massive tubs of ingredients.

Where’s the system?” I asked my colleagues. “You know, like the Internet, where we…find things?

They brought me a vat of corn syrup. “Here, you find this in everything. Especially where you’re from, in America.

I know you find this in things, but we don’t find things in it. Guys, come on…

Wicked stressful. But I woke up so terrified by how wrong things were going in that office, it ensured I was distracting myself with my second job by 6:15 on a Sunday morning. Winning.

This project is about, as I mentioned earlier, rivalling the day job and other stresses since we can’t eliminate it. Enriching ourselves beyond the practical. Because I’m completely un-snobby about what stories I take in, I’ve been watching all the Star Wars films with my family before the new Episode 9 hits cinemas. Watching The Empire Strikes Back the other night, I was struck by Yoda’s line: “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

Folks, we have a project name. I hope you’ve found ideas to derail your thought tracks this week, and I hope you glow with pride at each inspiration snatched from the chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

An eye-opening experience. Street art in Derby

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

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

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

On My Way to Get to the Bottom of This

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engaged in a Battle for Our Very Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change Your Work, Change Your Country

This Week’s Bit of String: Allowing subtraction

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

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

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

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

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

Allowing Detraction

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

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

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

Give me your complacent, your unquestioning, your grateful…

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

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

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

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

Never Really Settled

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

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

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

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

Include All the Things!

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Circle of Literature

This Week’s Bit of String: Crime and Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary Connections

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

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

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

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

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

The Roots System

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

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

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

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

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

The Privilege of Being Busy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busy = Lucky

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

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

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

Busy = Important

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

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

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

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

Busy = Easy

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

Moments meant to be cradled, not seized

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

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

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

The Persistence of Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paralysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perch

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

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

Brave, brave Sir Robin

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

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

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

Likeable, Shmikeable: Managing the Voices, Part 2

Interview with Helen Taylor, Author of Backstreets of Purgatory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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