One Year Wiser?

This Week’s Bit of String: The refusal to shovel

In the UK people don’t really understand about snow. How heavy it can be, layer on layer of it, and how long it can take in, say, 15 F/ -9.4 C when you’re shovelling several inches off your driveway. And then several more.

Growing up, we were fortunate to have a relatively short driveway (by American rural standards, if not by British ones) but shovelling was still a full-family effort.

In theory.

My youngest sister once refused to even do fifteen minutes of shovelling. My parents got her out into the garage, but she stood there for quite some time with no coat, shivering and scowling and resisting the shovel leaning on the garage wall right next to her.

‘You’d be better off getting your fifteen minutes done and then you can just go back inside,’ I suggested.

Average December day in New England: several inches of snow at the abandoned mill.
That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

‘I don’t care,’ she huffed. She must have been thirteen or fourteen, which most of us may remember is a very principled age.

I believe we finished the shovelling without her, in that instance. Looking back, I admire for her for sticking it out, however close she might have come to hypothermia.

As a species, we’re supposed to have a good instinct for self-preservation. But there are a few instances where our principles override our knack for survival. Suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots. As a collective group, the overriding is even harder to counteract, since our instincts don’t work as a herd, or on longterm effects. There doesn’t seem to be an instinct that tells us not to dump hazardous chemicals into the water or air, or even stops us from voting for those that allow it.

Or perhaps there are principles—such as the You’re Not the Boss of Me! principle—which, shall we say, trump those instincts.

A year ago we voted in precisely those types of people. I’m sure a lot of us are reflecting back to Election Day 2016, and probably many feel wistful, wishing it had turned out otherwise. Some from both sides, I imagine, feel smug, that the Trump presidency has turned out as well/ badly as they might have foreseen.

I look back and feel disappointed, not because of who’s president, but because so little has changed. I feel like JK Simmons’ character at the end of the Coen brothers’ film Burn After Reading: ‘I guess we learned not to do it again…I’m f***ed if I know what we did!’

What Did We Learn Here?

Last year’s election has been analysed by many, but the conclusions seem to be exactly what you’d expect from the party doing the analysing. There are no surprises. Those of us who followed the election closely can’t be genuinely shocked by revelations of cosiness and possible collusion. Supporters of the rival Democratic candidates continue to see Bernie/ Hillary as totally out of touch and divisive. Certain Republicans, likewise, blame the Bushes and other primary candidates for diluting support of more capable runners.

Two tufty, black-eyed guinea pigs.
Our guinea pigs. We’ll call them Alternative Squirrels for our purposes here.

And any revelations produced by one group to support their cause have been refuted and ignored—not necessarily in that order—by everyone else. Cheeseburger emojis are to Fox News what squirrels were to the dogs in UP.

The Facebook Factor

I didn’t unfriend anyone on Facebook in the wake of the election. Big of me, wasn’t it? But I did unfollow someone for whom I felt fondness, just not enough to tolerate their ‘God is now rewarding us for suffering through the horrors of Obama’ posts. (There are plenty of conservative-leaning people I still follow; it was the frequency and ferocity of this one person’s posts informing my decision at that time.)

I meant to re-follow this ‘friend’ so I could keep up with his welfare and his family, maybe even to hear him out once the furor had died down. Then I forgot. I fear that in doing so, I was part of the wider problem of divisiveness, because I became the sort of person who casts someone aside and forgets them over a mere issue of principle.

Both Sides

Rather hypocritical of me, considering that my inaugural post, also about a year ago, focused on empathy and looking past political views to recognise each other’s humanity. A lot of us were appalled when the President said, after the terrorist attack by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, that there were ‘good people’ among the protesting nationalists, and that violence was committed by ‘both sides.’

Wikipedia entry on Voting Rights: 'Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation of tacos.'
Then sometimes when you probe an issue, you just find tacos.

And yet shouldn’t we keep probing both sides? Surely even those who subscribe to terrible beliefs have a few good points to them? Does the boundary between good people who do the occasional bad thing and bad people who do the occasional good thing fall strictly on political lines? We’re writers, readers, feelers and thinkers. We mustn’t allow our principles to restrict our views.

I have not found the strength to probe these questions as deeply as I intended. I suppose if the election had gone the other way it might have been less daunting. Easier to conduct an autopsy, perhaps, than examine a very belligerent patient.

Next Steps

But probing of a sort continues. My reading material falling on the anniversary of the election and on Remembrance Day is Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, which imagines a future world of corpocracies and blind materialism that gets me wondering how truly sustainable my lifestyle is. I’m also reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, because as I wrote when I bought the book from Ms. Eddo-Lodge at Cheltenham Literature Festival, when someone feels they’re not being heard, I want to listen.

Clearly, there are still all manner of people I need to at least try listening to. And I’ve got some good examples to follow. Ms. Eddo-Lodge interviewed British nationalist/ supremacist Nick Griffin as part of her work for this book. See also Gary Younge interviewing Richard Spencer. These journalists have shown great courage in trying to understand an opposing side that threatens them a lot more than it does me.

Have you found it in yourself to talk with people from ‘the other side?’ Has anything from this last year surprised you about your own ‘side?’ These days it seems we’re all out in the freezing cold—but those of us wielding the shovels to clear things up will stay a lot warmer than those who refuse. Maybe we should find out what drives that stubbornness.

The Writerly Autumn Bucket List

This Week’s Bit of String: Falling in love with fall

In sixth grade we had to write a book each month. All right, they were supposed to be booklets rather than books, but mine were more like the latter. Research articles, questionnaires, collages, and there was always a story required.

I would do a few bits early on, but always ‘saved the best for last,’ which was of course the story, which always threatened to turn into a novella once I finally began it a couple days before the due date.

Nothing to do with procrastination, mind. I was saving the best for last. The ‘easy’ part. The ‘fun’ part.

On the eve of the September or October due dates, I set myself up on the unenclosed deck behind our house. I would write for hours as it got dark. Night swallowed the hydrangea bush and its still-clinging, skeletal flower petals; the apple tree which only gave runty, gnarled, pale green fruits now rotting between its kicked-up roots; the marshy back yard carpeted with crisply curling willow leaves. The smell of decay was sweet, freshened by cold setting in, forcing into retirement the moths that would have rushed the light.

Sun lights up autumn leaves and a hill view.
Dursley Orchard view of Cam Peak, Gloucestershire

I was afraid of the dark. Wildlife lurked in the strand of woods beyond the back yard—I’d had a terrifying encounter with a fisher cat the summer before. But I felt brave to be out there in it. I felt clever and grown up keeping such hours. And I felt my pencil was adequate defence and protection.

That’s possibly when I started to love autumn, and to see it as a great opportunity to create. And if a small Twitter poll I conducted this week is anything to go by, it’s the favoured season for a majority of other writers, too. Why is that?

Starting Over

Despite the Facebook memes, there’s a lot more to fall than horror films and pumpkin spice lattes. I think the reasons we love it and get motivated by it are sociological as much as meteorological.

Fall is back-to-school time. It’s basically New Year’s but without the misery of January. We are embedded with memories of restarting education, mixing with different groups of people, setting higher goals, opening up to fresh ideas. This timetable stays with us well past graduation.

In the thirty-one years since I started kindergarten, I’ve only had three when I wasn’t either heading back to school myself (as a student or teaching assistant), or supporting my son through the start of his school year, or both. And in one of those three outlying Septembers, I had a baby, and in another I emigrated.

Talk about new beginnings.

For writers it’s also the time of quite a few literary festivals. I’m reading at Cheltenham Literature Festival in two weeks (event L322), and Stroud Book Festival in November. Plus I’ll be in the audience for several other events. Perhaps the cooling temperatures make us crave coming together to hear stories. Other writers may be preparing to participate in NaNoWriMo, to have a frantic write before the holiday season.

To be sure, there’s a lot going on. I’ve written before about how winter can be a great time for writing, and that showed to be a relative favourite among writers on my Twitter poll, as well. Autumn is my greatest love. But I often feel as if Thanksgiving comes and goes, I look up from all the work I’ve been doing, and I feel as if I’ve missed the fall.

I’m guessing that happens to other busy writerly types too, so I’ve written this helpful checklist for us.

Autumn Bucket List for Writers

Walking through the spiderwebs: Take advantage of wet weather to wander and observe rain glistening on the spiderwebs. Make sure to look from every angle. Isn’t it rather inspiring that these gems come from hideous creatures we avoid, produced against a backdrop of weather we might prefer to sleep through?

Rainy cobweb over a canal lock mechanism
Stroudwater Canal, Gloucestershire

Make like a tree and leave: Get out and gather as many glorious specimens of autumn leaves as you can find. I strew them along my mantel and shelves and ride them through my memories like tiny magic carpets. Study the intricate network of veins that binds them. And the ones you can’t take home, crush them. Go on, you know you want to.

Can it, dammit: Find some foodstuff and preserve it somehow in a jar. Or in the freezer, but if you use jars you can pretend you’re a pioneer. Then you can feel resourceful, and write about it.

Squirrel! Kick some leaves around in a park and watch the squirrels gathering nuts. What does the world look like through the eyes of a squirrel? I think the animal world has loads of fascinating detail to write down and provoke the imagination (More on this in a future post).

Take yourself back to school: Pursue nonfiction reading, to jumpstart the autumn-as-new-year mentality. I’m reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, with Natalie Haynes’ book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life up next.

Get thee to a book festival, go: The vibe is terrific to get you reading and writing afterwards. I’ll be extending my learning opportunities at a few different talks and literary events. Expect updates soon!

Wear the heck out of your sweaters and scarves: Cultivate that Bohemian artist freezing in a garret look so you can pretend to be a whole different type of pioneer. I may need to refresh my stock of these accessories, but that would mean clothes shopping and would completely counter my goal of enjoying autumn to the max.

Fire at will: Never miss an opportunity for pyrotechnics. Spicy scented candles, an electric blaze in the hearth, Bonfire night—whatever the autumnal occasion, let your imagination be transported by the smell of woodsmoke, the bright dancing flames, the warm crackle and the collective awe.

Celebrate anniversaries: If you’re anything like me, each school year epitomised a new musical revelation. Eighth grade was Les Miserables, eleventh was Tori Amos. Take the chance to revisit how these phenomena might have changed you. And look out for new revelations as the seasons change again.

What will you be trying to fit in this fall?

A Statue is to History as a Facebook Profile Picture is to Life

This week’s bit of string: A doctor and a gentleman

In Central Park, a statue pays homage to Dr. J. Marion Sims, a pioneer of gynaecology who founded the New York Women’s Hospital, the first hospital expressly for women. He is described on the statue’s plaque as a philanthropist who advanced the reputation of American medical practice throughout the world. This influential doctor is also memorialised elsewhere, including on State House grounds in South Carolina.

Unfortunately, Dr. Sims is also known for his sadism. He made his scientific advances by experimenting without anaesthetic on slave women in the nineteenth century. As protester Seshat Mack notes in this New York Daily Post article, ‘he was a man who recognized the humanity of black slaves to use them for medical research about the human body — but not enough to recognize and treat their pain during surgery.’

A statue is a melodramatically posed likeness of a single person, often designed and made decades after their death. That is not history. People advocating the relocation of confederate statues aren’t trying to erase history; they’re giving voice to a more authentic one. It’s not a question of whether Dr. Sims and the confederacy existed, but of whether they deserve honour.

I’m not suggesting history is relative and that people can take from it what they want to. I’m saying it’s big, and that people will try to take from it what they want. We have to constantly watch out for that.

Worthy Monuments

With their ability to portray multiple facets of an event, maybe books are some of our more effective memorials. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was ten, already intrigued by the period. The idea of the Underground Railroad drew me; the excitement of escaping slavery. Even after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, which doesn’t exactly gloss things over, I could not have grasped the magnitude of people for whom there was no escape. It’s still hard to imagine the despair of living in that situation for generations.

Purposefully rusted metal monuments in Gheluvelt Park
Gheluvelt WWI Memorial. Each column represents two months of the war, while just one centimetre of height represents 500 casualties.

What statue, memorial, or even work of literature can convey the suffering of possibly millions of slaves?

Comparatively speaking, I have not much considered the stories of confederate soldiers: ordinary, often poor men persuaded or conscripted into a horrific war. Some of the statues being removed are also memorials to those men, engraved with names of the town’s dead. Does bravery for a bad cause still deserve honour? It’s easy to imagine that a lot of those names refer to decent people, so I sympathise that those memorials mean something to their descendants.

But they aren’t the only piece of history. Some confederate statues are put up on former slave auction site. Hang on, who sacrificed what here? Surely the ones in chains, sold to bolster a white economy, should be remembered. It makes sense to relocate confederate statues to museums or private collections. Government and municipal buildings may sometimes showcase only one side of history, but let’s attempt not to use such a jagged-edged fragment of it.

Meaningful Memorials

In Bristol, UK, near where I now live, a venerable music hall is soon to be renamed. It was called Colston Hall, after a city benefactor (or at least, after the street that’s named after him). However, that philanthropist was also heavily involved in the slave trade, instrumental in the kidnapping of 85,000 Africans.

Cascading pools in the footprint of the World Trade Center
Ground Zero

I have enjoyed shows at Colston Hall. Those bands and memories will still exist under a new venue name. And I’m happy for the change. Who really wants to say, ‘Well, you may have been oppressed and brutalised by something for generations, but I wasn’t, so who cares?’

I doubt many people attending concerts at Colston Hall will notice the name change. Before the renaming campaign, most of us didn’t have a clue who Colston was. Similarly, how many times do we encounter a statue in a park or town centre and actually read the informational plaque, however sparse and biased? There’s not so much honour in being a statue, loved more by pigeons than anyone else.

These days monuments tend not to be statues. We’ve moved on in our attempts to portray the gravity of a tragic event. The World War I memorial in Gheluvelt Park, Worcester, represents the number of casualties in every month of the war. It introduces a staggering sense of scale. Other recent monuments encourage reflection. The pools at Ground Zero and Oklahoma City—my uncle called the latter the most memorable thing he saw in an entire cross-country trip.

Could there possibly be such a memorial to slaves? Could we replace the likenesses of individual confederate figures with a confederacy monument that recognises its bravery yet also the brutal ugliness of its cause? I suspect a truly effective version of either one of those things would be more than just a statue.

Leading While Female

This Week’s Bit of String: A Question for the Prime Minister

The interviewer narrowed her eyes studiously, and barely moved her mouth as she asked the question, conveying a sense that this high-stakes question was just between girls. ‘What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?’ (Video here.)

In the midst of general cheering as Conservative leader Theresa May moved one interview further toward a sub-optimal election performance, I squirmed at the question. I don’t know how I’d answer it, as a ‘normal’ person. If I were the Prime Minister, I would not expect it. What bearing does it have on defending the nation from terrorists, reviving the economy, negotiating Brexit?

I doubt anyone’s ever asked the masses of male politicians about the naughtiest thing they’ve ever done.

I don’t agree with Mrs. May’s government or party. Sharing a gender does not necessitate political affinity. But as a writer I advocate, and try to practise, empathy for any other person, female or male, public figure or not, and as a feminist, I believe we should push for empowerment of every woman, regardless of her political affiliation.

Many of us notice more blatant forms of sexism against women leaders. Donald Trump’s remarks about rival presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, for example, or the threats made against female game writers. But sometimes it takes slightly more subtle forms. What are the main forms of verbal sexism women encounter in leadership roles, and how might they be more covertly manifested?

Are You a Good Witch, or a Bad Witch?

To me, the question asked of Theresa May and the subsequent backlash that apparently the leader of the country isn’t ‘naughty’ enough, reflected a Madonna-whore complex in society. If women can’t be utterly perfect, they must be objects of scorn. Or perhaps to a portion of men, women are mere sexual objects beneath it all, and these men justify the idea by portraying women as bad or dirty.

A Woman’s Place
Field of wheat while green in spring
Future wheatfield. I can’t blame the Prime Minister for wanting to run through it.

Then of course there’s the grumbling about who’s going to make men’s sandwiches and iron their shirts if women are busy doing politics. Hillary Clinton faced such heckling remarks during various campaigns.

I’ve seen men default to their idea of women as housekeepers. When I worked at a sizeable secondary school, the headteacher happened by the SEN rooms and encountered two of our specialist teaching assistants catching up between student appointments. ‘Since you’re not busy,’ he joked, ‘I’m sure the toilets need cleaning.’

Not something he’d say if he found a couple of male staff bantering in the corridor.

The S-Word

A Year Ten student once complained to me about a meeting being cancelled when our SEN Coordinator was on sick leave: ‘We couldn’t have it ‘cause Miss wasn’t in. That slut.’

My supervisor’s attendance had nothing to do with her sex life. But most insults for women do. JK Rowling recently Tweeted against the prevalent method of sexualising a woman the second she disagrees. ‘Every woman I know who has dared express an opinion publicly has endured this kind of abuse at least once,’ she noted.

Although there have been efforts by feminists to remove the sting from these insults by embracing sexuality, continuously high rates of sexual abuse and harassment mean they are triggers to a huge portion of women in some way. And you don’t get that kind of demeaning language about men, because it doesn’t really exist.

Those Women and Their Damn Feelings

In last week’s U.S. Senate hearings investigating Russian interference, new Senator Kamala Harris questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions persistently about his refusal to answer. Later a male commentator—with equal persistence—called her hysterical. To me, her voice was level, her facial expression calm, if disappointed. I saw no emotional imbalance (although the political situation in America can understandably rile people of any sex or party).

Stencilled graffiti of a vulture atop a scribbled tree, the Conservative party symbol.
Election graffiti 2017. Mrs. May’s appearance is sometimes likened to a vulture, a type of critique I’m not happy to participate in.

Women’s comments, no matter how they’re delivered, can be easily dismissed as overwrought nonsense. When I Googled the story about JK Rowling’s Tweets, one headline read: ‘JK Rowling Goes Off on Twitter…’ The phrase going off on one indicates an overreaction. So Yahoo’s writers and editors were, however subtly, encouraging readers to ignore Ms. Rowling’s actual argument.

Men’s impulses are often a societal and even legal excuse for everything from ‘locker room talk’ to rape. Women’s feelings, apparently, provoke ridicule and disqualify them from leadership.

Clothes Make the Woman

Any public figure should expect criticism for how they look and dress. Ed Milliband eating a bacon sandwich, Barack Obama’s jeans, Trump’s ties. But while men get mocked in extraordinary moments, women are assessed for their clothing, it seems, in every appearance. Theresa May’s shoes are always drawing comment.

Of course, she may like that. She likes her shoes. Bryce Dallas Howard could run through Jurassic World in heels, and there’s no reason a prime minister shouldn’t have them. But when Mrs. May claims her shoes actually inspired another woman to get into politics? I confess it seemed a petty reason to me.

Then again, if this anecdote is true, and the woman made that comment to Theresa May in Whitehall—she’d have faced all the above challenges, and more, to get there. Either she really loved the Prime Minister’s shoes, or there’s a lot more sustaining her.

So whether they’re Tories or Green, in stilettos or trainers, let’s eschew these subtle disparagements and encourage fair and intellectual discourse about our politicians. Particularly about female ones—because who else can they count on for that?

Stories on Buses

This Week’s Bit of String: Stagecoach Route 65

If you’re going to commute to work on rural buses, you need a bus buddy, or at the very least a placeholder.

I have a placeholder for my morning commute. She’s in Year 11, and we’re going to call her Ella. When I approach the bus stop in an inevitable rush, she’s already there. Through the hedges I see her bleach blond hair and baby blue hoodie over her tight-winched school uniform and I know I’m safe. The bus hasn’t been five or six minutes early instead of the three or four I make sure to give myself.

We don’t generally speak. We listen to our headphones and make polite, wordless gestures insisting the other board the bus first.

This is normal, of course, not speaking to strangers. Maintaining boundaries, erring on the side of giving extra distance because this seems more polite. Last week I posted about eliminating distance in our writing, about creating immediacy and manoeuvring the characters as close as we can to the readers. How often do we try, these days, to eliminate distance in real life? And is this a good thing, that we allow them to exist?

Case History

Here’s the thing with Ella. I’ve known her since she was in Year 2; I know her family. Not well, mind, but a few pages’ worth of stories out of her autobiography.

She was the first girl to have a crush on my son. She drew a little love note. I remember her standing near us at pick-up and drop-off times, watching, hopeful and expectant with an open-mouthed half-smile.

Hilly sunrise view from the bus stop
View over the hills from the morning bus stop

A couple years later I got a job at a nursing home where Ella’s mother was a Senior Carer. She did night shifts, and we hated starting a day after she’d been on duty. Oh, she could give sound updates at handover, but she did very little overnight to physically assist any residents.

Later, when I worked in the local comprehensive, I helped in Ella’s registration group, from when she was in Year 7, to her Media Studies GCSE class in Year 10. Her attendance was spotty. She didn’t speak much in registration, but detentions added up. Her uniform was never acceptable. She changed schools before the end of Year 10.

Hence her 40-minute, £4 bus ride every morning.

We acknowledge none of this. I don’t know if she remembers the love note she sent my son, or if she knows I worked with her mother. Maybe she’s reinvented herself at her new school and doesn’t wish to remember the old. Would we find it less necessary to maintain a respectful distance if we didn’t have that tiny bit of history?

In the last couple weeks she’s taken to fitting a cigarette in before the bus comes. The other day I saw her setting off from our last stop with a grown man who had kids of his own in tow, and I recognised Ella’s hopeful half-smile.

Going the Distance

We’ve heard about different cultural interpretations of personal space. People from certain countries might be more comfortable with closer approaches, even from strangers, that a lot of us Westerners are.

This discomfort seems to be linked to the amygdala, part of the brain relating to emotional responses, survival instinct, and memory. Tests show amygdala activity spiking when someone approaches too close, probably reflecting a deep-rooted warning system for potential danger.

On buses, though, we can’t avoid proximity. Just having a stranger in the seat behind and in front of us is closer than our amygdala would normally tolerate.

Maybe that’s why we use books and phones so prodigiously on buses and in other crowded scenarios, as this article suggests. We’re subconsciously putting up emotional barriers since we can’t put up physical ones.

The 17:25 Bus Alliance

My commute home in the evening is different. An elderly gentleman on the 17:25 Stroud to Dursley Stagecoach service has rocked the barriers we unwittingly put up.

It started with the odd comment from him: ‘Still reading that book, then?’ ‘Oh, you’ve got a different one today!’

Then he suggested charity shops where I might find more books. He

Pink umbrella floating in a drainage canal near the bus station
Umbrella caught near the bus station. I wonder who finally gave it freedom.

shouted the bus driver to a stop when he saw me running for it after lingering too long after work. I’m not the only one he looks after; if the young man with the red sweatshirt and impressive moustache doesn’t turn up for the 17:25, he gets a ribbing the next day, as do I if I’ve found alternative transport.

‘Where was you yesterday? You skived!’

‘My family met me for dinner and gave me a ride back,’ I tell him.

‘What’s this? But we were starving, you should have brought us along, too!’ The old man indicates himself and young Mr. Red Sweatshirt.

One day the weather attempted a semblance of warmth. Our elderly friend stepped onto the bus and scanned the group. ‘Where’s the other fellow? Can’t leave without him.’

Mr. Red Sweatshirt had removed his jumper. ‘He’s in disguise,’ I explained.

‘You almost had me there!’ More jolly banter ensued.

I don’t know their names, I don’t even know what they go to Stroud for. I’ve learned that the elderly gentleman likes to write little rhymes that publicise services on behalf of local doctor’s surgeries, and sometimes it even gets him in the paper. A part of me wants to know his story, but mostly I like him as he is, on the 17:25 Stagecoach 65 bus, and I’m reluctant to follow the string or turn the page in his tale.

Or am I just being lazy? I do get tired, especially by the end of the week. Friday afternoon I kept nodding off, finally giving up on the pages I was editing. At the penultimate stop, while the driver had a stretch, a smoke, and a fiddle with his phone, the old gentleman laboured from his seat and, gripping each available handlebar, walked back to see me.

‘Not reading today?’ His eyes are deep, almost fluid brown.

‘I’m just so tired.’

‘Never mind, you’ll soon be home. But you won’t put your feet up there, will you?’

‘Not exactly.’ I had a treadmill run to do, the dusting, washing up, two loads of laundry…

‘You rest for now, and I’ll make sure you’re awake before your stop.’

I’m glad he had the courage to disregard our distances, since I wouldn’t have done. Do you think we miss out sometimes by abiding by common etiquette? Should we try taking a few steps closer to each other and see what we can get away with?

Inclusion Versus Appropriation

This Week’s Bit of String: A thriving literature festival in a tiny Cotswolds town.

Hawkesbury Upton hosted its third annual literature festival last week, featuring among many other events a panel on ‘Writing About Difference.’ I went along to hear seven people who had written about firsthand experiences with disability or chronic illness. They were carers or had disabilities themselves, writing in fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, for children or adults.

The Inevitable Appropriation Question

Someone asked the panel how they feel about other writers with less personal experiences, writing about characters who have disabilities or illnesses. Concerns over appropriation and mainstream publishers’ sidelining of ‘Own Voices’ are prominent, particularly following Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at Brisbane Writers Festival last year.

The panel generally responded that it’s necessary to have some knowledge. If you don’t have it, get it. If you’re not sure, ask someone to check. Moderator Dan Holloway emphasised the importance of sensitivity. ‘If you see no risk that you will offend, then you’re not the right person to write this.’

House up for auction in Hawkesbury Upton
I couldn’t resist taking a few photos while in Hawkesbury Upton.

We need to be aware of our characters and the resonances they carry. We may think we’re being grand and inclusive, but assuming that we’re portraying something correctly could be arrogant. If we’re taking the time to fully consider what our characters have gone through, if we’re getting to know and love them as we should, we’ll be aware of the risks and take precautions to avoid them.

A couple panelists seemed dazed by the question, and it occurred to me that in a way, making this an issue is selfish of us. Some of the speakers care for children with disabilities and parents with dementia, and spouses with mental illness, all at once. They don’t have time to assuage our artsy worries. We must ensure we don’t see them as potential plot devices, existing only to provide feedback on what we write about their difficulties.

‘Help us…’

The Hawkesbury Upton session got awkward when a prim older woman in the front row posed directed a question Jo Allmond and her grown up daughter Jess Hiles. Jess writes children’s stories based on her experiences living with learning disabilities, and gives educational talks. Despite these achievements, Jo had just told us that sometimes when she accompanies Jess to appointments, the professional will take one look at Jess, assume she can’t communicate, and speak solely to her mother.

‘But why shouldn’t they assume she can’t communicate?’ the front row woman asked. ‘She looks different, you’ve said as much yourself. If I were to approach any of you others on the panel,’ she addressed Dan and Thomas Shepherd, who’s written a novel called Mr. Tumnall and also happens to have Aspergers, ‘and speak to you as if you were normal, you’d take offence, even though you look normal. It seems to me that people in your situations almost want to be offended. Obviously we can’t expect you to wear a label informing us of your capacities, but how can you expect us to know them? Help us, we need you to help us.’

Rustlings from the audience, fixed smiles from the panel. I immediately detected the acute, uniquely English fear behind the woman’s question: For the love of God, don’t let me embarrass myself by offending somebody. I felt for her a little bit. I know people enslaved to that fear.

However, she neglected to think, even in the presence of these exceptional people facing terrible struggles, that worse fates can befall someone than embarrassment. In obsessing over her desire not to be perceived as offensive, she was genuinely offensive.

Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton
Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton.

While the speakers reassured her that basic, respectful communication (Good morning, isn’t the sunshine lovely today?) probably won’t bother anyone, the woman decided her point hadn’t been fully made. She wasn’t getting the help she wanted.

‘But you’re communicating for your daughter right now!’ she informed Jo. ‘She’s clearly not able to respond without you.’

Now, that’s crossing a line. I could see where the first question came from, misguided though it may have been. But how can someone insist that a person right in front of them is unresponsive, after being told that’s disrespectful and untrue? Jo and Jess had been answering in tandem, and let’s not forget that there are nonverbal means of communication.

‘Everyone’s Disabled’

So there was more backlash to that one. The panel kept impressively cool. Another lady in the audience, pink-cheeked and breathlessly earnest, stated, ‘I would like to suggest that we’re all disabled, we’re all restricted in some way.’

The audience liked this, and murmured assent. I wish I’d caught the panel’s faces at that moment, because the well-intentioned sentiment bothered me, and I imagined it might have bothered them.

Certainly, we all have problems. That’s why we need empathy! But a disability or chronic illness is a specific type of challenge. We wouldn’t say to a widow or widower, ‘Well, we’ve all lost somebody.’ We wouldn’t tell a refugee, ‘Well, we all have to relocate at some point.’ Okay, a few people might. But I don’t think that lovely woman would say those things.

So let’s not appropriate other people’s problems in perhaps an effort to diffuse our embarrassment or sense of survivor’s guilt.

How Can We Actually Help?

Buy and read books from all sorts of writers and listen to their Own Voices. Jo Allmond worked with another of the speakers, Joy Thomas, to publish Silent Voices, a wonderful volume of poetry from often overlooked people coping with disability. Thomas Shepherd’s book Mr. Tumnall sounds clever and intriguing. Check out Dan Jeffries’ memoir of coping with a rare medical condition, and don’t miss the children’s series Jess Hiles created, Jess the Goth Fairy. Follow Dan Holloway’s incredible Dandelion Project. Read Debbie Young‘s blog and books to see how a talented writer with first-hand experience depicts the journey of her family members with Type 1 Diabetes.

Stone pig statue and milk bottle outside Hawkesbury Upton door
A small town still life outside a Hawkesbury Upton door.

And as always, when we write let’s use well-rounded characters, and let them drive the story rather than be single-issue flagposts. LISTEN, observe, research. We should be doing that anyway, with any issue.

In my stories a few people happen to have mental illness or disability. Those are just parts of them; they have completely unrelated experiences that delight and move them. Because I’ve spent so much of my working life close to amazing people who cope with these challenges, it’s inevitable they’ll appear in my writing.

In The Wrong Ten Seconds, for example, the main character’s wife, Harriet, is paralysed and speechless after a stroke. He and his daughter struggle to care for Harriet’s physical needs while treating her mentally if nothing has changed. It’s a difficult balance, and one that writers about difference try to carry out. As the daughter says: ‘If we keep pretending Mum’s not in the state she’s in, don’t we risk minimising what she’s going through?’

Finally, let’s not seek a simple answer or a quick reassurance on this issue. Disabilities are tough–thankfully, the people who cope with them are often tougher. The balance between including diverse characters and appropriating those experiences from diverse writers never should get easy, so we need to maintain high sensitivity, and keep listening.

 

Liberal Arts: Where Do All the Bleeding Hearts Go?

This Week’s Bit of String: Crosses made of sliced cheese

For Easter when I was in kindergarten, my mother cut slices of processed cheese and bologna into crosses, chicks, and egg shapes to share with my class. The school found this contribution offensive. I remember her crying over it, as she hung up laundry. We lived in a very small, seemingly homogenous New England town, but it couldn’t accommodate her humble gesture of religious expression.

As writers, we hate feeling voiceless, we hate for minorities to feel voiceless, and we should hate for religious communities to feel voiceless. I’m not endorsing the narrative of the American ‘War on Christianity.’ There’s no comparison to what a lot of BAME or LGBT people have suffered. But have you noticed a dearth of well-rounded religious characters in literature? Could this absence be feeding the fear we ‘liberals’ have of conservatives? Could it be curtailing our empathy?

Perpetuating Literary Stereotypes
Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral, October 2015

I’d like to see characters like my mother in literature. Someone with unparalleled patience, raising the four children she gave birth to in five years, and working for over two decades with special needs students, often at least sixty hours a week—while dutifully living out beliefs some might view as intolerant. Someone who believes abortion is murder but who was devastated by Christian leaders’ support of a racist President who condoned sexual assault.

Instead, it feels as if religious characters in fiction are generally incarnations of Archdeacon Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo’s villain, tormented by hidden lusts, was probably a shocking revelation at the time. I’m not sure the prototype still is. In films and books, do we not at this point expect the Republicans and evangelicals to be baddies?

Admittedly, there have been appalling religious figures throughout history. One can understand the rage against clergy in, for example, Irish fiction such as The Glorious Heresies, or The Secret Scriptures. And in America especially, Christian culture, perhaps partly out of a sense it’s not welcome in the mainstream, has isolated itself to produce its own books on its own presses.

This isolation becomes cyclic. The church is the kid on the playground who has to keep his clothes clean, so he doesn’t join in football. The other kids assume he doesn’t want to play anyway—especially if he tells them they’re getting too dirty—and he resents them carrying on without him, and the gulf widens. So mainstream literature and heavily conservative, Christian literature may seem to prefer the separation. But if we consider ourselves liberal, should we ignore a whole subset of our culture?

Studies on Liberalism Versus Conservatism

Before justifying the alienation by saying Republicans are ignorant, are overly attached to their beliefs, and probably hate us too much to engage, consider these intriguing studies.

Research shows that conservative minds are more attuned to fear. Is this a cause or a symptom of conservatism? Scientific American describes how mounting scientific evidence of conservative risk awareness could explain their stereotypical attachment to rules and even nationalism.

St. Cyr's Church on Stroudwater Canal
St. Cyr’s Church on Stroudwater Canal, Palm Sunday 2017

It also explains their tendency toward idea-driven storytelling. While some conservative commentators like this one on The American Conservative website remind their fellows that using literature to mould public morals ‘leads to art becoming a mere tool, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself,’ a group will find that irrelevant when they perceive themselves under threat. Republicans (who got eighty percent of evangelical support in the presidential election) are completely in control of the American government, but fundamentalist Christians believe in Heaven and Hell. The majority of people they meet are eternally damned. If they have any compassion, they’ll try and save them with everything they do, every word they write. How could they care about trivial things like character development and artistic expression?

Here’s another surprise from a wonderful study described in The Guardian, in which literature professors researched thousands of Goodreads profiles and found over four hundred books which conservative and liberal readers frequently liked in common. Encouraging, but when they looked at the reviews, they found conservative readers were ‘more generous’ and used ‘less negative or hateful language’ than many of the liberal reviewers. We liberals can be snobby and cynical—who would have thought?

In Twitter discussion, science fiction writer Grace Crandall observes that we tend to detect biases against us: liberals see conservative bias, while conservatives see liberal bias. We’d all rather be wronged than in the wrong. But we have to rise above that as artists, and try to understand each other, as she suggests.

What is Conservatism, Really?
Church and phone booth
Juxtaposition in Dursley, Christmas 2016

Everyone’s conservative about some things, and liberal about others. We all have things we don’t want to change, and things we seek to explore and improve. Micah Mattix, in the American Conservative article, reminds us genuine conservatism is ‘deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved.’ Skepticism of contemporary culture is not exclusive to Republican-leaning authors.

Indeed, when we write we should examine any stereotype, even the idea that Republicans are always grouchy old white men. We write to conquer fear, perhaps our own fear of being voiceless, and it’s always worth finding characters to give voice to. There are Republicans and/ or evangelicals who strive valiantly to live up to their own standards, even if these standards manifest themselves in ways that look strange to us. In my book Artefacts, two of the protagonists are Christians, trying to establish friendships outside the church despite being convinced their acquaintances are hellbound. Religious characters don’t always have to be so dramatic; I liked the pastor and the churchgoing protagonist in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. They were portrayed as normal people, with normal family and livelihood struggles, who happened to have a bit of faith. That’s incredibly rare in a current book, and why should it be? We’re writers. We can take on anything.

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 3: Goodbye, Post Office

This Week’s Bit of String: Letters to Putin

If you were a cultivator of stories, working in a post office, would you find yourself quite curious about what you were helping people send? I’ve always been quite numb to the letters and parcels—professional or perhaps just zombified—but sometimes my curiosity is truly piqued.

‘I need to send this letter to Russia.’ The soft-spoken piano teacher puts the envelope on my weighing scales. His thick, square glasses glint in the fluorescent lights.

I stamp the letter. It’s meticulously addressed to the Minister of Justice in Moscow. ‘I keep seeing these today,’ I tell the piano teacher. ‘What’s going on?’

Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud
Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud

He informs me Russia has begun proceedings to label Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists. So the steady stream of polite, earnest customers posting letters to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, Justice Minister, and even President Putin himself—are attempts to reason with the enormous state.

I had no idea. And that’s just one thing I’ve learned working at the post office. I shall take my leave with a little mess of weird but possible story threads.

Grief, Observed

A pale old man collects his pension from the post office every Monday, his fingers trembling as he tries to remember his PIN. One week he told me his wife had cardiopulmonary disease, and a bad car accident a couple months before while returning from a hospital appointment certainly didn’t help. But he smiled as he said, ‘I know all about being a woman now, since my wife’s laid up. Running about doing all the work! Tell you what, if I have to come back as something when I die, I hope it’s not a woman.’

Monday comes around again. ‘It’s beautiful out today.’ The man says as his fingers jitter, uncertain, an inch above the card reader’s keypad. ‘The sun was so warm in our garden.’

I ask how his wife is doing.

‘She passed away yesterday morning. Sixty-three years we were together. I used to call her my little ray of sunshine…’ His voice is hoarse.

I’m nearly moved to tears myself. I’ve worked in a nursing home; I’ve seen bereavement and death before. But it’s different seeing it ‘in the real world,’ watching someone stricken so recently go through the necessary motions. At the post office, I’ve had to tell relatives we can’t ship human ashes to distant loved ones (apparently it’s a fire hazard). I’ve certified copies of death certificates, and helped bereaved parents close their late daughter’s bank account—the mother quietly explaining what she needed, the father sitting in the waiting area staring straight ahead.

Stories aren’t just big moments; they’re little ones. They’re how we drag huge burdens through each tiny step.

Beyond School Doors

Likewise, I’ve seen disability before. I’ve supported secondary school students with all kinds of difficulties, who worked tremendously hard to get through the schoolday. Once again, the post office showed me a different perspective.

Village Post Office and shop
This is not the Post Office I worked in. But I wonder if their mini-dramas would be so different from ours.

A girl in her late teens or early twenties comes to my counter, taps her ear, and utters ‘Deaf.’ She slips a note under the heavy glass partition of my ‘Fortress’ (that’s literally the Post Office terminology for the secure cubicle). She needs a box for posting a jacket to the USA, the note explains. I take her to the stationery and show her what the shop offers for packaging. We communicate with hand motions and the odd inarticulate noise. She seems pleased with the selection.

I think about how it must feel, forced to introduce oneself in such a way; to be immediately distinguished by what some might perceive as a deficiency. What bravery and resourcefulness surround us, and we barely even realise.

My previous jobs have inspired a great deal in my stories, as I’ve gotten to know students, colleagues, and nursing home residents very well. In the post office, interactions are fleeting, but still colourful and informative. It’s a lesson in efficiency. If my imagination can be so fuelled by a two-minute encounter, maybe I could shoehorn my observations into a flash fiction piece. My notebooks bristle with label-backs and till roll fragments scrawled with funny place names: Bald Knob Ridge, North Carolina. Thistley Hey Road, Liverpool. Runaway Heights, Jamaica. Thanks to these, I could still feel, despite being locked alone in a ‘Fortress’ at the back of a perishing shop in a town classed as a ‘Rural Area of Deprivation,’ that the world was at my fingertips. Not just geography, but the realm of words, with its truly infinite possibilities.

What windows does your job allow on the wider world?

Welcome to Dystopia?

This Week’s Bit of String: The students are revolting

I used to support a class of Year 8s who rebelled Hunger Games-style during lessons. A teacher might be talking them through French prepositions or long division, when one after the other, the students would slowly, dramatically raise their hands and whistle the three notes of the mockingjay’s song, until the group was giggling and thoroughly disrupted.

As revolutionary causes go, I wasn’t impressed with theirs. The education they objected to was nowhere near as oppressive as the government from Susan Collins’ fictional Capital, nor as ruthless as many real-life governments around the world and throughout history.

You’ve probably noticed the ever surging interest in dystopian literature,  evidenced this week by increased sales of George Orwell’s classic, 1984. I find books like this fascinating, but I also wonder whether this attraction to dystopian fiction is constructive at a time like this. Are we just sensationalising our peril?

The Appeal of Dystopian Fiction

Leaving aside the amazing narrative talents of George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Lois Lowry, Patrick Ness, Cormac McCarthy, and other authors of great dystopian tales, what do we get from these stories?

Abandoned cabin in New Hampshire
Then there’s the mysterious beauty of contemplating ruined things…

The Huffington Post published an  essay on the sub-genre’s merits. These stories warn us about the insidious ways governments and/ or technology could usurp our rights. Certainly that must have been Orwell’s intent. With Winston’s experiences at the hands of the unfeeling, super-controlling Big Brother and the Thought Police, Orwell warned not only against fascists like Hitler’s and Franco (Orwell fought in the Spanish insurgency), but also against hyper-ideological dictators like Stalin. After all, according to this BBC New Magazine article, Orwell saw his comrades in Spain killed by rival pro-Communist groups as well as by Franco’s soldiers.

Dystopian fiction arms us. It shows us scenarios in which protagonists’ survival skills are tested to the maximum, forcing us to ask, albeit with stakes much lower than those the characters face, whether we ourselves would be up to the same job.

Current Relevance

To me, it seems a bit late to be brushing up on totalitarian governments with the help of 1984. Shouldn’t people have done that before voting? And—SPOILER ALERT—it doesn’t carry a message of hope, so it’s possibly not an ideal choice to galvanise a resistance movement.

I also worry that dystopian fiction skews our perspective. Our world hasn’t gone completely mad…yet. Places like Syria and the refugee camps, and the many areas worldwide that have been corrupt and impoverished for centuries—those are dystopias.

Those aren’t reasons to stop reading the genre, though (especially since there are so many gripping stories on offer; I love the sound of John Joseph Adams’ dystopian anthology Brave New Worlds, as described at the end of this Kirkus Reviews essay). It just means we need to read it for the right reasons. We should read with vigilance and appreciation, and with enough spirit to go implement the messages given.

Statue of 1555 Gloucester Martyr John Hooper
Gloucester statue commemorating Protestant John Hooper,  killed in 1555 under Catholic Queen Mary. Let’s not go back to religion-ruled dystopias, please.

With 1984 in particular, I think a striking lesson is this: the regime in that book wants to be loved. It wants to control every thought. And as anyone who’s ever been a teenager will attest, the need to be loved can drive one to dangerous lengths. The current leader of the free world, with his obsession over crowd (and hand) size and his compulsive tweets, shows some of those traits. How do we combat that uncontrollable insatiability?

Writing Dystopia

Even while realising that hell hasn’t fully broken loose yet, some of us find ourselves writing in the dystopian sub-genre more. I’ve written three dystopian short stories in my life, including The Apocalypse Alphabet, and they were all products of the last six months.

I checked with other writers on Twitter to see how they feel about dystopian literature. Rita Gould shares my concern that immersion in it may ‘feed the fear.’ Megan Manzano extols its ability to kindle emotion. ‘They make us sad, hopeful. They anger us. These books show us what we can do. If 17yr olds can create change, why can’t we?’  M.K. Anders notes,  ‘Seeing it portrayed is validating, even if the good guy loses.’

All very good points. When the world seems dark, we can’t deny our artistic urge to create something, hyperbolic or not, out of it. This may involve feeling more scared for a time, while we confront worst-case-scenarios burning in our imaginations. But then we locate what makes the characters keep going, like Hannah’s love for her son Jack in The Apocalypse Alphabet, and that helps in real life.

“‘Close your eyes and imagine fireworks,’ Hannah whispers, and Jack obeys, his fingers woven together in front of his shins, his eyelids almost translucent, spidered with delicate veins.”

I emerge from writing and reading these with fresh determination. We’re not alone. People have survived worse. We have a lot worth fighting for. Right, people?

Writing Away the Winter Blues

This week’s bit of string: Moss loaves and leaf stew

Narnia-like landscape
Found any countries in the cupboard lately?

As kids, my brother and sisters and I spent our days outside, fortifying dens to protect against unseen armies or searching for faeries. We often pretended Winter is Coming (I’m cross with Game of Thrones for purloining this premise), because the additional threat of nature made it more exciting. This necessitated hoarding of bread and fish: loaves of moss scraped from boulders, and bedraggled leaves caught from the stream.

Even now, the onset of cold and dreary weather gives me a thrill and causes me to particularly relish writing time. Am I alone in being inspired by winter?

Studying the Effects of Temperature on Creativity

There are many factors in the creative process. Research seems to prove that exposure to warm temperatures, even if it’s just holding a warm cup of coffee, inadvertently encourages people to treat each other more warmly, or at least to perceive each other as less emotionally cold. People are more inclined to notice relationships and connectedness when they are physically warm.

Given that conclusion, and my insistence that empathy is crucial to the writing process (and to life generally), these studies make it seem that cold weather might be bad for writing.

However, cold temperatures foster a different type of creativity. According to the same study as above, cold weather encourages metaphor recognition and originality of response. (The latter attribute was partly tested with a pasta-name-inventing exercise. How do they come up with these things?) So perhaps it’s actually a good time to be thinking of new story ideas, building new worlds, and incorporating symbols and meaning into our work.

Advantages of Winter Writing

Resourcefulness: Some of my most unique ideas come during cold months. A story featuring dolphins on Mars, for example, and my play A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division, in which a secret government agency spies on people’s dreams to solve crime. Maybe we harbour an innate response to hazardous cold, an ability to consider options beyond the usual suspects. Isn’t that rather thrilling?

winter-branch
See? Beautiful.

Fewer distractions: Sometimes I think, thank goodness it’s horrible out; I can just get on with my writing. Everything’s stripped bare, and that’s beautiful to me. The bleaker landscape makes shape and rare colour stand out, and that emerges, I believe, in my writing.

Structural integrity: Even if the drop in temperature renders it more difficult to fully appreciate the pulsing inner warmth of my characters, this could be a good opportunity to look at the mechanics of plot and retrace the structural foundations of a tale.

Creating our own heat: Further data shows that winter causes us to seek psychological warmth. People renting online movies choose romantic ones more often in wintertime. What better place to seek warmth than with our characters, preferably while huddled under a quilt and sipping some hot fruity tea?

I realise I’m lucky. I no longer live in part of the world that gets extreme weather. And in any part of the world, winter can have a terrible effect on some people, bringing depression which might dry up the very creative juices which could have sustained them. If that describes you, there are pages on the NHS website and on this useful Writing and Wellness site, which I hope might help. It’s not a problem to be taken lightly.

Taking the Weather With You

frostywebAs it turns out, both my completed novels use extreme weather as a backdrop during the pinnacle of the action. In The Wrong Ten Seconds, tensions escalate during a brutal heatwave in a small midlands city. In Artefacts, everything unravels as the New England temperatures plummet:
“I love looking at you in this spooky snowstorm light.”
“It’s not really a storm.” Helen stared at the snow swirling around a streetlamp. Every now and then, a flake was caught in a gust, and blown upward against the bulb, brilliant as a firefly.

Selecting seasonal details to enhance characterisation and plot is another part of the fun.

Do you think winter affects your creative process? How much does it impact the characters in your stories?