Closing the Distance

This Week’s Bit of String: The meaning of far away

When our son was very young my husband and I had to live on different sides of the ocean. I missed him badly but couldn’t dwell on it, so when our little Bear asked about his dad, I would say, “Daddy’s far away.”

During a quick visit when Bear was two and a half, he climbed all over his dad and asked him, “Are you Far Away?”

It sounds obvious, but in my own loneliness and the frantic rush of being a single working mum, I hadn’t considered that my toddler would not understand intangible concepts such as distance. My explanation was totally inaccessible to him.

As writers, we are engaged in shrinking things. A written word is a miniature representation of its real-life counterpart; a book is a flattened, condensed episode from a collision of lives. The paradox we deal with is how to reduce things without losing a sense of their magnitude, and as readers, we know it’s possible to do just that.

Amazing, really.

With Great Power…

It’s daunting too, isn’t it? Our job is to serve up bite-sized fragments of potentially suffocating reality, to pinpoint the fleeting, and to bring distant concepts near. We greet an idea after its long flight and take it home and nestle it into bed, letting it in from the cold.

So hard to do justice.

We may feel, when the world is so vast and problem-ridden, when many of us share similar lockdown woes, that our words don’t matter. Isn’t everyone thinking the same things already? Doesn’t it reduce an issue to confine it to the page?

But we are vain as humans. We like to see our reflection. We also like to shrink things a bit so we can come to grips with it. If we find the words to resize something small enough that lots of people can access it, we’ve ended up multiplying it. A bit like if we take a trillion dollar relief package and divide it between millions of people.

Creating the Magic

To effectively do this, we have to acknowledge, within ourselves, the enormity of what we want to convey. There have to be moments when our message, when our feeling for our characters and what they’ve been through, bring us to our knees. This may take the form of us crying over our laptops, or wandering in a shell-shocked haze through our day jobs and household routines. It may be sleepless nights or nightmares. Even our for-fun stories will consume us—another paradox of writing is that by trying to portray one aspect of reality, we distance ourselves from our current one.

Magic. Part of the Window Wanderland display in Wotton-Under-Edge

Then we negotiate. We try different terms and exchanges and sequences, see which ones are most succinct yet impactful. Lay out everything you want people to know, then chisel it to a sharp point.

Part of this carving out will include an examination from every angle: have we smoothed a surface that should remain rough and challenging? Are there facets we have left too splintery? This is the part of the process where we bring in new sets of eyes to look at our work, and we check that the representation of humanity we’re offering doesn’t inadvertently exclude or minimise any marginalised groups.

It’s a tricky process but each step is essential, and when it comes together, it’s so worth it.

Ready for the Close-Up

During one long period when my husband was Far Away, we did a webcam call. Our son’s face lit up when he saw his father’s appear on the screen of my chunky monitor. “THERE’S Daddy,” he cried, as if finally things made sense. Daddy may not be where he was expected to be, but he was at last visible.

That’s the sort of recognition we want our stories to bring. Not an exact replica of a particular human being, but a sudden proximity if not familiarity. We want to stop people in their tracks, momentarily, with a Eureka moment where everything fits together and the distant becomes immediate.

In this time of prolonged isolation and separation, have you used your writing to draw closer to the far away?

Just Keep Writing

This Week’s Bit of String: Storytelling bribery

It was the last class of the day. My 13-year-old student was still wound up from lunchtime; someone had incurred his wrath and plotting vengeance was more interesting than a Science lesson.

He squirmed in his seat and flicked bits of paper at his classmates. ‘Miss,’ he said, ‘have you ever punched anyone?’

‘Yes I have, and if you sit quietly and do your work, I’ll tell you about it at the end of class.’

The school had tried to encourage him to settle. Special daily reports signed by each teacher at the end of lessons, plenty of threats and consequences… But I’d finally hit on something (no pun intended). He kept himself cool for the rest of the session, and then I told him and his pals about how I got offended at a birthday party when I was seven years old and punched a boy I’d been friends with for years in the stomach.

Old school.

As writers, we know about target audiences. Any other anecdote would not have pressured my student into compliance. We’re always checking and re-assessing which tale is best to submit to which publication; this takes up a great deal of our precious writing time.

We also need to consider a key demographic: ourselves. Which project will hold our own focus at this time so we can develop it? When so much is out of our control, and so little available to brighten our days or broaden our horizons, not every idea will work for us right now. More than ever, we’ve got to write what we like.

Revisiting

In Britain, since October we’ve had just 3 weeks that weren’t on lockdown and there’s still at least six weeks until we can venture outside the same routes we’ve been walking for ages now. It may not be coincidence, then, that I’ve only this week written my first complete story since last fall.

I’ve had perfectly decent ideas in my daily notebook scribbling, for bizarre, dark humorous stories and feminist stories and tragedies-in-flash. But I couldn’t stick with them—not yet. If I had a few minutes of quiet to work on, you know, non-office work, I’d find myself staring at the computer until I found an excuse to Google something before shuffling off to spoon peanut butter into my mouth. (It’s not just me, right?)

Our writing can welcome us home.

The ones I manage to finish have pieces of home in them. They have youthful confidence and lakes and mountains and music like Salt-n-Pepa or Alanis Morissette played on old, fourth-hand car stereos with the windows down while driving several exits up Interstate 89 to get a root beer float.

These are the things I want, and probably need, to write about right now. There’s heartache and conflict but humour and resilience too—warmth. I’m not strong enough to dissect British daily life or examine the class structure or plunge deep into grief. It’s important that we do those things when we can, but if, like me, you’re just not up for creating such pieces right now, you can help amplify those who are: this upcoming volume of stories from the Lesbian Immigrant Support Group, for example, or Nikesh Shukla’s latest book Brown Baby.

The Places You’ll Go

There’s lots we can still do in our pages. If you’re struggling to get some work done, see if you can write something that feels less like work. Here are some suggestions:

Recreate a favourite setting: Since I can’t get back to New England, that’s become my favourite place to write about. I’m enjoying reading and daydreaming about other destinations (currently one of Peter Carey’s novels about Australia in the early 1900s), but for my writing to flow easily, I need deep familiarity, as with the place where I grew up.

Time travel: Every era has its challenges, but in recent decades at least, they weren’t the ones we have now. Set your characters at a stage in life when they might enjoy things more freely. I’ve been writing about teens who are alienated yet spunky, or about parents with mischievous kids to enliven the pages.

Or a drizzly New Hampshire Memorial Day parade.

Mingle with crowds: Let your characters do things we can’t. School dances, bowling alleys, mountain hikes. I find I’m not just counteracting my own losses and separations in my pages, I’m also imagining the things my son has missed out on, in his final year of school and first year of uni.

Do a remix: If you can’t summon your own ideas, twist a well-known story. You can go speculative on a historical event, or subvert a fairy tale. One of the stories I got published last year was this reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Following a pre-existing plot line from another angle helped me get the work done.

Use a natural progression: Seasons, holidays, milestones—these can help move your piece along. I started one story about growing up in the 80’s/ 90’s and wasn’t sure what would happen, until I used the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as the turning point.

Give hugs: Create on the page the relationships we’re missing out on. This year I’ll have a story published in Retreat West’s anthology that I absolutely love. I wrote it last year, about two sisters. I haven’t seen my actual siblings in over 18 months.

Life’s not easy right now. We still want our writing to be great, and to get it out there, so we’ll make ourselves think of something original or follow a trend or submission theme. But you are allowed to write what you want. Write anything that keeps you wanting to write.

On Time

This Week’s Bit of String: Ancient cephalopods

Southern England’s Jurassic coastline is made up of cliffs where frequent landslides expose layers of rock and clay studded, sometimes littered, with fossils. One town, Lyme Regis, has 71 noted geological strata, each with its own species of ammonite fossil.

Ammonites are now extinct, but many shells remain, similar spiral shapes to nautilus shells, but ridged. You can find them among the stones and shells and smoothed glass fragments on the beaches of Dorset and East Devon, washed down from the cliffs by the tide, or find their curls poking from clay in the slipped feet of the imposing banks.

I’m quite fascinated by these and other fossils. Prying one out is like finding something from another world. The squid-like creature that lived in this shell might have swum past ichthyosaurs, might have dodged diving pterosaurs. Around 150 million years ago, this was a warm tropical sea near the equator, formed when Pangaea started to break up. The planetary spot they occupied, according to those who study continental shift, is now the location of North Africa. So the clay we slip over, scanning for more fossils, inched up here to make room for ancient Egypt and the skill and culture of the Moors.

We’re talking a very long expanse of time here, obviously. But I love to connect these dramatic pieces and to dwell in the realms of hitherto unimagined change.

Sunrise on the South coast

This past week I brought my little family, our bubble of three, to the Jurassic Coast and we stayed in a cottage to celebrate my 40th birthday there. I’d long intended to spend this milestone with my whole family in the USA, to party with them for the first time since I turned 23. But that, and Plans B, C, even D didn’t work out, for obvious reasons. Still: I partied, in my own way, by digging in slimy clay, hiking up cliffs in horizontal rain, drinking by the fire with the Lord of the Rings films on (extended versions of course), and sitting on the living room floor playing Monopoly while eating pizza as if at a childhood sleepover.

Sifting Through the Strata

Every life gathers its own layers, detritus packed into sediment, relics peeking from ooze washed down in a storm. When an event shakes us we might discover long-dead remains different in shape to the parts of us now evolved.

As I approached my twentieth birthday, the thought that I could live four times as long depressed me. I felt I’d done enough damage, would only end up dragging everyone down with me. That wasn’t quite the last time I felt that way, but it has been a while, layers of having a kid to adore and a marriage to make thrive and various jobs to pour my energies into and stories to create—these have buried earlier strata which might contain curled, spiny, hard-shelled relics of self-loathing.

One of my biggest finds, fossils upon fossils

You don’t go digging at the bases of the cliffs and you have to watch out for landslides. But if a fragment gets washed out, we might give it a little scrub and find that it has a certain intrigue or even beauty. Remembering what despair feels like is pretty useful for a writer.

This year the stories I’ve most loved writing, and reading when they’re done, are ones featuring children, their belief in magic juxtaposed with intolerance for untruth. I guess that’s what the pandemic and its many separations and fears have shaken loose from me.

I had one character, a teenage skeptic, reply when asked about her goals: “I’m going to refurbish an abandoned shed and call it Burnt Sienna. I’ll live there and do art with a puppy named Periwinkle and a pygmy goat named Ochre.” Sounds appealing, right?

Counting Every Moment

On Halloween, my husband and I watched the Netflix remake of Rebecca. He did a bit of research on the story’s author Daphne de Maurier and informed me Rebecca was her third novel, published while she was 30.

Impressive, we agreed. But then I thought, I’m turning 40 and I’ve written 3 novels. Those were written while working full-time and while being my family’s everything—no nannies or household staff or even local relations. That’s kind of impressive too, and helps me make peace with getting older.

I’ve now been alive for a longer period than the one which separated World War II from my birth. I’ve known my husband for just over half my life. Time is such a funny thing, the weight of it fluctuating vastly depending on what we’re measuring it against. It’s the same with accomplishments; they’ll look more satisfactory from different perspectives.

Not that we want to get too satisfied with ourselves. I was thinking as I pried at prehistoric remains with a stick of driftwood, my face wind-raw and hands clay-chapped, my shoes carrying an extra gallon of water from getting caught in 8-foot swells, “This isn’t meant to be easy, that’s the pride of it.” And even when I managed to free a fragment, when I rinsed it in the frothy waves and was thrilled by the sharp ridges and tight coils revealed, I still didn’t want to stop. It’s like when you write a good story, you still want to dig up a new one and see if it might be even better.

Maybe the best we can wish for, as time passes, is to maintain a desire for more of it. I hope that whatever this year has shaken from the cliffs around you proves useful in your writing, and that you’ve got the strength to keep seeking new challenges.

In the End

This Week’s Bit of String: An abandoned bread roll

There’s a five-storey office building separated from a Cotswold canal by a busy roundabout. It used to be a prominent building society office, and before that was the site of a massive brewery. Now it belongs to the company I work for.

In a bottom drawer of a black file cabinet on the ground floor you will find, as far as I know, a bread roll. It was purchased from a local bakery on the 17th of March. It is probably rigid now. If you pick it up it may crumble completely.

This year has reminded us you never know the last time you’ll see someone or someplace.

The cabinet was mine, of course, and I intended to eat the roll on Friday March 20th, but I got coronavirus so had to isolate, and during that time national restrictions began. I’ve worked from home since. My desk might be used by someone else, a new employee I’ve never met, who perhaps has opened my bottom drawer, thrown out the roll, and shifted my cheesy worksheets from mandated meetings (What Colour is Your Personality?), my Christmas decorations and fruit tea. If our roles were reversed, I’d feel like an archeologist sifting through artefacts left by a disaster and mass exodus. Scratching the surface.

The last line of a book is the final clue to uncovering its secrets, to the lives of its characters. We know nothing really ends—next year I might have to resume the long commuting days, might throw out that roll myself. In decades my office building might be something different again. For our purposes though, we have to conclude the plot. We get to decide where to end the stories we write. How do we do this well?

The Grand Finale

As writers we hear a lot about how to start a piece. We peruse lists of classic book openers, and edit our first pages no fewer than 300 times. Endings don’t get the same sort of attention though. There’s a consensus regarding short story anthologies, I’m told, that the strongest pieces need to go at the beginning and you just tack the weaker ones at the end.

Which end of this chambered nautilus is the finish?

I was surprised to find this out, because surely leaving a good final impression is nearly as essential as hooking readers in? I understand it’s more intellectually stimulating to leave endings a bit vague and open. However, I like some evidence toward a resolution, and I particularly enjoy works that ensure the relevant characters get cameos, however enigmatic, in the last bit (ahem, Anna Karenina).

In other words, to put this into a 90s classic as I am wont to do (usually in secret, but I’m feeling generous today), “What about your ends? Will they stand their ground, will they let you down aga-ain?” (Thanks, TLC.)

There are a few top closing line lists compiled on the Web, and I agree with them more or less. I don’t necessarily agree with Penguin Books that all last lines should “compel you to wonder what’s next.” If every book ended ambiguously, I’d find that tiresome. An ending that is definitively sad or happy can be memorable too.

Personal Favourites, aka Here Be Spoilers

That said, one of my very favourite final lines is from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” There’s a gentle finality to it; a kind, if tongue-in-cheek, release for a doomed relationship.

It also gives us permission to daydream while accepting what the reality is, and in fact a lot of endings fall into that category. In Atonement, Ian McEwan pulls a last minute swap on the reader, telling us: “You know that prettier alternative we were telling you about? Never happened.” Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie blazingly illuminates a tragedy but in her last line gives us one searing instant to imagine something happier. Jonathan Safran Foer in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close closes with a rewind, permitting us to linger on what’s been lost.

Many books end with the possibility of a new beginning, not a guarantee but a foundation laid. We know the characters won’t have an easy go of it, but we’re given sufficient confidence in them. I can generally count on Sarah Waters for this, as in The Paying Guests and Fingersmith, and Michael Chabon too. Madeleine Miller’s Circe and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo are other examples of endings that tease great things to come.

When Will You Make an End?

I’m not always good at endings. The first story I ever wrote went unfinished, because at the age of 4 I couldn’t resolve the little girl’s predicament of being chased by a wolf. I still wouldn’t know how to sort that one out.

Letting the sun go down on some promising growth

With short stories, I tend to conclude them at the point where I don’t want to know what happens next. Those characters are for that moment only. With novels, I’ll revisit the people in my head, imagining reunions and revelations that weren’t necessary to the plot but are fun to think of nonetheless. It can help to come back to an image, a detail, in the final sentence or paragraph, something meaningful but light. Lipstick, or crayons, or maybe a bread roll.

At the moment I’m rewriting the ending of my novel The Gospel of Eve. I’m happy with a lot of the tying up I did, however loose some of it is (we have to keep with the trends and leave enough left unsaid), but the mood needs a little lift—tough job when it ends foreshadowing a world-destroying flood. But there are ways, as Hemingway indicated, to pretty things up a little.

After all, some of our key aims as writers are to portray harsh truths, to know how to speak beautifully of them, and to know when not to try dressing them up.

What are some of your favourite endings and last lines?

Keeping Warm

This Week’s Bit of String: Fruit cocktail upstairs

When I was growing up my family rented part of a large, New England lakeside farmhouse. It wasn’t the most meticulously renovated building, and sometimes the winter stole in, down the stone chimney (which bats were also known to use as a passage) and between the log walls. Some mornings were so cold my mother wouldn’t let us come downstairs.

Instead, she’d carry up a little wooden table with peeling paint, and our metal-mesh chairs, and some bowls of tinned fruit or yoghurt. We’d have breakfast like a doll’s tea party in the bedroom, clustered round the small table. We loved it.

Old England snow doesn’t compare to the New England stuff, but it still feels a bit exciting.

For our mom, it was probably stressful, worrying about our health and having to rearrange things when she had 3 preschool kids with another on the way. But we just enjoyed the thrill of it, while she took care of everything.

Some of my favourite childhood memories involved keeping warm. Car rides wrapped in afghans crocheted by great grandmothers and aunts; coming in from snowball fights to find Dad making pizza with his records blaring. To appreciate these, we had to be cold first. But warming up after is well worth it.

Warm-Up Writing

Warmth is the quality I most cherish in a book, film, or TV series. Some people might say chemistry but that’s a little volatile, and can be cold, manufactured. I’m not just referring to cosiness and security either. I like a crackle beneath the surface. Maybe it’s just a few embers which a piece occasionally circles back to, or steady driving heat.

A warm story doesn’t require the complete absence of cold. Far from it—without hostility or loneliness, how would we appreciate the pockets of warmth?

Let it blaze

The heat source is usually a relationship, though not always a romantic or conventional one. It might be acceptance of a friend’s or sibling’s quirks, or devotion to a particular place (love of home is still a form of relationship), or a driving faith in an idea, even if misguided.

Often, we get a combination of these. Of Mice and Men, for example, is about friendship, tolerance for disability and racial differences, and also the unabashed pursuit of pet rabbits. My favourite writers: Dickens, Chabon, Atkinson, AM Homes, John Irving—I love them for the vast, diverse casts of characters they use but it’s not as if they’re just ticking identity boxes. They’re portraying authentic idiosyncrasies, and other people’s attractions to them. Same with TV shows, I love the recent shift toward ensemble casts, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Brooklyn 99, because it feels appreciative and supportive.

Turning Up the Heat

I’m not reputed for the cheeriest of writings. My two most successful short stories are about a brutal invasion, and a grieving mum. But I think part of what commended those stories to judges and readers was maintaining a dash of warmth. How can we make sure it’s included?

Including all reality: Even during the most terrible events, small good things will still happen. Sunrises, embraces, a cup of tea. It’s not necessary to only show the bad.

Detail work: Quick lines about a character’s manner or appearance can endear them to us. Dickens and Disney understand this; giving even villains catchphrases or sidekicks. It makes us not hate to see them, and maybe even root for them.

Honesty: Fair presentation of our characters’ faults mean they can be more fully embraced, by other characters and by readers. Bonds that have been tested can come out stronger, so we needn’t gloss things over. My latest novel is about Eve, and while she and Adam had seen each other fail spectacularly, this made them rather appreciate each other’s support at new levels.

The beauty of frosted thorns

Relatability: If we recognise something in a story, even in the midst of unpleasantness, we warm to it. And as writers, adding familiarity makes us feel a situation more deeply, and that comes through. For example, in “The Apocalypse Alphabet,” along with the stress of rationing and an approaching invasion, I included images resonant from childhood and parenthood: a little boy with his nightshirt flapping around his knees, battling with wooden spoon weapons.

Imagination: While we like glimmers of familiarity in our reading, what really entices us is that those relatable details clue us in to something bigger. We want to feel part of a grander adventure, so there’s no need to hold back from introducing the weird or wild. Contrast is key. There’s a reason I remember the Upstairs Breakfasts rather than any other picnic at our little wooden table—they were unexpected, urgent, exciting.

Dialogue: Spoken exchanges are some of the clearest ways to communicate warmth, not just because someone’s saying something, but because someone’s listening as well. I miss overhearing dialogue, since my life is so home-based now. Even my walks have to come very early, before anyone is about. Last week I “treated myself” to a lunchtime walk and took my earbuds out while I strolled up the High Street. A scruffy bearded man in pyjama bottoms and worn red trainers boasted to a dog-walking lady with a More Beer hoodie about his wife’s special mince pies. A couple of men with foreign accents talked earnestly outside a closed-down pub about how much one man loved his van. “Dis car is my workhorse, you know?” Nothing intriguing or witty, but it warmed me to know that people are still interacting kindly with each other, right there on the street.

What are some of your favourite sources of warmth in the literary world?

Sufficing

This Week’s Bit of String: A sleepy question

Going to bed the other night, my husband asked, “If something will suffice, is it ever actually sufficient?” An interesting comment on the terms’ connotations, since saying something will suffice implies it is merely tolerable, while pronouncing it sufficient elevates it to the region of satisfactory.

He posed the question at the end of another evening when I retreated to my office corner to work overtime as soon as I finished washing the dinner dishes, so I sensed a sharper meaning. I was getting through the basics and little else.

In times like these, sufficing is lucky. I have a job to do overtime in, and can do so from the safety of my home. We have food so I can take a break from my desk to cook, and clean up after. Watching the pandemic claim lives and livelihoods while political unrest threatens my native country and nibbles the edges of this one, it’s easy to settle for what simply suffices.

These days are all about going a little easy on ourselves, being grateful for the tiniest stabilities. I think I’ve reached the point where I should strive for more, though. Anyone else?

Building on the Foundations

Unsurprisingly, both suffice and sufficient share the same root, even if in modern conversation they’re interpreted slightly differently. The Latin sufficere means not only to supply a substitute, to be adequate, but also to put under, to lay a foundation for, which implies it’s not meant to be the ultimate goal.

Thankfully, local artists are still bringing it: Rainbows up all over town made from photos sent in by the community

Since we had COVID in March, I get really winded climbing hills. I wonder, am I actually physically weaker, or did I feel weak a few months ago and now I expect to struggle and the dread takes my breath away? But I hike anyway, every day, and I just need to apply that to other areas of my life. To claw back time so I can go further without necessarily going faster.

I’ve written before about using art to push back against daily tedium. Why do we relapse and find ourselves not doing something so good for us? Without time to read, to explore, to learn, I feel as if I’m not even human.

This year, as things get hectic, I have managed to keep scribbling a few daily observations and ideas, so I’ve not completely silenced my writer-self. Despite getting a couple of stories published just a few weeks ago, though, I’m scared of trying to build a coherent story again, or even editing an old one. What if the latest bout of stress and the weird displacement, sometimes frantic, sometimes numb, of having my son away at university have finally snapped my brain? What if, given a bit of time, I just get lazy and choose to waste it?

I’m probably not the only one facing these doubts, so we might as well help push each other through.

Asking the Questions

Sometimes to do more, we have to ask for more. Yesterday I took a proper long hike after work, while my husband finished the hoovering for me. It felt weird because usually his day ends after the office and I do all the chores, plus working extra hours. I even shed a couple of guilty tears as I tromped along.

A Lake District climb I managed (just a bit more slowly) during a break a little while ago.

When I left him he was happy helping out. But sometimes we cling to a delusion of being The Only One to get certain things done, in our families and in our work. Telling ourselves how needed we are becomes simpler than asking what we really need—or don’t—in our lives. Feeling the late afternoon sun and smelling the autumn leaves, I wondered why I didn’t put Get Some Fresh Air During Daylight on my to-do list for the day. It was terribly important.

One area I’ve probably been insufficient in is my social life. As an immigrant, who became a parent at age 20 and has almost always had to work full-time while also attempting to forge a writing career, you’ve got to cut me some slack. Still, in over 7 months I’ve spent time with people outside my household only 7 times. That includes co-workers, and it includes family members apart from the 2 (now just 1) I live with. Bit shoddy, I admit.

I tell myself I have to devote free time to supporting my family and trying to write. Maybe I’ve reduced my life to a series of mercenary calculations on what will benefit me. My figures might be incorrect.

And this is where we do need to be flexible with ourselves. With life in chaos, we must allow adjustments. There’s no point wondering why the structures we once set up aren’t working; we have to re-balance. Ask ourselves honestly what needs to go so the true essentials can take precedence, because if we want to do better at one thing, we might need to let another lag. We deserve a chance to try, but thankfully we’re probably not so important that the world will end if we reprioritise. By letting someone help us out now and then, we might be helping them feel more sufficient, too.

Friendly Reminder.

Never Empty

This Week’s Bit of String: The talking shadow

“In Mario,” My eight-year-old used his customary conversation starter, “sometimes there’s a little guy who follows you around and tells you stuff.”

I paused while fixing dinner. “I’ve got one of those, too.”

“What? No, not like that.” He grinned though. He knew I meant him. With strict limitations on time spent actually playing Mario, he spent a good deal of time talking to me about it, and about other things. Every walk, every errand, every chore and the many, various games and endeavours we engaged in happened to the soundtrack of him recounting playground exploits, giving his musical opinions, or providing play-by-play narrative of races.

I don’t recall the name of this Mario character, but I remember my son’s feet on the grey, slate-style kitchen floor as he told me about The Little Guy Who Follows You Around and Tells You Stuff. My son has very long, thin feet to match his long, thin body, and they taper into pointy heels so I’ve always called them “triangle rabbit’s feet.”

Finding Out Stuff

Maybe this particular exchange stayed with me for over a decade not just because of its representation of our relationship but because it echoed a certain idea of a muse. We have this conception when we start out as writers that inspiration is a separate entity leading us, drawing our attention to useful material. Even if we don’t consciously admit to that expectation, I think it’s there.

Those feet right there.

The word Muse, though, originates from an ancient word for “to think.” As writers, we have to be vigilant for ideas, and spend the time and mental energy refining them into art. There’s no constant chaperone or information source.

Same with parenting. There’s not a single point where your kid decides whether to keep talking to you. There are many little moments which will create a lasting impression. I’d hate for my son to think I didn’t like him telling me stuff, so I took interest, though I couldn’t take in every single thing. I became the Little Mum Who Checks in Regularly and Listens to Stuff. It worked pretty well.

Claim Versus Connection

My sister told me, after a brief stop at home in my freshman year at college, that my mother cried as she put my cup away. This seemed silly at the time. I’d lived away that whole summer for my job, before leaving for university. Why make a fuss now? With the excessive knowledge of a 17-year-old, I thought my mother was making an unjust claim over me. I didn’t belong to her anymore.

Now I’ve just taken my son to university. I won’t have him telling me stuff, although hopefully regular texts will continue. Beyond pandemics, lockdowns, economic depressions, and food shortages (you know, what everyone stresses about now), I’m not too worried about him. He is eager to start his primary teaching course, and excited about the different people he’ll meet.

He’s shown perseverance and talent to get where he is. I’ve never allowed myself to say I’m proud of him because even if I’ve guided and supported, he’s made his own choices and committed to growth. I can’t claim credit for his achievements.

I miss him so much, though. Him following me around telling me stuff was a privilege I enjoyed for all of my adult life, and I can see now that my mother, the most selfless person on earth, wasn’t crying over a lost claim but because from an overstretched connection.

Babies and Books

I’ve written before about how Books Aren’t Babies. We should boldly send them into the world, because submitting our writing is less scary than relinquishing our children. Less sad, too. But our creative endeavours and our progeny both come down to connection rather than ownership.

Have we made space and time for our writing, have we listened to its essence and then, ultimately, let it unfold as needed? Even when we’re lucky enough to get pieces published, as I was in two recent online literary magazines (this Kafka parody and this personal essay), we’ll always look at our creation with agonised love, wondering, “Did I do enough?”

Rabbity little triangles.

Nothing can be enough for something we can’t get enough of. I had 6 months working from home with my 18-year-old also locked down. I’m so glad that for one of the first times in his life, we got to visit with each other for three meals per day. Didn’t make it easier to drive away from that uni without him, though. I watched the houses go by and felt ragingly envious of all their inhabitants now in closer proximity to my favourite young human than I am.

I believe there’s only full-time parenting or writing, no other way truly exists. Both are consuming. Parents spending all day with their kids show incredible perseverance. For those of us with extra jobs, our hearts also are with our kids and our minds keep pivoting there as well. Frequent interruptions, every spare minute devoted to family-centred errands and admin work, every reminder of someone else’s children aching the chest. Just as we scout constantly for writing-related inspiration and lessons while at the workplace, we’re also tuned in to anything that will deepen our connection with our children.

The perk of this exhausting triple life? Souls this full of love are never empty. I’ve tried to rest my brain from writing sometimes, but ideas push through. I need to write just as I need to know my son is okay, and fulfilling his goals.

On the eve of his departure, surrounded by full bags and boxes, my son asked me, “Are you happy with all we got done today?” I said I was. We’d worked hard. Only his computer and gadgets—Mario games, for example—to pack the following day.

“Then that’s good enough for me,” he said. Another sweet little exchange marking sharp-heeled prints over my full heart.

Wait for It

This Week’s Bit of String: Heartbeats down the hall

“Just wait here while I check something.” It’s not what we like to hear at a doctor’s appointment, but I had bigger worries. Twenty years old, 7.5 months pregnant and still chronically nauseous, single and forced to drop out of college, desperately missing my ex-boyfriend and working 45-50 hours per week on my feet in 80-90 degree heat, I now had a fever and was just tired.

The doctor disappeared from the little exam room into the indecipherable warren of the obstetrics unit. If I refused to wait, I’d never find my way out, but at least it was air conditioned. I rested my elbow on a table of magazines and closed my eyes while my son did chinups on my ribs.

Somewhere in the labyrinth another expectant mum listened to her baby’s heartbeat. I could hear the Doppler machine through the walls, a steady rhythm behind my exhaustion.

Worth the wait, then the unending watch

And a woman’s voice, maybe the mother, maybe a companion, maybe a hallucination. Her chatter flowed high and melodious. She broke off to laugh, and in other moments broke into song: “On My Own” from Les Miserables. A languid, lonely line or two then more cheery talk, while the baby’s heart sounded.

When I first found out I was pregnant and got dumped (we married way later though, so don’t worry) I often wondered how I’d make it through months of this uncertainty before holding my baby. Waiting is hard, especially when everything else is a mess. The waiting and the uncertainty are huge emotional drains during the pandemic, don’t you think? We don’t know when we’ll be reunited with distant loved ones, we don’t know whether the economy will sustain itself, or indeed whether pasta will be available at the next grocery trip.

In this environment, we wait for my son’s A-Level grades. Until next Thursday, we won’t know what university he can go to, or where he’ll live, or how long he’ll need to stay there. It feels like a high stakes waiting game but I’ve gotten better at this.

Practice Makes Perfect

Writers do a lot of waiting. We wait for feedback from beta readers, for competition results, acceptance from agents, publishers, literary magazines, we wait for reviews and we wait for regard. The competitions we enter in May may not give us results till October.

The other thing we wait for is availability. Time spent on the day job or on housework or even socially can feel like waiting, biding our time till we can be alone with our ideas and mould them into art. Certain distractions can be helpful, and at other times they make us resentful. I’m worst at this kind of waiting, the when-will-it-be-five-o’clock-so-I-can-finally-write-down-the-flash-piece-I-invented-during-my-lunch-hour-hike kind. Is producing thousands of pounds worth of energy bills really more important that delving into the imagined world of Jemima Deadly, Chef to the Celebrities, and her Biscuits of Doom? (One of my current short stories in progress.)

Blooming through the cracks

Leading this double life helps us cope with waiting, though. By learning to pause the flow of words so we can crunch numbers or strike up dinner conversation, we know how to compartmentalise. We send a story off somewhere, padlock the mental exam room where we birthed it, and wander through the warren in our brain to a different one.

From a chamber deep in our minds is a steady pulse: Must write. Must be heard. And with it surreal strands of song and laughter like a siren’s call. While we wait, we work on new projects. As the longlist and shortlist announcements approach, we enter that original cubicle and rifle through it: what will we change if it’s rejected? Where will we submit next? How will we promote it if it’s actually successful? I ration myself a few minutes of daydreams per day, then dash away from them on a torrent of Plan Bs, Cs, and Ds.

Passing the Time

Waiting is not a passive act. It’s a discipline. The origins of the word come from the terms for being awake, for keeping watch, and even earlier than that, from pre-English for “to be strong, lively.” In addition to stocking up on alternative submission possibilities and indulging in the occasional success fantasy, how do we maintain our strength during the rigorous wait?

Release your inner magpie: Go out and gather string, writers. Chase shiny things. Diversions are better than anxiety. Your story’s out of your hands for the moment, so relish the opportunity to invent a new one.

Street art, Southville, Bristol

Be practical: Plan where to submit next. I don’t like this part of being a writer, because seeking opportunities robs from the limited time I have for creating. It feels like that bad kind of waiting. But it is important, and when it’s done there’s the hope of new chances.

Stock up on positives: When you have doubts, send your work to friends, read it at a writers group, share a line in one of Twitter’s writing hashtags. It’s not the same as getting a contract or a prize, but encouragement always helps.

Remember others are waiting too: Everyone’s got something they’re keeping watch for. Support other writers and creatives so the wait doesn’t feel so long for them.

Poke your head up: Use the time to catch up on other aspects of life. We don’t want to find we were waiting for the wrong thing. I remember so little about when my son was a baby, I was so lost longing for his father.

I’m glad my son has had to practice waiting. Most 18-year-olds don’t go half a year without structure and yet manage to remain pleasantly functioning. He’s made new music, learned Italian, baked bread, set a record for speed running Lego Star Wars on ds, been an all-around best bud while I’m working from home. Whatever university he gets into, he’s ready to throw himself into it, with the knowledge that if there aren’t immediate results he can persevere.

It will be worth it. He was. And just as I survived that little fever and the long wait for his birth, and the wait to be a family, and the very busy wait to see what he’d be like as he grew, I guess I can survive the wait to see him at the end of his university term. With parenting, as with writing, when one wait ends another begins. But I think, after all we’ve been through, that one of the lyrics I overheard in the obstetrics waiting room is true: “Without me, his world will go on turning,” and this time that’s a good thing.

On Thievery

This Week’s Bit of String: A warren of ruins

The street of battered pizzerias and pale, boxy apartment buildings descended toward the Golf of Naples. Through a park gate flanked by palm trees, modern blocks fell away and we saw labyrinthine city remains, built with early cement bricks. Herculaneum.

Many of the houses had beautiful mosaics and painted frescoes. While Mount Vesuvius crouched in the background, we marvelled at the technique and skill still visible. But I struggled to imagine the real people who lived there. Their skeletons looked so small, huddled beside what used to be the seafront before the volcano dumped its ash, killing over 300 in seconds.

We can see they liked some colour on their walls, liked soaking in the baths. How did they feel about growing up, coupling up, having kids, watching them move on? Did the mums wake up early to go for seaside walks before anyone needed them? When the houses stood, did they look as alike each other as the modern apartments do?

When we consider history, we can only imagine it in reference to the present: these things are the same, these are different. It’s the same way with people, I think. We compare and contrast people to ourselves. We have sympathy: this person is like me; and hopefully we develop empathy: Ah, but this person is different, in other ways—I wonder what that’s like for them?

This week I helped host a Twitter chat for our Women Writers’ Network. The subject was personal writing—how much of ourselves do we show? It generated interesting discussion on memoir and autobiography, on crossing the boundary from reality to written word. Even fiction writers like myself often get asked, ‘Is it about anyone I know?’ Always with a hint of a nervous laugh.

It occasionally is, but you probably won’t recognise them. Here’s why.

Repurposing the Remains

Wandering through ruins, the missing bricks strike my curiosity as much as the standing ones. Centuries ago, did people cart some off to build roofs over their own heads? I researched the seven wonders of the ancient world recently for a short story. The pyramids, of course, were looted. Bits of the Colossus of Rhodes were sold as scrap metal, and blocks from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus fortified a castle.

We see things for their use to us, not always their intended purpose. Any anecdote or personality trait we snatch, it changes to fit our story. We can’t replicate reality because the context always gets tweaked.

When I was 11, I planned my first fiction series. The protagonists were based on favourite book characters, or shared characteristics with my own friends. I felt bad about it. Why wasn’t I clever enough to make up my own characters?

You wouldn’t have detected the source material, though. If anyone had read my crammed pencil scrawls, they wouldn’t have recognised my crush as the hero, because to make him heroic I had to put him in situations he’d never dream of. Plus, in real life he barely spoke five words to me, so I was basically making him up anyway.

Assuming a personality is made up of elements both natural and nurtured, none of these elements will weather the writing process intact. (More on this process here.) Any nurtured aspects will be altered by the scenarios they’re penned into, and any natural aspects are only guesswork on the author’s part. We can never fully know another person. I wouldn’t even bet I could duplicate myself on paper.

The Sacred Template

Another lesson I take from my adolescent experiments with character-snatching is that I needed a template. I didn’t know nearly enough about people to create well-rounded, imaginary new ones. Do any of us ever fully get there?

It’s like when you start in a job, for a while you aren’t sure if your correspondence will be good enough, so you use the provided templates. Then you know it by heart and you can write your own, maybe omitting inconvenient phrases such as “Please let us know if you have further queries.”

Sometimes we can’t help it. We encounter someone or hear about something and just have to create our own version. That’s allowed. The writing can still be complex, made up of clever disguises and massive leaps of projection. For example, I recently finished Madeline Miller’s wonderful book Circe. We read modern retellings of myths even though we know what will happen in the end, because we want to see how contemporary authors will make the characters accessible.

Our renderings of reality are also subject to the constraints of our craft and its current fashions. They say people once feared photography would steal a piece of their soul. In a way, pictures and stories do that—because they can only preserve so much. We may try to portray diverse characters, but we can only snapshot them and in today’s literary world we might get caught up in the great distillation race: How few words can I use to convey this life, how succinctly can I sharpen a person’s image?

I’ve said since working toward my degree almost 20 years ago that I write to remember, to recreate people and places I can’t get to. But I found early on that while I always love my characters, a figment of memory is not an equal source to a real person. The idea becomes a new person as I try to create.

It could be discouraging, the realisation that we can’t fully understand people beyond the corruption of our own perceptions and experiences. It probably means pure altruism isn’t possible. But it also means we all remain originals. The most brilliant writer ever to pick up a pen could not recreate you or me. So stay weird, folks, no one can steal that from you.

Choosing a Bubble

This Week’s Piece of String: Adolescents in a Hospital Ward, 1993

What’s the most diverse group of people you’ve ever been part of? Not just racially or politically, but in terms of experience and beliefs. For me it was hospitalisation when I was 12, in a unit later shut down after a surprise inspection. It wasn’t a nice place, but I quickly learned to like the people I was with.

We were aged 12 to 17, representing all colours, with heritage from Puerto Rico, Greece, and Jamaica. There were teens left there by the state for over a year. Runaways brought in from the street, kids stopping off on their way to longer detention, and private school students whose rich parents didn’t know how to handle them.

One boy, a few months younger than I was, had stolen a gun from Walmart. One girl’s entire family were in detox. There was a virulently anti-racist boy who suffered from muscular dystrophy, a junior KKK member, and a powerful African-American girl who didn’t hesitate to enlighten him. My roommate loved vinegar, Aerosmith, and her little foster brother who had spina bifida.

This puzzle fit together especially well thanks to its oddly shaped pieces…Must get my cheesiest metaphors out of the way before actually writing the next book.

We kept count of the times we heard The Bodyguard soundtrack on the radio (“Run to You:” 9 times in 2 weeks), and lived for the pizza bagels we were given on Friday nights. We were united against tyrannical psychiatrists and shared affection for the handful of kindlier workers. We jostled for shaving slots, during the one daily hour when we could access “sharps.” Through major personal crises, we cared for each other, and accepted our quirks.

In the midst of a new global crisis, as the government allows us to form “bubbles” of safety, I fear this will result in further entrenching us in homogenous opinions. Every book or TV series I love (and that seem to particularly resonate with readers and audiences) has a motley, diverse cast who beat the odds to save the day. And that’s how my next writing project will be, even if real life isn’t turning out that way.

Weirdos Assemble!

From The Baby-Sitters Club to last year’s joint Booker Prize winner Girl, Woman, Other, from Star Trek to The Good Place, our hallmarks of fiction showcase diversity. There’s always room to include more ethnicities and sexualities, but it’s also important to celebrate different personalities.

I love how Brooklyn 99 features not just multiple people of colour, but also two characters who are particularly emotionally guarded. Guardians of the Galaxy could be a descendant of Catch-22, in which a group of people with various bizarre passions and tendencies are thrown together to fight a common enemy. Isn’t every iconic friendship a pairing of opposites, an appreciation of certain foibles the rest of the world has rejected?

Scout, Jem, Dill and Boo in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Huckleberry Finn and his travel buddy Jim, the alliances Oskar builds in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Owen Meany and… you know, his best mate who tells his story.

My actual world.

You’ve probably got some favourite examples, too. As the pandemic shrinks our spheres of existence, makes every day similar to the next, and seems to embitter divisions, contemplating variance is refreshing. Have you found that?

Even now that activities are opening up, I still feel trapped in a waiting game. Wondering when I can see all my family in America. Waiting for results from competitions I’ve entered stories in, and still over a month from A-Levels Results Day, when our son finds out his grades and can then know which university he’s able to go to. In the COVID era, this also means that until his results come, we won’t know whether he’ll be able to visit home during university termtime or whether he’ll have to stay there in an allotted “bubble” of people on his course. So after emigrating from my whole family, I might now have to say goodbye to my child, my best buddy, for months on end… Yes, it’s high time to retreat into fiction and plan the next writing project.

World-Building

Starting a new novel is like designing your own plague-bubble. You’re not considering who to allow in the club, but who’s needed for the mission. I’m preparing to bring characters on board, I’m designing a set for them, and I’m coming up with plot points that ideally I’d like them to hit, but whatever, I trust their judgement.

Inspired partly by a hike past this unfinished mansion, which seemed to have a couple of young squatters…

It’s going to be somewhat apocalyptic; it’s more cathartic to imagine a better way through them than to imagine they don’t exist. Here’s my wishlist, because as writers we get to Write the Book We Want to See in the World:

  • A gothic-style setting, probably an abandoned manor house
  • A hint of the supernatural, because my last novel was about Eve and once you get to incorporate dragons and talking animals, there’s no going back.
  • Six main characters thrown together surprisingly, from very different walks of life
    • The enigmatic older caretakers of the estate
    • A spoiled but charming heir
    • His girlfriend, an immigrant who’s sacrificed parts of herself to assimilate
    • A recovering alcoholic who’d been homeless for months
    • A runaway nurse who just can’t take the front lines anymore
  • Certain personality traits to share around:
    • Someone obsessed with jigsaw puzzles, because that is one of my favourite Lockdown activities and why not use it?
    • Someone tuned in to religious iconography and symbols, you know, to heighten the drama
    • An element of uncertainty as to who’s REALLY in charge here. Which ones are the manipulators, which are the manipulated? Could they possibly, in some way, all be equally obligated to and fearful of each other? Does that mean they all need each other equally?
  • Art or music or poetry or exotic plants… the estate is bound to have some unique collections which could become significant. I’ll research obscure artefacts and see what I like.

What kind of reading and writing makes you feel better about the world? May your bubbles be safe but exciting, your books and your life studded with colourful characters.