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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time

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

A Story Surplus

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

Signs of support

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

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

Grief

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

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

Grounded.

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

Not This Crude Matter

This Week’s Bit of String: A Prickly Tribute

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

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

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

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

Cactus left by pier base.
Intriguing, right?

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

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

A Thicket of Thoughts

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

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

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

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

The Luminous Beings Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Persistence of Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paralysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perch

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

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

Brave, brave Sir Robin

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

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

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

Likeable, Shmikeable: Managing the Voices, Part 2

Interview with Helen Taylor, Author of Backstreets of Purgatory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Art of Being Away

This Week’s Bit of String: Marriage proposal on a t-shirt

When I immigrated to Britain my son was almost 3, quite active, and thankfully for our overnight flight we sat next to someone friendly. Our neighbour on the plane was a medical student from Bulgaria, on his way home to surprise his girlfriend.

She was expecting his best friend, also Bulgarian and studying with him in Boston. “She’ll come to pick him up at the airport,” our flight mate explained, “but instead she’ll get me!” He beamed and pulled a t-shirt out of his carry-on. It was printed with, apparently, “Will you marry me?” in Bulgarian.

I often wonder how he fared. He planned that the wedding would take place after his studies were complete, when he would return to his home country to work. “We need doctors in Bulgaria. I can’t keep that away from them.”

Have Gifts, Will Travel

With a bachelor’s degree in Writing and Literature, and a hodgepodge of hospitality, childcare, and administrative work experience, I didn’t feel I was depriving my home country by leaving. As writers we can set up work anywhere. And hopefully, eventually, we can positively impact people regardless of borders.

Mural depicting 19th-century immigrants on a ship as they get their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty
Mural at the House of Emigrants museum in Vaxjo, Sweden

Quite a few famous writers throughout history have been travellers and immigrants (articles here and here on great books written by immigrants). Even in an informal Twitter poll of writers I conducted this week, 35% of the respondents now live in a country different from where they were born.

This is partly reflective of our portable vocation, and perhaps of our general exploratory nature. Although as writers we’re often introverts, we feel an irresistible urge to discover and experience more. I think too, it’s possible we’re somewhat itinerant because we’re not the most boundary-conscious people.

Everywhere is writing territory. A train compartment, an airport queue, a historical landmark, a foreign restaurant. Inside someone else’s front garden, inside your head. We cross countless borders, sometimes with questionable authority, and with varying degrees of success.

And sometimes when we’re right there in front of you, we might seem to be somewhat absent.

Home and Abroad

For those writers who don’t take the ultimate leap of immigration, there’s still travel. The many writers who travel seeking adventure, often with children and often faithfully writing about it, impresses me (stunning examples here and here).

I just came back from a short family trip to Denmark and Sweden. At New Year’s we spent a long weekend in Seville. I didn’t write at all, on either of those journeys. I couldn’t even keep a daily diary. Feeding and entertaining my family, maintaining all arrangements and reservations, studying maps and routes and opening times and attractions, then processing photos afterward, those things take up all my time.

Mermaid statue on coastal boulders.
Den hille havfrue (the little mermaid) statue in Copenhagen, clearly dreaming of new adventure.

That said, I still believe travel helps us as writers. From a quick, hard-earned vacation I am reminded to utilise every minute, to watch for differences and similarities around the globe. New realms open up to me while reinforcing common human bonds.

The first story I published took place in Haiti, a nation I visited and fell in love with when I was 16. I love using writing to remember places I’ve seen, which is why some of my writing still takes place in my American home state of New Hampshire.

Side note, the word immigrant actually originated in New Hampshire, first coined in a 1792 history book there by James Belknap. It’s from the French, which in turn was derived from the Latin, for “to remove, go into, move in.”

Immigrant shares its root with the word emerge. To me, that’s possibly the most important part of travel: emerging from the stupor of our routine. We shake ourselves awake from our own story and flit through endless streams of others.

Glass vase etched with a woman hanging laundry in the wind.
In the Glass Museum in Vaxjo, Sweden: Seeing beauty in the mundane.

This includes the magical, like the peace of an old cathedral or a breathtaking sculpture, but also the mundane—how Copenhagen and Seville get rid of their rubbish via an automated vacuum system which sucks it through underground pneumatic tubes to a processing facility. While traveling we’re exposed to the dramatic—help the hotel raise money to provide safe rooms for victims of human trafficking—and the personal, like the mum at the table next to us in a Swedish burger bar, who must have been out for a birthday meal with her partner and adult son, but barely touched her food, sat composed and quiet the whole time, and prepared to leave by slowly pulling her celebratory bouquet from her water glass, one stalk at a time.

Then we return to the daily grind and the stories swarming around us come home to roost. While we’re checking spreadsheets, hanging laundry, or trying to ignore bad bus smells, suddenly we are whisked away again. Borderless, unfettered, we get lost in a new story. Please excuse us if we seem to be away again.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or someone who enjoys a good staycation, do keep exploring. We need your stories, the ones you bring back and the ones you return refreshed to pick up again.

Managing the Voices, Part 1: Selection

This Week’s Bit of String: A Fatal Accident

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Hurting

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

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

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

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

Portraying Victims

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

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

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

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

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

Portraying Non-Victims

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

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

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

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

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