Changing It Up

This Week’s Bit of String: New brake pads

The only car I ever bought was a used Ford Contour, back in New Hampshire (in Britain the model is called the Mondeo). I named her Shellby, inspired by her pearlescent sandy colour. But despite her shimmering finish, she was, to quote Stephen Moffat’s show Coupling, “a buffet of improvability.”

I had to get Shellby new brake pads in the middle of a spectacularly cold winter. Secretly I hoped that while ensuring I could actually stop my car, the garage might happen to fix other things: the door that didn’t open, the window that didn’t close, the inability to play music out of both speakers or get more than fifty miles on a tank if I put the heating on in 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Post-blizzard car, with snow almost to the top of the hood/ bonnet.
Poor old Shellby. I guess I can’t blame her for getting broken by winters like this.

Of course, new brake pads meant new brake pads and nothing more. But I still like to imagine fixing one thing will magically repair everything else. I go to the doctor hoping that getting rid of my third crippling cough in half a year will also disappear the side pain I wake up with every morning and the way the bones in my big toe don’t seem to fit together correctly anymore.

Changing the Story

When we churn out a story, I think we usually sense whether it works or not. Often it doesn’t, and while we can tell what’s wrong with it, we aren’t sure how to fix it. If we knew we would have written it better in the first place, right?

It would be nice if we could fix it by deleting or inserting a single element. But a story is (or should be) a tight conglomeration. Characters, plot, setting, theme, voice, everything wind intricately together, interdependent. It’s not like a car or a body where yes, it’s ideal if it all works together, but different bits do carry out different functions.

A story should be streamlined, speeding straight for the heart.

So when something’s wrong, it’s hard to fix without having to unpick everything else too, and that’s overwhelming. It’s cruel enough making us cut bits out; having to invent completely new bits is nearly beyond the pale. Recently one of my stories was rejected from a magazine, with the feedback that it was very well-written and engrossing—until the end. Put a twist in it, the editor said.

But the whole story is a twist, I thought. The point of view is a twist. I wondered if I could sneak a few sentences in here and there, a couple of details to emphasise the protagonist’s transformation.

I can’t shake the worry that something more fundamental is missing, so although I was proud of the story and the successes it had already, I haven’t found the courage—or time—to revisit it.

Change in Routine

My husband’s taken over the ironing recently, leaving me a bit of time on my hands—and, even better, more headspace. When I was ironing, I’d watch videos to entertain myself. Then I’d sit and finish watching whatever I’d started, sometimes for an hour. Now, instead of turning on YouTube, I write. I’m averaging 2-3 novel pages per day.

Wading in a New Hampshire river.
A clear river or lake, as everyone knows, Is the correct place for the bones in your toes.

Once you realise you can write between two and three pages each day while keeping your family relatively occupied and working full-time and even with your toe bones in the wrong place, then you might believe you can write three pages every day. Or maybe three-and-a-half. Or four, each day!

I’ve glimpsed these horizons before, when I wrote earlier in the year about developing writing habits, thanks to Writers HQ. But back then I still had to do all the ironing. The possibilities now are endless. Knowing my brain works well enough to churn out novel pages makes me think I might have it in me even to tackle that allegedly flat-endinged story of mine.

No Change Too Small
Graffiti on a back door in Bristol: "I hope, therefore I am."
Bristol back-door wisdom

I just finished Rebecca Solnit’s glorious little volume, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She reminds us that a movement unsuccessful in one part of the world can inspire one elsewhere that manages greater impact. Or a failed historical effort can germinate later and take root. By fighting for one thing, we never know what others will be affected.

Bearing in mind how all things could relate to absolutely anything else and remembering that uncertainty means potential rather than chaos, I can revisit my rejected story. “People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end,” observes Solnit. Maybe I’ve been too hasty concluding some stories, and I should explore additional What Ifs.

There’s a necessary balance between preparedness to take on big changes, and contentment with recognising small ones. Whether we’re trying to improve a story, juggle work and family more smoothly, or take on the whole world as activists, we must continue our efforts whether we see obvious results or not. Solnit warns us against striving for perfection. “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” So even without a definite improved ending in mind, I could tinker with a few lines as I’ve already reconsidered, and ideas for more effective changes may follow.

Have you discovered any magic fixes for stories (or life)? What’s your method for coping with the times when no miracle appears? Sometimes changing one thing leads to other things falling in place. Celebrate the small victories, people; we never know where they’ll lead.

 

 

Writing: A Family Affair

This Week’s Bit of String: Cabins in the woods

Beside a small but deep New Hampshire lake, opposite heavily forested hills framing each sunset, there’s a family resort with rustic woodland cabins, and a neighbouring converted farmhouse. That’s where I grew up—my parents rented part of the farmhouse, while my mother worked at the Lodge.

The lake and woods provided constant entertainment, but we were also fed a rich diet of stories and music. Bible stories, fairy tales, chapter books such as Heidi, Charlotte’s Web, The Borrowers, and more. I remember my father explaining A Midsummer Night’s Dream to me, very animated over who loves whom, his massive volume of Shakespeare’s works open tantalisingly between us when I was about three years old.

My parents also told us what went on in the world. Oppression in the USSR, famine in Africa, the Challenger. No matter how young we were, they couldn’t keep from us all the things that moved them.

Paddling toward the sunset on our favourite lake.
That’s what I’m talking about.

We saw our first musical when I was five, a Prescott Park outdoor production in Portsmouth. It was The Music Man, and we were enchanted that song could be integral to storytelling. Add to that my dad’s devotion to Grateful Dead and other similar groups; we knew no topic was too big or small to warrant a song.

From all these sources, flocks of what ifs fluttered through our minds. Every time we packed to visit my grandparents, my sister and I pretended we were orphans escaping a workhouse. We created fortresses between cabins, looting junk piles for crockery and defensive chicken wire. During the off-season, Mom walked us through the woods, imagining we had to sneak past a different Disney villain at each cottage. Our stuffed animals served as characters when we acted out the Chronicles of Narnia and other dramas.

I don’t remember many limits proscribed to our ideas. It’s only fair; if you ensure your child knows all about crucifixion as a pre-schooler, you can’t really criticise them for occasionally manifesting morbid fascinations.

When I was about four, my mother let me use her typewriter to write stories. I never finished, unable to come up with a satisfactory ending (a problem which sometimes persists). But I was given space to try, mentally and practically.

So it wasn’t that surprising, while I planned my annual, too-brief visit to New Hampshire this summer, that my dad suggested, “What if we had a literary festival of our own, in our family?”

And lo, the First Annual Short Stuff Showcase came to pass.

More Than Stories

We moved away from the lake almost thirty years ago. But for a few glorious days last week we converged in its cottages, holding our Short Stuff Showcase in front of Playwood, the little recreational cabin that has witnessed many a ping pong tournament and rainy day video session.

It was the first time some of our partners saw our childhood home, and we were accompanied by my sister’s boyfriend’s family. His brother-in-law joined in with a striking poem about raising children to love a fearsome world, especially poignant as his toddler climbed around him with a heart-melting grin.

Homemade posters for the Short Stuff Showcase
Not to be missed.

We opened with a trumpet-mouthpiece fanfare from my musician husband, who also contributed along with several others by keeping the small children occupied.

The programme continued with a variety of pieces from each of us: humorous and profound, original and recreated. My youngest sister enacted her favourite fairy tale with our old Cabbage Patch dolls, and my sister-in-law led us on the emotional roller coaster that was her diary from the summer she was ten.

My mother shared a song to convey her hope and faith for us, while my brother wrote a wonderful rhyme about establishing inner peace that can be reflected in art. I read out one of my lighter stories, “The Honorary Mothers League,” wanting to make everyone laugh. My dad mixed it up by both reading a silly song and then speaking about his appreciation for my mother.

At sixteen, my son might have been forgiven for eschewing the event, but the moment I’d mentioned it to him, he responded, “I’m in.” We’d discussed various ideas he could build on, and the night before, as we gathered round the hearth in our cabin, he scribbled a highly inventive tale about a bullfrog, a meerkat, and a crumple-horned snorkack. It was fun and also somewhat meta, defying the fourth wall.

Photo of us four children, across the street from the lake.
The Dream Team: 4 kids and a lake. I’m the one with the teeth. They’re better now.

My other sister had composed a poem about how we ourselves are the showcase, more than any small piece we produce, putting into beautiful verse a feeling that had warmed me throughout our gathering.

Living for a few years in an idyllic setting doesn’t equate to a completely idyllic childhood, and we’ve all had serious trials. There were plenty of instances, as we got older, when I’m sure our modes of self-expression caused our parents much more consternation than when I was four, pecking out a tale of a girl escaping a wolf.

And yet here we were, with beloved partners and children, with jobs we’re passionate about and the confidence to share. Our abilities to communicate and express ourselves through writing, and to empathise with others’ stories, have been indispensable bringing us to this point. We are the showcase.

Passing the Torch

When we weave stories, the ultimate tapestry will be partially comprised of bits of string stored since we were very small.  I’ve already passed a bizarre combination of music, film, literature, cuisine, and holiday traditions to my son, and he’s freely adapted it. He must barely have been in school when we got him a binder to keep all his different story beginnings in.

Checking in at the Twittersphere, I found a few writer friends had much less family support than I did. Some families see writing as a futile or worthless endeavour. I’m impressed by people who overcome that initial discouragement to devote themselves to a pursuit that doesn’t frequently offer encouraging results.

On the other hand, the historian and writer Christine Caccipuoti Tweeted that her family was supportive “1000%. They had a policy of never saying no if I asked to buy books (as opposed to toys), allowed me to stay up all night if I was writing, left me alone to do so when I asked, and fostered my love of acquiring pretty notebooks to write in.” Fantastic, I could use that kind of support as an adult. How did your early childhood and family culture contribute to your writing life?

For more tips about supporting kids to become writers, there are a couple of articles here and here. There could be a Short Stuff Showcase in your future, too!

Where the People Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bristol Flash Walk

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

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

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

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

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

Escape to the Country

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

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

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

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

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

Writing in the Wild

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

“So what sorts of things do you write?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly I was in the right sort of crowd.

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

Wild garlic lining the woodland path
Trekking to Site 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terraced hillsides
Site 4: Coombe Hill

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

Makes sense to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pony
Site 6: Holywell Leaze

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

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

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

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

Are We Having Fun Yet?

This Week’s Bit of String: Solitary bowling

Last week my office had a bowling night out. While we cheered our mostly lacklustre shots over cheesy chips and a vast range of alcoholic beverages, an older couple set up a few lanes along.

Only the woman bowled. She wore a bright pink skirt, a lycra team t-shirt, and a grave expression. She’d brought wristbands and kneestraps. Her husband recorded her work with a handheld, flip-out camera, I assume so she could critique herself later.

Before each play she communed briefly with the ball, hugging it to her chest, contemplating the long lonely expanse she was about to cast it into. I’m not sure what goes down between a bowler and the ball in those split seconds. My workmates and I tried mantras like, ‘I am one with the ball and the ball is with me,’ none of which worked any magic.

The pink-skirted woman threw fast, powerful shots and toppled most if not all her pins. But her expression never changed. Though her dedication and force impressed me, I couldn’t shake the feeling she’d leave the alley deeply dissatisfied.

It’s great to pursue a sport or a hobby, whatever it is, any avenue of self-improvement. Probably for those of you reading this blog, writing qualifies as such a pursuit.

And chances are, like me, you’re not exactly earning a living from it. It’s the beast you feed your spare time to, before going to the office and after the kids are in bed. Those precious slices of our day get devoured by building word count on new projects, editing older pieces, managing a social media network, critiquing friends’ work, researching agents and publications, promoting our gigs and releases, reading and research.

It’s a bit like having a second full-time job, isn’t it?

Work, Hobby, or Talent?

To check how it is for others, I polled Twitter on which term best describes writing in the respondents’ lives: work, hobby, or talent. (I included a disclaimer: I understand these words aren’t mutually exclusive, but I wanted to see what other writers viewed as most accurate.)Twitter poll results: 34% work, 52 % hobby, 14% talent.

A much larger percentage chose hobby to describe writing. A fair few selected work, and only a small number said talent, which is understandable. We may have talent for writing but the term is insufficiently indicative of the conscious effort required.

Looking at the etymology of these terms, the word hobby derives from the word hobbyhorse, and the use in Morris dancing. This affiliation with pretending to do something puts me off a little; it links a hobby with a substitute; something not fully real or functional.

Rocking horse and doll's house in an antique shop Christmas window display
Even better than the real thing?

Regardless of what your hobby is, it’s real to you and it does serve a function, even if that function is to escape reality. Articles such as this one from Very Well Mind abound on the importance of hobbies to cut down on stress—and, where necessary, to provide eustress, ‘the healthy kind of stress that we all need to remain feeling excited about life.’

We can probably agree there is stress involved in writing. Even for those not wishing to publish or share, I imagine they still struggle with developing their stories or poems enough to please themselves. The challenges involved here, I believe (admittedly without absence of bias), equip us with resilience and empathy in other areas of our lives.

Partly because of this stress, I join those categorising it as work, if not the most profitable kind and certainly not the most unpleasant. By treating writing as another job, this legitimises time spent on it and shields us from some (certainly not all) encroachments. It keeps our morsels of time out of other greedy mouths.

Consider the definitions of work, which according to etymonline.com all date back to old English, around the start of the thirteenth century.

  • “To perform physical labor:” Well, mental labour certainly. And a bit of wrist strain on those rare occasions when the words are really flying over the keyboard.
  • “To ply one’s trade:” Yes, somewhat. Possibly many of us consider ourselves writers above whatever we happen to do to earn the bulk of our income.
  • “To exert creative power, be a creator.” Undoubtedly.
  • Finally, my favourite: the transitive sense “manipulate (physical substances) into a desired state or form.” Disregard the parenthetical and you bet your boots we manipulate, we manipulate words into desired form.
For the Love of Art
Writing in a cafe.
Weapons of choice.

Writing is also, of course, an art. I deliberately withheld that option from the Twitter poll, but I imagine most would agree. And art is perhaps a more encompassing term than hobby. Did you know the word’s Latin root artem/ars is related to arma, the Latin word for weapons?

We are bearers of weapons, folks.

As we go into battle, as we get down to work, as we utilise our talents and pour time into our hobbies aiming for self-betterment, let’s make sure we still love it. Let’s make sure our faces don’t sag into chronic frowns as we hammer out plots and contemplate rejection letters. I keep thinking of the woman in the bowling alley and how joyless she looked. If you worry about burnout, here are some links to previous inspiring posts:

So what do you think? Work, hobby, talent, art?

 

 

Animals are Characters, Too

This Week’s Bit of String: Crying over cats

‘Miss?’ the Year Eleven boy asked me, tossing his carefully sleeked hair without looking up from the doodled serpents invading his Science BTEC exercise book. ‘Do you ever start randomly crying while you’re petting your cat, because you wish so much they could talk to you?’

I don’t think it’s ever brought me to tears, even when I was sixteen myself, but I definitely used to look in pet cats’ eyes and sense much present in them that we, their humans, missed.

The boy’s question brought to mind a passage from Muriel Barberry’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Renee refers to her ‘appreciation’ for her tenants’ cocker spaniel as: ‘that state of grace attained when one’s feelings are immediately accessible another creatures.’

Guinea pig terminally dissatisfied by food dish.
‘Here goes nothing.’

We now have only guinea pigs as pets, but their feelings are pretty darn accessible. They’re an important if timid part of our family, an affectionate interest uniting us as our son gets older. And if anyone doubts that animals are sentient, I defy them to look at a guinea pig, any guinea pig, and not be struck by the chronic consternation on their faces. It’s as if they’re constantly in dire need of food but always expecting to be disappointed.

Since animals cause us to reflect on what makes us alive, what makes us sentient (to use a rather unattractive, clinical-sounding word), and they bring us joy and unity—isn’t it right they should feature in literature?

Animal Voices

It’s easy to find animals in the fantasy genre. The dragons of Pern, the owls and thestrals of Hogwarts, the daemons of Lyra’s Oxford, the Noisy animals of New World in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series (oh, Manchee!)

So too they should be present in mainstream literature, sincewhen we write we attempt to reflect and learn from real life. Certainly animals have served as set pieces and symbols in literature since Homer told of Circe’s pigs and Polyphemus’ sheep. But in using them only as such, do we devalue their contributions to our lives?

Pictures in Warner Bros Leavesden studios paying tribute to animal actors in the Harry Potter series
Unsung heroes of the Harry Potter films.

There’s the pigeon offering occasional commentary in Pigeon English, and the freed parrot in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. The parrot gets a chapter of his own: one long, continuous sentence. His thoughts fly free as he leaves the home he knew for decades, after his owner’s death. It’s nice to get these extra, imagined perspectives, but by making animal characters simply witnesses to the humans’ folly, they remain a little flat.

A great example of using animals realistically yet appreciatively is Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans. Her novel about immigrants in the UK encompasses many points of view, including a dog. Different characters rate each other based on their respective reactions to Dog, and he leaps in to save the day at the end.

The novel also features scenes in a chicken-packing factory, which convinced me to buy only free-range products ever after. Her depiction linked callous attitudes about animals to abuse and exploitation of migrant workers. It should hardly have been surprising, but it had a somewhat revelatory effect on me.

Animal Roles
Cat posing in line with flowerpots.
Catmouflage: They see all and know all.

Although these authors have gone to great imaginary lengths to use animals as characters and assign voices to them, there are other ways to integrate our furry (or feathery or scaly) friends. Why is it so rare to encounter human characters who own pets? Allusions to a pet can serve as useful shortcuts establishing character. Are they a dog person, a cat person, a horse person, maybe something more unusual like a snake person?

In my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds, treatment of a dog catalyses the action. Pets are a central part of characters’ lives. Introducing one of the protagonists, Lydia, I described her car:

‘The cluttered Fiesta—Mabel—smelled of takeaway curry and chips, cat litter bought in bulk, and hand sanitiser.’

Beyond representing personality traits of their owners, including pets in stories gives humans opportunity for insight. Lydia is self-aware enough to know that she needs her cat, Slim Shady, more than he needs her. She recognises his purr doesn’t always convey happiness, but sometimes cloaks fear. The purr indicates to her:

‘You only get away with this because I in my benevolence allow it.’

Animals at the Beginning

In my current novel, about Eve and the (presumed) first family of humans, animals have an even bigger role. As much as Eve and Adam’s lives changed on their expulsion from Eden, think what it meant for the animals! Through no fault of their own, they had to leave paradise as well, and were thence forward seen as fair game. Literally.

Surely humans didn’t go straight from discovering wildlife wonders in Eden, to wearing animal hides and eating meat outside its walls. The sudden need to provide for themselves would change things, but it would not be a comfortable adjustment. Tension grows between Eve and Adam when he starts out eating fish:

‘What’s next, killing cows? Lions, lambs? You could roast one of the angels.’
‘Don’t speak to me like that, woman! I’m not the one who ever sought something I wasn’t supposed to take.’

The way each character relates to animals represents and colours the way they relate to others. Adam tells himself he has dominion over the animals, but in God’s curse on Eve, she’s been told her husband will have dominion over her. Does that make her equal to the animals? This is just one reason she has a keen interest in how he treats them.

Further, they have to wonder about God’s purpose in creating themselves and the animals (which, for this work, I’m imagining He did; see my previous post on working with incredible premises). If God is willing for them to dispatch with the animals so easily, what does this say about their own mortality?

It’s like Sirius Black said (somewhat ironically, given his later treatment of his own house-elf) in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ‘If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.’

Playing God

This Week’s Bit of String: Tidying up the building materials

Once when my son was about six years old, I looked in on him during his evening tidy-up to see him gloomily tossing his Lego into their bucket, punctuating their impact with sighs. ‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I’m just…angry at God.’

He explained his grievance to me: ‘While we were eating dinner, I asked God really nicely if he would please tidy up my room for me.’ Another sigh. ‘But He didn’t.’

I’d seen him in a similar predicament with the magic wand he’d received for his birthday. And when he was a toddler, just learning his manners, there were those agonised epiphanies that saying please—‘the magic word’—won’t get you extra sweets or a later bedtime.

So it didn’t seem the time to put God’s existence under review, anymore than I would tell him there’s no such thing as magic. ‘Sorry, mate. I don’t think He works that way; He likes to make sure we know how to do things for ourselves.’

Losing My (Bias Against) Religion

Religion—and, well, not relying too exclusively on it—has enmeshed itself into a few of my stories. In Artefacts, the first novel I wrote, talking about God embarrasses the protagonist, ‘like talking about someone and suddenly realising they stood behind you.’

I feel that way, a bit, penning scenes with God in my current novel. As it’s Eve’s story, though, and her family’s, He plays a prominent role. I guess it’s the first time I’ve written about a recognisable figure, an entity Who might (who knows?) actually exist. That changes things, doesn’t it?

Carvings of God on His throne
Above the door at Notre Dame Cathedral. Can omnipotence and love really go hand in hand?

Last week I wrote about reimagining the first humans in the Bible, as well as the angels, trying to de-stigmatise as far as possible. These days, at least in our fast-paced, ‘enlightened’ society, it seems God too has become somewhat stigmatised, the focus of blame and skepticism rather than adoration. I don’t want to get caught up in that, even while sympathising with Eve and other characters He punished.

One has to wonder, if God does exist, and is by definition omnipotent and eternal, do all our pleas and tirades sound to Him like a child not wanting to pick up his own toys? I’m trying not to be restricted by pro-human bias in my view.

He’s Got the Look

So far I’ve not gone into great detail about God’s appearance. That’s not the done thing, is it? In our art we tend to come at physical description obliquely, if at all. Likewise with my re-invented angels, apart from the odd mention of their scales, wings, and fire. The humans in the story accept these beings and have no reason to overtly describe them.

Flaming orange sunrise over a hilltop
Like this, maybe. I’m just throwing around ideas here.

There’s mention of God’s immense size, and lack of clear outline. I mean, He’s God. We can be justified in thinking he has humanoid aspects (or commonly manifests them), because He does say He’s made people in His image. But I don’t think He’s just a muscly older man with a flowing white beard, the way Michelangelo depicted Him.

For one thing, He’s not going to have a corporeal body. He’s energy, and why He would choose to generally have a human form, I don’t know. I suppose it has its uses, a certain organisation and compactness. But in my work there’s a glow to Him and a deep, shifting substance that defies boundary. His eyes can turn into oceans, His smile into sunrise.

The King (of King)’s Speech

What I have God say in the book is far more important than how He looks. And I haven’t a whole lot of source material to base it on. I’m not on board with the whole divine scriptures idea. Sorry, I’m a writer myself. I know how easy it is to make stuff up and then it feels like canon in my mind. That doesn’t mean it is. That’s possibly my human bias talking, but for the purposes of this project, I’m going with it.

I’m drawing the line at accepting God’s actual words as relayed in Genesis—but weeding out ideas that are merely imputed to Him.

For example, when He punishes Cain for killing Abel, He says Cain is exiled and will lose his knack for growing crops. He never says Cain is banished from His presence (that would be admitting some limitation to His power). It’s Cain who moans that he’ll be out of God’s sight, and then the narrative picks it up.

Granted, He issues curses at key moments, but He doesn’t just pronounce judgment. He questions those involved, giving them a chance to explain themselves or at least ‘fess up—all the while opening Himself to even more disappointment as they flounder around pretending they didn’t do that thing they really weren’t supposed to do.

He strikes me as part Albus Dumbledore, part Atticus Finch, giving people space and a bit of prodding to see if they’ll figure things out for themselves. Here, Eve’s daughter Ana recounts to Cain how God encouraged her to start her own family, while admitting she too would carry her mother’s curse.

So I told Him: “I think You are a brutal Master.”’
Cain gave me one of his rare, full-on looks, allowing me to see the Mark. ‘Then what?’
‘He said, “Well, at least you believe I’m your Master.”
“What choice do I have?” I asked. ‘You gave my parents life out of dust and bone.’
“You have every choice, Ana. You and all your future children and grandchildren, you have a choice.” And His glow seemed to dim slightly. I almost felt sorry for him.

After all, I feel a certain sympathy with Him, too. Creating people, letting them bumble off on their way doing what they like, forcing You to spring up obstacles in their path to slow them down and get them to look about themselves for once…Ahem. Yes. Perhaps God and us writers have a thing or two in common. What do you think?

 

Getting the Picture

This Week’s Bit of String: Racial bias in a dancing competition?

In December 2016, Ore Oduba won the glitter ball on Strictly Come Dancing. My son was quite excited about this, and admittedly I was too, enchanted by Ore and Joanne’s jive in Week 4.

But my son had been anxious as the final drew near. Historically, celebrities of colour get fewer votes from the audience, judging by the frequency they are in the bottom two. Often they dance perfectly well. They just don’t get the audience votes, and have to be ‘saved’ by the judges.

So every year there are concerned murmurs about whether the dancing show itself is racist, and then the requisite backlash from white people offended by the very suggestion.

Here’s the thing: there are more white people than not in this country, and there are probably more white people than not watching Strictly Come Dancing. Humans gravitate toward the familiar, the reflective, so the many white viewers may well vote for a white celebrity. Amongst very talented candidates, that tiny blip of recognition on the subconscious radars of thousands wields some influence.

It’s not overt racism, I think (I hope), but innate bias. We need to be aware of it. To probe our decisions a little, rather than huffily dismiss concerns others have about it.

I notice our gravitation toward the recognisable in other areas. My name, for example. People glance at it and assume it’s Natasha, although they’re neglecting an s and slapping an h in willy-nilly. People see what they’ve seen before.

Studies also show that babies are drawn to certain types of faces—after a few months. There’s an interesting article on that in Slate, here. As we develop (or supposedly develop), we suffer from ‘perceptual narrowing,’ as if our senses get stuck in a rut. If we’re not exposed to a broad range of sights, we will stop looking for them.

Re-Visualising History

With these biases and predilections in mind, I’ve been trying to get the right mental image for the protagonists in my novel about Eve.

Usually when we write a story, it plays vividly in our imaginations, a cinema multiplex in our brains open 24/7. The same is true for me now, but because this story has its basis in something other than my imagination, I have a distinct unease that the imagery is not my own.

Recall every classical painting or children’s Bible illustration you might have happened upon that depicts Adam and Eve. Flowing gold locks—maybe sometimes brown hair, but always porcelain skin, right? God would have been cruel to form such pasty creatures and pop them down under the Middle Eastern sun.

Selection of National Geographic magazines
I’ve been trawling through my best sources for portraits resembling early peoples of Southern Iraq/ North of the Persian Gulf.

Anthropology traces the first humans back to Africa. At some point we probably all had dark skin as a clever, preferable adaptation. One day that feature may well win out evolutionally again. For my work-in-progress I’m using a less scientific source, but even the Bible says Adam was created of the earth’s dust, and then Eve was formed of Adam— probably not lily white, then.

It might be unfair to say racism is behind all the whitewashing that Adam and Eve underwent over the centuries. But plenty of people have twisted passages from early Genesis to support racist ideologies.

For example, after Eve’s son Cain (also a major character in the book I’m working on, and quite fascinating to me) is ‘marked’ by God for committing fratricide, certain factions have said that mark was black skin. A curse justifying slavery and other cruel practices against millions of people. However, God marked Cain not as a curse, but a sign of guardianship, to show He would wreak vengeance upon anyone who, in turn, harmed Cain. In my book I’ve put it on Cain’s upper cheek, figuring it would have to be quite visible:

Against his dark skin it was blanched white as if God had seared through to his very bones.

It’s still hard to conjure up the right image in my head. Not just because I’ve had years of the wrong images, but also because I’ve never known many people of Middle Eastern origin. I’ve unwittingly had my own perceptual narrowing of sorts.

I guess, though, that I don’t always see my characters when I’m writing a story. Most often I see scenes through the protagonists’ eyes: their surroundings, their loved ones and interests.

And I hear the voices. Dialogue—external and internal—scrolls constantly through my head, with or without a precise picture of who’s speaking the lines.

Here Be Dragons
Stitched emblem of a Chinese-style red and black dragon
Oh hey, Gabriel.

It’s been less challenging to picture Eden, the punishing land around it, and the angels charged with keeping the two separate. I decided a while back that our ideas of angels suffered a major perceptual narrowing.

Why are they always portrayed as looking human? There’s no indication they’d resemble us at all. The creation story says God made people ‘in His own image,’ which to me implies the angels weren’t made that way. Besides, if Lucifer, himself an angel, was the tempter in the Garden, he’s also described as a serpent. A serpent with arms and legs, that is, which in his case were struck off as punishment for that fruit episode.

So angels are serpents with arms and legs…how about they breathe fire, too? Yeah, I decided dragons are actually angels. Handy critters to know when outside the Garden Adam and Eve have to keep warm and cook food.

I’ve had Gabriel describe it thus:

‘The man and woman went forth and multiplied. That was the Boss’s only command they followed unerringly, although their kind bred division over the years, too. Their descendants assumed we, the Boss’s messengers, should be shaped like men, often slaying us when we appeared.’

So this book idea evolves to challenge old perceptions: white ancestors, humanoid angels…What will it take on next? Well, there’s God, obviously. Tune in next week to find out how He’ll look and sound.

What steps do you take to fight perceptual narrowing in your creative endeavours?

Love and Other Questions

This Week’s Bit of String: Saying good night at Grandma’s house

During a visit when I was eight, my Grandma came to tuck my sister and me in. She was a pre-school teacher, and as a matter of strict policy, she made a great deal of time for us and never got cross.

Granddad was different. He blustered rather than spoke, worked long past retirement rather than played. We were a bit scared of him. I’d watched Grandma sweetly placate him for my whole life, and it stumped me.

‘Grandma,’ I whispered as she kissed me goodnight, ‘Do you really love Granddad?’

How much choice do we have over who we open our hearts to?

She just laughed and left the room. Minutes later, Granddad himself appeared, giving his version of a chuckle, which still sounded blustery. ‘So you think your grandmother doesn’t love me?’

Like any of us, over the years I learned much more about the inexplicable, often unwelcome persistence of love. I watched Granddad lose Grandma to lung cancer a month before their golden wedding anniversary, and there was no mistaking she was loved in return. I’ve seen that reciprocation is often enough; that we can make ourselves settle when we choose to.

But I still wonder about it. Why do we love who we love? How is love sustained and and to what extent can it be manipulated or cajoled or banished entirely? Again, I suspect I’m not alone in wondering these things.

Opening Questions

When we start planning a novel, we’re told to start with a question, a predicament. That’s handy, as I’m writing about Eve and there’s a lot to question in the Biblical story of creation, of Eden and the fall and the alleged first generations of humanity.

Example: Adam and Eve have two boys, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and gets exiled. At this point the Bible has named only 3 still-living humans on the entire planet.

Then it says Cain’s wife got pregnant (presumably a sister too lowly to be named) and has a son called Enoch. So now we have five people on the planet. Maybe a few other girls who the Author couldn’t be bothered to bring up.

THEN it says, when speaking of Enoch’s birth, ‘Cain was building a city at this time, and named the city for Enoch.’

Wait, what? Building a city for whom? Angels? Demons? Animals? Aliens?

Plenty of scope for the imagination, then. More questions in last week’s post about believing what we read. More questions, many questions.

The Overarching Question

But the one that interests me most of all in this story is love. Did Adam and Eve love each other? Can you truly love someone when there’s no other person in existence, so you haven’t chosen them as such? How can you keep loving each other after together, you brought curses down on all future generations?

I guess to me, these are the questions that matter most—more, as I discussed last week, than whether any of it is true or not. I suppose it’s because these are the questions that pop into my head in real life, and they’re the ones that led me to my first line of this story, and it spiralled from there:

‘You must understand, I was made to love your father. For that reason, I sometimes hate him.’

At the moment, I’m writing in first/second person point of view, as Eve addresses her lost favourite daughter—exiled with Cain. If we work with the scenario that Adam and Eve were the first and only humans, they’d have had to have quite a few kids, and to play matchmaker, convincing them to breed.

(Or maybe there would have been little persuasion required. Humans aren’t always fussy about that sort of thing, but let’s not go there for now.)

Given Eve’s own background—unnamed for the first 3 chapters of Genesis, so often referred to as simply ‘the woman’ or ‘Adam’s wife,’ how might she have felt about these pairings, and her role in orchestrating them?
So my novel’s overarching question is incorporated with the first line and the point of view.

Cosmic Questions

Beyond being reflected in the relationships of her children and other descendants, Eve’s feelings for Adam also, I think, are tangled up with spiritual questions.

Pondering the purposes of humans and angels

After everything, could Eve and God love each other? I’ve just written my first scene in which God appears—quite a challenge, playing God, which I’ll elaborate on in a later post. There’s the guilt over letting Him down in Eden—but also the struggle to understand why He allowed her to in the first place.

And she must have wondered, before any of us came along to wonder the same exact thing for centuries: What the hell are we for? For Eve, who knew God as her creator and as an actual physical presence, she must have wondered why He made her and Adam. Just to serve Him, like the angels did? Were they given free will so they could choose to love Him and therefore make their elective devotion more meaningful? I think she’d have mixed feelings on that theory, given everything she went through and all she lost.

Have you come to any conclusions on these matters? How do you set up characters to love each other, without making it look like a setup?

How’s Your Habit?

This Week’s Bit of String: Three sets of cutlery

When my son was six, I decided it was time he did a bit more around the house.

We started with laying the table. Three forks and three knives, maybe some help pouring drinks, that was all he had to do. It didn’t go over well.

‘If you EVER,’ a fork slams onto my place, ‘make me do this again,’ the knife slams onto the other side of the placemat, ‘I’m running away!’

It was a hardship, those six pieces of cutlery. But I persisted, explaining to him how much else Mummy had to do all the time, and he learned to live with it. Ten years later he still shows up, with minimal summoning and zero slamming, and he lays the table.

I also taught him to fold his own clothes then. We used to get compliments from the other mums at dance class: ‘How do you get him to fold his clothes so nicely?’

The answer to that was Top Trumps. He was enamoured with his Top Gear supercar Top Trumps cards assigning speed, coolness, and various other ratings to different cars.

Every night, he would fold his clothes, and I’d give him a rating. The more decimal places the better; he lived for numbers.

And so habits are formed, sometimes under duress, sometimes with bribery, always with a nod to the bigger picture and to one’s underlying interests.

I’ve just been doing a course from Writers HQ called 14 Days to a Solid Writing Habit. It was fun and invigorating, and also made me see that I hadn’t been doing too badly anyway.

Here’s a sum-up of how it enhances habits:

Focus on honest goals and motivations. This is where those underlying interests come in. You’re not going to stick with something if the fit isn’t right; if the goal is too far off or not worthwhile enough, or if you’re not secure in your reasons. Be honest about what you want from your writing, and cling to it.

The course creates a culture of encouragement rather than fear. If you miss a day, you haven’t thrown away your whole habit. Just keep going when you can. Slamming the silverware down is fine, as long as the table gets set in the end.

'Do you have the COURAGE to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say YES.' --Brene Brown
Inspiring poster my sister made for my writing corner.

Great tips for optimising that sometimes-elusive writing time. Because of these, I could sit down to the required 15, then 20, then 30, then 35 minutes of daily writing time and churn out a fantastic number of words. In those relatively small windows of time, I was accomplishing a lot. So even when I’m busy or tired, I’ve got proof right there that investing time is worth it.

Do you have habit-forming strategies to add? How do you stay motivated?

Here’s how the course made me realise I’m pretty lucky.

I already do have very clear goals, with multiple submission deadlines, and a healthy smattering of ideas to develop.

The course suggests we put non-writing time to use thinking through plot snags and daydreaming about characters. Believe me, I’ve got that covered. I often skip hours of sleep because I’d rather be blocking scenes in my head. (Who wouldn’t?)

Also, I can usually squeeze in writing time. I get a whole hour for lunch. I don’t drive, and relying on buses has disadvantages, but it does free me to read or scribble. My son is very independent (what with his longstanding table-setting skills and all), and even my husband is somewhat independent, so I can get away with the odd at-home writing session.

Finally, I am fortunate not to suffer from imposter syndrome. I know I’m a writer; I’ve been working at it since I was three years old. I luckily had one of the first stories I ever submitted published, and I’ve had just enough good fortune to sustain me since then. No, not only to sustain my own motivation, but also to justify to those around me the time and effort I spend on this.

Maybe I was naive not to realise how many writers struggle just to recognise themselves as writers. If that’s you (and even if it isn’t), go on and write anyway, every day if you can. Prove yourself and any other naysayers wrong. Once you’ve made a habit of writing, no one can stop you even if they try. Courage! Bring forth!