Writers with Day Jobs, Part 1: What I’m Doing Here

This Week’s Bit of String: Teeth in the mail

A nice lady from the dentist’s office up the street stops in at our post office almost daily, smiling in her spring-green scrubs. She requires certificates of posting for pre-paid parcels of dental samples. Am I sending people’s teeth? Gum tissue? I’ve posted a crocodile’s foot for someone before, but that’s another story.

Today we chatted and I mentioned that I’d had a couple stories published. Her eyes widened behind her glasses. ‘Fantastic! But what are you doing HERE?’

Have you encountered this misconception that writers belong in ivory towers where we do nothing but create? Lovely as it sounds, we writerly folk know it’s not feasible.

The primary answer to what I’m doing working in a post office at the back of an ailing convenience store is, of course: earning money. But there’s more to it.

For most of us writers, maintaining our finances entails more than ‘just’ wringing our hearts and brains out onto a page. (Seriously, isn’t that what it feels like sometimes?) I’ve worked in customer service, education, catering, and healthcare. Each has unleashed stampedes of What Ifs in my mind, but depending on the job, I’m sometimes too exhausted to corral them into anything useful.

Anti-urinating notice in post office window
In the window of my work. Couldn’t make this up.

Incorporating work experiences into fiction is essential, however, to create a range of meaningful pieces. There’s increasing concern about literary fiction’s underrepresentation of, and consequent lack of appeal to, working class people. Many established authors write what they know; often featuring academics or artists and writers. Those of us stuck in jobs further toward the bottom of society’s ladder have, in that case, a duty to represent it.

What am I doing here? Collecting ground intelligence that will ultimately infiltrate the upper echelons of literature.

We have other moral obligations as writers. Our talents involve empathy and eloquence, which, when paired together, hopefully add up to diplomacy: useful skills in any profession. An ability to assess others’ needs and to thoughtfully address them is as important whether assisting elderly patients to the toilet, supporting SEN students in lessons, or helping a man close his deceased parent’s pension account.

What am I doing here? Possibly doing you a favour by weighing my responses more carefully than others would.

Can you tell I’ve been toiling over job applications lately? I’m getting good at talking myself up. But as I wrote before about writers’ potential shortcomings as parents, I wonder too if there are drawbacks to having us on a payroll. Apart from the risk that I’ll savage versions of tricky clients and employers in my stories, I might be preoccupied now and then. It’s hard to shut down the characters and plot twists in our minds. Writers in day jobs have to compartmentalise. We want occupations we don’t have to take home with us.

View of sunburst and hills
A scenic walking commute is an ideal bridge between the day job and the writing life.

But I don’t always compartmentalise my writing. It seems silly to lock ideas in a mental box to be opened only during lunchtime, because I might scrawl a few lines between customers. This has been one of the only jobs in which I’ve managed to do so, and I am utterly unrepentant.

What am I doing here? Occasionally engaging in an activity outside the job description.

I’m not the first to write while I work. Here’s a fun round-up of famous writers and their jobs, in which we learn that James Joyce could sing, and Kafka worked at an ‘industrial injury institute—’does that sound Kafkaesque, or what? Maybe I should emulate Bram Stoker and kiss up to someone who can be my wealthy patron.

(Note: The above article mainly features men. I’ll definitely be revisiting the topic to explore potential added complications for women writers, so do share any thoughts in anticipation of that topic!)

Would these writers have had as much to write about without their day jobs? My work experience colours much of my writing. In The Wrong Ten Seconds, for example, one protagonist works in a supermarket on a zero-hours contract, while another works in a nursing home.

‘The corridor lights were dimmed as per management orders, to save on electricity. With its expectant hush and artificial-looking attempts to induce sleepiness, the nursing home at evening time reminded Lydia of an overnight flight. They were all barreling toward the same destination, a strangely relaxing thought.’

What am I doing here? Gathering string, weaving new story ideas, corralling the What Ifs, and plotting my next move.

Do your working and writing worlds sometimes collide? Have you found ways to make each complement the other?

Next week, Part 2: Work Balancing and Story Bribery

Please Don’t Torture the Characters

This Week’s Bit of String: Sandcastles full of tiny babies

My son liked building sandcastles when he was younger. Well, I’d build; he’d squish. The fun was heightened by me pretending to try and stop him stepping on the little castles. After many rounds of this, while Daddy of course reclined reading in the sunshine, I sometimes craved my own book and would tell our son to carry on without me.

So he would raise the stakes. ‘You don’t want me to crush this castle, do you?’ he might say. ‘It’s actually a hospital full of tiny babies. Quick, better stop me!’

It’s a bit like that with writing, isn’t it? We’ve got to keep the stakes up so readers stay engaged, and that requires storylines with danger and strife. When empathy is such an essential virtue in writers, how does that reconcile with the inescapable fact that we must engineer pain for our characters?

‘No puppet. No puppet. You’re the Puppet.’
Crushing sand castles
My mini Caliban Upon Setebos

First of all, it’s worth considering the writer’s relationship with the main character. Who’s really in control here? I think I speak for many writers when I say we don’t just invent a naive, flat, experience-less character and say to ourselves, ‘Aha, let’s inflict some horrors upon this person!’

Rather, a character usually appears in our minds already lugging several tonnes of baggage and clearly heading uphill. I’ve had cases where I’d like the character to take an easier path, but they insist otherwise. This happens, I suppose, because I often get the story idea first, in the form of a What If This Happened imaginary spree, and then the character evolves from the subsequent What Sort of Person Would Do It ruminations.

For example, I recently closeted myself away to edit The Wrong Ten Seconds. The idea behind it: What if the rare instant a person happened to do a bad thing was caught on viral video? The character materialising with a need for this story to be told doesn’t have an easy life. He’s practically at breaking point when the story begins. As the girl who films and shares the video comments:

‘I didn’t mean to mess everything up.’
‘They already were messed up,’ Rittell told her. ‘You made everyone see it.’

The Greater Good

I’ve mentioned before, my inspiration for this novel comes from an event that made news several years ago, so maybe that exonerates me for how the plot thickens. Art imitates life. We don’t write about people with perfect lives, because they don’t exist. Besides, would you want to read that? Even villains of great books come into the plot already scarred and damaged (Tom Riddle, anyone?)

When we write about excruciating humiliations, heart-rending loss, or gnawing guilt, we use it all to the greater good. Our unfortunate characters expose flaws in society that require attention, and hopefully they also show how these can be overcome. I like this challenge from The Editor’s Blog: ‘Give you characters weaknesses and flaws and opposition so tough that the only way they can get through is to become someone new—or become the man or woman they’d always been but had never had call to reveal.’

That explains the result of my Twitter poll this week. I asked how writers feel when their characters have to suffer. The most popular option, with 33% of the votes, was ‘A secret, excited twinge.’ Understandable; climactic conflict draws us in as readers and writers alike. Not far behind in the results, with 27% each of the vote, were ‘Agonising heartbreak’ and ‘Whatever. Can’t be helped.’ 13% said they feel malicious glee.

When one of my characters suffer a loss or rejection, I listen to sad songs and channel the times I’ve experienced the same. I’m building empathy with my star-crossed hero or heroine, and in doing so, building it with readers. The pain we create isn’t meant to tear us apart inside, but to bind us to each other. After all, how many characters have you loved that didn’t carry terrible heartache with them?

Let’s Write About Sex, Baby

This Week’s Bit of String: What circumference and cucumbers have in common

The first literacy group I led consisted of four fairly proficient Year Seven readers. In one task, they had to construct vocabulary words out of individual sound chunks. ‘Circumference’ was one of those words.

The second syllable drew giggles from the boy with the most tumultuous home life. I informed him, ‘That’s a very important sound chunk. Just think, without “cum” in our cucumbers, we’d only have cubers!’

He literally fell off his chair laughing.

Hopefully with that one remark I communicated four things: It’s okay to acknowledge sex, it’s okay to laugh about sex, we can even be fairly clever with it, but we don’t have to go on about it forever.

Perhaps sex scenes in literature should follow similar guidelines. We all know that sex scenes are notoriously easy to do badly. But it’s such an important part of life, it figures in almost every story, whether in the background or upfront. How much should it be detailed? Do graphic scenes enhance or detract from literature?

Sex as a Genre
Reading in Stokes Croft
Reading in Stokes Croft

This past weekend I had a terrific time reading at a Stokes Croft Writers event in Bristol, built around the theme of ‘bad erotica.’

Now, I don’t actually read erotica, much less write it. But I’d written a piece called ‘The Hornet,’ which dripped with innuendo. So, that worked. A few of the others were more explicit, and they were all engaging and often quite funny, clearly written by talented humorists and wordsmiths.

It’s a privilege to laugh about sex, and to laugh about it together in a room full of people. To me, it felt like an intellectual release, if not a physical one.

Some of the descriptions were a bit cheesy, or a bit gross. But let’s face it, sex can be too. Right? I admire people, in any genre, who take on this, erm, sticky subject.

Sex in the Classics

Going back a century or two, you don’t find many explicit sexual scenes in literature, for obvious societal reasons. But where would many of those classic stories be without such escapades going on in the background? Bleak House, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Anna Karenina, even Pride and Prejudice.

It makes sense that as twentieth century literature pushed towards greater honesty with the reader, sex became featured more bluntly.

However, there’s also an emphasis in contemporary literature on showing rather than telling; on pared descriptions and enhanced subtlety. In a way, that might serve to cloak lengthy, open sexual scenes.

I’m okay with that personally, since my aims in reading are much broader than satisfying any physical desire. But it interests me how the dichotomy between honesty (including a wilfulness to shock) and sparsity affect our ability to write about sex.

Crafting Sex Scenes

Writing about sex needs to be approached like any other aspect of a story: fearlessly but thoughtfully.

Books on shelves
‘Of course I shouldn’t tell you this, but…She advocates dirty books!’

Surely the key to creating sex scenes that aren’t hopelessly daft is to stay in character. Continue using language the character would use. Include only details that further the plot and the message the character wants to convey.

An article in Lit Hub provides an interesting survey of writers who pen effective sex scenes. ‘Many great novels portray sexual encounters as an inseparable part of the extraordinary ordinariness of daily life….as bodily, emotional experiences that inform each character’s unique sense of what it means to be alive.’

Contrasting scenes in Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, or Louis de Bernieres’ The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (that mango scene!), each give sexual encounters from different points of view and/ or at different stages in a character’s timeline. Those differences are marked in the tone and the coverage of the encounter.

One somewhat explicit scene I’ve written is told by an adolescent boy annoyed with his older stepbrother’s noisy nighttime antics on the sofa and determined to stop it. He encounters the scene:

There had to be more to sex than this. Piggy grunts. Flab dangling, limbs twitching, glowing orangey-pink in the light of the last lamp standing. Weren’t they getting sliced by old potato chip pieces? No, those chips must be soggy now.’

With that point of view, I’m freed from having to dwell long on the subject, but at the same time, I get to tell it like it is. Hopefully I’ve managed to strike that balance between leaving some to the imagination, and realistically, fully portraying my character.

How have you addressed writing about sex? Are there any writers you feel are particularly good at it?

 

 

Writing, With Children

This Week’s Bit of String: Eight thousand trombones and a dinosaur

When my son was in infant school, he had a dream about a circus act featuring eight thousand trombones and a dinosaur—a brachiosaurus or apatosaurus.

Naturally, I purloined this dream as a title for a short story.

Stealing dream titles is probably the least of my parental shortcomings. As a writer, I have always feared that being consumed in stories diminishes my ability to be genuinely present in my son’s life. I have wondered if writers are suited to be parents, easily distracted and somewhat moody as we can be.

Star Wars Halloween costumes
My Bear and me, using the Force and our imaginations a few Halloweens back.

I suppose, though, that those particular flaws aren’t exclusive to creative/ artistic types. And there must be ways in which our gifts actually help our children, right?

Have you ever been shaken by those concerns?

Irish Times Furor

Last autumn, seventy-year-old author John Banville, who sometimes wrote under the name Benjamin Black, confessed to being a terrible father in an interview with The Irish Times. He speculated that most writers are bad parents, due to an unquenchable thirst to be heard.

This created a storm of feedback from other writers, such as in this Irish Times follow up. It’s quite interesting to read their thoughts (I particularly enjoyed Joseph O’Connor’s hyperbolic script). Most of them disagree, on the whole, that writing and parenting are mutually exclusive endeavours.

I don’t  look at the dilemma between the two as a question of How does parenting affect my writing, but more as How does writing affect my parenting? Because my son has been the most important part of my world.

Potential Negative Effects
Frosty leaf
Inspecting a frost-guilded leaf together

I’ve pointed various times to writers being particularly empathetic. Surely the bits of string I’m constantly grabbing at might have led me to be a fun and supportive mother? But I worry I might have conflated his childhood experiences and expressions as fodder for anecdotes, new seedlings for my imagination.

Besides, I’m not sure empathy has an off switch. I’m fairly indiscriminate with it. As much as I adore my son and enjoy spending time with him, when I’ve reached a point where my characters are suffering particularly, I get wrapped up in them too. That’s why I particularly like The Walrus’s commentary on Banville’s controversy: literary critic Michael LaPointe countered the notion that ‘writers distinguish between art and reality, material and life, when very few do, or even desire to.’

Guilty as charged.

Lakeside thinking
Philosophizing by a New Hampshire lake

I also feel a degree of self-consciousness, of guilt even, if I write something that features children. Sometimes we let bad things happen to the children in our stories (it’s the way it goes, man) and I worry: does it make me an unfit parent that I can imagine this stuff happening? If he reads this when he grows up, what will he think of me? Will he see these stories as rivals?

Potential Positive Effects

So, I’m coming clean about my concerns as a writer-parent. It seems not a lot of other writers share these. In fact, it sounds as if quite a few people do a damn good job at both. I enjoyed Twitter discussions with other writer-mums, who shared happy stories about writing with their children, showing them that creating art takes hard work and practice (thanks to Melissa Graves). It hones our time management skills, forcing us to take advantage of what little free time we get (thanks, Erika F Rose). And getting to know our own children can reinvigorate us, putting more ‘spark and buzz’ into our work (thank you, Eleanor Nicolas).

Meanwhile, my son is fifteen now and pretty much likes to be left alone. He’s already composed an orchestra piece for sixty-four instruments. He studies Philosophy and Ethics and shares some very interesting thoughts, such as, ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who exists, and everyone else is just in my head. But then I think, everyone else must wonder the same thing too!’

Again, guilty as charged.

Size Matters: Short Stories vs. Novels

This Week’s Bit of String:   A cat in a bin

A few years ago, a man couldn’t find his cat. Luckily, he’d rigged CCTV outside his house, and he found that a woman passing by had stroked the cat, then picked it up and put it in his wheelie bin.

The outraged owner shared the video in a quest to identify this dastardly villainess. Once named, the woman received death threats from every corner of this United Kingdom.

Remember that?

Turned out the woman had been walking home from visiting her dying father. She always said, ‘I just didn’t know what I was thinking.’

It doesn’t bear thinking about what could have happened if the cat’s owner wasn’t hooked on surveillance. But we all do bad things. We just don’t get CCTVed doing them. Would we want our entire lives judged by a misdeed that took a few seconds?

Following the Thread
Warren Falls, VT
Warren Falls, Vermont: The big picture

Operating on that principal question, I began a short story back in 2011 about an upstanding man who, under stress, does something misconstrued as animal cruelty. But I never finished it.

It wasn’t suited to be a short story because there were too many questions. How did the disgraced culprit cope with the aftermath, and how did it affect his family? What about the person who publicised the transgression; did they regret provoking such bad will?

Last year I snowflaked it into a novel using this story planning technique, and wrote a draft in six months. So this particular Bit of String, when I pulled at it, revealed not a 2000-word competition entry, but an intricately plaited novel that I will edit and query this summer: The Wrong Ten Seconds.

Differences of Dimension: Length and Depth

I conducted a little Twitter poll this week to see what some of my fellow writers prefer: writing flash fiction, short stories or novels. The answer was resoundingly in favour of novels, with writers commenting that they enjoy fostering the ‘depth of character’ a novel requires (thanks to Libbie Toler), and the ‘total immersion in both the world and the plot.’ (Thanks to Donna Migliaccio.) I prefer novels myself, because I can let my characters go a little more. And they’re just easier.

A Writer’s Digest article on the difference between the two fictional forms proposes a test of theme: ‘If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel.’ I suppose that when I started my short story version of The Wrong Ten Seconds, I was trying to make a statement. But that then inspired me to accompany the characters on their journey, so it became a novel.

Differences of Possibility
Warren Falls, Vermont
Warren Falls, Vermont: Close-Up

In current literary culture, it’s not fashionable to use writing to make statements. We’re supposed to show, not tell, aren’t we? That’s what makes short stories so difficult. Convey an idea, but don’t preach. Create sympathetic characters in very few pages. The advantage of writing a short story, perhaps, is some freedom in the ending. As Chris Power wrote for The Guardian, ‘Novelists are expected to tie up loose ends, whereas the short story writer can make a virtue of ambiguity.’

To me, that is the defining reason that makes an idea a short story rather than a novel. How much do I want to know about the end? It comes back to the What Ifs. When there’s a single central question, and I can’t bear to probe too far, I write a short story. Cowardly, isn’t it? While I find short stories artistically more challenging, emotionally I can stop them from taxing me as much as novels do. I didn’t need to decide, for example, what ultimately happened to Hannah and her son Jack in ‘The Apocalypse Alphabet.’ The statement was already made.

Differences of Literary Elements?

Short stories are more difficult for some of us because they still require all the ingredients of a novel. Plot, character, message, setting; they must be there, but condensed. It’s like these two photos: each picture has the same things in them—water, rocks, a person/ people—but one is close-up. That’s the short story, see. And because it’s zoomed in, those elements have to be damn near flawless.

Thanks to condensing those literary elements, the short story packs a powerful jolt. I love the way Joanna Carter, who’s written successfully in both literary forms, described the difference between short stories and novels at one of Bristol’s Novel Nights last summer: ‘A short story is a skeleton bursting from the closet. It’s raw, a moment of truth. A novel has to put flesh on those bones.’

Both relevant, both exciting. Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? Do you find either one more challenging to write?

Writing Away the Winter Blues

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

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

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

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

Studying the Effects of Temperature on Creativity

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

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

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

Advantages of Winter Writing

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

winter-branch
See? Beautiful.

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

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

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

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

Taking the Weather With You

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

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

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

 

2016: Nothing But a Number

The general consensus seems to be that 2016 was a particularly rubbish year. It’s a bit facile, though, to assume recent international disasters sprouted randomly in response to the page-turn of a calendar.

Attack of Trump Man: children's book
Saw this children’s book in a Cardiff shop at the end of 2015. Attack of Trump Man. Was it a sign?

As writers, we tend to reject such premises, and to root around for causes. With minimal detective work we can see that Brexit and the Trump election were a long time coming, thanks to economic disparity, normalising of white supremacist ‘alt-right’ rhetoric, mainstream media obsequiousness, the hubris of established party politicians…I could go on.

The cancer that killed various celebrities was proliferating in their cells before. The citizens of Aleppo have been suffering for years; politically oppressed perhaps for decades. Extrajudicial killings of black people and the militarisation of police was already going on, racial bias and mistrust of law enforcement existing since before the United States signed the Declaration of Independence.

I bear no ill will towards 2016. I’ve watched it be rather kinder than its predecessors to those dearest to me. But I feel trepidation at saying I’ve had a decent year, because who knows what strife or loss germinates as I write this. The same is true for all of us. I only hope the hard work I’ve done this year, particularly in my writing, will later blossom into more success. (Although unfortunately, hard work in actual paying jobs seems to guarantee me very little security, particularly this year.)

Spring leaves and broken windows
Looking from the broken windows of 2016 to the fresh leaves of 2017…Or maybe I just liked this picture.

I’m always fascinated by stories which use the tiniest misstep to accelerate into a wicked tango of tragedy. Stories such as Atonement, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the novel I finished reading the other day, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. These books give me a sense of awe as I contemplate their what-ifs. In my own work, I’ve laid out a similarly inevitable, escalating path in my novel Artefacts, as characters’ niggling insecurities feed off each other until they reach monstrous, crippling stature.

This year I wrote a new novel, The Wrong Ten Seconds, in which a man’s reckless deed becomes a viral video. Disaster ensues—not chaos, because it’s a particularly sequenced chain of events as other characters are drawn in. I’ll be editing my quite rough draft of The Wrong Ten Seconds in spring 2017, aiming to tighten up that chain.

Next year’s other plans—not goals, because I’m actually going to do these things—have their roots in projects from this year. I’ll finish my current novel, Society of the Spurned. I wrote the first half during November for NaNoWriMo. After editing The Wrong Ten Seconds, I’ll research and query agents.

A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division cast
The amazing cast for last September’s production of A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division

Then I’m going to expand my one-act play, A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division, to a full-length one. That’s the bit I’m most excited about. Starting to explore playwriting last January and February, developing an unconventional but exciting premise, and then having it performed in September in its current short form, were highlights for me this last year. Reading at the November Stroud Short Stories event was another exciting moment.

Bank Cafe, Dursley
Preferably, I’ll be working relentlessly while sitting on a comfy couch scoffing posh cups of mint tea and the occasional brownie, such as here in Dursley’s Bank Cafe.

There have been plenty of rejections. I will need to work relentlessly, to read and improve and network. I’m fortunate to have support from my extremely discerning brother—my number one reader—plus a warm and talented local writers group, loads of inspiring connections on Twitter, and a husband who knows how to set up websites.

And of course, I have my beloved characters to motivate me. For example, Charlie’s expression of my general philosophy, in The Wrong Ten Seconds: ‘Suffering adds a whole new depth to beauty.’

And the words of Helen’s brother in Artefacts: ‘Sure, we all make our own beds. But we don’t have to lie there forever! If we don’t like the bed we’ve made, we can jump on it. We can throw the covers off and tear up the sheets!’

The possibilities are endless. I just have to keep my eyes and ears open, to gather bits of string until I find myself entangled in the next project. What threads will you be pursuing in the new year?

The Whole Story, and Nothing But the Story

This Week’s Bit of String: A swimmer’s happiness

Once I was at the town pool when a group of adults with learning difficulties were brought for a swim. A young man stood in the shallow end, his fingers prancing over the waist-high surface of the water, and declared, ‘I am EXACTLY happy. Right now, I am exactly happy.’

One like graffiti
Let’s not overstate things. One like will do. (Graffiti in Bristol)

His words have stayed with me for years. In literature, though, no self-respecting author would allow a character to be so straightforward. We’re supposed to give readers evidence of emotion, not outright testimony. Show, don’t tell. Leave something to the imagination. But how much?

Last week I lamented the heavy-handedness, the lack of nuance, in a couple of pieces deemed ‘Literature’ by the GCSE exam board. As I researched that post, I found articles both advocating and opposing subtlety, which I’ve continued to explore this week.

How hidden should messages and motives be in literature?

In Defence of Subtlety

Iconic writers from the post-modern to contemporary age favour rendering the author invisible in his or her own work. Ernest Hemingway described his Theory of Omission in the 1930s, insisting writers leave out as much of their own experience as possible. John McPhee summed the theory up for the New Yorker: ‘Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.’

Why? Joanna Scott, in a comprehensive piece for The Nation last summer, rounded up critics and authors to extol ‘The Virtues of Difficult Fiction.’ I particularly liked her quotes from David Mikics, who’s written a book called Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. He praised the ‘tactile and palpable
sense of a material object being worked on,’ explaining that reading challenging texts not only exercises creativity and patience, but also nurtures a love for the versatility of words and the layering of meaning.

butterfly-window-reflection
Honestly, who wants to see the photographer’s reflection? Butterfly window in Chalford, Gloucestershire

The word subtle itself, I discovered, is rooted in the Latin term for finely textured, just as the modern word text is derived from the Latin term texere; to weave. A text is meant, then, to have various components intermingling. It’s meant to be a challenge to take apart.

My characters often don’t say precisely what they feel, because how often do we in real life? I use dialogue, and try to minimise internal commentary, so readers can inhabit the action, watching it unfold. Here’s a scene from Artefacts, between a married couple on what becomes a climactic morning:

‘Where’s the peanut butter?’

‘In the top left cupboard.’

Mike opened a door. ‘It’s just dishes in here.’

She cleared her throat. ‘That’s the, um, right one.’

‘No,’ he snapped. ‘It’s my right, but it’s the cupboards’ left.’

‘Yes…the peanut butter is in the cupboard on your left.’

So it was. Mike set it on the counter with a bang. ‘That’s the opposite of what you said a minute ago. It’s like the difference between saying “Stage left” and “to the left of the audience.” You should know that.’ He spread peanut butter onto his toast with such vigour the surface cracked.

She handed him his trousers without looking at him. ‘Hasn’t anyone ever told you to look in a left or right anything before, or has your entire life been on a stage?’

Against Subtlety

There are other things to learn from reading, however, apart from interpretive skills and quiet resilience. I wrote a couple weeks ago about books that have changed my thinking, and those haven’t always been subtle (although certainly well-written and multi-layered).

Slate editor Forrest Wickman wrote a thorough piece Against Subtlety: The Case for Heavy-Handedness in Art, pointing out that our obsession with ‘highbrow,’ subtle literature stems from elitist ideas at the start of the twentieth century. He cited DH Lawrence writing: ‘There should be again a body of esoteric doctrine, defended from the herd. The herd will destroy everything.’ Much of art that has affected change, Wickman argued, is not coy or cryptic. It’s communicating a clear message: Something has to give!

brass-handle-reflection
There’s always some reflection…

He has a point. Why let a character speak up if you don’t let them say what they think really happened?

Last week, Helen Marten won the Turner Prize for her art, ‘labyrinthine works’ which critics have compared favourably to puzzles, while also praising ‘the emotionally provocative nature’ of her pieces. Earlier this year, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. His lyrics are sometimes obscure, but his perhaps most memorable song, Blowing in the Wind, poses very blunt, if beautifully phrased, questions about what the hell human beings allow to happen to each other. So balance and juxtaposition are allowed, and perhaps should be encouraged.

I like giving my brain a workout on big, tricky books. Characters don’t have to be sympathetic to intrigue me. But I expect to understand them better as the story unfolds. Any story is a character’s journey from one state of mind to another, and I want to accompany them, if not in their pocket, then at least in a neighbouring vehicle or a surveillance helicopter. And often, as we travel through a story, what starts as subtle and composed may begin to fray as the stakes get higher, and emotions may bleed through more strongly. Those shouldn’t repel us; they should draw us in even more.

After all, just because that one man in the swimming pool stated his feelings clearly, I never lost interest. I still wonder about him. Did he measure all his feelings in precise percentages? Was it a coping mechanism, or part of his genetic makeup? Were there things that made him exactly angry, or exactly sad?

There are always more layers. Always more questions.

The Borders of Sympathy

This week’s bit of string: That person you disagree with, maybe even deplore: What’s their story?

Quite rightfully, we’re hearing a lot now about tolerance and empathy. It’s not easy to strive for these things. One may well deplore people from the opposing political camp. As I watch events unfold, I sympathise with people in the LGBT community or in immigrant populations and other minorities, who fear losing their rights. However, seeing footage of protesters cheering in LA while burning an effigy of the new President-Elect and holding signs saying, ‘We want an inclusive America—’ that gives me some pause. I don’t think of effigies as being inclusive. Can’t we muster up some sympathy for the other side?

I like to think that we writers are in the sympathy-mustering business. We’re the ones who witness a street scene, walk away heavier under the burdens of every single person involved, then transfer that burden into a story. Just last week I walked past a multigenerational family having a cup of tea outside a cafe. The mother was berating a small boy, shouting, ‘You’re stressing Granny out! Remember what happens then? Do you want Granny to have an accident?’ It was hard not to feel sorry for the Granny whose difficulties were being broadcast to half the street, the small boy who was probably rather confused at being blamed for his grandmother’s issues, and even the shouting mum, with her straggly peroxide hair and haggard eyes, who looked pretty stressed herself.

Abandoned high-heeled shoes on front garden wall in Cheltenham
Like these shoes I spotted walking to the Cheltenham Literature Festival. What miles had they walked?

Naturally, I didn’t agree with how the situation was handled. Nor do I agree with people supporting a candidate who mocks prisoners of war and disabled persons, and boasts about forcing himself on women. But I ask myself why they’re handling things this way, and my mind is whisked down a different path. I believe writing is the process of planting yourself and your reader sometimes quite mercilessly in someone else’s shoes.

Rebecca Mead wrote an exceptional New Yorker article a couple years ago, encouraging readers not to shy away from characters different from themselves. “To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.”

Still, people don’t always want to acknowledge that stupid or unpleasant acts have motivations. They might feel victimised by the very people who commit those acts. How do we elicit sympathy for our characters, whoever they may be?

First, let’s consider the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy can be defined as a tendency to feel alike, whereas the definition of empathy goes so far as to ‘vicariously experienc[e] the feelings’ of others (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Maybe empathy is what we should strive for as writers. Instead of searching for sympathetic characters to portray (those with similarities to potential readers), we can create empathetic characters—depicting a diverse range of people so realistically that readers can’t help but feel the story.

I think the key here to reveal our characters’ pain. Most of us, when we see another human being suffer, will recognise that. That was my experience working in health and social care. I’d go about doing my job for all sorts of people who weren’t always sympathetic types. Some made racist or sexist remarks, or were unkind to their families. But when they were afraid or in pain, and said things like, ‘I wish my mum was here,’ the differences fell away and I was fighting back empathetic tears.

It’s not just bits of string we gather as writers; sometimes we feel with particular strength the heavy ropes of understanding that bind us to the rest of humanity.

Many of us writers want to aide the voiceless through our work. But it’s not just the blameless who feel voiceless. After all, if pain is what most draws our sympathy—what’s more painful than guilt? In his epic Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote not just about the heroic Jean Valjean, but also about an abandoned unwed mother, and even delved into the background of the brutally strict Javert. By exposing each character’s background, he made all of them sympathetic, allowed none to stay voiceless, and more fully exposed the effects of poverty and oppression.

In my own work, I’ve given voice to a young Haitian earthquake survivor, a mother who’s left her family to live with her girlfriend, an Evangelical teacher desperate to convey his faith to his students, and so many others. (See more about my work here.) Sometimes, my characters hurt each other, and they pay the consequences as the plot advances. I can’t protect them even when I wish I could, but I ache on their behalf, no matter what wrongs they’ve done, because I know their story. By conveying that story, hopefully I pass that empathy on to my readers as well.

Abandoned mill building with waterfall
Abandoned mill in my hometown.

So, what’s the background of the people who aligned themselves with the KKK-endorsed presidential candidate? David Wong has written a very insightful, if saddening, article for Cracked about what many Trump voters, often from depressed rural areas, have gone through. As it happens, my stories often take place in similar depressed rural areas. And it’s worth remembering that people can feel voiceless or victimised, even when they’re shouting at the top of their lungs and someone else might be cowering in fear at their feet.

I’m not saying we don’t hold people accountable for how they vote, just as we hold politicians accountable for how they respond to the vote. And you may be feeling so frightened, so scarred by what’s happened in your own life, that you don’t wish to look at the horrors in anyone else’s. But if you can find the strength, let’s not tune in just at the end of their story; let’s walk the full miles with them. After all, these are people who were desperate enough to elect a man most accurately described on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe as ‘a sort of guinea pig staring at you through the porthole on a washing machine.’

Doesn’t it almost make you feel sorry for them?