On Time

This Week’s Bit of String: Ancient cephalopods

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

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

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

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

Sunrise on the South coast

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

Sifting Through the Strata

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

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

One of my biggest finds, fossils upon fossils

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

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

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

Counting Every Moment

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

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

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

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

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

On Thievery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repurposing the Remains

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

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

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

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

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

The Sacred Template

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

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

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

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

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

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