Sufficing

This Week’s Bit of String: A sleepy question

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

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

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

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

Building on the Foundations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asking the Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friendly Reminder.

Not This Crude Matter

This Week’s Bit of String: A Prickly Tribute

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

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

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

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

Cactus left by pier base.
Intriguing, right?

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

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

A Thicket of Thoughts

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

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

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

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

The Luminous Beings Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 4: What’d I Miss?

This Week’s Bit of String: Vicarious holidays to India

“You have an unusual name,” the customer on the phone says. I was typing notes on his call when he rang back and asked for me again. He explains, “We met someone with your name when we were travelling in India a while ago. Spent long, happy days watching the Ganges flow past and drinking hot chai. Was that you?”

“I’m afraid I’ve never been to India—yet.”

My colleagues nearby look up from their keyboards, distracted by my conversation.

An eye-opening experience. Street art in Derby

“Well, I highly recommend it. And you understand—I had to call back and check. I thought, wouldn’t it be a shame if I missed the chance to find out?”

I absolutely understood, and thanked him for briefly transporting me from the office. Then I got sucked back into doing three full-time jobs at once, then went home to a flurry of housework, and it wasn’t until my family and I had chatted through a whole supper that I remembered this respite.

How many times have I not bothered making a connection, seizing an idea, or picking at a bit of string, because my thoughts are corralled and cornered by job worries?

On My Way to Get to the Bottom of This

There’s not much I can do about my workload while at the office, but I’m learning to take back my life after walking out the heavy, ID-operated doors.

It’s like pausing a speedy hike to study the oxidation layers on an abandoned doorknob.

To this end, I plan to fit reading back into my schedule, and to jot down three random observations daily. Whether it’s a funny name I heard, an interesting fact I read, a street musician I passed, or one of my son’s jokes. (Example: “I hate when people ask me where I see myself in a year’s time. I mean, I don’t have 2020 vision.”)

Don’t think me a complete slacker for not doing these things before. I finished writing a novel recently, and I’m still funnelling every spare moment into editing. I stopped reading while consumed by my own plot. That’s totally allowed.

For the last month or two, I was obsessed with my characters. In that advanced project stage, you’re trapped in a whirlpool, suffocating under the current, and the only way to relieve the pressure is through a tiny trickle—word by word. But you can only switch the outlet on when you’re not in the office, when your family doesn’t need you, when the meals are cooked and served and cleaned up, and the laundry’s done.

I did what I set out to do, sharpening my focus and finishing The Gospel of Eve’s first draft. I wrote over 80,000 words in just 2 months. But it’s probably safe to broaden my mental reach again.

Engaged in a Battle for Our Very Soul

The unexpected call-back at work came just a couple days after I spent time an early Sunday morning reading cultural articles instead of catching up on political news or launching right into edits or filling out office forms.

I read the original Esquire article on Mr. Rogers from 1998, and an NPR article about 100-year-old Arabian Nights illustrations by Danish artist Kay Nielson. Both were a treat.

Letting the sun set on the office week: My Friday Five Miler along Stroudwater Canal

It’s hard to write when you’re fretting about customers and deadlines. However, it’s also hard to distract me from my characters. And work did that, every day in the midst of penning the climax. I’d walk to work plotting battle scenes or plagues or births—and once I got to my desk, the bombardment of emails, phone calls, initiatives from supervisors and questions from junior colleagues helped me forget Eve and her descendants.

After a while I forgot it works the other way around too. If I pick up a chapter and start editing, I can disappear into Eden and its aftermath. For tougher chapters needing more work, I can ease myself in by reading someone else’s—a short story in an online magazine, or an article from BrainPickings, LitHub or Artpublika.

How do you stay creative while buried under spreadsheets? Shall we hold each other to the standard of taking in one piece of art/ literature per day, and noting down three new observations? I’ll be back at the end of the week to report. Comment here, send me a Tweet, or comment on Facebook with any suggestions and if you need any encouragement!

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?

 

 

2016 Reading Round-Up

What were your favourite literary journeys of 2016? Please let me know what you think of mine; we bookworms must support each other as we gasp through tedious ‘real life’ like fish out of water.

It’s always tricky to narrow down my top ten, in order of how much I loved them. 10 indicates a terrific read and 1 means I nearly perished of bereavement when the book ended. I’ve cheated a little by adding two spaces for special categories:

Favourite Non-Fiction read: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

I read this intriguing book as research for writing The Wrong Ten Seconds. Ronson interviews quite a few people who played different roles in recent ‘Internet shaming’ scandals. Other hot issues are implicated as well, such as political correctness and safe spaces, while Ronson tries to remind us of our humanity in the process.
‘We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mass of vulnerabilities, and who knows what will trigger them?’

Favourite Young Adult read: Ptolemy’s Gate, the conclusion of the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud

Cork on pebble beach in Brighton
Brighton: Rusted champagne corks on the beach

This trilogy is unique and challenging, splitting the POV between an arrogant, unlikeable (yet somewhat sympathetic) teenage boy who is also a magical prodigy, and the ancient but never old daemon that he conjures. Bonus: the daemon cheekily educates us on his experiences and the history of this parallel wizards’ universe through the use of footnotes.
‘A dozen more questions occurred to me. *Not to mention 22 possible solutions to each one, 16 resulting hypotheses and counter-theorems, 8 abstract speculations, a quadrilateral equation, 2 axioms, and a limerick. That’s raw intelligence for you.

Novels

10. Twenty-Six Degrees by Rebeccah Giltrow
I’ve been privileged this year to buy and read a handful of books by writers known to me, and this one is quite a feat. It’s not an easy read, because the 26 characters Giltrow unflinchingly examines are often unsavoury. She also challenged herself by making the book lipogrammatic: each of the 26 stories is told with the omission of a different letter. Giltrow explains this in the Afterword, making us consider how influential a single letter is:
‘Maxwell has to speak in the present tense because he doesn’t have use of the letter D, and talking about herself is impossible for Beth without the letter I. Zoe can’t question anyone, Larry can’t thank anyone, Charlie can’t love anyone.’

9. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
We all know unhappy families are different, thanks to Tolstoy, but this one is especially different. The parents are flawed but fascinating in their intelligence, their artistic creativity, and their principles. Plus the wild landscapes they all traverse… In fact, were they truly unhappy?
‘I told Mom I would protect the Joshua tree from the wind, and water it every day so it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special. It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.’

Gnome reading on Langland Bay coastal path
A gnome reads contentedly by the seaside in Langland Bay, Swansea

8. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Another one that’s not for the faint of heart (or stomach), this novel transports us into a 17th century plague town. A friend gave it to me to help with my self-sufficiency research for Society of the Spurned. The struggle of these townspeople is narrated by a young woman who somehow maintains her strength and clarity of purpose, and made it impossible for me to give up on the dark tale.
‘“At first, I borrowed his brightness and used it to see my way, and then gradually, from the habit of looking at the world as he illuminated it, the light in my own mind rekindled itself.”’

7. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
I’ve meant to read this for years, and it didn’t disappoint. I love the vast ranges of characters he invents, and the good humour with which he portrays most of them. Bleak House’s themes of charity and gratitude don’t lose their resonance.
‘There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.’

6. This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes
I read this because I loved her novel May We Be Forgiven. Similarly, in this book Homes takes a somewhat aimless protagonist, throws disaster his way, assembles a diverse conglomeration of new friends for him, and sends him bumbling along to rediscover himself. I love meeting the different characters through her down-to-earth observational style. She lets them reveal the neuroses of modern America:
‘“Do you ever feel like you need to see someone, just to make sure they still exist?”
‘“That’s what people talk about when they’re having a nervous breakdown. Does having the nervous breakdown make you wonder about that, or does wondering about it give you the nervous breakdown?”’

5. Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
Another favourite writer of mine, who really knows how to pull a story together. Atkinson goes more deeply into more characters’ thoughts than Homes does, and so many of their bemused, confused reactions to current times echo my own, from disappointment in English people, to deriding The Da Vinci Code, to the idea that today’s problems aren’t really that new. I’ve thought about starting a KateAtkinsonSaidItNotMe hashtag, but that’s perhaps a bit long.
‘It felt like the same world as ever to Tracy. The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer… The Victorians would have recognised it. People just watched a lot more TV now.’

4. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The twists in this story gave me the biggest shocks I’ve had in a while. Waters writes her own version of a Dickensian epic-type story about orphans and thieves, both poor and relatively wealthy, and modernises it with strong female protagonists struggling for autonomy. She also manages to narrate the same events twice, through the perspectives of two characters, without seeming repetitive or implausible.
‘But I thought desire smaller, neater; I supposed it bound to its own organs as taste is bound to the mouth, vision to the eye. This feeling haunts and inhabits me, like a sickness. It covers me, like skin.’

 

Dislodged roots
Books should be like trees, with a wild, beautiful system of roots

3. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
What’s not to love in a book about a hard-working writer who sometimes gets to holiday in the Vermont mountains and lakes? I found the protagonist’s work ethic inspiring, and the outdoor adventures and routines took me back to my home country. There are many great quotes from this book, but I absolutely love this toast between the protagonist (probably a version of Stegner himself) and his friend:
‘Let us be unignorable.’

2. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I fell for this fully on the second or third page, when Steinbeck described digging in his corner of California’s Salinas Valley and encountering evidence of oceans and glaciers as well as rock and soil. I’m not a geologist, but that image drew me in with its promise of deep layers. I felt for every one of the characters, especially the Hamilton clan, and was devastated by their tragic end. Sam Hamilton became my new hero.
‘But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’

1. Possession by A.S. Byatt
This book is the culmination of all my favourite themes from this year and beyond. Feminine autonomy, love’s limitations, art and artifice, the drive to write and create. If ever a book deserved the Booker prize, this one did—and actually won it, too. Who would have thought?
‘“I have always supposed poetry to be a cry of unsatisfied love—my dear—and so it may be indeed—for satisfaction may surfeit it and it may die.”’

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.