Making It Up

This Week’s Bit of String: Near-misses and resistant materials

“Miss, did you ever almost cause the death of a small child?” a year 10 boy asks casually as we sit on the high stools around a Design Technology table. Three boys with various tools and MDF fragments, me with my laptop and notebooks.

This is Resistant Materials. I know very little about CAD, woodwork or metalwork, but I’m supporting a student doing the GCSE. When I told my husband I’d be helping with Resistant Materials, he quipped, “Is that the course, or the students?”

Fair question. But I’ve clearly won some trust. The boy who’s asked this surprising question explains to me that he was once on a ferris wheel with a friend, and her shoe fell off and almost hit a toddler on the ground. Hence, he feels he was beside someone who almost accidentally caused the death of a small child.

Big wheel keep on turning

Story ideas pivot on crucial moments like the one he mentioned. A slight change in breeze, an incremental rise or fall in the Big Wheel, and the shoe might have hit. I noted the exchange with the Year 10 boy and preliminary thoughts about the alternate scenarios in my daily scribbles, ready for half-term when I have a few free hours to sit, and wrestle out my first new story of the year. I’ll have my latest novel edits all typed up by then.

Exploring Options

Around the time the Resistant Materials boy mentioned his anecdote, I was reading through a literary magazine called Story. It’s based in the US, and I discovered it because I was looking for submission possibilities and Googled “short story magazine.” Sometimes we forget to keep things simple; we look through comprehensive listings of publications and deadlines and fret over word counts… This was more a case of “ask and you shall receive.”

There were some great stories in this issue. My favourite was about a group of boys and their scout leader who got trapped in a cave for several days. The dynamic among the boys before, during, and after was fascinatingly written. It made me realise–and again this sounds SO obvious but it’s another thing that I lose sight of now and then–we get to make stuff up.

I’m pretty sure the writer hadn’t been stuck in a cave or been close to someone who was. But they did a great job making up the scenario and tracking its impacts. I’m going to do that too, I thought. Make something up.

I tend to be a bit timid with my ideas, whether it’s from actual fear or more likely, lack of mental energy. Starting from scratch is EFFORT, to borrow the ultimate disparaging statement from my students. That’s why it can be useful to begin with a memory, with a favourite setting or even person, or with a retelling, a twist on something old.

What About the Future?

Lately, I’ve indulged in inventing future scenarios. If my imagination is slightly inhibited regarding stories, I severely limit it when considering how real life could turn out. I’ve done this from a young age, to avoid disappointment. I specifically remember preparing for my 8th birthday, to be celebrated at Chuck E Cheese’s, something I’d wanted for years. Rides! Games! Pizza! I’d wanted it, but wouldn’t allow myself to picture it, because that would risk building expectations. 

Maybe the Event will bring us here.

If we’re tuned into the world, and we have an ounce of empathy, it can’t escape our notice that we’re clinging to some privilege. Whatever tough times we’ve had, billions in the world are substantially worse off. My husband and I remark to each other sometimes about the Event, an imaginary but tacitly half-expected reversal of world fortunes.

“This would be a strategic location in the Event,” he says when we take in hilltop views on a hike.

“For the Event,” I say when I add to the ranks of canned goods in the cupboard.

But it’s also possible that amazing things will happen in the future. You know, on occasion. Struggling to sleep with exam stress on behalf of my students recently, I started imagining what, for example, our 30th or 40th anniversary might look like, having just celebrated our 20th.

Maybe we will be surrounded by family next time, instead of on our own. There could be a new generation of children on the scene, and though another decade could see further health complications for my parents, I imagined my own kiddo helping to ensure they’re looked after, and this brought comfort.

We can’t get attached to any single projection of the future. But envisioning positives—perhaps especially in the form of small, everyday details—is a new bravery for me. Part of appreciating what I have means letting go of my expectation of disappointment. And if events look to go in a different direction, then I’ll just make up new hopes.

How do you keep sight of the freedom to make things up?

Writing to Remember

This Week’s Bit of String: Memory manager

My mother always said you can tell a storm’s coming when the leaves blow upside down. It doesn’t sound logical, but she’s right. Once you’ve seen enough storms, you recognise a particular silvery toss. 

When I was a kid, we lived across from a lake and spent whole summer days there, sometimes cut short by thunderstorms. As black clouds massed over the water, the maple tree beside the landlord’s boathouse would thrash and moan.

And we’d run for it, holding hands across the road, towels streaming behind us. Once indoors, we watched lightning jitter over the lake’s teased-up waves, and sometimes the power went out. 

The lakes and trees of home

One such evening, we played on the scratchy carpet illuminated only by my dad’s battery-powered reading lamp. Perched on the edge of the sofa in his shorts, Dad flipped through a computer magazine and sang about the glossy adverts inside. I still recall the words:

“Super T-R-S control. Memory manager! Memory manager! Free inside this bo-oook!” As with many of his ditties, the first line copies the opening of “Good King Wenceslas.” Then he finished with a high-pitched flourish. 

At the time, we were probably bored with being inside in the dark, hot in the humidity, and hungry for a dinner my mom wouldn’t have been able to prepare without electricity, but all I remember is Dad’s goofy crooning, and it makes me smile.

35 years later, I have no clue what a super TRS control memory manager does in a computer, or if it is in fact something a computer still relies upon. I do know that at every stage of my writing life, memory has been an essential motivator.

A Justification for Stealing

As writers we are somewhat notorious for snatching versions of people from our lives and wriggling them into stories. Sometimes a whole person might get caught up with the bits of string we collect.

Preserving one-time theatre buddies, exchange students, or other lost friends in my writing helped get me through high school and college. I could huddle in my work when metaphorical storms came.

A local wall. Layers and fragments and wear and tear… it’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it?

Remembering is more than piecing together fragments. It is a profession of faith: You’re not here, but I believe in you, and the closeness we shared.

I’ve always loved Lionel Shriver’s line from We Need to Talk About Kevin, about a good-bye kiss the protagonist clings to: “I have relived that moment so many times now that the memory cells must be pale and broken down, like the denim of much-loved jeans.”

I’d done the same thing. Curled into a college half-desk in my Contemporary Poetry class, hunkered against a tempest of morning sickness, I would zone out from discussing TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and recall saying goodbye to my now-husband in Victoria Station. He’d cried and said, “You’re not the sort of person one forgets.”

I’d worried for the integrity of my memories, whether they’d buckle under the strain of my reliance. Is a remembered instant like a favourite song, and if you rewind too many times the cassette ribbon gets tangled and won’t play?

Nostalgia vs Declinism

Our memories aren’t saved into hard drives. They can get corrupted retroactively, or embellished. This is why I do my daily scribbles. My memory has a back-up. I’ve conserved in my pencil scrawl what ordinary felt like when my kiddo still lived here with us in the UK. I’ve described countless morning walks, in case the trees all get chopped down or my legs stop working. I’ve put down the frustrations and small wins and many laughs and a few tears over two years of getting to know SEN students who are now about to take exams and leave.

Studies show that the older we get, the more we prefer to reexamine the past than imagine the future. This is the tricky boundary between nostalgia and declinism, believing the best is all behind us and nothing good lies ahead.

Making the most of what washes up.

Crossing that border is dangerous not just to ourselves, causing anxiety and pessimism, but potentially to society. The nagging feeling that things must have been better before, surely the nation was greater once—it can lead to people making some selfish political decisions.

I get the anxiety, of course. When the future flashes into my mind, it’s often like the maple tree by the boathouse at our childhood lake. A menacing, pale toss. The present could so easily blow away; storms of some kind are inevitable.

So we run for it, into our memories, and I’m thankful for how writing has reinforced mine. If the alternative is oblivion, I am unrepentant about my pilfering. Besides, memory needs imagination to keep going.

While a remembered person or location can inspire me to start a story, it’s the moment when they alchemise with other elements of fiction, when they become something truly new, that motivates me to keep going. That’s when I know I’m on to something.

Understanding that helps keep me from getting lost in the past. The power of synthesising the old into something fresh and creative means we can make something from the future, whatever it brings. It’s like my dad making new songs from a Christmas carol and a computer ad, and I’m still singing it decades later.

How do you preserve your favourite memories?

Non-Stop

This Week’s Bit of String: Dreams about reading

A Year 13 student informed me somewhat randomly, “It’s impossible to dream about reading books because you read with the opposite half of your brain from where you dream.”

Given she mentioned this after insisting, during a GCSE Maths Resit lesson on multipliers, “It’s impossible to have anything higher than 100%,” I should have taken it with a grain of salt. But I was intrigued because I do dream quite a bit, and I couldn’t think of any dreams in which I’d been reading a book.

Maybe it was true, a never-the-twain-shall-meet sort of thing. I often dream about getting lost while travelling. Maybe the signs and maps have no words, and that’s why. Have you ever read in your dreams?

Can one truly rest when words are present?

My subconscious launched into gear to prove me utterly and completely wrong. 

The first night, I dreamed about gathering reading material for a trip. There was a photocopied chapter about encouraging students to read, and I distinctly remember reading the title in my dream: “Reading is like getting a big hug!” As if that would persuade my actual students.

The second night, I was in a library with a dusty shelf containing all the stories I’d written, and I searched through for the right one to offer a friend. 

Whether this proves which brain hemisphere is in charge of what activity, I would not presume to say. Maybe words have permeated every function of my mind. Or maybe my subconscious is a stubborn and contrary creature.

All the Words, All the Time

When working with students in lower-set classes, sometimes I turn around to help someone else, reading an extract to them upside down. These kids struggle to read rightside-up, through no fault of their own, so this amazes them. 

I almost inhale words though. I’ve been reading since age three. If there are words anywhere in the vicinity, I will read them. I can barely help reading them.

The problem with reading somewhat involuntarily is that it goes beyond my control. Stories are bigger than we are, aren’t they? I think a lot of writers have difficulty shutting stories off. We rely on this, and it’s marvellous to get lost in a story. My problem is, I can’t stop the words in general. 

Might be nice to just look, not try to describe or capture…

My brain is always writing, if not creatively. It might be planning an email to check in with a friend, or working out how to explain developments to a student’s parent, or considering how to promote my own material, or thinking up character quirks. 

It could be going over what I’ll recount in my daily scribbles: Magnolia blooms like flocks of butterflies. Trying to pass the gauntlet of Key Stage 3 girls outside the toilets between lessons, their handbags pert like ship prows. These thoughts from a Year 10 special needs student: “This might be stereotypical of me, but if I went to Texas, do you think people there would be mean because I’m different? They might stereotypic me because of it. But everyone’s different in some way and can get stereotypicked for something…”

Waste Not, Want Not?

My brain has been programmed to optimise any free moment. It’s learned to write like I’m running out of time, except my body can’t keep up. The second I wake up, even when it’s still the middle of the night and it’s the third or fourth time that night… Words switch right on and I’m rocketing through lots of things to say or write. 

Oberon the baby-cat is responsible for many of these wake-ups.

To an extent, this helps me later on. I can remember how I decided to word that message for work, and I’ll remember the order I wanted to put things in when reunited with my journal.

But it’s also tiring, the constant torrent of words in my head, because it’s difficult to rest when it flows. Then the fog of tiredness is somewhat counterproductive.

Is poor sleep an inevitable part of creative life? Have I unwittingly rewired myself in a harmful way? If we took a machine and rerouted some electrics to provide extra energy to a particular function, then the other functions would not run so well. I’m worried I might have done this to myself.

I now have two weeks off for the Easter holidays. I may commit to the massive to-do list I’ve made which includes sorting the garden out and cleaning the house and stocking the freezer, plus catching up on reading literary magazines and (she adds breezily…) proofreading the latest type-up of my 330-page novel. Or I could try to catch up on sleep, see if I can pause the words, and then when it’s term-time again, throw myself back into the merciless pace of trying to proofread the novel and grow lots of veggies while working a rather intense job and keeping the house clean and meals cooked every day.

I have a feeling my subconscious has already chosen for me. It’s a good thing I’m rather fond of words and writing.

Do you have tips for getting control of all the words in our heads… preferably without stifling creativity?

Waiting for Applause

This Week’s Bit of String: Ghosts and earwax

Last Wednesday I went back to summer camp to do story-making activities with 5- to 11-year-olds. “Do we have to write?” some asked as they came in with oversized tie dye shirts and baseball caps.

“We’re just going to have fun.”

I always start them off silly, with Mad Libs, so we can create wacky stories. I brought outrageous hats borrowed from my sister: a plaid fedora full of nouns, a cowboy sheriff hat full of verbs, a blue-haired pointy witch hat with adjectives. Kids carry on with Mad Libs, or sketch their own versions of video or board games, or make comics around the stickers I have on offer—some just plaster anything and everything with stickers. In each group, a few want to work with me to write a story together.

So we end up with adventures about pig princes, and about a cowboy fighting a banana. With one group we based our protagonists on some very cool stickers from my other sister—a red panda in a turquoise tux and an alligator in polka dot shorts. The kids embellished these even further; the alligator has a ghost named Shawn riding on his back, and they find a haunted castle where a ghost king is having a trampoline party.

Hatfuls of ideas

While I wrote this out on a big scroll of rolling paper, I overheard a little boy to my right say to his neighbour, “I don’t want your earwax. Just keep your earwax.”

Right! Into the story with that line. The red panda and the alligator with Shawn offer their earwax as a birthday present to the ghost king but are rejected, because he wants a Pikachu instead.

Keeping It Fun

The small fellow who refused the earwax drew a red-curtained stage on his piece of paper, and wrote in the stage space: Once upon a time. The end. I am waiting for applause.

Then he came round to show it to us, his grin riddled with missing baby teeth. Considering how his story lacked plot, the applause demand was a surprise twist.

Not that I’m about to judge. I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare my workshops this year, once the busy school term was finally over. I ended up just pulling together the same resources and activities we did last year, and hoping these would still inspire.

I kind of got away with it because the kids remember what they like and I remember what works. I offered more specific suggestions to help get them started. Most people are unprepared to be told, “Sit down and write whatever you want.” Heck, even we writers struggle with that.

Hence the stickers, the Mad Libs, and the hats full of prompts. And why not celebrate the shortcuts, the tricks that make things slightly easier? Yes, even the fun things that aren’t proper stories. Let’s applaud ourselves for actually stopping to have fun and explore what we want to once in a while.

A Personal Pirate

In my final session, a tiny girl with a blond ponytail asked me to tape papers together so she had lots of pages. She used Disney princess stickers and drew a sad pirate on a ship in her book called The Love. The pirate gets to the princesses’ castle, and asks Sleeping Beauty if he can be her pirate.

“How do you spell yes?” the little girl asked. She put it in a speech balloon above the princess.

Who wouldn’t want their own pirate to go and fetch treasure? I believe actual royalty have had them before. This princess wasn’t pining for a prince; it was a pirate she wanted! It would be like having a personal shopper, but way cheaper.

Personally, if I had a pirate I’d send them to search here for stories.

When we’re writing, I think we have to remember not to hold out for princes. A single, heroic solution to our plot holes or character conundrums is probably not going to come charging to the rescue on a metaphorical white horse.

We have more need of pirates, I think. Writing requires a bit of plunder, at least sometimes to get us started or re-started. The nice thing about working with kids is that it reminds me of the basics. Keep things fun and don’t be ashamed of keeping them simple. There’s nothing wrong with raiding the classic tropes for inspiration, or even with being a bit shameless in our quest for positive feedback.

What have you learned in your writing journey this summer? Have you found pirate treasure, or that ever-elusive applause?

Capturing Castles

This Week’s Bit of String: A budding writer at the gate

Quite out of breath, I arrived to the gate of my connecting flight to see my family. The airline was, as ever, playing dicey with delays, and I’d almost resigned myself to being stuck in Dublin yet again. But I’d made it through the airport against the odds, and I waited for the imminent boarding a few chairs from a girl and her father.

The girl couldn’t have been more than ten years old. She wore a massive University Roma hoodie, and rainbow-splodged Crocs imitating a tie-dye effect. Giggling, she pointed out to her dad that across and along from us, four men in a row sat the exact same way, right leg crossed over left.

Airport inspiration in all varieties: this “Rocket Man” piano is at Birmingham Airport.

She was right, and justifiably giddy with pride at catching this detail. Then she picked up a magazine and started reading an article about the author Andy Weir, her mouth meticulously forming each word. I felt I was watching a junior author myself, someone who knew that to be one, she needed to take notice of her surroundings, and read up on other writers.

For me, the airport is great for people-watching and inspiration. I wrote down this anecdote immediately, sitting in the gate. Because I scribble every day, and I had many hours of travel to get through, I wasn’t pressuring myself to watch and record everything—just a few key observations.

Places for Writing

Apart from scribbling in my notebook, I spent a lot of time reading while in transit. I’d taken out Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle from the library at work, and enjoyed it tremendously. It opens with the young, hungrily observant narrator sitting with her feet in the kitchen sink, starting her diary by the last daylight.

Okay, this isn’t exactly an original suggestion, but I would love to sit journalling on the front porch.

She writes, “I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.”

I love that line on page one. I want to try that this summer: going out of my way to sit in new places and crack open my notebook. Would anyone else like to join me? I may create a writing sampler at the end of the fleeting six weeks, featuring my favourite observations and inspirations.

Now I just need to find some unique places and move out of my comfort zone, which at the moment is the reclining end of my parents’ sofa, in front of a fan. It is challenging how in order to find inspiration, we first have to come up with an original way to put ourselves in its path.

Memories Versus Inspiration

As usual, I planned this post in my head during a morning walk. I was crossing a bridge just downriver from a ruined mill. I stopped and watched a tall grey heron standing perfectly still on a rock. There’s been a lot of rain here in New England, and this river is rushing but not too high.

I remembered that for 11th grade Biology, we were supposed to find a spot outside and visit it regularly throughout the year to record natural changes. I chose the river, coming to the foundation blocks of an old house that once sat high on the bank by the railroad tracks. I stowed a composition notebook and some sketching materials in a plastic bag between the blocks. I sat there and noted which trees changed colour first. But later in the year, severe storms swept my things away. Writing in new places can be quite an adventure.

Aforementioned heron. He did not wish to commune.

I considered climbing up and sticking my feet in the kitchen sink here, at the house my parents have lived in more than 30 years. Just thinking about it, memories spout like the tap’s turned on: stowing my kiddo under my arm after each meal, piloting them over to the sink and splashing off the baby food, then carrying them through to the breezeway to play with the wind chimes hanging there. “Bell” became one of their first words.

Or there’s the bathroom sink. The bathroom has a built-in storage unit, with a deep countertop separating us from the mirror, so we used to climb up on it to get a good look. And just because we could. My sister and I would be on and off the counter quite a bit while we brushed our teeth, until Dad got fed up of us thumping down from it and came in to show us how to set ourselves down lightly, “being dignified.” He climbed up himself and disembarked, making dramatically prissy faces for us all the while.

I’m taking care to include memories like this in my daily scribbles, since we can’t assume we’ll keep them forever. But I don’t want to get lost in them either. My New Writing Place Summer Challenge is about noticing the unexpected and finding new ideas. I don’t know if it will work, but I do intend to shake things up a little.

What writing locations can you try? Do you think it makes a difference?

Artefacts of a Story

This Week’s Bit of String: Milkweed cradles and postage stamp paintings

As a kid, I never threw away a pencil. Each had its own personality, as I used them up to lengths which would correspond with their ages. From assigning names and ages to pencil fragments and little boxy erasers in first grade, I progressed to grouping them in families. 

By the time I got my own room at age eleven, I was ready with cardboard shelves and my entire top drawer. I made a town for my pencil families. They had scrap blankets and I would put plastic sheets from envelope windows to serve as windows cut in the cardboard. I saved milkweed pods as cradles for the shortest pencil nubs, and padded the bottoms with satiny milkweed tassels. I peeled stamps off letters and stuck them up as paintings in the pencils’ houses, reflecting the residents’ professions and talents. 

A more recent artefact. It’s very rough but this mansion WILL have two libraries.

Naturally, you don’t grow a whole town in your bedroom without the relevant paperwork and a whole lot of backstory. My town was populated by people fleeing the nazis; it was hidden in the Polish woods. In seventh grade, I wrote a few hundred pages on the refugees’ adventures.

I tracked names and ages on an extra-long sheet of yellow legal paper: my census. I remember misplacing it one evening and wandering through the house saying, “I lost my census!” It was easily misheard as me losing my senses.

I’ve always loved a book with a map or a cast list at the beginning. Any visible evidence for the world I’m about to enter is most welcome. We had a poster map of Narnia up in our house when I was little. Did you find supplemental artefacts for any of your favourite stories?

Distraction or Inspiration

Creating meticulous artefacts to go along with our works in progress can be an essential step in story-writing. I often curate a soundtrack of theme songs to keep me going. For my Eve novel, I wrote out genealogies and calculated the exponential growth of the population as generations progressed. 

In the early stages of writing a new novel, I’ve been creating detailed character profiles, and an aristocratic family history as well as highlights of a contemporary artist’s catalogue. I think the novel will take place in a half-finished gothic mansion, so I am inventing the history of the house as well as sketching a sort of floor plan. I’ve never done this before and it’s quite fun. How big shall I make the library? What view shall I give it?

I visited Woodchester Mansion, a local unfinished gothic estate, for inspiration.

I need to know how things look and where everyone is within the house in order to chart the action, so these things are important. They’re also, in a way, a bit easier than studying the character profiles and considering how they might extend into novel-length trajectories. For me, the hardest part of writing a novel is ensuring there’s a clear, engagingly-paced beginning, middle, and end. Making extra planning documents and visual representations puts off that moment when I have to figure out whether this idea really has the stuff of books.

Useful Daydreams

As writers, we can be prone to fantasies which we’ll never bother writing down. It may sound indulgent to spend time on bits and pieces which will remain in the background. Maybe they’re just decorations for the more integral structure of the plot. 

But writing a novel is very hard work. It might go better if we like our characters and scenes enough to while away hours imagining them. We’ll be spending a lot of time with them anyway.

For me, the supplementary bits I do become more than planning tools. The soundtracks I piece together, for example, catapult me at an accelerated rate into my character’s mindset and the mood of a scene. I haven’t developed a soundtrack yet for my upcoming work-in-progress and I’m looking forward to listening and experimenting with what might fit.

As for the paper artefacts, the blueprints and maps and family trees, these ground me in the story rather than just in the plot. In the adult world we still desperately need those fragments which bring the imaginary to life. These are the threads we can snatch–little baby pencil stubs, fantastical maps, fraught genealogies–to connect us to new worlds. 

What kinds of artefacts do you use to accompany your creations?

Life Raft

This Week’s Bit of String: Comedy face, tragedy face, angry face

Wielding the unholy power we’ve given it, Facebook keeps showing me adverts for a play my husband and I just saw in Bristol. That’s ok, it was brilliant; I’d still be mulling it over without the reminders. I noticed, though, that someone had responded to the theatre trailer with the angry face emoji.

Someone who doesn’t like modern adaptations or diverse casts, I thought. A couple months ago, we loved the RSC’s latest Julius Caesar with women in the main conspirator roles, but not everyone approved. Our latest dramatic adventure was the Bristol Old Vic’s production of Anna Karenina, and you’re not going to adapt that epic without controversy.

I peeked at the comments though, and here was the angry one: “While everyone drowns… The height of sophistication!”

So, they were mad that people spend money on the arts during a cost of living crisis.

Anna Karenina at the Bristol Old Vic–I highly recommend it!

I am still thinking about this. I’m an empathetic person, which draws me to the arts in the first place, but I try to be pragmatic as well. Could I benefit more people with how I spend my bit of spare money?

Maybe the angry commenter is so strapped for cash they don’t realise some of us can spend money on more than one thing. I pay for shows a few times per year, but I have charity donations set up monthly. They may also not realise that people who work in theatres need money too. 

The actors and writers and crew for Anna Karenina did an incredible job, but I doubt they are earning celebrity-level amounts of cash. If we didn’t buy tickets to see their work, they might be “drowning,” too.

Bread and Circuses

I don’t go to the theatre to look or feel sophisticated. It’s not the most comfortable seating or temperature, half the time, so I’m fidgeting and worrying whether my husband is having an ok time (thankfully, he usually is).
 
I attend shows for the luxury of sinking into someone else’s story, as with reading a good book. I go for the cleansing catharsis of experiencing someone else’s heartbreak and redemption. I also go because I would hate for hard-working creative performances to go unappreciated. Not many of us get to earn income from our chosen art. I’m happy to pay so that some can.

These are the justifications I make to myself. I don’t know if they make me right.

There have been times when I genuinely, if unquantifiably, feel a performance has changed me as a person. It’s as if what I’ve seen blazed so brightly in its heartfelt declaration of humanity, a spark catches inside me and kindles a desire to love better, to create better. This might sound silly. But I felt permanently altered after seeing Miss Saigon’s 25th Anniversary show adapted for cinema, for example. Or when I watched La Boheme as a 10-year-old. 

Letting art sweep us out to sea

I can’t prove these things have made me a more compassionate, more resilient person. Even if they did, have they enabled me to benefit society as a whole? Still, there’s something much deeper here than entertainment, than a veneer of culture and sophistication. With Anna Karenina, the audience sees the perfect storm gather of misjudged desire, of lonely male domination, of a society obsessed with honour and prone to condemnation. It’s not genteel, it’s messy and raw. 

Resurfacing

I do appreciate reminders to be vigilant of all people’s needs and circumstances, and I want to always be sceptical about my practices. The truth is, anyone is at risk of “drowning” for a variety of reasons. I don’t want to act like the gossips in Anna Karenina, and judge people by trivialities such as how they spend their money. (Well… unless they’ve gained a tonne of it by shady means…)

No one has a right to sniff at how those with limited income spend their money. People who need help buying food shouldn’t be judged for spending money on, say, a smart phone. Not in these times.

Just as there are many things that can drag us under the current, there are many that might buoy us up. Maybe we need to build a righteous ark of highbrow theatre and literature, or witness an uplifting musical, or ride a wave of mass entertainment. Sometimes you just have to coast on a Disney cartoon. I’m not saying “Let them eat Shakespeare” or “Let them eat Netflix,” but I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of those things any more than I’d deprive someone of food. 

How do you use arts to keep yourself and others afloat?

What’s in a Name?

This Week’s Bit of String: A little baby cat

We got a 4-month-old kitten a few days ago. I will try not to go on about him too much–the photos should speak for themselves–but I’m smitten. 

Getting him relatively early means we can rename him. Goodness knows if he’ll respond to it; how powerful can a verbal moniker be compared to Dreamies and feather toys, cardboard boxes and head rubs? But the process of choosing a name was exciting and also, in a way, revealing.

I viewed this as acquiring a new family member. So the name had to fit with our family culture. That’s not something I actively think about, and this caused me to consider it. 

Naturally, our family traditions and favourites are a transatlantic mashup of American and British. Should I call the cat something to connect him with my home country? I liked the name Cricket, since he is black like the crickets in New England whose song I associate with home. And as he finds his voice, Kitty McKittenFace has revealed himself to have a crickety little chirp. But the name didn’t fully suit him.

I didn’t want a conventional black cat name, not even Inky or something with writerly implications. A literary name, that would do. A Shakespearean one even, given we just had a grand time in Stratford-Upon-Avon and the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre. No one with a tragic fate though–that eliminates a fair few of the Bard’s characters.

We settled on Oberon. The cat has a royal bearing, I think. We can shorten it to Obie, and link it to Star Wars as well if we see fit. Our Obie does have quite a stare; you’d think he was trying to use the Force on us in order to get his food bowl filled. (Scifi and adventure films are another part of our family culture.) And if he turns out a bit standoffish–which so far he is not, much to my excitement–we can call him ObeRon Swanson, for one of our favourite Parks and Recreation characters.

Character Names

Finding a title for a story can be loathsome. Nothing seems quite right… But naming characters is more painless, even enjoyable. There are so many connections you can make with a name, so many clues for readers. For example:

What: What does the name mean? Courage, humility, purity, illumination–lots of names have meanings like these and they can give a hopeful note to a character’s trajectory. I used to attach importance to this as an adolescent writer, but on the other hand everyone is brave, humble, pure, and illuminating at times, so we can’t lock ourselves or a character into any one attribute.

When: What does the name say about the contemporary events of the story? Is it a trendy name given by up-to-date parents, or a name that reflects indifference to fads? On the 2nd of November, 2016, we bought our last pets before this one–a pair of guinea pig brothers who took up residence in our lounge for the next 5 years. With the [now infamous] American election a couple days away, my husband and I wanted to name them Barry and Bernie, but our kiddo chose Fred and George instead. Mischief managed!

Where: Where is the name from? My name is Russian because my dad loves Russian literature. I have no Russian heritage. But it says something about the family who raised me, and introduced me to all sorts of art and literature. As I’m looking into my next project, I want one of my main characters to be an immigrant with a name that gets shortened to Nil, drawing inane comments now that she lives in the UK. I haven’t found a name that fits these particulars yet. Would it be culturally insensitive if I made one up? It’s funny, the notions we get stuck in our heads.

Who: Who else has this name? Often names come from a family history, but they might link to other figures also. I have a draft of a dark comedy story where some celebrity parents name their kids Ursula and Gaston, after Disney villains to shock people with how enlightened they are.

Why: Why was this name given to them–not by you as the writer, but by whoever named them? Writing my novel about Eve, I kept reading the Genesis account of creation. She’s only called “the woman” until after Eden. That’s not as outrageously disrespectful as it sounds though, since all Adam’s name ever meant was “the man.” If they were the first humans on earth, their species and gender would need no further specification.

How: How do others react to the name, and how does the character feel they are living up to it? I don’t usually give characters unusual names, because I have one and it complicates things. How people respond to my name reveals something about them. They might force it into something they know, like Natasha. They might immediately forget it rather than attempt pronunciation. Or they might say, “How unique. I’ll definitely remember that.” It makes things interesting… Maybe I will use such observations in a story one day.

What’s your strategy for naming characters? Are there any character names you’re particularly proud of?

Over the Rainbow

This Week’s Bit of String: A few hundred definite articles

When I was young and had energy–aged three, to be exact–I started eschewing naps. My mother would put me down for a “Quiet Time” instead, with a stack of books to look through. I knew their stories well, but I wanted to properly read them. Logically I started at the beginning, and as my mother settled me down, I asked what the first word of the top book’s title was.

It was “The,” as in The Wizard of Oz. Now able to read my first word, I went through every book I had and counted how many times “the” appeared in my books. I kept counting wherever I went, well up into the hundreds, until I noticed the word “there,” and counted those. I was in the midst of counting “thens” when all the other words started making sense and I lost count, too busy reading. Sucked into new realms.

Our copy of The Wizard of Oz was a big, almost A3-sized book with illustrations based on the film version. Since it became my first reading experience, I have a soft spot for the story–but clearly I was already drawn to it, since it inspired me to try and read in the first place.

Real Life or Dreams

One thing that bothered me about the movie was how it framed Dorothy’s whole adventure as a dream. I preferred the Chronicles of Narnia, in which all that happened was incontrovertibly real, just occurring in a different dimension (which I tried to reach through many a wardrobe). I felt it diminished Dorothy’s experiences to portray them as just a dream.

Even now, I get a bit ruffled when creators use the “But was it all a dream?” cliche. Hopefully this doesn’t make me too simplistic or uncultured, but I like reality clearly delineated. If an unreliable narrator misleads us for their own ends, or for their own survival, or if they’ve been misled, I’m all in and I have colossal respect for the storytelling (Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Fingersmith, Life of Pi). But if, for example, a TV show or film implies the entire premise has only happened in a character’s mind, as one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tried to do, I’m offended. How dare the whole plot be minimised in this way?

The secondary school where I work just finished an energetic, 6-performance run of The Wizard of Oz. My husband played in the band and I helped a bit with front of house and quick changes. When a production ends, it’s like waking up from a dream. There’s that sudden cessation of energy and the unwinding of a massive, intricate knot as everyone goes their separate ways.

It struck me, watching it again after a long while, that actually the way the story unfolds is just the way a child might imagine it. As a conquering hero, but innocent, with devoted friends and all sorts of magic. It’s not a diminishment of childhood experience, it’s an ode to their imagination, and I was quite moved by it.

Haunted Forests

It also serves as a reminder that even in our heads, even as children, we’re not completely safe. I don’t know any child capable of constructing a fantasy where nothing bad happens. Otherwise, how would we prove our heroism, and our comparative innocence? Dorothy tries to invent a place where there isn’t any trouble, but trouble gets in anyway.

Dreaming in colour

It’s all those anxieties about the future and those fearful spectres from our past creeping up. “Just try to stay out of my way,” they cackle. “Just TRY.”

One of the reasons I’m quite sensitive about stories being dismissed as “all in your head” derives from my experience in a psychiatric ward when I was 12. I was withdrawn and always thinking about stories. The staff wrote in my records that I seemed to be “responding to internal stimuli” and I was put on anti-hallucination medication.

“Are you hearing voices?” the psychiatrist, a toneless woman with an unfortunate resemblance to Jabba the Hutt, asked.

“No.”

“Are the voices telling you to say that?”

“No.”

But the doctors had become too entrenched in their own reality to decipher mine.

Fortunately, the pills didn’t affect my imaginings in the slightest; I could still escape. It shocks me that it never occurred to those medical professionals that a young patient would wish to imagine things outside the immediate reality of strip searches, iron-meshed windows and straitjacketed children screaming for help.

In my opinion, it should have been as obvious as Dorothy dreaming her way from black and white into colour. I suppose it proves how powerful our inner lives are; they can transport us so fully that people watching us have no idea where we’ve gone. I probably looked as if I was responding to internal stimuli when I was three years old counting “thes” and “thens,” and I go round mouthing dialogue to myself sometimes even now. I know what I’ve made up though, and what I haven’t. You can see why I’d find it irksome if someone tried to tell me otherwise.

What takes you over the rainbow? Has it ever gotten you into trouble?

Transferring Power

This Week’s Bit of String: Exclamation points and everything

Disappointment stirs among some of the A-Level Creative Media students. One of their teachers has been unwell for several weeks, and they miss her.

“She’s STILL not back!” This statement greeted me on Monday morning. Wide-eyed, the Year 12 girl explains, “And we sent her a get well card last week, so it’s just rude not to mind it. We put an exclamation point on and everything. That makes it a COMMAND.”

She’s half-joking, but I suspect they did hope their greeting would have strong restorative powers. It made me think a bit about power dynamics. When we ask someone–or even tell someone–to do something, we may think we’re wielding control, but in a way we are giving it away because we rely on the other person to comply.

Back to the Roots

Interestingly, the word “command” is rooted in Latin for to order, but also to entrust. That’s reflected, I suppose, in our English phrasing: To give a command. We extend an order to another party, but it’s then up to them if they take it. The power is not entirely with the person giving the commands.

Starting again…

This sort of control exchange is on my mind because… it’s submission time again. I only have a limited number of short stories, and I’ve thrillingly just had one accepted. (It’s super fun and you can read it here!) My semi-depraved brain only rejoiced in this for a few hours before starting to panic that this means I don’t have anything currently in the Out on Submission column of my writing spreadsheet. 

It’s time to start all over again: researching publications and competitions, editing and wondering if I’m going in the right direction at all, amending format to the exact requirements, drafting cover letters, etc. And then, waiting, very possibly getting rejected, and then repeating the whole process.

You know the drill.

Putting the “Mission” in Submission

To psych myself up for this (and maybe I can psych some of you other writers up in the process!), I looked into the etymology of the word “submit.” There are a lot of connotations to this word: religious, marital, and so on. Indeed, the Latin root means just what you might respect: “to yield, lower, let down, put under, reduce.” It does feel sometimes as if, when we submit our work in hopes of publication, we are prostrating ourselves before an almighty authority.

But separating out the sub- (under) from the -mit gives the idea more nuance. We forget sometimes how that second half of the word means to send out, to release, to bestow. While submitting our work does leave us vulnerable, it’s the primary route available in order to share our gifts with the world. 

Roots and blooms

Sure, it would be nice if acceptance were guaranteed. I remember finding it really tough to convey when my child was little that just because they used their newly-learned manners, it didn’t mean they’d get what they asked for each time. “But I said please!” they might insist, when a request to stay up later or to have more “clockit” (chocolate) was refused. As John Green wrote in The Fault in Our Stars, “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”

As writers and artists, often particularly sensitive and empathetic people, our mission tends to be deeper than getting recognition for ourselves (although given the hard work we put in, that’s definitely part of it). Maybe we want to illuminate darkness, amplify silenced voices, add beauty to the world, or make readers laugh. That’s the mission, it’s why we send forth our work into the world, and our successes are worth the many failures. 

How do you encourage yourself when it’s submission time?