What’re We Writing For?

This Week’s Bit of String: Rewriting Beowulf

At work, one of our Year 7s just come up from primary school has refused to enter any classroom. She’s not a fan of people. We place a chair outside each door for her, period by period. During her first English class, I tried chatting with her.

“Was there anything you liked doing for English at your old school?”

She shook her head, then paused. “I wrote my own version of Beowulf. It was really funny.”

Aha. “Shall we tell the teacher about that? I bet he’d be really interested.”

A more vigourous shaking of the head. “I hated writing it. It was so hard.” Her chin lifted, her face opened, shifting the helmeting fringe over her eyes. “But that story was the best story I have ever read!”

And that was the clearest thing I ever heard her say. For an instant, she was utterly transformed, thinking of the payoff to a task she probably initially hated as much as she hates everything else: she got to read a story she actually liked, for a change. You couldn’t find a more marvellous illustration of the advice to write what you want to read.

Autumn’s coming to the schoolyard…

Which is why this particular blog post, the first I’ve gotten around to in over a month, is simply me conveying encounters with learners as they come to grips with writing requirements. My head is very much in school. New unelected leaders, be they monarchs or ministers, feel quite irrelevant while I try to help students get serious about study without making them even more insecure than they already are.

On the other end of school from our latest intake of 11-year-olds, I’m working with the 16-year-olds who must resit their English exams. They have to practise reading more extracts, writing about the effect language techniques have on the reader. “The writer uses alliteration to describe the school because it makes readers feel…”

To be honest, I’m fresh out of advice for them on how to pick apart the not-always-exemplary passages chosen by exam boards. Fellow writers, I know we select our language carefully. But am I right in thinking that sometimes we just put some alliteration in for rhythm and flow? Just because it sounds good? Because, as the Year 7 girl might say, it makes it more fun for us to read back?

Thankfully, there is a creative writing component on the exam. So, to give students a break from reading and nitpicking (ahem, I mean analysing of course), we can do some writing.

Me: “How would you like to practise writing a story this morning?”

Student L, a neurodivergent young lady with a love of gothic-style tales: “That is the best question you could possibly ask me.”

Me: “Great, you can work on developing a character and backstory to use for the exam. It’s just 7 weeks from today.”

Student L: “What are we waiting around for, then? Let’s get going!”

I don’t know about you, but an attitude like that is exactly the sort I need to read about right now.

Just put it all out there. Meredith Sculpture Walk, New Hampshire, “Poured” by Michael Alfano

She came up with a fabulous character, a dramatic and detailed backstory, and a killer opening line. It does make her a bit out of sorts, now she’s on a roll with that, when she has to work on other subjects. I think we can all relate.

One of her classmates knows the sort of character she wants to write about. She is riddled with concerns about her home life, and she wants to bring that to the page. Makes perfect sense; for many of us the opportunity for an outlet is what drew us to writing in the first place. The only thing this student can think about are her worries for loved ones, so that is what she will write about and that is what she can read about after.

She’s so insecure, though, it’s hard to write. After a good opening paragraph, she juddered to a stop.

“Just write what happens,” I told her. “We’ll worry about spelling and punctuation and dressing everything up later on. That’s how I do it…” and I suggested that our Student L did the same.

L didn’t look up from pecking away at her laptop. “I just want it to be readable.” She won’t need alliteration in her fast-paced, superhero story.

Whatever you’re working on, may it at least be readable—you never know, it could be the best thing you’ve ever read.

Humming to Snails

This Week’s Bit of String: Summer camp workshops

It’s humid in New Hampshire, and the grass is wet from last night’s thunderstorms. Twelve kids sit around me on coloured interlocking foam mats. I have armed them with clipboards, paper, pencils in all different shapes including dragons and flamingos and drumsticks, stickers, and mystery keys.

A trio of boys are doing Mad Libs together, mainly supplying each gap with some form of “cat” or “farting.” They like cats, and of course farts are the pinnacle of wit at this stage. The group’s counsellor is lying on his back, clipboard in the air, blissfully writing a poem. Other kids are writing stories about where their key might unlock, or comics about bunnies or bananamen.

One of the mats has a little slug curled on a corner. I remark on it, and an 8-year-old boy approaches me earnestly.

Carry on, brave creature.

“You know snails? If you find one, and it’s deep inside the shell and wants to stay hiding, you can hum to it. Then it will poke out.”

“That’s interesting, how did you learn that? Did you try it yourself?”

He nods. I’m picturing him crouching on the damp ground, snailshell in his palm, leaning down to hum and watching in wonder as a squidgy creature emerges, antennae first.

Permission to Imagine

I haven’t done much like this before. Working in secondary British education, creative writing is not a curriculum priority at all. When I had an opportunity to work with the kids, ages 6-11, at the day camp where my son works, I didn’t set a rigid outcome for us but came up with a lot of different activities we might try, independently or all together, to have a little romp through our imaginations.

I got some wonderful suggestions and encouragement from other writers on Twitter. One of the most fruitful was getting vintage-style keys, which you can buy in packs as party favours. Kids pick one up, examine it, and write (or dictate, or draw) what the key might lead to.

The set-up.

The campers loved the keys, and they knew exactly how to put on little pleading faces to take one home. I gave away quite a few. There were stories about pirates who got scared by the key and threw it into lava, stories about locked doors guarded by snakes, and even one where it turned out the key went to a porta-potty.

I revelled in this variety. I’d used Mad Libs as a starter, having the kids volunteer adjectives and nouns and verbs as required to fill in the story’s blanks, and then reading the funny results out so they knew right away they were allowed to be silly and break rules. One group liked that so much, several of them wrote their own Mad Libs—quite good little stories where they left words out, brought them to me, and I supplied the most random ones I could think of.

Your Words Change Things

The other reason I wanted to start with Mad Libs was because I wanted to let them know, a story doesn’t have to ALL come from you. In fact, I would argue we often borrow certain elements. But once we put our own point of view, our own language and especially follow our own what-if questions, the story becomes ours.

I had brought four hats: three were for the adjectives, nouns, and verbs for Mad Libs in case some groups were too young for parts of speech or wanted to take suggestions. The other had what-ifs in case anyone wanted to use an idea for a story. What if a shark appeared in the lake across the street? What if your teacher was a Russian spy? What if you had a million dollars? What if Cinderella’s fairy godmother had poor fashion sense?

Magical mystery keys

Asking what if changes a path, using a randomly selected noun will change a sentence… our words change things. In one of my younger groups, we did a group story. This was also my last group, and I’d recognised that kids, especially older ones, didn’t want to use suggestions or try picking words out of a hat, because they felt so compelled to ensure their work was their own. But sometimes they got stuck. So with this group, I offered hats right away to choose words for Mad Libs, and they liked it a lot. Everyone wanted to pick a word from a straw hat, or a feathered pirate one, or a beret.

When we’d finished the Mad Lib, we did a couple of group stories, penning them on the paper I’d rigged up across the chainlink fence. We’d pick a noun from a hat, like spaceship, then describe that and give it some detail as we chose. Next we drew another noun to see what our noun would interact with, then a couple of verbs for extra suggestions what they might do. Thus we ended up with a farmyard on Mercury, with big fans to keep cool and three-eyed alien animals that said Oom instead of Moo, discovered by a nice family that visits space every first Sunday of the month.

I so enjoyed meeting the kids and hearing their ideas, but I’d also had fun while working hard to prepare. It made me happy thinking of exciting words and questions to put in the hats. What if I used them in my own writing? What if we got a little crazier with our ideas?

It’s like holding up a snail shell, wondering how we can see and befriend the creature inside. Unless we try humming to it, we won’t know what works.

Calling All Alchemists

This Week’s Bit of String: Chemistry Revision

We’re finally down to our last two GCSE exams. Chemistry next Monday and Physics on Thursday. I miss studying for English, giving students fun writing and reading exercises. Now it’s all Sciencey stuff: alkanes and alkenes, distillation processes, waste water treatment, collision theory.

But the fundamentals, like the laws of physics and the reaction rules of chemistry, have a certain beauty in their massive all-encompassingness that inspires me and makes me think about the creative process.

A young neurodivergent student once advised me, “It’s dangerous to mix acid with hair dye, or toxic waste with gin and tonic, or potassium and mitochondria, or to put too many herbs with onions.”

Throw it all in there, just see what happens

I don’t know how exactly you would mix mitochondria and potassium if you wanted to, but with writing we do get to combine all kinds of things. Sometimes they are dangerous, but they almost definitely won’t explode. I love imagining a massive, dim chamber full of vials and beakers, some steaming and some icy, all different hues. We can grab whichever settings and character flaws and plot elements we like, mix them up, and see if it creates gold.

Later this month I’ve got a story coming out in The Phare online magazine. It’s called “The Albatross of Albany High School,” and I’m so proud and excited for it to be read. With Coleridge references and a young adult point of view, it’s made of weird ingredients, but after extensive experimentation, I think I got it right.

Back to Basics

States of matter are a revision favourite. Kids love reviewing what they already know. It’s reassuring, I suppose, like when you’re working on a draft and you keep rereading your favourite crafted dialogue.

Since making models of the different states of matter in Year 7, the students recall how particles move differently within solids, liquids, and gas. They’re not always able to name the processes that change a substance from one state to another, but I can give it a go.

Condensation: When we try to write a story, the idea is like a gas. Particles move freely, expanding to invisibly fill whatever space they’re in. It’s hard to stop thinking about it at the ideas stage, isn’t it? It bounces around your brain and will consider bonding with any random thing you hear or see.

Once we expose this high-energy idea gas to the cooling logic of a plan by simply sitting down at the computer or picking up pen and paper, the gas starts condensing into a liquid. As we start writing, whether in notes or as a draft, the particles compress enough to have shape, albeit a slippery, shifting one.

For the magic: this cauldron is from the Harry Potter experience at Warner Bros studio

There’s always a chance it will all evaporate again, and that’s ok. Some substances are best in that form.

Solidification: While drafting, the shape of our narrative settles from liquid to solid. It doesn’t mean you can’t still change the shape; we can whittle, drill, varnish, and paint. It just means the particles aren’t moving around and have finally drawn close to each other.

With less movement, a particle has less energy. But it also has a higher pressure. (As in, solids exert more pressure than gas.) I think that’s true of our creative process too; we might feel more excited as we’re snatching ideas and a bit less excited once they’ve solidified and we’re chiseling and polishing. However, this gives us an opportunity to exert pressure, to create impact.

Altering Carbon

Here’s another chemistry unit off the revision list that makes me think of writing. Any chemical reaction can be helped along by certain factors, and it’s the same with our creativity.

Temperature: This is the first thing we usually think of to speed up a reaction: heat it. It’s the first thing to consider with an idea, too. Does it spark within you, does it really excite you? When crafting a story opening, the inciting incident must be evident almost immediately. The reader needs to be drawn to the flame. Gentle warmth amongst the characters is important as well.

Concentration: The more particles you have, the more reactions you’ll get. It helps me to scribble every day in my journal and jot down anecdotes, responses, fantasies, what-ifs. Most of the ideas and thoughts won’t bond with anything enough to form a cohesive story. But the more ideas you can gather, the better your chances. Sarah Tinsley has some great articles on her blog about getting more ideas, like this one.

Stay gold, butterflies

Pressure: A deadline can be useful. Time goes through different states of matter, it seems… It can be a gas which expands to fill the space. When we think we have lots of time, we’re a bit aimless. But then suddenly time sublimates into a solid, and the pressure is on. Sometimes that’s where the magic happens.

Catalyst: A catalyst can be a substance or a position. With creativity, a catalyst can be a pre-existing structure. Retelling an old myth, subverting a trope, or speculating on an alternative to a historical event, can all jumpstart our process when we feel ideas have dried up.

These altering factors are part of collision theory: a chemical reaction requires particles to collide at the right angles and with the right energy. Not everything is going to work. Ideas will pass us by, and some we’ll need to pass over. The main battle I have is with energy. A lot of mine goes on work and family, and it’s hard to maintain some for condensing and solidifying stories.

What helps my energy, though, is a fresh perspective and a rare publication. Collide even chemistry with literature at the right angle, and inspiration wafts through the air. All those vials to be unstoppered, and the occasional success: a shimmering gold acceptance.

What are you concocting right now?

Imagining What Can Save Us

This Week’s Bit of String: Miners and runaways

A hundred million years ago, according to geologists, the Southwestern region of the UK was underwater, populated by sea urchins and other such creatures. As the seas dried, the remains of those little shelled beings were compressed through extreme heat into our incredible coastal cliffs.

The same coast which Roman soldiers breached a couple thousand years ago, undoubtedly bringing with them enslaved persons from various corners of their territory. They discovered the cliffs near Beer, now a lovely seaside village in Devon, and began to quarry the stone, building arches underground to access it.

From Roman times to the 1500s, the method of extracting Beer’s pale, chalky limestone didn’t evolve much. Workers picked clear the top of a chamber, a crawlspace about 3 feet high, then climbed in and, in the cold darkness for up to 14 hours daily six days per week, they picked downward to carve blocks, 4 tonnes at a time.

When the Church ran the quarry, in the Middle Ages, they even forced miners to buy their own candles. And if a block had flint or a crack in it, the miner didn’t get paid for that day.

View through a Roman arch

These blocks, made of ancient crumbled seashells and dug out by men in harshest conditions, have been used in more than half of Britain’s cathedrals, and around the world.

I learned about Beer’s miners on a quarry tour last weekend. I wondered, how on earth could people keep living with such a laborious, unrewarding existence?

One answer, apparently, is that the miners drank lots of rough cider. And probably they were pretty friendly with each other even while deafening one another from the echo of their picks. Maybe they had nice families waiting for them at home.

But they must also have been picturing themselves somewhere else. It’s hard to imagine a life without imagining, isn’t it?

Of course, we are lucky now to access books, travel, music, and things that clue us in to alternative existences. Before all those, there still would have been storytelling and songs, there would have been starry skies and vast seas and the people who sail them. Even medieval people might have had something to distract them as they worked. Did they know about the Romans before them, and imagine proving themselves in a gladiatorial ring, marching into a hot ancient city to a hero’s welcome?

Descents of Fancy

The day after visiting Beer and its caves, we went toward Lyme Regis and looked for fossils. There’s a whole beach where the Jurassic layer has shifted from under the cliffs, creating the “Ammonite Pavement.” Vast slabs with prehistoric squid shells perfectly visible.

I used a short thin stone to pry loose part of a clay underlayer, with lots of little scallopy fossils. As I pounded the edges of my chosen rock, I imagined I was a miner with my pickaxe, providing cathedral material.

I can picture this tree lifting its roots and just shimmying down the cliff

Do other creative people sometimes imagine a tougher existence rather than a rosier one? It’s like when I was little and my sister and I pretended we were running away from a Dickensian workhouse or a slave plantation every time we packed for an overnight at Grandma’s.
By picturing ourselves in those situations, we weren’t trying to claim the suffering others went through, or minimise it. Maybe we were a little callous to inject this sort of peril to make our lives more exciting. But also, I think that spending mental time in such stories helped make us more empathetic as we grew up. Possibly, hopefully, it makes us a little less dramatic about the trials we have in our own lives.

When I chisel a fossil free, I’m just taking it home so I can glance at it occasionally, and smile remembering a sunny little adventure. It’s not going to form the grand arch of a cathedral or the dungeon stairs in the Tower of London. Those Beer miners, for all their struggles, at least were part of something great and I’m so glad their contributions are now recognised, in the Quarry tour and in our imaginations.

Building Great Things

When I think about people like those miners, or when I stand in a Remembrance Service and listen to the names read out of terrified young soldiers who died in battle, I concentrate really hard on who they might have been as humans. This is probably silly, even delusional, but I hope the waves of my empathy somehow make it back to those people. So that, for an instant, they sense they’re not forgotten.

More imagination fuel–this rose must have some magical power, right?

Obviously it’s not enough to just imagine what people’s lives were like in the past; there are people struggling now and we need to donate, amplify, and vote in ways which benefit them. I think imagining is a strong motivator though.

Our ability to imagine, and then to empathise, may set us apart as a species (although, have you ever watched a cat slink around outside? I think our feline friends have some extremely melodramatic fantasies…) but at our core we are self-interested. In order to care about someone else’s plight, it helps to picture ourselves in their stead.

In the aftermath of 2001’s terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was banned from radio stations. Because if people are using their imaginations, that might not be so good for the weapons industry’s profits.

Of course, running alternate scenarios in our heads also just makes things more interesting. When I have to sit quietly with my students in their exams, I can pretend I’m actually in the Great Hall at Hogwarts taking O.W.L.S. tests. If stress is keeping me awake at night, I play a comforting memory of my Grammy’s voice. And I probably won’t use the miners of Beer in a story, because their reality feels so extreme I don’t think I could do it justice. But it’s inspiring to contemplate the many layers of history that have unfolded on the very earth beneath our feet.

What daydreams have you embarked on lately?

How to Not Give Up

This Week’s Bit of String: Blue inked sunshines

My 16-year-old student and I turn the page in her practice Maths paper to be confronted with a range of fractions. Mixed and mismatched fractions, including a negative number; this problem has everything you don’t want to see.

“This disgusts me,” she says.

I tell her we can do it, it’s not as bad as it looks, let’s take it one step at a time.

Before we begin, she draws a sunshine at the top of the page, peeking over the rim of that box you’re not supposed to write outside of on an actual exam.

When we finish, and I compliment the heck out of her efforts, she beams and sketches a smiley face, slowly adding fangs until it’s “like something out of a horror film.”

It fits in well with these fractions, then.

My student is preparing to resit her GCSE exams because she couldn’t pass the first time. As someone with processing and learning difficulties, it’s very difficult to pass the same exams everyone else has to take. She feels as if she will never get the required grades, yet she spends almost every free lesson going over past papers, reading, completing Maths exercises, and then doing more at home.

Her resilience inspires me tremendously.

Unfavourable Odds

Much of what we want doesn’t seem particularly possible, and a lot of what we must do isn’t pleasant. If we long for a publishing contract, even a competition shortlisting, so does every other writer and there are only a few available. Maybe we want a house that doesn’t smell as if the toilet is emptying under the floorboards and where black mould doesn’t grow by the bed. Maybe we have to regularly appease people who don’t want us around.

A thing doesn’t have to be complete to be wondrous

There’s no way except to persist. This isn’t news; we all have our struggles and our strategies. But inspiration can come from unlikely sources–eg from teenagers.

I like my student’s idea of putting a friendly doodle at the top of a hostile page. I print out pictures of our next camping destination and put them on the kitchen noticeboard to keep me company through yet another round of washing up. Surround yourself with small brightenings. Plants, stickers, novelty mugs. Wear jewellery from someone who likes you when you have to deal with those who, no matter how you’ve tried, really don’t.

Equally, denouncing something with a hyperbolic statement even as we get down to work on it is a valid coping mechanism. “I think this is the devil speaking,” my student says as she sounds out a word problem. If you want to know whether writers do this sort of thing, just Google “Writer synopsis memes.” (Or go here.)

Make sure there’s plenty of praise in your diet. Hope of success is the best motivator—not fear of failure. Pop into Twitter to do some of the daily writing hashtags, and thrill when people like samples of your work. Join a local writing group or an online one, such as Sarah Tinsley’s Scribbles workshops. When there’s no one around, please, at the very least speak kindly to yourself.

When to Give Up

Two small brightenings, at once!

Not everything will be worth it. Don’t write something if it’s not exciting to you (unless you’re genuinely getting paid). We’ve all had situations where the right thing to do is end the job, the relationship, the torment. There’s no shame in trying something different instead.

I have a number of ideas and scribblings that I know are too cliched, too blah, and I’m never going to use them. I’m proud I tried, I picked at the thread, and maybe someday I’ll use some clever sentences from it or find a better way to write it. But starting a new project, having a go at something new, is better than sitting, stuck, in front of the old.

I think we call that moving on. Don’t we? (Side rant: have you noticed that “giving up” is what society accuses young people or people not accepted in the mainstream of, and when anyone else does it it’s called “moving on” or even “self-care?”) Without infinite time and energy, we have to leave some endeavours behind.

When it comes down to it, not giving up on life is commendable. So many things are tough—we deserve credit for just getting through the day. What little comforts (or irritated rants) help you persevere?

Filling Spaces

This Week’s Bit of String: Dragons and evacuees and musicals, oh my…

Confession the First: In second grade I had to write a complete story for school, and I sort of stole it from a computer game. I didn’t know how to invent whole new ideas, and my family had been working through Sierra Entertainment’s King’s Quest games 1 and 2. They were monochromatic with blippy music, but loads of fun. I couldn’t get them out of my mind.

In turn, the games themselves borrowed fairy tale elements, so while I felt as if I should have come up with something original, I also figured borrowing stuff was allowed.

A story starts out as a bunch of objects. Why not begin with whatever ones we want?

I was already skilled at pastiche. Before even starting school, I’d assign my stuffed animals roles based on Narnia characters or von Trapp children from Sound of Music, to enact and sometimes remix my favourite tales. Less than a decade later, I devised a series of novels set during the holocaust. I had a plot but didn’t know enough people to inform strong characterisations (particularly of the male variety; middle school does not offer a rich seam of girl-boy friendships).

So, once again, I borrowed. I had characters based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, and other books I liked. I’ve mentioned this before. They weren’t pristine or even recognisable copies, since I was putting them in different circumstances with different companions. But it helped me to carry on creating when I had a picture in my mind.

Just for the Moment…

In the first King’s Quest game, released in 1980, if you tried to turn your character a certain way in certain frames, or if you generally attempted something not in the programming, a message would pop up on the screen: “You can’t do that—at least not now!”

Sometimes, writing is like that. We have some of the ingredients for a full story, but are missing others. And you have to just put something in as a stopgap, in order to keep going.

At work I’m helping students prepare for exams. Every Year 11 in the country has to take the same subject exams, regardless of special needs or life circumstances. If they don’t pass at age 16 they must keep taking them each year. (I could pour my hatred of this system into several blog posts, ranging in temperature from grouchy to scathing, but I won’t trouble you with it now.) Most of my students have processing issues and biological literacy challenges that impair their ability to even understand the questions, which are set to trip students up anyway.

Still, we tell them to try. If it’s a Maths paper, put down whatever calculations you do and write something for the answer, even if it’s a guess. For the English papers, write as much as you can think of. Just put something down in those blank pages, to increase your chances of a pass.

In standard writing practice, we do something similar. A common exercise to get thoughts and words flowing is to free write for 5-15 minutes. You must keep writing the whole time, and you’re instructed, if you can’t think of something to write, to keep your pencil moving anyway. You can write “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” or “blah blah blah,” but keep writing. Fill in the blanks.

Purloined Persons

Confession the Second: I haven’t written new fiction in almost a year. I have written hundreds of pages, scribbling about my daily life and the odd fleeting idea. I’ve done blog posts. But I haven’t created, I haven’t added building blocks to a story. Lack of time, headspace, energy, you know how it is.

All kinds of building blocks to make this wall.

With the Easter holidays beginning, I decided to give it a go. After all, the longer you wait to do something, the more you believe you’re doomed to fail. Have you found that?

I unearthed a pretty decent story opening. I don’t entirely know what’s meant to happen in it. I’ve not been able to pull advances out of thin air. Why not borrow something, then? What if I take someone I know a little bit about, unpick the thread of a distinguishing characteristic or background detail, and then weave those into some gaps in my story?

It sounds kind of ruthless. Callous, perhaps, to borrow a person’s attributes. I don’t usually consciously do this. But sometimes you just have to fill in the blanks, and once you add to the ingredients you’ve already got, it’s all going to change anyway.

Sometimes a song or a picture will unlock a key element we need for our work. Other times we need a stronger nudge. Having come up with this plan, I managed to write 700 new words in just an hour and a half, even while frequently running off to check on dinner cooking. It’s still my own story, I just needed a bridge from reality into my long-unaccessed imagination. Already, now she’s got some words behind her, the character is finding her voice to tell me all sorts of things distinguishing her from her inspiration. And a story gets reworked so many times, characters evolve drastically.

What tricks do you have for filling gaps? Have there been things you loved so much, they may have shown up in your work, one way or another?

Why You Might Not Have Created Your Crisis-Time Masterpiece…Yet

This Week’s Bit of String: The case of the disappearing underwear

In a rapidly changing situation, every family has that one day when things kick off. For us it was last Friday, from the moment I tried to put on the clothes I laid out the previous night, but couldn’t find my knickers. I’d seen them seconds before. Had I picked them up and put them down somewhere weird? Had I hallucinated them in the first place?

That was how I realised I had a high fever. Quarantine started that instant; coughing started the next hour. By the evening we also had an injured guinea pig and were debating whether my husband should sneak out to the vet. In the midst of that the government cancelled exams and our son’s post-secondary education was suddenly over. All in one day!

This butterfly landed on my hand in the backyard. It can’t be all bad.

Viruses are like stories—they accelerate and encompass exponentially widening groups of people, sometimes in unexpected ways. It seems this strange time would inspire us in unexpected ways, too. Maybe eventually it will, but I’m guessing others have found, as I have, that lockdown hasn’t fostered creativity. Here are the reasons why.

Time

Woohoo, no more commute! Many of us are still fortunate enough to be busy with work-related activities for much of the day. Working from home gives me a maximum of two extra hours per day, which so far I’ve spent being sick/ looking after family who are sick. Plus, meal prep takes up about thirty times more hours than usual, because you can’t predict what supplies will be in the shops and indeed if you’ll be healthy enough to go get them.

A Story Surplus

A pandemic—great material, right? Only it’s different when it happens outside your head, when it’s all anyone talks about.

Signs of support

As writers, we’re often widely read. It’s part of our job. Far be it from us to turn away from the many personal testimonies shared. A 38-year-old dying alone in an NYC hospital while his mum’s critical in a different one, and no one can identify any other family to tell. Domestic abuse rates rising by 30-40% during lockdown. Grandparents sharing air-hugs with the grandkids they normally look after, from behind their front room windows. Single parents trying to work from home and keep young kids entertained and educated, small business owners wondering how they’ll keep their livelihoods, musicians selling off prized instruments so they can eat when their gigs are cancelled. What’s happened to the rough sleepers I usually give a couple of pounds to and chat with? How will the millions of people already displaced by war and poverty be protected from this disease?

The weighty reality can bog our imaginations down. Who are we to invent fiction in a time like this? How do we choose one thread from the massive tangle?

Grief

Here we are, taking in all the other stories, desperate to support frontline workers and victims of the virus. We see the many people who have it worse than us. It doesn’t make us feel better though, does it? We’re all separated from people we love and have had to relinquish plans we looked forward to.

In our normal lives we work hard for the weekend, and an upcoming city break, literary festival, camping trip, concert, evening at the pub, keep us going. Those are erased from our near future while laundry, office spreadsheets, hoovering, and tidying guinea pig cages have not been cancelled. Somehow we have to keep not only our own morale up but also our partner’s and kids’.

Grounded.

You know when you’re pitching a writing idea, you need a USP (Unique Selling Point)? At the moment, we each have our UAG, a Unique Angle of Grief. For me, as an immigrant, I don’t know how and when I’ll see my family again. What if something happens and I can’t get to them? Are happy summer visits already out of the question? It can be very lonely.

So Now What?

We’ve all written pieces in hard times before. We’ve created while kids (and/ or spouses) climbed up the walls, squeezing writing time in between many other obligations. We’ve used our stories to channel loss and pain before.

But if that’s not working now, it’s okay. Let’s admit we haven’t gained the time we thought we might, and rest when needed to keep our strength up. Let’s listen to others’ stories without ulterior motives of trying to spin it into fiction. Let’s acknowledge our own grief and see if, once we’ve allowed it space and voice, it might ultimately turn into something new.

If you’ve managed to find a whole new grip on things through this crisis, and have kept on writing words, please do share tips and success in the comments. If you’re struggling, and want to shout about your UAG, I’d love to listen to that too. Listening is the best I can do right now.

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.

Writing: A Family Affair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Than Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passing the Torch

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

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

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

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

Seven Wanders of the Year

As important as it is to feed our writerly brains with books, fresh air and change of scenery are equally essential. Quite a few writers find that, right? I love a good hike to jostle my ideas around. Also to burn off some of the rubbish I eat when I’m stressed about writing (or, more likely, the tedious housework and the office craziness).

Here are my top expeditions of 2017, including my own humble phone photos.

Brighton  It’s all here: seascapes, street art, interesting old buildings. We visited during Storm Brian this year, so the wind and waves were incredible. I can’t resist getting close to the sea, and I did get soaked. (Are there people who can? Who stand on the edge of cliffs and don’t ponder, just for a second, what it would be like to dive in?)

Brighton old pier, sunlight shining through stormclouds
Old Brighton Pier

Mural of girl with flowers and butterflies
Mural in a Brighton parking garage

Waves breaking on Brighton Harbour
Go for it, Storm Brian!

Lynmouth  Another seaside town. We love this one for its little homes clinging to the coastal hills, and for the history. I’m intrigued by the stories of the deadly 1952 flood, and whenever we go I study the pictures of before and after: what bits were washed away, and what held on. The boulders by the shore still hide artefacts from the flood, and we always visit painter Maurice Bishop’s studio as well, to bring something home with us. Lynmouth town and Lyn River

 

Maurice Bishop moonlit seaside painting, post-war spoon
Souvenir painting, plus a spoon I found at Lynmouth with George VI’s initials on.

Bristol/ Window Wanderland  Possibly even more so than Brighton, Bristol is great for street art, being the original open air gallery of Banksy’s work. This year I encountered a heart-rending memorial mural to victims of the slave trade, the funds from which lined the pockets of Bristolian merchants and helped the city gain prominence and wealth.

Mural depicting a slave ship and the people victimised by the trade
By the River Avon, memorial to victims of the slave trade

Bristol Harbour: multi-coloured terraced houses, Lloyds Bank crescent, old sailing ship
Bristol Harbour

On a trip to the Bishopston area of North Bristol, very early in 2017, we found marvels in the more workaday bits of the city as well. A new movement called Window Wanderland encourages communities to choose a wintry weekend for decorating home windows with lovely displays for us all to wander round and look at. Bishopston families celebrated favourite cultural phenomena and beliefs, or showcased local events. Check out the Window Wanderland website to see if there are any happening near you!

Coloured papercuts showing hot air balloons and spectators
Three-storey display dedicated to Bristol Balloon Fiesta

Coloured papercuts showing Star Wars characters and action scenes
The Force is strong with this one…

London  This was my first big city, and I practically lived there for a couple months as a student. I love the juxtapositions of different races, cultures, and time periods. Walking through it with my teenage son on our trip to see Tori Amos in October was a whole new treat.

Bright green parakeets in the trees of Hyde Park
Hyde Park: Spot the parakeets

Plaque honouring literary history
Saturated with history: Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle dined together here…

Giant face sculpture in front of posh townhouses
Sculpture display in Regent Park

Stockholm  Being split between the US and the UK, we don’t get much time (or funds) to explore other countries. But we had a little getaway to Sweden at the end of August, and loved the waterways and old streets, plus the living museums like the Vasamuseet, showcasing an early 17th century warship, and Skansen, a conglomeration of buildings and workshops from different periods in Swedish history.

Stockholm boat with classic buildings in the background
View from Riddar-Holmen, one of the many Stockholm islands

Wheatfield and old church
At Skansen living museum, an old rural church, a wheatfield and a peacock right in the middle of the city

Stroudwater Canal This has been my year of discovering canals. Most Friday afternoons, when work lets us out an hour early, I take a 5-mile hike along the canal from the Wallbridge lock in the centre of Stroud, to just past Blunder Lock in Eastington. I learned to identify the different swan families along the way, and watched their cygnets grow with each passing week until they took flight. The fauna on the bank exploded from one Friday to the next, erupting pink with wildflowers in early June. Sticking to a regular, flat route allowed me to cover a fair bit of ground and also freed my mind develop stories, while at the same time drawing my attention to seasonal changes.

Swan and five young cygnets on the canal
The Eastington swan family

Pink blossoms similar to orchids
Part of the aforementioned pink explosion

Sunset over the restored mill buildings in Ebley
Ebley Mills on a wintry evening

Rusty bare willow branches reflected in the canal with a frosty field beyond.
Lunchtime walk on a frosty day

Mount Cardigan While visiting home at the end of May, I brought my husband up Cardigan, the small local mountain. The trail’s a mile and a half each way, leaping around stones and roots, climbing by rushing waterfalls (at least at that time of year when there’s still snowmelt to contend with), and then scrabbling over steeper rock face toward the top. I loved it, even though it was too foggy to see from the summit. It made me want to climb more, but it turns out that little mountain is taller than the highest peak in all England. Still, how awesome does it feel to say you’ve climbed a mountain?

Rocky, wooded path up the mountain
The trail.

Fiddlehead ferns sprouting along the path
Fit as a fiddlehead.

Mossy, jagged stump
Who’s the king or queen of the castle?

Waterfalls alongside the trail
Impromptu waterfalls–sometimes, that’s the best kind.

Where do you go for your best ideas? Whatever new adventures the new year holds, I hope your mountains will be rewarding.