Make Writing Fun Again

This Week’s Bit of String: A library getaway

A couple of weeks ago, a Sixth Form student I’d been working with not only passed her English GCSE re-sit—she aced it. It was a marvellous hullabaloo; the whole school was thrilled.

Now that I’m not accompanying her to re-take lessons with obstreperous peers, or helping her hunt down alliterations and pathetic fallacy, we can spend her supported study periods preparing for independent life, and pursuing her own creative interests.

One of these is writing. She is determinedly working on a novel about a teen with superpowers.

Last week she said, “I know what will happen next. They’ll escape to a library that’s full of magic spell books.” She leaned in with a little smile. “I’ve always wanted to write a story set in a library.”

I had a little, goshdarn-it-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that moment. Should we be thinking in these terms more frequently, focusing on what we’d really love to write about?

Love What You Write

Trinity library, Dublin

Maybe you already do that. Hopefully you do. I fumble around in the chaos of daily life for my little bits of string and try to judge which ones might be the most publishable, the most profitable. Maybe that’s not the best measure of what I should be working on.

Often I seize on a concept, a what if… what if I became intangible and my hands had no impact when I tried to clean or shape or touch, what if eye contact between humans was literally hazardous? I write notes on these and compile images, but find myself disengaged when I start my process with mere ideas. 

I’ve noted this before, but need reminding. We have to write what we like. Otherwise, the slog will be evident. And of course, this is supposed to be fun. It’s necessary to our beings to create, but it’s also supposed to feel good, at least after a fashion.

I’m a bit jealous of poets; I feel as if they’re allowed to take a particularly striking tree, or a memorable event or cherished location and craft with it, run with its imagery and emotion, unfettered by plot. It’s not that I think poetry is simple. You have to imbue it with rhythm and beauty yet make it look effortless… Admit it though, finding a beginning, middle, and end for prose can be a wrench. I’m not convinced every idea is MEANT to be plotted.

A Bucket List for Writing

Or if we could be ancient Greek astronomers, designing constellations, grasping at our favourite stars and assigning shapes to them. I know, trying to make a story out of some random thing that interests us can be as far-fetched as dragging out a concept that doesn’t grip our soul. But it can’t hurt to play around with such things a bit, and see what ends up working.

Tiny kingdom

I’m coming up with a bucket list I want to write about. People (literal-minded characters feeling at odds with their own time period), settings (the sea, a couch cushion den, fairy castle tree stumps with moss-lined turrets and mushroom spiral staircases), props (lilacs, root beer, doll collections…) 

I’m not going to force a single story to revolve around these like a jukebox musical. But they could make good starting points, or exciting background details to add when I’m feeling stuck. 

In a sense, we can incorporate poems, odes to what we love, into the scenery of our stories. What sort of character might love the things we love? Or, what could some of these images mean to someone who’s experienced them completely differently–to someone suffering acute grief, or addiction, or whose perception would be different due to sensory impairment?

I’ve just started another rewrite of my Eve novel. I love those characters and that world, but it’s brutal going through again, making my sentences fear for their lives. I’m also finishing a draft of a short story, and always doing my daily scribbles and fiddling with other ideas.

Watching my student discover the creation process, though, makes me pine for that fresh taste. So I’ve been taking notes on a cast of characters for a new, long project. Pages of family history, sense memories, likes and dislikes, beliefs. It’s such fun, like when you start a relationship that’s all your own and you don’t have to worry what anyone else thinks because they’re all yours; you haven’t introduced them to anybody yet. What a luxury!

Do you relish the creation stage? What would be on your writing bucket list?

Learning Something New

This Week’s Bit of String: What poems, jellyfish, and King Tut have in common

I am starting 2023 building a new habit. I feel like that sounds more promising than a resolution, what do you think? Anyway, this habit is to learn something new every day.

I think we all learn stuff most days. Part of the reason I relish daily scribbles is because it teases out new information I glean without necessarily noticing. It’s also why I stop after each book I’ve read and write down my favourite quotes, instead of charging on to the next one. Just a little bit of reflection time. Because my mind’s always leaping to the next thing I absolutely MUST get done; the next book to tick off the To-Be-Read list; the next job to cross off from my planner. I’m very susceptible to the look-at-all-the-things-I’ve-done narrative on social media and I have to force myself to stop and reflect. I had to make it a part of my routine, a habit.

My dad used to ask us at the dinner table, “What did you learn at school today?”

We hated it. On principle, we often insisted we’d not learned a thing. And that may have been true some days. We expected that anything learned would be unmistakably gifted to us, not always understanding that we might need to flip through the resources and find what needed to be learned.

Time to turn over a new leaf…

So with this learning habit I’m working to develop, the rule is that the Something I learn for the day can’t be part of my normal reading. It has to be something extra, something I take time to look up and find out about. It IS allowed to be a poem or short story outside of my pre-planned reading list, for example delving into an online literary magazine, as long as it’s not just because I’m prepping my own submission for it.

The idea is to take in information or art for its own sake, free of agenda. To shake myself from the constant bridle of Getting Things Done, and just stretch my brain.

It’s also to repurpose scrolling time. As I mentioned earlier this year, I want to waste less time on social media. I haven’t been terrible about scrolling and spending time online, but I could do better. Instead of scanning Facebook and Twitter, brain on autopilot, just waiting for something salient to jump out at me, I will go and seek salience myself.

So far, my new habit has entailed:

Finding out about early British underground buildings like fogous and souterrains, because for her novel my student has created a Secret Hunting Society which lives in a village hidden underground.

Cooking dinners ahead for the week while listening to these fantastic Intelligence Squared videos featuring William Sieghart’s The Poetry Pharmacy

And this Intelligence Squared Dickens vs. Tolstoy debate, Simon Schama arguing on the latter’s behalf and sharing this Tolstoy quote: “The aim of the artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its manifestations.” (Makes it sound a bit simpler and more feasible, do you reckon?)

Research on jellyfish because I made a little ShrinkyDink jellyfish while crafting with my sisters over Christmas and I added it to my keychain

Reading some lovely poems from Plume Magazine— I particularly loved “The Classics” by Christina Lee and “Cathedral” by Kwame Dawes

Finding out about aphantasia, since another student believes she has it. People with aphantasia don’t see imagery in their minds, which makes it harder for her to connect with material she reads.

Jellyfish!

Researching Tutankhamun because the latest Royal Mail stamps for sending letters abroad have his possessions on them, and I was wondering… Do those really belong to this country?

Looking more deeply into a January 6, 1853 train accident that claimed the life of President Franklin Pierce’s only child just two months before Pierce’s inauguration, because it was alluded to in A Worse Place Than Hell, the book I’m reading. Pierce was the only president to ever hail from my home state, and it surprised me I’d never heard of this tragedy, when it must have heavily influenced his actions during a pivotal period.

Also, trying to find out about women runners in the 19th century because this nonfiction work mentions Louisa May Alcott going running in the early mornings before her long shifts at a Civil War hospital. I’m very curious about what women would have worn for morning runs in the 1860s, and I’ve found some interesting facts about the history of women runners but nothing that illuminates this passage, so if you know anything about it, do let me know.

The different types of attention that may be compromised by social media use, as outlined by Johann Hari on Jon Favreau’s Offline podcast. It rather motivated me to keep going with this little habit of mine!

Do have any suggestions of things I should learn about? What sorts of things have you sought to learn?

Engaging in Speculation

This Week’s Bit of String: Rainy day photos

It’s coming down hard outside. The school has a plastic, greenhousy roof and when it rains hard, it sounds through the whole building as if we’re barrelling down Niagara. On the bottom floor, in the Sixth Form Atrium, my student’s ears perk up. She wants to get some good, rainy pictures for Photography class, to convey the wrath of nature. So we leave behind the practice English paper I was scribing for her, and head for the doors. 

“If I drown, give my regards to my sister.” She’s off into the downpour. 

The wending row of young acers behind the school stand like candles in the dreary grey, their red leaves tapered to disappearing at the treetops. Paving stone puddles reflect the brightness, blurred by the pounding fury of more water.

As it calms down, I join my student taking pictures near the Music Block. The ground squelches beneath us and a budding saxophonist attempts “Mack the Knife” from the other side of the brick walls.

Later she asks me, “If photography didn’t exist, what would the world be like?” 

My own rainy photos

She means it rhetorically, a comment of pride in her work. But, as is often the case, I find myself reflecting on this later. There are times when photos, or the flagrant absence of them, have swayed the species enough to alter history. A Vietnamese girl running from a napalmed village; police bodycam footage. 

Beyond that, though, what would our society be like if we were not constantly confronted with extra images? If we didn’t have framed photos of the past, and we didn’t worry about how we looked when captured for posterity, I wonder if we’d be better at focusing on the present.

Considering the What-Ifs

This week I helped host the Women Writer’s Network Twitter chat on speculative fiction. We had some great conversations, which can be followed here. Margaret Atwood defines speculative fiction as “literature that deals with possibilities in a society which have not yet been enacted but are latent.” It can be science fiction, political thrillers, fantasy, multiverse… all sorts of things.

I like to think of it as entering parallel universes, branching off from a point, recent or historical, in the known timeline. I’m not fantastically imaginative, so most of my stories are written like this anyway, by rubbing at the edges of reality. I might consider people I’ve heard of and shade them into fiction, or in the novel I’m currently working on, I’m taking a well-known story and telling it from an alternative point of view.

Sometimes, what-ifs plague our personal lives and can make us anxious. It’s a relief to turn the tables on them and create our own hypotheticals from the past or present rather than cower under worries about the future.

Kids’ Questions

Our students, when they leave their this-is-boring, I-hate-school ruts, like to distract themselves by speculating about alternate realities. They’ll ponder how WWII would have gone down if Hitler were Jewish, or lament the lack of natural disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes in the UK (until I reminded them that those might be accompanied by loss of power and wi-fi).

Some almshouses built for the “deserving poor” would have been funded by the slave trade.

The other day when we learned the prime minister had resigned, my Sixth Form student said: “If the next prime minister is crap again, I’m going to march to Winston Churchill’s grave and find a way to bring him back to life so he can sort this out.” I’m pretty sure he’s not the inclusive, progressive leader we need right now, but I do like imagining past figures reappearing to witness the world today.

Imagine if James Madison came back to life just to stand in the front row while Lizzo played his flute. We’d see him swoon like a slaveholding snowflake, or maybe he’d applaud politely like a mature and intelligent human being and accept that he was wrong about certain things. Either way, I wouldn’t mind seeing it. 

I wrote a piece a few years ago about Edward Colston randomly coming to life on a Saturday night in the centre of Bristol. Colston contributed toward Bristol’s prosperity in the 17th and early 18th centuries (even though he lived out of Bristol for most of his life). Much of his wealth came from trafficking human beings, so his legacy is corrupted. I liked picturing his confusion at the noise, colour, diversity, and excess of a Bristol weekend.

Where have the What Ifs taken you lately? Is there a point you’d like to stray from on our timeline?

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.

Weathering the Extremes

This Week’s Bit of String: Melting paint on a cemetery fence

After freshman year in high school, I got a state-funded job with other local teens to help out around the community. We were a bunch that had, shall we say, sometimes got in trouble, and this might keep us on the straight and narrow for the summer. There was a lot of volleyball in downtime, and trips to the corner store for Cool Ranch Doritos.

On the hottest summer day, we were in the sun repainting a cemetery fence. The metalwork was rusty and the old paint was peeling, but we went right over it. It was 103 Fahrenheit. The paint didn’t dry, it congealed, green and sticky. I remember the smell of it, and through the bars all the flowers wilted, perishing against the gravestones, cicadas strumming frantically like overstressed refrigerators. Our Doritos did not feel very cool.

Painting the fence: A seasons mural by my local lake back in New Hampshire

The following week we learned that a classmate died that day, of heat stroke at Easter Seals camp. Those memories are bundled together for me: that sweet boy, the stultifying heat, the sticky paint, the graves.

Whether accompanied by tragedy or not, extreme weather can serve as bookmarks in our memory’s manuscript. Can you quite easily recollect and recreate your most stifling or humid moments? And your iciest ones, or the ones when you got caught in downpours?

Literature to Cool Off By

You can probably name some great books that incorporate weather, too. Recently, I was thinking of The Siege by Helen Dunmore and how cold I felt reading that. Another chilling one is Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg, set in Greenland. Tales of Shackleton’s journey, the cold, miserable mud of the front in World War I that oozes in at the end of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.

Maybe you’re like my husband and you insist a hot cup of tea will cool you down. There are plenty of high-temperature reads, from the jungles in Louis de Berniere’s trilogy starting with The War of Don Emanuel’s Nether Parts, to the suffocating false politeness of small-town Missouri in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, to the powerful storms for which Zora Neale Hurston named her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

My kiddo with this excellent sign at Quechee Gorge Vermont State Park: “I’m glad it’s finally hot enough to complain about how hot it is.”

I find that weather helps to mark out stories in my writing, too. When working on short stories, imagery is such an integral part of the whole. Using particular climate and setting conditions can launch us into the mood of a piece. It’s easier to get creative describing something extreme than something ordinary, so if you had a bit of a rant or therapeutic scribble while you were hot this week, see if you can put it to use in a story one day.

My first published story, in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2010, was about a little girl in Haiti, before and after the earthquake in January of that year. To invent the character and her life, I relied not only on research but also on memory from my own visits, seared into my mind by the heat. Dusty roads, cracked skin, ceiling fans powered by generators through rolling blackouts, springtime temperatures at least as hot as the July fence-painting ones in New England. Once it clouded over, but the rain seemed to shrink as it fell and evaporate before hitting the ground.

Braving It

Weather can inspire us beyond just prose development. It forces us to build resilience. I’ve started wearing shorts in public, and shedding even my lightest cardigans. If I can be brave enough to show my somewhat un-toned arms and un-tanned legs, what else can I find the courage to attempt?

During the hottest days this week, our parched British region very nearly reached 100 Fahrenheit, and the upper floor of the comprehensive secondary school where I work DEFINITELY reached it. We couldn’t cancel school because there is no county provision to do so. We relocated classes, cramming all our students into the lower 2/3 of the building. The administration generously allowed them to wear PE kits instead of full uniform if they wanted.

Parched. Driftwood sculpture at Miserden Gardens, Cotswolds.

There was little relief downstairs, though. I resigned myself to living in a constantly-replenishing fountain of sweat. There was no way to look my best around teenagers who can sometimes be harsh critics. I don’t think anyone cared, though. We were all in it together. They weren’t exactly looking or certainly smelling like roses, themselves.

At the end of each boiling schoolday, I walked home in the blazing sun, grateful that at least I was in open air. Then I parked myself in front of the fan, curtains firmly drawn, and compiled editing notes for my novel. Being all about Eve and taking place in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, it’s got some high-temperature prose, but I was listening to the Frozen soundtracks which I think helped.

In one of Sarah Tinsley’s Scribbles virtual workshops recently, the theme was Heat, and I reflected in my notebook on how our emergency procedures for hot days might match our methods for interacting with the world: Rise very early when it’s quiet, open all the windows and doors to let the cool air in. Then shut everything down as soon as the sun starts to get through. Complete all tasks in darkness. Don’t venture out in search of an oasis because if we were entitled to one, it surely would have appeared already.

But what’s the worst that could happen, if we let in the sun? We might slow down, lie motionless, expose what we deem undesirable. We’d risk being seen, and falling behind. If everyone else is just as hot and tired though, who is there to judge, or to pull ahead?

Just a thought. I hope you’re able to take these opportunities to, if not feel more brave and inspired, at least feel accepting of yourself. We’re all doing our best, sweating through it.

Make ‘Em Laugh

This Week’s Bit of String: Personification of ants

Our neediest Year 9s have been treated to a poet-in-residence course. The poet wears bright-patterned shirts and hipster glasses and leads the troop outside to find objects for personification practice. My dynamic duo choose an ant, and assign it a “he” pronoun. 

“A male ant,” I say. “That would be an uncle!”

It’s the last lesson of the day, and very hot. We are all tired. I start to chuckle at my own joke.

My student, who takes stairs three at a time and is so bouncy you could easily interchange him with Tigger (although the constant involuntary shouts and bird chirps might give him away), stills suddenly and gives me a stern look. “No.”

I’m not generally sadistic, but the poor reception of my pun makes me laugh even more. The kids are disgruntled, and that’s hilarious. I try to apologise, but I’m not very sorry.

In search of comedy crumbs…

A couple weeks ago I attended my first in-person workshop or course since before covid. It was about writing with humour, hosted for Evesham’s Festival of Words by Fran Hill, whose memoirs including Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? are brilliant examples of warm humour and efficient prose. We went over different kinds of funny scenarios and set-ups, including wordplay like my awful hot-afternoon pun, and read and created lots of fun examples.

Because we don’t do this often enough, I thought I’d dedicate this post to comedy. So, in case you’re a bit tired and world-weary, here’s a little compendium of things I find really funny. Don’t worry, they’re higher quality than my ant joke.

Early Years

In my family we watched a lot of vintage comedy. My father passed his own father’s love of the Marx Brothers and Spike Jones down to us. The humour that often stays in my memory is musical. Here’s Chico Marx’s piano routine in Animal Crackers–and Groucho’s annoyance with it. “I can’t thinka the finish!” – “That’s strange, and I can’t think of anything else.”

Often what makes us laugh is an element of surprise. It’s characters who we expect to be straight-laced suddenly subverting stereotypes and doing something outrageous. Growing up (and this is still true for me), my siblings and I loved musicals and Disney animated films. I’ve got examples from both showing characters doing something hilariously unexpected: Fagin’s entrance in “I’d Do Anything for You” from Oliver!, and Kronk, the beefcake boytoy, creating his own theme music in The Emperor’s New Groove.

As we got older, we became fans of irony and understatement. We loved the Anguished English books, collecting the most egregious and uproarious written mistakes often from professional settings. We liked the absurd. Here’s a scene from the Beatles’ film Help, because Ringo’s flat-toned reaction to nearly having his finger bitten off in a vending machine tickled us: “I thought… y’know, I thought she was a sandwich.”

The Music Plays On

Given that the family I’ve raised is also quite musically inclined, I continue to enjoy that type of humour. Comedy increases its impact when it uses cultural references that people can further relate to. Bill Bailey is great at this. My husband and son and I love his Belgian jazz version of the Doctor Who (Docteur… Qui) theme song. Or, if you prefer, he also does a terrific reggae rendition of Downton Abbey.

Bath Carnival last weekend… get happy!

Talking of unlikely combinations, here’s a fabulous mashup my son created, of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, and the Tetris theme. How awesome is it when your own kids make you laugh?

I also love an ensemble piece. For me, that’s what makes shows from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Office to Stranger Things to The Good Place so fantastic. You adore and rely on every cast member. Here are prime examples of ensemble comedy from each side of the pond, that have me laughing more with each character adding to the piece: The Muppets covering “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and several incredible British actors and actresses attempting Hamlet’s soliloquy together. You’ll love both of these from the beginning… but the endings blow them out of the water.

In literature, Dickens’s descriptions of people make me laugh, and Louisa May Alcott’s quick action tags like saying a boy exited “with the graceful gait of a young giraffe.” An especially memorable (partly because I was on a bus full of dour commuters at the time) laugh-out-loud passage is from Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union:

“Reunited in their parents’ bed, the Shemets boys set up a whistling and rumbling and a blatting of inner valves that would shame the grand pipe organ of Temple Emanu-El. The boys execute a series of maneuvers, a kung fu of slumber, that drives Landsman to the very limits of the bed…”

Most of all in my reading and writing, I like to celebrate surprising alliances, to build little bands of misfits, so maybe that’s why I enjoy odd pairings in comedy too. My humorous short story “From Newcastle, With Love” appears in the Stroud Short Stories anthology, and you can hear me read it (and hear the audience laughing at just the right places, too).

What are some of your favourite funnies?

Never One Thing at a Time

This Week’s Bit of String: The ultimate tear-jerker

Our GCSE students (aged 16) had their last exam this week and took their leave. For the ones we’d worked closely with, we threw a little party with balloons and refreshments. A couple of us got cards and prosecco in return.

“No one got me anything,” joked one of my fellow teaching assistants. “I’m going to cry. I will!” But she couldn’t muster the promised waterworks with us watching.

A last lingering Year 11 girl, the most reluctant to leave, offered this: “I know what will make you cry. It always works: when someone asks, ‘Are you okay?’”

This student is one of the most perceptive people I’ve ever met, let alone one of the most perceptive teens. She was spot on. We’ve all been there, haven’t we, when we’re muddling on in a lonely blur and then someone stops and asks how we are, with genuine interest. 

And there go the floodgates.

The key to these gates will vary, depending on the magnitude and current of what’s behind them. This is not just a female thing, either; guys are equally likely to get triggered by something seemingly small. 

When I first immigrated, I was so alone and the British townspeople were so preoccupied and indifferent, a rare Hello from a stranger had me fighting tears. Since then, I got somewhat inured to being away, able to bumble along preoccupied myself. But when my son moved to America a few weeks ago, leaving me separated from both my best little buddy and my whole family, that changed things.

7 weeks ago

Colleagues know better than to ask if I’m ok. They ask how he’s getting on instead, and the news is generally good. They say, you must miss him so much, which saves me from having to say it. Much of the time, therefore, I maintain equilibrium. There’s a constant ache, a horrifically deep emptiness, dulled by almost-daily messages he and I exchange and by my relentless counting down until I can go see him (5 weeks and 2 days). In some moments it has been piercing, like when I put clean sheets on his bed and wondered if I should keep the pillows how he likes them or stack them tall. Or when I went to send a care package and the post office got grouchy over the extra barcode on the customs sticker.

Triggers are necessary because they give us a choice: Hey, you know that deluge you’re hiding behind the dam? Can we try channeling it, please, before it starts to leak? Sometimes we feel we have to keep refusing, and other times maybe we can’t put it off any longer.

Literary Triggers

At a Retreat West workshop a couple weeks ago, we learned about the importance of having your book’s “inciting incident” right at the beginning, to hook readers in. This is different from the climactic showdown or the big reveal. Often, it’s one small thing that kicks everything else out of inaction.

Rather than the writer throwing a wrench into the protagonist’s works, usually the writer is nudging the protagonist into the uncomfortable realisation that their way of life isn’t really working

Great examples of this are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, or Piranesi. Eleanor would have kept on refusing any company apart from the Glen’s vodka from Tesco if she hadn’t been sent to that charity concert and developed an ill-advised crush on a singer. Piranesi would have kept wandering the statued halls of The House, recording tide times, if signs of visitors hadn’t begun to appear. 

Mind the falls.

Even when a story begins with a main character choosing to make a change, they often don’t fathom how badly that change is needed or where it will take them. This has been true of literature for as long as storytelling has existed: Chaucer’s pilgrims wouldn’t have realised how much they’d learn on their journey; Romeo had no idea how far he’d go for love when he went to the party to see Rosaline.

When we write stories, we’re not attacking our characters with suffering for the fun of it. Our imaginations have found someone who needs liberation, and we’re plotting a way to spring them free.

For Our Own Protection

In real life, incidents don’t spiral in an orderly manner. It’s not a series of clues and incremental escalation, sometimes it’s everything at once and sometimes it’s like, “Ooh maybe things are about to settle down,” and then bam, another thing hits you. Meet a friend for a catch-up, and as you recount the last couple of months you’ll be thinking, This sequence of events would not fly in fiction. Readers would be too confused.

18 years ago. You never know how things will end up.

Honestly, I’m kind of glad it’s that way. Imagine if our lives progressed more rhythmically. If we were characters in a book and something went wrong, we’d have to ask ourselves, is this trying to teach me a lesson? Is this merely foreshadowing a massive climactic battle later on?

As it is, I can pour myself into work, helping students cope with their own stress and trauma, and I can write my grief into my novel instead of feeling it as my own. I need to edit this story of Eve so she more quickly learns to use her voice; learns that it is her own even if one of her ribs is not. For that to happen, stuff’s got to go wrong, to force her to wonder how she put up with everything, years after being exiled from Eden and then losing her first two sons.

While I work, and work on writing, I can ride it out, 5 weeks and 2 days. It’s already 7 weeks of separation, and there have been plenty of mini-crises to interrupt the trajectory of contemplating my new life: exams and Supreme Court decisions, viruses and injuries, something scurrying in the roofspace when we try to go to sleep. Who knows what else will come up, whether they will keep distracting me from loneliness or force me to confront it. I suspect the former; I’m grateful not to have to slow down.

What about you? Are YOU okay?

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?

The Exams Rant

This Week’s Bit of String… More a tangle of tension

I despise the British system of exams. I’m not a fan of A-Levels (the exams kids take in formal education at 18), but GCSEs (the ones at age 16) are the worst, because they’re so inflexible and unavoidable.

Exams at my American high school were more like tests. Designed by your teacher for your specific class, they’re marked by your teacher, and in most cases they’re only part of your final grade. You’ll get credit for essays and projects and presentations, homework, unit tests, and even participation in classroom discussion.

None of that is true in the UK. I hate the system as a parent and I hate it even more now that I’m working in secondary education again. This week has been very stressful, as the main national exams began. Our Year 11 students, along with all the 15 and 16-year-olds across this Small Island, sat down at the same exact moment to work through papers which determine their grades for the last two years of learning.

“Learning” being a loose term when it comes to spending two years practising for a passing grade on a paper distributed and marked by a government-sanctioned external body. Because if you don’t pass, the venue you chose for your next level of vocational training or academic education might not accept you.

Coping with stress. One of the Year 11 students and I have been creating our own oil pastel versions of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and it’s been a lovely distraction.

The country has been brainwashed into believing that these exams are the only possible standard of achievement for teenagers. Even those of us who see the system’s flaws panic over what grades our students will get.

Binding the fates of every person in the whole nation to the same tests isn’t actually fair. I hate that every young human, regardless of need, interest, talent, or background, is forced to bow their head as one over a paper. Children are told they must come in even if ill. The student I’ve been working with most this year sat her first English paper on Wednesday doubled over with stomach cramps the whole time. Some go in streaming with hay fever, or fasting for Ramadan. Some go in having just been dumped by their boyfriend of over a year.

I hate seeing kids cry outside the exam hall every morning, or shake, or look miserable. I hate that the exams are so onerous, students joke about how great it would be to get a terminal illness so the exam board in their infinite mercy will tack an extra 5% on their scores. Other students are Googling, “If the Queen dies, will the next day’s exam be cancelled?”

Meanwhile, the 80% of the school’s students who aren’t exam age must spend a month being quiet at break times, moving to different classrooms, and even having their whole timetables changed in order to accommodate the national exams schedule. The teachers are all tense and terrified. They’re not trusted to assess their own students, of course.

There are special staff who monitor the students while taking exams. The invigilators. There are also “access arrangements” for students with special needs. Again, this is a loose term. A person with meticulously evidenced need may be granted access to someone who will read the questions for them, possibly scribe answers as dictated, or they may be granted rest breaks or extra time. Not super helpful for those with issues processing the questions or sitting still, and certainly nothing that helps the many students who struggle with anxiety.

More than half of our Year 11s have access arrangements. When a system must be modified for the majority of a population, maybe it’s time to assess them a different way?

I’m also making sure, no matter how drained I am, to get out at 5:45 for a good stomp in the fresh air to help me cope.

Because of the massive need for invigilating and access arrangements, I have to sit exams too. I sit quietly beside a student with only my bottle of water and my pencil case, just like her. I read her the questions and scribe her answers when asked. I can’t explain anything to her, and I can’t doodle or pick up a book and read. We’re both stuck there until the nationally mandated duration of the exam is up. I despise the sitting still, the stifling air. Students have been told that before entering the exam hall at 9 in the morning, they must decide whether or not to bring their jumpers with them. Because if they get hot in there with over 100 other people, they’re not allowed to take off their jumper and put it on the back of the chair. There could somehow be illicit information scrawled on these black uniform sweatshirts.

I hate that students spend 2 years studying just 2 books for English class, and a few poems. Blood Brothers, for example. I know it has a valid message, but using it to teach literature is like using a sledgehammer for brain surgery. Every student is taught to memorise the same quotes about being poor or rich. Every student memorises “sneer of cold command” from “Ozymandias” and “Be like the serpent under’t” from Macbeth. What a dull time grading those literature exams must be. If only students were encouraged to read widely, find what they love, and defend it.

I hate that for Science, kids are drilled on parts of the cell and the periodic table until their deduction and curiosity cease to exist. One of the questions on this week’s Biology paper was: “Why do you think there were no new cases of skin cancer among boys under age 15?” and our whole class was panicked about it after. “We never talked about boys with skin cancer in class. We didn’t go over that!”

I hate that when exams are finally done, students must wait 3 months to get their results, the anxiety hanging over them all summer as they wait to see if they’ll be able to move on in the direction they want to. I’ll be there that day late in August, telling them that whatever their marksheet says, they have tremendous value and the world still holds great things for them.

Did you do exams here in Britain and have you got any coping strategies or inspiring stories?