The Borders of Generosity

This Week’s Bit of String: Fine, and you?

In my second year of high school I started asking friends how they were doing. I hadn’t really bothered with it before. When you’re younger, I suppose it doesn’t occur to you.

Asking the question felt like a revelation. This was so grown-up of me, so kind and engaged. After a dangerously needy adolescence, I told myself that by asking people three little words, I was finally giving back to the world.

I don’t think the world saw it that way.

Third period English class, I asked how my friend was as we took our seats. ‘The same as I was when you asked me last lesson,’ she snapped.

There was the real revelation. Asking a question, even if you’re listening for the answer, doesn’t mean you’re showing helpful or genuine concern. Lately I’ve witnessed (and been on the receiving end of) various interactions which may be well-intentioned at the start but either end up grudgingly made, or accompanied by the giver’s complaints behind the recipient’s back. Do you ever notice that?

We need to examine, both societally and privately when we look at our personal interactions: Are we truly capable of selfless interest in others?

People Aren’t Stories

This may be particularly relevant for writers. We’re nosey people. Introverts, sure; we might not actually want to talk to you, but we’d damn well like to hear about you. We hunger for stories as much as we hunger for compliments.

Baby girl's fancy shoe hanging from a tree limb
An intriguing story thread, yes, but there’s also perhaps a distraught parent and a baby with a very cold foot out there.

We are often quite empathetic people. I’ve blogged about empathy a lot. But our preparedness to walk in someone else’s shoes isn’t truly selfless or inspiring when in the back of our minds we might be considering walking them right into Chapter 3.

We’re also good at dramatising things. We invent funny memes about the toil of each WIP’s journey, and feel every rejection deeply. But we must always remember that we wouldn’t choose another way of life. Seeing our stories born, freeing them from our minds, make everything worthwhile and let’s never forget it.

People aren’t Audience Members

The modern age has boxed us into little thumbnail sketches on a screen. And many of us are obsessively competitive over who can be busiest (translation: who is the most indispensable). How many times have you seen someone copy and paste a generic Facebook status trying to gauge whether people are actually reading their posts?

“I SAY I’M FINE BUT I’M NOT!” Do they believe anyone else is doing otherwise? Do they feel any better when a handful of people respond with tearful emojis? We’d all like a quick attention fix. But attention is addictive rather than satisfying, particularly when it’s given in intense, but empty-calorie doses on social media.

For our own sakes, we should remember everyone else is in the same boat. Busy, sometimes just for the sake of being busy; lonely and tired and stressed. We can’t expect other people to meet our needs consistently any more than we’d really want them to expect that of us.

People Aren’t Charity Cases

Growing up in an evangelical family, the missions trip was a rite of passage. Everyone at church did one of some sort. A girl came back from a couple weeks in Moldova and revealed to the congregation her hardship of having to eat the food her hosts made for her—all of it!—so as to seem polite. Her talk about her trip seemed to have more inferences to her figure than information on the people she went to serve.

I’d gone on two trips to Haiti, myself. But I think (I hope) I recognised myself as the main beneficiary of these adventures. I was on a team ‘helping’ to build a school, although we also brought funds to keep Haitians employed building it.

Haitian people I met and remained friends with.
Just a few selfish reasons I loved my trips to Haiti.

There’s more consciousness, at least in some circles, regarding the efficiency of volunteering trips. We go into them pale and pudgy; porous; desperate to soak meaning into our lives. It’s perfectly possible to do some good while we’re there, and to make friends and carry home a fresh perspective. But we mustn’t pretend we’re martyrs for submitting to a long flight and some concrete brick-hauling.

(If you’re interested in helping people in Haiti, I recommend SOS Children’s Villages.)

People Aren’t Stupid

It doesn’t take long for someone to notice whether another party’s genuinely interested in them or not. After a few teams visited Port-au-Prince, I suspect the Haitian helpers developed a sense for which visitors would go home and boast about coping with cold daily showers in a country that was largely without running water. Likewise, kids grow up and remember which relative met requests to play with an eye roll. Junior co-workers will start to notice if the person volunteering to help them constantly complains about the burden, even if it is behind their back.

The remedy for this bitter insincerity is further self-examination. If we choose to do something, let’s choose it wholeheartedly, and remain mindful of how it affects others. If you’re in a job you don’t like, I feel sorry for your co-workers as much as for you, because I’ll bet they know it. If you give me a hand with something, you’d better want to or it isn’t worth it to me.

While visiting my family a few weeks ago, I had lots of grand plans and various others joined in, especially my youngest sister. She had other projects going on, and I tried to accommodate this by setting later start times on our day trips. But for our second excursion, she asked, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to leave the house until noon? Because you said we could leave a bit later yesterday, and I think you got stressed it wasn’t enough time on the trip.’

I appreciated her calling me out on this. I don’t want to be that person who offers something but then fails to maintain graciousness. I will keep trying to avoid that. It helps when someone else forces me to be honest about my intentions and needs—like my youngest sister, like my friend in high school.

So if I complain about something I’m doing, please remind me it was my choice. Maybe I’ll be brave enough to do the same for you if necessary.

Let There Be Dark

This week’s bit of string: Fourteenth century ploughing techniques

Stories are like a box of chocolates; some of us can’t resist the dark ones. I don’t mean dark as in using horror elements, but rather the darker aspects of real life, from brutal struggles and current events.

I sometimes fear that writing ‘dark’ stories may put off readers who seek literary escapism. How do we justify putting serious issues into our work?

Dark stories need tough heroes/heroines to blaze through them. After all, fiction is only as sad as its characters, just as life is only as sad as we feel.

Utilising Juxtaposition

There are so many elements to a story: plot, setting, characters, tone, dialogue… And there can be different degrees of darkness to each element. For example, Catch-22 has a horrific wartime plot, but the tone is humourous. Cruel deeds may unfold against a bright summer setting, as in L’Etranger (one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read).

We don’t use these contrasts to dilute the message. Rather, the idea is to illuminate and emphasise it. Interweaving tragedy with comedy can sharpen it with the shock of the unexpected.

Church steeple glowing at the end of a dark alley
I don’t think this church steeple would have looked nearly as impressive if I hadn’t approached it through an abandoned dark alley.

We can create characters that suffer terribly, but perhaps they have a sense of humour about it. We all know people like that in real life.

My first published story, ‘The Meek Inherit,’ portrayed a small snapshot of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. But I used a fiercely imaginative, independent Haitian girl’s point of view, which imbued it with a sense of hope. Through her, I could bring attention to Haiti’s misfortunes, but also to the resourcefulness of its people. ‘How dull reading would be,’ Robert Burdock commented in his review, ‘if every story had a Disney ending.’

Instigating Change

After I read my story The Apocalypse Alphabet at Stroud Short Stories’ event recently, a couple of very talented writers spoke to me afterwards and described the story as harrowing. I began to apologise, but they said, ‘No, no, it’s important to be harrowed sometimes. If that’s a word!’

Harrowed is a word, as it turns out. The word harrow comes from a medieval Dutch word for rake, and a harrow, thusly, is a spiky tool that pulverises soil before planting. A painful process, no doubt—which then contributes to yielding useful crops.

Good fiction has the power to shake us up, jolt us awake, and change our habits. I can think of two books I’ve read in recent years that have altered my thought patterns. Marina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans honestly and wittily brings attention to the plight of migrant workers in the UK, including some working under dreadful conditions at a chicken packaging plant. Since reading this novel, I only use free-range chicken products, because it made me realise: companies that mistreat animals for profit will most likely mistreat human workers, as well.

The second book was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. This tormented, semi-autobiographical book about an adolescent boy desperate to win his religious father’s approval honed my awareness about the legacy of slavery for generation after generation of African Americans. I was struck by the fact that Baldwin’s grandmother had been a slave, and her first children had been taken from her and sold. His writing made me consider the devastating impact this would have on a person’s ability to love and form familial bonds later on—and this would then impact her children, and their children, and so forth.

Lamppost illuminated in wooded park
Let there be dark, that the light may show up against it. Stratford Park, Stroud

It’s not easy to be shown the dark underbelly of the bloated, overfed privilege some of us enjoy. But I believe we can learn from it. And fiction is particularly placed to do that, because it opens up our imaginations. Imagination doesn’t merely lead to escapism, it can lead to empathy as well, which as I’ve previously discussed, is the key to changing the world.

So, what books have harrowed you to the point of growing new crops, so to speak? How much dark reality do you find acceptable in a story?  Personally, I’m a realist. I like any happy endings to come out of a recognisable version of the world. I love Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, in which a man tells his mistress a tale with various dark twists involving slavery and sacrifice, but sets it against a dazzling background of an ancient city on a distant planet.

His lover whispers, ‘”Why are you telling me such a sad story?”’

‘”I tell you the stories I’m good at,” he says. “Also the ones you’ll believe. You wouldn’t believe sweet nothings, would you?”’