This Week’s Bit of String: Underrated qualifications
I’ve been helping one of our special needs students with her personal statement for university. She wants to study Photography and after writing about what she’s already achieved in the field and what specific techniques she wants to learn, she concluded with something like this: “I want to study Photography because it’s something that makes my life more enjoyable.”
This is not a conventional admission in an essay. I feel like we’re encouraged to sell our skills and our work ethic when applying for positions. We’re not supposed to bring up what, well, pleases us. Is it related to some old puritan idea that pleasure is bad? Is it a byproduct of our busy culture: our value increases as the work gets harder and less enjoyable?
It’s a bit backwards, though. In education, we’ll have an easier ride if a student actually likes our subject. Surely it would be nice for employers and for universities to hear that new recruits might enjoy what they’re expected to do.
Maybe there’s the fear that if someone chooses a path because they like it, they’ll quit when the going is rough. But a passion is deeper than an interest, and that’s why we keep going in creative endeavours.
In our writing, we can’t cope with hard work, administrative tasks, and the inevitable rejection, unless we enjoy aspects of it. Just as it’s important to remember what we like about writing and why, it’s essential to then allow ourselves to enjoy writing.
I get caught up in the busy-boasting of social media sometimes, which results in me thinking of writing more as a quite mentally demanding second job. After all, we can’t just shut off the stories. I’m constantly tinkering with things in my head. And when I get to school on Monday morning for another week of supporting very needy students, I feel as if those 2 critiques passed to fellow writers and the 3 novel chapters edited over the weekend have sapped a substantial portion of my energy.
Sometimes I find my thoughts echoing my husband after a recent trip to London. 3 days, 2 nights, at least 30 miles walked… “What a stupid thing to do,” he said afterwards, half-joking (I think…) “Let’s never do that again!”
I liked it though. Exploring half the city, seeing new people and buildings and discovering unexpected remnants of history… It’s the same with writing. I get tired, but when my brain is jogging ahead toward a new destination (or painstakingly polishing the path to an old one, as when I’m editing), I don’t want to miss out.
Our identities are wrapped up in writing. Part of it is that addiction to finding out where it takes us. Another part is having fun with what accompanies it. If you can score a quiet house for even just an hour, with a hot drink and some pleasantly burning candles and encouraging tunes playing, then curling up to scribble ruthless notes on your own manuscript doesn’t feel so brutal, or laborious.
I wonder if a few of us, myself included, would rather tell people we write in a cold garret subsisting on just bread crusts and gruel than confess to cranking some tunes and munching chocolate while we go. Maybe we should normalise admitting that something we devote time to is actually rather nice.
Imagine daring to pitch a writing project with: “I loved writing this story almost as much as I love reading it, and other people will too.” How amazing to get away with that! Wouldn’t it be great if, just now and then, liking something was an acceptable reason to go and do it?
Most of my favourite outdoor adventures last year happened in places I’ve been before. After all, we were locked down for 2021’s first five months. Our later travels were to see family, so the places we revisited took on special value even if they weren’t new and exciting. I felt lucky to deepen my knowledge of beautiful locations.
Sometimes, the company kept on a walk—even just the songs you listen to—cranks up the wonder and lodges it in your memory.
Previous years’ lists of unmissable explores are here, here, and here.
This is my local 7-mile circuit. I go up through winding, quiet lanes, past curious goats and a howling cattery and sweeping, peaceful “retirement fields” for old horses. There may be brunch at the wonderful Vestry cafe in a church-turned-arts centre, with macaroons to take away. (To find the Vestry, turn into the road by the house with vintage petrol pumps in front.)
Then back along the road because it may be noisy, but it gives some lovely views of fields, purple flax in the spring, and nice houses, including Angeston Grange with its gingerbread trim.
Mascoma Lake, New Hampshire
My 7-miler when I’m in the USA staying with my family. I follow the rail trail through the town, where it’s still trying to resurrect after the mills shut down, and then I go round half the lake. Crossing the long bridge that spans it, I often see or hear the chequered loons, or glimpse an otter darting over the rocks, or tread nervously beneath the imperious gaze of an eagle on one of the lampposts.
Traipsing along the roads from the bridge all the way round the water back to my parents’ house, often in 98% humidity even at 6 in the morning, I see the sun rise above moored sailboats. The big stone Shaker barns are softened by mist; the Catholic shrine opposite is quiet, its thousands of Christmas light bulbs hibernating through summer. Then I pass miles of lake houses: some grand, some old and rickety with more lawn ornaments than floor space.
Spending a little time on England’s South coast with my husband’s family, I took the opportunity early in the morning to hike my weekly Friday Five Miler in a different location. I navigated with Google Maps to the marshes of Lymington Nature Reserve, protected by an earth wall from the sea. Then I followed the coast back toward our holiday house.
This was one of those walks where the songs plus the weather equalled perfection. In overcast, hedgy lanes I bit back tears listening to “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress, then I came out onto the built-up coast in a sudden deluge. The ocean wind blew raindrops so forcefully into me that I had little red welts on my skin. But by the time I came around to the marina, the rain stopped and sunlight broke through, gilding the sailing masts while “Blinded By the Light” played in my earbuds.
Rye Beach and Little Boar Head, New Hampshire
My two sisters and I took a sunrise trip to New Hampshire’s seacoast during the summer. We started at Rye Beach, a beautiful sandy stretch. At 5:45 there were already surfers riding the waves, gold-rimmed as another hot summer day began. A John Deere tractor motored over the sand and we walked barefoot around gull feathers and knotted halos of seaweed.
We then drove to Little Boar’s Head, where a path winds between the ocean and the mansions of Willow Drive. Wild roses grow on the banks and old fishermen’s huts, now coveted summer boltholes, line the entrance to the path. Off the shore, cormorants perched on rocks to air their wings.
Wearing masks and Covid testing frequently, we went to London over New Year’s 2021-2022. My husband and I met in London, so I’m quite attached to it, but we hadn’t visited there together in almost a decade. We went for long walks taking in Hyde Park and its river birds, South Kensington and the embassies where our son could identify all the flags, and London Zoo. I was enchanted by all the Christmas lights of Mayfair and Oxford Circus, the butterflies and rainbows of Carnaby Street.
We tromped off to Notting Hill also, where at 10 pm on New Year’s Day we got delicious gelato at Amorino, scooped out in flat petals and pressed together like roses. We ate our ice cream as we walked along, admiring quirky window displays. I took a picture of one house with a mural on the front, while in the upstairs window next door, a man leaned out cutting his fingernails into flower boxes, looking utterly bored.
Aria Force and Gowbarrow Fell, Ullswater
We got to go back to the Lakes District this summer, visiting some of the favourite places from last year, and exploring extra ones too. This year we fit in a visit to the waterfall trail passing Aira Force, a 65-meter waterfall. The path was under construction nearest the Aira, but further up we could climb around and play in series of terraced torrents, and peek past ferns and foxgloves at steep, moss-furred drop-offs.
We turned away from the becks (cascades) to climb Gowbarrow Fell, which felt a bit steep since we’d been ascending the whole time leading up to it. The views were gorgeous though—fields and byres and pines and more fells (peaks). From the summit we could see the steamer-scythed length of Ullswater Lake. Circling back toward Aira Force car park, we kept the lake in our sights, through trees and heather and tendrils of dog rose, their creamy heart-shaped petals falling on the path while bees trumpeted around.
Groton State Park, Vermont
Vermont state parks are awesome. We camped in a lean-to (three-sided shelter) near Rickers Pond, part of Groton State Forest. Lake Groton and the surrounding ponds were formed at the end of the Ice Age when some of the melting water got trapped by the gravel it carried, and the area is studded with boulders called “glacial erratics.” There are lots of trees, and bluffy mountains with asymmetrically sloping summits like overdone meringues.
Apart from the natural beauty of pristine water and quirky little towns, mountain views and greenery, Vermont makes it clear it cares about its parks. We encountered such lovely touches as free suncream dispensers, and convenient toilet blocks and firewood stations. We swam at Lake Groton’s Boulder Beach and stretched out on the soft, freshly-raked sand. We hiked up Owls Head, a short mossy path to a beautiful lookout point with an eagle circling overhead, and we spent a lot of time at Rickers Pond, swimming in it and then “brooksploring,” following a brook off of it leading toward the Wells River. We liked watching the mussel trails, a whole herd of freshwater mussels in the shallows, approaching the shore and leaving their curlicue tracks in the pond’s bottom. The loons were bold at the Pond, diving right near us. I also hiked a couple miles of the Cross Vermont trail, perhaps something I will revisit more completely one day.
Are you familiar with any of these locations? What were your favourite outdoor adventures from the last year?
Predictably, it was all British hikes last year. No European cities or the mountain lakes of home. Still, I’m lucky to live with countryside a mile away, to step out my door and choose a walking circuit of 3.5, 4.5, or 6 miles.
Weeks went by when we weren’t allowed even to drive a few minutes and explore Somewhere Else. Temporary easing of restrictions assigned extra value to sojourns that might otherwise not have been so memorable. And when we couldn’t travel, we could look to rainbows or holiday decorations. I think the people who put out massive displays of festive lights and inflatables by the third week of November, brightening the long nights, deserve to have a street named after them.
Dursley: Our Own Town
We’ve been familiar with the local hills for some time, but lockdown meant perusing churchyards, looking up name origins, finding the rare street less homogenous and more individualised than others.
Living in houses squished right up next to each other is hard. The constant reminders of other people practically on top of you, it’s exhausting. And when we fled for our daily walk, there were always a number of people doing the same. My son and I discovered more paths to the river (now more of a stream) and I may have gone mad without access to water in nature. Every day I incorporate the river in my walk, take my headphones off when I reach it, tell it hello, listen to its hurried reply, and imagine I could be on a riverbank anywhere in the world, letting it drown out the traffic and forgetting there are houses lined up on either bank.
Stroud Area: Selsley and Thrupp, A Few Miles Afield
My office is in Stroud so I used to go to this vegan hippie haven every day, walking the canal towpaths, listening to street musicians, frequenting little shops. For 3/4 of this year we could barely go at all. But our first journey out of town (by 7 or 8 miles) in the summer was to Selsley Common to see the dinosaurs, and my husband and I took a couple of canal walks later.
Woodchester: Local Lakes
Where I grew up every little rural town has its own lake plus various other ponds. That’s how you cool off in the summer. Over here, despite this Island being known for rainfall, there aren’t many accessible bodies of water. We had a couple of hikes (as did many others it would seem) at Woodchester, a National Trust estate with pretty combinations of wooded hills and manmade lakes, guarded by an unfinished gothic-style mansion which is pretty much the sort of place I intend to set my next novel.
Liverpool: Street Art and Maritime History
We managed to get a serious road trip in before this vibrant, friendly city was put into higher tier restrictions. With masks and constantly sanitised hands we explored museums to inspire whole fleets of stories: a branch of the Tate filled with modern art, the International Museum of Slavery, and the Maritime Museum. The grand if faded buildings still convey the city’s impressive history as emigration gateway and meeting place of cultures.
Charmouth, Seatown, and the Dorset Jurassic Coast
Plan E to celebrate my 40th in December was a cottage near the sea and fossil-hunting under the coastal cliffs. Plans A and B would have involved seeing my family in the US—I haven’t had a birthday with them since I turned 23. In the end, we were incredibly fortunate just to have this break 2 hours away, as it fell in the 3 weeks between Lockdown the Second and The Raising of the Tiers. And although the weather was generally poor, it left plenty of fossils to be found.
Combe Martin and North Devon’s Cliffs
As soon as the hospitality industry re-opened slightly in July, we went, for my first days off from work in months. Just to a cottage and lots of isolated hikes, mind you, no crowded beaches or anything like that. We love a bit of rock-scrambling and tide-pooling. The coastline in North Devon is pretty dramatic and made for good, even sunny, adventures.
Grasmere and Easedale Tarn: Proper Lakes
The main bit of our autumn road trip was spent a fair way North, in a Lake District shepherd’s hut with no electricity or running water. We hit Liverpool and the brief luxury of a half-empty hotel on our way back down. The Lake District is special for its own ancient landscape and language: fells and tarns and ghylls. Of course we hiked around Wast Water, England’s deepest lake at the foot of its sharpest peaks, and we visited lovely pubs and bakeries and came away with gingerbread and a glorious painting by Libby Edmondson. Our very favourite hike, though, was an unexpectedly bright afternoon walking along a beautiful purple-black river and ascending up to one of the glacial ponds, Easedale Tarn.
Did you get to do much exploring in 2020? If not, did you find anything special and new in your own local area?
I’m late with this roundup, on account of doing proper authorly things such as slicing 80,000 words out of a novel. As I transition to inventing new short stories, though, I’m looking back on various places I was privileged to visit, the street art found and historical moments memorialised. So much fuel for the imagination, gathered in just a year.
7: Vaxjo, Sweden
I know–what the where? Pronounced something like “veck-ya,” this is a small, eco-friendly lakeside city in southern Sweden. My son participated in a gaming event there, while my husband and I visited museums, a very old church, and sculpture trails. And rediscovered chokladbollar. There’s a special pride in discovering someplace unknown to most people.
It makes the list every year, because I find more. This isn’t just due to the city’s size incorporating former towns around it, it’s also because of the constantly blooming arts scene, on street and off. This year I explored more in the Southville and Eastville areas (shoutout to the Writers HQ retreat located at the latter), and revisited Clifton.
5: Matara Centre, Cotswolds
We attended an Open Gardens day before many plantings came up, but this was still a fascinating walk. Different patches foster tranquility while saluting traditions from different parts of the world. It was like visiting lots of places at once.
4: Cascade Trail, White Mountains, New Hampshire
Bonus points for thunderstorming on us while we hiked. We ascended the waterfall trail and had a good splash, loving the views without realising we hadn’t even hit the biggest cascades yet. I say, DO go chasing waterfalls—especially in your first drafts! (Then dry off a bit during edits.)
Sorrento is a small but busy city an hour south of Naples, along the gorgeous, rugged coast. It’s got mountain views (including Vesuvius), olive groves up the slopes and citrus trees along the streets, lovely old stradones and domos, and of course, fantastic food. Just don’t overwork yourself beforehand then visit with slightly watered down flu.
2: Jurassic Coast, Dorset, UK
Fossils and waves. There had been recent landslides from the massive coastal cliffs, so I could scurry to the rockfall and grab a promising sample without chiseling. Even a fist-sized chunk of this coast is packed with fossilised sea creatures, and you can imagine the waves carrying in more surprises.
1: Glasgow, Scotland
With bagpipes ringing in our ears, we took in landmark buildings such as the cathedral and the Lighthouse (actually an architecture museum). There’s also a tenement house museum I’d love to see, to reflect on how so many people lived, and I could spend a whole day at the Necropolis and come up with probably half a dozen different stories.
What inspiring adventures have you had in the last year?
So…2018. How was it for you? My year got a little ploddy. A little spend-all-the-free-time-dragging-through-housework-while-sleep-deprived-from-illness-and-injury-ish. A little every-outing-or-escapade-requires-double-chores-on-surrounding-days-and-heaps-of-TLC-to-convince-family-members-to-go-along-with-it-y.
That demolished my writing and reading routines for the last couple of months, and honestly, I kind of allowed it to. But while I haven’t got a finished draft of my current novel, or a publisher for my other one, and I was mostly long listed in 2018 with just a couple of shortlistings—those hard-plotted outings and escapades I cajoled my family into? They were awesome.
When I look back, it’s not the stresses my mind turns to; it’s the adventures shared. It was tricky to narrow down the top explores of 2018, but here they are, the ones that most charged up the imagination and, well, made life grand.
Hay-on-Wye: It’s got tonnes of books, and a river. Pretty much my two favourite things! Oh, and plenty of nice places to eat. Or just buy a Welsh cake. This year was my first at the late May literary festival there, and I took in such a fantastic range of lectures and interviews. I also enjoyed wandering the streets and soaking in the literary vibe, chasing waterfalls, and watching the sun set over the river.
Portishead/ Window Wanderland: Portishead is one of our nearer coastal towns, but we hadn’t explored it yet. Turns out it has a lighthouse, and a lido! Throw in some grand beach houses, a beach crissed and crossed with driftwood, and a brand new lifeboat station, all making this an exciting discovery.
It was the Window Wanderland event that brought us there in February. I’ve written previously about Window Wanderland, when neighbourhoods decorate their windows for all to come and see. In addition to the Portishead one, we also returned to the Bishopston area of Bristol to take in their window displays, because they truly are stellar.
Bristol: This has made my top seven before. But it holds such a wealth of routes and sights, I had to include it again. Plus, I’ve now had a piece performed there so I can feel I belong (maybe one day I can say the same about Hay). Just some of the ways Bristol reminds us life is good: street art to marvel at on every corner, diverse museum exhibits from Wildlife Photographer of the Year to African fabrics to Japanese woodblock prints, milkshakes at Rocatillos and pie or pizza at The Stable and roasted white hot chocolate at Mrs. Potts’ Chocolate Shop, and over 800 games to choose from at the board game cafe Chance & Counters on the lovely Christmas Steps.
Canals, and More Canals: I know, this is a repeat, too. But my weekly hike along the Stroudwater canal continues to be a highlight, the resident waterfowl and the changing angles of sunlight affording new views in the same places every week. Plus we explored further on the Gloucester and Sharpness canal this year, climbing around the beached hulks at Purton’s ship graveyard and the marinas at Saul Junction and Sharpness. Finally, there’s the last remaining stretches of towpath on the Thames and Severn, from Stroud to Chalford, the beautiful little town carved into a hill, and then from Chalford to Sapperton, the longest canal tunnel.
Mount Osceola: Following 2017’s excursions, I vowed to climb a higher mountain in 2018. And I did, conquering my first 4,000+ footer, in the White Mountains of my home state, New Hampshire. Climbing Mount Osceola was a bit like 2018: hard work scrambling over substantial scattered stones and patches of steep-ish rock face but in the end we had some incredible memories. And felt a tad awesome.
Minneapolis: One might not think of this Minnesota city in a top list of US destinations. However, we ended up there while taking our son to a gaming event, and loved it. Starting with the Walker Art Gallery’s wondrous sculpture garden, next crossing through Loring Park and Greenway seeing all the fountains and plant boxes and tiny free libraries and black squirrels (still can’t quite get over those…), we then traversed the city using the Skyway. The Skyway is a network of elevated passages between and through buildings in the city centre, allowing people to get about traffic-free and safe from the elements (in our case, it provided some relief from 100 Fahrenheit/ 38-degree Celsius temperatures). Using these passages, we found our way across the city to my first ever look at the great Mississippi River. Here, the river is flanked by old flour mills with an interesting history of rivalries, all chronicled in the Mill Ruins Park and Museum. I love a place that honours its ruins while progressing in an environment- and walker-friendly way!
Seville: Talk about incorporating history. This southern Spanish city has Roman aqueducts still standing in the middle of busy roads. Its signature spire, Giralda Tower, was built in the 12th century as a minaret under Islamic rule. The cathedral’s incredible craftsmanship must surely have been financed through genocide and slave labour during the Age of the Explorers, when Columbus, Magellan, and their cohorts sailed triumphantly up and down the River Guadalquivir, welcomed by the Torre del Oro. The current Royal Alcazar Palace was largely built using moorish designs under a 14th-century Christian king known as Pedro the Cruel or Pedro the Just, depending who tells the story. It is still used as a royal residence 650 years later. We loved wending our way through the tight little warren of streets to these attractions, shaded by orange trees and palms and ancient gleaming facades affording us the occasional glimpse into ornate courtyards filled with greenery. Also, there was tapas. And sangria.
A year with this much excitement and wonder must have been pretty good. I’m looking forward to revisiting some of these locations in the coming year, discovering new destinations, and definitely putting it all to use in various tales.
Have you had experiences in any of the above places? What other spots have you explored in the last year, and where will the next one take you?
Visiting my parents’ New Hampshire town several summers ago, my husband and I wandered down the pre-re-vitalised Main Street. In front of a once fine, colonial-style house now leaning and peeling, a little boy stood barefoot on the drive, twirling a rusted coping saw. Two small girls watched from the weedy front lawn, their expressions grave.
A scrawny mum in a nightdress shouted at them to get inside and watch TV. My husband and I exchanged looks. Were these the Small Town Values politicians always banged on about?
What bothers me about the Small Town Values spiel isn’t that it writes off the city as immoral; morality is irrelevant. (How dull would our writing be if everyone were moral?) It’s that it abets the impression that small towns are idyllic places where nothing bad ever happens. It minimises the challenges faced by those living there.
It’s the same on this side of the ocean. I worked in one of the biggest secondary schools in a large county, but our school was populous mainly because it drew on twenty-something ‘feeder’ primary schools, some from very small towns. Government inspectors seemed dismissive of our students’ issues because we were based in ‘the leafy suburbs.’
However, our area is also classed as one of ‘rural deprivation,’ with an exceptionally high incidence of substance abuse and mental disabilities. These places are still riddled with real people, living hard stories.
Finding the Ideas
In my writing, I like setting longer projects in small towns, or at least not very big cities. Yes, my life experience has been gained there, but also it’s easier to tie threads together. You get added layers when your characters already know each other, or at least pass each other by with some regularity.
For shorter projects, though, the city is magic. Every person is a puzzle, and the way they brush by creates a range of potential interaction. It’s easy to find surprising juxtapositions: A mobile lingerie fitting shop setting up next to some well-jacketed, buttoned-up Jehovah’s witnesses and their pamphlets. A vegan Indian food stall next to one selling leather goods. Everyone is a stranger and capable of surprise; a twist here can easily be summed up in a sentence or a symbol.
I’m currently reading Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin’s tribute to women who don’t just explore the city, but absorb it. I picked this book up inspired by a recent Women Writers Network Twitter chat (see other great recommendations here) about women writing the city. Our reasons for celebrating this are best summed up by Sarah Waters in The Paying Guests. “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she walked, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments–these moments when, paradoxically, she was at her most anonymous.”
It’s possible that the more our selves diminish, the more our surroundings gain stature, free to sow new ideas.
With their relentless array of sights and sounds, urban areas are perfect for very short, or “flash” fiction. A flash piece is a kernel of story, minute and representative of possibility. The best ones are so tightly packed, you can’t unfurl them without damage. All you can do is peer at the coiled layers from the outside, maybe roll it on your tongue to taste the bitter or the sweet, never daring to crunch.
Bristol Flash Walk
I recently had a piece featured in Bristol’s Flash Walk, an event with flash fiction stories read at different points between the Harbour and Bedminster. All provided fascinating, quick glances into city encounters—past, actual, or merely longed-for. We strained over traffic and alarms and rivers and inquisitive children to hear each story, and this added to the excitement.
My contribution hovered dangerously near the maximum word count of 400 and was called “The Prodigal,” about the famous slave trader/ Bristol benefactor Colston. The opening line launches right in: “When Edward Colston revisited the city of his birth some three hundred and eighty years later, he saw his name etched blood-red across the sky.”
After the reading, which met with great laughter and applause at the right places, my husband asked me, “So where did Colston appear from? The afterlife?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You don’t have to, with flash fiction.” I could be totally wrong about this. But to me, that’s what suits flash fiction to city writing. You don’t have to look too deeply because something else comes along. I don’t know if I could finish a long project based in a city; I’d become distracted, I’d sink beneath the weight of all the what-ifs.
Escape to the Country
I tend to leave a city with a handful of kernels as well as some possible story-seeds. If I transplant a person or scenario from a more populous area to a smaller town or to a rural spot, it has room to grow. I can also gain a little control over other affecting factors and narrow down plot ideas.
When I polled Twitter, more than half respondents (58%) said countryside wanders were better than city ones for gathering ideas. I love the countryside, but I often need an idea already germinating in my mind for these hikes to be fruitful in terms of story development.
I just can’t invent things without people to base them on. Though it’s lovely walking with no one else around, I find myself assigning human psychology to my surroundings anyway. The other day on a canal walk, I wondered if the young swan families at different points along the journey receive news of each other. Does Mrs. Stratford Park Swan know she’s the last one waiting for her eggs to hatch? Do Mr. and Mrs. Dudbridge Swan know the Eastington cygnets are only just learning to dive, and that the group has dwindled to 4? And do any of them know the whereabouts of the missing Ebley Swans? I imagined cunning mallards passing these tidbits on. Possibly trading gossip for a prime beakful of algae.
I don’t know if this shows a lack of imagination in me, or a surplus of projection. But this is how I tend to work: tugging bits of string out from the city and puttering with them in as close to the wilderness as I can find. Or, in my daily smaller-town life, suddenly realising that the customer or bus passenger I keep seeing is a massive multicoloured spool of thread just waiting for my mind to get tangled in.
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?)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
Where do you go for your best ideas? Whatever new adventures the new year holds, I hope your mountains will be rewarding.
This week’s bit of string: Thoughts and images from artists who’ve passed this way already
We’re approaching that time of year when Bill Nighy’s ‘Christ-MAS is all around us’ from Love Actually gets stuck in our heads. Come now, it isn’t just me. But I won’t bother you about Christmas yet, nor even, indeed, about love. Let’s talk about art instead. Art is all around us!
As someone who left the ability to drive when I emigrated twelve years ago, I do a lot of walking, and I don’t mind it. Even when I’m walking the same route to and from work every day, I enjoy taking pictures from my journey and reflecting on it later, scribbling details in one of my handy-dandy notebooks.
I’ve been motivated in this by a hashtag project my sister Nicole St. James started two years ago. #Everythingyoucanwalkto encourages us to get outside and take pictures. We use our phone lenses to frame what we see, and make it into art. Have a look, here.
What qualifies these photos as art? They just feature things found in nature, or random bits of graffiti like a sticker on a lamppost. How do we identify what art is?
Art Derives from Nature
On her Brainpickings website, Maria Popova posted a nice compilation of quotes defining art. She references Frank Lloyd Wright, who observed that art develops the ‘elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms’ for people to use.
I agree that the relationship between nature and art is key. Being out in the fresh air, in the colour and grandeur of the landscape, opens our minds more to appreciate art and beauty. So when I’m walking along, provided I’m not stressing too much about something stupid, I am more liable to look around and interpret what I see as beautiful, and capable of use in art.
Art Creates the Unexpected
The other thing that opens my mind to art as I’m out walking is finding something unexpected. A painting on the side of a building, or a baby’s shoe hung in a tree. These give me pause, make me think, question: what’s the story here?
In remarks detailed by a New York Public Library article in the Huffington Post, Leon Botstein called art necessary to ‘discover the imagination.’ He also noted its ‘powerful protection against boredom.’ In order to do so, of course art has to surprise you a little. As for defining it, he said: ‘If it seems to evoke, even inadvertently… it can be a piece of art.’
Yes, those weird pieces of street art, even the most obscure or minimalistic modern art—if they cause emotion, even frustration or confusion, they are art! After all, it’s a frustrating and confusing world. We have to expect art to reflect that, at least occasionally. Look at Kafka, or Beckett, or Joyce. The bizarre, somewhat disjointed narratives they created qualify as literature partly because they awaken us to the same qualities in the real world.
The Unbearable Inconvenience of Feeling
My personal definition of art, plain and simple: It makes you think, and it makes you feel. That includes literature. As writers, we definitely have the power to do those things, if people let us.
Admittedly, thinking and feeling aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. In a passage from my novel Artefacts, a teacher confronts the rather challenging seventh grader, Luke, after Luke covers the toilet conveniences in paper mache and uses the excuse that he’s made art.
‘You can’t use art just to inconvenience people,’ Mr. Tamworth said. ‘Or even solely to shock people, I would argue.’
‘They say it’s supposed to make people feel,’ Luke snapped. ‘That’s pretty damn inconvenient.’
And it is, it is inconvenient, sometimes excruciating, especially when art or literature places another human being’s pain-stricken soul in front of us. Art is all around us, bursting before our eyes, blooming in our minds, and the beauty of it can ache. But we use it to create our own work.
So we cry at movies (including Love Actually. You know it isn’t just me!) as we are forced to contemplate what we might do in a similar situation. We feel as if we can fly when listening to music like Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ and new imagery and ideas seep through our veins. We look at an art installation in the street and start thinking about who put it there, and why. And eventually, these feelings and thoughts, these what ifs and bits of string, help us formulate new stories, and put new art into the world.