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

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

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

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

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

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

Time

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

A Story Surplus

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

Signs of support

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

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

Grief

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

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

Grounded.

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

An Ideal Population

This Week’s Bit of String: Trouble at the border

Returning to Britain after a week abroad in 2012, I forgot to fill out a customs card. This invoked the wrath of immigration officers. ‘Remember, we can terminate your Indefinite Leave to Remain any time we want,’ snapped the lady who grudgingly allowed me back on the Small Island I’d inhabited for years.

Previously I’d thought of indefinite as permanent. Now it was more literal: the opposite of guaranteed. I was a teaching assistant then, working a demanding schedule with needy students, and volunteering extra time to run school fundraisers. I paid taxes, I recycled, stayed fit, kept a clean house and cared for my family, who are British citizens. This apparently meant nothing if I neglected a rote slip of paper.

These migrants photobombed my canal shot, but honestly they’ve enhanced it.

As the Windrush scandal continues, we see that duration of stay doesn’t protect immigrants from deportation, and as Brexit is enacted, residents from neighbouring nations face losing their homes, dismissed as low-skilled for being low-earners. It’s important to fight these changes for the sake of immigrants themselves, but also for natives.

Why doesn’t the government invest more in education, so that British people and immigrants alike can qualify for so-called higher-skilled jobs? The Conservatives have set £25,000 per year as the salary threshold for immigrants, presumably believing that constitutes a minimally comfortable salary. Shall we eagerly anticipate, then, that they’ll lean on the many businesses offering zero hours contracts and much lower salaries, to incentivise them paying their British employees better?

Measuring Up

There’s a new points system to determine who can stay, and if I were trying to join my husband in this country now, rather than 15 years ago, I’d score only 10 of the 70 required.

So I’m proposing my own points system. If I ran a country, here’s what could get you in:

10 points if you deliberately step around worms or snails on the puddly pavement.
5 points for each book or magazine, online or otherwise, you read or listen to in a month.
5 points for each handcrafted or locally-made product you buy in a month.
7 points for every extra (not native to you) language you speak.
25 points if you recognise it’s none of your business what noise your neighbours make, or what time they open their curtains, or whether they occasionally have a visiting vehicle parked outside.
10 points if you make sure to get your full daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
10 points if you give the local chippies and sweet shops thriving custom.
30 points if you can fold a fitted sheet and do your hospital corners.
30 points for knowing how to unblock a toilet or stop a leaking tap.
30 points for knowing how to turn, dress, and comfort a bedbound person.
30 points if you can carry on polite, informative conversation with an irate customer.
30 points if you can both listen and think on your feet enough to calm a panicking student.
25 points for an ability and enthusiasm to discuss important, pressing issues of the day.
25 points for an ability to generate lighthearted escapism, or an enthusiasm to consume it.
70 points if you’re the reason someone already living here gets up every morning.

Yes, 70 is still the required number of points. I’d probably want my country’s visa applicants to pass criminal checks and perhaps come with job references as well, although I wouldn’t be picky about which job, or about income level.

Gloucester Cathedral exhibit from GARAS, Gloucestershire Action of Refugees and Asylum Seekers

To whom would I forbid entry, were I in charge? Could I bear to? I allow pretty much anybody in my fictional worlds. In reality, we need all kinds of people. Those with varying talents and specialisms to fill different job roles, those from diverse cultures to add flavour to our own, those with different mental and physical abilities to ensure we have a caring society.

The criteria a nation imposes on its outsiders reflect what it values from its insiders. Devalue contributions from immigrants and there are vast swathes of natives who will also feel belittled. In my imaginary country, it’s different. Who wants to join?

Change Your Work, Change Your Country

This Week’s Bit of String: Allowing subtraction

My first novel was over 800 pages long. Even well-established authors would struggle finding readers willing to take that on. So I cut fiendishly, excising at least one line per paragraph, one paragraph per page. The latest draft is 400 pages.

Imagine if I’d gone to my Writers’ Group at the start of the editing process, and explained my plan. What if they’d been shocked, and horrified? Imagine them saying, ‘You can’t change your work! You have to love it as it is. To feel anything else toward it means you’re not a real writer. You might as well do something else with your scant free time.’

Sometimes we need to be more than the Way We Are.

After all, the option’s always there, isn’t it? We could keep every word we’ve written. If we’re lucky, maybe our mums would read them. In order to make our stories accessible and appealing to a wider audience, we cut out unneeded detail, clarify other points, strengthen character voices and sometimes swap point-of-view all together. Chances are, every time we look at a piece we improve it, and we enjoy doing so because we can see the work getting better.

The same flexibility is required with countries. I doubt even those voting for incumbent parties go to the polling station with no improvements in mind. But people have started saying ‘Like it or leave it,’ among worse things, about active politicians trying to change the country.

Allowing Detraction

I’ve noted before that the Declaration of Independence was overhauled at America’s founding. The Constitution went through massive changes as well, and not because the first patriots hated the USA. Sometimes they preferred the original to the final draft, but had to make drastic amendments (such as permitting slavery) to convince all colonies/ states to stay on side.

Racial bias played a role in this compromise. It’s harder to sacrifice millions of lives when you believe those lives are equal to yours. Recent comments about sending congresswomen ‘back where they came from’ are also racist, indisputably enough that I won’t make a lengthy case here.

Except to point out that racism operates like a plague. There’s Patient Zero, in this case the President, some close advisors, and the white supremecists who’ve joined his base.

Give me your complacent, your unquestioning, your grateful…

Around them you have those most susceptible. People who might be economically disadvantaged (or feel they are), who might have less education, or are down on their luck and need someone to blame. Anyway, they were easy to infect and they’re now happy to chant, ‘Send her back.’ Maybe they could be cured, but there’d have to be something in it for them. Universal healthcare, higher minimum wage? Who knows. The disease manifests differently in each patient.

The next circle out from Patient Zero are the disease carriers. They’re not exactly infected. But siding with Patient Zero is politically convenient, so they pretend he’s not racist. ‘He’s just speaking his heart. He loves this country so much he can’t stand anyone complaining about it.’

In a way, the carriers are the most insidious, and we must address their ‘like it or leave it’ mentality.

You can like a country and still want to change it. If anything, those with the deepest patriotic faith will trust a nation’s ability to improve. America was born in dramatic change, and continued to change over the years, by war and peace, by executive decree and grassroots movement. We Americans are still discontented revolutionaries, for better or worse. This drives both our innovation and our wastefulness.

Never Really Settled

Sometimes writers do leave stories undone. I decided to stop work on a novel two chapters before the end, because I wasn’t doing it justice. There are still bits in it I like, but my mind led me elsewhere.

Similarly, my heart led me to a new country. I still like a lot of things about the USA, but moving to the UK was the only way to bring my own family together. Even refugees desperate for a safe place probably don’t dislike their home country. People often leave because they need to, not because they want to.

Leaving isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

And getting into a new country is no easier than writing a new novel. What an irksome irony that the very people telling even native-born progressives to ‘like it or leave it’ are the same ones insisting asylum seekers return to desperate Central American communities. Even if you do dislike your country, even if you’re desperate to leave, it doesn’t mean a new one will let you in.

Include All the Things!

I’ve written before about the editing process and the many things we have to include in our written work. See here for a daunting list of every box our stories have to tick from the very first page. Likewise, a nation has to achieve many criteria for many people:

  • Safety
  • Economic growth
  • Support during emergencies (fire service, welfare)
  • Law enforcement
  • Justice courts for civil redress as well as criminal
  • Strong moral examples in leadership
  • Education
  • Fostering of communities and enterprise

We adjust these relentlessly for the diverse groups that have contributed to the country since before its birth. Basically, we keep tweaking to accommodate our audience.

Telling us we can’t raise objections, equating criticism of a leader with criticism of the whole nation, grants that leader absolute power. That’s a lonely and unrealistic role for any one person. Writing can be lonely too, and seem an impossible task—so we ask people to look over our work, help us take it where it needs to be.

And if we’re lucky, someone will tell us—as someone told me when my novel was still 500 pages long—“You can do better than this.” I completely changed the opening at that point. It’s okay to hear that. Don’t worry, America. We all have to keep trying. It’s just that we think you can do better than this.

The Art of Being Away

This Week’s Bit of String: Marriage proposal on a t-shirt

When I immigrated to Britain my son was almost 3, quite active, and thankfully for our overnight flight we sat next to someone friendly. Our neighbour on the plane was a medical student from Bulgaria, on his way home to surprise his girlfriend.

She was expecting his best friend, also Bulgarian and studying with him in Boston. “She’ll come to pick him up at the airport,” our flight mate explained, “but instead she’ll get me!” He beamed and pulled a t-shirt out of his carry-on. It was printed with, apparently, “Will you marry me?” in Bulgarian.

I often wonder how he fared. He planned that the wedding would take place after his studies were complete, when he would return to his home country to work. “We need doctors in Bulgaria. I can’t keep that away from them.”

Have Gifts, Will Travel

With a bachelor’s degree in Writing and Literature, and a hodgepodge of hospitality, childcare, and administrative work experience, I didn’t feel I was depriving my home country by leaving. As writers we can set up work anywhere. And hopefully, eventually, we can positively impact people regardless of borders.

Mural depicting 19th-century immigrants on a ship as they get their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty
Mural at the House of Emigrants museum in Vaxjo, Sweden

Quite a few famous writers throughout history have been travellers and immigrants (articles here and here on great books written by immigrants). Even in an informal Twitter poll of writers I conducted this week, 35% of the respondents now live in a country different from where they were born.

This is partly reflective of our portable vocation, and perhaps of our general exploratory nature. Although as writers we’re often introverts, we feel an irresistible urge to discover and experience more. I think too, it’s possible we’re somewhat itinerant because we’re not the most boundary-conscious people.

Everywhere is writing territory. A train compartment, an airport queue, a historical landmark, a foreign restaurant. Inside someone else’s front garden, inside your head. We cross countless borders, sometimes with questionable authority, and with varying degrees of success.

And sometimes when we’re right there in front of you, we might seem to be somewhat absent.

Home and Abroad

For those writers who don’t take the ultimate leap of immigration, there’s still travel. The many writers who travel seeking adventure, often with children and often faithfully writing about it, impresses me (stunning examples here and here).

I just came back from a short family trip to Denmark and Sweden. At New Year’s we spent a long weekend in Seville. I didn’t write at all, on either of those journeys. I couldn’t even keep a daily diary. Feeding and entertaining my family, maintaining all arrangements and reservations, studying maps and routes and opening times and attractions, then processing photos afterward, those things take up all my time.

Mermaid statue on coastal boulders.
Den hille havfrue (the little mermaid) statue in Copenhagen, clearly dreaming of new adventure.

That said, I still believe travel helps us as writers. From a quick, hard-earned vacation I am reminded to utilise every minute, to watch for differences and similarities around the globe. New realms open up to me while reinforcing common human bonds.

The first story I published took place in Haiti, a nation I visited and fell in love with when I was 16. I love using writing to remember places I’ve seen, which is why some of my writing still takes place in my American home state of New Hampshire.

Side note, the word immigrant actually originated in New Hampshire, first coined in a 1792 history book there by James Belknap. It’s from the French, which in turn was derived from the Latin, for “to remove, go into, move in.”

Immigrant shares its root with the word emerge. To me, that’s possibly the most important part of travel: emerging from the stupor of our routine. We shake ourselves awake from our own story and flit through endless streams of others.

Glass vase etched with a woman hanging laundry in the wind.
In the Glass Museum in Vaxjo, Sweden: Seeing beauty in the mundane.

This includes the magical, like the peace of an old cathedral or a breathtaking sculpture, but also the mundane—how Copenhagen and Seville get rid of their rubbish via an automated vacuum system which sucks it through underground pneumatic tubes to a processing facility. While traveling we’re exposed to the dramatic—help the hotel raise money to provide safe rooms for victims of human trafficking—and the personal, like the mum at the table next to us in a Swedish burger bar, who must have been out for a birthday meal with her partner and adult son, but barely touched her food, sat composed and quiet the whole time, and prepared to leave by slowly pulling her celebratory bouquet from her water glass, one stalk at a time.

Then we return to the daily grind and the stories swarming around us come home to roost. While we’re checking spreadsheets, hanging laundry, or trying to ignore bad bus smells, suddenly we are whisked away again. Borderless, unfettered, we get lost in a new story. Please excuse us if we seem to be away again.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or someone who enjoys a good staycation, do keep exploring. We need your stories, the ones you bring back and the ones you return refreshed to pick up again.

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?”’