Fever

This Week’s Bit of String: Overheated eyeballs

I have this bad habit of getting coughs. These aren’t misguidedly romantic chest coughs that might have made it into an epic nineteenth century novel or opera, just ugly, scraping hacks. My throat spasms into wretched fits. It carries on for weeks, my ribs get bruised, it’s exhausting.

Often, I’ll briefly get a high temperature with it. The kind of fever that crawls up behind your eyeballs and tenderises your skull. It’s not great for productivity, but does inspire vivid descriptions, if I do say so myself.

It may be a sign that I’ve been doing too much. I feel I should be able to Do All The Things. After all, I eat plenty of fruits and veggies, and get up early for exercise and fresh air. However, I seem to get sick when I’ve been completing a big writing project while also, as always, working full-time and taking care of my family. It’s as if that extra creative endeavour pushes me over the edge.

Hiking during our camping weekend–totally worth it.

At the moment, I’ve just missed a couple days of work for flu-like symptoms, probably a back-to-school virus, so now I’m trying my best to be quiet and not start coughing. This followed a weekend camping trip to the Peaks and copious reading about story structure, plus overtime planning resources for small group interventions at work, doing critiques for other writers, trying to finish a short story and while I haven’t quite begun the next rewrite of my novel, I’m thinking REALLY hard about it, ok?

Health Warning

Can writing affect our health? Is it one thing too much? I definitely am less grouchy when I’ve been able to write, preferably in a quiet setting, unlikely though that last bit is. I think it helps my mental health—but maybe it’s just that I place high standards on myself and I feel better for Getting Things Done, whatever the things may be.

Writing is a passion—and the root of that word is bound up with suffering. It is ‘that which must be endured.’ Hard, necessary work. It is absolutely fun and exciting, too! But it takes a lot of effort and relentless, toiling THOUGHT to make it good. So yes, it probably does impact our health.

I always felt guilty missing work if I picked up a bug while traveling, or if I’d run myself down finishing a novel. Was it wrong of me to let my personal interests impede my contracted employment? I worried I was behaving as selfishly as I perceived people who always called in sick on Mondays because they were still hungover. I’m still not convinced I’m being completely fair to co-workers or to my family in how I expend my energies.

But there are other fevers that make our brains itch. Characters that pummel our skulls from within and ideas that sputter up from deep inside us. We’ve got to write.

Incandescence

Sometimes, I do great work when I’m sick. I wrote a play during an extended bout of flu. It was about a team monitoring a whole city’s worth of subconsciouses, spying on people’s dreams to solve crimes.

I call this one: Still life of a working writer mid-term

Weird, I know. But kinda cool? Anyway, it did get through a competition and we performed it. Someday I might develop it further than a single act, and make a series of it or something.

In the same way that extreme weather or stress sears certain things into our memories and forms indelible creative impressions, health events can crystallise ideas.

From the tuberculosis that ravaged the Bronte family to Stephen King’s childhood ear infections which he writes about in his memoir On Writing, it does seem as if cycles of illness and health sharpen our imaginations. Have you ever found this?

While I was sick this week, my brain came to a screeching halt over work things like differentiating Science vocabulary on independent or dependent variables. But it did present me with a striking novel-related sequence, like a dream Eve or Cain might have. It unfolded before me as I trudged to work (and didn’t stay long). My elevated temperature practically distilled my story’s essence better than my healthy brain could.

What links do you see between your health and your creativity?

Capturing Castles

This Week’s Bit of String: A budding writer at the gate

Quite out of breath, I arrived to the gate of my connecting flight to see my family. The airline was, as ever, playing dicey with delays, and I’d almost resigned myself to being stuck in Dublin yet again. But I’d made it through the airport against the odds, and I waited for the imminent boarding a few chairs from a girl and her father.

The girl couldn’t have been more than ten years old. She wore a massive University Roma hoodie, and rainbow-splodged Crocs imitating a tie-dye effect. Giggling, she pointed out to her dad that across and along from us, four men in a row sat the exact same way, right leg crossed over left.

Airport inspiration in all varieties: this “Rocket Man” piano is at Birmingham Airport.

She was right, and justifiably giddy with pride at catching this detail. Then she picked up a magazine and started reading an article about the author Andy Weir, her mouth meticulously forming each word. I felt I was watching a junior author myself, someone who knew that to be one, she needed to take notice of her surroundings, and read up on other writers.

For me, the airport is great for people-watching and inspiration. I wrote down this anecdote immediately, sitting in the gate. Because I scribble every day, and I had many hours of travel to get through, I wasn’t pressuring myself to watch and record everything—just a few key observations.

Places for Writing

Apart from scribbling in my notebook, I spent a lot of time reading while in transit. I’d taken out Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle from the library at work, and enjoyed it tremendously. It opens with the young, hungrily observant narrator sitting with her feet in the kitchen sink, starting her diary by the last daylight.

Okay, this isn’t exactly an original suggestion, but I would love to sit journalling on the front porch.

She writes, “I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.”

I love that line on page one. I want to try that this summer: going out of my way to sit in new places and crack open my notebook. Would anyone else like to join me? I may create a writing sampler at the end of the fleeting six weeks, featuring my favourite observations and inspirations.

Now I just need to find some unique places and move out of my comfort zone, which at the moment is the reclining end of my parents’ sofa, in front of a fan. It is challenging how in order to find inspiration, we first have to come up with an original way to put ourselves in its path.

Memories Versus Inspiration

As usual, I planned this post in my head during a morning walk. I was crossing a bridge just downriver from a ruined mill. I stopped and watched a tall grey heron standing perfectly still on a rock. There’s been a lot of rain here in New England, and this river is rushing but not too high.

I remembered that for 11th grade Biology, we were supposed to find a spot outside and visit it regularly throughout the year to record natural changes. I chose the river, coming to the foundation blocks of an old house that once sat high on the bank by the railroad tracks. I stowed a composition notebook and some sketching materials in a plastic bag between the blocks. I sat there and noted which trees changed colour first. But later in the year, severe storms swept my things away. Writing in new places can be quite an adventure.

Aforementioned heron. He did not wish to commune.

I considered climbing up and sticking my feet in the kitchen sink here, at the house my parents have lived in more than 30 years. Just thinking about it, memories spout like the tap’s turned on: stowing my kiddo under my arm after each meal, piloting them over to the sink and splashing off the baby food, then carrying them through to the breezeway to play with the wind chimes hanging there. “Bell” became one of their first words.

Or there’s the bathroom sink. The bathroom has a built-in storage unit, with a deep countertop separating us from the mirror, so we used to climb up on it to get a good look. And just because we could. My sister and I would be on and off the counter quite a bit while we brushed our teeth, until Dad got fed up of us thumping down from it and came in to show us how to set ourselves down lightly, “being dignified.” He climbed up himself and disembarked, making dramatically prissy faces for us all the while.

I’m taking care to include memories like this in my daily scribbles, since we can’t assume we’ll keep them forever. But I don’t want to get lost in them either. My New Writing Place Summer Challenge is about noticing the unexpected and finding new ideas. I don’t know if it will work, but I do intend to shake things up a little.

What writing locations can you try? Do you think it makes a difference?

Life Raft

This Week’s Bit of String: Comedy face, tragedy face, angry face

Wielding the unholy power we’ve given it, Facebook keeps showing me adverts for a play my husband and I just saw in Bristol. That’s ok, it was brilliant; I’d still be mulling it over without the reminders. I noticed, though, that someone had responded to the theatre trailer with the angry face emoji.

Someone who doesn’t like modern adaptations or diverse casts, I thought. A couple months ago, we loved the RSC’s latest Julius Caesar with women in the main conspirator roles, but not everyone approved. Our latest dramatic adventure was the Bristol Old Vic’s production of Anna Karenina, and you’re not going to adapt that epic without controversy.

I peeked at the comments though, and here was the angry one: “While everyone drowns… The height of sophistication!”

So, they were mad that people spend money on the arts during a cost of living crisis.

Anna Karenina at the Bristol Old Vic–I highly recommend it!

I am still thinking about this. I’m an empathetic person, which draws me to the arts in the first place, but I try to be pragmatic as well. Could I benefit more people with how I spend my bit of spare money?

Maybe the angry commenter is so strapped for cash they don’t realise some of us can spend money on more than one thing. I pay for shows a few times per year, but I have charity donations set up monthly. They may also not realise that people who work in theatres need money too. 

The actors and writers and crew for Anna Karenina did an incredible job, but I doubt they are earning celebrity-level amounts of cash. If we didn’t buy tickets to see their work, they might be “drowning,” too.

Bread and Circuses

I don’t go to the theatre to look or feel sophisticated. It’s not the most comfortable seating or temperature, half the time, so I’m fidgeting and worrying whether my husband is having an ok time (thankfully, he usually is).
 
I attend shows for the luxury of sinking into someone else’s story, as with reading a good book. I go for the cleansing catharsis of experiencing someone else’s heartbreak and redemption. I also go because I would hate for hard-working creative performances to go unappreciated. Not many of us get to earn income from our chosen art. I’m happy to pay so that some can.

These are the justifications I make to myself. I don’t know if they make me right.

There have been times when I genuinely, if unquantifiably, feel a performance has changed me as a person. It’s as if what I’ve seen blazed so brightly in its heartfelt declaration of humanity, a spark catches inside me and kindles a desire to love better, to create better. This might sound silly. But I felt permanently altered after seeing Miss Saigon’s 25th Anniversary show adapted for cinema, for example. Or when I watched La Boheme as a 10-year-old. 

Letting art sweep us out to sea

I can’t prove these things have made me a more compassionate, more resilient person. Even if they did, have they enabled me to benefit society as a whole? Still, there’s something much deeper here than entertainment, than a veneer of culture and sophistication. With Anna Karenina, the audience sees the perfect storm gather of misjudged desire, of lonely male domination, of a society obsessed with honour and prone to condemnation. It’s not genteel, it’s messy and raw. 

Resurfacing

I do appreciate reminders to be vigilant of all people’s needs and circumstances, and I want to always be sceptical about my practices. The truth is, anyone is at risk of “drowning” for a variety of reasons. I don’t want to act like the gossips in Anna Karenina, and judge people by trivialities such as how they spend their money. (Well… unless they’ve gained a tonne of it by shady means…)

No one has a right to sniff at how those with limited income spend their money. People who need help buying food shouldn’t be judged for spending money on, say, a smart phone. Not in these times.

Just as there are many things that can drag us under the current, there are many that might buoy us up. Maybe we need to build a righteous ark of highbrow theatre and literature, or witness an uplifting musical, or ride a wave of mass entertainment. Sometimes you just have to coast on a Disney cartoon. I’m not saying “Let them eat Shakespeare” or “Let them eat Netflix,” but I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of those things any more than I’d deprive someone of food. 

How do you use arts to keep yourself and others afloat?

Celebrating Books

This Week’s Bit of String: An air of incredulity

“Miss, how are there people who like to read?” 

I’d been scribing answers to questions about Lord of the Flies while the severely dyslexic GCSE student dictated. He was then curious about why there are “neeks” (the word “geek” has evolved) like me who actually enjoy books.

“Well,” I told him, “I got to like reading because I was taught so many different books at school, I knew there were loads of great options.”

The openness of the question surprised me and I should perhaps have been more emotive, told him how reading takes me out of my own life and into different worlds. Or that it’s easily as entertaining as TV. I wish I’d had more time to tell him that with books, there really is something for everyone. As long as they can access it–which unfortunately, he physically cannot. 

I wonder if this young man gets the sense of luxuriousness from playing videogames which we find with books. Books free us from having to compete. They offer immersive surrender, and that’s what I crave sometimes. It’s liberation from being in life’s driver’s seat.

Hay Castle: “Love detonates this distance between us to ash holds your flooded heart in the fire of night”

Again, this only works if you can access it. We all go through stages when there simply isn’t time to read much. Sometimes I find myself reading with a grim desperation to tick books off my reading list. 

I remind myself that this is love. As with any relationship, we sometimes get caught up in our duties of care; keeping everyone fed and happy. But the love is there. When it comes to reading, I ensure I take the time to write down my favourite quotes, to reflect in my daily scribbles, before starting something else. It’s not a chore.

Burrowing and Borrowing

I spent last weekend at Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival. If you ever need to rekindle your love for reading, it’s a great place to do so. Sunny but chilled, colourful yet somewhat calming. I guess that’s because even though I’m among crowds, they feel like my people.

Not that Hay’s festival-goers are in any way homogenous. As with writers, there are all sorts of readers. Young and old, Welsh or English or from further abroad, people in motorised wheelchairs or with support dogs. At an evening talk I also noticed another woman on her own, like me, pencilling tiny notes.

Hay Festival 2023

In both the first talks I went to, though they were on very different topics, the writers talked about being magpie-like in storing and selecting detail. Marina Hyde, the Guardian columnist on current events, peppers her pieces with pop culture references. Peter Frankopan, a passionate historian who’s recently written about natural disasters throughout history, drew on so many different sources he ended up with 4000 footnotes in his latest book.

Later I enjoyed wonderful readings from the poet laureate Simon Armitage. He opened with “Thank You for Waiting” (have a listen here!) and he talked about how hard it was during lockdown to be inspired without everyday interactions and excursions. He calls those the “cement” which sticks our writing together. Trying to create in his upstairs office, he found himself writing poems about Velux windows.

The reason there are enough books in the world to interest any reader is because writers are so diverse. And maybe when we love our art enough, we can find ways to write about anything.

Safety in the Pages

Beyond offering inclusion, books throughout history have bestowed security. We listened to Irene Vallejo talk about her volume Papyrus, which uncovers the history of the written word. She shared stories of the library of Alexandria, and told us how things changed with the development of the Latin codex.

Bookish street art in Hay. Is it secret? Is it safe?

The codex, with similar etymological roots to the word book, means block of wood, or tree trunk. Instead of being a long, flattened scroll you’d have to roll back up for storage, the codex used sheets bound together like modern books.

This change wasn’t just culturally significant. It also made reading a safer hobby. In times of religious persecution, for example, Christians could read in codex form. Should someone come along, they could close the codex and stow it away as a humble block, thus keeping secret the substance of their reading.

I loved learning this bit of history. Even now, in our privileged times, there’s something reassuring about wandering around an event where lots of people have books under their arms or noses. Just a bunch of bookworms sharing a common love if not common tastes, and although there are plenty of magpies about, they’re the curious rather than vicious kind.

What makes you fall in love with reading?

Looking the Part

This Week’s Bit of String: Ewoks and hippies

For the first Literature class I took at university, my professor resembled an ewok. He was gentle and diminutive, with a pointed snowy beard in place of a neck, and he would pace the room in a curved trajectory as he delivered lectures on Early English Literature or Science Fiction. Soft-spoken but passionate about his subject, he would pause when he’d gone over something significant, and tilt his head, his black eyes twinkling, and say “Hmm?” as he gave the sleepy morning classroom a moment to consider.

Another Literature professor paired silk scarves with sweatsuits, and when she felt she’d offered a particularly profound insight, she’d raise her hands palms up and intone: “Mmmmm!” as if she were a medium for divine inspiration. And I took a British Victorian Poetry class from a woman in her twenties who insisted, with poor reception, that we write “womin” instead of “woman” and “womyn” instead of “women.” She was brittly nervous and read us Sonnets from the Portuguese with her arms clasped across her chest.

My new writing companion

At university I relished the quirks of our instructors. There wasn’t a uniform vibe about them; they were quite individually eccentric. I’d had an idea that all writerly folk would be like the storyteller who used to visit my elementary school. She was a hippie type, with loose printed clothes and glasses and long fingers. She liked to sit us in a circle, lights dimmed, and always began by telling us how when people listen to a story, their heartbeats synchronise into a united rhythm.

It’s reassuring to think we can be spectacularly unique yet somehow fit in with a class of creative people. I say reassuring because I sometimes get dispirited by the headshots and bios in hit novels. Young faces with perfect hair. Masters degrees from top-tier universities. A lot of us are slogging through the working world and life overtakes us.

Props and Costumes

How then do we identify ourselves and others as writers, when there’s room for so many types? I doubt my students look at me and think I’m a writer at heart, apart from when I subject them to some dorky etymological or literary tidbit. I don’t have a caffeine or fancy pen addiction, so action figure Mrs. Parker does not come with cute travel mug and posh stationery.

The writing life is partly about accessories. We hoard notebooks and probably have strong opinions about pens versus pencils (the latter for me!) Mugs and hot drinks, window views and scented candles or essential oils, Twitter handles, background music and feline companions join the Generic Writing Starter Pack. 

We may have to dress warm, lest the cold in our Bohemian writing garret doesn’t sicken us. Or dress fashionably for writing in a cafe. If I’m writing out of the house, I’ll be hiking there so my outfit will include muddy trainers, a hoodie, and earbuds. If I’m in the house, it’s probably really early morning and I’m in my pyjamas and again, a hoodie. It’s not glamourous, but there is a thrill in having something so important to say, it can’t wait till the world wakes up. 

Looking honestly at it though, I work best when I’m properly sat up at the dining room table and dressed to feel awake. I’m best if I’ve eliminated the possibility of going back to bed for a catnap at 9, when I’ve been up at 5. A hot drink is good, and a candle with a stiff refreshing scent–I love something woodsy.

More Than a Feeling

These things sound trivial when stories need telling; these trappings of clothing and seating and utensils. But it’s worth a lot to feel like a writer. Our solitude can be pervasive, and successes sporadic. We are storytellers and we need to first convince ourselves that our voices are significant. Weaving some sort of authorish aura around ourselves is our first essential persuasive task. 

One of my favourite candleholders: the Snowball, from Sweden.

I imagine being the classy sort of writer who drinks earl grey tea and can write for hours in a cafe wearing stylish blouses and boots without the need to curl up somewhere quiet with a brownie. Wouldn’t I be cool? Then again, being a hoodie-type writer suits me because it connects me to so much outside my writing: my busy Teaching Assistant work, my family, my love of walking and exploring. Those inspire my writing and I’m proud to be tethered to that reality. 

Of course, we don’t want to be overly dependent on our image, even if we think we’re cultivating it for our own sakes. A great story can be told as well on a beat-up laptop as in a leather-bound notebook. Our writerly props may motivate and inspire us, but without them we can still bring stories into being.

Feeling present in ourselves and in our writing is perhaps the best accessory we can acquire as writers, whether we wear blouses or sweatsuits or snowy beards. I say being present instead of being confident because who among us will always be confident? We can use insecurity and anxiety in our creative process to convey those aspects of the world, we just need to face them honestly.

Do you have writerly accessories that feel essential? What’s their story?

What’s in a Name?

This Week’s Bit of String: A little baby cat

We got a 4-month-old kitten a few days ago. I will try not to go on about him too much–the photos should speak for themselves–but I’m smitten. 

Getting him relatively early means we can rename him. Goodness knows if he’ll respond to it; how powerful can a verbal moniker be compared to Dreamies and feather toys, cardboard boxes and head rubs? But the process of choosing a name was exciting and also, in a way, revealing.

I viewed this as acquiring a new family member. So the name had to fit with our family culture. That’s not something I actively think about, and this caused me to consider it. 

Naturally, our family traditions and favourites are a transatlantic mashup of American and British. Should I call the cat something to connect him with my home country? I liked the name Cricket, since he is black like the crickets in New England whose song I associate with home. And as he finds his voice, Kitty McKittenFace has revealed himself to have a crickety little chirp. But the name didn’t fully suit him.

I didn’t want a conventional black cat name, not even Inky or something with writerly implications. A literary name, that would do. A Shakespearean one even, given we just had a grand time in Stratford-Upon-Avon and the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre. No one with a tragic fate though–that eliminates a fair few of the Bard’s characters.

We settled on Oberon. The cat has a royal bearing, I think. We can shorten it to Obie, and link it to Star Wars as well if we see fit. Our Obie does have quite a stare; you’d think he was trying to use the Force on us in order to get his food bowl filled. (Scifi and adventure films are another part of our family culture.) And if he turns out a bit standoffish–which so far he is not, much to my excitement–we can call him ObeRon Swanson, for one of our favourite Parks and Recreation characters.

Character Names

Finding a title for a story can be loathsome. Nothing seems quite right… But naming characters is more painless, even enjoyable. There are so many connections you can make with a name, so many clues for readers. For example:

What: What does the name mean? Courage, humility, purity, illumination–lots of names have meanings like these and they can give a hopeful note to a character’s trajectory. I used to attach importance to this as an adolescent writer, but on the other hand everyone is brave, humble, pure, and illuminating at times, so we can’t lock ourselves or a character into any one attribute.

When: What does the name say about the contemporary events of the story? Is it a trendy name given by up-to-date parents, or a name that reflects indifference to fads? On the 2nd of November, 2016, we bought our last pets before this one–a pair of guinea pig brothers who took up residence in our lounge for the next 5 years. With the [now infamous] American election a couple days away, my husband and I wanted to name them Barry and Bernie, but our kiddo chose Fred and George instead. Mischief managed!

Where: Where is the name from? My name is Russian because my dad loves Russian literature. I have no Russian heritage. But it says something about the family who raised me, and introduced me to all sorts of art and literature. As I’m looking into my next project, I want one of my main characters to be an immigrant with a name that gets shortened to Nil, drawing inane comments now that she lives in the UK. I haven’t found a name that fits these particulars yet. Would it be culturally insensitive if I made one up? It’s funny, the notions we get stuck in our heads.

Who: Who else has this name? Often names come from a family history, but they might link to other figures also. I have a draft of a dark comedy story where some celebrity parents name their kids Ursula and Gaston, after Disney villains to shock people with how enlightened they are.

Why: Why was this name given to them–not by you as the writer, but by whoever named them? Writing my novel about Eve, I kept reading the Genesis account of creation. She’s only called “the woman” until after Eden. That’s not as outrageously disrespectful as it sounds though, since all Adam’s name ever meant was “the man.” If they were the first humans on earth, their species and gender would need no further specification.

How: How do others react to the name, and how does the character feel they are living up to it? I don’t usually give characters unusual names, because I have one and it complicates things. How people respond to my name reveals something about them. They might force it into something they know, like Natasha. They might immediately forget it rather than attempt pronunciation. Or they might say, “How unique. I’ll definitely remember that.” It makes things interesting… Maybe I will use such observations in a story one day.

What’s your strategy for naming characters? Are there any character names you’re particularly proud of?

Et Tu?

This Week’s Bit of String: Big wheels and street songs

We camped near Stratford-Upon-Avon over Easter weekend, our first visit there in nine years. A pretty Cotswolds town fiercely proud of being Shakespeare’s birthplace, it’s added a Big Wheel to rival the church spire and the tower of the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre.

Just trying to have a quiet think.

People snap selfies with the statues of famous Shakespearean characters surrounding his statue in the park. Lady Macbeth’s knuckles and the pate of Yorick’s skull are worn smooth by 150 years’ worth of tourists rubbing them for luck. Narrowboats mass on the Avon in front of them, cherry blossoms sway, and a street musician sings “To Make You Feel My Love.”

What would the Bard think of it all? I suspect he would have been okay with most developments, as long as they bring money in. And it wasn’t as if he was humourless. The range of topics he covered in his plays, he doesn’t seem completely traditionalist either.

A Theatre Trip

*Does contain spoilers for a centuries-old play about millennia-old famous historical events

My husband and I went to an RSC production of Julius Caesar while in town. It’s fascinating to me that Shakespeare chose to write this play, and frame the Conspirators with nuance and sympathy, even admiration, when he lived in a strictly royalist time. What could the preservation of democracy mean to him? This play contrasts with the anti-regicide message of Macbeth later on, for example.

We were completely engrossed by the show, although checking online later, it’s had a few sniffy reviews mixed in with decent ones. The director went for fairly plain costumes and set. There was a solemn, black-robed chorus between some scenes, just as the Greeks and Shakespeare would have intended. Between others, there were choreographed group scenes a bit like marches or parties or riots.

Daft, I know, but I had to get an “Exuent, pursued by…” photo with this Bear at the RSC Theatre.

This aspect was quite different and a little confusing. I’d looked at the cast list already, though, so I could pick out Brutus and see that her motions represented her inner conflict. I do wonder if some of the same people who criticise the choreographed segments as being too gimmicky, too distracting or confusing—might those not be the same people who advocate for opaque literature, for leaving things up to interpretation? So, I have interpreted it, and find it interesting, and thoroughly believe I would pick up more detail if I had the time and means to see it again.

Both Brutus and Cassius were played by women, which I felt made their friendship more moving, particularly in their parting scene. They were sisters-in-arms. Maybe I’m being egocentric and enjoying a chance to see my gender reflected more in traditional theatre. But perhaps there’s also an objective poignancy in seeing two women take on the accepted power structure, rather than two men do it.

At least one reviewer, as well as an elderly theatregoer my husband overheard, complained about how these two leads kept male character names while using female pronouns, and also kept some lines referring to the characters as men. I was not flummoxed by this. When Mark Antony repeats in his famous speech, “But Brutus is an honourable man,” it’s obvious who he’s referring to.

I wonder again if people who quibble over the lack of matching names/ pronouns/ gender language will wax lyrical about symbolism and analogy in Shakespeare. I suspect they know he’s not always literal. Maybe they just have certain buttons that get pushed when a young Black woman plays Brutus.

Death Scenes

The actress playing Brutus is Thalissa Teixeira, and she was riveting, with a cool elegance befitting an honourable soldier, and moments of passion which showed why she would have such loyal friends. She has ties to Brazil, and you can read how that influenced her portrayal of political upheaval and rebellion.

Brutus’s servant Lucius was played by Jamal Ajala, a deaf actor of colour. So some scenes at Brutus’s house were signed as well as spoken, and the director Atri Banerjee chose to have Lucius reappear in the final scenes as the friend who assists Brutus’s suicide. Brutus’s request to him and his acquiescence were completely silent, only signed. This made it much more striking.

Some juicy juxtaposition right here.

I had to read a lot of Shakespeare in my American high school and university years, much more than the strictly exam-based curriculum in Britain demands. Having been inundated mainly with his tragedies… they get a bit samey. There’s a lot of hand-wringing leading-up-to-death scenes, and this version put the hands to good use. For a taste of what I mean, here’s a video of Jamal Ajala performing Hamlet’s soliloquy in British Sign Language.

Shakespeare bestows an element of control on his characters’ deaths. People get to have little speeches and even Caesar, after he’s been stabbed by several people, doesn’t die until he’s sort of consented to do so: “Let fall Caesar!” This must have been how Shakespeare wrestled with the brutality of life in Tudor/ Jacobean times, when there probably weren’t many poetic farewells. Not during executions and plagues. I doubt he would have begrudged today’s directors and actors using his work to make a mark on society, to make it more inclusive and diverse.

What do you think about Shakespeare, and about reinterpretations of it? Is adding a Big Wheel to the literary landscape a betrayal tantamount to what Brutus did to Caesar?

Over the Rainbow

This Week’s Bit of String: A few hundred definite articles

When I was young and had energy–aged three, to be exact–I started eschewing naps. My mother would put me down for a “Quiet Time” instead, with a stack of books to look through. I knew their stories well, but I wanted to properly read them. Logically I started at the beginning, and as my mother settled me down, I asked what the first word of the top book’s title was.

It was “The,” as in The Wizard of Oz. Now able to read my first word, I went through every book I had and counted how many times “the” appeared in my books. I kept counting wherever I went, well up into the hundreds, until I noticed the word “there,” and counted those. I was in the midst of counting “thens” when all the other words started making sense and I lost count, too busy reading. Sucked into new realms.

Our copy of The Wizard of Oz was a big, almost A3-sized book with illustrations based on the film version. Since it became my first reading experience, I have a soft spot for the story–but clearly I was already drawn to it, since it inspired me to try and read in the first place.

Real Life or Dreams

One thing that bothered me about the movie was how it framed Dorothy’s whole adventure as a dream. I preferred the Chronicles of Narnia, in which all that happened was incontrovertibly real, just occurring in a different dimension (which I tried to reach through many a wardrobe). I felt it diminished Dorothy’s experiences to portray them as just a dream.

Even now, I get a bit ruffled when creators use the “But was it all a dream?” cliche. Hopefully this doesn’t make me too simplistic or uncultured, but I like reality clearly delineated. If an unreliable narrator misleads us for their own ends, or for their own survival, or if they’ve been misled, I’m all in and I have colossal respect for the storytelling (Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Fingersmith, Life of Pi). But if, for example, a TV show or film implies the entire premise has only happened in a character’s mind, as one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tried to do, I’m offended. How dare the whole plot be minimised in this way?

The secondary school where I work just finished an energetic, 6-performance run of The Wizard of Oz. My husband played in the band and I helped a bit with front of house and quick changes. When a production ends, it’s like waking up from a dream. There’s that sudden cessation of energy and the unwinding of a massive, intricate knot as everyone goes their separate ways.

It struck me, watching it again after a long while, that actually the way the story unfolds is just the way a child might imagine it. As a conquering hero, but innocent, with devoted friends and all sorts of magic. It’s not a diminishment of childhood experience, it’s an ode to their imagination, and I was quite moved by it.

Haunted Forests

It also serves as a reminder that even in our heads, even as children, we’re not completely safe. I don’t know any child capable of constructing a fantasy where nothing bad happens. Otherwise, how would we prove our heroism, and our comparative innocence? Dorothy tries to invent a place where there isn’t any trouble, but trouble gets in anyway.

Dreaming in colour

It’s all those anxieties about the future and those fearful spectres from our past creeping up. “Just try to stay out of my way,” they cackle. “Just TRY.”

One of the reasons I’m quite sensitive about stories being dismissed as “all in your head” derives from my experience in a psychiatric ward when I was 12. I was withdrawn and always thinking about stories. The staff wrote in my records that I seemed to be “responding to internal stimuli” and I was put on anti-hallucination medication.

“Are you hearing voices?” the psychiatrist, a toneless woman with an unfortunate resemblance to Jabba the Hutt, asked.

“No.”

“Are the voices telling you to say that?”

“No.”

But the doctors had become too entrenched in their own reality to decipher mine.

Fortunately, the pills didn’t affect my imaginings in the slightest; I could still escape. It shocks me that it never occurred to those medical professionals that a young patient would wish to imagine things outside the immediate reality of strip searches, iron-meshed windows and straitjacketed children screaming for help.

In my opinion, it should have been as obvious as Dorothy dreaming her way from black and white into colour. I suppose it proves how powerful our inner lives are; they can transport us so fully that people watching us have no idea where we’ve gone. I probably looked as if I was responding to internal stimuli when I was three years old counting “thes” and “thens,” and I go round mouthing dialogue to myself sometimes even now. I know what I’ve made up though, and what I haven’t. You can see why I’d find it irksome if someone tried to tell me otherwise.

What takes you over the rainbow? Has it ever gotten you into trouble?

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?

Feast

This Week’s Bit of String: A whole block of cheese

It’s Friday last lesson again, and the English teacher has wisely chosen to engage our bottom-set Year 10s through writing about food. First, they are to describe their dream meal. I scribe for one of our special needs students while he tells me about his family’s cottage pie.

“Do you put a bit of cheese on top?” I prompt.

“Not a bit of cheese—a whole block!”

He tells me how they melt a whole block of cheese, sprinkled with herbs, and then pour it over the mash. When we move into class discussion, I’m urging him, “Tell about the block of cheese! Tell about the block of cheese!”

The teacher gets it. Her eyes widen as she hears about this feat of culinary excellence, and she calls it life-changing. The other kids, often so derisive at age 14/ 15, are chiming in appreciatively and they listen to each other share, their respect generally unwavering whether it’s one girl talking about her Jamaican parents’ curried goat, or the boy who lives on a farm discuss his chickens, or someone else describe her German grandmother’s bratwurst and peppers soup.

Funnily, the previous night I’d helped host a Women Writers Network Twitter Chat on the topic of Women Writing about Food. Lots of creative women joined to talk about food in literature, about how to describe it and what it can signify. You wouldn’t have thought there was anything amiss in the Twitterverse; it was just people coming together for a lively, supportive discussion.

The Room Where It Happens

While food and eating can have strong associations with loss and self-esteem issues, it also brings us together. Many of us are privileged enough to have happy kitchen memories from somewhere, and we’ll go still and listen when someone else recounts theirs. Being from kind of a big family, when I was growing up we were a bit strapped for cash, but we almost always had supper together and meals were noisome and fun.

I wonder what stories unfold at a kitchen table like this… (Seen in a London shop window)

My original writing location was the family kitchen table, although it was just outside the kitchen at the time. My mom had a typewriter set up there for work, and when I was four, I used it to type my first story. We made Valentines and decorated Christmas cookies and Easter eggs all at that table.

Not everyone gets to have that, of course. One boy in our Year 10 class offered up KFC as his dream meal, and didn’t join in with any tales of lovingly home-cooked food. I worry it might have been hard for him listening to what others were able to discuss.

Sometimes, the longing to connect can make us eat irresponsibly. I related hard to Nikesh Shukla’s chapter on food in his memoir Brown Baby. He writes, “Food is home and home is what I yearn for.” As an immigrant now also dealing with an empty nest, I truly get that.

Present in Its Absence

Almost as significant as food itself is the lack of it. Hunger can motivate creativity as much as satiation can—perhaps more. My first published story, in the Bristol Prize Anthology in 2010, was about a Haitian girl whose mother sold mud pies (literally) for a living. It reflects the fact that there are people in the world so disadvantaged, they eat earth.

Eating also makes a great metaphor. In the Retreat West anthology, my story has a girl called April describing how her older sister was a rapacious learner. I’m still very fond of the opening to that one:

“My sister devoured all history, beginning in the summer vacation when she was six. The century soon ending was Tabitha’s starter. She told me barbed wire cut her lip and toxic fumes tainted everything. Some of it was outer-space-cold, some burning-rainforest-hot.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

I’m not sure I’ve written many stories that don’t at least mention food. My latest novel, currently in polishing stages, is about Eve and the creation myth, so it features the forbidden fruit (which I’ve decided was a peach, by the way. Who gives up paradise just for an apple?) and contrasts the bounty of Eden with the strife of exile. In this story, of course, food is the ultimate separator, as that peach causes all kinds of rifts beyond just banishment. But as Adam and Eve’s family grows, mealtimes are when everyone gets together, round the fire circle, and are often where tensions or alliances become more visible.

How does food feature in your writing? I hope the Thanksgiving feast (if you are of that persuasion) brings comfort, joy, inspiration, and maybe even a whole block of cheese.