Writers with Day Jobs, Part 4: What’d I Miss?

This Week’s Bit of String: Vicarious holidays to India

“You have an unusual name,” the customer on the phone says. I was typing notes on his call when he rang back and asked for me again. He explains, “We met someone with your name when we were travelling in India a while ago. Spent long, happy days watching the Ganges flow past and drinking hot chai. Was that you?”

“I’m afraid I’ve never been to India—yet.”

My colleagues nearby look up from their keyboards, distracted by my conversation.

An eye-opening experience. Street art in Derby

“Well, I highly recommend it. And you understand—I had to call back and check. I thought, wouldn’t it be a shame if I missed the chance to find out?”

I absolutely understood, and thanked him for briefly transporting me from the office. Then I got sucked back into doing three full-time jobs at once, then went home to a flurry of housework, and it wasn’t until my family and I had chatted through a whole supper that I remembered this respite.

How many times have I not bothered making a connection, seizing an idea, or picking at a bit of string, because my thoughts are corralled and cornered by job worries?

On My Way to Get to the Bottom of This

There’s not much I can do about my workload while at the office, but I’m learning to take back my life after walking out the heavy, ID-operated doors.

It’s like pausing a speedy hike to study the oxidation layers on an abandoned doorknob.

To this end, I plan to fit reading back into my schedule, and to jot down three random observations daily. Whether it’s a funny name I heard, an interesting fact I read, a street musician I passed, or one of my son’s jokes. (Example: “I hate when people ask me where I see myself in a year’s time. I mean, I don’t have 2020 vision.”)

Don’t think me a complete slacker for not doing these things before. I finished writing a novel recently, and I’m still funnelling every spare moment into editing. I stopped reading while consumed by my own plot. That’s totally allowed.

For the last month or two, I was obsessed with my characters. In that advanced project stage, you’re trapped in a whirlpool, suffocating under the current, and the only way to relieve the pressure is through a tiny trickle—word by word. But you can only switch the outlet on when you’re not in the office, when your family doesn’t need you, when the meals are cooked and served and cleaned up, and the laundry’s done.

I did what I set out to do, sharpening my focus and finishing The Gospel of Eve’s first draft. I wrote over 80,000 words in just 2 months. But it’s probably safe to broaden my mental reach again.

Engaged in a Battle for Our Very Soul

The unexpected call-back at work came just a couple days after I spent time an early Sunday morning reading cultural articles instead of catching up on political news or launching right into edits or filling out office forms.

I read the original Esquire article on Mr. Rogers from 1998, and an NPR article about 100-year-old Arabian Nights illustrations by Danish artist Kay Nielson. Both were a treat.

Letting the sun set on the office week: My Friday Five Miler along Stroudwater Canal

It’s hard to write when you’re fretting about customers and deadlines. However, it’s also hard to distract me from my characters. And work did that, every day in the midst of penning the climax. I’d walk to work plotting battle scenes or plagues or births—and once I got to my desk, the bombardment of emails, phone calls, initiatives from supervisors and questions from junior colleagues helped me forget Eve and her descendants.

After a while I forgot it works the other way around too. If I pick up a chapter and start editing, I can disappear into Eden and its aftermath. For tougher chapters needing more work, I can ease myself in by reading someone else’s—a short story in an online magazine, or an article from BrainPickings, LitHub or Artpublika.

How do you stay creative while buried under spreadsheets? Shall we hold each other to the standard of taking in one piece of art/ literature per day, and noting down three new observations? I’ll be back at the end of the week to report. Comment here, send me a Tweet, or comment on Facebook with any suggestions and if you need any encouragement!

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.

2018 Reading Round-Up

I didn’t read nearly as many books as last year. It just slipped out of my routine. Don’t worry—I’m working on it. But I did read a broader variety of reading materials. A lot more nonfiction than previously, several classic short story volumes, and even some wondrous poetry. So, buckle up for a more diverse list as I reveal my top reads of 2018.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
I love a time- and continent-spanning epic. This covered over 500 years, and even better, traced it via a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, as an artefact. Apparently there’s a science of studying the physical properties of old books; learning about a time period by analysing the binding and ink and paper. This fascinates me, and of course the histories of the people—Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike—outlined in the story did as well.

“‘You sat in your nice little flat all through our war and watched us, bleeding all over the TV news. And you thought, “How awful!” and then you got up and made yourself another cup of gourmet coffee.’ I flinched when he said that. It was a pretty accurate description.”

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
A really useful little volume which gives a history of activism and includes the victories almost imperceptible at the time, which then influence greater movements. It’s a call to action in a time of environmental crisis and stifling capitalism, but it’s also an encouragement, a reminder that things take time and small steps are worth celebrating.

“Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.”

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
The perfect treadmill book: fast-paced, with witty insight into the workings of the media, other cultures, and how they perceive Americans. A Japanese-American is hired to make a series for Japanese TV about American family recipes, and each chapter explores a different family while secretly the documentarian investigates what these meats are actually doing to consumers.

“‘Stocking up’ is what our robust Americans called it, laughing nervously, because profligate abundance automatically evokes its opposite, the unspoken specter of dearth.”

Heart Songs and Other Stories by Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx is one of the most talented wordsmiths of the late 20th-early 21st century. Her characters are often spare in their divulgences, but she ensures we know them well. And she delivers us right to the setting of each tale. Lucky for me, a few of these were set in New England, so reading them was like going home.

“Santee longed for the cold weather and unclouded days that lay somewhere ahead, for the sharp chill of spruce shadow, icy rime thickening over twigs and a hard autumnal sky cut by the parabolic flights of birds the same way pond ice was cut by skaters.” From “The Unclouded Day”

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Another multi-generational epic. This one is about slavery and colonialism, and its effects both on those left behind in Africa, and those taken to America. It’s an important reminder that the atrocities lasted a terribly long time, and therefore their effects do too. I hope this story, even if imagined, helps restore the history severed by our old practices.

“Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
This tells Tara’s journey from a fundamentalist “prepper” family so anti-establishment she never entered a classroom until she managed to get to university. She now holds a PhD from Cambridge. Important takeaways some might overlook: She faithfully shows her estranged family’s positive attributes as hard workers loving as best they knew how, and also she provides an essential outsider perspective on higher education. While it benefited her, she also describes universities as cult-like because of the heavy expectation all students will react the same way to what they are told.

“No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue guilt, because it is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.”

Cathedral by Raymond Carver
After reading this volume of short stories, I agree he’s one of the greats. More unadorned than Annie Proulx, he chooses his moments well and narrates a character’s actions in detail if not their thoughts or settings. This to me makes it very immediate, while giving a sense that the characters are barely hanging on, just going through the motions. Perhaps this is clearest in the story “A Small, Good Thing:”

“They both stared out at the parking lot. They didn’t say anything. But they seemed to feel each other’s insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent.”

Paper Aeroplane: Poems 1989-2014 by Simon Armitage
So much in this collection: reflections on the meaning of art, poems about everyday life, about relationships, current events, nature—even translations of historic poems. I loved the later nature ones such as “Rain” and “Beck,” I loved the piece poignantly reimagining the Columbine massacre with the shooters randomly passing out flowers instead of bullets, I loved the recent “Poundland” which evokes the shop with brilliantly observed detail but couches it all in terms of epic-style narration that makes me laugh out loud. Hard to choose a single quote here, but I’m going with this one from Armitage’s earlier poem “The Civilians” because it shows his ability to set the scene with unexpected but vivid imagery:

“The golden evenings spread like ointment through the open valleys,
Buttered one side of our spotless washing.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
It’s different. It’s possibly not for everybody. But I’ve enjoyed multi-POV narratives told somewhat experimentally before (Cloud Atlas, for example), and just thinking about this one makes me want to dive back in. I loved Saunders’ detailed imagining of the afterlife, his intense portrayal of grief and its requisite predecessor love, the interlacing of genuine historical testimony, and every voice clamouring to be heard.

“Perhaps this is faith, I thought: to believe our God ever receptive to the smallest good intention.”

If you’ve already explored any of these reads, what did you think of them? Do you have any related recommendations?

Managing the Voices, Part 1: Selection

This Week’s Bit of String: A Fatal Accident

At my smallish rural high school, tragedy was not uncommon. We all knew what it meant when first period was extended and extra staff stood at attention near the doors. In 11th grade the prepared statement informed us a Finnish exchange student I’d befriended had died in a car crash that morning.

Eventually released from the classroom, I held back my own tears thinking about Milja’s parents, thousands of miles away, receiving a phone call from someone who didn’t even speak their language to tell them…

And the students who’d been in the car with her, how on earth would they cope with this trauma?

I heard one boy complain to his friends, ‘I don’t care if some girl died; don’t take part of my break for it.’

So many people are affected by a tragedy. Milja’s memorial service was packed, and given her shyness, I suspected many mourners hadn’t known her well. At the time I may have resented that a bit; how dare they trespass upon our more legitimate grief? But I do understand we can be touched by lives we didn’t fully participate in, especially when we’re young.

It seems sometimes there’s a race to the bottom as everyone claims to be a victim. We’re told by the President of the United States that this is a scary time for young men and that ‘women are doing fine.’ As writers we often take it on ourselves to portray those who suffer most. Is it a good idea now and then to get into the heads of those who suffer less? How do we determine who’s the real victim in a situation, who is the most voiceless?

Who’s Hurting

During the National Association of Writers Groups conference, I went to science fiction writer Ken MacLeod‘s talk, attracted by the workshop’s title: ‘Who’s Hurting? How to Choose Your Protagonist.’ He set exercises imagining a change in the world, and examining who would most be hurt by it.

Early morning web on a reddened bush
So many strands to follow…

I imagined a complete shutdown of immigration in the UK, and sketched out a variety of people. A British woman forcibly estranged from her Nigerian fiancé, an Iranian student worrying about his family, a British pensioner unable to fulfill her dream of emigrating to Australia and now stuck on a small rainy island which inexplicably continues to have traffic jams and strapped public services despite ridding itself of those pesky foreigners. It’s fun to put someone like that in, to mirror our most self-centred instincts.

I assigned the exercise to my writing group last week as well, providing newspapers so they could base scenarios on current events. I was treated to a great variety of snippets: about AI parole officers, neighbourhood sinkholes, post-Brexit deep sea fishing practices, and more.

Portraying Victims

Once we’ve seized a plot idea and mapped out its effects on potential characters, we need to reflect on how to convey those voices. Amid heightened awareness regarding appropriation, sometimes respectful distance is required. Considering different characters doesn’t mean we can or should pose as them.

At the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was struck by Japanese author Masatsugu Ono’s honesty about his novel Lion Cross Point, which concerns a little boy relocating after terrible trauma. When asked how he chose the point of view for his novel, he said he initially wanted to tell the mother’s story, but struggled to grasp her psychology. ‘Of course,’ he noted, ‘I am man.’

So he switched to her young son’s point of view, because ‘he had the most suffering.’ But then he shied away a bit. Ono felt that since he hadn’t been through what his child protagonist had, ‘it wouldn’t be fair to the boy’ to appropriate his voice. Instead, he gave himself some distance and allowed some doubt about the events.Main arch into the Cheltenham Literature Festival site at Montpellier Gardens

His rule for himself when dealing with the sensitive subject of abuse recovery was, ‘Never say definitely what happened, but perhaps.’

While I’m not a fan of intentional withholding in storytelling, his approach as recounted in the Festival’s cosy Nook venue made sense. As writers we want to ensure the most aching underbelly of events is exposed. But we need to do so without presumption. There’s so much we can’t know, and maybe we shouldn’t pretend we do.

Portraying Non-Victims

Mr. Ono’s talk made me think about how larger events are portrayed through literature. Take the Holocaust, for example. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about Europe in that era that doesn’t have a central Jewish character. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay links a privileged late twentieth century woman to a terrorised Jewish child under the Vichy puppet government. In Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, an American woman sets out to investigate the experiences of German bystanders like her mum—until (spoiler alert) she finds out that actually, her mother had her with a Jewish man who was then killed in the nearby concentration camp. So in fact she and her mother were perilously close to being condemned themselves.

Conserving Holocaust remembrances is vital, and we must keep working tales of the persecuted into our stories. But how many of us are really going to be victimised in that way? As culture wars and partisanship reach a feverish pitch, there’s a lot to watch out for: stealth legislation against immigrants, income inequality, climate change. Many of us, though, will remain free to post thoughtful Facebook statuses and campaign for paper straws and march for Planned Parenthood and then just get on with our lives.

So I wonder if we need a few stories about the ‘lucky’ ones. What’s the best way to help when other people’s worlds crumble? We see stories of infiltrating corruption from the top, or starting revolutions from the bottom. How do we sacrifice the comfort of the middle (admit it, there are comforts…) and join the battle?

When it comes down to it, tragedies affect us in various ways. If not directly then they remind us to care, like the people who turned up at Milja’s funeral. Or they force our indifference like the boy complaining about the minutes shaved off of breaktime. In choosing our characters, let’s remember that drawing attention to issues through our writing doesn’t allow us to be victims ourselves. It doesn’t replace taking other courses of action to help. Where do you find yourself in the race to the bottom?

Next time, Managing the Voices, Part 2: Collection. We’ll look at the ethics, or lack thereof, behind gathering material for our characters, and we’ll find out what happened to the boy who claimed not to care about Milja’s fate.

Plot Twist!

This Week’s Bit of String: Totally random, last-minute allegations

The latest U.S. Supreme Court nominee looked fresh out of central casting, just how the Republican President likes them. A prep school-educated soccer dad, a longtime federal judge who’d prosecuted Clinton and defended George W. Bush, Brett Kavanaugh would surely win confirmation by the required slim majority in a Congress dominated by his own party.

Suddenly, an opposing senator produced a woman who said bad things about the soccer dad! Total plot twist—who could have seen that coming?

Except, of course, that spontaneous plot twists rarely happen in real life. There are tremors before a facade breaks. The judge’s confirmation process in the Senate had already been contentious, with Republicans rushing procedures, and evidence Kavanaugh lied under oath about receiving documents stolen from Democrats during the Bush administration.

In the meantime, before the full allegations were public, Kavanaugh attempted to shore up character witnesses among former classmates.

Before that, when Kavanaugh’s name merely featured on the Republican shortlist of Supreme Court justice contenders, research psychologist Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford tried to get word to the Capitol via her own Congresswoman. Six years earlier, Dr. Blasey-Ford had confided to her husband and to a therapist that Kavanaugh had assaulted her as a teen.

This is the far-reaching timeline on the individual level, saying nothing of the conflict’s political roots. There was bitterness over President Obama’s nominee being blocked from even getting a hearing, but I suspect Supreme Court positions slid into partisanship long before that.

We’re sometimes told to put twists in our stories, a formula foisted particularly on short stories. But I’m dubious, not just because my own ideas tend to unfurl rather than wrench. Some twists are either overused or dropped in with insufficient forethought.

Twist vs. Mystery

A narrowing forest trail under beech trees
Twists ahead?

Any good story should move a reader. It might shake us up, or pry us open to new viewpoints, or rob our breath as we pursue the outcome. If a concept is fresh, I’m not sure it needs a twist, because there’s no danger of guessing the ending. And if the characters are engrossing, we’ll be biting our nails to see if they’re okay.

Twists have a long literary history, but there’s always a prevailing trend. For the ancient Greeks, the plot twist tended to be a deity (or in Iocaste’s unfortunate case, a son) in disguise. Shakespeare carried this on with his mistaken identity plot twists and fatal presumptions, and Dickens evolved this further by ensuring many characters turned out to somehow be related, often to someone with a fortune. In our current age of psychological awareness, many twists pertain to troubled pasts. Crime dramas usually have an insider working for the villain, reflecting increased distrust toward institutions.

Given these trends, twists can be predictable. But they don’t have to be wedged in just before a story’s conclusion. While at the National Association of Writers Groups conference a month ago, I attended a workshop on plotting and utilising twists. It was given by Simon Hall, a former BBC journalist and current writer of The TV Detective series.

Mr. Hall reminded us that suspense is of paramount importance and that twists can come in the form of unreliable narrators, or confounded conventions. Pace can be maintained by rows or chases. His advice for creating drama: “Corner your character like a feral animal.”

Trails crossing and winding around the Malvern Hills
Many paths, many options

I like the idea that a twist can simply defy expectations, particularly as my current project is a novel from Eve’s point of view. There’s a wealth of supposed knowledge to subvert. But I also think about the books I’ve read and loved. The ones that engross me do so because of the characters.

For example, I loved Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. The midway point-of-view change was the most shocking twist I’ve ever read, but she gave herself time to justify the complete reversal. I then read her latest book, The Paying Guests. It had no point-of-view switch, no misdirection, no big shocker. But I was completely hooked, terrified things wouldn’t turn out all right for the heroines.

Casting a Foreshadowing

I asked the Twittersphere how important twists are in non-genre fiction. Scifi/ fantasy writer Wilfred said, “I’m not a huge fan of twists that seem to come out of nowhere and only demonstrate the writer’s determination to stay one step ahead. I do love a twist that would still surprise me yet at the same time remind me of a previous chapter.”

Author and Road to Publishing blogger I.M. Moore agrees that “if a twist is way too obvious or comes completely out of left field without any evidence to back it up, I get a bit annoyed.”

Poet Anne Sheppard, whom I’m privileged to know off-Twitter as we’re in the same Writers’ Group, distinguishes between plot twists and suspense: “Not too keen on plot twists but I do like to be surprised.”

Author and micropoet Ellen Grace offered this reminder: “You are the conduit for the story. If the story has a twist in it, then it has a twist in it. But it’s never a good idea to shoehorn one in just because you think there should be one.”

And freelance writer Libbie Kay Toler echoes, “It’s your path to explore.”

Some paths are twistier than others. There’s a certain deliciousness in occasionally bucking the trend and letting a villain be a villain, without or despite a tortured past (like Voldemort, and maybe like some on the opposing side wanted Brett Kavanaugh to be).

We know how some stories will go—but we devour them, anxious to see how rather than what. Take Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, books with narrators reflecting over an incident. I’m more inclined to revisit a book like this than something with a more dramatic twist. After all, if a shocker is my prevalent memory of a book, I can never recapture that surprise. But when anticipation builds, I want to go back and savour those clues.

TV writing provides further examples. I’ve been re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (it’s an antidote for how Dr. Blasey Ford and other assault victims are being spoken to, and laughed at, in certain circles of power.)

Network of roots from an upturned tree
Roots in all directions

I love mining the show’s seams of foreshadowing. Near the beginning of Season 2, Buffy first fights with Spike. “I’ll make it quick. It won’t hurt a bit,” he sneers, and she counters, “No Spike, it’s going to hurt a lot.” No truer words ever spoken by characters destined to fall in love.

Part of my editing process is ensuring the seeds are planted. To lightly play up encounters that will later be significant, to ensure that a particular aspect of a setting is briefly noted ahead of time. John Irving’s books keep up the pace with seemingly random, entertaining incidents, but they all turn out to be pivotal plot points, as with “the Stunt” and the dressmaker’s dummy and the armadillo in A Prayer for Owen Meany. With him, the excitement is as much in finding how it fits together as finding out what happens.

In real life, twists tend to double back on themselves. Those who speak up can be brushed aside. It’s no surprise that the Republican party didn’t properly examine their authoritarian president’s Supreme Court nominee. Every dramatic twist these days gets bulldozed over rather than ironed out, and seems to make no difference. (Remember Omarosa’s tapes? Paul Manafort’s plea deal? All consigned to the red herring barrel.)

If there’s going to be a new ending, the clues are small and in the background. And maybe we haven’t spotted it because we aren’t following the right characters.

If You Like It Be Prepared to Find a Price on It

This Week’s Bit of String: Campus costs

Confession time: I finished my university degree illegally. In my state, people receiving benefits weren’t allowed to pursue the extra financial burden of higher education (sometimes ‘Live free or die’ translates to ‘Live free and let others fall by the wayside.’) I was a single mother employed in per diem work, so I depended on state medical insurance and also some childcare reimbursement.

But while doing as much work as I could find, I completed my studies in the evenings. I relished the variety of lessons at the local community college and appreciated the more mature student population, often keener on their studies than my cohorts at the university I’d attended before I was pregnant.

Even that community college cost thousands of dollars per semester. I read and wrote so much, I’m sure it improved my work. But the expenditure, the hectic schedule in my son’s first months, not to mention the risk of incurring New Hampshire’s wrath… Could I have learned those things through independent study, through the myriad of recently sprouted online support networks and through regimented practice? Did my degree increase my job prospects or pay grade?

Shopping Around

Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick
Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick

My son is starting A-Levels, the course of study in the UK for 16-18-year-olds. We’ve been doing research to ensure his subjects will be acceptable to whatever university he attends after. Maths and Philosophy degrees, Education and Psychology, a year abroad in Scandinavia…it reminds me how exciting it is to get sucked into the heart of a subject.

My reminiscences were enabled by a trip to the University of Warwick campus for the National Association of Writers Groups’ annual festival. En-suite bathrooms! Fountains and grassy rooftops! A Krispy Kreme counter in the campus grocery store! Exercise bikes and treadmills equipped with screens so you can Mahjongg while you run!

It’s a big deal here how much universities cost, but at £9000 per year it’s far less than American ones charge. And I’m hesitant to condemn the charge. I want my kid’s professors to earn a good wage, and I don’t expect the rather strapped government to fully subsidise this.

Tuition & Fees

Likewise, I want the speakers at NAWG Fest to be paid well. Writers’ pay at festivals is an issue of longstanding complexity. Quite a few attendees expressed concerns about the cost, and I sympathise, as there were a lot of pensioners among our gathering. But we must also consider that in addition to workshops and networking opportunities, our fees covered ample meals and reasonably comfortable accommodation, plus use of campus facilities.

Gardens and fountains at University of Warwick
University of Warwick campus

What price can we put on jumpstarting our creativity? I spent £180 for a night’s stay, four meals and two workshops. I managed to squeeze in a gym session before the gala dinner, and I skipped the Annual General Meeting to take advantage of the swimming pool. A double bed and a bathroom of my own—invaluable to any wife and mum.

The workshop instructors had lengthy experience yet were genuinely interested in our work and ideas. The whole conference, I think, is designed especially for people newly exploring the craft of writing. I recommend it to those starting out because there’s no snobbery, and plenty of accessibility and warmth.

As someone who’s not starting out or dabbling, the concepts introduced in workshops on characterisation and plotting were somewhat familiar. However, I can always do with certain reminders, of how to raise the stakes in my plot and how to probe a story’s What Ifs to find who’s really at its heart.

My writing life consists mainly of dragging myself through alone, in snatched moments often on a bus full of miserable, drunk, and/ or manic people. I get lost in what I’m writing (thank goodness) but as others can probably attest, we cling to our ideas especially when they’re few and far between in our crowded lives. It’s hard to put a price on having someone march in and say, “Oh but remember to consider this…”

Being in the company of other writers is perhaps the most precious thing. I love listening to people who come every year talk about their work, and people who’ve just taken up writing talk about what it means to them.

Selfie after the NAWG Fest gala dinner
Satisfied NAWG Fest attendee.

And it never, never gets old when someone takes an interest in my work. At the gala dinner and awards ceremony, I was assigned to a table with one of my tutors from earlier, and various writers, novice and veteran, from different parts of the country. They were all cheering my shortlisted story and me on, ensuring that even without the first prize trophy, I left feeling satisfied and invigorated (the chocolate cake may well have helped).

Maybe this could have been achieved by other, cheaper means. But as with attending university, the extra money could be worth it because we need the corralling, cajoling, and challenging that comes with a comprehensive experience rather than the usual bits and pieces we use to sustain our artistic existences. And we should expect those benefits not to be free when they come with the help of others or the use of their institutions.

What kinds of writing experiences have you paid for? What constitutes value for money, and what kinds of free activities help give you a boost?

Making Hay

This Week’s Bit of String: Do the books make the town or does the town make the books?

Murder and Mayhem bookshop, with a hound painted on the front.
Check out this crime story bookshop!

The bus wound past hills dripping buttercups into golden meadow pools at their feet, and past chomping sheep, unabashedly sheeplike and not the least bit sheepish. I disembarked beneath the castle ruins in Hay-on-Wye. As I made my way through busy, merry little streets, I saw at least one bookshop on each.

I camped on the other side of the Wye, about a mile from the festival site, so for each event I crossed through town. Guitar players lounged outside cafes and pubs, the queue for the sheep’s milk ice cream parlour outlined the market square,

Stand offering notebooks with covers salvaged from old hardbacks and record albums.
Rebound Books. I’d take them all!

and a man with his inebriated accomplice tried to sell anti-religion t-shirts to a polite elderly couple. The local Big Issue seller wore a scuba diving suit in the rain, and sheep-shagging costume in the hot sun.

Houses on the Brecon Road to the festival got in on the game, hiring vending trucks or just selling packages of biscuits and copies of the Guardian. One stand offered wonderful notebooks made from vintage hardcovers. A church set up a facepainting marquee and chatted to visitors about their stories, sending them off with free books about faith. Another stand offered poems and prints thereof for sale.

Flowers in one of the festival courtyards
At the festival

The festival itself was a network of baize walkways and shining white marquees around courtyards of sun loungers and fairy lights.

With all this scenery to take in, I barely wrote a word during my weekend away. It’s tricky to balance time spent absorbing writing material while actually striving to write it down…or is that just me?

Books for Activists, Activists for Books

The first talk I attended was about finance. Partly to challenge myself, but mostly because Marcus Brigstocke co-hosted it. His frank, laid-back humour was evident as he interviewed a professor on the financial industry. David Pitt-Watson reminded us the financial sector uses our money, and we should make our wishes known to it. He suggests write to pension funds and other companies we may be invested in, to insist our money is in ethical causes, such as green energy.

The Poetry Bookshop
I bought The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah here from his former agent who knows him well.

Late that evening I came to Benjamin Zephaniah’s talk about his new autobiography. He exuded utter delight, dreadlocks swishing as he gifted us his rhymes. He says he created many of his poems out of anger, at racism and poverty. But he didn’t seem angry in the slightest. Maybe just for that night, because he was there at Hay with an enormous, rightly appreciative audience. Or maybe creating those poems helped dispel the anger somewhat while still adding fuel to his activism.

Hearing Voices

After a stormy night, I hiked various paths between England and Wales, coming to shelter from the downpour under a town centre marquee where a group of men sang sea shanties. Back at the festival in the afternoon, I got the most delicious smoothie of my life and attended an Ian McEwan interview. On getting story ideas, Mr. McEwan says, ‘I’ll hear an inner voice, and like the cadence of it, and want to find out who’s speaking.’

Dresses and flowers made of book pages and sheet music
A charity shop reflects the bookish theme with its page art.

I wonder if he ever finds the voices are giving a brief diatribe or vignette rather than a full story. That happens to me sometimes. Do I need to be more intrepid in tracking them?

Still, the incredibly successful novelist’s passion for finding out about characters was reflected, somewhat askew, in Jim Broadbent’s interview later. Intriguingly, the actor devised a plot for a graphic novel called Dull Margaret, based on a painting by Bruegel the Elder. This was recently brought to life by Dix, an illustrator for the Guardian. I was struck by Mr. Broadbent’s relaxed approach to story-writing, paraphrased here:

Big screen surrounded by cutouts of leaves and plants in an event marquee.
One of the busy festival venues

Audience member: So is the need for love, is that the message of the book?
Jim Broadbent: Message? Yes, I suppose it might be. It’s just the story, you know.
Another Audience member: Graphic novels are popular with young adults. Are they your target audience, or who is the ideal reader you had in mind?
Jim Broadbent: (Smiling) Well, me. I was ready to read it.

He was obviously very taken with his character, a mistreated woman who tries to get her own back. If only that passion for character were enough to get the rest of us published. Or are we just not quite sufficiently mad about ours?

Defining Poets

I went to Simon Armitage’s lecture on Bob Dylan’s Nobel for ‘creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ He assessed Dylan’s lyrics as less-than-spectacular poetry. But perhaps, he suggested,

Brick house on the Wye River
Would I get more writing done in this house, or would the river lure me constantly away?

Dylan’s ability to reinvent himself, his individual language and spontaneity, were a liberating influence. ‘The problem with sticking it to the man,’ Armitage remarked, ‘is that the more successful you become at it, the more you are the man.’

For the final evening in Hay I listened to a reading of WWI poet Wilfred Owen’s letters and work, stunningly presented by festival founder Peter Florence. I had no idea how raw and ahead-of-his time these were. And Owen underwent such a transformation. Initially he wrote to his mother that he didn’t wish to go to war, that he could serve the country better alive than dead, thanks to the spring of verse welling within. In the end he insisted he return to the front even after a head injury because the war made him a true poet.

Grand facade of the Richard Booth bookshop
Books from around the world! I bought a maths one to bring home to my son, about ancient counting systems and the concept of infinity.

It’s sad in a way, that he was right, that he is known as a ‘War Poet.’ But it was an incredibly important role. It makes me wonder what makes us artists. Is it our art’s substance (which largely is foisted upon us; the residue of past experience or that ‘inner voice’ appearing from nowhere) or the form we work to give it?

Look at Hay, though. A beautiful, hill-guarded town with lots of old streets intact and the Wye alongside it—yet it’s reinvented itself as a book and festival town, and that’s what brings most of us there. I seriously recommend it.

Joys of a ‘Little’ Festival

This Week’s Bit of String: Voices from the back of the bus

When I’m late for the more pleasant 65 bus home from work, I have to take the 61. Along with having a less scenic route, the 61 tends to attract drunk men. It’s a popular mode of transport with students as well, which doesn’t bother me—but seems to offend the aforementioned drunk men.

One evening on the 61, I read my book while the young adults from the special needs college laughed loudly and exchanged jibes in the back. Suddenly the man in front of me, so drenched in spirits he smelled medicinal, started shouting at them.

‘Shut your mouths! Didn’t your mums teach you to keep quiet on buses?’

I can’t imagine what he expected quiet for; it was five in the afternoon, not exactly bedtime, and he didn’t appear to be revising for a PhD or anything. The kids were subdued and rather frightened by his tirade, and I guess I was too, because I couldn’t bring myself to say anything in their defence. No one else did either.

Fast forward a month, add the resurgence of an old middle-of-the-night idea, and my turbulent brain managed to toss ashore a short story about a similar bus incident, this time witnessed by a retired woman who then recruits her friends to counteract such unmannerly behaviour using surprising and rather humorous methods.

The nice thing about being a writer is that even though we have shy and retiring moments, our voices surface later. And sometimes, eventually, they even get heard. I had fortunately been invited by John Holland, curator of Stroud Short Stories, to participate in a short story panel at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on the 21st of April. It would be the perfect opportunity to remedy (if in a delayed and fictional sense) my shameful silence on the 61.

Giving Voice

Chalk directions into the schoolhouse for the Festival.
I loved the chalk signs welcoming us to the Festival.

Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival—known as HULitFest—is remarkable for recognising voices which other Festivals brush over. For example, last year its founder, Debbie Young, hosted a super-relevant talk on writing about disability and illness, by people with firsthand experience. I blogged about it here.

This year, I attended more panels, populated by independent and self-published authors who might be ignored at larger events. One was ‘Writing Your Passion,’ made up of six writers on subject matter unyielding to broader market demands. Yet their devotion to their work and the originality of their concepts had me pretty convinced.

Peter Lay cowrote a book on life lessons and philosophy, with a Chinese friend. The beautiful book they created is printed with English and Chinese on each page. Bill Fairney has written several volumes on his varied but very specific interests. One example is his fabulously titled Fifty Shades of Yarg, the story of the Cornish cheese (written as Will Fenn). Lynne Pardoe’s books are based on her unique experiences as a social worker. She was determined to show the happy endings she got to see as well as the hard realities. Jann Tracy wrote a painstakingly researched biography of Marie Corelli, a bestselling 19th century novelist who was pivotal in preserving Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon—but is largely forgotten now.

Books purchased from Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.
Haul from HULitFest–so far! More to be purchased in time. Love the bags they give out, too.

The final member of this panel, Jacci Gooding, writes primarily horror stories, which isn’t usually my genre, but she spoke with such fantastic wit that I became an instant fan. She observed, ‘People are weird. We like weird. Takes us out of our day jobs.’

For me, these quirky stories make HULitFest special. There’s no charge for the talks or readings; they want you to buy the authors’ books instead. Not many festivals or bookshops offer stories about cheese, about forgotten female figures, or from authors like Gooding who describes inspiration for one of her scary book covers thus: ‘I was looking at my hen, and I thought, “If I lay down in front of her, she’d eat me.”’

Really, other booksellers should give all these a go. What’s not to like?

Showcasing the Whole Writer

Another unique strength of HULitFest is its art exhibit. Most of the pieces displayed in the town’s Methodist Church as part of the Festival were drawn, stitched, photographed or otherwise created by the very authors featured in the talks and selling their books in the school gymnasium.

Stained glass window in a wedge of ceiling
Window in the Methodist Church, where the Art Exhibit is held.

In addition to showcasing formidable talents, the art exhibit gives festival goers additional insight to the writing mind. What inspires, calms, or haunts the authors, conveyed here in different form. Ellie Stevenson, another writer on the short story panel, displayed gorgeous photographs. Not surprising, perhaps, that the author of such original tales as ‘Watching Charlotte Bronte Die’ has a great eye for snapshots. But it is an aspect we don’t always get to see about writers.

Finally, the smaller (but popular and growing!) size of HULitFest allows festivalgoers to mingle with the authors; while we buy their books, picnic together, wander the town. If you have timid moments as I sometimes do, it’s quite motivating to experience this accessibility. And I did enjoy airing my tale that originated on the 61 bus, and seeing the audience enjoy the imaginary outcome. Maybe next time I’ll have more confidence to make that fiction real.

Do you use stories to make up for lost chances or stifled moments? What events have you encountered that help bring out unheard voices?

Short Stuff

This Week’s Bit of String: Though she be little…

When I was a teaching assistant, most of my students were taller than I was. During my first year, I supported a particularly boisterous Year 9 class, and as I was trying to settle them one day, a very tall boy who later got expelled for bringing brass knuckles to school loomed over me with a grin. ‘Miss, you’re small.’

‘Yes—but mighty. Sit down!’ And would you believe it, he did. For a little while.

Statue of a 'Muse' from Roman times.
Also at the Louvre: Roman statue of a Muse. Finally found her!

Any fans of art and literature will know decreased size doesn’t detract from power. At the Louvre, I was struck by how small the Mona Lisa was—seemingly no bigger than a standard A4 sheet of paper. Meanwhile, on the opposite wall hung a massive depiction of the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle. Which does everyone remember? By creating a small portrait, Da Vinci drew focus to just one figure, and the nuances of her expression. With large-scale pictures of entire scenes, it’s hard for viewers to settle their attention.

Beginning, Middle, and End

So it can be with short stories versus novels. I’ve written previously about the implications of each literary form, but I’ve been doing more short story research lately. I covered Raymond Carver and Alice Munro, since they’re seen as greats in the genre, and I read a volume by Annie Proulx, because I loved The Shipping News. As someone always seeking story ideas (knowing that many of those ideas will turn only into notes, snapshots, or vignettes rather than actual stories), I enjoyed studying these works and wondering, What was the starting point for this story? How did the writer make it work?

Certainly the hardest thing for me in turning an idea into a story is ensuring development; pinpointing a beginning, middle, and end. The short story is more flexible than the novel. Equal attention need not be paid to beginning, middle, and end—one or more can merely be implied. Munro likes starting stories with a little anecdote that happens later, or with someone looking back to a seemingly random detail. And a few of Carver’s and Proulx’s stories left the endings ambiguous.

Mountainside view of the Swift Diamond River, bordered by pines, in New Hampshire
Ah, the mountains, rivers, and woods of home…

My favourites were a couple of Carver’s stories, “Cathedral” and “A Small Good Thing,” both stories that realistically but surprisingly diffused tension between very different characters with warmth. I also loved Annie Proulx’s “The Unclouded Day,” not just for its great title and the description of my native New England wild places. There was its completeness, and humour with just enough insight into the protagonist to sense good intentions. Again, there was warmth in this story.

That’s my personal taste: a story can narrate a bleak event (for example, the death of a child, as in “A Small Good Thing”), so long as there’s an element of kindness between at least a couple of the characters. And yes, I do like a decent arc, no matter how short: you don’t have to give me the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I’d jolly well like an idea of where the colours lead.

Short Story Round-Up

On Twitter, I asked about other writers’ favourite short stories, and their own criteria for a great one. Stephen Tuffin, who recently judged and hosted a fabulous new event, The Squat Pen Rests championship in short fiction, provided a thorough endorsement of Truman Capote. I have to agree; his “A Christmas Memory” is my absolute favourite in the festive season.

Stephen also tweeted about what makes a great story: ‘A great short has to leave me with an afterglow. As if I’ve been gifted something meaningful and relevant. Great shorts need more reader input but the effort is rewarding and leaves me feeling I’ve been shown another world, different but the same as my own.’

The short story volumes on my bookshelves
Shelfie from my short stories section

Fantasy author Grace Crandall recommends Ray Bradbury’s stories. I had actually read “The Foghorn” just the other week, when a friend at a discussion group provided it as an example of a great, atmospheric tale. Grace says, ‘‘‘The Rocket” and “The Beggar of O’Connell Bridge” are two of my favorites of his. I think a big key to short stories is having a conclusive emotional arc, and he’s such an expert at delving into human nature and feelings.’

Science fiction writer Madd_Fictional, curator of celebrated writing hashtag #SlapDashSat, recommends Harlan Ellison: ‘Nothing like a good speculative fiction short story that presents a left-of-center theme, laced with poignant social commentary that usually features protagonists who are morally ambiguous.’ Sounds good to me!

Finally, Laurie Garrison of the invaluable Women Writers School pointed me toward Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” because it portrays ‘a whirlwind of emotion in just a few hundred words. And there’s such brilliant irony to it.’ It’s another perfect little complete tale.

What are your favourite short stories, and have you encountered any particular challenges in reading or writing them?

Animals are Characters, Too

This Week’s Bit of String: Crying over cats

‘Miss?’ the Year Eleven boy asked me, tossing his carefully sleeked hair without looking up from the doodled serpents invading his Science BTEC exercise book. ‘Do you ever start randomly crying while you’re petting your cat, because you wish so much they could talk to you?’

I don’t think it’s ever brought me to tears, even when I was sixteen myself, but I definitely used to look in pet cats’ eyes and sense much present in them that we, their humans, missed.

The boy’s question brought to mind a passage from Muriel Barberry’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Renee refers to her ‘appreciation’ for her tenants’ cocker spaniel as: ‘that state of grace attained when one’s feelings are immediately accessible another creatures.’

Guinea pig terminally dissatisfied by food dish.
‘Here goes nothing.’

We now have only guinea pigs as pets, but their feelings are pretty darn accessible. They’re an important if timid part of our family, an affectionate interest uniting us as our son gets older. And if anyone doubts that animals are sentient, I defy them to look at a guinea pig, any guinea pig, and not be struck by the chronic consternation on their faces. It’s as if they’re constantly in dire need of food but always expecting to be disappointed.

Since animals cause us to reflect on what makes us alive, what makes us sentient (to use a rather unattractive, clinical-sounding word), and they bring us joy and unity—isn’t it right they should feature in literature?

Animal Voices

It’s easy to find animals in the fantasy genre. The dragons of Pern, the owls and thestrals of Hogwarts, the daemons of Lyra’s Oxford, the Noisy animals of New World in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series (oh, Manchee!)

So too they should be present in mainstream literature, sincewhen we write we attempt to reflect and learn from real life. Certainly animals have served as set pieces and symbols in literature since Homer told of Circe’s pigs and Polyphemus’ sheep. But in using them only as such, do we devalue their contributions to our lives?

Pictures in Warner Bros Leavesden studios paying tribute to animal actors in the Harry Potter series
Unsung heroes of the Harry Potter films.

There’s the pigeon offering occasional commentary in Pigeon English, and the freed parrot in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. The parrot gets a chapter of his own: one long, continuous sentence. His thoughts fly free as he leaves the home he knew for decades, after his owner’s death. It’s nice to get these extra, imagined perspectives, but by making animal characters simply witnesses to the humans’ folly, they remain a little flat.

A great example of using animals realistically yet appreciatively is Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans. Her novel about immigrants in the UK encompasses many points of view, including a dog. Different characters rate each other based on their respective reactions to Dog, and he leaps in to save the day at the end.

The novel also features scenes in a chicken-packing factory, which convinced me to buy only free-range products ever after. Her depiction linked callous attitudes about animals to abuse and exploitation of migrant workers. It should hardly have been surprising, but it had a somewhat revelatory effect on me.

Animal Roles

Cat posing in line with flowerpots.
Catmouflage: They see all and know all.

Although these authors have gone to great imaginary lengths to use animals as characters and assign voices to them, there are other ways to integrate our furry (or feathery or scaly) friends. Why is it so rare to encounter human characters who own pets? Allusions to a pet can serve as useful shortcuts establishing character. Are they a dog person, a cat person, a horse person, maybe something more unusual like a snake person?

In my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds, treatment of a dog catalyses the action. Pets are a central part of characters’ lives. Introducing one of the protagonists, Lydia, I described her car:

‘The cluttered Fiesta—Mabel—smelled of takeaway curry and chips, cat litter bought in bulk, and hand sanitiser.’

Beyond representing personality traits of their owners, including pets in stories gives humans opportunity for insight. Lydia is self-aware enough to know that she needs her cat, Slim Shady, more than he needs her. She recognises his purr doesn’t always convey happiness, but sometimes cloaks fear. The purr indicates to her:

‘You only get away with this because I in my benevolence allow it.’

Animals at the Beginning

In my current novel, about Eve and the (presumed) first family of humans, animals have an even bigger role. As much as Eve and Adam’s lives changed on their expulsion from Eden, think what it meant for the animals! Through no fault of their own, they had to leave paradise as well, and were thence forward seen as fair game. Literally.

Surely humans didn’t go straight from discovering wildlife wonders in Eden, to wearing animal hides and eating meat outside its walls. The sudden need to provide for themselves would change things, but it would not be a comfortable adjustment. Tension grows between Eve and Adam when he starts out eating fish:

‘What’s next, killing cows? Lions, lambs? You could roast one of the angels.’
‘Don’t speak to me like that, woman! I’m not the one who ever sought something I wasn’t supposed to take.’

The way each character relates to animals represents and colours the way they relate to others. Adam tells himself he has dominion over the animals, but in God’s curse on Eve, she’s been told her husband will have dominion over her. Does that make her equal to the animals? This is just one reason she has a keen interest in how he treats them.

Further, they have to wonder about God’s purpose in creating themselves and the animals (which, for this work, I’m imagining He did; see my previous post on working with incredible premises). If God is willing for them to dispatch with the animals so easily, what does this say about their own mortality?

It’s like Sirius Black said (somewhat ironically, given his later treatment of his own house-elf) in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ‘If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.’