Trouble of Our Own Making

This Week’s Bit of String: Saturday morning movies

One of our family traditions was letting Mom stay in bed on Saturday mornings, and we’d watch a movie. This sounds simple, but we had to choose from our videotapes, mostly random stuff recorded from basic cable, plus Disney feature cartoons. I’m the oldest of four kids, with five years between myself and my youngest sister. Certain parties objected to anything in black and white, and it couldn’t be too “mushy,” and one gets creeped out by films with talking animals.

Whenever I vetoed a movie, my siblings would roll their eyes and admit annoyed defeat. “Oh sure, because they get in trouble.”

This movie’s still a nope from me. But the local vet’s window display was very cute!

It’s true, I was super sensitive about misunderstood characters in kids’ films, from Anne of Green Gables to Pete’s Dragon. Lady and the Tramp—I couldn’t bear that one (plus, it had talking animals so it was out anyway). It was the same with books: Curious George, for example.

I was petrified of getting in trouble for something I didn’t do, or even worse for something I did. I was the oldest child in a religious family, sensitive by nature, also traumatised by abuse. My dread of getting in trouble was so severe I couldn’t read or watch things where that occurred.

Causation vs Correlation

Lucky for me, in quite a few children’s films, things just happen. We ended up watching Peter Pan a lot (not the cartoon, but a slightly fuzzy tape of Mary Martin performing the lead in the Broadway musical). Plenty happens in that without the characters necessarily causing it.

It’s different as you get older. Characters must be autonomous, reflecting our quest for independence. This means everything that happens stems from protagonists’ decisions, overreaches, and failures.

Every crime-busting film from Miss Congeniality to Hannibal starts with the heroic detective disgracing themselves, and they must salvage their reputation. Every superhero film first establishes them as fallible; their powers are their only shot at redemption.

We love wonky, flawed characters. But do we have to make them responsible for everything?

Recently while I finished retyping my entire novel with new edits, I streamed Paddington and Paddington 2 to get through the copying. When I mentioned it to my youngest sister, she was like, “Wait, how do you watch those? Paddington gets in trouble all the time!”

Yeah, I kind of got over that. I had to, or else I’d never read or watch anything. Nor would I be working on my current novel, about possibly the most famous Character Who Gets in Trouble of all time: Eve, the original sinner.

As I edit the book, I’ve been reading about story structure. John Yorke in Into the Woods presents the prototypical story structure as a process of awakening. Initially, the protagonist does not deal well with revelations and things continue going wrong. I just finished Nikesh Shukla’s Your Story Matters, in which he emphasises the importance of causality: the plot springs from a main character’s action or deliberate inaction when faced with new knowledge.

In other words, the main character is SUPPOSED to make it all happen. It’s all their fault. They have to fall a long way in order to teach us how to get back up. Every protagonist, in a sense, is the author’s sacrifice.

Agency vs… Real Life?

Now that I recognise how it works, it’s stressing me out and reviving my aversion to characters getting in trouble. I put a film on and wait for the character to completely blow it. I’m anxious while reading because I know the protagonist is destined to screw things up.

There are a lot of things bigger than our characters and us.

I do like a domino plot, though, where each detail causes another; the way John Irving or Margaret Atwood spin massive tales of intricate characters and everything’s interconnected by the end.

As I go through my Eve book yet again, I’m wondering how to cohere the trajectory, Eve’s actions (or inactions) and their consequences. This is a myth retelling, so not everything is strictly in Eve’s control. She has God, Lucifer, and most chaotically, other humans to deal with. Plus, part of my reason for writing this is to repudiate millennia of condemnation. Maybe bucking the traditional structure is acceptable, or am I a bad writer if Eve doesn’t trigger every consequence herself?

I noticed that in Dune 2, the protagonist never fails at any new trick he tries. The developments in the plot are not of his own making—different from a Marvel film. Indeed, Nikesh Shukla notes that the character-triggered consequence story structure is a Western tradition. It makes sense, I guess, that main characters from other, more faith-based cultures have less agency to affect the plot.

We Westerners are obsessed with individuality—the downside being we can be persuaded that any trouble is our fault. In real life, it’s not. Not every time. How tightly do you like your plots linked to your character’s actions? Does it ever cause you anxiety, knowing a character is destined to get in trouble?

Non-Stop

This Week’s Bit of String: Dreams about reading

A Year 13 student informed me somewhat randomly, “It’s impossible to dream about reading books because you read with the opposite half of your brain from where you dream.”

Given she mentioned this after insisting, during a GCSE Maths Resit lesson on multipliers, “It’s impossible to have anything higher than 100%,” I should have taken it with a grain of salt. But I was intrigued because I do dream quite a bit, and I couldn’t think of any dreams in which I’d been reading a book.

Maybe it was true, a never-the-twain-shall-meet sort of thing. I often dream about getting lost while travelling. Maybe the signs and maps have no words, and that’s why. Have you ever read in your dreams?

Can one truly rest when words are present?

My subconscious launched into gear to prove me utterly and completely wrong. 

The first night, I dreamed about gathering reading material for a trip. There was a photocopied chapter about encouraging students to read, and I distinctly remember reading the title in my dream: “Reading is like getting a big hug!” As if that would persuade my actual students.

The second night, I was in a library with a dusty shelf containing all the stories I’d written, and I searched through for the right one to offer a friend. 

Whether this proves which brain hemisphere is in charge of what activity, I would not presume to say. Maybe words have permeated every function of my mind. Or maybe my subconscious is a stubborn and contrary creature.

All the Words, All the Time

When working with students in lower-set classes, sometimes I turn around to help someone else, reading an extract to them upside down. These kids struggle to read rightside-up, through no fault of their own, so this amazes them. 

I almost inhale words though. I’ve been reading since age three. If there are words anywhere in the vicinity, I will read them. I can barely help reading them.

The problem with reading somewhat involuntarily is that it goes beyond my control. Stories are bigger than we are, aren’t they? I think a lot of writers have difficulty shutting stories off. We rely on this, and it’s marvellous to get lost in a story. My problem is, I can’t stop the words in general. 

Might be nice to just look, not try to describe or capture…

My brain is always writing, if not creatively. It might be planning an email to check in with a friend, or working out how to explain developments to a student’s parent, or considering how to promote my own material, or thinking up character quirks. 

It could be going over what I’ll recount in my daily scribbles: Magnolia blooms like flocks of butterflies. Trying to pass the gauntlet of Key Stage 3 girls outside the toilets between lessons, their handbags pert like ship prows. These thoughts from a Year 10 special needs student: “This might be stereotypical of me, but if I went to Texas, do you think people there would be mean because I’m different? They might stereotypic me because of it. But everyone’s different in some way and can get stereotypicked for something…”

Waste Not, Want Not?

My brain has been programmed to optimise any free moment. It’s learned to write like I’m running out of time, except my body can’t keep up. The second I wake up, even when it’s still the middle of the night and it’s the third or fourth time that night… Words switch right on and I’m rocketing through lots of things to say or write. 

Oberon the baby-cat is responsible for many of these wake-ups.

To an extent, this helps me later on. I can remember how I decided to word that message for work, and I’ll remember the order I wanted to put things in when reunited with my journal.

But it’s also tiring, the constant torrent of words in my head, because it’s difficult to rest when it flows. Then the fog of tiredness is somewhat counterproductive.

Is poor sleep an inevitable part of creative life? Have I unwittingly rewired myself in a harmful way? If we took a machine and rerouted some electrics to provide extra energy to a particular function, then the other functions would not run so well. I’m worried I might have done this to myself.

I now have two weeks off for the Easter holidays. I may commit to the massive to-do list I’ve made which includes sorting the garden out and cleaning the house and stocking the freezer, plus catching up on reading literary magazines and (she adds breezily…) proofreading the latest type-up of my 330-page novel. Or I could try to catch up on sleep, see if I can pause the words, and then when it’s term-time again, throw myself back into the merciless pace of trying to proofread the novel and grow lots of veggies while working a rather intense job and keeping the house clean and meals cooked every day.

I have a feeling my subconscious has already chosen for me. It’s a good thing I’m rather fond of words and writing.

Do you have tips for getting control of all the words in our heads… preferably without stifling creativity?

Antici…PAtion!

This Week’s Bit of String: Silent night

One of my earliest memories takes place at Christmas. My small New England town put on a Christmas pageant at the church, one of those crowned white ones on a pristine green.

Candles glow in frosty windows as Mary and Joseph journey to the manger and kneel respectfully. Junior high angels dance down the aisles, bare feet thumping over cast iron grates, and the kings stride in their colourful robes. 

At the end, the choir sings “Silent Night” as everyone files off the darkened stage. Kings, shepherds, angels and kindergarten cherubs. Joseph, penultimately, exits down the centre aisle and finally Mary, sombre and alone, disappears into a side door. The lights come up and everyone bursts into “Joy to the World.”

Some of my favourite ornaments, carrying lots of memories

Can you spot what they forgot? My just-turned-three-year-old self was keenly aware that everyone left the infant Messiah behind. The wooden box-manger only held a doll, but I was inconsolable; to me dolls were as real as anything. I was outraged at the abandonment, sobbing amongst the heavily coated crowd. 

My parents found the girl who played Mary, but I wanted nothing to do with that traitorous mother. Then I was introduced to the person who owned the Baby Jesus doll, and that alone calmed me down.

I still wonder at the order of that pageant, unchanged in decades. Through the ensuing years, I loved the pageant, thought it beautiful–but also tenderly sad. That’s Christmas for you, I guess; moments of quiet, of loss, of sudden delight. I was taught that when setting up a collection of short stories, you showcase the best ones first. Maybe it’s our instinct to start strong, but this can result in an anticlimax.

Maintaining Order

Four decades and an ocean now separate me from that distraught doll-defending girl at her first nativity play. I’ve been around long enough to know my ideal festive sequence of events, even if I can’t always control it.

The key is to avoid letdown. You have to hit your checklist in the right moments, before the season over-ripens to wistfulness. Most Christmas films have an element of nostalgia and wish fulfillment that’s too sad the day after Christmas. The build-up is the best part of Christmas, really. Putting ornaments on the tree is a lot more special than taking them down. 

There can be a lot of stress at Christmas, but Obie the Bosscat is keeping on top of things.

The word anticipate shares a root with capture. It means to grasp something beforehand. That’s quite exciting, isn’t it? Not like the tedium of just waiting, because at least we know that December 25th will, in fact, arrive (unlike a lucrative writing contract, for example).

I get Christmas tunes playing in my earbuds during hikes around mid-November, and the lights and decorations go up at the very start of December, so I can enjoy them for longer. Everything must be in place for the cosy moments between all the running around. At some point, I will be reminded that it matters more to me than to others, and each sparkle will disappear from centre stage.

Heightened Sensations

Christmas forms strong memories because it engages all our senses. We associate smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and feelings with the holiday. When a moment incorporates all senses, I think our memories cohere around it more firmly.

We’ve got Christmas songs, both jolly or deeply moving, we’ve got sparkly lights and shiny ornaments and the contrasts of crimson berries against sharp green holly. We’ve got smells of cinnamon and pine, and tastes of citrus and chocolate. We’ve got the sensations of warm hearths and fuzzy jumpers and the bracing chill from anaemic skies.

Stopping to smell the roses

Great storytelling engages all the senses as well, which is why Christmas stories and films and songs can be particularly moving. Listening, viewing, reading them, and even creating our own helps us to seize those moments because otherwise, we might forget the bits that turned out how we wanted, when some events inevitably proceed less smoothly.

I wonder if our relentless preparations are partly an attempt to find exactly the right combination of sensory stimuli that make us feel young, make us feel loved and valued as we believe we once did. We are desperate to capture something, maybe that outpouring that George Bailey finds at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, or the kindness and mutual appreciation of a goose dinner at the Cratchit family table.

What are your favourite moments to capture in the holidays? How do you manage to seize them, and do they fall before December 25th or after?

Not This Crude Matter

This Week’s Bit of String: A Prickly Tribute

The Clifton Suspension Bridge stands 245 feet above the Avon Gorge. Its piers are an additional 86 feet high, spiking the boundary between the elegant shops and houses and the rugged cliffs. We visited in cold sunlight this week, and took lots of striking pictures. But I keep going back to a photo of a cactus in a plastic pot, placed in a viewing platform corner.

View across the suspension bridge to the cliffs.
Impressive, right?

It was left next to a bouquet of alstroemerias, fleshy pink and still unwilted, a memorial of sorts. Although the bridge is walled and postered with suicide helpline numbers, desperate people will find a way to make the jump.

I’m picturing a surviving family member or partner or friend, piloting through shock at a Lidl supermarket, and grabbing the cactus. Maybe they wanted something hardy. Maybe flowers just wouldn’t do their lost loved one justice.

Cactus left by pier base.
Intriguing, right?

Often it’s a small, unexpected detail that triggers a short story, and not a big, well-known structure. But my focus has been on quite big things, so this was my first short story idea in a few months.

Last week I talked about rekindling a broader vision and protecting our creativity from the ravages of stress by reading more, and writing three thoughts each day. I’ve managed to do that, and my cactus find was just one thing sprouting in my notebook.

A Thicket of Thoughts

Inspiration is a hardier perennial than we realise, and it self-pollinates. I was so excited to remember I’m capable of having ideas, I went and found some more.

It’s not that I wasn’t having thoughts before. There were vicious novel edits, and my day job takes a fair bit of mental agility. Parenting and relationships require constant consideration. (Shout-out to stay-at-home artist parents because that strains creativity too.) Thoughts are tracks leading from A to B, though, whereas ideas lead to destinations unknown. When we’re always thinking, consumed by purpose, we lose imagination’s spontaneous joy.

As writers, we have an extra career. Every time we lift a pen or open a laptop, we envision our target audience and, you know, target them. I’ve always eschewed journalling as unmarketable and therefore unuseful. This argument becomes more persuasive the less time you have.

So taking time at the end of a full working/ parenting/ editing day to jot in a notebook is a big deal. And I’m enjoying it. It heightens my awareness during the day, because I’m looking for things to write down. On Friday I had to work through lunch, but during a loo break I found myself inventing collective nouns for our trickiest multi-site clients, and returned to my desk with a grin.

The Luminous Beings Project

Forcing myself to reflect allowed me to better process what I read and learned.

I went to a presentation on occupied Palestinian territories, held at a local church. It raised money for the Olive Tree Project, which sponsors plantings for agricultural workers who can’t get to their old farmland due to Israeli checkpoints and settlements. This gave me much to consider, as I’m from a culture extremely supportive of the Israeli government.

I read through the latest volume of the online publication Cabinet of Heed. Pop open a drawer here. I especially recommend Mary Grimm’s “When We Lived in the Mall.” Her description of bedding down in a bookstore earned a place in my Book Quotes notebook.

Christmas tree ornaments: Santa bell, Yoda, Chewbacca, snowflake, fuzzy reindeer
Of course we have Star Wars figures among the cherished family ornaments on our tree.

It was a busy week of festive activities. I observed a younger family through their little bow-tied 8-year-old’s first piano solo in a community concert, and listened to support workers chat as they wheeled elderly people past a poppy-festooned tree at a Christmas Tree Festival. I fit in novel edits too (I’m now over 20% through the novel, and have already excised 35K, which is almost half my word-cutting target, so that’s…promising).

With all this going on, I didn’t do much overtime this week. Sure, I’m way behind, but building up an artistic life to rival the office one helps me let that go. Listening to Christmas music when hiking to and from the office resets my brain a little. Here’s a favourite, beautiful Israeli lullaby “Elohai N’Tsoar” from Pink Martini’s Christmas CD.

Of course, there’s no complete cure for work stress. I just woke from an awful nightmare about the office. I found myself on two phone calls at once, an angry developer who did not know her maritime alphabet and was shouting random words to spell out the business name (“Suck! Cup!”) on one line, with a mega-meter-mixup on the other. And I needed to search our system for notes on either client, but the office was a huge kitchen, with the phones on the worktop and no computers in sight, only massive tubs of ingredients.

Where’s the system?” I asked my colleagues. “You know, like the Internet, where we…find things?

They brought me a vat of corn syrup. “Here, you find this in everything. Especially where you’re from, in America.

I know you find this in things, but we don’t find things in it. Guys, come on…

Wicked stressful. But I woke up so terrified by how wrong things were going in that office, it ensured I was distracting myself with my second job by 6:15 on a Sunday morning. Winning.

This project is about, as I mentioned earlier, rivalling the day job and other stresses since we can’t eliminate it. Enriching ourselves beyond the practical. Because I’m completely un-snobby about what stories I take in, I’ve been watching all the Star Wars films with my family before the new Episode 9 hits cinemas. Watching The Empire Strikes Back the other night, I was struck by Yoda’s line: “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

Folks, we have a project name. I hope you’ve found ideas to derail your thought tracks this week, and I hope you glow with pride at each inspiration snatched from the chaos.