New Pleasures Prove

This Week’s Bit of String: Tale of two benches

Last Saturday night we went on a date. We got dinner from the chippy and sat in the rare clear evening on a bench above the car park. 

“Like two yoofs,” my husband said as we popped open our cans of Rio tropical drink. “But without the cheeky ciggy.”

After our chips, we did a cultural about-face at the town cinema watching a broadcast of the National Theatre’s excellent The Motive and the Cue. Based on diaries from when John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in Hamlet, it made us want to see the actual 1964 production. It was my kind of nerdiness and luckily, my husband was all for it.

20 years ago

I remembered when we first moved to the town, new to the area (in my case, new to the whole nation) and unsure how to entertain our 3-year-old. We wandered up to a school playground on a typical cloudy afternoon. A plain, plasticky bench had a slightly rusting plaque: “In memory…” and a person’s name.

“Not the most flattering tribute,” said my husband.

“Well, it doesn’t say ‘In loving memory’ or anything,” I pointed out.

That made him laugh, and I felt smart and seen for a minute. That didn’t often happen in the first months as an immigrant and wife.

This week is our 20th anniversary. We’d used a John Donne quote from “The Bait” on our wedding invitations.

“Come live with me, and be my love, And we will some new pleasures prove…”

I didn’t really have an idea what those pleasures would look like (does anybody?), and it took us a while to find the confidence and freedom–and economic stability–to come up with the successful melding of tastes like we had last week.

If That’s All We Have

It took time. Two decades ago, our wedding song was Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World,” from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That is my husband’s type of nerdiness: gadgetry and fast cars and also outer space.

When we met and I was nearly 20, I was keen to lose myself. The movies we watched were ones he thought I should see, and I was thrilled to be trusted with them. We had 20 days together—weird how this number keeps popping up today—between meeting and my return from Old England to New. At some point in that mad rush, he played “We Have All the Time in the World” for me, and I was moved to the point of no return.

I’ve written about time before, though. It can be more romantic when you don’t have much of it, in the same way we sometimes use it better when we know it’s scarce.

When we said our wedding vows and I eventually sorted the paperwork for our kiddo and me to emigrate, the dream of being together became a promise. One of those takes more work than the other!

Poses like these! New Orleans, New Years 2024

The effort has been amply rewarded. My husband is a musician, so in addition to being immersed in James Bond and Star Trek, I get to be a jazz band groupie. I would never have imagined that my cautious British physicist would turn out to be a star poser for photos, or that he’d come along to Shakespeare performances.

Sticking with it for the amount of time that change requires is a small miracle. Other times, we swoop to each other’s rescue in an instant. That’s another miracle: when one vulnerable person reveals their desperation and their partner responds with care, no matter how lost and alone they too may feel.

Suddenly You Flare in My Sight

If a story equals character plus event plus time, there are infinite combinations. I come up with fiction ideas by asking “What if…?” sometimes about real-life situations, but not usually about my personal ones. Lately, though, I imagine alternative realities which would have unspooled had I made different choices.

The three of us

We often liked to tell people, if they asked how we met, that we never would have if he’d been a moment later heading back to his uni, and had missed the train. But what if we’d met seven years ago, or ten, instead of twenty-three? If we met the same way, as students with no assets swiftly adding a child to the mix—we’d never have been able to live together as a family. The immigration laws are so tight now, they keep increasing the amount a British citizen must have in the bank to earn the right to bring an international spouse home. I ache for the people kept apart because of this, because of meeting each other a decade too late.

This helps me appreciate what we have, and I track our moments of delight in my daily scribbles. As favours we gave all our wedding guests copies of Wendell Berry’s poem “The Wild Rose.” He compares his longtime partner to a wild rose blooming… “where yesterday there was only shade, and once more I am blessed, choosing again what I chose before.”

There are so many twists in life which we can’t control, and always a fair few choices to regret. It’s nice to remember the ones we’re more than satisfied with, even—dare I say it—proud of. What surprising choices would you make all over again?

Changing It Up

This Week’s Bit of String: New brake pads

The only car I ever bought was a used Ford Contour, back in New Hampshire (in Britain the model is called the Mondeo). I named her Shellby, inspired by her pearlescent sandy colour. But despite her shimmering finish, she was, to quote Stephen Moffat’s show Coupling, “a buffet of improvability.”

I had to get Shellby new brake pads in the middle of a spectacularly cold winter. Secretly I hoped that while ensuring I could actually stop my car, the garage might happen to fix other things: the door that didn’t open, the window that didn’t close, the inability to play music out of both speakers or get more than fifty miles on a tank if I put the heating on in 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Post-blizzard car, with snow almost to the top of the hood/ bonnet.
Poor old Shellby. I guess I can’t blame her for getting broken by winters like this.

Of course, new brake pads meant new brake pads and nothing more. But I still like to imagine fixing one thing will magically repair everything else. I go to the doctor hoping that getting rid of my third crippling cough in half a year will also disappear the side pain I wake up with every morning and the way the bones in my big toe don’t seem to fit together correctly anymore.

Changing the Story

When we churn out a story, I think we usually sense whether it works or not. Often it doesn’t, and while we can tell what’s wrong with it, we aren’t sure how to fix it. If we knew we would have written it better in the first place, right?

It would be nice if we could fix it by deleting or inserting a single element. But a story is (or should be) a tight conglomeration. Characters, plot, setting, theme, voice, everything wind intricately together, interdependent. It’s not like a car or a body where yes, it’s ideal if it all works together, but different bits do carry out different functions.

A story should be streamlined, speeding straight for the heart.

So when something’s wrong, it’s hard to fix without having to unpick everything else too, and that’s overwhelming. It’s cruel enough making us cut bits out; having to invent completely new bits is nearly beyond the pale. Recently one of my stories was rejected from a magazine, with the feedback that it was very well-written and engrossing—until the end. Put a twist in it, the editor said.

But the whole story is a twist, I thought. The point of view is a twist. I wondered if I could sneak a few sentences in here and there, a couple of details to emphasise the protagonist’s transformation.

I can’t shake the worry that something more fundamental is missing, so although I was proud of the story and the successes it had already, I haven’t found the courage—or time—to revisit it.

Change in Routine

My husband’s taken over the ironing recently, leaving me a bit of time on my hands—and, even better, more headspace. When I was ironing, I’d watch videos to entertain myself. Then I’d sit and finish watching whatever I’d started, sometimes for an hour. Now, instead of turning on YouTube, I write. I’m averaging 2-3 novel pages per day.

Wading in a New Hampshire river.
A clear river or lake, as everyone knows, Is the correct place for the bones in your toes.

Once you realise you can write between two and three pages each day while keeping your family relatively occupied and working full-time and even with your toe bones in the wrong place, then you might believe you can write three pages every day. Or maybe three-and-a-half. Or four, each day!

I’ve glimpsed these horizons before, when I wrote earlier in the year about developing writing habits, thanks to Writers HQ. But back then I still had to do all the ironing. The possibilities now are endless. Knowing my brain works well enough to churn out novel pages makes me think I might have it in me even to tackle that allegedly flat-endinged story of mine.

No Change Too Small

Graffiti on a back door in Bristol: "I hope, therefore I am."
Bristol back-door wisdom

I just finished Rebecca Solnit’s glorious little volume, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She reminds us that a movement unsuccessful in one part of the world can inspire one elsewhere that manages greater impact. Or a failed historical effort can germinate later and take root. By fighting for one thing, we never know what others will be affected.

Bearing in mind how all things could relate to absolutely anything else and remembering that uncertainty means potential rather than chaos, I can revisit my rejected story. “People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end,” observes Solnit. Maybe I’ve been too hasty concluding some stories, and I should explore additional What Ifs.

There’s a necessary balance between preparedness to take on big changes, and contentment with recognising small ones. Whether we’re trying to improve a story, juggle work and family more smoothly, or take on the whole world as activists, we must continue our efforts whether we see obvious results or not. Solnit warns us against striving for perfection. “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” So even without a definite improved ending in mind, I could tinker with a few lines as I’ve already reconsidered, and ideas for more effective changes may follow.

Have you discovered any magic fixes for stories (or life)? What’s your method for coping with the times when no miracle appears? Sometimes changing one thing leads to other things falling in place. Celebrate the small victories, people; we never know where they’ll lead.

 

 

How’s Your Habit?

This Week’s Bit of String: Three sets of cutlery

When my son was six, I decided it was time he did a bit more around the house.

We started with laying the table. Three forks and three knives, maybe some help pouring drinks, that was all he had to do. It didn’t go over well.

‘If you EVER,’ a fork slams onto my place, ‘make me do this again,’ the knife slams onto the other side of the placemat, ‘I’m running away!’

It was a hardship, those six pieces of cutlery. But I persisted, explaining to him how much else Mummy had to do all the time, and he learned to live with it. Ten years later he still shows up, with minimal summoning and zero slamming, and he lays the table.

I also taught him to fold his own clothes then. We used to get compliments from the other mums at dance class: ‘How do you get him to fold his clothes so nicely?’

The answer to that was Top Trumps. He was enamoured with his Top Gear supercar Top Trumps cards assigning speed, coolness, and various other ratings to different cars.

Every night, he would fold his clothes, and I’d give him a rating. The more decimal places the better; he lived for numbers.

And so habits are formed, sometimes under duress, sometimes with bribery, always with a nod to the bigger picture and to one’s underlying interests.

I’ve just been doing a course from Writers HQ called 14 Days to a Solid Writing Habit. It was fun and invigorating, and also made me see that I hadn’t been doing too badly anyway.

Here’s a sum-up of how it enhances habits:

Focus on honest goals and motivations. This is where those underlying interests come in. You’re not going to stick with something if the fit isn’t right; if the goal is too far off or not worthwhile enough, or if you’re not secure in your reasons. Be honest about what you want from your writing, and cling to it.

The course creates a culture of encouragement rather than fear. If you miss a day, you haven’t thrown away your whole habit. Just keep going when you can. Slamming the silverware down is fine, as long as the table gets set in the end.

'Do you have the COURAGE to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say YES.' --Brene Brown
Inspiring poster my sister made for my writing corner.

Great tips for optimising that sometimes-elusive writing time. Because of these, I could sit down to the required 15, then 20, then 30, then 35 minutes of daily writing time and churn out a fantastic number of words. In those relatively small windows of time, I was accomplishing a lot. So even when I’m busy or tired, I’ve got proof right there that investing time is worth it.

Do you have habit-forming strategies to add? How do you stay motivated?

Here’s how the course made me realise I’m pretty lucky.

I already do have very clear goals, with multiple submission deadlines, and a healthy smattering of ideas to develop.

The course suggests we put non-writing time to use thinking through plot snags and daydreaming about characters. Believe me, I’ve got that covered. I often skip hours of sleep because I’d rather be blocking scenes in my head. (Who wouldn’t?)

Also, I can usually squeeze in writing time. I get a whole hour for lunch. I don’t drive, and relying on buses has disadvantages, but it does free me to read or scribble. My son is very independent (what with his longstanding table-setting skills and all), and even my husband is somewhat independent, so I can get away with the odd at-home writing session.

Finally, I am fortunate not to suffer from imposter syndrome. I know I’m a writer; I’ve been working at it since I was three years old. I luckily had one of the first stories I ever submitted published, and I’ve had just enough good fortune to sustain me since then. No, not only to sustain my own motivation, but also to justify to those around me the time and effort I spend on this.

Maybe I was naive not to realise how many writers struggle just to recognise themselves as writers. If that’s you (and even if it isn’t), go on and write anyway, every day if you can. Prove yourself and any other naysayers wrong. Once you’ve made a habit of writing, no one can stop you even if they try. Courage! Bring forth!