Feed and Flow

This Week’s Bit of String: Starving feet and empty legs

When they were little, my kiddo would sometimes pause their playing and say, “I’ve got my starving foot on!”

I assumed this was Bear’s way of telling me they were hungry right down to their toes, similarly to how my aunt described adolescents as “reaching the empty leg stage.” So I’d scramble to provide a snack.

Years later, I found out Bear was actually telling me their foot had fallen asleep. That pins and needles sensation in their extremities felt similar to the queasy emptiness of hunger in the belly, I suppose. 

Then there’s this little guy, who slept 8 hours straight one day last week after bringing a live bird inside, chasing it around, and then eating most of it.

“Yeah,” mused Bear, “I always wondered why you gave me food every time my foot went dead.”

It’s an interesting feeling, hunger. Sometimes weirdly similar to feeling overfull, the ache and stretch of a stomach panicking, desperate to adapt its shape to the circumstances. While our minds seek refuge from pain, they are to an extent sharpened by hunger, since surplus can dull us.

Coming Clean

Over the half-term week off I began a change, cutting down my food intake and waiting 18 hours between one day’s evening meal and the next day’s late lunch. It’s a decision based partly on aesthetics, as I would catch sight of myself looking puddly, a bit of a soft mound. I’m proud of being a busy and vibrant person, and although the tiredness of life has accumulated somewhat, I still sort of picture myself as that trim mum chasing a little kid around.

When Eve goes through her first pregnancy in my novel–the first ever human pregnancy, according to the Creation myth–she describes how “hunger and revulsion vied in my belly.”  When our appetites have such complex manifestations, it’s easy to convince ourselves that our bodies and minds want things they don’t actually need. 

Saving myself the time it takes to bake goodies like this lemon meringue cake, and saving myself money on peanut butter.

Over the last decade, I got in the habit of having “a little something,” a la Winnie the Pooh, to get me through whenever I had to do something hard. The problem, as you may swiftly detect, is that there are a lot of things we have to do that we don’t want to. Some days are an absolute litany of them! And my definition of a difficult task broadened to pretty much any job I wasn’t keen on. Even parts of the writing process fall into that category.

That’s why during half-term, when I had some time to do things I wanted to do, I stopped indulging in that way. Weirdly, it hasn’t been super difficult, even this week back at school. I feel a lot calmer not relying on sugar to get by, and probably in no small part because I stopped telling myself I deserved a “treat” at the slightest jostle to my plans.

Treating Myself

I’m still not getting a lot of sleep, but I’m finally accepting that sweets (and peanut butter by the spoonful) don’t cure tiredness. If they did, I wouldn’t have to keep dosing up on them. 

It’s a conundrum in busy, tiring lives, keeping ourselves going in the short-term without sacrificing the long-term. I am not angry at myself for waiting this long to return to better habits. I don’t judge anyone else for doing the same, so why be nasty to myself? There are periods in our lives when it’s just not within our strength to make the best long-term decisions.

Flow and glow

Instead, we treat ourselves to little immediacies, a pleasant taste on the tongue, a gravity to our middle while everything rushes around us. Now, I think I’m ready to go beyond “treating myself.” I’m going to treat myself… as the person I want to be. 

Treating myself to a few extra minutes of sunshine taking the long way home on a nice day, instead of rushing over shortcuts to get chores done after work. Treating my stomach to a long rest. Treating my brain to concentrated periods of writing work instead of little bits here and there. 

When thinking through this issue, I looked up the etymology of related terms. Words like food and hunger are so tied to basic physical needs, their roots have no surprises. The etymology of nourishment, though, reminded me of its Latin ties to nursing, as in feeding a baby, and before that, it shared the prefix nau: to swim, to flow. I do feel as if I’m getting into a more natural flow. 

When my kiddo was a baby and I nursed them, they caught on quickly to the fact that milk hormones put them to sleep. Bear never wanted to sleep, even as a newborn. So they’d hum, kick, even bite to keep themselves awake while eating. It was not a tranquil experience. But it’s interesting, that link appearing again between a sated appetite and sleepiness, between hunger and staying awake. Exercising discipline physically, I feel, helps my discipline mentally. 

How do hunger and satisfaction affect your mental and creative states?

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?

Balancing the Dark

This Week’s Bit of String: Planet Buoy

On a rainy Saturday morning in St Ives, I’m shepherding 7 teens on a 2-mile walk with a seasoned photographer. We are nearing the end of our school Art residential; I’ve spent half my half-term supporting 3 very different students with autism.

Sand feathering

The youngest one is only 14 and prefers to draw comic stories or animals in pencil, so through most activities, he’s put his headphones on and played games on his phone. That’s what he did through the photographer’s introductory talk.

The photographer has worked here in St Ives for 45 years. He says its popularity with artists comes from the “pure, North light.” Standing on a beach he tells me, “The sand in St Ives has a sheerness, and reflects that light.”

Just then, the youngest fellow patters over murmuring, “Miss, I took pictures of the beach.” With his iPhone, he’s captured the effect the photographer talked about. The reflections of the squished-together buildings across the bay appear over the sand in his photo. I compliment him heartily, and he’s off.

He creeps toward gulls, grinning, asking, “Scuse me, can I take your picture?” He aims his phone camera through holes in stone walls that no one else has noticed, sticks it into pier crevices to capture puddle reflections. One of my older students, herself a photographer with autism, is inspired by what he’s finding and so am I.

Planet Buoy

He finds a buoy, pulled up and stashed on top of lobster cages. I join him to capture its weathering with my iPhone. It’s like a planet, with rust crops and barnacle mountains. This young artist is showing what I’ve always found, that once we start looking around with a photographer’s eye, we pick up on so much more.

Balance

It’s like that with stories sometimes too. If we get into ideas mode, we find them everywhere. When I’m out and about, I take pictures partly to remind myself of strands of description for my journal later. Waves blooming around boulders, rust-fall streaming down the lighthouse, Planet Buoy.

Pure light: View toward Chapel of St Nicholas

The photographer we worked with, Chris Webber, makes me contemplate other similarities or counterpoints between the arts of photography and writing. He tells the students: “Your camera has a lot of dials and buttons, but at its heart, photography is about balancing the light. Don’t be intimidated by the camera. You control it. You decide what to shoot.”

It’s a mixed blessing to remember that amid the vast structures of a story, with so many interplaying elements we’re meant to orchestrate—we are the ones who control the pen (or keyboard). It is, ultimately, up to us.

I also wonder if a story, at its heart, might be as simple as balancing certain elements. Except that a story is balancing the dark. As storytellers we wield light and seek to not obliterate dark (because then a story might be dull or saccharine), but to balance it.

Letting in the Light

I read more about story structure and trajectory before my latest novel edits. John Yorke in Into the Woods frames this as a trajectory of knowledge (which suits my creation story retelling, since Eve allegedly plunged us all into sin by gaining knowledge). A protagonist is awakened to something, they experience doubt, they reluctantly accept, they experiment, it backfires, until ultimately there is a reconciliation of the new knowledge: a reawakening and a total mastery.

Weaving: lobster nets on Smeatons Pier

None of this happens without light, and the light would be ineffective if dark didn’t precede it. Presumably, God would never have said, “Let there be light,” if They’d already had all the light They wanted. As creators, we first shine light into a character’s situation so they have to recognise the dark they’re living in. They may react by being overwhelmed; they’re not used to this illumination. Ultimately, we mould the light into hope.

Wishing you a torrent of creativity this week.

Depending on the story, we’ll allow a pinpoint or a whole widening arc of light/ hope. Also, depending on the type of writing, we’ll show the whole landscape or do a macro shot. Chris Webber does dawn photo shoots and landscapes but also food shoots, for catering outlets. He showed my students a picture he took of a sorbet scoop: “Sometimes you don’t want your viewer to paddle, you want them to dive in.”

I’ll definitely keep that in mind while editing. Which bits are especially important for readers to plunge into? How do we direct the light while also bringing out the exciting details?

Enjoy It

This Week’s Bit of String: Underrated qualifications

I’ve been helping one of our special needs students with her personal statement for university. She wants to study Photography and after writing about what she’s already achieved in the field and what specific techniques she wants to learn, she concluded with something like this: “I want to study Photography because it’s something that makes my life more enjoyable.”

This is not a conventional admission in an essay. I feel like we’re encouraged to sell our skills and our work ethic when applying for positions. We’re not supposed to bring up what, well, pleases us. Is it related to some old puritan idea that pleasure is bad? Is it a byproduct of our busy culture: our value increases as the work gets harder and less enjoyable?

Without enjoyment, we could get dragged under. Why is it so hard to admit?

It’s a bit backwards, though. In education, we’ll have an easier ride if a student actually likes our subject. Surely it would be nice for employers and for universities to hear that new recruits might enjoy what they’re expected to do.

Resilience

Maybe there’s the fear that if someone chooses a path because they like it, they’ll quit when the going is rough. But a passion is deeper than an interest, and that’s why we keep going in creative endeavours. 

In our writing, we can’t cope with hard work, administrative tasks, and the inevitable rejection, unless we enjoy aspects of it. Just as it’s important to remember what we like about writing and why, it’s essential to then allow ourselves to enjoy writing.

I get caught up in the busy-boasting of social media sometimes, which results in me thinking of writing more as a quite mentally demanding second job. After all, we can’t just shut off the stories. I’m constantly tinkering with things in my head. And when I get to school on Monday morning for another week of supporting very needy students, I feel as if those 2 critiques passed to fellow writers and the 3 novel chapters edited over the weekend have sapped a substantial portion of my energy.

Sometimes I find my thoughts echoing my husband after a recent trip to London. 3 days, 2 nights, at least 30 miles walked… “What a stupid thing to do,” he said afterwards, half-joking (I think…) “Let’s never do that again!”

The Trappings

I liked it though. Exploring half the city, seeing new people and buildings and discovering unexpected remnants of history… It’s the same with writing. I get tired, but when my brain is jogging ahead toward a new destination (or painstakingly polishing the path to an old one, as when I’m editing), I don’t want to miss out. 

Picadilly Circus, a photo I took while tromping around London and I’m quite proud of it, actually.

Our identities are wrapped up in writing. Part of it is that addiction to finding out where it takes us. Another part is having fun with what accompanies it. If you can score a quiet house for even just an hour, with a hot drink and some pleasantly burning candles and encouraging tunes playing, then curling up to scribble ruthless notes on your own manuscript doesn’t feel so brutal, or laborious. 

I wonder if a few of us, myself included, would rather tell people we write in a cold garret subsisting on just bread crusts and gruel than confess to cranking some tunes and munching chocolate while we go. Maybe we should normalise admitting that something we devote time to is actually rather nice.

Imagine daring to pitch a writing project with: “I loved writing this story almost as much as I love reading it, and other people will too.” How amazing to get away with that! Wouldn’t it be great if, just now and then, liking something was an acceptable reason to go and do it?

Fever

This Week’s Bit of String: Overheated eyeballs

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

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

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

Hiking during our camping weekend–totally worth it.

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

Health Warning

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

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

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

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

Incandescence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuff of Legends

This Week’s Bit of String: A new political slogan?

I work with some amazing students and love my job, but the start of the school year is hard. Somehow there are always vast new tasks to train ourselves in, you know, during our spare time. Plodding to work in the mornings, a mental run-through of the day’s requirements almost overwhelms me.

Then I remember something that makes me smile: “Lying dog-faced pony soldier.”

I know this is ridiculous. It’s not an ideal phrase for the President of the United States to be spouting, even if it’s a movie quote. President Biden including it in a rambling answer about climate change in Hanoi recently probably didn’t advance the cause. (I’m linking to the entire press conference transcript because most of it was on-topic and coherent. I mean, you should hear the other guy.)

But it gets stuck in my head! Is that a writer thing, that words not even sung can repeat relentlessly in our minds?

Siblings are such an influence–here’s all of us recreating a childhood photo

And it’s so random, it makes me laugh. Biden says his brother liked to say “lying dog-faced pony soldier” when quoting a John Wayne film, that it was an insult a Native American character hurled at a cowboy or something. Seems like this alleged movie line gets stuck in the President’s head, too.

It’s weirdly inspiring that a random detail can live on, lodged in the minds of people who never saw the original source. It’s a little different from how the written word lingers in our minds. There’s something special about the oral tradition. I don’t know if we can capture it in our writing, but it’s worth celebrating in its own right.

Family Lore

This is extra strong in families. Maybe it’s because of our deep fondness for each other, and our affinity to one another’s voices, plus shared source material. When someone we grew up with, for example a sibling, tells a story, we can picture especially vividly its setting and characters.

While creating resources on persuasive techniques this week, I learned that the word anecdote basically comes from the Greek roots “not for publication.” (See more on the word’s origins here.) These are little stories that are either too biting, or would lose too much of their aural charm were they printed.

A lot of our favourite family references and legends become so because of how they sound when spoken. We didn’t even have to be there when it happened, we just love hearing about it. Humour’s always a hit, as well as special oral characteristics.

Rhythm: When my sister worked at the town recreational summer camp, she later recounted one boy’s plans for the rest of the day. Imitating his weary exasperation, she recited: “All I want to do/ Is go home/ and eat my sandwich/ and go outside/ and look for salamanders. But I never FIND any salamanders!” Punctuated with sighs, it’s almost like a poem. Sometimes I find myself planning my day to a similar rhythm.

Intonation: On a trip to Naples once, my brother went to the opera. There was a poorly older woman sitting nearby who kept unwrapping cough sweets during the show. This provoked the wrath of a German man in the audience. My brother quoted the man as he complained to the frail woman during the interval. ‘When you go to open up your BONBON… it is AWFUL!”

Transferring the Magic

Just within the last month, I found myself telling someone the bonbon anecdote—in my dreams. It’s that integrated in my subconscious, and I was never even there. I wonder if it sticks with any of the friends I might have mentioned it to in real life.

Blame it on the mushrooms

Sometimes, a little story weaves itself so inextricably into our fibre, we think it is ours. A secretary at my old job back in the U.S. told me one of the company’s engineers once submitted a receipt from a vegetarian meal with his travel expense report. He’d had a delicious mushroom—but the receipt was truncated so instead of asking to be reimbursed for shiitake, he was passing on a charge for “one large shit.”

My husband got such a kick out of this story, he came to believe it was a secretary at his company, across the ocean, who told him the story about one of their engineers. There my husband was, animatedly sharing it at some gathering, and I couldn’t help capping it off, somewhat mystified: “But that’s my story.”

That was only shock talking, though. The tale did not originate with me, and obviously I never intended it to end there either. I think it’s clear that stories, particularly when they’re passed on orally, get absorbed and possessed by all listeners. Isn’t that quite magical?

Are there special anecdotes you’ve heard that become living legends?

Pest Control

This Week’s Bit of String: A pestilence of Shoulds

Do you ever imagine your abstract stresses as actual creatures? I find it makes them more grapple-able.

Lately, the word should is plaguing me. If it came to life, I think it would be a multi-legged trudger, low to the ground with clinging claws. It would blast out barks: Should! Should! and be a right pest.

My mind gets infested by Shoulds, particularly in the summer. During term-time, there’s little question about what I have to do. There’s work, there’s squeezing in chores and writing deadlines and exercise and family commitments around that. But if I get time to myself, I’m overrun with quarrelling Shoulds. The guilt of leaving things undone becomes weightier, because what excuse do I have?

I’m no artist but… I’m thinking stout caterpillar body, claws of a sloth, and stubborn pug face.

You should be writing, a voice in my head says quite frequently. Editing my novel, inventing a whole new book, polishing and submitting short stories, putting effort into a Twitter presence—I should be working on all those things.

But there’s also the cluttered house, and my garden in a riotous bid for attention, and the thought that there’s no time like the present to get extra exercise and stretches in, should I be attempting some sort of social life, and actually, what if I caught up on sleep and reading; shouldn’t that benefit me in the school year?

If I created a word cloud based on my thoughts, the biggest word in it might be should—apart from family member’s names maybe, and definitely the cat and probably, embarrassingly, peanut butter (the latter accompanied by the phrase “should absolutely not eat anymore of it today…”)

‘Tis the Season

For most of my summer, I go to my family overseas. There are wonderful little vacations encased in this, but home time has a serious intensity to it so that I bristle if it’s called a holiday.

Up at sunrise during the summer to seize every moment

As an immigrant, my herd of Shoulds has extra directions to pull me in. And the limits of time give their claws an extra sharpness. It’s super important to me that I help out my parents and siblings and child while I can see them, but that we also make fun memories, and keep my husband entertained since it is, in fact, his vacation, and that I get moments to feast my senses on the mountains and lakes and rivers of home—all while keeping up with writing and exercise. So the Shoulds run rampant.

Without my teaching assistant job playing the alpha role among the Should herd, it’s hard to figure out which Should is in charge. Each seems quite as demanding as the others. Yes, I should dig into writing, but think how bad the weeds will be if I leave the garden any longer. And have I really recovered my strength enough for a new term—maybe I should spend an afternoon lying around reading.

The Long Game

The word should is rooted in debt and guilt. Any argument I come up with against one therefore sounds like an excuse to shirk. Which Shoulds can we allow ourselves to ignore?

Taking my pick.

I’ve tentatively decided one thing. I’m not ready for another deep edit of my Eve novel yet. I’m too frustrated now. I’d have her jumping up and down by the third paragraph shouting “Read me, fools!” like she’s Maleficent or something. I need time to think before the next edit and submission rounds. Maybe I’ll have mulled it enough by next weekend, maybe I’ll leave it for half-term or even next summer.

You know what I ended up spending lots of time on for the end of my break? Foraging. I turned myself into a scrappy little squirrel to combat my scruffy little Should flock. I walked the lanes for hours picking blackberries and elderberries, and cooked them together into jam. With its murky elder depths, I’m hoping it will ward off winter colds. Nothing leaves you helpless at the stubby, plodding feet of a Should herd the way illness does! So maybe I’ve played my priorities right. We’ll see.

What do you do when pestered by Shoulds?

Persuading

This Week’s Bit of String: A particularly arduous apple pie

Who doesn’t like apple pie? My Year 10 student who was supposed to bake one for Hospitality and Catering, that’s who–or so he claimed. Much of the time, practical work is a fight with him, sometimes even more so than written work. Last week, we made pastry without too much bother, but he refused to make the filling and construct the pie the next day.

I tried impressing him by peeling one of the Bramleys in a mindblowingly long snake–must have been nearly two feet of apple peel. I pointed out that everyone else is doing the work, and he must do it too. I threatened him with workbook pages, and with his keyworker in all her high-heeled, jewelry-spangled, Welsh-accented glory. 

He in turn employed the persuasive techniques of emotive language, hyperbole, and sheer high-decibel whining. “I never get to do what I want! You can make me do this but I won’t enjoy it! You’re forcing me to do this, and now I guess I just won’t eat anything tonight.”

“What are you talking about? You’ll still get your dinner.”

Obie the kitten attempts to be persuasive about rummaging through bags of groceries

“Apple pie is so disgusting, I’ll lose my appetite forever!”

He realised I wouldn’t give in, so he helped chop the apples and then poured the sugar on and stirred. Then… “Miss, do you think I could taste one of those?”

Of course. He popped a bit of sugared, spiced apple in his mouth. The tension retreated from between his brows, and the corners of his mouth rose slightly. “Mmm!”

Every time, every bloody time. We fight, he finally does the thing, and then finds he likes the thing.

Effort, Innit?

I have to do a lot of convincing while at work. It often feels futile, fighting apathy with logic. “Yes, I know you’re tired. But we’re all tired and we’re all still here and the trick is not to expect that you won’t be tired, but to know how to keep going anyway.”

“It’s effort though.”

Secondary school students are taught persuasive techniques and even examined on them at the end of GCSEs. Some of them can rattle off HADAFOREST quite well (if you know, you know) but the linguistic devices don’t necessarily serve them as methods for getting out of work. 

I worry that one day my strength for the constant battling will dry up. One can hardly have an inexhaustible store of enthusiasm in the face of supreme reluctance–not that all my students are reluctant, nor that any one student is reluctant about everything. There are so many factors. 

But it can be draining, and then to come home and try to do writing work… Sometimes my mind starts sounding like one of the kids: “A synopsis, seriously? Ugh, that’s effort. I can’t be bothered.”

I do bother, of course. I love my book and I’ve worked so hard on it, I’m ready to start querying agents and I don’t want to back down now. I have synopses (longer version and shorter version depending on submission guidelines) which I don’t hate, in fact I even kinda like them (let’s not get carried away lest I overthink and question the whole thing). The Gospel of Eve is brilliant and funny and heartbreaking, and the pitch for my cover letters is fricking awesome.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Retelling the creation story from Eve’s point of view. I tell people what I’ve written and they say the pitch writes itself. There are plenty who want to hear fresh angles and to consider unheard motives. Retold myths is practically a whole genre now, with Jessie Burton’s Medusa on the Carnegie Award shortlist, and Madeline Miller’s Circe a massive hit from a few years ago. Natalie Haynes is an expert in this field, while Margaret Atwood and AS Byatt tried it out too. 

Even without fruit, trees are so inviting…

Comparative titles for my cover letter: boom! Done. 

It’s been handy to have widely-known source material to cite, but I can’t assume everyone knows about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or about Cain and Abel. All those things will be revealed in the flow of the plot, but my main focus is relationships, and reimagining the first ones. 

What would it be like the first time a baby was born, the first time people argued, the first glimpse at disability, the first non-heterosexual union?

That’s a lot of weight pressing down on one human. I’ve gone for a spirited, perhaps anachronistic tone though, with pithy observations and selection of detail that shows the light side of life as well. Eve has to persuade people all her long life, and humour is a great device. This is the story of her persuading her family to keep loving each other no matter what, and given that one of her first persuasive acts was inviting Adam to join her eating forbidden fruit, people aren’t always inclined to listen!

First woman, wife, mother, and sinner–supposedly. However, given that even a stroppy adolescent can’t resist tasting a bit of apple he claimed to despise… Mightn’t any one of us humans have stepped out of line if we were given the first opportunity to do so?

What persuasive devices do you use, on yourself or on others?

Looking the Part

This Week’s Bit of String: Ewoks and hippies

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

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

My new writing companion

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

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

Props and Costumes

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

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

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

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

More Than a Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitherto Unsung

This Week’s Bit of String: Bin day

I like to do an extra long hike early on Friday mornings before work. It amplifies the feeling of accomplishment for the week. Friday is Five Miler Day, but it’s also Bin Day, when the rubbish or recycling gets collected. Particularly now that it’s so dark and dreary, for stretches at a time it’s just me and the wheelie bins out there.

Sunrises and hoarfrosts aren’t exactly enhanced by eau de sanitation truck, or windblown cardboard recyclables. But flashing lorry lights reflected in dark windows, and the vehicle’s clanks and sighs, the passive-aggressive thumps of the bins back onto the pavement, say Friday to me. So I embrace the whole.

The things you find on bin day…

Sometimes I see a former student jogging alongside the bin lorry in his neon vest, grabbing the bins and lining them up to be emptied, and we exchange a wave. He had a great sense of humour in school and liked art and music. I hope that the other sanitation workers are a nice fellowship for him, and that his early waste collection shifts leave him time for creative pursuits. I worry that his duties might feel quite demoralising, though. I’m not sure I could handle it.

Hail the Workers

Perhaps inspired by this young man, I decided to write about a sanitation worker while experimenting in a workshop this week. Sarah Tinsley’s virtual Scribbles workshops are a fun hour of mixed exercises and sharing. We were looking at different ways of communicating what’s going on in a scene–different viewpoints, dialects… I tried a couple sentences in the voice of a young bin man, then a couple in the voice of an elderly man watching from his window.

Then, I had a go at narrating the scene in Homeric fashion, referencing “the rose-fingered dawn” that Homer so liked to mention in The Odyssey. I enjoyed this, so carried on with it. I feel we could enhance a lot of professional profiles by narrating them like ancient Greek epics. There are so many people in this world who go unsung.

“A rose-fingered dawn casts its light upon Ithaca Street, sentried on this fortuitous morn with firmly aligned ranks of fleet-wheeled waste receptacles…

“Sing, o Muse, of one who went valiantly forth and did battle on the field of GCSEs, was bested, and yea, battled them twice more in accordance with the law of the land…

“Sing how with utmost dexterity he wields the malodorous foes. One by one, before each dwelling place, he captures the rejected parcels and upends them into the belly of his vast, clanking barge. He leaves not a single receptacle correctly aligned, fearlessly conveying defiance to the very gods.”

Changing Voices

I think I’ll do more of this. It’s fun. One weekend at university, a bunch of us went on a conference and I decided to narrate the trip there. It was a good laugh. I’d narrated myself sometimes when I was younger, and once found that piping up, “Little did they know, but the girl was dying for some attention” was surprisingly effective. 

The rose-fingered dawn…

With social media now, we kind of narrate ourselves all the time. Remember when Facebook was young and naive and people put their statuses in third-person? Then it moved on to angsty first-person adolescence narration.

I think we should borrow styles more often. Try a bit of Dickensian impersonation, or David Attenborough. Brighten things up by narrating as Bob Ross. My kiddo just dressed up as him for Halloween. I threw in a brief bit of Shakespeare on election day: “Get thee to a voting booth, go!” Another example is sports commentator Andrew Cotter’s viral videos from lockdown, when he narrated his dogs as if they were engaged in sport. 

So, as we head into another busy week, let’s have a bit of fun sometimes and make each other feel epic. Lift up an unexpected character, who doesn’t usually get to play the hero; try on a different style. See what happens!