Welcome to Dystopia?

This Week’s Bit of String: The students are revolting

I used to support a class of Year 8s who rebelled Hunger Games-style during lessons. A teacher might be talking them through French prepositions or long division, when one after the other, the students would slowly, dramatically raise their hands and whistle the three notes of the mockingjay’s song, until the group was giggling and thoroughly disrupted.

As revolutionary causes go, I wasn’t impressed with theirs. The education they objected to was nowhere near as oppressive as the government from Susan Collins’ fictional Capital, nor as ruthless as many real-life governments around the world and throughout history.

You’ve probably noticed the ever surging interest in dystopian literature,  evidenced this week by increased sales of George Orwell’s classic, 1984. I find books like this fascinating, but I also wonder whether this attraction to dystopian fiction is constructive at a time like this. Are we just sensationalising our peril?

The Appeal of Dystopian Fiction

Leaving aside the amazing narrative talents of George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Lois Lowry, Patrick Ness, Cormac McCarthy, and other authors of great dystopian tales, what do we get from these stories?

Abandoned cabin in New Hampshire
Then there’s the mysterious beauty of contemplating ruined things…

The Huffington Post published an  essay on the sub-genre’s merits. These stories warn us about the insidious ways governments and/ or technology could usurp our rights. Certainly that must have been Orwell’s intent. With Winston’s experiences at the hands of the unfeeling, super-controlling Big Brother and the Thought Police, Orwell warned not only against fascists like Hitler’s and Franco (Orwell fought in the Spanish insurgency), but also against hyper-ideological dictators like Stalin. After all, according to this BBC New Magazine article, Orwell saw his comrades in Spain killed by rival pro-Communist groups as well as by Franco’s soldiers.

Dystopian fiction arms us. It shows us scenarios in which protagonists’ survival skills are tested to the maximum, forcing us to ask, albeit with stakes much lower than those the characters face, whether we ourselves would be up to the same job.

Current Relevance

To me, it seems a bit late to be brushing up on totalitarian governments with the help of 1984. Shouldn’t people have done that before voting? And—SPOILER ALERT—it doesn’t carry a message of hope, so it’s possibly not an ideal choice to galvanise a resistance movement.

I also worry that dystopian fiction skews our perspective. Our world hasn’t gone completely mad…yet. Places like Syria and the refugee camps, and the many areas worldwide that have been corrupt and impoverished for centuries—those are dystopias.

Those aren’t reasons to stop reading the genre, though (especially since there are so many gripping stories on offer; I love the sound of John Joseph Adams’ dystopian anthology Brave New Worlds, as described at the end of this Kirkus Reviews essay). It just means we need to read it for the right reasons. We should read with vigilance and appreciation, and with enough spirit to go implement the messages given.

Statue of 1555 Gloucester Martyr John Hooper
Gloucester statue commemorating Protestant John Hooper,  killed in 1555 under Catholic Queen Mary. Let’s not go back to religion-ruled dystopias, please.

With 1984 in particular, I think a striking lesson is this: the regime in that book wants to be loved. It wants to control every thought. And as anyone who’s ever been a teenager will attest, the need to be loved can drive one to dangerous lengths. The current leader of the free world, with his obsession over crowd (and hand) size and his compulsive tweets, shows some of those traits. How do we combat that uncontrollable insatiability?

Writing Dystopia

Even while realising that hell hasn’t fully broken loose yet, some of us find ourselves writing in the dystopian sub-genre more. I’ve written three dystopian short stories in my life, including The Apocalypse Alphabet, and they were all products of the last six months.

I checked with other writers on Twitter to see how they feel about dystopian literature. Rita Gould shares my concern that immersion in it may ‘feed the fear.’ Megan Manzano extols its ability to kindle emotion. ‘They make us sad, hopeful. They anger us. These books show us what we can do. If 17yr olds can create change, why can’t we?’  M.K. Anders notes,  ‘Seeing it portrayed is validating, even if the good guy loses.’

All very good points. When the world seems dark, we can’t deny our artistic urge to create something, hyperbolic or not, out of it. This may involve feeling more scared for a time, while we confront worst-case-scenarios burning in our imaginations. But then we locate what makes the characters keep going, like Hannah’s love for her son Jack in The Apocalypse Alphabet, and that helps in real life.

“‘Close your eyes and imagine fireworks,’ Hannah whispers, and Jack obeys, his fingers woven together in front of his shins, his eyelids almost translucent, spidered with delicate veins.”

I emerge from writing and reading these with fresh determination. We’re not alone. People have survived worse. We have a lot worth fighting for. Right, people?

Writing, With Children

This Week’s Bit of String: Eight thousand trombones and a dinosaur

When my son was in infant school, he had a dream about a circus act featuring eight thousand trombones and a dinosaur—a brachiosaurus or apatosaurus.

Naturally, I purloined this dream as a title for a short story.

Stealing dream titles is probably the least of my parental shortcomings. As a writer, I have always feared that being consumed in stories diminishes my ability to be genuinely present in my son’s life. I have wondered if writers are suited to be parents, easily distracted and somewhat moody as we can be.

Star Wars Halloween costumes
My Bear and me, using the Force and our imaginations a few Halloweens back.

I suppose, though, that those particular flaws aren’t exclusive to creative/ artistic types. And there must be ways in which our gifts actually help our children, right?

Have you ever been shaken by those concerns?

Irish Times Furor

Last autumn, seventy-year-old author John Banville, who sometimes wrote under the name Benjamin Black, confessed to being a terrible father in an interview with The Irish Times. He speculated that most writers are bad parents, due to an unquenchable thirst to be heard.

This created a storm of feedback from other writers, such as in this Irish Times follow up. It’s quite interesting to read their thoughts (I particularly enjoyed Joseph O’Connor’s hyperbolic script). Most of them disagree, on the whole, that writing and parenting are mutually exclusive endeavours.

I don’t  look at the dilemma between the two as a question of How does parenting affect my writing, but more as How does writing affect my parenting? Because my son has been the most important part of my world.

Potential Negative Effects
Frosty leaf
Inspecting a frost-guilded leaf together

I’ve pointed various times to writers being particularly empathetic. Surely the bits of string I’m constantly grabbing at might have led me to be a fun and supportive mother? But I worry I might have conflated his childhood experiences and expressions as fodder for anecdotes, new seedlings for my imagination.

Besides, I’m not sure empathy has an off switch. I’m fairly indiscriminate with it. As much as I adore my son and enjoy spending time with him, when I’ve reached a point where my characters are suffering particularly, I get wrapped up in them too. That’s why I particularly like The Walrus’s commentary on Banville’s controversy: literary critic Michael LaPointe countered the notion that ‘writers distinguish between art and reality, material and life, when very few do, or even desire to.’

Guilty as charged.

Lakeside thinking
Philosophizing by a New Hampshire lake

I also feel a degree of self-consciousness, of guilt even, if I write something that features children. Sometimes we let bad things happen to the children in our stories (it’s the way it goes, man) and I worry: does it make me an unfit parent that I can imagine this stuff happening? If he reads this when he grows up, what will he think of me? Will he see these stories as rivals?

Potential Positive Effects

So, I’m coming clean about my concerns as a writer-parent. It seems not a lot of other writers share these. In fact, it sounds as if quite a few people do a damn good job at both. I enjoyed Twitter discussions with other writer-mums, who shared happy stories about writing with their children, showing them that creating art takes hard work and practice (thanks to Melissa Graves). It hones our time management skills, forcing us to take advantage of what little free time we get (thanks, Erika F Rose). And getting to know our own children can reinvigorate us, putting more ‘spark and buzz’ into our work (thank you, Eleanor Nicolas).

Meanwhile, my son is fifteen now and pretty much likes to be left alone. He’s already composed an orchestra piece for sixty-four instruments. He studies Philosophy and Ethics and shares some very interesting thoughts, such as, ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who exists, and everyone else is just in my head. But then I think, everyone else must wonder the same thing too!’

Again, guilty as charged.

Writing Away the Winter Blues

This week’s bit of string: Moss loaves and leaf stew

Narnia-like landscape
Found any countries in the cupboard lately?

As kids, my brother and sisters and I spent our days outside, fortifying dens to protect against unseen armies or searching for faeries. We often pretended Winter is Coming (I’m cross with Game of Thrones for purloining this premise), because the additional threat of nature made it more exciting. This necessitated hoarding of bread and fish: loaves of moss scraped from boulders, and bedraggled leaves caught from the stream.

Even now, the onset of cold and dreary weather gives me a thrill and causes me to particularly relish writing time. Am I alone in being inspired by winter?

Studying the Effects of Temperature on Creativity

There are many factors in the creative process. Research seems to prove that exposure to warm temperatures, even if it’s just holding a warm cup of coffee, inadvertently encourages people to treat each other more warmly, or at least to perceive each other as less emotionally cold. People are more inclined to notice relationships and connectedness when they are physically warm.

Given that conclusion, and my insistence that empathy is crucial to the writing process (and to life generally), these studies make it seem that cold weather might be bad for writing.

However, cold temperatures foster a different type of creativity. According to the same study as above, cold weather encourages metaphor recognition and originality of response. (The latter attribute was partly tested with a pasta-name-inventing exercise. How do they come up with these things?) So perhaps it’s actually a good time to be thinking of new story ideas, building new worlds, and incorporating symbols and meaning into our work.

Advantages of Winter Writing

Resourcefulness: Some of my most unique ideas come during cold months. A story featuring dolphins on Mars, for example, and my play A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division, in which a secret government agency spies on people’s dreams to solve crime. Maybe we harbour an innate response to hazardous cold, an ability to consider options beyond the usual suspects. Isn’t that rather thrilling?

winter-branch
See? Beautiful.

Fewer distractions: Sometimes I think, thank goodness it’s horrible out; I can just get on with my writing. Everything’s stripped bare, and that’s beautiful to me. The bleaker landscape makes shape and rare colour stand out, and that emerges, I believe, in my writing.

Structural integrity: Even if the drop in temperature renders it more difficult to fully appreciate the pulsing inner warmth of my characters, this could be a good opportunity to look at the mechanics of plot and retrace the structural foundations of a tale.

Creating our own heat: Further data shows that winter causes us to seek psychological warmth. People renting online movies choose romantic ones more often in wintertime. What better place to seek warmth than with our characters, preferably while huddled under a quilt and sipping some hot fruity tea?

I realise I’m lucky. I no longer live in part of the world that gets extreme weather. And in any part of the world, winter can have a terrible effect on some people, bringing depression which might dry up the very creative juices which could have sustained them. If that describes you, there are pages on the NHS website and on this useful Writing and Wellness site, which I hope might help. It’s not a problem to be taken lightly.

Taking the Weather With You

frostywebAs it turns out, both my completed novels use extreme weather as a backdrop during the pinnacle of the action. In The Wrong Ten Seconds, tensions escalate during a brutal heatwave in a small midlands city. In Artefacts, everything unravels as the New England temperatures plummet:
“I love looking at you in this spooky snowstorm light.”
“It’s not really a storm.” Helen stared at the snow swirling around a streetlamp. Every now and then, a flake was caught in a gust, and blown upward against the bulb, brilliant as a firefly.

Selecting seasonal details to enhance characterisation and plot is another part of the fun.

Do you think winter affects your creative process? How much does it impact the characters in your stories?

 

2016: Nothing But a Number

The general consensus seems to be that 2016 was a particularly rubbish year. It’s a bit facile, though, to assume recent international disasters sprouted randomly in response to the page-turn of a calendar.

Attack of Trump Man: children's book
Saw this children’s book in a Cardiff shop at the end of 2015. Attack of Trump Man. Was it a sign?

As writers, we tend to reject such premises, and to root around for causes. With minimal detective work we can see that Brexit and the Trump election were a long time coming, thanks to economic disparity, normalising of white supremacist ‘alt-right’ rhetoric, mainstream media obsequiousness, the hubris of established party politicians…I could go on.

The cancer that killed various celebrities was proliferating in their cells before. The citizens of Aleppo have been suffering for years; politically oppressed perhaps for decades. Extrajudicial killings of black people and the militarisation of police was already going on, racial bias and mistrust of law enforcement existing since before the United States signed the Declaration of Independence.

I bear no ill will towards 2016. I’ve watched it be rather kinder than its predecessors to those dearest to me. But I feel trepidation at saying I’ve had a decent year, because who knows what strife or loss germinates as I write this. The same is true for all of us. I only hope the hard work I’ve done this year, particularly in my writing, will later blossom into more success. (Although unfortunately, hard work in actual paying jobs seems to guarantee me very little security, particularly this year.)

Spring leaves and broken windows
Looking from the broken windows of 2016 to the fresh leaves of 2017…Or maybe I just liked this picture.

I’m always fascinated by stories which use the tiniest misstep to accelerate into a wicked tango of tragedy. Stories such as Atonement, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the novel I finished reading the other day, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. These books give me a sense of awe as I contemplate their what-ifs. In my own work, I’ve laid out a similarly inevitable, escalating path in my novel Artefacts, as characters’ niggling insecurities feed off each other until they reach monstrous, crippling stature.

This year I wrote a new novel, The Wrong Ten Seconds, in which a man’s reckless deed becomes a viral video. Disaster ensues—not chaos, because it’s a particularly sequenced chain of events as other characters are drawn in. I’ll be editing my quite rough draft of The Wrong Ten Seconds in spring 2017, aiming to tighten up that chain.

Next year’s other plans—not goals, because I’m actually going to do these things—have their roots in projects from this year. I’ll finish my current novel, Society of the Spurned. I wrote the first half during November for NaNoWriMo. After editing The Wrong Ten Seconds, I’ll research and query agents.

A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division cast
The amazing cast for last September’s production of A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division

Then I’m going to expand my one-act play, A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division, to a full-length one. That’s the bit I’m most excited about. Starting to explore playwriting last January and February, developing an unconventional but exciting premise, and then having it performed in September in its current short form, were highlights for me this last year. Reading at the November Stroud Short Stories event was another exciting moment.

Bank Cafe, Dursley
Preferably, I’ll be working relentlessly while sitting on a comfy couch scoffing posh cups of mint tea and the occasional brownie, such as here in Dursley’s Bank Cafe.

There have been plenty of rejections. I will need to work relentlessly, to read and improve and network. I’m fortunate to have support from my extremely discerning brother—my number one reader—plus a warm and talented local writers group, loads of inspiring connections on Twitter, and a husband who knows how to set up websites.

And of course, I have my beloved characters to motivate me. For example, Charlie’s expression of my general philosophy, in The Wrong Ten Seconds: ‘Suffering adds a whole new depth to beauty.’

And the words of Helen’s brother in Artefacts: ‘Sure, we all make our own beds. But we don’t have to lie there forever! If we don’t like the bed we’ve made, we can jump on it. We can throw the covers off and tear up the sheets!’

The possibilities are endless. I just have to keep my eyes and ears open, to gather bits of string until I find myself entangled in the next project. What threads will you be pursuing in the new year?

Let There Be Dark

This week’s bit of string: Fourteenth century ploughing techniques

Stories are like a box of chocolates; some of us can’t resist the dark ones. I don’t mean dark as in using horror elements, but rather the darker aspects of real life, from brutal struggles and current events.

I sometimes fear that writing ‘dark’ stories may put off readers who seek literary escapism. How do we justify putting serious issues into our work?

Dark stories need tough heroes/heroines to blaze through them. After all, fiction is only as sad as its characters, just as life is only as sad as we feel.

Utilising Juxtaposition

There are so many elements to a story: plot, setting, characters, tone, dialogue… And there can be different degrees of darkness to each element. For example, Catch-22 has a horrific wartime plot, but the tone is humourous. Cruel deeds may unfold against a bright summer setting, as in L’Etranger (one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read).

We don’t use these contrasts to dilute the message. Rather, the idea is to illuminate and emphasise it. Interweaving tragedy with comedy can sharpen it with the shock of the unexpected.

Church steeple glowing at the end of a dark alley
I don’t think this church steeple would have looked nearly as impressive if I hadn’t approached it through an abandoned dark alley.

We can create characters that suffer terribly, but perhaps they have a sense of humour about it. We all know people like that in real life.

My first published story, ‘The Meek Inherit,’ portrayed a small snapshot of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. But I used a fiercely imaginative, independent Haitian girl’s point of view, which imbued it with a sense of hope. Through her, I could bring attention to Haiti’s misfortunes, but also to the resourcefulness of its people. ‘How dull reading would be,’ Robert Burdock commented in his review, ‘if every story had a Disney ending.’

Instigating Change

After I read my story The Apocalypse Alphabet at Stroud Short Stories’ event recently, a couple of very talented writers spoke to me afterwards and described the story as harrowing. I began to apologise, but they said, ‘No, no, it’s important to be harrowed sometimes. If that’s a word!’

Harrowed is a word, as it turns out. The word harrow comes from a medieval Dutch word for rake, and a harrow, thusly, is a spiky tool that pulverises soil before planting. A painful process, no doubt—which then contributes to yielding useful crops.

Good fiction has the power to shake us up, jolt us awake, and change our habits. I can think of two books I’ve read in recent years that have altered my thought patterns. Marina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans honestly and wittily brings attention to the plight of migrant workers in the UK, including some working under dreadful conditions at a chicken packaging plant. Since reading this novel, I only use free-range chicken products, because it made me realise: companies that mistreat animals for profit will most likely mistreat human workers, as well.

The second book was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. This tormented, semi-autobiographical book about an adolescent boy desperate to win his religious father’s approval honed my awareness about the legacy of slavery for generation after generation of African Americans. I was struck by the fact that Baldwin’s grandmother had been a slave, and her first children had been taken from her and sold. His writing made me consider the devastating impact this would have on a person’s ability to love and form familial bonds later on—and this would then impact her children, and their children, and so forth.

Lamppost illuminated in wooded park
Let there be dark, that the light may show up against it. Stratford Park, Stroud

It’s not easy to be shown the dark underbelly of the bloated, overfed privilege some of us enjoy. But I believe we can learn from it. And fiction is particularly placed to do that, because it opens up our imaginations. Imagination doesn’t merely lead to escapism, it can lead to empathy as well, which as I’ve previously discussed, is the key to changing the world.

So, what books have harrowed you to the point of growing new crops, so to speak? How much dark reality do you find acceptable in a story?  Personally, I’m a realist. I like any happy endings to come out of a recognisable version of the world. I love Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, in which a man tells his mistress a tale with various dark twists involving slavery and sacrifice, but sets it against a dazzling background of an ancient city on a distant planet.

His lover whispers, ‘”Why are you telling me such a sad story?”’

‘”I tell you the stories I’m good at,” he says. “Also the ones you’ll believe. You wouldn’t believe sweet nothings, would you?”’

Why We Write

This Week’s Bits of String: An unknown 14-year-old’s thoughts on street art

Having established that both art and the empathy it enables can be excruciating processes, the next question is: What do we get out of it? This question reminds me of Dulcinea begging Don Quixote to explain himself in The Man of La Mancha. And the analogy makes sense. Writers and artists tilt at windmills when we try to draw beauty and order from the sticky marrow of reality. It’s a difficult job. Why do we insist on dreaming this impossible dream?

A Noble Reason: Resounding Into the Chaos
Spotted in Stroud: Lamppost stump repainted as Crayola crayon
Transforming blank space in Stratford Park, Stroud: this stump of a lamppost becomes a giant crayon.

Julia Bell, in a piece for The Guardian about the ability of books to change the world, quotes Salmon Rushdie: “If literature is not an argument with the world then it is nothing.”

Arguments aren’t pretty things. But sometimes, making art or writing literature doesn’t mean inserting beauty onto a blank page or canvas. Instead, it can mean creating depth, and to accomplish this, we must guide readers through dark places, and alert them to some ugly monsters.

Working as a teaching assistant, I once found a scrap of paper in an Art classroom. It was a copy of a questionnaire assignment Year 9s devised on the ethics of street art. One of the questions was: ‘Do you think Banksy is doing the right thing?’ and the anonymous respondent had scrawled, ‘Absolutely not! But neither is anyone else!’

These kids are on to us.

In other words, even with the edgiest art forms, we aim to project intent into a seemingly cruel, random world. Sometimes the intent, as with post-modern authors like Kafka, is to expose the chaos by reflecting it. Other writers, from Charles Dickens to Alice Walker, reminded society to uplift those being trampled in the disorder. The current ‘Own Voices’ books campaign continues this quest today, as more people seek out stories from LGBTQ authors, ethnic and racial minorities, and people with disabilities. Support this exciting movement by checking out this list on Goodreads and choosing a few books for your Christmas list.

A Possibly Less Noble Reason: Grabbing Attention
Puddle full of colourful leaves
We write because we are like leaves cast too soon from the tree, left with no choice but to brighten puddles instead.

We also do it because we want to be heard, even those of us with the privilege not to be in a minority or disenfranchised group. Stories may be fictionalised, often wildly, but the emotions they draw on are real, and perhaps, in our humble opinions, heretofore neglected. I love Esther’s thought in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel. That would fix a lot of people.”

We tell ourselves that our acts of creation will at least avenge, at most remedy, the ways in which the world tries to destroy our spirit.

One of my favourite motivations for writing is to resuscitate memories of people and places I no longer get to see. Putting versions of them in stories allows me to keep hold of what time snatches away. As the protagonist, Helen, exhorts her students in my novel Artefacts:

‘Let’s write, and mine the glimmers inside that might turn out to be gems. Whether it’s people we love, or the feeling of playing a sport really well, or a place we visit that makes us feel free, let’s use those to defend ourselves.’