Fated to Create

This Week’s Bit of String: Catalog of catastrophe

At the start of this unending term, I changed my contract to leave school 2 hours early on Tuesdays. Just a couple extra hours a week, I hoped to use these as a springboard to cope with all the writing work and the household chores. 

Only it hasn’t quite worked out. Last Tuesday, I got some errands done but when stowing one of my purchases under my bed, I noticed a feather or two around my shoes. Then a few downy clumps further back. With growing unease, and knowing that Obie the Babycat in what is surely intense devotion sometimes brings his kills under my side of the bed, I emptied the entire space. 

But isn’t he a precious little cat?

It seemed to be carnage left from a week ago, when he brought a blackbird upstairs–trailing blood spatters over the pale-carpeted stairs and hallway which took me over an hour to scrub out, one speckle at a time. And it took me quite a while again, to sort out my shoes and bags, and hoover up all the feathers that had gotten inside them. 

Dinner was in the oven as I did this, the second night of a cauliflower cheese batch I’d prepared at the weekend. Super efficient, right? Except when I took it out of the oven, it was as cool as it could be on a 28-degree-Celsius day. The oven had died. I had to re-dish it, and microwave individual portions. 

We all have times when nothing seems to go smoothly, and circumstances keep us from our writing, or wear us out before we can get to it. To our dramatic writerly brains, it feels like a personal attack from the fates themselves. It’s easier to notice things that stop us from writing, than things that go right.

Could that be because, to an extent, writing is hard work and when life wears us down, we’re almost looking for an excuse not to?

The One and Only

Like many people, I project a grand authorship over life sometimes. I consider the what ifs: What if my husband had missed his train and we never met? What if our kiddo got into a different uni, one that looked after the students through covid so they didn’t have complete breakdowns, ultimately starting life over in another country? I don’t actively credit fate with these things, though. Mostly it’s myself and other people around (and the cat!) that affect my daily goings-on and beyond. 

Maybe someone else could do the history-making?

The problem with believing in fate or some sort of grand author means we might fall into thinking the full story’s written. This has been on my mind with the Presidential debate in my native USA. Political parties seem to think that just because a particular senior white guy won that one time, it absolutely must be him again. Note that the Republicans have done that with Trump–he won in 2016! (Popular vote, shmopular vote according to them)–He must have actually won in 2020 and will undoubtedly win in 2024. 

But was Biden really the only person who could have managed the 2020 Democratic victory against him? Surely anyone with empathy and discernment could do it? Given how life carries on, and the many variables of national and international politics, the aging process, the changes to media consumption… I’m not sure it’s fair to say that only one person out of the whole population could do even this unique and intimidating job.

Desire vs Destiny

Believing only one person is meant to do only one thing subtracts choice from the equation. I’ve looked at that in my novel about Eve. She and Adam were essentially created for each other–but would they choose each other? We’re better at something when we’ve chosen it, when we know we want it.

And sometimes, we will convince ourselves that what we want is what we should have. The friction between wants and needs is crucial in a character’s trajectory. How many people have run for president insisting that God told them to? I wonder how they rationalised it to themselves after it didn’t work out.

An alignment of stars

Being accustomed to treating my wants with skepticism and refraining from boasts, I’ve lately been researching the querying process for The Gospel of Eve, to make sure I get it right. Apparently we’re supposed to convince agents not just that our book has a market and is super relevant today, but also that it is uniquely ours. I’m supposed to explain, very efficiently and pithily of course, why I alone could write Eve’s story and provide an alternate view of the Creation myth.

Yikes. It’s taken me some time, and late night thought, to come round to this. Anyone could offer a take on humanity’s origins. But I’ve created Eve with warmth and wry humour, and as I worked on my cover letter, it occurred to me that the major beats of my life have orchestrated the book I’ve written. 

Growing up in an evangelical family in rural America, becoming a single mother and in a way, transferring my faith from religion to my new little family, then immigrating with my little Bear. I’m a combination of outsider and insider, able to balance questions with respect for those who love and depend on their God. 

And I’ve also actually written the thing, and rewritten, and edited, and edited. I created a brand new version of an ancient epic–at just 340 pages, in fact–and plenty of times it felt as if the world were conspiring to exhaust me. Maybe it does take more than just wanting something, choosing it, to manage such a challenge.

What do you think? Are you particularly fated to create certain works?

Following Through

This Week’s Bit of String: Setting out the pots and pans

On busy days, I put out the cooking dishes I’ll need for dinner before I even leave for work. I’m convinced it helps me later on.

It’s a mystery to my husband, the difference it makes to have a saucepan out ready for pasta, or a baking sheet for roast veg, maybe even the olive oil standing to attention beside the stove. I realise it doesn’t actually save me time. But it’s a springboard, a little jump in momentum.

Pointing the way

If I feel a task is already started, it’s less daunting to carry on with the whole thing. Not that I have much choice regarding cooking dinner! But if it’s a really awful chore, like dusting or scrubbing the shower, having the space cleared and the cloth or scrub brush out convinces me to get on with it when I get up in the morning or come home from the schoolday.

Writing is similar. Just amending Pages’s silly default settings, titling a document, and putting page numbers at the bottom (to be really optimistic), makes me feel I’ve got going. No turning back. And when a piece is properly in progress, I sometimes utilise the trick of stopping midsentence so I know how to crack on when I return to it.

Finding the Way Through

To write a novel, I plan to a fair degree. After all, it’s so much work; I need to be sure something tangibly happens, that my protagonist is transformed in some way. Then I can write with a sense of what needs to occur in the beginning, middle, and end, stepping stones to guide me through the big project. 

Short stories are often more vibey for me. I might have a character idea or an event idea, but almost never both. So I won’t necessarily know what happens, or who it’s happening to. Still, a short story feels less unwieldy, and it’s exciting to dive in without a plan. But the amount of options can be daunting.

In lieu of plot points to get me through, for a short story I like to coalesce around a certain language motif, or imagery theme. In “Pie a la Mode,” I followed the schoolyear’s changing weather and linked it to relationships. In “The Albatross of Albany High School,” I had Coleridge’s poem weaving throughout, a thread to follow. My current short story is about a fairground accident so I have all the carnival imagery to focus on.

The Finish Line

I’ve only just finished the fairground story, which I started writing during half-term. It’s been a long time since I did a first draft, and this is a really rough one. Just write it, I had to remind myself. Keep slamming whatever down; shape it later. And holy guacamole, I’ve got plenty here to chisel.

Winging it with writing a story feels similar to the fasting and dieting I’ve been doing. Fasting removes the usual structure of meals, the timings of a day dependent on treats. What are the markers here, am I even nearing my goal?

Pick a thread, any thread

In an essay for LitHub, short story writer Yukiko Tominga talks about how she knows when to end a story. It’s “when I feel kindness.” Writing is her process toward loving a character despite their flaws. If she still feels “meanness” toward anyone, the story isn’t done.

This seems a beautiful way to view any process, really. We are journeying toward kindness. Any glimmer of sympathy is a stepping stone toward this, any hint of another’s motives is a thread we can follow toward sympathy or even empathy.

Planning ahead with my chores, placing equipment ready, I’m doing myself little favours, getting the initiation of the tasks out of the way. My diet makes me feel kinder to myself, and gives me more focus in the meantime. My current story draft, slapped down with random idea spatters and sprawling tendrils, has material I can work with to feel kindness to the characters and hopefully point readers in that direction.

What kindnesses are you striving for?

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?

Making It Up

This Week’s Bit of String: Near-misses and resistant materials

“Miss, did you ever almost cause the death of a small child?” a year 10 boy asks casually as we sit on the high stools around a Design Technology table. Three boys with various tools and MDF fragments, me with my laptop and notebooks.

This is Resistant Materials. I know very little about CAD, woodwork or metalwork, but I’m supporting a student doing the GCSE. When I told my husband I’d be helping with Resistant Materials, he quipped, “Is that the course, or the students?”

Fair question. But I’ve clearly won some trust. The boy who’s asked this surprising question explains to me that he was once on a ferris wheel with a friend, and her shoe fell off and almost hit a toddler on the ground. Hence, he feels he was beside someone who almost accidentally caused the death of a small child.

Big wheel keep on turning

Story ideas pivot on crucial moments like the one he mentioned. A slight change in breeze, an incremental rise or fall in the Big Wheel, and the shoe might have hit. I noted the exchange with the Year 10 boy and preliminary thoughts about the alternate scenarios in my daily scribbles, ready for half-term when I have a few free hours to sit, and wrestle out my first new story of the year. I’ll have my latest novel edits all typed up by then.

Exploring Options

Around the time the Resistant Materials boy mentioned his anecdote, I was reading through a literary magazine called Story. It’s based in the US, and I discovered it because I was looking for submission possibilities and Googled “short story magazine.” Sometimes we forget to keep things simple; we look through comprehensive listings of publications and deadlines and fret over word counts… This was more a case of “ask and you shall receive.”

There were some great stories in this issue. My favourite was about a group of boys and their scout leader who got trapped in a cave for several days. The dynamic among the boys before, during, and after was fascinatingly written. It made me realise–and again this sounds SO obvious but it’s another thing that I lose sight of now and then–we get to make stuff up.

I’m pretty sure the writer hadn’t been stuck in a cave or been close to someone who was. But they did a great job making up the scenario and tracking its impacts. I’m going to do that too, I thought. Make something up.

I tend to be a bit timid with my ideas, whether it’s from actual fear or more likely, lack of mental energy. Starting from scratch is EFFORT, to borrow the ultimate disparaging statement from my students. That’s why it can be useful to begin with a memory, with a favourite setting or even person, or with a retelling, a twist on something old.

What About the Future?

Lately, I’ve indulged in inventing future scenarios. If my imagination is slightly inhibited regarding stories, I severely limit it when considering how real life could turn out. I’ve done this from a young age, to avoid disappointment. I specifically remember preparing for my 8th birthday, to be celebrated at Chuck E Cheese’s, something I’d wanted for years. Rides! Games! Pizza! I’d wanted it, but wouldn’t allow myself to picture it, because that would risk building expectations. 

Maybe the Event will bring us here.

If we’re tuned into the world, and we have an ounce of empathy, it can’t escape our notice that we’re clinging to some privilege. Whatever tough times we’ve had, billions in the world are substantially worse off. My husband and I remark to each other sometimes about the Event, an imaginary but tacitly half-expected reversal of world fortunes.

“This would be a strategic location in the Event,” he says when we take in hilltop views on a hike.

“For the Event,” I say when I add to the ranks of canned goods in the cupboard.

But it’s also possible that amazing things will happen in the future. You know, on occasion. Struggling to sleep with exam stress on behalf of my students recently, I started imagining what, for example, our 30th or 40th anniversary might look like, having just celebrated our 20th.

Maybe we will be surrounded by family next time, instead of on our own. There could be a new generation of children on the scene, and though another decade could see further health complications for my parents, I imagined my own kiddo helping to ensure they’re looked after, and this brought comfort.

We can’t get attached to any single projection of the future. But envisioning positives—perhaps especially in the form of small, everyday details—is a new bravery for me. Part of appreciating what I have means letting go of my expectation of disappointment. And if events look to go in a different direction, then I’ll just make up new hopes.

How do you keep sight of the freedom to make things up?

Writing to Remember

This Week’s Bit of String: Memory manager

My mother always said you can tell a storm’s coming when the leaves blow upside down. It doesn’t sound logical, but she’s right. Once you’ve seen enough storms, you recognise a particular silvery toss. 

When I was a kid, we lived across from a lake and spent whole summer days there, sometimes cut short by thunderstorms. As black clouds massed over the water, the maple tree beside the landlord’s boathouse would thrash and moan.

And we’d run for it, holding hands across the road, towels streaming behind us. Once indoors, we watched lightning jitter over the lake’s teased-up waves, and sometimes the power went out. 

The lakes and trees of home

One such evening, we played on the scratchy carpet illuminated only by my dad’s battery-powered reading lamp. Perched on the edge of the sofa in his shorts, Dad flipped through a computer magazine and sang about the glossy adverts inside. I still recall the words:

“Super T-R-S control. Memory manager! Memory manager! Free inside this bo-oook!” As with many of his ditties, the first line copies the opening of “Good King Wenceslas.” Then he finished with a high-pitched flourish. 

At the time, we were probably bored with being inside in the dark, hot in the humidity, and hungry for a dinner my mom wouldn’t have been able to prepare without electricity, but all I remember is Dad’s goofy crooning, and it makes me smile.

35 years later, I have no clue what a super TRS control memory manager does in a computer, or if it is in fact something a computer still relies upon. I do know that at every stage of my writing life, memory has been an essential motivator.

A Justification for Stealing

As writers we are somewhat notorious for snatching versions of people from our lives and wriggling them into stories. Sometimes a whole person might get caught up with the bits of string we collect.

Preserving one-time theatre buddies, exchange students, or other lost friends in my writing helped get me through high school and college. I could huddle in my work when metaphorical storms came.

A local wall. Layers and fragments and wear and tear… it’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it?

Remembering is more than piecing together fragments. It is a profession of faith: You’re not here, but I believe in you, and the closeness we shared.

I’ve always loved Lionel Shriver’s line from We Need to Talk About Kevin, about a good-bye kiss the protagonist clings to: “I have relived that moment so many times now that the memory cells must be pale and broken down, like the denim of much-loved jeans.”

I’d done the same thing. Curled into a college half-desk in my Contemporary Poetry class, hunkered against a tempest of morning sickness, I would zone out from discussing TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and recall saying goodbye to my now-husband in Victoria Station. He’d cried and said, “You’re not the sort of person one forgets.”

I’d worried for the integrity of my memories, whether they’d buckle under the strain of my reliance. Is a remembered instant like a favourite song, and if you rewind too many times the cassette ribbon gets tangled and won’t play?

Nostalgia vs Declinism

Our memories aren’t saved into hard drives. They can get corrupted retroactively, or embellished. This is why I do my daily scribbles. My memory has a back-up. I’ve conserved in my pencil scrawl what ordinary felt like when my kiddo still lived here with us in the UK. I’ve described countless morning walks, in case the trees all get chopped down or my legs stop working. I’ve put down the frustrations and small wins and many laughs and a few tears over two years of getting to know SEN students who are now about to take exams and leave.

Studies show that the older we get, the more we prefer to reexamine the past than imagine the future. This is the tricky boundary between nostalgia and declinism, believing the best is all behind us and nothing good lies ahead.

Making the most of what washes up.

Crossing that border is dangerous not just to ourselves, causing anxiety and pessimism, but potentially to society. The nagging feeling that things must have been better before, surely the nation was greater once—it can lead to people making some selfish political decisions.

I get the anxiety, of course. When the future flashes into my mind, it’s often like the maple tree by the boathouse at our childhood lake. A menacing, pale toss. The present could so easily blow away; storms of some kind are inevitable.

So we run for it, into our memories, and I’m thankful for how writing has reinforced mine. If the alternative is oblivion, I am unrepentant about my pilfering. Besides, memory needs imagination to keep going.

While a remembered person or location can inspire me to start a story, it’s the moment when they alchemise with other elements of fiction, when they become something truly new, that motivates me to keep going. That’s when I know I’m on to something.

Understanding that helps keep me from getting lost in the past. The power of synthesising the old into something fresh and creative means we can make something from the future, whatever it brings. It’s like my dad making new songs from a Christmas carol and a computer ad, and I’m still singing it decades later.

How do you preserve your favourite memories?

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?

Prescription for Description

This Week’s Bit of String: Bluebell woods

For several blissful minutes on Sunday, I was alone in a bluebell wood, without even being rained on. The freshly unfolding flowers formed a bright, periwinkle-coloured carpet beneath beech trees. Underfoot, leaves crackled and beech nut husks split like sparking embers, and birds sang with pheasants occasionally interjecting a cough. There were so many blooms I could smell them, a beautiful faint perfume akin to hyacinth. I sat against a mossy tree trunk.

“This is as good as it gets,” I thought. How often do I have time to just sit, and amidst such wonder? The colour of bluebells revives like a charge of electricity. 

Electric.

But to recharge a depleted object, said object ought to keep still. And I did not. I couldn’t surrender my quest to capture the stunning colour in an iPhone photo (spoiler: not possible) and I was checking my FitBit steps, already past 13,000, and mentally inventorying my remaining chores of the day. My brain is an action junkie.

It’s like this when I read as well. I love reading, I love being engrossed and being transported elsewhere. But I get a bit itchy, so to speak, when entering a thicket of dense paragraphs. This translates somewhat to my writing. I feel that writing dialogue is my favourite and my best.

Is this a character flaw? I’ve always worried it’s unintellectual, this reluctance to immerse myself in long, lyrical descriptive prose.

A Little Less Conversation

I do like descriptions of course; I’m not a complete philistine. I had to read Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school and loved The Scarlet Letter. I’ve gotten through plenty of other classics. It’s just a relief when a story whizzes through dialogue, especially since I do a fair portion of my reading while on the treadmill. Got to keep up a good pace! 

Over the years I’ve had to realise that snappy dialogue doesn’t equal efficient plot development. I interpreted “show don’t tell” to mean you let readers watch a conversation unfold, and decide for themselves what’s going on. But there’s a lot more weeding and pruning required, as well as tactful planting.

Carefully unfolding

A reasonably-sized paragraph can convey actions that took place, sometimes more naturally than having characters discuss it. This also establishes narrative voice: how does the story’s speaker sum up what’s happened? Same with world-building. Since I’m writing Eve’s story, her observations about the setting in Eden versus exile are key. But she’s not about to spend time going on about it when she has heaps of children, grandchildren, and so forth to keep an eye on.

Part of my editing process is to look at paragraph patterns. Check narration isn’t a litany of subject-led sentences (“She did this. He did that.”) Avoid extended conversations, which can sometimes feel like watching a tennis manage. (She said this. He said that.) I look for short, quick paragraphs to give way to long, and for longer reflective passages to be punctuated with pacy interaction.

That’s probably something I need to do better in life as well: accept the occasional quiet moment without freaking out about the next, sometimes self-imposed, deadline.

A Few Favourites

I revel in rich descriptions, particularly when they don’t travel in packs. They can be threaded throughout a piece. Here are some methods I love:

Make it multisensory: Readers will hardly be immersed if using only their eyes. We need to know how it sounds, smells, feels, as well. Some of us might not have full command of our senses! I enjoyed helping elderly, sightless Eve identify people by their voice and sometimes odour. These provide extra hints to secondary characters: “Her voice was softness on a flinty foundation.” “I listened to waves whisper like sighing logs, tossing seashells like crackling sparks.”

Graveyards are spectacular to describe…

Metaphors drawing on everyday life: Even the grandest sights can be relatable. What we decide to compare things to says a lot. The poet Simon Armitage provides a gorgeous example of balancing the spectacular with the mundane in “The Civilians:”
“The golden evenings spread like ointment through the open valleys,
Buttered one side of our spotless washing.”

Stand-in for character turmoil: I often prefer setting descriptions to character ones. Character-driven stories rock my world, but while doing all that driving, said characters probably won’t have much time for self-analysis. They can project ourselves onto their surroundings; any description of place will indicate something about its people. Not just cliched rainy funerals or sunny meet-cutes, I mean places of isolation and toughness, or chaos or tenderness. People trying to make it in deserted rural settings in Lulu Allison’s Salt Lick. The depressed town in Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the few inner chambers or the out-of-town lake that transcends this.

The fast-forward: I love time passage marked with carefully-selected details squished right up together. JK Rowling was great at this in Harry Potter; using the helpful device of plotting by school calendar, the holidays marked a chance to fill in story detail in a fun way. Harry’s first Christmas at Hogwarts, for example: “The lake froze solid and the Weasley twins were punished for bewitching several snowballs so that they followed Quirrell around, bouncing off the back of his turban…” I do this with my chapter beginnings at each new generation Eve witnesses.

I aim to be better at appreciating the Pause function of observation and description, not just the fast forward. How do you feel about long paragraphs and slow bits? What sorts of description do you enjoy reading, and put to use in your writing?

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?

Literary Mothers

This Week’s Bit of String: Villains in the woods

Growing up, we were always acting out stories. We played them with stuffed animals, listened to them on cassettes, and ran through the woods pretending we were heroes with baddies after us.

We lived beside a rustic, lakeside resort in New Hampshire, and its cottages were scattered above us in the forest, empty until summer. We’d patter along the footpaths, assigning different storybook villains to each cabin. Maleficent, the White Witch, the Big Bad Wolf, Snow White’s evil queen, and the Wicked Witch of the West all holed up in those cottages.

Which baddie might live here?

Mom accepted that we never wanted to play the bad guys ourselves, so she’d put on a crone voice and play the witch part, chasing us along while we shrieked excitedly. She always had to be the villain in our games and by doing so, she gave our games and stories extra potency.
 
As thrilling as Mom made our childhood, I could never write her into my fiction. I sometimes take people or moments that I irresistibly return to, and put versions into stories. But my mother wouldn’t work as a character. She’s too good.

Having devoted every second of her life to four brilliant (I mean, you should see my siblings) but very weird, needy children, plus helping earn a living primarily working with special needs students in elementary schools, plus volunteering at church and generally being a magnet for waifs and strays… She is the Most Patient Person in the World™ and my mother couldn’t be believed if she turned up in a book. 

In modern literature, she’d be covering up for something. Her good deeds would be belied by exerting painful standards on her children. But Mom is almost unfailingly patient, and while she sets high standards for herself, she loves knowing who we really are and accepts our differences. And she’s by no means boring, with her wealth of experiences and her exceptionally tolerant good humour.

The Good Ones

I aimed to do a round-up of good literature mums, and it was somewhat challenging. Just as many fairy tale villains are female, a fair few mothers in contemporary books are abusive (Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine or Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects), manipulative and self-centred (Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk), or detrimentally submissive (The Glass Castle and Tara Westover’s Educated).

This might reflect people being more honest about how hard parenting is. Not everyone is cut out for the job. So many other mums in books are consumed with survival. This absolutely does not make them bad mothers, but it makes mothering secondary to the plot. It’s like when a sitcom couple has a baby and the baby is hardly ever in the show. 

My Mom and my little Bear, 2007

I’ve been writing about Eve, the “Mother of All the Living,” and motherhood looms large in my work-in-progress. But she isn’t a brilliant example because she had much baggage, and no one to emulate. I love reading and writing about mums that know their kids well, mums who, even for a brief scene, play whatever silly thing their kid likes and enjoy it, even while admitting that a parenting day can be long indeed. After all, my mom was like that, and as a mum myself, time spent with my Bear–doing anything, really–is my very favourite thing.

So I’m thinking of Elizabeth Zott in Lessons in Chemistry, who is honest with her daughter about how tough the world can be, but tries not to pass her sadness on. Supporting, defending moms like in Wonder or The Fault in Our Stars

There are incredibly brave and devoted mothers like Mauma in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, who is enslaved but gives Handful as much freedom as she can. The mother in Room by Emma Donaghue whose son is her whole life, quite literally, for 4 years.

Across the Pond

British mums have a different vibe. There’s a looser family dynamic generally, which seems fine, and a sense that kids ought to entertain themselves a lot sooner. Every culture has its own ways. I’ve always appreciated the British phrase “she fell pregnant” implying that motherhood is some sort of disease, because aspects of pregnancy really do suck.

When Bear and I immigrated to join their dad, Bear was just turning 3 years old. Soon after, my mother-in-law complained to my husband that I was spoiling our not-yet-preschooler by playing with them too much.

Signs of spring for Mothering Sunday

My response was simply: “When, precisely, did this spoiling start? When Bear was a baby and toddler, when I was a single mum working full-time and finishing a degree?” My mothering, too, has been pretty survival-focused at times.

Still, I have plenty of British friends who clearly had children for reasons other than to complete housework.

British books have great mums, too: Agnes in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, for example. She seems to know her children on an almost supernatural level. “There is nothing more exquisite than her child.” Nazneen, fellow immigrant to Britain in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, feels similar wonder for her baby. She can’t protect her children from everything but she loves them desperately.

Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Amma in Girl, Woman, Other. I think of her quote as I miss my own kid, now on the other side of the ocean with my mother and all the rest of my family.

“the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some more noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
really”

That sums things up for me. Who are your favourite literary mothers?