Wait for It

This Week’s Bit of String: Heartbeats down the hall

“Just wait here while I check something.” It’s not what we like to hear at a doctor’s appointment, but I had bigger worries. Twenty years old, 7.5 months pregnant and still chronically nauseous, single and forced to drop out of college, desperately missing my ex-boyfriend and working 45-50 hours per week on my feet in 80-90 degree heat, I now had a fever and was just tired.

The doctor disappeared from the little exam room into the indecipherable warren of the obstetrics unit. If I refused to wait, I’d never find my way out, but at least it was air conditioned. I rested my elbow on a table of magazines and closed my eyes while my son did chinups on my ribs.

Somewhere in the labyrinth another expectant mum listened to her baby’s heartbeat. I could hear the Doppler machine through the walls, a steady rhythm behind my exhaustion.

Worth the wait, then the unending watch

And a woman’s voice, maybe the mother, maybe a companion, maybe a hallucination. Her chatter flowed high and melodious. She broke off to laugh, and in other moments broke into song: “On My Own” from Les Miserables. A languid, lonely line or two then more cheery talk, while the baby’s heart sounded.

When I first found out I was pregnant and got dumped (we married way later though, so don’t worry) I often wondered how I’d make it through months of this uncertainty before holding my baby. Waiting is hard, especially when everything else is a mess. The waiting and the uncertainty are huge emotional drains during the pandemic, don’t you think? We don’t know when we’ll be reunited with distant loved ones, we don’t know whether the economy will sustain itself, or indeed whether pasta will be available at the next grocery trip.

In this environment, we wait for my son’s A-Level grades. Until next Thursday, we won’t know what university he can go to, or where he’ll live, or how long he’ll need to stay there. It feels like a high stakes waiting game but I’ve gotten better at this.

Practice Makes Perfect

Writers do a lot of waiting. We wait for feedback from beta readers, for competition results, acceptance from agents, publishers, literary magazines, we wait for reviews and we wait for regard. The competitions we enter in May may not give us results till October.

The other thing we wait for is availability. Time spent on the day job or on housework or even socially can feel like waiting, biding our time till we can be alone with our ideas and mould them into art. Certain distractions can be helpful, and at other times they make us resentful. I’m worst at this kind of waiting, the when-will-it-be-five-o’clock-so-I-can-finally-write-down-the-flash-piece-I-invented-during-my-lunch-hour-hike kind. Is producing thousands of pounds worth of energy bills really more important that delving into the imagined world of Jemima Deadly, Chef to the Celebrities, and her Biscuits of Doom? (One of my current short stories in progress.)

Blooming through the cracks

Leading this double life helps us cope with waiting, though. By learning to pause the flow of words so we can crunch numbers or strike up dinner conversation, we know how to compartmentalise. We send a story off somewhere, padlock the mental exam room where we birthed it, and wander through the warren in our brain to a different one.

From a chamber deep in our minds is a steady pulse: Must write. Must be heard. And with it surreal strands of song and laughter like a siren’s call. While we wait, we work on new projects. As the longlist and shortlist announcements approach, we enter that original cubicle and rifle through it: what will we change if it’s rejected? Where will we submit next? How will we promote it if it’s actually successful? I ration myself a few minutes of daydreams per day, then dash away from them on a torrent of Plan Bs, Cs, and Ds.

Passing the Time

Waiting is not a passive act. It’s a discipline. The origins of the word come from the terms for being awake, for keeping watch, and even earlier than that, from pre-English for “to be strong, lively.” In addition to stocking up on alternative submission possibilities and indulging in the occasional success fantasy, how do we maintain our strength during the rigorous wait?

Release your inner magpie: Go out and gather string, writers. Chase shiny things. Diversions are better than anxiety. Your story’s out of your hands for the moment, so relish the opportunity to invent a new one.

Street art, Southville, Bristol

Be practical: Plan where to submit next. I don’t like this part of being a writer, because seeking opportunities robs from the limited time I have for creating. It feels like that bad kind of waiting. But it is important, and when it’s done there’s the hope of new chances.

Stock up on positives: When you have doubts, send your work to friends, read it at a writers group, share a line in one of Twitter’s writing hashtags. It’s not the same as getting a contract or a prize, but encouragement always helps.

Remember others are waiting too: Everyone’s got something they’re keeping watch for. Support other writers and creatives so the wait doesn’t feel so long for them.

Poke your head up: Use the time to catch up on other aspects of life. We don’t want to find we were waiting for the wrong thing. I remember so little about when my son was a baby, I was so lost longing for his father.

I’m glad my son has had to practice waiting. Most 18-year-olds don’t go half a year without structure and yet manage to remain pleasantly functioning. He’s made new music, learned Italian, baked bread, set a record for speed running Lego Star Wars on ds, been an all-around best bud while I’m working from home. Whatever university he gets into, he’s ready to throw himself into it, with the knowledge that if there aren’t immediate results he can persevere.

It will be worth it. He was. And just as I survived that little fever and the long wait for his birth, and the wait to be a family, and the very busy wait to see what he’d be like as he grew, I guess I can survive the wait to see him at the end of his university term. With parenting, as with writing, when one wait ends another begins. But I think, after all we’ve been through, that one of the lyrics I overheard in the obstetrics waiting room is true: “Without me, his world will go on turning,” and this time that’s a good thing.

On Thievery

This Week’s Bit of String: A warren of ruins

The street of battered pizzerias and pale, boxy apartment buildings descended toward the Golf of Naples. Through a park gate flanked by palm trees, modern blocks fell away and we saw labyrinthine city remains, built with early cement bricks. Herculaneum.

Many of the houses had beautiful mosaics and painted frescoes. While Mount Vesuvius crouched in the background, we marvelled at the technique and skill still visible. But I struggled to imagine the real people who lived there. Their skeletons looked so small, huddled beside what used to be the seafront before the volcano dumped its ash, killing over 300 in seconds.

We can see they liked some colour on their walls, liked soaking in the baths. How did they feel about growing up, coupling up, having kids, watching them move on? Did the mums wake up early to go for seaside walks before anyone needed them? When the houses stood, did they look as alike each other as the modern apartments do?

When we consider history, we can only imagine it in reference to the present: these things are the same, these are different. It’s the same way with people, I think. We compare and contrast people to ourselves. We have sympathy: this person is like me; and hopefully we develop empathy: Ah, but this person is different, in other ways—I wonder what that’s like for them?

This week I helped host a Twitter chat for our Women Writers’ Network. The subject was personal writing—how much of ourselves do we show? It generated interesting discussion on memoir and autobiography, on crossing the boundary from reality to written word. Even fiction writers like myself often get asked, ‘Is it about anyone I know?’ Always with a hint of a nervous laugh.

It occasionally is, but you probably won’t recognise them. Here’s why.

Repurposing the Remains

Wandering through ruins, the missing bricks strike my curiosity as much as the standing ones. Centuries ago, did people cart some off to build roofs over their own heads? I researched the seven wonders of the ancient world recently for a short story. The pyramids, of course, were looted. Bits of the Colossus of Rhodes were sold as scrap metal, and blocks from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus fortified a castle.

We see things for their use to us, not always their intended purpose. Any anecdote or personality trait we snatch, it changes to fit our story. We can’t replicate reality because the context always gets tweaked.

When I was 11, I planned my first fiction series. The protagonists were based on favourite book characters, or shared characteristics with my own friends. I felt bad about it. Why wasn’t I clever enough to make up my own characters?

You wouldn’t have detected the source material, though. If anyone had read my crammed pencil scrawls, they wouldn’t have recognised my crush as the hero, because to make him heroic I had to put him in situations he’d never dream of. Plus, in real life he barely spoke five words to me, so I was basically making him up anyway.

Assuming a personality is made up of elements both natural and nurtured, none of these elements will weather the writing process intact. (More on this process here.) Any nurtured aspects will be altered by the scenarios they’re penned into, and any natural aspects are only guesswork on the author’s part. We can never fully know another person. I wouldn’t even bet I could duplicate myself on paper.

The Sacred Template

Another lesson I take from my adolescent experiments with character-snatching is that I needed a template. I didn’t know nearly enough about people to create well-rounded, imaginary new ones. Do any of us ever fully get there?

It’s like when you start in a job, for a while you aren’t sure if your correspondence will be good enough, so you use the provided templates. Then you know it by heart and you can write your own, maybe omitting inconvenient phrases such as “Please let us know if you have further queries.”

Sometimes we can’t help it. We encounter someone or hear about something and just have to create our own version. That’s allowed. The writing can still be complex, made up of clever disguises and massive leaps of projection. For example, I recently finished Madeline Miller’s wonderful book Circe. We read modern retellings of myths even though we know what will happen in the end, because we want to see how contemporary authors will make the characters accessible.

Our renderings of reality are also subject to the constraints of our craft and its current fashions. They say people once feared photography would steal a piece of their soul. In a way, pictures and stories do that—because they can only preserve so much. We may try to portray diverse characters, but we can only snapshot them and in today’s literary world we might get caught up in the great distillation race: How few words can I use to convey this life, how succinctly can I sharpen a person’s image?

I’ve said since working toward my degree almost 20 years ago that I write to remember, to recreate people and places I can’t get to. But I found early on that while I always love my characters, a figment of memory is not an equal source to a real person. The idea becomes a new person as I try to create.

It could be discouraging, the realisation that we can’t fully understand people beyond the corruption of our own perceptions and experiences. It probably means pure altruism isn’t possible. But it also means we all remain originals. The most brilliant writer ever to pick up a pen could not recreate you or me. So stay weird, folks, no one can steal that from you.

Choosing a Bubble

This Week’s Piece of String: Adolescents in a Hospital Ward, 1993

What’s the most diverse group of people you’ve ever been part of? Not just racially or politically, but in terms of experience and beliefs. For me it was hospitalisation when I was 12, in a unit later shut down after a surprise inspection. It wasn’t a nice place, but I quickly learned to like the people I was with.

We were aged 12 to 17, representing all colours, with heritage from Puerto Rico, Greece, and Jamaica. There were teens left there by the state for over a year. Runaways brought in from the street, kids stopping off on their way to longer detention, and private school students whose rich parents didn’t know how to handle them.

One boy, a few months younger than I was, had stolen a gun from Walmart. One girl’s entire family were in detox. There was a virulently anti-racist boy who suffered from muscular dystrophy, a junior KKK member, and a powerful African-American girl who didn’t hesitate to enlighten him. My roommate loved vinegar, Aerosmith, and her little foster brother who had spina bifida.

This puzzle fit together especially well thanks to its oddly shaped pieces…Must get my cheesiest metaphors out of the way before actually writing the next book.

We kept count of the times we heard The Bodyguard soundtrack on the radio (“Run to You:” 9 times in 2 weeks), and lived for the pizza bagels we were given on Friday nights. We were united against tyrannical psychiatrists and shared affection for the handful of kindlier workers. We jostled for shaving slots, during the one daily hour when we could access “sharps.” Through major personal crises, we cared for each other, and accepted our quirks.

In the midst of a new global crisis, as the government allows us to form “bubbles” of safety, I fear this will result in further entrenching us in homogenous opinions. Every book or TV series I love (and that seem to particularly resonate with readers and audiences) has a motley, diverse cast who beat the odds to save the day. And that’s how my next writing project will be, even if real life isn’t turning out that way.

Weirdos Assemble!

From The Baby-Sitters Club to last year’s joint Booker Prize winner Girl, Woman, Other, from Star Trek to The Good Place, our hallmarks of fiction showcase diversity. There’s always room to include more ethnicities and sexualities, but it’s also important to celebrate different personalities.

I love how Brooklyn 99 features not just multiple people of colour, but also two characters who are particularly emotionally guarded. Guardians of the Galaxy could be a descendant of Catch-22, in which a group of people with various bizarre passions and tendencies are thrown together to fight a common enemy. Isn’t every iconic friendship a pairing of opposites, an appreciation of certain foibles the rest of the world has rejected?

Scout, Jem, Dill and Boo in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Huckleberry Finn and his travel buddy Jim, the alliances Oskar builds in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Owen Meany and… you know, his best mate who tells his story.

My actual world.

You’ve probably got some favourite examples, too. As the pandemic shrinks our spheres of existence, makes every day similar to the next, and seems to embitter divisions, contemplating variance is refreshing. Have you found that?

Even now that activities are opening up, I still feel trapped in a waiting game. Wondering when I can see all my family in America. Waiting for results from competitions I’ve entered stories in, and still over a month from A-Levels Results Day, when our son finds out his grades and can then know which university he’s able to go to. In the COVID era, this also means that until his results come, we won’t know whether he’ll be able to visit home during university termtime or whether he’ll have to stay there in an allotted “bubble” of people on his course. So after emigrating from my whole family, I might now have to say goodbye to my child, my best buddy, for months on end… Yes, it’s high time to retreat into fiction and plan the next writing project.

World-Building

Starting a new novel is like designing your own plague-bubble. You’re not considering who to allow in the club, but who’s needed for the mission. I’m preparing to bring characters on board, I’m designing a set for them, and I’m coming up with plot points that ideally I’d like them to hit, but whatever, I trust their judgement.

Inspired partly by a hike past this unfinished mansion, which seemed to have a couple of young squatters…

It’s going to be somewhat apocalyptic; it’s more cathartic to imagine a better way through them than to imagine they don’t exist. Here’s my wishlist, because as writers we get to Write the Book We Want to See in the World:

  • A gothic-style setting, probably an abandoned manor house
  • A hint of the supernatural, because my last novel was about Eve and once you get to incorporate dragons and talking animals, there’s no going back.
  • Six main characters thrown together surprisingly, from very different walks of life
    • The enigmatic older caretakers of the estate
    • A spoiled but charming heir
    • His girlfriend, an immigrant who’s sacrificed parts of herself to assimilate
    • A recovering alcoholic who’d been homeless for months
    • A runaway nurse who just can’t take the front lines anymore
  • Certain personality traits to share around:
    • Someone obsessed with jigsaw puzzles, because that is one of my favourite Lockdown activities and why not use it?
    • Someone tuned in to religious iconography and symbols, you know, to heighten the drama
    • An element of uncertainty as to who’s REALLY in charge here. Which ones are the manipulators, which are the manipulated? Could they possibly, in some way, all be equally obligated to and fearful of each other? Does that mean they all need each other equally?
  • Art or music or poetry or exotic plants… the estate is bound to have some unique collections which could become significant. I’ll research obscure artefacts and see what I like.

What kind of reading and writing makes you feel better about the world? May your bubbles be safe but exciting, your books and your life studded with colourful characters.

What Took So Long?

This Week’s Bit of String: A nation of former slaves

Long known as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, few people know Haiti’s history. It was founded in 1804 by the slave population who boldly overthrew their French “masters.” However, they were then forced to pay money for their freedom or the French (with British help) would reinvade. Haitians started their country in terrible debt, many of them uneducated. The world wouldn’t trade with them. They were never given a chance to catch up to other nations.

In contrast, the American Revolution originated over taxes. I remember my childhood disappointment when I learned this. How unglamorous and ignoble!

Imagine then my distress when I was told a couple years later that the American Civil War wasn’t over slavery, just states’ rights. Yes, it was over states’ rights to hold people captive and abuse them. However, the North wasn’t honourable enough to fight the South over liberty and equality. It wanted its stature and capital back.

One side of my protest sign, the other side reading, of course: Black Lives Matter.

And finally, I was presented with the embarrassing discrepancy between the actual dates of both World Wars and the smaller range of years I’d learned in American history books. We were years late to both fights. Land of the free and home of the brave—where were we?

Now people in my country are fighting for causes of greater value. Do our voices belong in this fight after being silent? What shortcomings held us back before?

Guilt and Persecution

People of colour in the USA and other countries have faced a similarly difficult journey to Haitians. No one rushed to provide freed slaves shelter or teach them to read. No one gave them therapy to recover from family separations. Instead there was sharecropping, for-profit incarceration, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, police brutality, and probably more I haven’t read about yet.

155 years of those things doesn’t enable anyone to get over the even worse 246 slavery years that preceded them. Yet we’ve seen prominent white TV hosts argue that slavery wasn’t that bad, some masters were nice for goodness’ sake, while the same hosts raise hell if Starbucks makes a cup design less Christmassy.

A few of the Haitian people I was privileged to meet, and a reminder that the president insulted their entire country and population with only tepid objections from a handful of Republicans. Haitian lives matter.

Surely Jesus would not have shared Fox News’s priorities. However, religion seems to reinforce white silence now, perhaps because religions are focused around martyrs. Their exalted figures have suffered, and often people reduce that to an idea that suffering in itself warrants exultation. I believe that’s why some evangelicals support Trump rather than the African Americans living under constant bodily threat. His “suffering” is more like theirs.

In the social media age, many of us aren’t great at pausing our quest for attention. No one wants to relinquish a single ‘U ok hon?’ Whenever someone responds to Black lives matter with “All lives matter,” I picture a person uncomprehending of object permanence, who fears if their race loses the spotlight for an instant, they’ll disappear. A person who can’t see what’s worth fighting for.

Anti-racism means more than disapproving of extrajudicial killings. It means accepting—and expressing—that people have bigger, more ingrained problems than ours. It’s maintaining perspective: having to change our vocabulary to eradicate certain terms, for example, doesn’t equate to the abuses and injustices against people of colour which those terms represent. Feeling shame for how our systems treat minorities is uncomfortable, but nothing like actually receiving that treatment.

Deference and Dominance

In Haiti I noticed a lust to be white amongst some of the young people I met, as if their culture were still under invasion. My Haitian friends wrote me letters posted with stamps that showed white fairy tale characters, although their heritage is full of black heroes and legends. Schoolgirls tried to wipe a birthmark from my arm, not wanting my whiteness sullied.

We white people do the same thing, clinging to figures that have done nothing for us. We’ll settle for so little from those in power. $1200 for months of being unemployed during a pandemic, wow! Or: hey, that heavily armed police officer was polite when I asked directions. What’s all the fuss about?

When our race is the one in power, we have an innate belief that we as an individual can make it that far, too. We don’t want to upset the status quo because change might not benefit us. Why struggle against power figures who look like we do, who could one day be us?

Silence is compliance.” Kneeling in memory of of George Floyd with 200+ others in Stroud, UK

Up till now, some liked having local police departments driving armoured humvees. Some were glad when they could go to football games without having to witness a silent, kneeling plea to stop killing black people. And the rest of us who sympathised with Kaepernick’s point, and who felt nervous about law enforcement with deadly weapons, we didn’t want an argument. Partly we cloaked this in insecurity: who are we to speak up, when we’ve not been ordained by racial struggle? But also it was about staying in our comfort zone.

Then there was a grossly mishandled pandemic. The administration didn’t want to share medical supplies, calling them “ours.” Protest broke out and they called cities “battle spaces” and said they’d send in the military to “dominate.” Increasingly it’s clear the president sees America as another building to stamp his name on.

So more of us decide to fight. Our status quo is already threatened from the top. We might as well disrupt it.

It’s human to care more about things that affect us. We still ache for people who live in fear, and who grieve for loved ones unjustly taken. But we’re not the heroes here. In the great white American tradition, let’s fight even though we’re late, even with less than selfless motives.

This is my attempt to examine my own privilege. Hopefully other white people do the same. People of colour shouldn’t have to explain it to us yet again! Let’s listen to their stories and thoughts, not demand them.

Flags and welcome sign in Minneapolis, USA

There are countless black people dealing gracefully with white reluctance to face their pain. Check out American footballer Emmanuel Acho’s series “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man—” spoiler, he doesn’t make it uncomfortable at all. Visit Patrisse Cullors’s website, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement, and understand the aims of all the groups under the Organizations tab. Consider Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: “I don’t want to see white people wasting precious time profusely apologising rather than actively doing things.” Read Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again” and Danez Smith’s “not an elegy for Mike Brown.” Recognise why people are fighting for change.

So amplify, and give money! Support protests as a reminder to legislators that we’re the ones who put them there. Since I’ve been to Minneapolis and loved it but never in my mind connected it to the nearby tragedy of Philando Castile, so far their Freedom Fund is the one I’ve chosen to donate to. Next up: more family discussions, more emails to officials, more sharing minorities’ thoughts and work, more donations to educational funding, and I think I’ll check out Dr. Mary Frances Berry’s book History Teaches Us to Resist.

How are you supporting change?

Finding the Happy Ending

This Week’s Bit of String: Half a Donut

I used to work in a nursing home. One day we walked into the staffroom for a quick morning break and found a box of donuts on the table. “It’s Carers Appreciation Day!” said a note taped to it. “Feel free to cut yourself half a donut as a reward for your hard work.”

We were underwhelmed. The large, privately-owned home was always trying to save costs, cutting down on PPE and hiring only minimal staff. They saw no problem with providing just two carers to wash, toilet, dress, and feed eighteen residents at a time. We often had to leapfrog toilets: hoist one resident out of bed, leave them half-dressed alone on the commode with their call-button, run to the next room, repeat, return to the first resident leaving the second alone… The owner flitted about in his personal helicopter while we didn’t have the luxury of shutting ourself in one room with one person to properly clean and dress them.

But we got half a donut, once a year.

This was ten years ago. As we clap for frontline workers, I’m mindful of how difficult their jobs were before COVID-19 appeared. We need to make more noise than just applause to ensure conditions for some of our most valiant workers and their vulnerable clients improve.

Assessing the Wreckage

I worked in the nursing home after a few months’ employment at the Lidl supermarket chain, and before being a teaching assistant. All these are now frontline jobs, and they were overloaded already. Before, no one noticed. People don’t like to dwell on what becomes of the elderly once they’re tucked away in a “home,” and people don’t want to consider how some shops manage to sell a pack of chicken for three quid. It’s mainly working classes and immigrants in those roles, so who cares? Now, we have to think about it, because when other people aren’t looked after, they can unwittingly pass illness to our loved ones or ourselves.

Rainbows, rainbows everywhere, nor any pot of gold

These are the kinds of jobs my characters have, their energy replaced by a frenzied faith in their labour. In my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds, which I’ve been reading out on YouTube, the action starts straight away. Frustration overcomes supermarket worker Charlie, causing him to do something a bit reckless.

This starts the plot, but the conditions provoking it already existed. A crisis isn’t isolated. It’s a culmination, and sometimes a necessary catalyst to put things right. We’ve got to boldly scrutinise this disease not just to stop the pandemic, but to learn about neglected parts of society. Have we been so busy ensuring we can afford lots of holidays and home improvements, we’ve created nations too cripplingly basic to cope with an emergency?

Be Alert

Apparently this is the British government’s new mantra. It’s not entirely clear, but I guess they want us to listen for people coughing, mind our own temperatures, and possibly notify the authorities of any neighbours who allow a loved one inside their house. (Don’t worry if the house is For Sale, though, because then it’s fine to have people poking around!)

We should really be alert for governments downplaying the suffering of key workers and vulnerable groups.

“To Be Normal is Not a Healthy Aspiration” from an exhibit at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol 2019
  • Watch for wordplay: Boris Johnson said there won’t be a return to austerity following this economic downturn. But austerity is just a word. If pay is frozen for the public sector—including healthcare workers who have worked so hard—and budgets are slashed even further for counties and schools, that’s the same thing. Force him to pull the money from somewhere else. Back taxes, maybe? Has everyone forgotten the Panama Papers? (In America, watch out for healthcare premiums going way up next year, and states having to cut budgets dramatically.)
  • Make a list, check it twice: Who can you think of that might be disproportionately affected by this crisis? I made a hit list before we went into lockdown of who would need checking up on. Keep Googling for what’s going on for the homeless, for refugee camps, for Native American tribes. Check that someone’s reporting on it, share widely.
  • Vote. For the love of this planet and every being on it, especially with our American elections coming up. There are people who will make this hard for you. Start planning now; assume there will still be a rampant virus and get your hands on a mail-in ballot. For downballot positions where there may be progressive candidates available, vote for people who will raise minimum wage, ensure paid sick leave, and genuinely fight for affordable healthcare availability.
  • Pester. Where the elections have already happened, or where a party’s establishment has put forth a compromise candidate who’s simply promoting a return to normal, vote for the least of any evils and then make noise. Call, Tweet, agitate. Remind the world and especially politicians and business owners that “normal” was just an annual half-donut for a lot of people!

Happily Ever After

As I promised when I started reading The Wrong Ten Seconds to viewers, it will have a happy ending. It’s a realistic contemporary book, so the tough lives the characters already had aren’t going to magically change. But the crises in the book force them to face problems more honestly and with new, unexpected alliances.

That’s the best we can hope for. In real life, nothing just ends. Any awareness we manage to raise, we have to ensure it remains in focus. So let’s delve into the conditions that made this virus so dangerous when it came along, and let’s come together—from two metres apart of course—to put them right.

The Other Virus

This Week’s Bit of String: School Uniform on Good Friday

On Good Friday we set out early for our daily exercise, before it got hot. It was quiet, apart from two figures on the pavement ahead. A girl, maybe six years old, skipped and stumbled in her pleated grey skirt, and a young mum all in black carried her schoolbag. They were walking away from the local primary school.

How could they not know the Easter holidays were starting? Had they just rocked up for the day after not bothering for a little while, as if school were a drop-in daycare?

Lately, I have a spreading case of Hey-what-are-they-up-to-itis. Where’s that van driver going to dump all that garden waste, while the tip is closed? Do those people gathered in the park actually live together? I don’t think I’m the only one catching this illness. Plenty of people have been crippled by it most of their lives. But I don’t want my sense of other people’s humanity reduced to a behavioural rubric, so I’m looking at what’s caused this other virus to take hold.

Community

Bitter suspicion may be an unfortunate by-product of the talk about sacrifice and community spirit. We’re told to give up even family visits to protect the NHS. Despite rainbows in many windows, despite clapping for frontline employees, human nature doesn’t allow sacrifice without expecting something in it for ourselves.

Best advice I’ve seen in a while…

It’s like when people interrogate benefits recipients or homeless people on what they’re doing with money put toward their survival. That always bothered me. If I donate a minute fraction of my wealth to someone, I don’t feel entitled to a complete accounting of their lifestyle choices. But now, while we deprive ourselves of pubs, beaches, and simply buying supplies to spruce up the garden, we worry that others are not made of the same fortitude and we expect RESULTS, dammit.

(It’s easier to take out lack of results on random people in the street than to hold wily governments accountable by, say, voting out politicians that neglect incredibly well-loved health systems.)

Control

At the supermarket last week, I got in trouble for entering the store. It was an hour before closing, the car park was virtually empty, but apparently I was supposed to wait until I saw someone exit before I could enter. The woman on duty huffily locked the doors after me. “If people can’t follow the rules, we’ll just have to let them in when we know it’s safe.”

Totally under control. Rock dinosaurs on Selsley Common

I easily did my weekly shop without brushing up against many other customers. At the till, the same worker got chatty when I asked how she was finding the situation. She told me the manager’s wife was an ICU nurse and had just been sent home with a fever and cough, so the manager had rushed away into quarantine as well.

How long before the rest of the staff show symptoms? No wonder she and her co-workers might enforce excessive restrictions. So much else was out of their control. The lack of control can effect the rest of us in a similar way, causing us to exert pressure on others even when there’s not a clear risk to us.

Confidence

The final reason why we might be thinking negatively about other people is our personal insecurity at the moment. Isolation deprives many of a major boost: employment. It also deprives us all of various little boosts that brighten our days. Friendly smiles, compliments, opportunities to show off or be caught at doing good.

For me, this particularly affects my writing. When people say they’re “using all this spare time to write a novel,” I despair I’ll never get mine looked at when agents open for submissions again with slush piles the size of supermarket queues. I find myself thinking unkindly toward people I’d normally encourage.

In Paulo Coelho’s novel Veronika Must Die, a psychiatrist theorises that Vitriol, or Bitterness, is behind many forms of “madness.” It always exists in each person, but “attacks when a person is debilitated…The right conditions for the disease occur when the person becomes afraid of so-called reality.”

Our reality is pretty scary right now, so we need to stop Vitriol spreading. The best cure is surely empathy, which often emerges as a theme in my writing. For example, my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds follows Charlie, a supermarket worker caught on viral video in a desperate act, and the impact on his daughter, a care home nurse, as well as the girl who made the video. Starting next week, I’ll be reading this in video installments. Watch this space!

In the meantime, how’s everyone holding up? Any symptoms of bitterness, or is that just me?

Why You Might Not Have Created Your Crisis-Time Masterpiece…Yet

This Week’s Bit of String: The case of the disappearing underwear

In a rapidly changing situation, every family has that one day when things kick off. For us it was last Friday, from the moment I tried to put on the clothes I laid out the previous night, but couldn’t find my knickers. I’d seen them seconds before. Had I picked them up and put them down somewhere weird? Had I hallucinated them in the first place?

That was how I realised I had a high fever. Quarantine started that instant; coughing started the next hour. By the evening we also had an injured guinea pig and were debating whether my husband should sneak out to the vet. In the midst of that the government cancelled exams and our son’s post-secondary education was suddenly over. All in one day!

This butterfly landed on my hand in the backyard. It can’t be all bad.

Viruses are like stories—they accelerate and encompass exponentially widening groups of people, sometimes in unexpected ways. It seems this strange time would inspire us in unexpected ways, too. Maybe eventually it will, but I’m guessing others have found, as I have, that lockdown hasn’t fostered creativity. Here are the reasons why.

Time

Woohoo, no more commute! Many of us are still fortunate enough to be busy with work-related activities for much of the day. Working from home gives me a maximum of two extra hours per day, which so far I’ve spent being sick/ looking after family who are sick. Plus, meal prep takes up about thirty times more hours than usual, because you can’t predict what supplies will be in the shops and indeed if you’ll be healthy enough to go get them.

A Story Surplus

A pandemic—great material, right? Only it’s different when it happens outside your head, when it’s all anyone talks about.

Signs of support

As writers, we’re often widely read. It’s part of our job. Far be it from us to turn away from the many personal testimonies shared. A 38-year-old dying alone in an NYC hospital while his mum’s critical in a different one, and no one can identify any other family to tell. Domestic abuse rates rising by 30-40% during lockdown. Grandparents sharing air-hugs with the grandkids they normally look after, from behind their front room windows. Single parents trying to work from home and keep young kids entertained and educated, small business owners wondering how they’ll keep their livelihoods, musicians selling off prized instruments so they can eat when their gigs are cancelled. What’s happened to the rough sleepers I usually give a couple of pounds to and chat with? How will the millions of people already displaced by war and poverty be protected from this disease?

The weighty reality can bog our imaginations down. Who are we to invent fiction in a time like this? How do we choose one thread from the massive tangle?

Grief

Here we are, taking in all the other stories, desperate to support frontline workers and victims of the virus. We see the many people who have it worse than us. It doesn’t make us feel better though, does it? We’re all separated from people we love and have had to relinquish plans we looked forward to.

In our normal lives we work hard for the weekend, and an upcoming city break, literary festival, camping trip, concert, evening at the pub, keep us going. Those are erased from our near future while laundry, office spreadsheets, hoovering, and tidying guinea pig cages have not been cancelled. Somehow we have to keep not only our own morale up but also our partner’s and kids’.

Grounded.

You know when you’re pitching a writing idea, you need a USP (Unique Selling Point)? At the moment, we each have our UAG, a Unique Angle of Grief. For me, as an immigrant, I don’t know how and when I’ll see my family again. What if something happens and I can’t get to them? Are happy summer visits already out of the question? It can be very lonely.

So Now What?

We’ve all written pieces in hard times before. We’ve created while kids (and/ or spouses) climbed up the walls, squeezing writing time in between many other obligations. We’ve used our stories to channel loss and pain before.

But if that’s not working now, it’s okay. Let’s admit we haven’t gained the time we thought we might, and rest when needed to keep our strength up. Let’s listen to others’ stories without ulterior motives of trying to spin it into fiction. Let’s acknowledge our own grief and see if, once we’ve allowed it space and voice, it might ultimately turn into something new.

If you’ve managed to find a whole new grip on things through this crisis, and have kept on writing words, please do share tips and success in the comments. If you’re struggling, and want to shout about your UAG, I’d love to listen to that too. Listening is the best I can do right now.

An Ideal Population

This Week’s Bit of String: Trouble at the border

Returning to Britain after a week abroad in 2012, I forgot to fill out a customs card. This invoked the wrath of immigration officers. ‘Remember, we can terminate your Indefinite Leave to Remain any time we want,’ snapped the lady who grudgingly allowed me back on the Small Island I’d inhabited for years.

Previously I’d thought of indefinite as permanent. Now it was more literal: the opposite of guaranteed. I was a teaching assistant then, working a demanding schedule with needy students, and volunteering extra time to run school fundraisers. I paid taxes, I recycled, stayed fit, kept a clean house and cared for my family, who are British citizens. This apparently meant nothing if I neglected a rote slip of paper.

These migrants photobombed my canal shot, but honestly they’ve enhanced it.

As the Windrush scandal continues, we see that duration of stay doesn’t protect immigrants from deportation, and as Brexit is enacted, residents from neighbouring nations face losing their homes, dismissed as low-skilled for being low-earners. It’s important to fight these changes for the sake of immigrants themselves, but also for natives.

Why doesn’t the government invest more in education, so that British people and immigrants alike can qualify for so-called higher-skilled jobs? The Conservatives have set £25,000 per year as the salary threshold for immigrants, presumably believing that constitutes a minimally comfortable salary. Shall we eagerly anticipate, then, that they’ll lean on the many businesses offering zero hours contracts and much lower salaries, to incentivise them paying their British employees better?

Measuring Up

There’s a new points system to determine who can stay, and if I were trying to join my husband in this country now, rather than 15 years ago, I’d score only 10 of the 70 required.

So I’m proposing my own points system. If I ran a country, here’s what could get you in:

10 points if you deliberately step around worms or snails on the puddly pavement.
5 points for each book or magazine, online or otherwise, you read or listen to in a month.
5 points for each handcrafted or locally-made product you buy in a month.
7 points for every extra (not native to you) language you speak.
25 points if you recognise it’s none of your business what noise your neighbours make, or what time they open their curtains, or whether they occasionally have a visiting vehicle parked outside.
10 points if you make sure to get your full daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
10 points if you give the local chippies and sweet shops thriving custom.
30 points if you can fold a fitted sheet and do your hospital corners.
30 points for knowing how to unblock a toilet or stop a leaking tap.
30 points for knowing how to turn, dress, and comfort a bedbound person.
30 points if you can carry on polite, informative conversation with an irate customer.
30 points if you can both listen and think on your feet enough to calm a panicking student.
25 points for an ability and enthusiasm to discuss important, pressing issues of the day.
25 points for an ability to generate lighthearted escapism, or an enthusiasm to consume it.
70 points if you’re the reason someone already living here gets up every morning.

Yes, 70 is still the required number of points. I’d probably want my country’s visa applicants to pass criminal checks and perhaps come with job references as well, although I wouldn’t be picky about which job, or about income level.

Gloucester Cathedral exhibit from GARAS, Gloucestershire Action of Refugees and Asylum Seekers

To whom would I forbid entry, were I in charge? Could I bear to? I allow pretty much anybody in my fictional worlds. In reality, we need all kinds of people. Those with varying talents and specialisms to fill different job roles, those from diverse cultures to add flavour to our own, those with different mental and physical abilities to ensure we have a caring society.

The criteria a nation imposes on its outsiders reflect what it values from its insiders. Devalue contributions from immigrants and there are vast swathes of natives who will also feel belittled. In my imaginary country, it’s different. Who wants to join?

Seven Wanders of 2019

I’m late with this roundup, on account of doing proper authorly things such as slicing 80,000 words out of a novel. As I transition to inventing new short stories, though, I’m looking back on various places I was privileged to visit, the street art found and historical moments memorialised. So much fuel for the imagination, gathered in just a year.

7: Vaxjo, Sweden

I know–what the where? Pronounced something like “veck-ya,” this is a small, eco-friendly lakeside city in southern Sweden. My son participated in a gaming event there, while my husband and I visited museums, a very old church, and sculpture trails. And rediscovered chokladbollar. There’s a special pride in discovering someplace unknown to most people.

6: Bristol

It makes the list every year, because I find more. This isn’t just due to the city’s size incorporating former towns around it, it’s also because of the constantly blooming arts scene, on street and off. This year I explored more in the Southville and Eastville areas (shoutout to the Writers HQ retreat located at the latter), and revisited Clifton.

5: Matara Centre, Cotswolds

We attended an Open Gardens day before many plantings came up, but this was still a fascinating walk. Different patches foster tranquility while saluting traditions from different parts of the world. It was like visiting lots of places at once.

4: Cascade Trail, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Bonus points for thunderstorming on us while we hiked. We ascended the waterfall trail and had a good splash, loving the views without realising we hadn’t even hit the biggest cascades yet. I say, DO go chasing waterfalls—especially in your first drafts! (Then dry off a bit during edits.)

3: Sorrento, Italy

Sorrento is a small but busy city an hour south of Naples, along the gorgeous, rugged coast. It’s got mountain views (including Vesuvius), olive groves up the slopes and citrus trees along the streets, lovely old stradones and domos, and of course, fantastic food. Just don’t overwork yourself beforehand then visit with slightly watered down flu.

2: Jurassic Coast, Dorset, UK

Fossils and waves. There had been recent landslides from the massive coastal cliffs, so I could scurry to the rockfall and grab a promising sample without chiseling. Even a fist-sized chunk of this coast is packed with fossilised sea creatures, and you can imagine the waves carrying in more surprises.

1: Glasgow, Scotland

With bagpipes ringing in our ears, we took in landmark buildings such as the cathedral and the Lighthouse (actually an architecture museum). There’s also a tenement house museum I’d love to see, to reflect on how so many people lived, and I could spend a whole day at the Necropolis and come up with probably half a dozen different stories.

What inspiring adventures have you had in the last year?

Not This Crude Matter

This Week’s Bit of String: A Prickly Tribute

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

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

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

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

Cactus left by pier base.
Intriguing, right?

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

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

A Thicket of Thoughts

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

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

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

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

The Luminous Beings Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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