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This Week’s Bit of String: A whole block of cheese

It’s Friday last lesson again, and the English teacher has wisely chosen to engage our bottom-set Year 10s through writing about food. First, they are to describe their dream meal. I scribe for one of our special needs students while he tells me about his family’s cottage pie.

“Do you put a bit of cheese on top?” I prompt.

“Not a bit of cheese—a whole block!”

He tells me how they melt a whole block of cheese, sprinkled with herbs, and then pour it over the mash. When we move into class discussion, I’m urging him, “Tell about the block of cheese! Tell about the block of cheese!”

The teacher gets it. Her eyes widen as she hears about this feat of culinary excellence, and she calls it life-changing. The other kids, often so derisive at age 14/ 15, are chiming in appreciatively and they listen to each other share, their respect generally unwavering whether it’s one girl talking about her Jamaican parents’ curried goat, or the boy who lives on a farm discuss his chickens, or someone else describe her German grandmother’s bratwurst and peppers soup.

Funnily, the previous night I’d helped host a Women Writers Network Twitter Chat on the topic of Women Writing about Food. Lots of creative women joined to talk about food in literature, about how to describe it and what it can signify. You wouldn’t have thought there was anything amiss in the Twitterverse; it was just people coming together for a lively, supportive discussion.

The Room Where It Happens

While food and eating can have strong associations with loss and self-esteem issues, it also brings us together. Many of us are privileged enough to have happy kitchen memories from somewhere, and we’ll go still and listen when someone else recounts theirs. Being from kind of a big family, when I was growing up we were a bit strapped for cash, but we almost always had supper together and meals were noisome and fun.

I wonder what stories unfold at a kitchen table like this… (Seen in a London shop window)

My original writing location was the family kitchen table, although it was just outside the kitchen at the time. My mom had a typewriter set up there for work, and when I was four, I used it to type my first story. We made Valentines and decorated Christmas cookies and Easter eggs all at that table.

Not everyone gets to have that, of course. One boy in our Year 10 class offered up KFC as his dream meal, and didn’t join in with any tales of lovingly home-cooked food. I worry it might have been hard for him listening to what others were able to discuss.

Sometimes, the longing to connect can make us eat irresponsibly. I related hard to Nikesh Shukla’s chapter on food in his memoir Brown Baby. He writes, “Food is home and home is what I yearn for.” As an immigrant now also dealing with an empty nest, I truly get that.

Present in Its Absence

Almost as significant as food itself is the lack of it. Hunger can motivate creativity as much as satiation can—perhaps more. My first published story, in the Bristol Prize Anthology in 2010, was about a Haitian girl whose mother sold mud pies (literally) for a living. It reflects the fact that there are people in the world so disadvantaged, they eat earth.

Eating also makes a great metaphor. In the Retreat West anthology, my story has a girl called April describing how her older sister was a rapacious learner. I’m still very fond of the opening to that one:

“My sister devoured all history, beginning in the summer vacation when she was six. The century soon ending was Tabitha’s starter. She told me barbed wire cut her lip and toxic fumes tainted everything. Some of it was outer-space-cold, some burning-rainforest-hot.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

I’m not sure I’ve written many stories that don’t at least mention food. My latest novel, currently in polishing stages, is about Eve and the creation myth, so it features the forbidden fruit (which I’ve decided was a peach, by the way. Who gives up paradise just for an apple?) and contrasts the bounty of Eden with the strife of exile. In this story, of course, food is the ultimate separator, as that peach causes all kinds of rifts beyond just banishment. But as Adam and Eve’s family grows, mealtimes are when everyone gets together, round the fire circle, and are often where tensions or alliances become more visible.

How does food feature in your writing? I hope the Thanksgiving feast (if you are of that persuasion) brings comfort, joy, inspiration, and maybe even a whole block of cheese.

Hitherto Unsung

This Week’s Bit of String: Bin day

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

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

The things you find on bin day…

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

Hail the Workers

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

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

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

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

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

Changing Voices

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

The rose-fingered dawn…

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

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

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



Buried

This Week’s Bit of String: A dentist’s rocking horse

My Grandma once told me a story about going to the dentist as a kid. She needed a cavity drilled, and the dentist promised if she was good, she’d get to ride on the rocking horse in his waiting room.

He then commenced to drill her tooth without numbing it. She found it very unpleasant, and was told afterward that she was not good, so no rocking horse ride for her.

I wish I remembered the context of why she told me about that. It’s funny how we can be bitter about rules, but still play by them, because I think she worked very hard to stifle all kinds of fuss.

There are times when uttering a complaint or even an honest dissent won’t be much use. Everyone’s got problems, so why would we expect other people to listen to ours? But how much we express ourselves is not a mark of how “good” we are.

Martyrs

I was reminded of my grandmother’s story while I wandered around Exeter Cathedral this week. I like reading the different memorial plaques and trying to imagine who these people really were. What were their daily lives like?

Rachel Charlotte O’Brien.

I seek words on women’s graves particularly. They don’t often get much. Birth and death dates, husband’s and father’s names. Most common adjectives are “beloved” and “amiable.” Those with their own plaques get an addendum about which male relative cared enough to commission it. Lends it credibility I suppose. And if any suffering is admitted, we’re assured she bore it with Christian fortitude and never complained.

Whew, because that’s what I REALLY wanted to know about the deceased: did they keep their mouth shut while wasting away?

If the women who suffered patiently were from families wealthy enough to afford marble plaques in cathedrals, they may have been able to afford laudanum or something. It might not have been just Christian fortitude. Plus, they were probably so indoctrinated with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, it might not have occurred to them they were allowed to complain.

A narrative of good versus bad lends purpose to chaos. It must have strengthened survivors to perceive fatal illness and injury as a test which their loved ones passed.

One striking 1800 memorial to a 19-year-old wife portrayed her as a martyr for getting immolated in her own clothes. She was afraid the fire would spread to her baby, so she ran from the room. It leaves the story there, focusing entirely on her “self-sacrifice,” and shocked me with its bleakness. There was nothing else to be done once her clothes caught fire, but die? The only choice she had was how many she took with her? Damn.

Change

There’s almost a palpable air of acceptance around all these things. If men had to wear wide skirts and petticoats and work close to the fire, would things have changed a bit quicker? Maybe it was easier for a few to dish out some cash for nice plaques than for them all to alter the hierarchies of domesticity.

Prayer pose: Medieval carving in the choir stalls at Exeter Cathedral

All this reminds me not just how fleeting life can be—one woman came back from several years accompanying her husband on duty in India, to die of illness [silently-withstood, of course] three days after her long-awaited return home—but also to check that full stories are being told, and voices being heard. This is especially relevant as elections loom in the U.S. and as we long for them in the U.K. after getting our second unelected leader (third if you count the new monarch!) in less than two months, as Iranian women and their allies risk their lives just to dress how they want to and Ukrainians face a winter under attack.

There’s no rule that says we have to accept corporate greed, rampant gun culture, environmental degradation, lack of medical care, and falling education standards. Tax breaks offered by conservatives are just a rocking horse ride in the waiting room and they’ll offer no anesthetic for government regulations of bodily autonomy, for privatised essentials, shameless racism and lack of gun control. It doesn’t take much sacrifice from each of us to ensure other people are looked after.

Paying more in energy bills can help keep sanctions on Putin, and paying a bit more in taxes might help provide relief for those who struggle with price hikes. These are better than sacrificing Ukrainian independence or consigning people to poverty or forced pregnancy. The world’s clothes have caught fire but we can still contain the damage.

Yes, some of the options suck, sometimes we’re stuck with the lesser of two evils, but you know what? You don’t have to suffer them in silence. Make some noise and maybe next time the options will be better.

Engaging in Speculation

This Week’s Bit of String: Rainy day photos

It’s coming down hard outside. The school has a plastic, greenhousy roof and when it rains hard, it sounds through the whole building as if we’re barrelling down Niagara. On the bottom floor, in the Sixth Form Atrium, my student’s ears perk up. She wants to get some good, rainy pictures for Photography class, to convey the wrath of nature. So we leave behind the practice English paper I was scribing for her, and head for the doors. 

“If I drown, give my regards to my sister.” She’s off into the downpour. 

The wending row of young acers behind the school stand like candles in the dreary grey, their red leaves tapered to disappearing at the treetops. Paving stone puddles reflect the brightness, blurred by the pounding fury of more water.

As it calms down, I join my student taking pictures near the Music Block. The ground squelches beneath us and a budding saxophonist attempts “Mack the Knife” from the other side of the brick walls.

Later she asks me, “If photography didn’t exist, what would the world be like?” 

My own rainy photos

She means it rhetorically, a comment of pride in her work. But, as is often the case, I find myself reflecting on this later. There are times when photos, or the flagrant absence of them, have swayed the species enough to alter history. A Vietnamese girl running from a napalmed village; police bodycam footage. 

Beyond that, though, what would our society be like if we were not constantly confronted with extra images? If we didn’t have framed photos of the past, and we didn’t worry about how we looked when captured for posterity, I wonder if we’d be better at focusing on the present.

Considering the What-Ifs

This week I helped host the Women Writer’s Network Twitter chat on speculative fiction. We had some great conversations, which can be followed here. Margaret Atwood defines speculative fiction as “literature that deals with possibilities in a society which have not yet been enacted but are latent.” It can be science fiction, political thrillers, fantasy, multiverse… all sorts of things.

I like to think of it as entering parallel universes, branching off from a point, recent or historical, in the known timeline. I’m not fantastically imaginative, so most of my stories are written like this anyway, by rubbing at the edges of reality. I might consider people I’ve heard of and shade them into fiction, or in the novel I’m currently working on, I’m taking a well-known story and telling it from an alternative point of view.

Sometimes, what-ifs plague our personal lives and can make us anxious. It’s a relief to turn the tables on them and create our own hypotheticals from the past or present rather than cower under worries about the future.

Kids’ Questions

Our students, when they leave their this-is-boring, I-hate-school ruts, like to distract themselves by speculating about alternate realities. They’ll ponder how WWII would have gone down if Hitler were Jewish, or lament the lack of natural disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes in the UK (until I reminded them that those might be accompanied by loss of power and wi-fi).

Some almshouses built for the “deserving poor” would have been funded by the slave trade.

The other day when we learned the prime minister had resigned, my Sixth Form student said: “If the next prime minister is crap again, I’m going to march to Winston Churchill’s grave and find a way to bring him back to life so he can sort this out.” I’m pretty sure he’s not the inclusive, progressive leader we need right now, but I do like imagining past figures reappearing to witness the world today.

Imagine if James Madison came back to life just to stand in the front row while Lizzo played his flute. We’d see him swoon like a slaveholding snowflake, or maybe he’d applaud politely like a mature and intelligent human being and accept that he was wrong about certain things. Either way, I wouldn’t mind seeing it. 

I wrote a piece a few years ago about Edward Colston randomly coming to life on a Saturday night in the centre of Bristol. Colston contributed toward Bristol’s prosperity in the 17th and early 18th centuries (even though he lived out of Bristol for most of his life). Much of his wealth came from trafficking human beings, so his legacy is corrupted. I liked picturing his confusion at the noise, colour, diversity, and excess of a Bristol weekend.

Where have the What Ifs taken you lately? Is there a point you’d like to stray from on our timeline?

Suspense

This Week’s Bit of String: A childhood phantom

When I was little, I worried about the devil. Not in the way you might expect, though. My family was religious, I had a very strong impression of good and bad, and I was convinced Satan would jump out and drag me to hell if I so much as left a toy out of place.

I remember walking past our toy shelves once, and a stuffed animal fell off behind me. I stood there, thinking, Should I pick it up? I didn’t actually knock it down. Probably the good thing would be to pick it up anyway. Is Satan watching me, giggling like a cartoon villain, hoping I don’t pick it up because then I’ll be his?

Although I was genuinely frightened of hellfire and other punishments, I also found it exciting to imagine this powerful baddie investing so much attention in me. Everyone likes inventing villains, it’s not just writers. Politicians require them, social media users relish them.

What perhaps sets apart my early exercise in this is that I never believed he could force me to do wrong. I was worried about myself making a bad choice.

Cheltenham Street Art: Don’t believe everything you think.

I still worry about that last bit. I think that’s the root of the concerns many of us face. I’ve realised that a source of constant stress for me is actually suspense, and a lack of trust in myself.

Will I sleep too late? Will I say the wrong thing at work? Will I manage to meet my own high fitness and writing expectations?

We’ve just had World Mental Health Day, and it’s the spooky season coming up. So I’ve been contemplating this fear that underpins so much: fear of failure.

What Happens Next?

Fear of the future is one thing. I have a newly moved-up GCSE student who will halt in his tracks, and look at me with panicked eyes. “I can’t cope anymore,” he says, “I just want to know what will happen.”

He’s terrified about the exams he’ll ultimately take, and about his home situation, and he puts it so plainly and recognisably. The world is massive and we’ve seen how easily we can be separated from those we love, how thoroughly our routines can be disrupted. Sometimes we just really want to know what’s going to happen!

For me, I assume that spanners will get in the works. Something will break down, someone won’t turn up, prices will keep rising, plagues and insurrections and natural disasters will occur. Life will try to stop me doing what I want to do. The question is, will I let it? How easily will I allow myself to be derailed?

The nice thing about writing stories is getting to decide what happens. I can stop a short story if I don’t want to know the ultimate fate of the main character is. Leave it with a trace of hope, a flicker of possibility. Or I can go super-omniscient, and decide the entire life of someone. In my current novel, based on the creation myth, some events have been decided for me, but there’s a lot of wiggle room. Eve’s motives and responses weren’t included in the Biblical account for some reason.

As writers, though, we do get an extra heaping of suspense and anxiety. Will it be good enough? Will anyone care?

Self-Trust

It’s hard to escape the fears regarding our own capabilities, partly because there will be things we WON’T be good at, people we can’t please, days we don’t finish everything. But constant mistrusting ourselves, dwelling ever in suspense and suspicion, nervous we’ll let ourselves down, that is unsustainable.

One reason why I’m particularly attached to this routine…

Here’s what it looks like for me, in case it’s similar for you. I like to take an early 2.5-mile walk, in addition to walking to and from work, and running around while there at school. I love being out in the quiet, and I like to bank some good exercise before the day begins.

I have to wake up around 5:30 to do this, and I avoid the disturbance of an alarm. So from 4-ish onwards, my mind wakes me up every 10-20 minutes checking I haven’t missed my chance.

Once I’ve gotten up and done my walk, I almost immediately start wondering if I’ll manage it tomorrow. Sure, I succeed most days, and I did so today. But what if I don’t tomorrow?

Silly, isn’t it? I’ve never thought of myself as an anxious person in the sense that other people struggle with anxiety. This issue for me is by no means crippling. Remaining in suspense, though, means that my feet don’t often touch ground. That is exhausting.

It helps to name the issue and recognise patterns. I like the term suspense. An edge-of-my-seat, thrill-a-minute existence as I compete with myself. It’s less clinical than anxiety, sometimes downright exciting, and perhaps, like a page-turner of a book, I can learn to pause and put it down now and then.

The other day, I broke my routine to show it will be ok. Instead of a morning walk, I went on the treadmill after work. Lo and behold, there was still time (and energy) to make dinner, do all the washing up, make it to a writing workshop on Zoom, and critique someone’s novel chapter afterward.

Finally, if I ensure that I’m speaking kindly to myself in the midst of this, it’s less scary and stressful. I’m pretty good at telling myself what I’ve done well, and cheering myself on. I just need to put more belief behind the thoughts, and trust myself.

Do you find life gets a bit too suspenseful sometimes? How do you deal with it?

Back to Eve

This Week’s Bit of String: Debating Lady Macbeth’s villainy

The Year 11s are learning Macbeth for their GCSE in Literature. I help sometimes in the small class with a number of special needs students, who have become impressively engaged in debating who the true villain of the play is. (The appeal for one boy is the “high kill count” in this particular story.)

To delve into the imagery Shakespeare uses—flowers and snakes and whatnot, and perhaps to help get us through the last lesson on a Friday afternoon, the teacher showed a brief video about the Biblical creation story. It was an outrageous little cartoon. God sounded super American; Adam (predictably lily-white and blond) had a slightly less egregious American accent; Eve sounded Eastern European but with strange, digitised diction as if she were a Satnav; and finally (again, sadly predictable) the devil-serpent had a British accent with African tones.

Both Eve and Lady Macbeth probably had a few things they wanted to wash away.

Eek. The makers of the video had also added a whole conversation between Eve and Adam, after the snake tempts her and before she takes the fruit. It was not unlike Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Act 1, Scene 6, along the lines of: “I think it would be great for us if we ate this fruit.” “What, no way, God said we shouldn’t…” “Come on, pleeeeease?”

It was as if some sect read the the start of Genesis and said, “This account is clearly written by woke amateurs who failed to spell out how fully the blame should fall on women. Let’s fix it.”

I took it as a sign, on that sunny autumn afternoon, that I should really get cracking on the in-depth edits for my own Creation myth.

Work in Progress

Drafted three years ago, The Gospel of Eve is my novel telling events from her point of view. It’s had terrific feedback so far, and I’m terribly fond of it, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to see what might need improvement.

It helps when I’m reminded why I wrote it in the first place, to explore the story and come up with an alternate voice. More specifically, I had been thinking about how Eve would learn to be a mother with no role models or preceding matriarch, how she would negotiate between guilt and hope, how desperate she’d be to give her children better lives, how not all of them would appreciate that. How she’d have to play matchmaker to her own children, and how that might make her reflect on her own relationship with Adam.

Contemplating what went on both in and outside the Garden gates

It’s tricky writing about mothering, because it’s such a consuming theme. By writing about Eve as a mum, am I stifling her individuality? Plus, living in prehistoric times it’s not as if she has recognisable hobbies of her own. A favourite book, a group of peers to hang out with. So in addition to firming up the narrative around Eve’s journey as a mother while I edit, I’m also trying to make sure her own voice comes out loud and clear.

Since my only child moved overseas 5 months ago, writing about being a mum is a nice substitute for a lot of the hands-on mothering I once did. Parenting is still a big deal in my life, and really it’s one of my favourite things. I’m glad it consumed me. But now I must pick at the bones that are left and see what comes up, while still juggling work and chores and waking up frequently between midnight and 3 a.m. to check online messages from my kiddo. (Don’t you love time zones?)

Cradle of Civilisation

Millennia later but not far geographically from where Eve’s story takes place, more women’s voices are being heard, as brave people rebel against Iran’s morality police and authorial government. I’m inspired by this as a writer and a human. I loved Rana Rahimpour’s interview with Jon Stewart. Her anecdotes will amaze you.

Cultural aspects of this region should amaze you too. I loved researching evidence of early Middle East civilisations, and learning how they used to store ice in the desert, or irrigate crops with tunnels a bit like underground canals. I ended up using the latter as a fairly pivotal plot point.

Considering how upset some people are that elves and mermaids can be depicted with different colour skin, I’m interested to see how they’d react to the parents of all humanity being casually described as having brown skin. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that humans populating punishingly hot regions and formed, according to legend, of the earth itself, would NOT be lily-white and blond. But people are weird. Gives me another incentive to promote this alternative, though perhaps more accurate version (if “accurate” is a term we can apply to a novel containing angels, demons, talking animals, and 800-year-old people).

So many thoughts and findings I’m eager to share. I’ll just make sure everything’s up to scratch! What challenges have you faced when editing? What challenges would you imagine for the first woman on earth?

Literary Locations

This Week’s Bit of String: Under the patchwork quilt

My grandparents’ guest bedroom was one of my favourite places. A rocking chair in the corner, a handmade crazy quilt on the bed. Shelves of AMC magazines that my Grandpa kept, unwilling to throw away anything with portraits of cinema’s Golden Age stars. The nightstands, under the dropped eaves, were metal and wire 1970s pieces loaded with books.

The books would change, and I never delved into how or why. Was my Grammy exchanging them with her sisters? Did my older cousins swap them out? However it happened, rootling around in this bedroom was where I discovered Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

This is the quilt from Grammy’s house, in a writing corner I briefly had here before some, erm, home “improvements” commenced

It was an abridged version, still hefty, a yellow hardcover with that plastic that peels off in satiny strands if you pick at it distractedly while you read. There were a few black and white illustrations, the sisters each given distinct appearances. 

I was 9 or 10 when I found the book and read a few pages while my siblings ran around. The opening image of Jo stubbornly tomboying, sticking her hands in her pockets and whistling, made me laugh and I read it to the others and we all mimicked the gesture.

Family Home

At that point, my grandparents had lived in their Vermont house for at least 50 years, raising 6 children there. A pastiche of wallpapers, AM radio, the smell of American chop suey or home-baked donuts, and all objects well-worn, softened at the edges. Keeping the same house for so long felt magical, as if the air we breathed there was different, the atmosphere more sustaining.

During my latest summer visit to New England, I took a trip with my two sisters down to Massachusetts to see Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived with her family (after they’d moved dozens of times, due to financial struggles). It was a hundred degrees out, with a major heat warning cautioning everyone to stay inside. Fortunately for us, Orchard House is gently air conditioned, preserving the many artefacts within.

Recognise it?

We were amazed at how authentic the place still is. Nearly all furnishings were used or made by the Alcott family. Paintings by Louisa’s youngest sister May (aka Amy), doll clothes stitched by Lizzie (Beth), crocheted bedspreads and even the wedding dress of the oldest sister Anna (Meg). We were quite awestruck.

In the master bedroom, there was even a timetable devised by Mrs. Alcott (Marmee), allotting how many hours the girls ought to spend on learning, on chores, and on other types of enrichment. It reminded us of the chore charts our mother would create to encourage the three of us plus our brother to each do our share.

A Room of One’s Own

While my clever and crafty sisters took great interest in different crochet and knitted pieces, I geeked out over Louisa’s room. She had her own writing desk, a white, rounded table her father built her. It jutted out between two sunny windows. This was exceptionally rare, for a women to have a desk.

The desk was ornamented with a nautilus-shaped inkwell, very Transcendentalist, and pens given to Louisa by her mother. Mrs. Alcott had composed a little poem to go with them, a prayer that the Muse would keep Louisa’s creative fires burning. Such obvious support really moved me.

I’ve now read Little Women more than once, unabridged as well as that old abridged version, along with some of Alcott’s other works. If you’ve also read it, and/or watched the film adaptations (two of the more recent ones were filmed at the actual Orchard House so it is instantly recognisable), you’ll remember that Jo (aka Louisa) writes up in the garret, and stores her pages in a disused tin kitchen. However, Orchard House doesn’t have an accessible attic.

Schoolhouse behind Orchard House where the Alcotts and other Transcendentalists educated newly freed people from Missouri.

Much of Little Women is based on Louisa’s life, and I’m sure in the dozens of other places she lived while growing up, she did write in attics and in all kinds of nooks and crannies. I wonder if she looked back on those corners with the most nostalgia, and perhaps even found them more inspiring, despite the wonderful space she ended up with.

Certainly, creating a writing garret for the character of Jo was a brilliant authorial choice. Think of how many young, non-affluent readers Louisa made writing feel accessible to. You don’t need a desk, or a view, or a room of your own to write. Not according to Little Women, anyway.

That was something that I loved about the book growing up, and the Winona Ryder film version that came out when I was in high school. Thoughts of Jo, bundled up against the cold, writing through the night really motivated me to work harder. Whether it was under that quilt on my grandparents’ guest bed, or in a basement corner on a typewriter that cost $5 at a yard sale and that I later abandoned after finding a snake in it, or in countless notebooks on bumpy bus rides or squishy sofas or prickly theatre seats at dress rehearsals; whether it was with shouting children or my husband trumpeting upstairs; whether it was scribbling at a bar between taking orders from customers or in the back of a woodworking shop while my students were learning new skills on a field trip… Sometimes, the most unlikely writing places are the ones that stick with us. They yield the hard-earned words, they witness the flood of the ideas that simply will not be kept back.

After all, a main message of Little Women is how hard work makes life feel more meaningful. It was nice to see this backed up by the many loved, homemade objects in the Alcott house, just as I remember them being in my grandparents’ home.

What sorts of places have you written in, and who are the writers or characters that have inspired you to do so?

What’re We Writing For?

This Week’s Bit of String: Rewriting Beowulf

At work, one of our Year 7s just come up from primary school has refused to enter any classroom. She’s not a fan of people. We place a chair outside each door for her, period by period. During her first English class, I tried chatting with her.

“Was there anything you liked doing for English at your old school?”

She shook her head, then paused. “I wrote my own version of Beowulf. It was really funny.”

Aha. “Shall we tell the teacher about that? I bet he’d be really interested.”

A more vigourous shaking of the head. “I hated writing it. It was so hard.” Her chin lifted, her face opened, shifting the helmeting fringe over her eyes. “But that story was the best story I have ever read!”

And that was the clearest thing I ever heard her say. For an instant, she was utterly transformed, thinking of the payoff to a task she probably initially hated as much as she hates everything else: she got to read a story she actually liked, for a change. You couldn’t find a more marvellous illustration of the advice to write what you want to read.

Autumn’s coming to the schoolyard…

Which is why this particular blog post, the first I’ve gotten around to in over a month, is simply me conveying encounters with learners as they come to grips with writing requirements. My head is very much in school. New unelected leaders, be they monarchs or ministers, feel quite irrelevant while I try to help students get serious about study without making them even more insecure than they already are.

On the other end of school from our latest intake of 11-year-olds, I’m working with the 16-year-olds who must resit their English exams. They have to practise reading more extracts, writing about the effect language techniques have on the reader. “The writer uses alliteration to describe the school because it makes readers feel…”

To be honest, I’m fresh out of advice for them on how to pick apart the not-always-exemplary passages chosen by exam boards. Fellow writers, I know we select our language carefully. But am I right in thinking that sometimes we just put some alliteration in for rhythm and flow? Just because it sounds good? Because, as the Year 7 girl might say, it makes it more fun for us to read back?

Thankfully, there is a creative writing component on the exam. So, to give students a break from reading and nitpicking (ahem, I mean analysing of course), we can do some writing.

Me: “How would you like to practise writing a story this morning?”

Student L, a neurodivergent young lady with a love of gothic-style tales: “That is the best question you could possibly ask me.”

Me: “Great, you can work on developing a character and backstory to use for the exam. It’s just 7 weeks from today.”

Student L: “What are we waiting around for, then? Let’s get going!”

I don’t know about you, but an attitude like that is exactly the sort I need to read about right now.

Just put it all out there. Meredith Sculpture Walk, New Hampshire, “Poured” by Michael Alfano

She came up with a fabulous character, a dramatic and detailed backstory, and a killer opening line. It does make her a bit out of sorts, now she’s on a roll with that, when she has to work on other subjects. I think we can all relate.

One of her classmates knows the sort of character she wants to write about. She is riddled with concerns about her home life, and she wants to bring that to the page. Makes perfect sense; for many of us the opportunity for an outlet is what drew us to writing in the first place. The only thing this student can think about are her worries for loved ones, so that is what she will write about and that is what she can read about after.

She’s so insecure, though, it’s hard to write. After a good opening paragraph, she juddered to a stop.

“Just write what happens,” I told her. “We’ll worry about spelling and punctuation and dressing everything up later on. That’s how I do it…” and I suggested that our Student L did the same.

L didn’t look up from pecking away at her laptop. “I just want it to be readable.” She won’t need alliteration in her fast-paced, superhero story.

Whatever you’re working on, may it at least be readable—you never know, it could be the best thing you’ve ever read.

Humming to Snails

This Week’s Bit of String: Summer camp workshops

It’s humid in New Hampshire, and the grass is wet from last night’s thunderstorms. Twelve kids sit around me on coloured interlocking foam mats. I have armed them with clipboards, paper, pencils in all different shapes including dragons and flamingos and drumsticks, stickers, and mystery keys.

A trio of boys are doing Mad Libs together, mainly supplying each gap with some form of “cat” or “farting.” They like cats, and of course farts are the pinnacle of wit at this stage. The group’s counsellor is lying on his back, clipboard in the air, blissfully writing a poem. Other kids are writing stories about where their key might unlock, or comics about bunnies or bananamen.

One of the mats has a little slug curled on a corner. I remark on it, and an 8-year-old boy approaches me earnestly.

Carry on, brave creature.

“You know snails? If you find one, and it’s deep inside the shell and wants to stay hiding, you can hum to it. Then it will poke out.”

“That’s interesting, how did you learn that? Did you try it yourself?”

He nods. I’m picturing him crouching on the damp ground, snailshell in his palm, leaning down to hum and watching in wonder as a squidgy creature emerges, antennae first.

Permission to Imagine

I haven’t done much like this before. Working in secondary British education, creative writing is not a curriculum priority at all. When I had an opportunity to work with the kids, ages 6-11, at the day camp where my son works, I didn’t set a rigid outcome for us but came up with a lot of different activities we might try, independently or all together, to have a little romp through our imaginations.

I got some wonderful suggestions and encouragement from other writers on Twitter. One of the most fruitful was getting vintage-style keys, which you can buy in packs as party favours. Kids pick one up, examine it, and write (or dictate, or draw) what the key might lead to.

The set-up.

The campers loved the keys, and they knew exactly how to put on little pleading faces to take one home. I gave away quite a few. There were stories about pirates who got scared by the key and threw it into lava, stories about locked doors guarded by snakes, and even one where it turned out the key went to a porta-potty.

I revelled in this variety. I’d used Mad Libs as a starter, having the kids volunteer adjectives and nouns and verbs as required to fill in the story’s blanks, and then reading the funny results out so they knew right away they were allowed to be silly and break rules. One group liked that so much, several of them wrote their own Mad Libs—quite good little stories where they left words out, brought them to me, and I supplied the most random ones I could think of.

Your Words Change Things

The other reason I wanted to start with Mad Libs was because I wanted to let them know, a story doesn’t have to ALL come from you. In fact, I would argue we often borrow certain elements. But once we put our own point of view, our own language and especially follow our own what-if questions, the story becomes ours.

I had brought four hats: three were for the adjectives, nouns, and verbs for Mad Libs in case some groups were too young for parts of speech or wanted to take suggestions. The other had what-ifs in case anyone wanted to use an idea for a story. What if a shark appeared in the lake across the street? What if your teacher was a Russian spy? What if you had a million dollars? What if Cinderella’s fairy godmother had poor fashion sense?

Magical mystery keys

Asking what if changes a path, using a randomly selected noun will change a sentence… our words change things. In one of my younger groups, we did a group story. This was also my last group, and I’d recognised that kids, especially older ones, didn’t want to use suggestions or try picking words out of a hat, because they felt so compelled to ensure their work was their own. But sometimes they got stuck. So with this group, I offered hats right away to choose words for Mad Libs, and they liked it a lot. Everyone wanted to pick a word from a straw hat, or a feathered pirate one, or a beret.

When we’d finished the Mad Lib, we did a couple of group stories, penning them on the paper I’d rigged up across the chainlink fence. We’d pick a noun from a hat, like spaceship, then describe that and give it some detail as we chose. Next we drew another noun to see what our noun would interact with, then a couple of verbs for extra suggestions what they might do. Thus we ended up with a farmyard on Mercury, with big fans to keep cool and three-eyed alien animals that said Oom instead of Moo, discovered by a nice family that visits space every first Sunday of the month.

I so enjoyed meeting the kids and hearing their ideas, but I’d also had fun while working hard to prepare. It made me happy thinking of exciting words and questions to put in the hats. What if I used them in my own writing? What if we got a little crazier with our ideas?

It’s like holding up a snail shell, wondering how we can see and befriend the creature inside. Unless we try humming to it, we won’t know what works.

Summer Bucket List

This Week’s Bit of String: Can we fit it? … Yes we can

Packing time! 48 hours now till I’m on my flight to New Hampshire, to my son, my parents and siblings and childhood home, friends and haunts. To lakes and mountains and trees, to root beer and Dunkin’ Donuts.

I’m already getting distracted. My point is, time to decide what goes in my suitcase. They’ve changed the allowance from 23 down to 20 kilos maximum. This should be ok; I know by now what not to bring. I don’t need much in terms of dressing up or fancy footwear. I don’t need many books for myself because I often don’t get time to read; it’s all I can do to find moments for daily scribbles so I don’t forget all I’ve seen, what was said.

Busy bee.

Concurrently with my packing, and with cleaning the house and weeding and trimming the garden before I go, I’m going deep with novel edits. This is only my second pass through my story of Eve. It’s familiar territory but not quite as much as an Aer Lingus flight from Bristol to Boston. I’m still learning what I really need and what I might not. It will take me a few more journeys to figure that out, I suspect.

The Days are Just Packed

Even more than keeping my suitcase light and my writing clear and engaging, planning the time while I’m away is a huge challenge. Thanks to working in school and getting a longer summer holiday, I have three weeks in my native country, but that isn’t much when it’s also one of my only chances to Mum for the whole year.

One thing I’ve learned as a writer—and parent—is that the worst thing we can do is tell ourselves there’s plenty of time. It sounds a bit sad, but most people I’ve discussed this with seem to feel the same.

If we are busy, we know we have to dedicate time to something. If we have more free time, we develop a more cavalier attitude and assume we’ll get to everything we want to do.

ALL of it… Photo from 2007.

There’s so much fun I want to have with my kid, and with the rest of my family. We’re hoping to try tubing down a river with rapids and a covered bridge. I’d love campfire chats, board games, kayak sessions, listening to music together, maybe get him to build/ squash a sandcastle or two for old times’ sake. But he’ll also be working, so I’m looking forward to joining him at summer camp for writing workshops, and cooking some of his favourite dinners for when he gets home. We have things we need to troubleshoot together; job applications to fill out and things like that.

Being apart means I feel ready to appreciate even the work of it. Baking in a hot kitchen, coming up with cover letters for prospective employers. It’s not what everyone looks forward to doing when on vacation, but I will feel privileged to do it when I’m finally around more people I love.

Summer Goals

Do you have any aims for the summer? The Internet is rife with reading lists and exercise recommendations. I find them daunting. I just want to read and exercise daily and I’m going to have to be flexible about that.

Exercise: I’ll keep up my daily early morning hikes. No choice; I’m addicted. But I’ll also be incorporating 10 minutes of stretches, at least every other day because the last term at school viciously made me feel my age and then some.

Self-care: Also, I want to have a bath and soak the stiffness out. We don’t have a bathtub here in the UK but my parents do in the US, and on this matter my sister holds me very accountable. She’s already on my case. I’ve got the Lush bomb for the occasion. That’s it, that’s the goal.

Reading: If I can read almost every day, I’ll be happy. So far so good, since school ended last week. What utter bliss, once a morning hike has been completed, and then a bunch of chores and visits sorted, to stretch out with a book for an hour in the afternoon. I’m hoping to keep that routine going while away, and clear five books from my own, personal TBR list this summer.

White Mountains, New Hampshire. Just go with the flow, man.

Writing: There are my daily scribbles, of course. I’ve got a luscious thick notebook for observations, memories, exchanges, ideas. It should last me the weeks I’m away, and keeping up with everything I want to remember is a big commitment. However, I’ve also been pushing myself this summer to sit down and put focused effort into a writing project, for a couple hours maybe four times per week. I had lost the habit of that, since I could only write in small windows of time. It feels so good to stretch my concentration muscles again, to sit editing and not letting myself get distracted. I’d forgotten I was capable of it!

Parenting: My number one priority for the next three weeks. Anything that makes me feel like a mum again will do. Hearing complaints face to face instead of reading a Facebook message. Teaming up to show his dad Field of Dreams so he knows what we’re quoting when we say things like, “Peace, love, doooope!” All of it.

My goals are probably a bit more open-ended than targets are meant to be, but I prefer the term feasible. I advise a slightly gentle approach, because you never know what crises might come up. Do whatever it takes to enjoy each moment, whether it’s relishing a challenge or making yourself relax for once.