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The Wind-Up and the Pitch

This Week’s Bit of String: Playground tales

My kid had quite a flair for tales with a twist. Only, I don’t think they meant to be suspenseful; stories just developed that way.

Once, after a solo trip to the playground, they weren’t very forthcoming as I asked about what they did. They didn’t get to climb much, or have a kickaround. It took a bit more questioning before they said, “I didn’t have time to do any of those things… because H was holding my head down on the pavement.”

Now, that’s a statement that will hook a parental audience. 

Eventually, my little Bear explained that while they were climbing and swinging, one of their classmates and his big brother H thought Bear said something rude, and the boys tackled them. My kiddo ended up with a rather large local knucklehead sitting on their back.

Why the delayed reveal? Not for melodramatic reasons in this instance, but probably because Bear wasn’t sure what to make of the whole thing, and needed time before they could articulate such a shocking escalation.

Withholding Information

Deep into novel edits and following research into story structure, I’m still thinking about the most engaging way to develop the plot and the character trajectories. I attended an event a few years ago where the speaker said every story must have a twist, and that disconcerted me. I am not a mystery writer.

But this could be a twist of fate, a turn of events. There are so many types of suspense: suspense for the welfare of a beloved character, tension that an innocent may be misunderstood or that a character with baggage will trip themselves up into yet another mistake.

And there are reveals. Using first-person narration for myth retelling, in The Gospel of Eve the plot follows Eve trying to assert herself to her descendants without turning them against her. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout, building to her memories of taking the forbidden fruit, and essentially, losing two sons. I’ve saved the most well-known, pivotal moments for later in the book, hoping to build trust in the narration and suspicion that there’s a lot more to what we’ve been told before.

Twisting round and round

But it’s not just me stalling and building up. Eve isn’t ready to talk about it. It takes generations (people lived a long time back then, according to Genesis) for her to fully revisit what she remembers of Cain killing Abel. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or other stories like Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the speaker takes time to face up to things, and often events force them to as darkness comes to light.

Scaling Down

The balance between revelation and suspense becomes more confusing in extra tasks like crafting a pitch. At the start of February, I worked on a new, longer synopsis for a submission. A synopsis fully outlines the plot for agents/ publishers, so they know how it develops. It’s tricky working out which events to include and how to inject character instead of a dry summary.

A pitch is different: it’s shorter and you aren’t supposed to reveal everything. You want to hook an agent’s interest, persuade them to want more. (Why do we use the term “hook?” When a fish gets hooked, I doubt it wants to repeat the experience.)

Anyway, I spent the end of February working on a 100-word pitch. It needs to convey the character’s journey, establish the genre and setting, maybe include other titles for comparison, and preferably should all be done in line with the character’s voice.

Hooked!

Again, rather tricky. Ideas played through my mind, even as I did housework while listening to political podcasts. On an “Offline” episode, Jon Favreau (not the cinema Jon Favreau) talked about crafting difficult speeches for Obama. Sometimes, nothing seemed to work, so they’d rip everything up and restart from: “What are the truths we want to tell? Even if we can’t say it for political reasons, what are the truths?”

So I said to myself, “What do I MOST want to tell people about my book?” It took me a few tries, and it’s probably not totally there yet. But I kind of like it! Here’s the opening:

Fruit, fratricide, and feminism: Eve and her oldest daughter Ana retell the creation myth.
Think parenting is hard? Eve plots maternal interventions when at best, empowering her children could lead them to condemn her. At worst, her children will kill each other.

I’m not revealing anything that isn’t common knowledge. Hopefully I’m giving it fresh relevance, though. The fun thing with any story we start to read or to write is that we can never be sure where it will end up.

Do you have preferences over what gets revealed when?

Balancing the Dark

This Week’s Bit of String: Planet Buoy

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

Sand feathering

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

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

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

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

Planet Buoy

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

Balance

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

Pure light: View toward Chapel of St Nicholas

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

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

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

Letting in the Light

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

Weaving: lobster nets on Smeatons Pier

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

Wishing you a torrent of creativity this week.

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

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

Making Links

This Week’s Bit of String: Snakes and the sublime

“I held a snake!”

A Year 11 student greeted me with this after Christmas, while his classmates discussed gifts and excursions. This student’s family didn’t have money for those. But he found out how snakeskin feels: smooth, cool, strong.

I was supporting the student in his English class, and as an introduction to Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” the teacher sought examples of the sublime.

“What’s the most awe-inspiring place you’ve visited?” she asked the class.

With his classmates describing Alpine ski trips, island volcano walks, or seaside visits, my student felt sidelined. He told me again, “I held a snake!”

A formidable power: Vermont floodline summer 2023. See how the water swept through halfway up the trees?

After every contribution of wondrous landscapes from the other students, the teacher asked, “Did it scare you?” She established the connection between excitement and fear, the sublime power of nature.

I asked my student if he felt a bit scared holding the snake, and I said his mixed feelings reminded me of the class discussion. The boy’s face lit up and we decided he ought to share his story with the teacher. A snake is part of nature, right?

He held his hand up for several minutes while other students were called on. Reluctantly, the teacher let him speak just as she was closing the topic. 

“I held a snake!” he said.

The whole class laughed. “That’s not what we’re talking about right now,” snapped the teacher.

My student was devastated. He kept asking me, “Why did you say I should tell her?”

Finally I murmured, “Because I would have responded differently.” I don’t like disagreeing with a colleague around a student, but taking the kiddo’s side in this somewhat subtle way calmed him down. 

Essential Bonds

And I was angry, actually. This student can be quite challenging but his Educational Health Care Plan outlines the traumas he’s been through, the difficulties he has with learning, and strategies to help him access the curriculum. Even if a hardworking teacher doesn’t have time to check the documents again and again, surely making children feel included is just common sense.

Haven’t got any snake photos, but the pattern on these fritilleries is awesome too

It takes barely a second to say, “Interesting. Thanks for sharing.”  

After all, the English curriculum assesses students on their ability to make connections. Follow literary clues from an extract to deduce the writer’s motivations. Compare how poems show similar themes in different ways. How hard is it to connect the snake, a potentially deadly predator, with formidable but impressive landscapes?

Some connections will be firmer than others. We all make far-fetched ones sometimes, in our natural human tendency to see grand designs behind the events of our lives, hoping to place ourselves in the centre. But the ability to draw these links sets us apart as a species.

When It All Comes Together

One thing I love about writing is teasing out the connections. My first published story took place in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. In my research I learned the Creole word for earthquake shared its root with the mudpies eaten by the most impoverished people: , like terre, for earth. 

This term linked vast struggles of poverty and disaster with resourcefulness and survival too, and chained them up into a more manageable bundle. But it wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t looked into the native language, and if I hadn’t already felt a connection to the country, following stories about mudpies and Cite Soleil and the Creole language long before.

Keeping the sides connected: Houston’s famous Be Someone bridge

Sometimes my threads linking a character’s motivation to their actions aren’t strong enough. Or maybe they’re too coarse and unsophisticatedly blatant. Honing those connections is vital, and enhanced by cultivating connections in our everyday lives–by taking those moments to invite other people to share. Even if they just tell us they got to hold a snake that one time.

My latest story is on the wonderful Funny Pearls website. It takes the perspective of a girl with autism as she considers what connections to make, and how to do so. From building a bridge with Knex to practising facial expressions in the mirror and developing a felicity with the subtle burn, read how Sylvie makes links in “The Late, Great Jimmy Stewart’s Video Guide to Emotions.”

As with any force of nature (or predatory reptile), connecting with others and recognising our many links to the world can be quite frightening. It may mess with our pre-established plans to consider someone else’s challenges and let them in, but the consequences can be pretty awe-inspiring all around, too.

How do you build connections in your work and in your life? And does it sometimes scare you?

Seven Wanders of 2023

Hiking around and seeing new places inspire me as much as reading other writers’ work. I don’t necessarily end up writing new stories about the places I see, but glimpses of the spectacular keep some spark alive inside me when the rest of life seems a great stack of to-do lists.

Feeling like an adventurer in the real world can’t hurt our creative life, right? Here are some of my favourite explorations, why they ignited my imagination, and a smattering of my photos.

See also previous years’ top wanders: 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.

Festive Cirencester, Cotswolds UK 

We gave ourselves a couple hours’ break between getting COVID in December and finishing work and sorting out Christmas and travel preparations. Cirencester is fairly local and its alleys and Cotswolds stone lend themselves well to the festive season. 

A wander, the purchase of a jungly fern from a back alley shop overflowing with plants, and cups of hot chocolate at a specialty chocolatier renewed the season’s sparkle.

Widworthy Barton, South Devon UK

While staying near the Jurassic Coast in Southern England, I went out for exercise and discovered a fascinating little story as well. Uphill from the thatched farmhouse we’d rented, I came across an even smaller hamlet and a square-towered stone church with its graveyard. 

A lustrous black gravestone memorialised the village’s matriarch and her husband. He was a holocaust survivor and popularised the Rubik’s cube, and she bought the local manor house and revitalised the community, abseiling down the church tower in her 70s to raise money for roof repairs.

Dovedale Stepping Stones, Peak District UK

In late September we had a rather cold, frequently wet camping trip and finally explored a Peak District destination I’d wanted to see for some time. We were lucky to have a sunny morning at the Stepping Stones, casting a sharp, bright contrast between peaks. 

The stones are set firm and flat in the river like molars, and after crossing, we followed the path under trees and past sparkling reflections. There was a good climb up smooth-worn stone steps laid by Italian prisoners of war during WWII, and then a further walk along the river with pale bluffs on our other side, rising up like mighty ship hulls with dark bird barnacles. We later did a longer, more rugged walk to reach the Chee Dale Stepping Stones–those are quite scenic, too.

Newfound Lake, New Hampshire USA

For me, summer is most blissful at a New England lake. This summer we had a few days with the entire family at Newfound Lake. It’s the third biggest lake in the state and the deepest, reaching 183 feet deep. It’s thought to be one of the cleanest in the world, and the sunsets over low-slung mountains off in a corner were spectacular, the reflections pristine.

We had the trilling cry of the loons at night and that cool lake smell in the mornings. Woods of oak and pine separated the holiday houses, but we got a glimpse when we were out on our kayaks. One house even had its own massive inflatable waterslide tower out in the water, with “No trespassing” painted all over its base.

Portobello Road and Notting Hill, London

I don’t know if it’s hard for places like this to keep living up to their reputation. Do the streets made famous in Disney songs and late 90s films want a break sometimes, want to drop the facade? Well, we took a good walk along here and enjoyed the mix of shabby and cheesy and pushing the boundaries.

We perused stalls and shops selling everything from wool berets to sequined jackets, to prints made from photos of your iris, to last minute pumpkins for Halloween the next day, and we had lunch at a place called Egg Slut–absolutely delicious. Then we did a further loop through the posh neighbourhoods of Notting Hill, with big, pastel townhouses dripping with gauze webs and jack o’lanterns for the holiday. Imagine trick or treating here!

Brecon Beacons Four Waterfalls Walk, Wales UK

Another hike I’d been sizing up for a few years, this too proved well worth it. It was cloudy, but the falls are still quite spectacular. I guess we can thank the rather wet year for that. 

Because it’s quite a popular destination, we couldn’t always get close to the cascades, or behind them. Still, I love seeing how torrents slice through rock, and all the greenery that scales the damp cliff face around and behind the water. One waterfall had dozens if not hundreds of little rock cairns built in the stream below. 

To save backtracking the long, muddy, crowded access path at the last fall, we found a vague trail up the bank and did some rugged scaling. This earned us extra waterfall views from the top and made us feel quite intrepid. 

City Park, New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden, Esplanade Avenue, and St Louis Cemetery #3–Louisiana, USA

Did something completely different over the Christmas holidays and visited America’s deep South . We met up with our kiddo in Houston, then my husband and I roadtripped along the Gulf of Mexico and the bayou, and spent New Year’s in New Orleans.

Staying in the French Quarter, we had the experience you might hope for: strolling out for morning beignets under wrought-iron balconies trailing ferns, pausing to hear jazz bands in the street. Later, we stopped at City Park, a massive public space half again as big as NYC’s Central Park.

We were greeted by long-beaked ibises when we got out of the hired car, and we ambled through the Besthoff Sculpture Garden beneath live oaks dangling Spanish moss and resurrection ferns (ferns that go grey and curl, allowing themselves to survive losing over 70% of their moisture in dry spells). The statues combined cultural elements of the city’s past: a Rodin, a ghostly dress with a solar system model for a head, a conquistador helmet turned to a snail with a little boy riding its back, a glorious African woman, her garment a series of impeccably formed coils.

From there we walked down Esplanade Avenue, with pretty pillared houses and more live oaks, the trees so mighty they were busting up sidewalks and weighing down overhead electric cables. We came back through one of New Orleans’s famous cemeteries, with aboveground vaults since you can’t dig graves below sea level. Some vaults have lots of cupboards in them for family remains, and one had a small ornate frame fixed to it with a photo of the occupants behind a convex lens, like a locket, so you could see the faces of the African-American couple who passed away in the 1980s. It seemed a privilege to actually see what they looked like, and I wish that idea might catch on.

What were your favourite visits and meanders this year? How did you keep your spark alight?

2023 Reading Round-Up

I read 32 books in 2024. I’d love it if I’d had more reading time, but often when I set a high reading goal for the year, it makes reading feel stressful. I’m rushing to finish a book when really, I should be enjoying it. So, no regrets!

Here are my top reads from the year, and of course, my very favourite quote from each. Because I have tried over the years to savour books better, I always pause after finishing one and write down my favourite quotes.

As to how I mark the pages of my favourite quotes while I’m reading… I exercise my right of protection against self-incrimination on that.

Quote in my daily calendar for 2023

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
A master intrigue-builder, Harris sneaks suspense in through everyday details and seemingly idyllic settings. The setting here is a boys’ grammar school, secretly crumbling. Since I work in a school, semi-snarky descriptions of teachers and students amuse me.

“Although listening to boys is bad enough, listening to their parents is fatal.”

Cuckoo in the Nest by Fran Hill
I love Fran’s writing, particularly her hearty humour which is specific without being sharp. Her debut novel gives voice to a wonderfully insightful adolescent character entering foster care. This book is a real gift with its empathy to all characters involved.

“I could have done with help defending myself against the way Bridget would experience the emotions she thought I should be having.”

Not Quite an Ocean by Elizabeth M Castillo
Castillo deftly balances beauty and decay, peace and turmoil. Her latest volume explores womanhood through the metaphor of the ocean, inspiring us to reflect on our journey with awe and compassion. Women, the sea, what’s not to love? 

From “Who Will Hold the Ocean?” 
“Who will teach her that the darkest parts of her body are where creatures are the most boneless, and bright?
Who will dismantle the great, iron skeletons of conquest that lie rotting, eating away at her throat, and back teeth?”

Braver by Deborah Jenkins
I adore a story with a diverse cast. In some respects, this novel is as simple as a little group of people banding together to help each other out. But of course the tug of each individual’s needs pulls events into a tangle. 

“There’s the smell of grass and that scented summer air that drifts into your very soul and makes you believe in the safe familiarity of things.”

The Binding by Bridget Collins
Set in a world where books can only be made when a person is “bound,” surrendering their memory to the page. This results in all sorts of secrets and shocking twists. It’s also an incredibly moving love story. 

Summer Solstice 2023

“It makes one wonder who would write them. People who enjoy imagining misery, I suppose… People who can spend days writing a long sad lie without going insane.”

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison
This haunting epic takes place in a climate-wrought [near?] future dystopia, observed by a Shakespearean-style chorus…comprised of rewilded cows. Between flooded coasts and strict urban areas, various communities help each other and revive hope.

“We see you, boy
We see your gentle heart
Keep it carefully
It has work to do”

Game Changer by Neal Shusterman
A high school football player finds himself in an altered version of his universe every time he gets concussed. Each shift highlights issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, and raises questions. What makes us who we are–and how easily could it change?

“If life exists four hundred times smaller than we can see, it must exist four hundred times larger than we can see.”

March by Geraldine Brooks
The imaginary father of Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters in Little Women is the protagonist here. We see his part in slavery, Civil War battles, and early attempts at Reconstruction. Through him, Brooks unforgettably lays bare the national shame.

“And yet I do not think it heroic to march into fields of fire, whipped on one’s way only by fear of being called craven. Sometimes, true courage requires inaction; that one sit at home while war rages, if by doing so one satisfies the quiet voice of honourable conscience.” 

Goodrich Castle, Wales, June 2023

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Written during World War II, this novel alchemically combines some of my favourite elements: a precocious narrator passionate about writing, an eccentric family among castle ruins, class struggle, explorations of love and art. 

“‘Anyway, your father had a very distinguished forerunner. God made the universe an enigma.’
“I said, ‘And very confusing it’s been for everybody. I don’t see why Father had to copy Him.’”

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
A brilliant homage to David Copperfield transplanting Dickens’s expansive cast to coal country, western Virginia in the late 1990s/ early 2000s. It exposes the disadvantages and downright exploitation in rural areas, while also inspiring us with the resilience and compassion of many who live there.

“… Wanting to see the rest of us hurt because she was hurting–You have to wonder how much of the whole world’s turning is fueled by that very fire.”

Are any of these your favourites too, or do you have recommendations to add?

Antici…PAtion!

This Week’s Bit of String: Silent night

One of my earliest memories takes place at Christmas. My small New England town put on a Christmas pageant at the church, one of those crowned white ones on a pristine green.

Candles glow in frosty windows as Mary and Joseph journey to the manger and kneel respectfully. Junior high angels dance down the aisles, bare feet thumping over cast iron grates, and the kings stride in their colourful robes. 

At the end, the choir sings “Silent Night” as everyone files off the darkened stage. Kings, shepherds, angels and kindergarten cherubs. Joseph, penultimately, exits down the centre aisle and finally Mary, sombre and alone, disappears into a side door. The lights come up and everyone bursts into “Joy to the World.”

Some of my favourite ornaments, carrying lots of memories

Can you spot what they forgot? My just-turned-three-year-old self was keenly aware that everyone left the infant Messiah behind. The wooden box-manger only held a doll, but I was inconsolable; to me dolls were as real as anything. I was outraged at the abandonment, sobbing amongst the heavily coated crowd. 

My parents found the girl who played Mary, but I wanted nothing to do with that traitorous mother. Then I was introduced to the person who owned the Baby Jesus doll, and that alone calmed me down.

I still wonder at the order of that pageant, unchanged in decades. Through the ensuing years, I loved the pageant, thought it beautiful–but also tenderly sad. That’s Christmas for you, I guess; moments of quiet, of loss, of sudden delight. I was taught that when setting up a collection of short stories, you showcase the best ones first. Maybe it’s our instinct to start strong, but this can result in an anticlimax.

Maintaining Order

Four decades and an ocean now separate me from that distraught doll-defending girl at her first nativity play. I’ve been around long enough to know my ideal festive sequence of events, even if I can’t always control it.

The key is to avoid letdown. You have to hit your checklist in the right moments, before the season over-ripens to wistfulness. Most Christmas films have an element of nostalgia and wish fulfillment that’s too sad the day after Christmas. The build-up is the best part of Christmas, really. Putting ornaments on the tree is a lot more special than taking them down. 

There can be a lot of stress at Christmas, but Obie the Bosscat is keeping on top of things.

The word anticipate shares a root with capture. It means to grasp something beforehand. That’s quite exciting, isn’t it? Not like the tedium of just waiting, because at least we know that December 25th will, in fact, arrive (unlike a lucrative writing contract, for example).

I get Christmas tunes playing in my earbuds during hikes around mid-November, and the lights and decorations go up at the very start of December, so I can enjoy them for longer. Everything must be in place for the cosy moments between all the running around. At some point, I will be reminded that it matters more to me than to others, and each sparkle will disappear from centre stage.

Heightened Sensations

Christmas forms strong memories because it engages all our senses. We associate smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and feelings with the holiday. When a moment incorporates all senses, I think our memories cohere around it more firmly.

We’ve got Christmas songs, both jolly or deeply moving, we’ve got sparkly lights and shiny ornaments and the contrasts of crimson berries against sharp green holly. We’ve got smells of cinnamon and pine, and tastes of citrus and chocolate. We’ve got the sensations of warm hearths and fuzzy jumpers and the bracing chill from anaemic skies.

Stopping to smell the roses

Great storytelling engages all the senses as well, which is why Christmas stories and films and songs can be particularly moving. Listening, viewing, reading them, and even creating our own helps us to seize those moments because otherwise, we might forget the bits that turned out how we wanted, when some events inevitably proceed less smoothly.

I wonder if our relentless preparations are partly an attempt to find exactly the right combination of sensory stimuli that make us feel young, make us feel loved and valued as we believe we once did. We are desperate to capture something, maybe that outpouring that George Bailey finds at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, or the kindness and mutual appreciation of a goose dinner at the Cratchit family table.

What are your favourite moments to capture in the holidays? How do you manage to seize them, and do they fall before December 25th or after?

Checking the Story

This Week’s Bit of String: Sudden appearances

During a research project on Brazil, my Year 11 student enjoyed quizzing me with each fact he found. We learned it can rain up to 394 inches per year in the Amazon, and that the rainforest covers twice the size of India. He also took a few side quests with Google: the deepest hole in the earth, the biggest airplane.

Then he asked, “You know that Boeing 747 that disappeared?”

“Um… which one? Do you know what year it was, where the flight was from?”

“I don’t know. But they’ve just found it; look! Here’s the plane.”

Don’t believe everything you think–street art in Cheltenham

He angled his laptop screen to me. He’d put “Boeing 747 disappeared” into Google and then gone to the images tab. For all I knew, every picture was of a different plane and completely different circumstances and who could say from each photo whether that plane ever had, in fact, disappeared.

I follow political news avidly (it’s a not-particularly-healthy habit of mine) so I hear and worry about the spread of misinformation influencing elections, and about voters being in their own, social media-cultivated bubbles. But what I witnessed here drove it home in an entirely new way.

Suddenly it hit me, anyone can Google, for example, “Joe Biden senile” and the algorithms will present them with exactly what they want to see. And thus the course of human history could be affected.

Refining Terms

When we factor in the literacy struggles which some people have–why search for information to read when a picture will do? The problem is, a picture could depict anything and be from anyone. Someone could Google “Israel terrorists” and I hate to imagine what photos would come up. 

The intent can be ambiguous, too. “Israel terrorists” could mean terror acts against Israeli persons, or terrorist acts committed by them… And viewers of Google images might get both but assume all confirm their viewpoint. Sites label photos with whatever fits their agenda. 

Intent matters… Online algorithms are desperately trying to work out what we want to see, and it’s on us to return the favour by investigating the motives of people who post and share content.

Writers are infamous for spending our time on side research. Sometimes, it’s easier to check what wallpaper would be accurate for a time period than to actually write some plot. I generally don’t have much time to spare, so I keep my search terms precise. This is useful in following current events as well.

Just Asking Questions

Along with honing our queries to ensure we get the right information and checking the reliability of our sources, it’s crucial to interrogate our own motivations. I think we have an instinct to villainise certain people and idolise others. Once we’ve selected someone for those roles, we exclusively seek evidence supporting our decision.

An image is only a confined window from a greater story. Selfridges, London

Last week I had to resolve an altercation between a Year 13 student and a teacher. She calls him Scary Man and she and laughs about it with her friends to cover her fear about his shoutiness, and how it made her cry in one of his lessons.

When I talked to the teacher about her difficulties, he was spectacularly morose. “I don’t want to make children cry,” he kept saying. He knows they call him Scary Man. He tries to be gentle, and when they don’t appreciate this he snaps. They’re each as insecure as each other.

“It’s exciting to rally with our friends against a villain,” I said to my student in our discussion later. “But an inanimate one would be preferable.”

Goodness knows I’ve been guilty of the same thing, not least when I was her age; I signed someone’s yearbook thanking them for hating one of the same girls I did. Not very graceful or empathetic of me, but that too would have come from insecurity and from wanting to form a particular connection.

Humans tend to construct narratives. We like to see an arc of justice, and it’s reassuring when good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated. We love being right so much, we’re perversely happy to sniff out confirmation of our most bitter suspicions. 

Real life doesn’t often fit into these binaries and these smooth tracks, though. If things are lining up too well with what we expect and what we want, it may be worth looking deeper into the story, and looking behind the scenes of the presented picture. 

Pivotally, let’s try to keep sight of what underlying insecurities motivate those who seem like villains. We wouldn’t write a completely un-nuanced character without backstory, would we? We can’t assume real humans are without them.

Enjoy It

This Week’s Bit of String: Underrated qualifications

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

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

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

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

Resilience

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

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

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

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

The Trappings

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

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

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

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

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

Careful Content

This Week’s Bit of String: Birthday cake beheadings

My mother was really great at baking us birthday cakes catered to our interests. I think there was a Cabbage Patch cake once and Maiden Fairhair barbie type ones, I had a Scarlett O’Hara cake in seventh grade, and with four kids in the family I can’t even remember all the other characters and critters we must have gone through.

The problem with this, of course, is that those cakes then get eaten.

One year, my dad shouted ‘Off with its head!’ as the cake was cut into, and because I got so upset about it, he made sure to do it every time after. Even now, I don’t like eating chocolate bunnies at Easter because I feel bad biting their heads.

I make strictly inanimate cakes. Like this piano for my Bear’s 18th birthday.

I absolutely can’t bear thinking about executions. I remember preparing to emigrate to the UK, I was up late packing because I couldn’t do so during the day as a working single mum, and on one of the two channels my New Hampshire TV picked up, there was a documentary about Shakespeare. It said how in his time, when someone was accused of treason, their entire family was publicly tortured to death. This seems to have happened to Shakespeare’s mother’s cousin as well.

Through the exhausting process of sorting all mine and my toddler’s belongings, through the emotional goodbyes and the harrowing paperwork, I think this was the moment when I was most hesitant about changing countries. I’m going to a place that did THAT to people?

Personal Triggers

My sensitivity about this topic has become more ingrained with time. As a senior in high school I was traumatised for weeks because I saw a black and white predecessor to The King and I in which the Tuptim character and her partner get burned at the stake. I forced myself to learn all about burnings because that was my biggest fear.

It actually took me a couple of years till I was brave enough to even light candles without thinking about hideous deaths.

I have tried a brutal, immersive approach at times, reading accounts of drawings and quarterings and whatnot. That hasn’t helped me sleep better at night. When I’m up in the small, dark hours, there are doors in my mind I have to keep closed or I’ll be too terrified of nightmares to let myself fall asleep. I have lots of ready-made furniture to pile against that mental door: memories of my Grammy, planning the meals for the week; heck, how about naming all the titles from The Baby-Sitters Club?

I have concluded that executions are something I have to give myself a permanent holiday from thinking about. Is that so wrong? Maybe it’s just chemistry, certain things can’t mix. So I artfully plan a printing mission and slip out of the GCSE English classroom during the bit in Macbeth when they go after Macduff’s family. I would certainly never dream of watching something like Game of Thrones and prodigiously avoid anything about Roman times and how they treated captives.

It could be the cruel inevitability of a planned execution that upsets me so much. The anticipation and the degradation and the helplessness. Some part of my mind may connect it to the traumas I experienced, because I couldn’t figure out how to stop those happening and they, too, carried an element of shame.

Content Warnings

To be a productive individual, there are certain topics I have to avoid. It’s tremendously helpful if there’s a content warning which guides me in that. Of course, I then need the self-discipline and self-care to act on the warning. Sometimes a warning makes me think, Ooh, I’d better try and suck up my feelings and read it anyway, what right do I have to an easy existence? But then it kind of wrecks me.

Took this picture in London. The Tyburn Tree was a gallows that could hang 24 people at once. In the 1570s alone, over 700 people were killed here, right above Hyde Park. It’s awful but I did my due diligence and researched it and didn’t freak out too much.

Content warnings are sometimes portrayed as a snowflakey, excessively woke, mollycoddling sort of thing. But there’s a strength and, again, a discipline in knowing our limits. Just because I’m unable to cope with accounts of Tudor torture or Jim Crow lynchings (and honestly, I’ve TRIED), it doesn’t mean I’m ignoring important issues of the day. Hopefully that is clear from my writing.

On a slight side note, I’m glad terminology has shifted from “trigger warning” to “content warning.” The word trigger itself could be triggering, particularly in my home country considering the dangers of gun violence.

Does it really help the world if I get into a bit of a hole and read avidly about brutal colonial punishments in the Belgian Congo, then can’t sleep for several nights and am off my game as a teaching assistant and mum? I’m not sure it does. So, as Guy Fawkes night approaches, I’ll be giving that one some berth, particularly as he may have been set up and led into the gunpowder plot. Didn’t the bloke get tortured enough; why are people celebrating his burning for centuries after? I can’t think of any other holiday which so blatantly revels in pain… Good Friday and Remembrance Day are a great deal more respectful.

Have you found certain content that you need to avoid? Or, what are your strategies for dealing with things that slip through your defences without warning?

Reading for Fun

This Week’s Bit of String: Greeks and gods, geeks and goofs

Over the smell of rained-on teen boy and Haribo (the essential sweets of bribery), I host small group reading interventions. In lower set classes, everything is read to the students. But in this group, everyone gets a turn reading, even if it takes time (and essential sweets of bribery).

I never know how things will end up; one session had me googling Jamaican swears to confirm for one boy that hey, if you think it might be a curse, don’t go round using it. I now know an extra way to say “arsewipe.” The most challenging student once threatened me.

“Miss, I hope someday you wake up and one of your toes is gone.”

Now, that made me laugh. I retorted, “If that ever happens, me and my nine remaining toes are coming after YOU.” So he left laughing as well. 

Our school, like most, has geeks and bullies and exams, but also has these trees–and particularly awesome people.

We’ve been reading Anthony McGowan’s I Am the Minotaur, in dyslexia-friendly format. It’s about a teen boy who struggles at school with bullying and at home with his mum’s depression-induced neglect. He goes on a quest to win the heart of a popular girl at school, Ariadne. 

The students can tell me about a few Greek myths they learned in junior school. A couple remember the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Something about the myths, or about the fun, hands-on way they’re taught in primary school, remains with the students several years later.

What they really love, though, is the protagonist’s’ descriptions of his school. Kids giggle reading terms like “goths” and “geeks” and “pissed off.” Here’s a sample line: “Some big lump the size of a fridge might come up to you and then steal your phone and stamp on your face while his mates laugh like hyenas.”

My students never knew you could find those words in books.

Teaching Methods

If kids really struggle to read, they don’t experience many books. When it’s super hard for them, they don’t even get to that Magic Key series in the primary school reading scheme. They start secondary school and there aren’t many basic books, at least within my school’s budget, telling stories in which these kids recognise their lives. And there certainly isn’t time for teachers to introduce books, just for fun.

I could read at a very young age and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t become an avid reader until I was 8. It was a tough year, we’d moved to a new area and school; maybe that drove me to take solace in books. But the big change was discovering The Baby-Sitters Club. Reading about girls a few years older than me, in lives I might aspire to, was such fun. 

So good. Anne M Martin was a genius.

Any other BSC fans here? The range of protagonists (and their different handwriting!) and plots in Anne M. Martin’s books, and the cool links between the baby-sitter’s mini life crisis in each volume and her latest baby-sat client were brilliant. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I still try listing the titles in order. 

I wonder if I would have loved books so much without contemporary, relatable fiction. I was already writing before then too, quite derivative adventure stories, but without books like the Baby-Sitters Club, would I have accessed ideas that really grabbed my heart?

Relatability Versus Empathy

Of course it’s important to stretch ourselves and our students, to key them into stories about people and cultures far beyond themselves. I’m not arguing that students shouldn’t read Shakespeare or I guess (she said begrudgingly…) Golding. But when that’s all they have time to read because we’re teaching exclusively to exams, we’re downright robbing students.

The most challenging student rated the book 9 out of 10. Could it be the beginning of a beautiful friendship? Or was it the essential sweets of bribery…

Just as it’s crucial that students of colour and LGBTQIA+ students see themselves represented in our curriculum, there should be KIDS reflected in the reading material. I’m sure there are plenty of well-written books about recent youth. Patrick Ness maybe? And I won’t tolerate arguments that they’re not literary enough. We’ve got Blood Brothers on the GCSE Literature syllabus, for crying out loud, and A Christmas Carol and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Not exactly subtle, nuanced works. 

To engage students we have to first meet them where they are, then stretch. Reading a book about recognisable characters and setting has enabled us to have lively discussions. The kids ask me what clique I’d assume they were in, and they ask if when I was growing up I had a “Stinky Mog” (Anthony McGowan’s bullied main character) at my American elementary school. We talk about the seriousness of Stinky Mog’s mum’s depression (“Depression can kill,” two different boys point out in their respective groups) and we dissect how the bullied can end up passing that cruelty down to those they perceive as weaker.

I’ve really valued those talks and I’ve liked normalising reading with kids who rarely do it. But even our Special Needs intervention groups fall prey to exam mentality; department heads have complained about students missing lessons (to practise reading!) and we’re being given less time and fewer students we’re allowed to work with. Next term, to respond to these challenges, we’ll be resorting to comprehension workbooks with brightly-coloured, cartoony covers. It saddens me thinking how slighted and demotivated our students will feel when they set eyes on them. I doubt the workbooks will encourage a love of reading but hey, maybe they’ll help the students pass their exams.

What books made you fall in love with reading and writing? What kind of reading do you feel is most important?