Calling All Alchemists

This Week’s Bit of String: Chemistry Revision

We’re finally down to our last two GCSE exams. Chemistry next Monday and Physics on Thursday. I miss studying for English, giving students fun writing and reading exercises. Now it’s all Sciencey stuff: alkanes and alkenes, distillation processes, waste water treatment, collision theory.

But the fundamentals, like the laws of physics and the reaction rules of chemistry, have a certain beauty in their massive all-encompassingness that inspires me and makes me think about the creative process.

A young neurodivergent student once advised me, “It’s dangerous to mix acid with hair dye, or toxic waste with gin and tonic, or potassium and mitochondria, or to put too many herbs with onions.”

Throw it all in there, just see what happens

I don’t know how exactly you would mix mitochondria and potassium if you wanted to, but with writing we do get to combine all kinds of things. Sometimes they are dangerous, but they almost definitely won’t explode. I love imagining a massive, dim chamber full of vials and beakers, some steaming and some icy, all different hues. We can grab whichever settings and character flaws and plot elements we like, mix them up, and see if it creates gold.

Later this month I’ve got a story coming out in The Phare online magazine. It’s called “The Albatross of Albany High School,” and I’m so proud and excited for it to be read. With Coleridge references and a young adult point of view, it’s made of weird ingredients, but after extensive experimentation, I think I got it right.

Back to Basics

States of matter are a revision favourite. Kids love reviewing what they already know. It’s reassuring, I suppose, like when you’re working on a draft and you keep rereading your favourite crafted dialogue.

Since making models of the different states of matter in Year 7, the students recall how particles move differently within solids, liquids, and gas. They’re not always able to name the processes that change a substance from one state to another, but I can give it a go.

Condensation: When we try to write a story, the idea is like a gas. Particles move freely, expanding to invisibly fill whatever space they’re in. It’s hard to stop thinking about it at the ideas stage, isn’t it? It bounces around your brain and will consider bonding with any random thing you hear or see.

Once we expose this high-energy idea gas to the cooling logic of a plan by simply sitting down at the computer or picking up pen and paper, the gas starts condensing into a liquid. As we start writing, whether in notes or as a draft, the particles compress enough to have shape, albeit a slippery, shifting one.

For the magic: this cauldron is from the Harry Potter experience at Warner Bros studio

There’s always a chance it will all evaporate again, and that’s ok. Some substances are best in that form.

Solidification: While drafting, the shape of our narrative settles from liquid to solid. It doesn’t mean you can’t still change the shape; we can whittle, drill, varnish, and paint. It just means the particles aren’t moving around and have finally drawn close to each other.

With less movement, a particle has less energy. But it also has a higher pressure. (As in, solids exert more pressure than gas.) I think that’s true of our creative process too; we might feel more excited as we’re snatching ideas and a bit less excited once they’ve solidified and we’re chiseling and polishing. However, this gives us an opportunity to exert pressure, to create impact.

Altering Carbon

Here’s another chemistry unit off the revision list that makes me think of writing. Any chemical reaction can be helped along by certain factors, and it’s the same with our creativity.

Temperature: This is the first thing we usually think of to speed up a reaction: heat it. It’s the first thing to consider with an idea, too. Does it spark within you, does it really excite you? When crafting a story opening, the inciting incident must be evident almost immediately. The reader needs to be drawn to the flame. Gentle warmth amongst the characters is important as well.

Concentration: The more particles you have, the more reactions you’ll get. It helps me to scribble every day in my journal and jot down anecdotes, responses, fantasies, what-ifs. Most of the ideas and thoughts won’t bond with anything enough to form a cohesive story. But the more ideas you can gather, the better your chances. Sarah Tinsley has some great articles on her blog about getting more ideas, like this one.

Stay gold, butterflies

Pressure: A deadline can be useful. Time goes through different states of matter, it seems… It can be a gas which expands to fill the space. When we think we have lots of time, we’re a bit aimless. But then suddenly time sublimates into a solid, and the pressure is on. Sometimes that’s where the magic happens.

Catalyst: A catalyst can be a substance or a position. With creativity, a catalyst can be a pre-existing structure. Retelling an old myth, subverting a trope, or speculating on an alternative to a historical event, can all jumpstart our process when we feel ideas have dried up.

These altering factors are part of collision theory: a chemical reaction requires particles to collide at the right angles and with the right energy. Not everything is going to work. Ideas will pass us by, and some we’ll need to pass over. The main battle I have is with energy. A lot of mine goes on work and family, and it’s hard to maintain some for condensing and solidifying stories.

What helps my energy, though, is a fresh perspective and a rare publication. Collide even chemistry with literature at the right angle, and inspiration wafts through the air. All those vials to be unstoppered, and the occasional success: a shimmering gold acceptance.

What are you concocting right now?

Imagining What Can Save Us

This Week’s Bit of String: Miners and runaways

A hundred million years ago, according to geologists, the Southwestern region of the UK was underwater, populated by sea urchins and other such creatures. As the seas dried, the remains of those little shelled beings were compressed through extreme heat into our incredible coastal cliffs.

The same coast which Roman soldiers breached a couple thousand years ago, undoubtedly bringing with them enslaved persons from various corners of their territory. They discovered the cliffs near Beer, now a lovely seaside village in Devon, and began to quarry the stone, building arches underground to access it.

From Roman times to the 1500s, the method of extracting Beer’s pale, chalky limestone didn’t evolve much. Workers picked clear the top of a chamber, a crawlspace about 3 feet high, then climbed in and, in the cold darkness for up to 14 hours daily six days per week, they picked downward to carve blocks, 4 tonnes at a time.

When the Church ran the quarry, in the Middle Ages, they even forced miners to buy their own candles. And if a block had flint or a crack in it, the miner didn’t get paid for that day.

View through a Roman arch

These blocks, made of ancient crumbled seashells and dug out by men in harshest conditions, have been used in more than half of Britain’s cathedrals, and around the world.

I learned about Beer’s miners on a quarry tour last weekend. I wondered, how on earth could people keep living with such a laborious, unrewarding existence?

One answer, apparently, is that the miners drank lots of rough cider. And probably they were pretty friendly with each other even while deafening one another from the echo of their picks. Maybe they had nice families waiting for them at home.

But they must also have been picturing themselves somewhere else. It’s hard to imagine a life without imagining, isn’t it?

Of course, we are lucky now to access books, travel, music, and things that clue us in to alternative existences. Before all those, there still would have been storytelling and songs, there would have been starry skies and vast seas and the people who sail them. Even medieval people might have had something to distract them as they worked. Did they know about the Romans before them, and imagine proving themselves in a gladiatorial ring, marching into a hot ancient city to a hero’s welcome?

Descents of Fancy

The day after visiting Beer and its caves, we went toward Lyme Regis and looked for fossils. There’s a whole beach where the Jurassic layer has shifted from under the cliffs, creating the “Ammonite Pavement.” Vast slabs with prehistoric squid shells perfectly visible.

I used a short thin stone to pry loose part of a clay underlayer, with lots of little scallopy fossils. As I pounded the edges of my chosen rock, I imagined I was a miner with my pickaxe, providing cathedral material.

I can picture this tree lifting its roots and just shimmying down the cliff

Do other creative people sometimes imagine a tougher existence rather than a rosier one? It’s like when I was little and my sister and I pretended we were running away from a Dickensian workhouse or a slave plantation every time we packed for an overnight at Grandma’s.
By picturing ourselves in those situations, we weren’t trying to claim the suffering others went through, or minimise it. Maybe we were a little callous to inject this sort of peril to make our lives more exciting. But also, I think that spending mental time in such stories helped make us more empathetic as we grew up. Possibly, hopefully, it makes us a little less dramatic about the trials we have in our own lives.

When I chisel a fossil free, I’m just taking it home so I can glance at it occasionally, and smile remembering a sunny little adventure. It’s not going to form the grand arch of a cathedral or the dungeon stairs in the Tower of London. Those Beer miners, for all their struggles, at least were part of something great and I’m so glad their contributions are now recognised, in the Quarry tour and in our imaginations.

Building Great Things

When I think about people like those miners, or when I stand in a Remembrance Service and listen to the names read out of terrified young soldiers who died in battle, I concentrate really hard on who they might have been as humans. This is probably silly, even delusional, but I hope the waves of my empathy somehow make it back to those people. So that, for an instant, they sense they’re not forgotten.

More imagination fuel–this rose must have some magical power, right?

Obviously it’s not enough to just imagine what people’s lives were like in the past; there are people struggling now and we need to donate, amplify, and vote in ways which benefit them. I think imagining is a strong motivator though.

Our ability to imagine, and then to empathise, may set us apart as a species (although, have you ever watched a cat slink around outside? I think our feline friends have some extremely melodramatic fantasies…) but at our core we are self-interested. In order to care about someone else’s plight, it helps to picture ourselves in their stead.

In the aftermath of 2001’s terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was banned from radio stations. Because if people are using their imaginations, that might not be so good for the weapons industry’s profits.

Of course, running alternate scenarios in our heads also just makes things more interesting. When I have to sit quietly with my students in their exams, I can pretend I’m actually in the Great Hall at Hogwarts taking O.W.L.S. tests. If stress is keeping me awake at night, I play a comforting memory of my Grammy’s voice. And I probably won’t use the miners of Beer in a story, because their reality feels so extreme I don’t think I could do it justice. But it’s inspiring to contemplate the many layers of history that have unfolded on the very earth beneath our feet.

What daydreams have you embarked on lately?

How to Not Give Up

This Week’s Bit of String: Blue inked sunshines

My 16-year-old student and I turn the page in her practice Maths paper to be confronted with a range of fractions. Mixed and mismatched fractions, including a negative number; this problem has everything you don’t want to see.

“This disgusts me,” she says.

I tell her we can do it, it’s not as bad as it looks, let’s take it one step at a time.

Before we begin, she draws a sunshine at the top of the page, peeking over the rim of that box you’re not supposed to write outside of on an actual exam.

When we finish, and I compliment the heck out of her efforts, she beams and sketches a smiley face, slowly adding fangs until it’s “like something out of a horror film.”

It fits in well with these fractions, then.

My student is preparing to resit her GCSE exams because she couldn’t pass the first time. As someone with processing and learning difficulties, it’s very difficult to pass the same exams everyone else has to take. She feels as if she will never get the required grades, yet she spends almost every free lesson going over past papers, reading, completing Maths exercises, and then doing more at home.

Her resilience inspires me tremendously.

Unfavourable Odds

Much of what we want doesn’t seem particularly possible, and a lot of what we must do isn’t pleasant. If we long for a publishing contract, even a competition shortlisting, so does every other writer and there are only a few available. Maybe we want a house that doesn’t smell as if the toilet is emptying under the floorboards and where black mould doesn’t grow by the bed. Maybe we have to regularly appease people who don’t want us around.

A thing doesn’t have to be complete to be wondrous

There’s no way except to persist. This isn’t news; we all have our struggles and our strategies. But inspiration can come from unlikely sources–eg from teenagers.

I like my student’s idea of putting a friendly doodle at the top of a hostile page. I print out pictures of our next camping destination and put them on the kitchen noticeboard to keep me company through yet another round of washing up. Surround yourself with small brightenings. Plants, stickers, novelty mugs. Wear jewellery from someone who likes you when you have to deal with those who, no matter how you’ve tried, really don’t.

Equally, denouncing something with a hyperbolic statement even as we get down to work on it is a valid coping mechanism. “I think this is the devil speaking,” my student says as she sounds out a word problem. If you want to know whether writers do this sort of thing, just Google “Writer synopsis memes.” (Or go here.)

Make sure there’s plenty of praise in your diet. Hope of success is the best motivator—not fear of failure. Pop into Twitter to do some of the daily writing hashtags, and thrill when people like samples of your work. Join a local writing group or an online one, such as Sarah Tinsley’s Scribbles workshops. When there’s no one around, please, at the very least speak kindly to yourself.

When to Give Up

Two small brightenings, at once!

Not everything will be worth it. Don’t write something if it’s not exciting to you (unless you’re genuinely getting paid). We’ve all had situations where the right thing to do is end the job, the relationship, the torment. There’s no shame in trying something different instead.

I have a number of ideas and scribblings that I know are too cliched, too blah, and I’m never going to use them. I’m proud I tried, I picked at the thread, and maybe someday I’ll use some clever sentences from it or find a better way to write it. But starting a new project, having a go at something new, is better than sitting, stuck, in front of the old.

I think we call that moving on. Don’t we? (Side rant: have you noticed that “giving up” is what society accuses young people or people not accepted in the mainstream of, and when anyone else does it it’s called “moving on” or even “self-care?”) Without infinite time and energy, we have to leave some endeavours behind.

When it comes down to it, not giving up on life is commendable. So many things are tough—we deserve credit for just getting through the day. What little comforts (or irritated rants) help you persevere?

Filling Spaces

This Week’s Bit of String: Dragons and evacuees and musicals, oh my…

Confession the First: In second grade I had to write a complete story for school, and I sort of stole it from a computer game. I didn’t know how to invent whole new ideas, and my family had been working through Sierra Entertainment’s King’s Quest games 1 and 2. They were monochromatic with blippy music, but loads of fun. I couldn’t get them out of my mind.

In turn, the games themselves borrowed fairy tale elements, so while I felt as if I should have come up with something original, I also figured borrowing stuff was allowed.

A story starts out as a bunch of objects. Why not begin with whatever ones we want?

I was already skilled at pastiche. Before even starting school, I’d assign my stuffed animals roles based on Narnia characters or von Trapp children from Sound of Music, to enact and sometimes remix my favourite tales. Less than a decade later, I devised a series of novels set during the holocaust. I had a plot but didn’t know enough people to inform strong characterisations (particularly of the male variety; middle school does not offer a rich seam of girl-boy friendships).

So, once again, I borrowed. I had characters based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, and other books I liked. I’ve mentioned this before. They weren’t pristine or even recognisable copies, since I was putting them in different circumstances with different companions. But it helped me to carry on creating when I had a picture in my mind.

Just for the Moment…

In the first King’s Quest game, released in 1980, if you tried to turn your character a certain way in certain frames, or if you generally attempted something not in the programming, a message would pop up on the screen: “You can’t do that—at least not now!”

Sometimes, writing is like that. We have some of the ingredients for a full story, but are missing others. And you have to just put something in as a stopgap, in order to keep going.

At work I’m helping students prepare for exams. Every Year 11 in the country has to take the same subject exams, regardless of special needs or life circumstances. If they don’t pass at age 16 they must keep taking them each year. (I could pour my hatred of this system into several blog posts, ranging in temperature from grouchy to scathing, but I won’t trouble you with it now.) Most of my students have processing issues and biological literacy challenges that impair their ability to even understand the questions, which are set to trip students up anyway.

Still, we tell them to try. If it’s a Maths paper, put down whatever calculations you do and write something for the answer, even if it’s a guess. For the English papers, write as much as you can think of. Just put something down in those blank pages, to increase your chances of a pass.

In standard writing practice, we do something similar. A common exercise to get thoughts and words flowing is to free write for 5-15 minutes. You must keep writing the whole time, and you’re instructed, if you can’t think of something to write, to keep your pencil moving anyway. You can write “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” or “blah blah blah,” but keep writing. Fill in the blanks.

Purloined Persons

Confession the Second: I haven’t written new fiction in almost a year. I have written hundreds of pages, scribbling about my daily life and the odd fleeting idea. I’ve done blog posts. But I haven’t created, I haven’t added building blocks to a story. Lack of time, headspace, energy, you know how it is.

All kinds of building blocks to make this wall.

With the Easter holidays beginning, I decided to give it a go. After all, the longer you wait to do something, the more you believe you’re doomed to fail. Have you found that?

I unearthed a pretty decent story opening. I don’t entirely know what’s meant to happen in it. I’ve not been able to pull advances out of thin air. Why not borrow something, then? What if I take someone I know a little bit about, unpick the thread of a distinguishing characteristic or background detail, and then weave those into some gaps in my story?

It sounds kind of ruthless. Callous, perhaps, to borrow a person’s attributes. I don’t usually consciously do this. But sometimes you just have to fill in the blanks, and once you add to the ingredients you’ve already got, it’s all going to change anyway.

Sometimes a song or a picture will unlock a key element we need for our work. Other times we need a stronger nudge. Having come up with this plan, I managed to write 700 new words in just an hour and a half, even while frequently running off to check on dinner cooking. It’s still my own story, I just needed a bridge from reality into my long-unaccessed imagination. Already, now she’s got some words behind her, the character is finding her voice to tell me all sorts of things distinguishing her from her inspiration. And a story gets reworked so many times, characters evolve drastically.

What tricks do you have for filling gaps? Have there been things you loved so much, they may have shown up in your work, one way or another?

The Right Mix

This Week’s Bit of String: A seating plan reshuffle

You know it’s time to amend the classroom seating plan when sitting through an English exam practice question results in two students pelting empty drinks bottles at each other, clipping a staff member’s ear, and unabashedly informing the teacher they’ll f each other up as soon as the bell sounds.

In this case, the teacher begrudgingly typed up an incident report but tried to make me write the new seating chart in my unpaid after-school time.

“Make sure students a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, and i are nowhere near the windows,” she ordered. There are 3 window seats. There are 15 kids in the class.

She wanted at least 6 of them right in the front, but no one next to each other. Consign to some unreachable corner the special needs ones I’m there to support. “It’s a shame,” she said. “Most of them have been working well enough, but we’ll have to move everyone around in order to be fair.”

Rewriting a short story the following weekend felt like staring at the paper on which I was meant to draw up a new seating plan. Where to even start? So much I like, must I really chop and change the whole thing?

Outnumbered

For years since I first worked in the local secondary school, whenever I have to do something hard I have a recurring image in my mind. A dark-eyed little Year 8 slumped over basic arithmetic problems, throwing his head back and groaning, “This is so looooong!”

Long is a big insult from a student. Long is NEVER permissible to them.

Rewriting can feel long. Long and not particularly well-illuminated.

So it is with rewriting, in more ways than one. It takes a really long time, and I’d forgotten that because it’s been several months since I was free to sit down and fully overhaul a project. You think creating, yanking plot and character and language out of thin air, is the hardest bit. It should be quicker tidying things up, but it’s not.

It took hours of painstaking line-by-line work to shrink the word count by 40%, and that’s only the first go. Just as we make our Year 11s do more than one practice paper before exams, it’s going to take multiple versions before I get this story right.

The piece I’m working on is told by a mother of young kids. She has a terrible back injury and her husband’s disappeared. It’s funner than it sounds, because the kids are cute and the woman has a wry sense of humour. However, as with many tales, I have to balance out pain and hope, despair and wit.

Seating Plans Versus Story Drafts

There are a few similarities between helping run a classroom and pulling together a narrative.

No aimless gazing out the window: We want focus in the classroom (easier said than done) and definitely in a story. Every word and exchange should be trained toward the story’s purpose. No diddly passive verbs or excess prepositional phrases, no meandering side glances or navel-gazing either.

Long = Bad: This isn’t always true of course, but we don’t want anyone to feel something’s a slog. We give students various quick tasks to build different skills, and likewise with a story we can vary the tempo. Once I’ve made a major round of cuts, I look at the shape of the paragraphs on the page—are there too many rapid-fire dialogue lines, or excessively dense thickets of description? Where possible, I distribute these and alternate them.

Don’t forget the back row: The first page is like the classroom front row: curated with special care to set the tone. Because so much expectation rests on those initial words, I go over the beginning loads of times. But I also work backwards at some point, line-editing in reverse so my scalpel is sharp at the end for this round of cuts, rather than always sharpest at the beginning.

A little cold round the edges can bring the general shape into sharper relief

Maintaining balance: Move over Hamlet, the REAL question in life is do we lump the bad together so we get bigger swathes of good, or try to pace it out? In schools we often inflict a beastly child upon a lovely one in a seating plan. Otherwise the “bad” kids sit next to each other and form a whole beastly herd in Row 3. As a writer, I don’t want to present readers with unrelenting woe (I mean I’m not Thomas Hardy), so I emphasise warm relationships where possible and sprinkle humour throughout.

Make space for addition: When deep-diving into a rewrite, the immersion lasts beyond the hours of Post-It rearranging, pen slashing, and sitting at my laptop. I’ve reentered the world of my story and it takes a while to find the exit. In my dreams, on my walks, while I’m cooking dinner, I think of things I want to add. Parallels to be drawn more clearly perhaps, quick descriptors to enhance the mood.

Not ideal when trying to reduce word count to meet a competition’s maximum requirements. It’s like unleashing a kid fresh from the Internal Exclusion Room into a previously settled classroom. Will this knock everything off balance? But newcomers, whether people or words, deserve a chance.

Above all, when I’m editing I just wish someone could give me the answers. Does this go here? Am I allowed to keep this? Is something more needed there? I lucked out with the seating plan at school, because the other teaching assistant and I convinced the teacher it wasn’t our job to do it, and that little was required anyway. “You can keep most of the students where they are. It’s not as if it’s a secret why we have to move two or three of them.”

What are your tips for rewriting? Do you enjoy the process or do you find it… long?

What to Notice

This Week’s Bit of String: That ship has sailed

There’s a house I walk past on my early morning hike each day, with a round window like a porthole under the steep roof’s apex. The pane covering it boasted a stained glass sailing ship.

Only it’s not there anymore. I noticed recently, the porthole now has normal glass. Nice glass, with a whorly navel in its centre, but it’s not an adventuring ship. I did not approve this change.

During lockdown one gets attached to certain things. While unable to leave town for months on end, the sights on my limited range of local hikes became my safety network.

Wouldn’t a ship look nice in that window?

Blossoms and blackbirds, shop displays and creeping cats, the church rubbish bin with a fish symbol painted on it just in case the name and location aren’t identity enough. Footbridges and milk deliveries. The man with two huskies who wears a neon vest asking for space, and always smiles Good Morning when I give it to him. The young guy who strides down to the construction depot at the new housing estate and takes position outside the gates to aim a thermometer at the foreheads of entering labourers. The patched and re-patched bit of pavement which my son always said looks like a guitar, insisting we make suitable sound effects every time we walked over it.

So it shook me to realise a little mainstay of mine, something my gaze sought out while I hustled uphill from town, had disappeared. When did I see it last? What if the window was changed a while ago and I didn’t notice?

Missed Signals

I’m not sure if monotony is better or worse for noticing things. We might notice the slightest change, or we might have started tuning out. Even now that lockdown’s over, I use the same 3.8 mile route most mornings because I don’t have to expend energy on decisions.

Baby Georgie.

We need choices sometimes, though; to confront us into consciousness. A couple of weeks ago, one of our guinea pigs got sick, after 4.5 years with us. After multiple attempts to dropper water into him, we took him to the vet, and sadly George died there in the night. Had I noticed his discomfort too late? Should I have put him through the trauma of a vet visit earlier? You can bet we’ve been watching his brother extra carefully. I’m not sure Fred is pleased with the spotlight; he prefers food to affection.

I assume other people struggle as I do to be more present, less dulled by the daily grind. As parents we’ll always be trying to catch up with what we miss, and as writers it can be even harder to notice things, even while we’re the ones who should be super observant.

Taking Roll Call

The thing is, writers have an observing, idea-gathering mode, but also a developing mode. When we notice something that snags our interest, our body moves on but our mind is snared in what ifs, and character-building. While it’s nice to be consumed, to have that momentum, we don’t want to miss too much.

Infinite story possibilities in a rusty ship’s nail

Here’s what I’ve been reminding myself to stop and look out for, even while in the midst of plot problem-solving:

  • Multi-sensory check. Every now and then pause and concoct a quick description for each smell, sound, sight, taste and texture around you.
  • Revel in the wrong. I recently saw a typo in a Missing Person notice, describing a “balding man with a bear and glasses.” This transformed a sober paragraph about a man with facial hair to an imagined adventure with an ursine companion, and my imagination hadn’t had such fun in a long while.
  • All creatures great and small. A ladybird straying across the work desk, snails curled around lavender stalks, their shells listing blissfully sideways, judgmental rooks and feline drama queens. It’s fun to make inferences about all their behaviours.
  • Sift through the remains. Any found object in your travels could tell a story, from a dropped shoe or stuffed animal to a grocery list. A badly repaired square of pavement, allegedly guitar-shaped, brings me happy memories of walks with my son, so truly inspiration can be anywhere.
  • Shameless use of prompts. Every day I try to come up with, for example, a sky description. Or a description of something in relation to the sky. This derives from when I used to use a sentence starter, “The sky today…” and it became habit to look out for the sky and how to portray it.
  • Keep an eye on your people. I have kept up with daily journal scribbles, primarily to leave myself reminders of thoughts and experiences shared with my family. For years I didn’t want to keep a journal, reserving any precious writing time for “real work,” pieces that might be published. Now, I’m so glad I recorded some interactions. These are the last things I’d want to miss.

What have you been noticing lately? Do you have any suggestions on how to keep observational skills sharp and make the most of the moment?

Restarting

This Week’s Bit of String: How to begin a writing day
Battle-scarred fellow traveler

Let your brain drag you out of bed.
It will have jolted you awake several times already, nervous, excited, random, clamouring to achieve release.
It’s been asking, Is this really allowed, is your partner genuinely ok with you spending a whole weekend day on writing work, will you be able to keep up with everything else, is your kid all right too (always is your kid going to be all right), am I smart enough, do I have the stamina, the wit, the imagination to get anything done?
And you’ve been telling your brain, you’ll have none of those things if it keeps waking you.
But this time you must get up, get outside, have some fresh air while there aren’t too many people for you to slalom around.
You have to feel as if you’re ready. You exercise your body to get permission to exercise your mind.
You don’t need the hoodie. No one cares if your frame is visible, if it’s gotten bulkier.
You have been working hard. You have the right to slice through space as bluntly or as sharply as you like.
The same goes for the page. You have the right to be heavy-handed in your first draft. Anything you say can only be used against you when you are ready to reveal it.
Swerve around the mud-spattered fallen geranium and poppy petals.
Nod a greeting to the other early morning travelers: determined snails and industrious blackbirds.
Indulge in the futile summoning of every cat you see, haughty after its night out.
Your legs are stretched. Your brain has been pounded into a rhythm. It has been lulled into focus.
You are prepared with snacks. Fruit and nuts, a politically incorrect tuna sandwich and some chocolate-coated pretzels.
You are an ambitious squirrel, you are a reckless, rule-flouting heathen.
You are a person of great imagination and careful planning, who has reserved fuchsia socks with penguins on them for this occasion.
The blinking cursor awaiting words on your document isn’t taunting you, it’s jumping up and down with excitement for what you’ll come out with. It adores you.
Give the page what it wants, open the cage door and pour your mind into its arms.

Back to the Projects

It’s been a while. The lockdown of 2021 was a tough one, and I haven’t had time to write for submission. After a long lapse, after constant flirtation with exhaustion, I wondered if I had the concentration for it anyway. I booked myself a writing day, using Writers HQ’s online retreat (which are wonderful and free, by the way, try them out here).

Bit rough, but the way through is visible.

There are ideas to work on. There are even plots. My goal was to finish one story, rewrite another, and edit a final one. Submissions will happen once again! It’s hard to contemplate the emotional roller coaster of submitting work when isolation has knocked you down. That was part of my issue, not to mention a dearth of submittable work, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. So I am building up my arsenal of stories, as well as my perseverance to once again plough through the inevitable rejections en route to some kind of success. It takes a lot of rearranging around the weekend chores and the weekday job, but I’m excited.

Daily Words

Despite my inability to write for possible publication, I have been writing every day, in my journal. Each notebook lasts 2 or 3 months, filling up with observations from my walks, reflections on current events, and details from family life. In each notebook cover I write something I want to remember for the period.

The inner jacket of the notebook I started just after Christmas says: “Small steps, long pauses, unlimited restarts are allowed.” And there did come a pause. I’m glad I told myself it was allowed. There was enough stress without beating myself up for not publishing anything.

Now I’m ready to fit in a bit of creating again. If you’re not, I hope you enjoy your break.

There’s a lot in life we can’t do over. But with writing, we can! We can stop and come back to it as many times as we like. Readjusting our balance doesn’t mean we’re not writers, any more than reworking a piece makes it less of a story. If you have to focus elsewhere for a while—let yourself. We know you’re a writer. Your work knows you’re a writer. You will meet again, in better times.

I started my latest journal a couple of weeks ago, and this time the cover has a line from an Avalanches song, “Frankie Sinatra.” It’s highly inappropriate, but I am a sucker for a catchy tune. The lyric goes, “Like Frank Sinatra bitch I do this shit my way.”

Folks, it begins.

Closing the Distance

This Week’s Bit of String: The meaning of far away

When our son was very young my husband and I had to live on different sides of the ocean. I missed him badly but couldn’t dwell on it, so when our little Bear asked about his dad, I would say, “Daddy’s far away.”

During a quick visit when Bear was two and a half, he climbed all over his dad and asked him, “Are you Far Away?”

It sounds obvious, but in my own loneliness and the frantic rush of being a single working mum, I hadn’t considered that my toddler would not understand intangible concepts such as distance. My explanation was totally inaccessible to him.

As writers, we are engaged in shrinking things. A written word is a miniature representation of its real-life counterpart; a book is a flattened, condensed episode from a collision of lives. The paradox we deal with is how to reduce things without losing a sense of their magnitude, and as readers, we know it’s possible to do just that.

Amazing, really.

With Great Power…

It’s daunting too, isn’t it? Our job is to serve up bite-sized fragments of potentially suffocating reality, to pinpoint the fleeting, and to bring distant concepts near. We greet an idea after its long flight and take it home and nestle it into bed, letting it in from the cold.

So hard to do justice.

We may feel, when the world is so vast and problem-ridden, when many of us share similar lockdown woes, that our words don’t matter. Isn’t everyone thinking the same things already? Doesn’t it reduce an issue to confine it to the page?

But we are vain as humans. We like to see our reflection. We also like to shrink things a bit so we can come to grips with it. If we find the words to resize something small enough that lots of people can access it, we’ve ended up multiplying it. A bit like if we take a trillion dollar relief package and divide it between millions of people.

Creating the Magic

To effectively do this, we have to acknowledge, within ourselves, the enormity of what we want to convey. There have to be moments when our message, when our feeling for our characters and what they’ve been through, bring us to our knees. This may take the form of us crying over our laptops, or wandering in a shell-shocked haze through our day jobs and household routines. It may be sleepless nights or nightmares. Even our for-fun stories will consume us—another paradox of writing is that by trying to portray one aspect of reality, we distance ourselves from our current one.

Magic. Part of the Window Wanderland display in Wotton-Under-Edge

Then we negotiate. We try different terms and exchanges and sequences, see which ones are most succinct yet impactful. Lay out everything you want people to know, then chisel it to a sharp point.

Part of this carving out will include an examination from every angle: have we smoothed a surface that should remain rough and challenging? Are there facets we have left too splintery? This is the part of the process where we bring in new sets of eyes to look at our work, and we check that the representation of humanity we’re offering doesn’t inadvertently exclude or minimise any marginalised groups.

It’s a tricky process but each step is essential, and when it comes together, it’s so worth it.

Ready for the Close-Up

During one long period when my husband was Far Away, we did a webcam call. Our son’s face lit up when he saw his father’s appear on the screen of my chunky monitor. “THERE’S Daddy,” he cried, as if finally things made sense. Daddy may not be where he was expected to be, but he was at last visible.

That’s the sort of recognition we want our stories to bring. Not an exact replica of a particular human being, but a sudden proximity if not familiarity. We want to stop people in their tracks, momentarily, with a Eureka moment where everything fits together and the distant becomes immediate.

In this time of prolonged isolation and separation, have you used your writing to draw closer to the far away?

Just Keep Writing

This Week’s Bit of String: Storytelling bribery

It was the last class of the day. My 13-year-old student was still wound up from lunchtime; someone had incurred his wrath and plotting vengeance was more interesting than a Science lesson.

He squirmed in his seat and flicked bits of paper at his classmates. ‘Miss,’ he said, ‘have you ever punched anyone?’

‘Yes I have, and if you sit quietly and do your work, I’ll tell you about it at the end of class.’

The school had tried to encourage him to settle. Special daily reports signed by each teacher at the end of lessons, plenty of threats and consequences… But I’d finally hit on something (no pun intended). He kept himself cool for the rest of the session, and then I told him and his pals about how I got offended at a birthday party when I was seven years old and punched a boy I’d been friends with for years in the stomach.

Old school.

As writers, we know about target audiences. Any other anecdote would not have pressured my student into compliance. We’re always checking and re-assessing which tale is best to submit to which publication; this takes up a great deal of our precious writing time.

We also need to consider a key demographic: ourselves. Which project will hold our own focus at this time so we can develop it? When so much is out of our control, and so little available to brighten our days or broaden our horizons, not every idea will work for us right now. More than ever, we’ve got to write what we like.

Revisiting

In Britain, since October we’ve had just 3 weeks that weren’t on lockdown and there’s still at least six weeks until we can venture outside the same routes we’ve been walking for ages now. It may not be coincidence, then, that I’ve only this week written my first complete story since last fall.

I’ve had perfectly decent ideas in my daily notebook scribbling, for bizarre, dark humorous stories and feminist stories and tragedies-in-flash. But I couldn’t stick with them—not yet. If I had a few minutes of quiet to work on, you know, non-office work, I’d find myself staring at the computer until I found an excuse to Google something before shuffling off to spoon peanut butter into my mouth. (It’s not just me, right?)

Our writing can welcome us home.

The ones I manage to finish have pieces of home in them. They have youthful confidence and lakes and mountains and music like Salt-n-Pepa or Alanis Morissette played on old, fourth-hand car stereos with the windows down while driving several exits up Interstate 89 to get a root beer float.

These are the things I want, and probably need, to write about right now. There’s heartache and conflict but humour and resilience too—warmth. I’m not strong enough to dissect British daily life or examine the class structure or plunge deep into grief. It’s important that we do those things when we can, but if, like me, you’re just not up for creating such pieces right now, you can help amplify those who are: this upcoming volume of stories from the Lesbian Immigrant Support Group, for example, or Nikesh Shukla’s latest book Brown Baby.

The Places You’ll Go

There’s lots we can still do in our pages. If you’re struggling to get some work done, see if you can write something that feels less like work. Here are some suggestions:

Recreate a favourite setting: Since I can’t get back to New England, that’s become my favourite place to write about. I’m enjoying reading and daydreaming about other destinations (currently one of Peter Carey’s novels about Australia in the early 1900s), but for my writing to flow easily, I need deep familiarity, as with the place where I grew up.

Time travel: Every era has its challenges, but in recent decades at least, they weren’t the ones we have now. Set your characters at a stage in life when they might enjoy things more freely. I’ve been writing about teens who are alienated yet spunky, or about parents with mischievous kids to enliven the pages.

Or a drizzly New Hampshire Memorial Day parade.

Mingle with crowds: Let your characters do things we can’t. School dances, bowling alleys, mountain hikes. I find I’m not just counteracting my own losses and separations in my pages, I’m also imagining the things my son has missed out on, in his final year of school and first year of uni.

Do a remix: If you can’t summon your own ideas, twist a well-known story. You can go speculative on a historical event, or subvert a fairy tale. One of the stories I got published last year was this reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Following a pre-existing plot line from another angle helped me get the work done.

Use a natural progression: Seasons, holidays, milestones—these can help move your piece along. I started one story about growing up in the 80’s/ 90’s and wasn’t sure what would happen, until I used the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as the turning point.

Give hugs: Create on the page the relationships we’re missing out on. This year I’ll have a story published in Retreat West’s anthology that I absolutely love. I wrote it last year, about two sisters. I haven’t seen my actual siblings in over 18 months.

Life’s not easy right now. We still want our writing to be great, and to get it out there, so we’ll make ourselves think of something original or follow a trend or submission theme. But you are allowed to write what you want. Write anything that keeps you wanting to write.

On Time

This Week’s Bit of String: Ancient cephalopods

Southern England’s Jurassic coastline is made up of cliffs where frequent landslides expose layers of rock and clay studded, sometimes littered, with fossils. One town, Lyme Regis, has 71 noted geological strata, each with its own species of ammonite fossil.

Ammonites are now extinct, but many shells remain, similar spiral shapes to nautilus shells, but ridged. You can find them among the stones and shells and smoothed glass fragments on the beaches of Dorset and East Devon, washed down from the cliffs by the tide, or find their curls poking from clay in the slipped feet of the imposing banks.

I’m quite fascinated by these and other fossils. Prying one out is like finding something from another world. The squid-like creature that lived in this shell might have swum past ichthyosaurs, might have dodged diving pterosaurs. Around 150 million years ago, this was a warm tropical sea near the equator, formed when Pangaea started to break up. The planetary spot they occupied, according to those who study continental shift, is now the location of North Africa. So the clay we slip over, scanning for more fossils, inched up here to make room for ancient Egypt and the skill and culture of the Moors.

We’re talking a very long expanse of time here, obviously. But I love to connect these dramatic pieces and to dwell in the realms of hitherto unimagined change.

Sunrise on the South coast

This past week I brought my little family, our bubble of three, to the Jurassic Coast and we stayed in a cottage to celebrate my 40th birthday there. I’d long intended to spend this milestone with my whole family in the USA, to party with them for the first time since I turned 23. But that, and Plans B, C, even D didn’t work out, for obvious reasons. Still: I partied, in my own way, by digging in slimy clay, hiking up cliffs in horizontal rain, drinking by the fire with the Lord of the Rings films on (extended versions of course), and sitting on the living room floor playing Monopoly while eating pizza as if at a childhood sleepover.

Sifting Through the Strata

Every life gathers its own layers, detritus packed into sediment, relics peeking from ooze washed down in a storm. When an event shakes us we might discover long-dead remains different in shape to the parts of us now evolved.

As I approached my twentieth birthday, the thought that I could live four times as long depressed me. I felt I’d done enough damage, would only end up dragging everyone down with me. That wasn’t quite the last time I felt that way, but it has been a while, layers of having a kid to adore and a marriage to make thrive and various jobs to pour my energies into and stories to create—these have buried earlier strata which might contain curled, spiny, hard-shelled relics of self-loathing.

One of my biggest finds, fossils upon fossils

You don’t go digging at the bases of the cliffs and you have to watch out for landslides. But if a fragment gets washed out, we might give it a little scrub and find that it has a certain intrigue or even beauty. Remembering what despair feels like is pretty useful for a writer.

This year the stories I’ve most loved writing, and reading when they’re done, are ones featuring children, their belief in magic juxtaposed with intolerance for untruth. I guess that’s what the pandemic and its many separations and fears have shaken loose from me.

I had one character, a teenage skeptic, reply when asked about her goals: “I’m going to refurbish an abandoned shed and call it Burnt Sienna. I’ll live there and do art with a puppy named Periwinkle and a pygmy goat named Ochre.” Sounds appealing, right?

Counting Every Moment

On Halloween, my husband and I watched the Netflix remake of Rebecca. He did a bit of research on the story’s author Daphne de Maurier and informed me Rebecca was her third novel, published while she was 30.

Impressive, we agreed. But then I thought, I’m turning 40 and I’ve written 3 novels. Those were written while working full-time and while being my family’s everything—no nannies or household staff or even local relations. That’s kind of impressive too, and helps me make peace with getting older.

I’ve now been alive for a longer period than the one which separated World War II from my birth. I’ve known my husband for just over half my life. Time is such a funny thing, the weight of it fluctuating vastly depending on what we’re measuring it against. It’s the same with accomplishments; they’ll look more satisfactory from different perspectives.

Not that we want to get too satisfied with ourselves. I was thinking as I pried at prehistoric remains with a stick of driftwood, my face wind-raw and hands clay-chapped, my shoes carrying an extra gallon of water from getting caught in 8-foot swells, “This isn’t meant to be easy, that’s the pride of it.” And even when I managed to free a fragment, when I rinsed it in the frothy waves and was thrilled by the sharp ridges and tight coils revealed, I still didn’t want to stop. It’s like when you write a good story, you still want to dig up a new one and see if it might be even better.

Maybe the best we can wish for, as time passes, is to maintain a desire for more of it. I hope that whatever this year has shaken from the cliffs around you proves useful in your writing, and that you’ve got the strength to keep seeking new challenges.