Hitherto Unsung

This Week’s Bit of String: Bin day

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

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

The things you find on bin day…

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

Hail the Workers

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

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

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

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

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

Changing Voices

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

The rose-fingered dawn…

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

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

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



Back to Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work in Progress

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

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

Contemplating what went on both in and outside the Garden gates

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

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

Cradle of Civilisation

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

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

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

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

What’re We Writing For?

This Week’s Bit of String: Rewriting Beowulf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn’s coming to the schoolyard…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humming to Snails

This Week’s Bit of String: Summer camp workshops

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

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

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

Carry on, brave creature.

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

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

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

Permission to Imagine

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

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

The set-up.

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

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

Your Words Change Things

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

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

Magical mystery keys

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

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

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

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

Summer Bucket List

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

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

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

Busy bee.

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

The Days are Just Packed

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

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

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

ALL of it… Photo from 2007.

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

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

Summer Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weathering the Extremes

This Week’s Bit of String: Melting paint on a cemetery fence

After freshman year in high school, I got a state-funded job with other local teens to help out around the community. We were a bunch that had, shall we say, sometimes got in trouble, and this might keep us on the straight and narrow for the summer. There was a lot of volleyball in downtime, and trips to the corner store for Cool Ranch Doritos.

On the hottest summer day, we were in the sun repainting a cemetery fence. The metalwork was rusty and the old paint was peeling, but we went right over it. It was 103 Fahrenheit. The paint didn’t dry, it congealed, green and sticky. I remember the smell of it, and through the bars all the flowers wilted, perishing against the gravestones, cicadas strumming frantically like overstressed refrigerators. Our Doritos did not feel very cool.

Painting the fence: A seasons mural by my local lake back in New Hampshire

The following week we learned that a classmate died that day, of heat stroke at Easter Seals camp. Those memories are bundled together for me: that sweet boy, the stultifying heat, the sticky paint, the graves.

Whether accompanied by tragedy or not, extreme weather can serve as bookmarks in our memory’s manuscript. Can you quite easily recollect and recreate your most stifling or humid moments? And your iciest ones, or the ones when you got caught in downpours?

Literature to Cool Off By

You can probably name some great books that incorporate weather, too. Recently, I was thinking of The Siege by Helen Dunmore and how cold I felt reading that. Another chilling one is Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg, set in Greenland. Tales of Shackleton’s journey, the cold, miserable mud of the front in World War I that oozes in at the end of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.

Maybe you’re like my husband and you insist a hot cup of tea will cool you down. There are plenty of high-temperature reads, from the jungles in Louis de Berniere’s trilogy starting with The War of Don Emanuel’s Nether Parts, to the suffocating false politeness of small-town Missouri in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, to the powerful storms for which Zora Neale Hurston named her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

My kiddo with this excellent sign at Quechee Gorge Vermont State Park: “I’m glad it’s finally hot enough to complain about how hot it is.”

I find that weather helps to mark out stories in my writing, too. When working on short stories, imagery is such an integral part of the whole. Using particular climate and setting conditions can launch us into the mood of a piece. It’s easier to get creative describing something extreme than something ordinary, so if you had a bit of a rant or therapeutic scribble while you were hot this week, see if you can put it to use in a story one day.

My first published story, in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2010, was about a little girl in Haiti, before and after the earthquake in January of that year. To invent the character and her life, I relied not only on research but also on memory from my own visits, seared into my mind by the heat. Dusty roads, cracked skin, ceiling fans powered by generators through rolling blackouts, springtime temperatures at least as hot as the July fence-painting ones in New England. Once it clouded over, but the rain seemed to shrink as it fell and evaporate before hitting the ground.

Braving It

Weather can inspire us beyond just prose development. It forces us to build resilience. I’ve started wearing shorts in public, and shedding even my lightest cardigans. If I can be brave enough to show my somewhat un-toned arms and un-tanned legs, what else can I find the courage to attempt?

During the hottest days this week, our parched British region very nearly reached 100 Fahrenheit, and the upper floor of the comprehensive secondary school where I work DEFINITELY reached it. We couldn’t cancel school because there is no county provision to do so. We relocated classes, cramming all our students into the lower 2/3 of the building. The administration generously allowed them to wear PE kits instead of full uniform if they wanted.

Parched. Driftwood sculpture at Miserden Gardens, Cotswolds.

There was little relief downstairs, though. I resigned myself to living in a constantly-replenishing fountain of sweat. There was no way to look my best around teenagers who can sometimes be harsh critics. I don’t think anyone cared, though. We were all in it together. They weren’t exactly looking or certainly smelling like roses, themselves.

At the end of each boiling schoolday, I walked home in the blazing sun, grateful that at least I was in open air. Then I parked myself in front of the fan, curtains firmly drawn, and compiled editing notes for my novel. Being all about Eve and taking place in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, it’s got some high-temperature prose, but I was listening to the Frozen soundtracks which I think helped.

In one of Sarah Tinsley’s Scribbles virtual workshops recently, the theme was Heat, and I reflected in my notebook on how our emergency procedures for hot days might match our methods for interacting with the world: Rise very early when it’s quiet, open all the windows and doors to let the cool air in. Then shut everything down as soon as the sun starts to get through. Complete all tasks in darkness. Don’t venture out in search of an oasis because if we were entitled to one, it surely would have appeared already.

But what’s the worst that could happen, if we let in the sun? We might slow down, lie motionless, expose what we deem undesirable. We’d risk being seen, and falling behind. If everyone else is just as hot and tired though, who is there to judge, or to pull ahead?

Just a thought. I hope you’re able to take these opportunities to, if not feel more brave and inspired, at least feel accepting of yourself. We’re all doing our best, sweating through it.

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?