Feed and Flow

This Week’s Bit of String: Starving feet and empty legs

When they were little, my kiddo would sometimes pause their playing and say, “I’ve got my starving foot on!”

I assumed this was Bear’s way of telling me they were hungry right down to their toes, similarly to how my aunt described adolescents as “reaching the empty leg stage.” So I’d scramble to provide a snack.

Years later, I found out Bear was actually telling me their foot had fallen asleep. That pins and needles sensation in their extremities felt similar to the queasy emptiness of hunger in the belly, I suppose. 

Then there’s this little guy, who slept 8 hours straight one day last week after bringing a live bird inside, chasing it around, and then eating most of it.

“Yeah,” mused Bear, “I always wondered why you gave me food every time my foot went dead.”

It’s an interesting feeling, hunger. Sometimes weirdly similar to feeling overfull, the ache and stretch of a stomach panicking, desperate to adapt its shape to the circumstances. While our minds seek refuge from pain, they are to an extent sharpened by hunger, since surplus can dull us.

Coming Clean

Over the half-term week off I began a change, cutting down my food intake and waiting 18 hours between one day’s evening meal and the next day’s late lunch. It’s a decision based partly on aesthetics, as I would catch sight of myself looking puddly, a bit of a soft mound. I’m proud of being a busy and vibrant person, and although the tiredness of life has accumulated somewhat, I still sort of picture myself as that trim mum chasing a little kid around.

When Eve goes through her first pregnancy in my novel–the first ever human pregnancy, according to the Creation myth–she describes how “hunger and revulsion vied in my belly.”  When our appetites have such complex manifestations, it’s easy to convince ourselves that our bodies and minds want things they don’t actually need. 

Saving myself the time it takes to bake goodies like this lemon meringue cake, and saving myself money on peanut butter.

Over the last decade, I got in the habit of having “a little something,” a la Winnie the Pooh, to get me through whenever I had to do something hard. The problem, as you may swiftly detect, is that there are a lot of things we have to do that we don’t want to. Some days are an absolute litany of them! And my definition of a difficult task broadened to pretty much any job I wasn’t keen on. Even parts of the writing process fall into that category.

That’s why during half-term, when I had some time to do things I wanted to do, I stopped indulging in that way. Weirdly, it hasn’t been super difficult, even this week back at school. I feel a lot calmer not relying on sugar to get by, and probably in no small part because I stopped telling myself I deserved a “treat” at the slightest jostle to my plans.

Treating Myself

I’m still not getting a lot of sleep, but I’m finally accepting that sweets (and peanut butter by the spoonful) don’t cure tiredness. If they did, I wouldn’t have to keep dosing up on them. 

It’s a conundrum in busy, tiring lives, keeping ourselves going in the short-term without sacrificing the long-term. I am not angry at myself for waiting this long to return to better habits. I don’t judge anyone else for doing the same, so why be nasty to myself? There are periods in our lives when it’s just not within our strength to make the best long-term decisions.

Flow and glow

Instead, we treat ourselves to little immediacies, a pleasant taste on the tongue, a gravity to our middle while everything rushes around us. Now, I think I’m ready to go beyond “treating myself.” I’m going to treat myself… as the person I want to be. 

Treating myself to a few extra minutes of sunshine taking the long way home on a nice day, instead of rushing over shortcuts to get chores done after work. Treating my stomach to a long rest. Treating my brain to concentrated periods of writing work instead of little bits here and there. 

When thinking through this issue, I looked up the etymology of related terms. Words like food and hunger are so tied to basic physical needs, their roots have no surprises. The etymology of nourishment, though, reminded me of its Latin ties to nursing, as in feeding a baby, and before that, it shared the prefix nau: to swim, to flow. I do feel as if I’m getting into a more natural flow. 

When my kiddo was a baby and I nursed them, they caught on quickly to the fact that milk hormones put them to sleep. Bear never wanted to sleep, even as a newborn. So they’d hum, kick, even bite to keep themselves awake while eating. It was not a tranquil experience. But it’s interesting, that link appearing again between a sated appetite and sleepiness, between hunger and staying awake. Exercising discipline physically, I feel, helps my discipline mentally. 

How do hunger and satisfaction affect your mental and creative states?

Making It Up

This Week’s Bit of String: Near-misses and resistant materials

“Miss, did you ever almost cause the death of a small child?” a year 10 boy asks casually as we sit on the high stools around a Design Technology table. Three boys with various tools and MDF fragments, me with my laptop and notebooks.

This is Resistant Materials. I know very little about CAD, woodwork or metalwork, but I’m supporting a student doing the GCSE. When I told my husband I’d be helping with Resistant Materials, he quipped, “Is that the course, or the students?”

Fair question. But I’ve clearly won some trust. The boy who’s asked this surprising question explains to me that he was once on a ferris wheel with a friend, and her shoe fell off and almost hit a toddler on the ground. Hence, he feels he was beside someone who almost accidentally caused the death of a small child.

Big wheel keep on turning

Story ideas pivot on crucial moments like the one he mentioned. A slight change in breeze, an incremental rise or fall in the Big Wheel, and the shoe might have hit. I noted the exchange with the Year 10 boy and preliminary thoughts about the alternate scenarios in my daily scribbles, ready for half-term when I have a few free hours to sit, and wrestle out my first new story of the year. I’ll have my latest novel edits all typed up by then.

Exploring Options

Around the time the Resistant Materials boy mentioned his anecdote, I was reading through a literary magazine called Story. It’s based in the US, and I discovered it because I was looking for submission possibilities and Googled “short story magazine.” Sometimes we forget to keep things simple; we look through comprehensive listings of publications and deadlines and fret over word counts… This was more a case of “ask and you shall receive.”

There were some great stories in this issue. My favourite was about a group of boys and their scout leader who got trapped in a cave for several days. The dynamic among the boys before, during, and after was fascinatingly written. It made me realise–and again this sounds SO obvious but it’s another thing that I lose sight of now and then–we get to make stuff up.

I’m pretty sure the writer hadn’t been stuck in a cave or been close to someone who was. But they did a great job making up the scenario and tracking its impacts. I’m going to do that too, I thought. Make something up.

I tend to be a bit timid with my ideas, whether it’s from actual fear or more likely, lack of mental energy. Starting from scratch is EFFORT, to borrow the ultimate disparaging statement from my students. That’s why it can be useful to begin with a memory, with a favourite setting or even person, or with a retelling, a twist on something old.

What About the Future?

Lately, I’ve indulged in inventing future scenarios. If my imagination is slightly inhibited regarding stories, I severely limit it when considering how real life could turn out. I’ve done this from a young age, to avoid disappointment. I specifically remember preparing for my 8th birthday, to be celebrated at Chuck E Cheese’s, something I’d wanted for years. Rides! Games! Pizza! I’d wanted it, but wouldn’t allow myself to picture it, because that would risk building expectations. 

Maybe the Event will bring us here.

If we’re tuned into the world, and we have an ounce of empathy, it can’t escape our notice that we’re clinging to some privilege. Whatever tough times we’ve had, billions in the world are substantially worse off. My husband and I remark to each other sometimes about the Event, an imaginary but tacitly half-expected reversal of world fortunes.

“This would be a strategic location in the Event,” he says when we take in hilltop views on a hike.

“For the Event,” I say when I add to the ranks of canned goods in the cupboard.

But it’s also possible that amazing things will happen in the future. You know, on occasion. Struggling to sleep with exam stress on behalf of my students recently, I started imagining what, for example, our 30th or 40th anniversary might look like, having just celebrated our 20th.

Maybe we will be surrounded by family next time, instead of on our own. There could be a new generation of children on the scene, and though another decade could see further health complications for my parents, I imagined my own kiddo helping to ensure they’re looked after, and this brought comfort.

We can’t get attached to any single projection of the future. But envisioning positives—perhaps especially in the form of small, everyday details—is a new bravery for me. Part of appreciating what I have means letting go of my expectation of disappointment. And if events look to go in a different direction, then I’ll just make up new hopes.

How do you keep sight of the freedom to make things up?

Writing to Remember

This Week’s Bit of String: Memory manager

My mother always said you can tell a storm’s coming when the leaves blow upside down. It doesn’t sound logical, but she’s right. Once you’ve seen enough storms, you recognise a particular silvery toss. 

When I was a kid, we lived across from a lake and spent whole summer days there, sometimes cut short by thunderstorms. As black clouds massed over the water, the maple tree beside the landlord’s boathouse would thrash and moan.

And we’d run for it, holding hands across the road, towels streaming behind us. Once indoors, we watched lightning jitter over the lake’s teased-up waves, and sometimes the power went out. 

The lakes and trees of home

One such evening, we played on the scratchy carpet illuminated only by my dad’s battery-powered reading lamp. Perched on the edge of the sofa in his shorts, Dad flipped through a computer magazine and sang about the glossy adverts inside. I still recall the words:

“Super T-R-S control. Memory manager! Memory manager! Free inside this bo-oook!” As with many of his ditties, the first line copies the opening of “Good King Wenceslas.” Then he finished with a high-pitched flourish. 

At the time, we were probably bored with being inside in the dark, hot in the humidity, and hungry for a dinner my mom wouldn’t have been able to prepare without electricity, but all I remember is Dad’s goofy crooning, and it makes me smile.

35 years later, I have no clue what a super TRS control memory manager does in a computer, or if it is in fact something a computer still relies upon. I do know that at every stage of my writing life, memory has been an essential motivator.

A Justification for Stealing

As writers we are somewhat notorious for snatching versions of people from our lives and wriggling them into stories. Sometimes a whole person might get caught up with the bits of string we collect.

Preserving one-time theatre buddies, exchange students, or other lost friends in my writing helped get me through high school and college. I could huddle in my work when metaphorical storms came.

A local wall. Layers and fragments and wear and tear… it’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it?

Remembering is more than piecing together fragments. It is a profession of faith: You’re not here, but I believe in you, and the closeness we shared.

I’ve always loved Lionel Shriver’s line from We Need to Talk About Kevin, about a good-bye kiss the protagonist clings to: “I have relived that moment so many times now that the memory cells must be pale and broken down, like the denim of much-loved jeans.”

I’d done the same thing. Curled into a college half-desk in my Contemporary Poetry class, hunkered against a tempest of morning sickness, I would zone out from discussing TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and recall saying goodbye to my now-husband in Victoria Station. He’d cried and said, “You’re not the sort of person one forgets.”

I’d worried for the integrity of my memories, whether they’d buckle under the strain of my reliance. Is a remembered instant like a favourite song, and if you rewind too many times the cassette ribbon gets tangled and won’t play?

Nostalgia vs Declinism

Our memories aren’t saved into hard drives. They can get corrupted retroactively, or embellished. This is why I do my daily scribbles. My memory has a back-up. I’ve conserved in my pencil scrawl what ordinary felt like when my kiddo still lived here with us in the UK. I’ve described countless morning walks, in case the trees all get chopped down or my legs stop working. I’ve put down the frustrations and small wins and many laughs and a few tears over two years of getting to know SEN students who are now about to take exams and leave.

Studies show that the older we get, the more we prefer to reexamine the past than imagine the future. This is the tricky boundary between nostalgia and declinism, believing the best is all behind us and nothing good lies ahead.

Making the most of what washes up.

Crossing that border is dangerous not just to ourselves, causing anxiety and pessimism, but potentially to society. The nagging feeling that things must have been better before, surely the nation was greater once—it can lead to people making some selfish political decisions.

I get the anxiety, of course. When the future flashes into my mind, it’s often like the maple tree by the boathouse at our childhood lake. A menacing, pale toss. The present could so easily blow away; storms of some kind are inevitable.

So we run for it, into our memories, and I’m thankful for how writing has reinforced mine. If the alternative is oblivion, I am unrepentant about my pilfering. Besides, memory needs imagination to keep going.

While a remembered person or location can inspire me to start a story, it’s the moment when they alchemise with other elements of fiction, when they become something truly new, that motivates me to keep going. That’s when I know I’m on to something.

Understanding that helps keep me from getting lost in the past. The power of synthesising the old into something fresh and creative means we can make something from the future, whatever it brings. It’s like my dad making new songs from a Christmas carol and a computer ad, and I’m still singing it decades later.

How do you preserve your favourite memories?

Prescription for Description

This Week’s Bit of String: Bluebell woods

For several blissful minutes on Sunday, I was alone in a bluebell wood, without even being rained on. The freshly unfolding flowers formed a bright, periwinkle-coloured carpet beneath beech trees. Underfoot, leaves crackled and beech nut husks split like sparking embers, and birds sang with pheasants occasionally interjecting a cough. There were so many blooms I could smell them, a beautiful faint perfume akin to hyacinth. I sat against a mossy tree trunk.

“This is as good as it gets,” I thought. How often do I have time to just sit, and amidst such wonder? The colour of bluebells revives like a charge of electricity. 

Electric.

But to recharge a depleted object, said object ought to keep still. And I did not. I couldn’t surrender my quest to capture the stunning colour in an iPhone photo (spoiler: not possible) and I was checking my FitBit steps, already past 13,000, and mentally inventorying my remaining chores of the day. My brain is an action junkie.

It’s like this when I read as well. I love reading, I love being engrossed and being transported elsewhere. But I get a bit itchy, so to speak, when entering a thicket of dense paragraphs. This translates somewhat to my writing. I feel that writing dialogue is my favourite and my best.

Is this a character flaw? I’ve always worried it’s unintellectual, this reluctance to immerse myself in long, lyrical descriptive prose.

A Little Less Conversation

I do like descriptions of course; I’m not a complete philistine. I had to read Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school and loved The Scarlet Letter. I’ve gotten through plenty of other classics. It’s just a relief when a story whizzes through dialogue, especially since I do a fair portion of my reading while on the treadmill. Got to keep up a good pace! 

Over the years I’ve had to realise that snappy dialogue doesn’t equal efficient plot development. I interpreted “show don’t tell” to mean you let readers watch a conversation unfold, and decide for themselves what’s going on. But there’s a lot more weeding and pruning required, as well as tactful planting.

Carefully unfolding

A reasonably-sized paragraph can convey actions that took place, sometimes more naturally than having characters discuss it. This also establishes narrative voice: how does the story’s speaker sum up what’s happened? Same with world-building. Since I’m writing Eve’s story, her observations about the setting in Eden versus exile are key. But she’s not about to spend time going on about it when she has heaps of children, grandchildren, and so forth to keep an eye on.

Part of my editing process is to look at paragraph patterns. Check narration isn’t a litany of subject-led sentences (“She did this. He did that.”) Avoid extended conversations, which can sometimes feel like watching a tennis manage. (She said this. He said that.) I look for short, quick paragraphs to give way to long, and for longer reflective passages to be punctuated with pacy interaction.

That’s probably something I need to do better in life as well: accept the occasional quiet moment without freaking out about the next, sometimes self-imposed, deadline.

A Few Favourites

I revel in rich descriptions, particularly when they don’t travel in packs. They can be threaded throughout a piece. Here are some methods I love:

Make it multisensory: Readers will hardly be immersed if using only their eyes. We need to know how it sounds, smells, feels, as well. Some of us might not have full command of our senses! I enjoyed helping elderly, sightless Eve identify people by their voice and sometimes odour. These provide extra hints to secondary characters: “Her voice was softness on a flinty foundation.” “I listened to waves whisper like sighing logs, tossing seashells like crackling sparks.”

Graveyards are spectacular to describe…

Metaphors drawing on everyday life: Even the grandest sights can be relatable. What we decide to compare things to says a lot. The poet Simon Armitage provides a gorgeous example of balancing the spectacular with the mundane in “The Civilians:”
“The golden evenings spread like ointment through the open valleys,
Buttered one side of our spotless washing.”

Stand-in for character turmoil: I often prefer setting descriptions to character ones. Character-driven stories rock my world, but while doing all that driving, said characters probably won’t have much time for self-analysis. They can project ourselves onto their surroundings; any description of place will indicate something about its people. Not just cliched rainy funerals or sunny meet-cutes, I mean places of isolation and toughness, or chaos or tenderness. People trying to make it in deserted rural settings in Lulu Allison’s Salt Lick. The depressed town in Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the few inner chambers or the out-of-town lake that transcends this.

The fast-forward: I love time passage marked with carefully-selected details squished right up together. JK Rowling was great at this in Harry Potter; using the helpful device of plotting by school calendar, the holidays marked a chance to fill in story detail in a fun way. Harry’s first Christmas at Hogwarts, for example: “The lake froze solid and the Weasley twins were punished for bewitching several snowballs so that they followed Quirrell around, bouncing off the back of his turban…” I do this with my chapter beginnings at each new generation Eve witnesses.

I aim to be better at appreciating the Pause function of observation and description, not just the fast forward. How do you feel about long paragraphs and slow bits? What sorts of description do you enjoy reading, and put to use in your writing?

Non-Stop

This Week’s Bit of String: Dreams about reading

A Year 13 student informed me somewhat randomly, “It’s impossible to dream about reading books because you read with the opposite half of your brain from where you dream.”

Given she mentioned this after insisting, during a GCSE Maths Resit lesson on multipliers, “It’s impossible to have anything higher than 100%,” I should have taken it with a grain of salt. But I was intrigued because I do dream quite a bit, and I couldn’t think of any dreams in which I’d been reading a book.

Maybe it was true, a never-the-twain-shall-meet sort of thing. I often dream about getting lost while travelling. Maybe the signs and maps have no words, and that’s why. Have you ever read in your dreams?

Can one truly rest when words are present?

My subconscious launched into gear to prove me utterly and completely wrong. 

The first night, I dreamed about gathering reading material for a trip. There was a photocopied chapter about encouraging students to read, and I distinctly remember reading the title in my dream: “Reading is like getting a big hug!” As if that would persuade my actual students.

The second night, I was in a library with a dusty shelf containing all the stories I’d written, and I searched through for the right one to offer a friend. 

Whether this proves which brain hemisphere is in charge of what activity, I would not presume to say. Maybe words have permeated every function of my mind. Or maybe my subconscious is a stubborn and contrary creature.

All the Words, All the Time

When working with students in lower-set classes, sometimes I turn around to help someone else, reading an extract to them upside down. These kids struggle to read rightside-up, through no fault of their own, so this amazes them. 

I almost inhale words though. I’ve been reading since age three. If there are words anywhere in the vicinity, I will read them. I can barely help reading them.

The problem with reading somewhat involuntarily is that it goes beyond my control. Stories are bigger than we are, aren’t they? I think a lot of writers have difficulty shutting stories off. We rely on this, and it’s marvellous to get lost in a story. My problem is, I can’t stop the words in general. 

Might be nice to just look, not try to describe or capture…

My brain is always writing, if not creatively. It might be planning an email to check in with a friend, or working out how to explain developments to a student’s parent, or considering how to promote my own material, or thinking up character quirks. 

It could be going over what I’ll recount in my daily scribbles: Magnolia blooms like flocks of butterflies. Trying to pass the gauntlet of Key Stage 3 girls outside the toilets between lessons, their handbags pert like ship prows. These thoughts from a Year 10 special needs student: “This might be stereotypical of me, but if I went to Texas, do you think people there would be mean because I’m different? They might stereotypic me because of it. But everyone’s different in some way and can get stereotypicked for something…”

Waste Not, Want Not?

My brain has been programmed to optimise any free moment. It’s learned to write like I’m running out of time, except my body can’t keep up. The second I wake up, even when it’s still the middle of the night and it’s the third or fourth time that night… Words switch right on and I’m rocketing through lots of things to say or write. 

Oberon the baby-cat is responsible for many of these wake-ups.

To an extent, this helps me later on. I can remember how I decided to word that message for work, and I’ll remember the order I wanted to put things in when reunited with my journal.

But it’s also tiring, the constant torrent of words in my head, because it’s difficult to rest when it flows. Then the fog of tiredness is somewhat counterproductive.

Is poor sleep an inevitable part of creative life? Have I unwittingly rewired myself in a harmful way? If we took a machine and rerouted some electrics to provide extra energy to a particular function, then the other functions would not run so well. I’m worried I might have done this to myself.

I now have two weeks off for the Easter holidays. I may commit to the massive to-do list I’ve made which includes sorting the garden out and cleaning the house and stocking the freezer, plus catching up on reading literary magazines and (she adds breezily…) proofreading the latest type-up of my 330-page novel. Or I could try to catch up on sleep, see if I can pause the words, and then when it’s term-time again, throw myself back into the merciless pace of trying to proofread the novel and grow lots of veggies while working a rather intense job and keeping the house clean and meals cooked every day.

I have a feeling my subconscious has already chosen for me. It’s a good thing I’m rather fond of words and writing.

Do you have tips for getting control of all the words in our heads… preferably without stifling creativity?

The Wind-Up and the Pitch

This Week’s Bit of String: Playground tales

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

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

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

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

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

Withholding Information

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

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

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

Twisting round and round

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

Scaling Down

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

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

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

Hooked!

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

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

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

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

Do you have preferences over what gets revealed when?

Balancing the Dark

This Week’s Bit of String: Planet Buoy

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

Sand feathering

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

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

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

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

Planet Buoy

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

Balance

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

Pure light: View toward Chapel of St Nicholas

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

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

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

Letting in the Light

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

Weaving: lobster nets on Smeatons Pier

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

Wishing you a torrent of creativity this week.

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

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

Enjoy It

This Week’s Bit of String: Underrated qualifications

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

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

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

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

Resilience

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

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

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

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

The Trappings

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

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

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

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

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

Pest Control

This Week’s Bit of String: A pestilence of Shoulds

Do you ever imagine your abstract stresses as actual creatures? I find it makes them more grapple-able.

Lately, the word should is plaguing me. If it came to life, I think it would be a multi-legged trudger, low to the ground with clinging claws. It would blast out barks: Should! Should! and be a right pest.

My mind gets infested by Shoulds, particularly in the summer. During term-time, there’s little question about what I have to do. There’s work, there’s squeezing in chores and writing deadlines and exercise and family commitments around that. But if I get time to myself, I’m overrun with quarrelling Shoulds. The guilt of leaving things undone becomes weightier, because what excuse do I have?

I’m no artist but… I’m thinking stout caterpillar body, claws of a sloth, and stubborn pug face.

You should be writing, a voice in my head says quite frequently. Editing my novel, inventing a whole new book, polishing and submitting short stories, putting effort into a Twitter presence—I should be working on all those things.

But there’s also the cluttered house, and my garden in a riotous bid for attention, and the thought that there’s no time like the present to get extra exercise and stretches in, should I be attempting some sort of social life, and actually, what if I caught up on sleep and reading; shouldn’t that benefit me in the school year?

If I created a word cloud based on my thoughts, the biggest word in it might be should—apart from family member’s names maybe, and definitely the cat and probably, embarrassingly, peanut butter (the latter accompanied by the phrase “should absolutely not eat anymore of it today…”)

‘Tis the Season

For most of my summer, I go to my family overseas. There are wonderful little vacations encased in this, but home time has a serious intensity to it so that I bristle if it’s called a holiday.

Up at sunrise during the summer to seize every moment

As an immigrant, my herd of Shoulds has extra directions to pull me in. And the limits of time give their claws an extra sharpness. It’s super important to me that I help out my parents and siblings and child while I can see them, but that we also make fun memories, and keep my husband entertained since it is, in fact, his vacation, and that I get moments to feast my senses on the mountains and lakes and rivers of home—all while keeping up with writing and exercise. So the Shoulds run rampant.

Without my teaching assistant job playing the alpha role among the Should herd, it’s hard to figure out which Should is in charge. Each seems quite as demanding as the others. Yes, I should dig into writing, but think how bad the weeds will be if I leave the garden any longer. And have I really recovered my strength enough for a new term—maybe I should spend an afternoon lying around reading.

The Long Game

The word should is rooted in debt and guilt. Any argument I come up with against one therefore sounds like an excuse to shirk. Which Shoulds can we allow ourselves to ignore?

Taking my pick.

I’ve tentatively decided one thing. I’m not ready for another deep edit of my Eve novel yet. I’m too frustrated now. I’d have her jumping up and down by the third paragraph shouting “Read me, fools!” like she’s Maleficent or something. I need time to think before the next edit and submission rounds. Maybe I’ll have mulled it enough by next weekend, maybe I’ll leave it for half-term or even next summer.

You know what I ended up spending lots of time on for the end of my break? Foraging. I turned myself into a scrappy little squirrel to combat my scruffy little Should flock. I walked the lanes for hours picking blackberries and elderberries, and cooked them together into jam. With its murky elder depths, I’m hoping it will ward off winter colds. Nothing leaves you helpless at the stubby, plodding feet of a Should herd the way illness does! So maybe I’ve played my priorities right. We’ll see.

What do you do when pestered by Shoulds?

Waiting for Applause

This Week’s Bit of String: Ghosts and earwax

Last Wednesday I went back to summer camp to do story-making activities with 5- to 11-year-olds. “Do we have to write?” some asked as they came in with oversized tie dye shirts and baseball caps.

“We’re just going to have fun.”

I always start them off silly, with Mad Libs, so we can create wacky stories. I brought outrageous hats borrowed from my sister: a plaid fedora full of nouns, a cowboy sheriff hat full of verbs, a blue-haired pointy witch hat with adjectives. Kids carry on with Mad Libs, or sketch their own versions of video or board games, or make comics around the stickers I have on offer—some just plaster anything and everything with stickers. In each group, a few want to work with me to write a story together.

So we end up with adventures about pig princes, and about a cowboy fighting a banana. With one group we based our protagonists on some very cool stickers from my other sister—a red panda in a turquoise tux and an alligator in polka dot shorts. The kids embellished these even further; the alligator has a ghost named Shawn riding on his back, and they find a haunted castle where a ghost king is having a trampoline party.

Hatfuls of ideas

While I wrote this out on a big scroll of rolling paper, I overheard a little boy to my right say to his neighbour, “I don’t want your earwax. Just keep your earwax.”

Right! Into the story with that line. The red panda and the alligator with Shawn offer their earwax as a birthday present to the ghost king but are rejected, because he wants a Pikachu instead.

Keeping It Fun

The small fellow who refused the earwax drew a red-curtained stage on his piece of paper, and wrote in the stage space: Once upon a time. The end. I am waiting for applause.

Then he came round to show it to us, his grin riddled with missing baby teeth. Considering how his story lacked plot, the applause demand was a surprise twist.

Not that I’m about to judge. I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare my workshops this year, once the busy school term was finally over. I ended up just pulling together the same resources and activities we did last year, and hoping these would still inspire.

I kind of got away with it because the kids remember what they like and I remember what works. I offered more specific suggestions to help get them started. Most people are unprepared to be told, “Sit down and write whatever you want.” Heck, even we writers struggle with that.

Hence the stickers, the Mad Libs, and the hats full of prompts. And why not celebrate the shortcuts, the tricks that make things slightly easier? Yes, even the fun things that aren’t proper stories. Let’s applaud ourselves for actually stopping to have fun and explore what we want to once in a while.

A Personal Pirate

In my final session, a tiny girl with a blond ponytail asked me to tape papers together so she had lots of pages. She used Disney princess stickers and drew a sad pirate on a ship in her book called The Love. The pirate gets to the princesses’ castle, and asks Sleeping Beauty if he can be her pirate.

“How do you spell yes?” the little girl asked. She put it in a speech balloon above the princess.

Who wouldn’t want their own pirate to go and fetch treasure? I believe actual royalty have had them before. This princess wasn’t pining for a prince; it was a pirate she wanted! It would be like having a personal shopper, but way cheaper.

Personally, if I had a pirate I’d send them to search here for stories.

When we’re writing, I think we have to remember not to hold out for princes. A single, heroic solution to our plot holes or character conundrums is probably not going to come charging to the rescue on a metaphorical white horse.

We have more need of pirates, I think. Writing requires a bit of plunder, at least sometimes to get us started or re-started. The nice thing about working with kids is that it reminds me of the basics. Keep things fun and don’t be ashamed of keeping them simple. There’s nothing wrong with raiding the classic tropes for inspiration, or even with being a bit shameless in our quest for positive feedback.

What have you learned in your writing journey this summer? Have you found pirate treasure, or that ever-elusive applause?