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.

Never One Thing at a Time

This Week’s Bit of String: The ultimate tear-jerker

Our GCSE students (aged 16) had their last exam this week and took their leave. For the ones we’d worked closely with, we threw a little party with balloons and refreshments. A couple of us got cards and prosecco in return.

“No one got me anything,” joked one of my fellow teaching assistants. “I’m going to cry. I will!” But she couldn’t muster the promised waterworks with us watching.

A last lingering Year 11 girl, the most reluctant to leave, offered this: “I know what will make you cry. It always works: when someone asks, ‘Are you okay?’”

This student is one of the most perceptive people I’ve ever met, let alone one of the most perceptive teens. She was spot on. We’ve all been there, haven’t we, when we’re muddling on in a lonely blur and then someone stops and asks how we are, with genuine interest. 

And there go the floodgates.

The key to these gates will vary, depending on the magnitude and current of what’s behind them. This is not just a female thing, either; guys are equally likely to get triggered by something seemingly small. 

When I first immigrated, I was so alone and the British townspeople were so preoccupied and indifferent, a rare Hello from a stranger had me fighting tears. Since then, I got somewhat inured to being away, able to bumble along preoccupied myself. But when my son moved to America a few weeks ago, leaving me separated from both my best little buddy and my whole family, that changed things.

7 weeks ago

Colleagues know better than to ask if I’m ok. They ask how he’s getting on instead, and the news is generally good. They say, you must miss him so much, which saves me from having to say it. Much of the time, therefore, I maintain equilibrium. There’s a constant ache, a horrifically deep emptiness, dulled by almost-daily messages he and I exchange and by my relentless counting down until I can go see him (5 weeks and 2 days). In some moments it has been piercing, like when I put clean sheets on his bed and wondered if I should keep the pillows how he likes them or stack them tall. Or when I went to send a care package and the post office got grouchy over the extra barcode on the customs sticker.

Triggers are necessary because they give us a choice: Hey, you know that deluge you’re hiding behind the dam? Can we try channeling it, please, before it starts to leak? Sometimes we feel we have to keep refusing, and other times maybe we can’t put it off any longer.

Literary Triggers

At a Retreat West workshop a couple weeks ago, we learned about the importance of having your book’s “inciting incident” right at the beginning, to hook readers in. This is different from the climactic showdown or the big reveal. Often, it’s one small thing that kicks everything else out of inaction.

Rather than the writer throwing a wrench into the protagonist’s works, usually the writer is nudging the protagonist into the uncomfortable realisation that their way of life isn’t really working

Great examples of this are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, or Piranesi. Eleanor would have kept on refusing any company apart from the Glen’s vodka from Tesco if she hadn’t been sent to that charity concert and developed an ill-advised crush on a singer. Piranesi would have kept wandering the statued halls of The House, recording tide times, if signs of visitors hadn’t begun to appear. 

Mind the falls.

Even when a story begins with a main character choosing to make a change, they often don’t fathom how badly that change is needed or where it will take them. This has been true of literature for as long as storytelling has existed: Chaucer’s pilgrims wouldn’t have realised how much they’d learn on their journey; Romeo had no idea how far he’d go for love when he went to the party to see Rosaline.

When we write stories, we’re not attacking our characters with suffering for the fun of it. Our imaginations have found someone who needs liberation, and we’re plotting a way to spring them free.

For Our Own Protection

In real life, incidents don’t spiral in an orderly manner. It’s not a series of clues and incremental escalation, sometimes it’s everything at once and sometimes it’s like, “Ooh maybe things are about to settle down,” and then bam, another thing hits you. Meet a friend for a catch-up, and as you recount the last couple of months you’ll be thinking, This sequence of events would not fly in fiction. Readers would be too confused.

18 years ago. You never know how things will end up.

Honestly, I’m kind of glad it’s that way. Imagine if our lives progressed more rhythmically. If we were characters in a book and something went wrong, we’d have to ask ourselves, is this trying to teach me a lesson? Is this merely foreshadowing a massive climactic battle later on?

As it is, I can pour myself into work, helping students cope with their own stress and trauma, and I can write my grief into my novel instead of feeling it as my own. I need to edit this story of Eve so she more quickly learns to use her voice; learns that it is her own even if one of her ribs is not. For that to happen, stuff’s got to go wrong, to force her to wonder how she put up with everything, years after being exiled from Eden and then losing her first two sons.

While I work, and work on writing, I can ride it out, 5 weeks and 2 days. It’s already 7 weeks of separation, and there have been plenty of mini-crises to interrupt the trajectory of contemplating my new life: exams and Supreme Court decisions, viruses and injuries, something scurrying in the roofspace when we try to go to sleep. Who knows what else will come up, whether they will keep distracting me from loneliness or force me to confront it. I suspect the former; I’m grateful not to have to slow down.

What about you? Are YOU okay?

Language Lessons

This Week’s Bit of String: Water, chipper, calm, them.

“Miss, where are you from? America—I knew it! Do you know how to shoot guns? Say something, say ‘water.’”

I’ve changed jobs recently, emerged from a spreadsheet jungle and opted to be pelted by howls of “Miss! Miss!” as a secondary school Teaching Assistant again. Negotiating crowds of teenagers is a big change after 19 months working from home. Seeing colleagues deliver clear, targeted lessons and witnessing new provisions to nurture students’ mental health makes me feel better about the world.

This view though… Looking out the wide open window from the TA offices

I worked at the same large local comprehensive school more than five years ago. This is a whole new group of students, slightly less mature than I remember their earlier cohorts being, because obviously they’ve had to deal with Covid disruption. Students still miss school for positive tests, teachers have long absences and our most vulnerable students can’t abide cover teachers. The windows are all open as the temperatures dip into the single digits (Celsius) so throughout the lessons we burrow into coats and scarves; a Year 11 girl shares her fuzzy white gloves so her friend can wear one while she wears the other.

Slang has evolved since I was last working with young adults. They still use “safe” and “wicked.” But there’s also “chipper” for when they want you to think they’ve understood something: “Nah, Miss, I’m chipper, I’ll start working in a minute.” And “calm” to describe someone they like. Maybe it’s just that they know they can get away with things around a “calm” teacher, but I suspect there are other ways they feel safer with him or her, too.

It makes sense that after the last few years “calm” might be one of the highest terms of esteem used by young people. And that “sick” has gone out of fashion.

Reuniting

Supporting in different lessons means I get to learn, too. In a GCSE class about Maths vocabulary, the teacher shared that “Algebra” comes from an Arabic term meaning “reunion of broken parts.” I love hearing that stuff. The kids were busy sharpening rulers under the table or doodling or exchanging gloves or peeling labels off glue sticks, but with gentle prompting they got a few notes down, and the disparate parts came together a little.

The pandemic seems to have given my school cover to broaden its aims from academic achievement to include more nurturing and tolerance. While the government was forced to acknowledge that students couldn’t be expected to pass the same rigorous exams due to lockdown disruptions, there was more leave to consider their mental state. Consequently, more students have Time Out options, to spend a few minutes cooling down in an alternative classroom designed for that purpose. When I last worked at school, students would get an official warning and be one step closer to detention if they didn’t have a pen. Now, all teachers have equipment to loan.

“More why, less shhh.” I love this slogan from the We the Curious museum in Bristol.

The fact that I’m American serves a similar purpose. My slight accent piques their curiosity, forces them to acknowledge I’m here, lets them make fun of my pronunciation and feel more comfortable. “Water” is a giveaway for an American accent. I can try to make the T more clipped, less like a D, but it sounds ridiculous and forced. When I first emigrated our street was called Water Lane and my accent embarrassed me every time I told my address to local people. I oblige the kids when they want to hear it, though. They like to feel superior in something, even if I have lived on this Small Island longer than they’ve been alive.

I have a stash of writing utensils too, of course. Lessons start much better when I can quietly check with a student that they have the equipment they need and lend what’s necessary, rather than them instantly getting into trouble.

“I bet you still say ‘water’ funny.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t quite got rid of all my Americanisms.”

“Oh, that’s okay, Miss.”

So they get to play the part of being generous and hospitable, too.

Retraining

One successful result of the school’s efforts to support well-being may be the diversity accepted within the student population. While it’s a rural area and not very multicultural, students support their friends of colour and Black Lives Matter. I also got to have a discussion with a Year 11 prefect about her witchcraft practice, and of course the crux of my job is to support students with various disabilities.

Sunrise on a new adventure. We’re not expecting fully calm seas, and that’s ok.

With a designated unisex bathroom now on site, other students are able, more and more, to inhabit more comfortable roles. Previously it was agony for certain teens to deal with bodies that were developing in an unwanted direction while their thoughts and preferences veered a different way, and everything around them reminded them how they ought to be. There’s a student in most of my Year 11 lessons whom I’ve tried to remember not to apply gendered language to, but I slip up sometimes since my ways of referring to subsets within the group are old-fashioned.

“Here you go, ladies.” I hand out the GCSE Language practice paper to the two students in the back.

“Non-binary,” corrects one, without even looking up.

“Of course. I’m so sorry, I’ll try to keep doing better.” They shrug and get on with the work. I hope that they’re always around people they can safely express their identity to. People who are, one might say, “calm.”

After all, I’m feeling more and more free to say “water” in my slightly redneck American way. That’s one word I won’t convincingly be able to fix, but I can work on a few others. Having to mind my language puts me in a much more writing-centred frame of mind than when I was dealing with billing and numbers. Have you been picking up any new lingo lately?

The Stopover

This Week’s Bit of String: Four and a half hours in Dublin

A couple metres to my right, a nun is counting a somewhat alarming quantity of 50-Euro notes under her table. A couple metres to my left, a very small girl is alternating between blowing noisy raspberries into the back of her chair, and drowning herself in a lidless juice cup. You guessed it, I’m in an airport.

People-watching is great and all, but so is an entire row of empty seats on the first flight.

Over the years as an immigrant I’ve learned a few tricks, and one of them is to fly from our local airport, stop in Dublin, then on to America. The US has a customs and immigration point in Dublin, so during the stop, we get fully processed and then can just step out of the airport in Boston without spending more time queuing for border control after we’ve arrived. It means less time wasted, and brings us closer to home.

This time, my first flight in a long while and my first opportunity to see my family in over 2 years, the stopover is 4.5 hours. A bit on the long side. Even with going through American passport checks, I’ve got 3.75 hours left.

I don’t mind it too much because this also happens to be my first solo airline excursion in two decades. I don’t have to worry about whether anyone else is comfortable or entertained. I can hang out with a sandwich and do some first class people-watching as a third-class passenger.

Part of the Journey

he tiny, now very sticky girl at the neighbouring table has been instructed to clean up her mess and is wiping the table quite capably. Then her mum has her stand on her chair, and wrangles her into a new outfit. “Not everyone can just change their top in an airport,” the mum tells her, “but you can.”

The nun has a mobile phone pressed to her ear and I can just hear the voices sounding off to her. She needs it close to hear over Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” on the airport radio. (Yes, I love that this is the song playing here while I am fleeing the country after so long.) I think it’s an audiobook the nun is listening to, and I’d love to know what it’s about.

There are no small adventures, only small adventurers.

With all this going on, it doesn’t feel like wasted time. These hours aren’t getting me closer to home, but they’re reminding me that being around people, anywhere, can be an adventure.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t have to change location to go on a journey. The last 16 months have been an adventure, wouldn’t you agree? Just trying to get groceries could be a monumental quest.

The word adventure, it turns out, doesn’t just mean to wander or travel, but also to take a chance. To “risk the loss of.” Heck, many of us don’t need to venture outside to strike up something a bit reckless. Anything we say to another person risks rejection or misinterpretation. Every seed planted, every page we poise our pen over. You never really know how it will turn out.

Taking Off

Of course, when it comes to actual travel, especially these days, there are quite big risks. As much as I want to spend time with my family, I have had to weigh the likelihood that I might carry over a virus that could hurt them. There are a lot of factors to put our minds at ease about this: the vaccine, strict testing requirements, social distancing and hand sanitiser stations all over the airport.

The lakes of home…

I look at the other people waiting around me and wonder what risks they’ve taken, how badly they want to get to their destination. Are they going home, or coming from it? Are they a bit like me and they don’t know which side of the ocean is truly home?

Every Christmas during my marathon viewing of the Extended Lord of the Rings films, I am struck by the line at the end, “You cannot always be torn in two.” But I think most of us are, and probably wouldn’t have it any other way. In our world with so many connections and crossings—how do you choose just one place, just one group of people? It is hard, it’s a painful tearing, but nonetheless both pieces are always with me in some way. Leaving my home country, I still believe, was a risk that had to be taken, as right and necessary as returning when I can.

Loving one home over another would be like doing only one writing project at a time (I know others must be able to relate to this). Or like telling me to ignore either the nun or the tiny girl. Thank you, I’m quite taken with both. So here I am, between my two places, just breathing behind my mask and relishing some non-useful time.

Why You Might Not Have Created Your Crisis-Time Masterpiece…Yet

This Week’s Bit of String: The case of the disappearing underwear

In a rapidly changing situation, every family has that one day when things kick off. For us it was last Friday, from the moment I tried to put on the clothes I laid out the previous night, but couldn’t find my knickers. I’d seen them seconds before. Had I picked them up and put them down somewhere weird? Had I hallucinated them in the first place?

That was how I realised I had a high fever. Quarantine started that instant; coughing started the next hour. By the evening we also had an injured guinea pig and were debating whether my husband should sneak out to the vet. In the midst of that the government cancelled exams and our son’s post-secondary education was suddenly over. All in one day!

This butterfly landed on my hand in the backyard. It can’t be all bad.

Viruses are like stories—they accelerate and encompass exponentially widening groups of people, sometimes in unexpected ways. It seems this strange time would inspire us in unexpected ways, too. Maybe eventually it will, but I’m guessing others have found, as I have, that lockdown hasn’t fostered creativity. Here are the reasons why.

Time

Woohoo, no more commute! Many of us are still fortunate enough to be busy with work-related activities for much of the day. Working from home gives me a maximum of two extra hours per day, which so far I’ve spent being sick/ looking after family who are sick. Plus, meal prep takes up about thirty times more hours than usual, because you can’t predict what supplies will be in the shops and indeed if you’ll be healthy enough to go get them.

A Story Surplus

A pandemic—great material, right? Only it’s different when it happens outside your head, when it’s all anyone talks about.

Signs of support

As writers, we’re often widely read. It’s part of our job. Far be it from us to turn away from the many personal testimonies shared. A 38-year-old dying alone in an NYC hospital while his mum’s critical in a different one, and no one can identify any other family to tell. Domestic abuse rates rising by 30-40% during lockdown. Grandparents sharing air-hugs with the grandkids they normally look after, from behind their front room windows. Single parents trying to work from home and keep young kids entertained and educated, small business owners wondering how they’ll keep their livelihoods, musicians selling off prized instruments so they can eat when their gigs are cancelled. What’s happened to the rough sleepers I usually give a couple of pounds to and chat with? How will the millions of people already displaced by war and poverty be protected from this disease?

The weighty reality can bog our imaginations down. Who are we to invent fiction in a time like this? How do we choose one thread from the massive tangle?

Grief

Here we are, taking in all the other stories, desperate to support frontline workers and victims of the virus. We see the many people who have it worse than us. It doesn’t make us feel better though, does it? We’re all separated from people we love and have had to relinquish plans we looked forward to.

In our normal lives we work hard for the weekend, and an upcoming city break, literary festival, camping trip, concert, evening at the pub, keep us going. Those are erased from our near future while laundry, office spreadsheets, hoovering, and tidying guinea pig cages have not been cancelled. Somehow we have to keep not only our own morale up but also our partner’s and kids’.

Grounded.

You know when you’re pitching a writing idea, you need a USP (Unique Selling Point)? At the moment, we each have our UAG, a Unique Angle of Grief. For me, as an immigrant, I don’t know how and when I’ll see my family again. What if something happens and I can’t get to them? Are happy summer visits already out of the question? It can be very lonely.

So Now What?

We’ve all written pieces in hard times before. We’ve created while kids (and/ or spouses) climbed up the walls, squeezing writing time in between many other obligations. We’ve used our stories to channel loss and pain before.

But if that’s not working now, it’s okay. Let’s admit we haven’t gained the time we thought we might, and rest when needed to keep our strength up. Let’s listen to others’ stories without ulterior motives of trying to spin it into fiction. Let’s acknowledge our own grief and see if, once we’ve allowed it space and voice, it might ultimately turn into something new.

If you’ve managed to find a whole new grip on things through this crisis, and have kept on writing words, please do share tips and success in the comments. If you’re struggling, and want to shout about your UAG, I’d love to listen to that too. Listening is the best I can do right now.

An Ideal Population

This Week’s Bit of String: Trouble at the border

Returning to Britain after a week abroad in 2012, I forgot to fill out a customs card. This invoked the wrath of immigration officers. ‘Remember, we can terminate your Indefinite Leave to Remain any time we want,’ snapped the lady who grudgingly allowed me back on the Small Island I’d inhabited for years.

Previously I’d thought of indefinite as permanent. Now it was more literal: the opposite of guaranteed. I was a teaching assistant then, working a demanding schedule with needy students, and volunteering extra time to run school fundraisers. I paid taxes, I recycled, stayed fit, kept a clean house and cared for my family, who are British citizens. This apparently meant nothing if I neglected a rote slip of paper.

These migrants photobombed my canal shot, but honestly they’ve enhanced it.

As the Windrush scandal continues, we see that duration of stay doesn’t protect immigrants from deportation, and as Brexit is enacted, residents from neighbouring nations face losing their homes, dismissed as low-skilled for being low-earners. It’s important to fight these changes for the sake of immigrants themselves, but also for natives.

Why doesn’t the government invest more in education, so that British people and immigrants alike can qualify for so-called higher-skilled jobs? The Conservatives have set £25,000 per year as the salary threshold for immigrants, presumably believing that constitutes a minimally comfortable salary. Shall we eagerly anticipate, then, that they’ll lean on the many businesses offering zero hours contracts and much lower salaries, to incentivise them paying their British employees better?

Measuring Up

There’s a new points system to determine who can stay, and if I were trying to join my husband in this country now, rather than 15 years ago, I’d score only 10 of the 70 required.

So I’m proposing my own points system. If I ran a country, here’s what could get you in:

10 points if you deliberately step around worms or snails on the puddly pavement.
5 points for each book or magazine, online or otherwise, you read or listen to in a month.
5 points for each handcrafted or locally-made product you buy in a month.
7 points for every extra (not native to you) language you speak.
25 points if you recognise it’s none of your business what noise your neighbours make, or what time they open their curtains, or whether they occasionally have a visiting vehicle parked outside.
10 points if you make sure to get your full daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
10 points if you give the local chippies and sweet shops thriving custom.
30 points if you can fold a fitted sheet and do your hospital corners.
30 points for knowing how to unblock a toilet or stop a leaking tap.
30 points for knowing how to turn, dress, and comfort a bedbound person.
30 points if you can carry on polite, informative conversation with an irate customer.
30 points if you can both listen and think on your feet enough to calm a panicking student.
25 points for an ability and enthusiasm to discuss important, pressing issues of the day.
25 points for an ability to generate lighthearted escapism, or an enthusiasm to consume it.
70 points if you’re the reason someone already living here gets up every morning.

Yes, 70 is still the required number of points. I’d probably want my country’s visa applicants to pass criminal checks and perhaps come with job references as well, although I wouldn’t be picky about which job, or about income level.

Gloucester Cathedral exhibit from GARAS, Gloucestershire Action of Refugees and Asylum Seekers

To whom would I forbid entry, were I in charge? Could I bear to? I allow pretty much anybody in my fictional worlds. In reality, we need all kinds of people. Those with varying talents and specialisms to fill different job roles, those from diverse cultures to add flavour to our own, those with different mental and physical abilities to ensure we have a caring society.

The criteria a nation imposes on its outsiders reflect what it values from its insiders. Devalue contributions from immigrants and there are vast swathes of natives who will also feel belittled. In my imaginary country, it’s different. Who wants to join?

Change Your Work, Change Your Country

This Week’s Bit of String: Allowing subtraction

My first novel was over 800 pages long. Even well-established authors would struggle finding readers willing to take that on. So I cut fiendishly, excising at least one line per paragraph, one paragraph per page. The latest draft is 400 pages.

Imagine if I’d gone to my Writers’ Group at the start of the editing process, and explained my plan. What if they’d been shocked, and horrified? Imagine them saying, ‘You can’t change your work! You have to love it as it is. To feel anything else toward it means you’re not a real writer. You might as well do something else with your scant free time.’

Sometimes we need to be more than the Way We Are.

After all, the option’s always there, isn’t it? We could keep every word we’ve written. If we’re lucky, maybe our mums would read them. In order to make our stories accessible and appealing to a wider audience, we cut out unneeded detail, clarify other points, strengthen character voices and sometimes swap point-of-view all together. Chances are, every time we look at a piece we improve it, and we enjoy doing so because we can see the work getting better.

The same flexibility is required with countries. I doubt even those voting for incumbent parties go to the polling station with no improvements in mind. But people have started saying ‘Like it or leave it,’ among worse things, about active politicians trying to change the country.

Allowing Detraction

I’ve noted before that the Declaration of Independence was overhauled at America’s founding. The Constitution went through massive changes as well, and not because the first patriots hated the USA. Sometimes they preferred the original to the final draft, but had to make drastic amendments (such as permitting slavery) to convince all colonies/ states to stay on side.

Racial bias played a role in this compromise. It’s harder to sacrifice millions of lives when you believe those lives are equal to yours. Recent comments about sending congresswomen ‘back where they came from’ are also racist, indisputably enough that I won’t make a lengthy case here.

Except to point out that racism operates like a plague. There’s Patient Zero, in this case the President, some close advisors, and the white supremecists who’ve joined his base.

Give me your complacent, your unquestioning, your grateful…

Around them you have those most susceptible. People who might be economically disadvantaged (or feel they are), who might have less education, or are down on their luck and need someone to blame. Anyway, they were easy to infect and they’re now happy to chant, ‘Send her back.’ Maybe they could be cured, but there’d have to be something in it for them. Universal healthcare, higher minimum wage? Who knows. The disease manifests differently in each patient.

The next circle out from Patient Zero are the disease carriers. They’re not exactly infected. But siding with Patient Zero is politically convenient, so they pretend he’s not racist. ‘He’s just speaking his heart. He loves this country so much he can’t stand anyone complaining about it.’

In a way, the carriers are the most insidious, and we must address their ‘like it or leave it’ mentality.

You can like a country and still want to change it. If anything, those with the deepest patriotic faith will trust a nation’s ability to improve. America was born in dramatic change, and continued to change over the years, by war and peace, by executive decree and grassroots movement. We Americans are still discontented revolutionaries, for better or worse. This drives both our innovation and our wastefulness.

Never Really Settled

Sometimes writers do leave stories undone. I decided to stop work on a novel two chapters before the end, because I wasn’t doing it justice. There are still bits in it I like, but my mind led me elsewhere.

Similarly, my heart led me to a new country. I still like a lot of things about the USA, but moving to the UK was the only way to bring my own family together. Even refugees desperate for a safe place probably don’t dislike their home country. People often leave because they need to, not because they want to.

Leaving isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

And getting into a new country is no easier than writing a new novel. What an irksome irony that the very people telling even native-born progressives to ‘like it or leave it’ are the same ones insisting asylum seekers return to desperate Central American communities. Even if you do dislike your country, even if you’re desperate to leave, it doesn’t mean a new one will let you in.

Include All the Things!

I’ve written before about the editing process and the many things we have to include in our written work. See here for a daunting list of every box our stories have to tick from the very first page. Likewise, a nation has to achieve many criteria for many people:

  • Safety
  • Economic growth
  • Support during emergencies (fire service, welfare)
  • Law enforcement
  • Justice courts for civil redress as well as criminal
  • Strong moral examples in leadership
  • Education
  • Fostering of communities and enterprise

We adjust these relentlessly for the diverse groups that have contributed to the country since before its birth. Basically, we keep tweaking to accommodate our audience.

Telling us we can’t raise objections, equating criticism of a leader with criticism of the whole nation, grants that leader absolute power. That’s a lonely and unrealistic role for any one person. Writing can be lonely too, and seem an impossible task—so we ask people to look over our work, help us take it where it needs to be.

And if we’re lucky, someone will tell us—as someone told me when my novel was still 500 pages long—“You can do better than this.” I completely changed the opening at that point. It’s okay to hear that. Don’t worry, America. We all have to keep trying. It’s just that we think you can do better than this.

The Art of Being Away

This Week’s Bit of String: Marriage proposal on a t-shirt

When I immigrated to Britain my son was almost 3, quite active, and thankfully for our overnight flight we sat next to someone friendly. Our neighbour on the plane was a medical student from Bulgaria, on his way home to surprise his girlfriend.

She was expecting his best friend, also Bulgarian and studying with him in Boston. “She’ll come to pick him up at the airport,” our flight mate explained, “but instead she’ll get me!” He beamed and pulled a t-shirt out of his carry-on. It was printed with, apparently, “Will you marry me?” in Bulgarian.

I often wonder how he fared. He planned that the wedding would take place after his studies were complete, when he would return to his home country to work. “We need doctors in Bulgaria. I can’t keep that away from them.”

Have Gifts, Will Travel

With a bachelor’s degree in Writing and Literature, and a hodgepodge of hospitality, childcare, and administrative work experience, I didn’t feel I was depriving my home country by leaving. As writers we can set up work anywhere. And hopefully, eventually, we can positively impact people regardless of borders.

Mural depicting 19th-century immigrants on a ship as they get their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty
Mural at the House of Emigrants museum in Vaxjo, Sweden

Quite a few famous writers throughout history have been travellers and immigrants (articles here and here on great books written by immigrants). Even in an informal Twitter poll of writers I conducted this week, 35% of the respondents now live in a country different from where they were born.

This is partly reflective of our portable vocation, and perhaps of our general exploratory nature. Although as writers we’re often introverts, we feel an irresistible urge to discover and experience more. I think too, it’s possible we’re somewhat itinerant because we’re not the most boundary-conscious people.

Everywhere is writing territory. A train compartment, an airport queue, a historical landmark, a foreign restaurant. Inside someone else’s front garden, inside your head. We cross countless borders, sometimes with questionable authority, and with varying degrees of success.

And sometimes when we’re right there in front of you, we might seem to be somewhat absent.

Home and Abroad

For those writers who don’t take the ultimate leap of immigration, there’s still travel. The many writers who travel seeking adventure, often with children and often faithfully writing about it, impresses me (stunning examples here and here).

I just came back from a short family trip to Denmark and Sweden. At New Year’s we spent a long weekend in Seville. I didn’t write at all, on either of those journeys. I couldn’t even keep a daily diary. Feeding and entertaining my family, maintaining all arrangements and reservations, studying maps and routes and opening times and attractions, then processing photos afterward, those things take up all my time.

Mermaid statue on coastal boulders.
Den hille havfrue (the little mermaid) statue in Copenhagen, clearly dreaming of new adventure.

That said, I still believe travel helps us as writers. From a quick, hard-earned vacation I am reminded to utilise every minute, to watch for differences and similarities around the globe. New realms open up to me while reinforcing common human bonds.

The first story I published took place in Haiti, a nation I visited and fell in love with when I was 16. I love using writing to remember places I’ve seen, which is why some of my writing still takes place in my American home state of New Hampshire.

Side note, the word immigrant actually originated in New Hampshire, first coined in a 1792 history book there by James Belknap. It’s from the French, which in turn was derived from the Latin, for “to remove, go into, move in.”

Immigrant shares its root with the word emerge. To me, that’s possibly the most important part of travel: emerging from the stupor of our routine. We shake ourselves awake from our own story and flit through endless streams of others.

Glass vase etched with a woman hanging laundry in the wind.
In the Glass Museum in Vaxjo, Sweden: Seeing beauty in the mundane.

This includes the magical, like the peace of an old cathedral or a breathtaking sculpture, but also the mundane—how Copenhagen and Seville get rid of their rubbish via an automated vacuum system which sucks it through underground pneumatic tubes to a processing facility. While traveling we’re exposed to the dramatic—help the hotel raise money to provide safe rooms for victims of human trafficking—and the personal, like the mum at the table next to us in a Swedish burger bar, who must have been out for a birthday meal with her partner and adult son, but barely touched her food, sat composed and quiet the whole time, and prepared to leave by slowly pulling her celebratory bouquet from her water glass, one stalk at a time.

Then we return to the daily grind and the stories swarming around us come home to roost. While we’re checking spreadsheets, hanging laundry, or trying to ignore bad bus smells, suddenly we are whisked away again. Borderless, unfettered, we get lost in a new story. Please excuse us if we seem to be away again.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or someone who enjoys a good staycation, do keep exploring. We need your stories, the ones you bring back and the ones you return refreshed to pick up again.

Let There Be Dark

This week’s bit of string: Fourteenth century ploughing techniques

Stories are like a box of chocolates; some of us can’t resist the dark ones. I don’t mean dark as in using horror elements, but rather the darker aspects of real life, from brutal struggles and current events.

I sometimes fear that writing ‘dark’ stories may put off readers who seek literary escapism. How do we justify putting serious issues into our work?

Dark stories need tough heroes/heroines to blaze through them. After all, fiction is only as sad as its characters, just as life is only as sad as we feel.

Utilising Juxtaposition

There are so many elements to a story: plot, setting, characters, tone, dialogue… And there can be different degrees of darkness to each element. For example, Catch-22 has a horrific wartime plot, but the tone is humourous. Cruel deeds may unfold against a bright summer setting, as in L’Etranger (one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read).

We don’t use these contrasts to dilute the message. Rather, the idea is to illuminate and emphasise it. Interweaving tragedy with comedy can sharpen it with the shock of the unexpected.

Church steeple glowing at the end of a dark alley
I don’t think this church steeple would have looked nearly as impressive if I hadn’t approached it through an abandoned dark alley.

We can create characters that suffer terribly, but perhaps they have a sense of humour about it. We all know people like that in real life.

My first published story, ‘The Meek Inherit,’ portrayed a small snapshot of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. But I used a fiercely imaginative, independent Haitian girl’s point of view, which imbued it with a sense of hope. Through her, I could bring attention to Haiti’s misfortunes, but also to the resourcefulness of its people. ‘How dull reading would be,’ Robert Burdock commented in his review, ‘if every story had a Disney ending.’

Instigating Change

After I read my story The Apocalypse Alphabet at Stroud Short Stories’ event recently, a couple of very talented writers spoke to me afterwards and described the story as harrowing. I began to apologise, but they said, ‘No, no, it’s important to be harrowed sometimes. If that’s a word!’

Harrowed is a word, as it turns out. The word harrow comes from a medieval Dutch word for rake, and a harrow, thusly, is a spiky tool that pulverises soil before planting. A painful process, no doubt—which then contributes to yielding useful crops.

Good fiction has the power to shake us up, jolt us awake, and change our habits. I can think of two books I’ve read in recent years that have altered my thought patterns. Marina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans honestly and wittily brings attention to the plight of migrant workers in the UK, including some working under dreadful conditions at a chicken packaging plant. Since reading this novel, I only use free-range chicken products, because it made me realise: companies that mistreat animals for profit will most likely mistreat human workers, as well.

The second book was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. This tormented, semi-autobiographical book about an adolescent boy desperate to win his religious father’s approval honed my awareness about the legacy of slavery for generation after generation of African Americans. I was struck by the fact that Baldwin’s grandmother had been a slave, and her first children had been taken from her and sold. His writing made me consider the devastating impact this would have on a person’s ability to love and form familial bonds later on—and this would then impact her children, and their children, and so forth.

Lamppost illuminated in wooded park
Let there be dark, that the light may show up against it. Stratford Park, Stroud

It’s not easy to be shown the dark underbelly of the bloated, overfed privilege some of us enjoy. But I believe we can learn from it. And fiction is particularly placed to do that, because it opens up our imaginations. Imagination doesn’t merely lead to escapism, it can lead to empathy as well, which as I’ve previously discussed, is the key to changing the world.

So, what books have harrowed you to the point of growing new crops, so to speak? How much dark reality do you find acceptable in a story?  Personally, I’m a realist. I like any happy endings to come out of a recognisable version of the world. I love Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, in which a man tells his mistress a tale with various dark twists involving slavery and sacrifice, but sets it against a dazzling background of an ancient city on a distant planet.

His lover whispers, ‘”Why are you telling me such a sad story?”’

‘”I tell you the stories I’m good at,” he says. “Also the ones you’ll believe. You wouldn’t believe sweet nothings, would you?”’