Making Links

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

“I held a snake!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I held a snake!” he said.

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

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

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

Essential Bonds

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

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

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

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

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

When It All Comes Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antici…PAtion!

This Week’s Bit of String: Silent night

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

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

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

Some of my favourite ornaments, carrying lots of memories

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

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

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

Maintaining Order

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

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

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

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

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

Heightened Sensations

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

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

Stopping to smell the roses

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

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

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

Reading for Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Methods

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

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

So good. Anne M Martin was a genius.

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

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

Relatability Versus Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Befriending Darkness

This Week’s Bit of String: Black, feathery carnage

On Tuesday, I came home from work raring to finish a story. I’d been unsure about it for the last month, aware I didn’t have the voice right and possibly insufficient trajectory, but just before my shower early in the morning, it suddenly came clear. I knew exactly what to do, I just needed to get through the busy schoolday before I did it.

Our cat Oberon, however, had other plans. As soon as I opened my front door, I saw that writing would be delayed. There were feathers all over the living room floor. Hundreds of little, downy, charcoal-covered feathers, sometimes in clumps. I froze in the entryway. Was a live bird trapped inside?

Some of the carnage… and its creator

Obie quickly appeared, ecstatic that I’d finally arrived at his epic battle site. He’s ten months old, our lithe black beauty, and he’s a Mumma’s boy. He rubbed up against me, again and again, purring lustily. He ducked under the sofa and retrieved a blackbird corpse that was already starting to smell, thus answering my initial concern.

It took me a while to even face cleaning up, although I removed the bird and threw open the windows. By 9 p.m. I did finish the story, as I wanted to. By 9:30 Obie was curled up like a little dark foxlet on our bed, where he stayed snug between us for the night.

You wouldn’t have thought he was a vicious killer.

Dark Sides

Humans too are quite multifaceted, although hopefully most of us don’t prey on and then rip the life out of other creatures. We all assert control and manipulate circumstances, to varying extents.

Over the weekend, we had our annual outing to Cheltenham Literature Festival, and attended events pertaining to this complexity. David Mitchell (the comedian and actor, not the Cloud Atlas author) spoke about his book on historic royals, with his special brand of humorous pessimism. Progress isn’t necessarily linear; you never know when things might get a whole lot crappier, and there’s only so much power humans have to do anything about it. Not exactly cheery, and yet many laughs were had. It’s all in the telling.

To get to the light at the end of the tunnel, you have to go through the dark…

Then we listened to Carmela Ciuraru interviewed about her book Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages. This examines authors like Kingsley Amis and Roald Dahl, and their relationships with their wives (Elizabeth Jane Howard and Patricia Neal, respectively) who were talented writers/ performers in their own right. However, these towering male geniuses didn’t often treat their partners with the respect befitting, well, a partner. They were actually quite tyrannical.

Ciuraru doesn’t believe in ‘cancelling’ these figures, because she points out that we all have people in our lives who we love despite their flaws. Can’t we then love just someone’s art despite their flaws?

Furthermore, Ciuraru doesn’t think the work should be censored–we should be able to see the full evidence of the writers’ attitudes so we can make up our minds. For example, if the instances of Roald Dahl’s children’s books referring to characters as fat or other derisive terms are removed, people won’t see the evidence of his sometimes bullying nature.

Keeping Nuance Alive

It depends on your experiences of course, what you feel you can overlook in somebody, and it depends on what else they offer you. I remember being uncomfortable with some of Dahl’s books as a child, like George’s Marvellous Medicine and The Twits. The characters were so loathsome to each other. I loved James and the Giant Peach, but in that book no one intentionally harmed the villainous Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge–they got flattened by accident. 

When I’m writing stories, sometimes people do awful things to each other. Because that happens in real life, doesn’t it? I’ve had my work called dark before, such as my story The Apocalypse Alphabet, about a mum and a boy and an encroaching invasion that feels like the end of the world. Sometimes I feel bad about coming up with these things. What does it say about me as a person, that tragedy and grief come out of my head? But it’s usually counter-balanced with moments of warmth, even humour, and strong relationships. 

So sweet and soft…

There’s very little that’s entirely dark, just as my kitten isn’t just claws and fangs. The story I finally finished drafting this week is a triptych with three scenes set in different graveyards. The main characters seek them out because they feel safest in gloomy, forgotten spaces. When you’ve faced how dark life can get, you may not feel comfortable in the light.

Funnily, I’ve always been afraid of the dark at night. Not the darkness outside, if I’m on one of my early morning hikes, but the darkness in houses, where you can so easily be cornered. When I was little, I tried treating darkness as a separate character. I told my mom I’d make friends with it, and we’d share jelly beans. Didn’t coax me out of my fear, but maybe writing dark stories now and then is a different way of befriending darkness.

How would you characterise your relationship with darkness? Does it work to counterbalance difficult subjects in our portrayals or should we let them be?

Fever

This Week’s Bit of String: Overheated eyeballs

I have this bad habit of getting coughs. These aren’t misguidedly romantic chest coughs that might have made it into an epic nineteenth century novel or opera, just ugly, scraping hacks. My throat spasms into wretched fits. It carries on for weeks, my ribs get bruised, it’s exhausting.

Often, I’ll briefly get a high temperature with it. The kind of fever that crawls up behind your eyeballs and tenderises your skull. It’s not great for productivity, but does inspire vivid descriptions, if I do say so myself.

It may be a sign that I’ve been doing too much. I feel I should be able to Do All The Things. After all, I eat plenty of fruits and veggies, and get up early for exercise and fresh air. However, I seem to get sick when I’ve been completing a big writing project while also, as always, working full-time and taking care of my family. It’s as if that extra creative endeavour pushes me over the edge.

Hiking during our camping weekend–totally worth it.

At the moment, I’ve just missed a couple days of work for flu-like symptoms, probably a back-to-school virus, so now I’m trying my best to be quiet and not start coughing. This followed a weekend camping trip to the Peaks and copious reading about story structure, plus overtime planning resources for small group interventions at work, doing critiques for other writers, trying to finish a short story and while I haven’t quite begun the next rewrite of my novel, I’m thinking REALLY hard about it, ok?

Health Warning

Can writing affect our health? Is it one thing too much? I definitely am less grouchy when I’ve been able to write, preferably in a quiet setting, unlikely though that last bit is. I think it helps my mental health—but maybe it’s just that I place high standards on myself and I feel better for Getting Things Done, whatever the things may be.

Writing is a passion—and the root of that word is bound up with suffering. It is ‘that which must be endured.’ Hard, necessary work. It is absolutely fun and exciting, too! But it takes a lot of effort and relentless, toiling THOUGHT to make it good. So yes, it probably does impact our health.

I always felt guilty missing work if I picked up a bug while traveling, or if I’d run myself down finishing a novel. Was it wrong of me to let my personal interests impede my contracted employment? I worried I was behaving as selfishly as I perceived people who always called in sick on Mondays because they were still hungover. I’m still not convinced I’m being completely fair to co-workers or to my family in how I expend my energies.

But there are other fevers that make our brains itch. Characters that pummel our skulls from within and ideas that sputter up from deep inside us. We’ve got to write.

Incandescence

Sometimes, I do great work when I’m sick. I wrote a play during an extended bout of flu. It was about a team monitoring a whole city’s worth of subconsciouses, spying on people’s dreams to solve crimes.

I call this one: Still life of a working writer mid-term

Weird, I know. But kinda cool? Anyway, it did get through a competition and we performed it. Someday I might develop it further than a single act, and make a series of it or something.

In the same way that extreme weather or stress sears certain things into our memories and forms indelible creative impressions, health events can crystallise ideas.

From the tuberculosis that ravaged the Bronte family to Stephen King’s childhood ear infections which he writes about in his memoir On Writing, it does seem as if cycles of illness and health sharpen our imaginations. Have you ever found this?

While I was sick this week, my brain came to a screeching halt over work things like differentiating Science vocabulary on independent or dependent variables. But it did present me with a striking novel-related sequence, like a dream Eve or Cain might have. It unfolded before me as I trudged to work (and didn’t stay long). My elevated temperature practically distilled my story’s essence better than my healthy brain could.

What links do you see between your health and your creativity?

Capturing Castles

This Week’s Bit of String: A budding writer at the gate

Quite out of breath, I arrived to the gate of my connecting flight to see my family. The airline was, as ever, playing dicey with delays, and I’d almost resigned myself to being stuck in Dublin yet again. But I’d made it through the airport against the odds, and I waited for the imminent boarding a few chairs from a girl and her father.

The girl couldn’t have been more than ten years old. She wore a massive University Roma hoodie, and rainbow-splodged Crocs imitating a tie-dye effect. Giggling, she pointed out to her dad that across and along from us, four men in a row sat the exact same way, right leg crossed over left.

Airport inspiration in all varieties: this “Rocket Man” piano is at Birmingham Airport.

She was right, and justifiably giddy with pride at catching this detail. Then she picked up a magazine and started reading an article about the author Andy Weir, her mouth meticulously forming each word. I felt I was watching a junior author myself, someone who knew that to be one, she needed to take notice of her surroundings, and read up on other writers.

For me, the airport is great for people-watching and inspiration. I wrote down this anecdote immediately, sitting in the gate. Because I scribble every day, and I had many hours of travel to get through, I wasn’t pressuring myself to watch and record everything—just a few key observations.

Places for Writing

Apart from scribbling in my notebook, I spent a lot of time reading while in transit. I’d taken out Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle from the library at work, and enjoyed it tremendously. It opens with the young, hungrily observant narrator sitting with her feet in the kitchen sink, starting her diary by the last daylight.

Okay, this isn’t exactly an original suggestion, but I would love to sit journalling on the front porch.

She writes, “I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.”

I love that line on page one. I want to try that this summer: going out of my way to sit in new places and crack open my notebook. Would anyone else like to join me? I may create a writing sampler at the end of the fleeting six weeks, featuring my favourite observations and inspirations.

Now I just need to find some unique places and move out of my comfort zone, which at the moment is the reclining end of my parents’ sofa, in front of a fan. It is challenging how in order to find inspiration, we first have to come up with an original way to put ourselves in its path.

Memories Versus Inspiration

As usual, I planned this post in my head during a morning walk. I was crossing a bridge just downriver from a ruined mill. I stopped and watched a tall grey heron standing perfectly still on a rock. There’s been a lot of rain here in New England, and this river is rushing but not too high.

I remembered that for 11th grade Biology, we were supposed to find a spot outside and visit it regularly throughout the year to record natural changes. I chose the river, coming to the foundation blocks of an old house that once sat high on the bank by the railroad tracks. I stowed a composition notebook and some sketching materials in a plastic bag between the blocks. I sat there and noted which trees changed colour first. But later in the year, severe storms swept my things away. Writing in new places can be quite an adventure.

Aforementioned heron. He did not wish to commune.

I considered climbing up and sticking my feet in the kitchen sink here, at the house my parents have lived in more than 30 years. Just thinking about it, memories spout like the tap’s turned on: stowing my kiddo under my arm after each meal, piloting them over to the sink and splashing off the baby food, then carrying them through to the breezeway to play with the wind chimes hanging there. “Bell” became one of their first words.

Or there’s the bathroom sink. The bathroom has a built-in storage unit, with a deep countertop separating us from the mirror, so we used to climb up on it to get a good look. And just because we could. My sister and I would be on and off the counter quite a bit while we brushed our teeth, until Dad got fed up of us thumping down from it and came in to show us how to set ourselves down lightly, “being dignified.” He climbed up himself and disembarked, making dramatically prissy faces for us all the while.

I’m taking care to include memories like this in my daily scribbles, since we can’t assume we’ll keep them forever. But I don’t want to get lost in them either. My New Writing Place Summer Challenge is about noticing the unexpected and finding new ideas. I don’t know if it will work, but I do intend to shake things up a little.

What writing locations can you try? Do you think it makes a difference?

Life Raft

This Week’s Bit of String: Comedy face, tragedy face, angry face

Wielding the unholy power we’ve given it, Facebook keeps showing me adverts for a play my husband and I just saw in Bristol. That’s ok, it was brilliant; I’d still be mulling it over without the reminders. I noticed, though, that someone had responded to the theatre trailer with the angry face emoji.

Someone who doesn’t like modern adaptations or diverse casts, I thought. A couple months ago, we loved the RSC’s latest Julius Caesar with women in the main conspirator roles, but not everyone approved. Our latest dramatic adventure was the Bristol Old Vic’s production of Anna Karenina, and you’re not going to adapt that epic without controversy.

I peeked at the comments though, and here was the angry one: “While everyone drowns… The height of sophistication!”

So, they were mad that people spend money on the arts during a cost of living crisis.

Anna Karenina at the Bristol Old Vic–I highly recommend it!

I am still thinking about this. I’m an empathetic person, which draws me to the arts in the first place, but I try to be pragmatic as well. Could I benefit more people with how I spend my bit of spare money?

Maybe the angry commenter is so strapped for cash they don’t realise some of us can spend money on more than one thing. I pay for shows a few times per year, but I have charity donations set up monthly. They may also not realise that people who work in theatres need money too. 

The actors and writers and crew for Anna Karenina did an incredible job, but I doubt they are earning celebrity-level amounts of cash. If we didn’t buy tickets to see their work, they might be “drowning,” too.

Bread and Circuses

I don’t go to the theatre to look or feel sophisticated. It’s not the most comfortable seating or temperature, half the time, so I’m fidgeting and worrying whether my husband is having an ok time (thankfully, he usually is).
 
I attend shows for the luxury of sinking into someone else’s story, as with reading a good book. I go for the cleansing catharsis of experiencing someone else’s heartbreak and redemption. I also go because I would hate for hard-working creative performances to go unappreciated. Not many of us get to earn income from our chosen art. I’m happy to pay so that some can.

These are the justifications I make to myself. I don’t know if they make me right.

There have been times when I genuinely, if unquantifiably, feel a performance has changed me as a person. It’s as if what I’ve seen blazed so brightly in its heartfelt declaration of humanity, a spark catches inside me and kindles a desire to love better, to create better. This might sound silly. But I felt permanently altered after seeing Miss Saigon’s 25th Anniversary show adapted for cinema, for example. Or when I watched La Boheme as a 10-year-old. 

Letting art sweep us out to sea

I can’t prove these things have made me a more compassionate, more resilient person. Even if they did, have they enabled me to benefit society as a whole? Still, there’s something much deeper here than entertainment, than a veneer of culture and sophistication. With Anna Karenina, the audience sees the perfect storm gather of misjudged desire, of lonely male domination, of a society obsessed with honour and prone to condemnation. It’s not genteel, it’s messy and raw. 

Resurfacing

I do appreciate reminders to be vigilant of all people’s needs and circumstances, and I want to always be sceptical about my practices. The truth is, anyone is at risk of “drowning” for a variety of reasons. I don’t want to act like the gossips in Anna Karenina, and judge people by trivialities such as how they spend their money. (Well… unless they’ve gained a tonne of it by shady means…)

No one has a right to sniff at how those with limited income spend their money. People who need help buying food shouldn’t be judged for spending money on, say, a smart phone. Not in these times.

Just as there are many things that can drag us under the current, there are many that might buoy us up. Maybe we need to build a righteous ark of highbrow theatre and literature, or witness an uplifting musical, or ride a wave of mass entertainment. Sometimes you just have to coast on a Disney cartoon. I’m not saying “Let them eat Shakespeare” or “Let them eat Netflix,” but I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of those things any more than I’d deprive someone of food. 

How do you use arts to keep yourself and others afloat?

Celebrating Books

This Week’s Bit of String: An air of incredulity

“Miss, how are there people who like to read?” 

I’d been scribing answers to questions about Lord of the Flies while the severely dyslexic GCSE student dictated. He was then curious about why there are “neeks” (the word “geek” has evolved) like me who actually enjoy books.

“Well,” I told him, “I got to like reading because I was taught so many different books at school, I knew there were loads of great options.”

The openness of the question surprised me and I should perhaps have been more emotive, told him how reading takes me out of my own life and into different worlds. Or that it’s easily as entertaining as TV. I wish I’d had more time to tell him that with books, there really is something for everyone. As long as they can access it–which unfortunately, he physically cannot. 

I wonder if this young man gets the sense of luxuriousness from playing videogames which we find with books. Books free us from having to compete. They offer immersive surrender, and that’s what I crave sometimes. It’s liberation from being in life’s driver’s seat.

Hay Castle: “Love detonates this distance between us to ash holds your flooded heart in the fire of night”

Again, this only works if you can access it. We all go through stages when there simply isn’t time to read much. Sometimes I find myself reading with a grim desperation to tick books off my reading list. 

I remind myself that this is love. As with any relationship, we sometimes get caught up in our duties of care; keeping everyone fed and happy. But the love is there. When it comes to reading, I ensure I take the time to write down my favourite quotes, to reflect in my daily scribbles, before starting something else. It’s not a chore.

Burrowing and Borrowing

I spent last weekend at Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival. If you ever need to rekindle your love for reading, it’s a great place to do so. Sunny but chilled, colourful yet somewhat calming. I guess that’s because even though I’m among crowds, they feel like my people.

Not that Hay’s festival-goers are in any way homogenous. As with writers, there are all sorts of readers. Young and old, Welsh or English or from further abroad, people in motorised wheelchairs or with support dogs. At an evening talk I also noticed another woman on her own, like me, pencilling tiny notes.

Hay Festival 2023

In both the first talks I went to, though they were on very different topics, the writers talked about being magpie-like in storing and selecting detail. Marina Hyde, the Guardian columnist on current events, peppers her pieces with pop culture references. Peter Frankopan, a passionate historian who’s recently written about natural disasters throughout history, drew on so many different sources he ended up with 4000 footnotes in his latest book.

Later I enjoyed wonderful readings from the poet laureate Simon Armitage. He opened with “Thank You for Waiting” (have a listen here!) and he talked about how hard it was during lockdown to be inspired without everyday interactions and excursions. He calls those the “cement” which sticks our writing together. Trying to create in his upstairs office, he found himself writing poems about Velux windows.

The reason there are enough books in the world to interest any reader is because writers are so diverse. And maybe when we love our art enough, we can find ways to write about anything.

Safety in the Pages

Beyond offering inclusion, books throughout history have bestowed security. We listened to Irene Vallejo talk about her volume Papyrus, which uncovers the history of the written word. She shared stories of the library of Alexandria, and told us how things changed with the development of the Latin codex.

Bookish street art in Hay. Is it secret? Is it safe?

The codex, with similar etymological roots to the word book, means block of wood, or tree trunk. Instead of being a long, flattened scroll you’d have to roll back up for storage, the codex used sheets bound together like modern books.

This change wasn’t just culturally significant. It also made reading a safer hobby. In times of religious persecution, for example, Christians could read in codex form. Should someone come along, they could close the codex and stow it away as a humble block, thus keeping secret the substance of their reading.

I loved learning this bit of history. Even now, in our privileged times, there’s something reassuring about wandering around an event where lots of people have books under their arms or noses. Just a bunch of bookworms sharing a common love if not common tastes, and although there are plenty of magpies about, they’re the curious rather than vicious kind.

What makes you fall in love with reading?

Looking the Part

This Week’s Bit of String: Ewoks and hippies

For the first Literature class I took at university, my professor resembled an ewok. He was gentle and diminutive, with a pointed snowy beard in place of a neck, and he would pace the room in a curved trajectory as he delivered lectures on Early English Literature or Science Fiction. Soft-spoken but passionate about his subject, he would pause when he’d gone over something significant, and tilt his head, his black eyes twinkling, and say “Hmm?” as he gave the sleepy morning classroom a moment to consider.

Another Literature professor paired silk scarves with sweatsuits, and when she felt she’d offered a particularly profound insight, she’d raise her hands palms up and intone: “Mmmmm!” as if she were a medium for divine inspiration. And I took a British Victorian Poetry class from a woman in her twenties who insisted, with poor reception, that we write “womin” instead of “woman” and “womyn” instead of “women.” She was brittly nervous and read us Sonnets from the Portuguese with her arms clasped across her chest.

My new writing companion

At university I relished the quirks of our instructors. There wasn’t a uniform vibe about them; they were quite individually eccentric. I’d had an idea that all writerly folk would be like the storyteller who used to visit my elementary school. She was a hippie type, with loose printed clothes and glasses and long fingers. She liked to sit us in a circle, lights dimmed, and always began by telling us how when people listen to a story, their heartbeats synchronise into a united rhythm.

It’s reassuring to think we can be spectacularly unique yet somehow fit in with a class of creative people. I say reassuring because I sometimes get dispirited by the headshots and bios in hit novels. Young faces with perfect hair. Masters degrees from top-tier universities. A lot of us are slogging through the working world and life overtakes us.

Props and Costumes

How then do we identify ourselves and others as writers, when there’s room for so many types? I doubt my students look at me and think I’m a writer at heart, apart from when I subject them to some dorky etymological or literary tidbit. I don’t have a caffeine or fancy pen addiction, so action figure Mrs. Parker does not come with cute travel mug and posh stationery.

The writing life is partly about accessories. We hoard notebooks and probably have strong opinions about pens versus pencils (the latter for me!) Mugs and hot drinks, window views and scented candles or essential oils, Twitter handles, background music and feline companions join the Generic Writing Starter Pack. 

We may have to dress warm, lest the cold in our Bohemian writing garret doesn’t sicken us. Or dress fashionably for writing in a cafe. If I’m writing out of the house, I’ll be hiking there so my outfit will include muddy trainers, a hoodie, and earbuds. If I’m in the house, it’s probably really early morning and I’m in my pyjamas and again, a hoodie. It’s not glamourous, but there is a thrill in having something so important to say, it can’t wait till the world wakes up. 

Looking honestly at it though, I work best when I’m properly sat up at the dining room table and dressed to feel awake. I’m best if I’ve eliminated the possibility of going back to bed for a catnap at 9, when I’ve been up at 5. A hot drink is good, and a candle with a stiff refreshing scent–I love something woodsy.

More Than a Feeling

These things sound trivial when stories need telling; these trappings of clothing and seating and utensils. But it’s worth a lot to feel like a writer. Our solitude can be pervasive, and successes sporadic. We are storytellers and we need to first convince ourselves that our voices are significant. Weaving some sort of authorish aura around ourselves is our first essential persuasive task. 

One of my favourite candleholders: the Snowball, from Sweden.

I imagine being the classy sort of writer who drinks earl grey tea and can write for hours in a cafe wearing stylish blouses and boots without the need to curl up somewhere quiet with a brownie. Wouldn’t I be cool? Then again, being a hoodie-type writer suits me because it connects me to so much outside my writing: my busy Teaching Assistant work, my family, my love of walking and exploring. Those inspire my writing and I’m proud to be tethered to that reality. 

Of course, we don’t want to be overly dependent on our image, even if we think we’re cultivating it for our own sakes. A great story can be told as well on a beat-up laptop as in a leather-bound notebook. Our writerly props may motivate and inspire us, but without them we can still bring stories into being.

Feeling present in ourselves and in our writing is perhaps the best accessory we can acquire as writers, whether we wear blouses or sweatsuits or snowy beards. I say being present instead of being confident because who among us will always be confident? We can use insecurity and anxiety in our creative process to convey those aspects of the world, we just need to face them honestly.

Do you have writerly accessories that feel essential? What’s their story?

What’s in a Name?

This Week’s Bit of String: A little baby cat

We got a 4-month-old kitten a few days ago. I will try not to go on about him too much–the photos should speak for themselves–but I’m smitten. 

Getting him relatively early means we can rename him. Goodness knows if he’ll respond to it; how powerful can a verbal moniker be compared to Dreamies and feather toys, cardboard boxes and head rubs? But the process of choosing a name was exciting and also, in a way, revealing.

I viewed this as acquiring a new family member. So the name had to fit with our family culture. That’s not something I actively think about, and this caused me to consider it. 

Naturally, our family traditions and favourites are a transatlantic mashup of American and British. Should I call the cat something to connect him with my home country? I liked the name Cricket, since he is black like the crickets in New England whose song I associate with home. And as he finds his voice, Kitty McKittenFace has revealed himself to have a crickety little chirp. But the name didn’t fully suit him.

I didn’t want a conventional black cat name, not even Inky or something with writerly implications. A literary name, that would do. A Shakespearean one even, given we just had a grand time in Stratford-Upon-Avon and the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre. No one with a tragic fate though–that eliminates a fair few of the Bard’s characters.

We settled on Oberon. The cat has a royal bearing, I think. We can shorten it to Obie, and link it to Star Wars as well if we see fit. Our Obie does have quite a stare; you’d think he was trying to use the Force on us in order to get his food bowl filled. (Scifi and adventure films are another part of our family culture.) And if he turns out a bit standoffish–which so far he is not, much to my excitement–we can call him ObeRon Swanson, for one of our favourite Parks and Recreation characters.

Character Names

Finding a title for a story can be loathsome. Nothing seems quite right… But naming characters is more painless, even enjoyable. There are so many connections you can make with a name, so many clues for readers. For example:

What: What does the name mean? Courage, humility, purity, illumination–lots of names have meanings like these and they can give a hopeful note to a character’s trajectory. I used to attach importance to this as an adolescent writer, but on the other hand everyone is brave, humble, pure, and illuminating at times, so we can’t lock ourselves or a character into any one attribute.

When: What does the name say about the contemporary events of the story? Is it a trendy name given by up-to-date parents, or a name that reflects indifference to fads? On the 2nd of November, 2016, we bought our last pets before this one–a pair of guinea pig brothers who took up residence in our lounge for the next 5 years. With the [now infamous] American election a couple days away, my husband and I wanted to name them Barry and Bernie, but our kiddo chose Fred and George instead. Mischief managed!

Where: Where is the name from? My name is Russian because my dad loves Russian literature. I have no Russian heritage. But it says something about the family who raised me, and introduced me to all sorts of art and literature. As I’m looking into my next project, I want one of my main characters to be an immigrant with a name that gets shortened to Nil, drawing inane comments now that she lives in the UK. I haven’t found a name that fits these particulars yet. Would it be culturally insensitive if I made one up? It’s funny, the notions we get stuck in our heads.

Who: Who else has this name? Often names come from a family history, but they might link to other figures also. I have a draft of a dark comedy story where some celebrity parents name their kids Ursula and Gaston, after Disney villains to shock people with how enlightened they are.

Why: Why was this name given to them–not by you as the writer, but by whoever named them? Writing my novel about Eve, I kept reading the Genesis account of creation. She’s only called “the woman” until after Eden. That’s not as outrageously disrespectful as it sounds though, since all Adam’s name ever meant was “the man.” If they were the first humans on earth, their species and gender would need no further specification.

How: How do others react to the name, and how does the character feel they are living up to it? I don’t usually give characters unusual names, because I have one and it complicates things. How people respond to my name reveals something about them. They might force it into something they know, like Natasha. They might immediately forget it rather than attempt pronunciation. Or they might say, “How unique. I’ll definitely remember that.” It makes things interesting… Maybe I will use such observations in a story one day.

What’s your strategy for naming characters? Are there any character names you’re particularly proud of?