During the recent heatwave, we went out for a late evening drive, finding ourselves at a viewpoint on a local peak. The large car park was almost full. Students in pairs or trios enjoyed the views, family groups packed up disposable barbecues, friends took stock of the situation while balancing MacDonald’s cups on their car roofs.
We wandered to take in the sunset, while dragonflies patrolled the scabia and thistles, and kids laughed and the tractor haying in the pasture below turned on its lights. It was the eve before all restrictions would be eased (despite covid cases rocketing to the same levels as January) and, whether intentionally or not, people were keeping their distances.
We came here in the beginning: March 15, 2020. My husband and I went to a local film festival to see the silent movie Beggars of Life accompanied by a live bluegrass band. There were quite a few empty chairs in the theatre, as people started withdrawing from events, but we thought we’d go, try something a little different, fully knowing it might be our last night out in a long time.
After the movie, we stopped at the same viewpoint and looked at the stars filling in the gap between peak and ground. It felt precipitous.
Most people I know are worried about the timing of lockdown’s end. The delta variant of covid seems so contagious; every day we hear of more people having to isolate. The sun has not set on this pandemic.
Even if cases were way down, I think I’d still feel… anticlimactic, perhaps, about lockdown ending. Some people sorted their lives out during that time, it seems. I fear mine is in more disarray than when we started, and I can’t be the only one.
My son’s first year at uni was a bit rubbish with all the restrictions; now he doesn’t know what he wants to do. Still working full-time, my husband and I didn’t accomplish any stunning DIY feats. We didn’t even have a clear-out since the charity shops and tip were closed. When the toilet and shower leaked under the floor, we peeled the laminate away revealing splintery, water-stained boards, but we couldn’t figure out what to do beyond that. Any further solutions would involve turning the house water off for a while, and we had no other place to go.
I took a lot of good walks—and also got plantar fasciitis and tennis elbow which made many of those hikes quite painful. I finished a handful of stories, and even found publications or events for a couple of them. But I haven’t had the energy or support or just the time to myself to properly tackle rewriting my novel. The loneliness of being an immigrant was more acute than ever. Maybe survival is the one thing I have achieved through lockdown.
Let’s not underestimate the importance of surviving these times. And let’s not discount the monumental effort of it. When we’re spinning in a frenzy, we’re not going to make an accomplished journey. One about-face and then another don’t really equate to coming full circle.
Most stories are written to show character development parallel to event progression. I’m not sure real life is like that. We are constantly challenged, and sometimes it’s not until the next really big test that we might notice what we learned from the last. Getting time to process something is a myth, at least in my existence.
So we emerge, reminded that time and family are incredibly precious. I don’t really care how little I’ve written for publication in the last 16 months, I have notebooks full of daily scribbles on how my husband and son were doing and what small things we did for each other. The clutter in my house hasn’t stopped me working lots of overtime right next to it, from a corner in my dining room; the injuries I had didn’t stop me going out for my alotted local exercise.
We’ve all learned what we can push on through, despite being cut off from others. Very likely, we’ll be doing that some more in the near future. This chapter is ongoing, even if the format’s changed. There’s no resolution yet, but we have resolve to keep working toward one! How are you getting through it all?
There’s a house I walk past on my early morning hike each day, with a round window like a porthole under the steep roof’s apex. The pane covering it boasted a stained glass sailing ship.
Only it’s not there anymore. I noticed recently, the porthole now has normal glass. Nice glass, with a whorly navel in its centre, but it’s not an adventuring ship. I did not approve this change.
During lockdown one gets attached to certain things. While unable to leave town for months on end, the sights on my limited range of local hikes became my safety network.
Blossoms and blackbirds, shop displays and creeping cats, the church rubbish bin with a fish symbol painted on it just in case the name and location aren’t identity enough. Footbridges and milk deliveries. The man with two huskies who wears a neon vest asking for space, and always smiles Good Morning when I give it to him. The young guy who strides down to the construction depot at the new housing estate and takes position outside the gates to aim a thermometer at the foreheads of entering labourers. The patched and re-patched bit of pavement which my son always said looks like a guitar, insisting we make suitable sound effects every time we walked over it.
So it shook me to realise a little mainstay of mine, something my gaze sought out while I hustled uphill from town, had disappeared. When did I see it last? What if the window was changed a while ago and I didn’t notice?
I’m not sure if monotony is better or worse for noticing things. We might notice the slightest change, or we might have started tuning out. Even now that lockdown’s over, I use the same 3.8 mile route most mornings because I don’t have to expend energy on decisions.
We need choices sometimes, though; to confront us into consciousness. A couple of weeks ago, one of our guinea pigs got sick, after 4.5 years with us. After multiple attempts to dropper water into him, we took him to the vet, and sadly George died there in the night. Had I noticed his discomfort too late? Should I have put him through the trauma of a vet visit earlier? You can bet we’ve been watching his brother extra carefully. I’m not sure Fred is pleased with the spotlight; he prefers food to affection.
I assume other people struggle as I do to be more present, less dulled by the daily grind. As parents we’ll always be trying to catch up with what we miss, and as writers it can be even harder to notice things, even while we’re the ones who should be super observant.
Taking Roll Call
The thing is, writers have an observing, idea-gathering mode, but also a developing mode. When we notice something that snags our interest, our body moves on but our mind is snared in what ifs, and character-building. While it’s nice to be consumed, to have that momentum, we don’t want to miss too much.
Here’s what I’ve been reminding myself to stop and look out for, even while in the midst of plot problem-solving:
Multi-sensory check. Every now and then pause and concoct a quick description for each smell, sound, sight, taste and texture around you.
Revel in the wrong. I recently saw a typo in a Missing Person notice, describing a “balding man with a bear and glasses.” This transformed a sober paragraph about a man with facial hair to an imagined adventure with an ursine companion, and my imagination hadn’t had such fun in a long while.
All creatures great and small. A ladybird straying across the work desk, snails curled around lavender stalks, their shells listing blissfully sideways, judgmental rooks and feline drama queens. It’s fun to make inferences about all their behaviours.
Sift through the remains. Any found object in your travels could tell a story, from a dropped shoe or stuffed animal to a grocery list. A badly repaired square of pavement, allegedly guitar-shaped, brings me happy memories of walks with my son, so truly inspiration can be anywhere.
Shameless use of prompts. Every day I try to come up with, for example, a sky description. Or a description of something in relation to the sky. This derives from when I used to use a sentence starter, “The sky today…” and it became habit to look out for the sky and how to portray it.
Keep an eye on your people. I have kept up with daily journal scribbles, primarily to leave myself reminders of thoughts and experiences shared with my family. For years I didn’t want to keep a journal, reserving any precious writing time for “real work,” pieces that might be published. Now, I’m so glad I recorded some interactions. These are the last things I’d want to miss.
What have you been noticing lately? Do you have any suggestions on how to keep observational skills sharp and make the most of the moment?
This Week’s Bit of String: How to begin a writing day
Let your brain drag you out of bed. It will have jolted you awake several times already, nervous, excited, random, clamouring to achieve release. It’s been asking, Is this really allowed, is your partner genuinely ok with you spending a whole weekend day on writing work, will you be able to keep up with everything else, is your kid all right too (always is your kid going to be all right), am I smart enough, do I have the stamina, the wit, the imagination to get anything done? And you’ve been telling your brain, you’ll have none of those things if it keeps waking you. But this time you must get up, get outside, have some fresh air while there aren’t too many people for you to slalom around. You have to feel as if you’re ready. You exercise your body to get permission to exercise your mind. You don’t need the hoodie. No one cares if your frame is visible, if it’s gotten bulkier. You have been working hard. You have the right to slice through space as bluntly or as sharply as you like. The same goes for the page. You have the right to be heavy-handed in your first draft. Anything you say can only be used against you when you are ready to reveal it. Swerve around the mud-spattered fallen geranium and poppy petals. Nod a greeting to the other early morning travelers: determined snails and industrious blackbirds. Indulge in the futile summoning of every cat you see, haughty after its night out. Your legs are stretched. Your brain has been pounded into a rhythm. It has been lulled into focus. You are prepared with snacks. Fruit and nuts, a politically incorrect tuna sandwich and some chocolate-coated pretzels. You are an ambitious squirrel, you are a reckless, rule-flouting heathen. You are a person of great imagination and careful planning, who has reserved fuchsia socks with penguins on them for this occasion. The blinking cursor awaiting words on your document isn’t taunting you, it’s jumping up and down with excitement for what you’ll come out with. It adores you. Give the page what it wants, open the cage door and pour your mind into its arms.
Back to the Projects
It’s been a while. The lockdown of 2021 was a tough one, and I haven’t had time to write for submission. After a long lapse, after constant flirtation with exhaustion, I wondered if I had the concentration for it anyway. I booked myself a writing day, using Writers HQ’s online retreat (which are wonderful and free, by the way, try them out here).
There are ideas to work on. There are even plots. My goal was to finish one story, rewrite another, and edit a final one. Submissions will happen once again! It’s hard to contemplate the emotional roller coaster of submitting work when isolation has knocked you down. That was part of my issue, not to mention a dearth of submittable work, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. So I am building up my arsenal of stories, as well as my perseverance to once again plough through the inevitable rejections en route to some kind of success. It takes a lot of rearranging around the weekend chores and the weekday job, but I’m excited.
Despite my inability to write for possible publication, I have been writing every day, in my journal. Each notebook lasts 2 or 3 months, filling up with observations from my walks, reflections on current events, and details from family life. In each notebook cover I write something I want to remember for the period.
The inner jacket of the notebook I started just after Christmas says: “Small steps, long pauses, unlimited restarts are allowed.” And there did come a pause. I’m glad I told myself it was allowed. There was enough stress without beating myself up for not publishing anything.
There’s a lot in life we can’t do over. But with writing, we can! We can stop and come back to it as many times as we like. Readjusting our balance doesn’t mean we’re not writers, any more than reworking a piece makes it less of a story. If you have to focus elsewhere for a while—let yourself. We know you’re a writer. Your work knows you’re a writer. You will meet again, in better times.
I started my latest journal a couple of weeks ago, and this time the cover has a line from an Avalanches song, “Frankie Sinatra.” It’s highly inappropriate, but I am a sucker for a catchy tune. The lyric goes, “Like Frank Sinatra bitch I do this shit my way.”
It was the last class of the day. My 13-year-old student was still wound up from lunchtime; someone had incurred his wrath and plotting vengeance was more interesting than a Science lesson.
He squirmed in his seat and flicked bits of paper at his classmates. ‘Miss,’ he said, ‘have you ever punched anyone?’
‘Yes I have, and if you sit quietly and do your work, I’ll tell you about it at the end of class.’
The school had tried to encourage him to settle. Special daily reports signed by each teacher at the end of lessons, plenty of threats and consequences… But I’d finally hit on something (no pun intended). He kept himself cool for the rest of the session, and then I told him and his pals about how I got offended at a birthday party when I was seven years old and punched a boy I’d been friends with for years in the stomach.
As writers, we know about target audiences. Any other anecdote would not have pressured my student into compliance. We’re always checking and re-assessing which tale is best to submit to which publication; this takes up a great deal of our precious writing time.
We also need to consider a key demographic: ourselves. Which project will hold our own focus at this time so we can develop it? When so much is out of our control, and so little available to brighten our days or broaden our horizons, not every idea will work for us right now. More than ever, we’ve got to write what we like.
In Britain, since October we’ve had just 3 weeks that weren’t on lockdown and there’s still at least six weeks until we can venture outside the same routes we’ve been walking for ages now. It may not be coincidence, then, that I’ve only this week written my first complete story since last fall.
I’ve had perfectly decent ideas in my daily notebook scribbling, for bizarre, dark humorous stories and feminist stories and tragedies-in-flash. But I couldn’t stick with them—not yet. If I had a few minutes of quiet to work on, you know, non-office work, I’d find myself staring at the computer until I found an excuse to Google something before shuffling off to spoon peanut butter into my mouth. (It’s not just me, right?)
The ones I manage to finish have pieces of home in them. They have youthful confidence and lakes and mountains and music like Salt-n-Pepa or Alanis Morissette played on old, fourth-hand car stereos with the windows down while driving several exits up Interstate 89 to get a root beer float.
These are the things I want, and probably need, to write about right now. There’s heartache and conflict but humour and resilience too—warmth. I’m not strong enough to dissect British daily life or examine the class structure or plunge deep into grief. It’s important that we do those things when we can, but if, like me, you’re just not up for creating such pieces right now, you can help amplify those who are: this upcoming volume of stories from the Lesbian Immigrant Support Group, for example, or Nikesh Shukla’s latest book Brown Baby.
The Places You’ll Go
There’s lots we can still do in our pages. If you’re struggling to get some work done, see if you can write something that feels less like work. Here are some suggestions:
Recreate a favourite setting: Since I can’t get back to New England, that’s become my favourite place to write about. I’m enjoying reading and daydreaming about other destinations (currently one of Peter Carey’s novels about Australia in the early 1900s), but for my writing to flow easily, I need deep familiarity, as with the place where I grew up.
Time travel: Every era has its challenges, but in recent decades at least, they weren’t the ones we have now. Set your characters at a stage in life when they might enjoy things more freely. I’ve been writing about teens who are alienated yet spunky, or about parents with mischievous kids to enliven the pages.
Mingle with crowds: Let your characters do things we can’t. School dances, bowling alleys, mountain hikes. I find I’m not just counteracting my own losses and separations in my pages, I’m also imagining the things my son has missed out on, in his final year of school and first year of uni.
Do a remix: If you can’t summon your own ideas, twist a well-known story. You can go speculative on a historical event, or subvert a fairy tale. One of the stories I got published last year was this reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Following a pre-existing plot line from another angle helped me get the work done.
Use a natural progression: Seasons, holidays, milestones—these can help move your piece along. I started one story about growing up in the 80’s/ 90’s and wasn’t sure what would happen, until I used the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as the turning point.
Give hugs: Create on the page the relationships we’re missing out on. This year I’ll have a story published in Retreat West’s anthology that I absolutely love. I wrote it last year, about two sisters. I haven’t seen my actual siblings in over 18 months.
Life’s not easy right now. We still want our writing to be great, and to get it out there, so we’ll make ourselves think of something original or follow a trend or submission theme. But you are allowed to write what you want. Write anything that keeps you wanting to write.
Predictably, it was all British hikes last year. No European cities or the mountain lakes of home. Still, I’m lucky to live with countryside a mile away, to step out my door and choose a walking circuit of 3.5, 4.5, or 6 miles.
Weeks went by when we weren’t allowed even to drive a few minutes and explore Somewhere Else. Temporary easing of restrictions assigned extra value to sojourns that might otherwise not have been so memorable. And when we couldn’t travel, we could look to rainbows or holiday decorations. I think the people who put out massive displays of festive lights and inflatables by the third week of November, brightening the long nights, deserve to have a street named after them.
Dursley: Our Own Town
We’ve been familiar with the local hills for some time, but lockdown meant perusing churchyards, looking up name origins, finding the rare street less homogenous and more individualised than others.
Living in houses squished right up next to each other is hard. The constant reminders of other people practically on top of you, it’s exhausting. And when we fled for our daily walk, there were always a number of people doing the same. My son and I discovered more paths to the river (now more of a stream) and I may have gone mad without access to water in nature. Every day I incorporate the river in my walk, take my headphones off when I reach it, tell it hello, listen to its hurried reply, and imagine I could be on a riverbank anywhere in the world, letting it drown out the traffic and forgetting there are houses lined up on either bank.
Stroud Area: Selsley and Thrupp, A Few Miles Afield
My office is in Stroud so I used to go to this vegan hippie haven every day, walking the canal towpaths, listening to street musicians, frequenting little shops. For 3/4 of this year we could barely go at all. But our first journey out of town (by 7 or 8 miles) in the summer was to Selsley Common to see the dinosaurs, and my husband and I took a couple of canal walks later.
Woodchester: Local Lakes
Where I grew up every little rural town has its own lake plus various other ponds. That’s how you cool off in the summer. Over here, despite this Island being known for rainfall, there aren’t many accessible bodies of water. We had a couple of hikes (as did many others it would seem) at Woodchester, a National Trust estate with pretty combinations of wooded hills and manmade lakes, guarded by an unfinished gothic-style mansion which is pretty much the sort of place I intend to set my next novel.
Liverpool: Street Art and Maritime History
We managed to get a serious road trip in before this vibrant, friendly city was put into higher tier restrictions. With masks and constantly sanitised hands we explored museums to inspire whole fleets of stories: a branch of the Tate filled with modern art, the International Museum of Slavery, and the Maritime Museum. The grand if faded buildings still convey the city’s impressive history as emigration gateway and meeting place of cultures.
Charmouth, Seatown, and the Dorset Jurassic Coast
Plan E to celebrate my 40th in December was a cottage near the sea and fossil-hunting under the coastal cliffs. Plans A and B would have involved seeing my family in the US—I haven’t had a birthday with them since I turned 23. In the end, we were incredibly fortunate just to have this break 2 hours away, as it fell in the 3 weeks between Lockdown the Second and The Raising of the Tiers. And although the weather was generally poor, it left plenty of fossils to be found.
Combe Martin and North Devon’s Cliffs
As soon as the hospitality industry re-opened slightly in July, we went, for my first days off from work in months. Just to a cottage and lots of isolated hikes, mind you, no crowded beaches or anything like that. We love a bit of rock-scrambling and tide-pooling. The coastline in North Devon is pretty dramatic and made for good, even sunny, adventures.
Grasmere and Easedale Tarn: Proper Lakes
The main bit of our autumn road trip was spent a fair way North, in a Lake District shepherd’s hut with no electricity or running water. We hit Liverpool and the brief luxury of a half-empty hotel on our way back down. The Lake District is special for its own ancient landscape and language: fells and tarns and ghylls. Of course we hiked around Wast Water, England’s deepest lake at the foot of its sharpest peaks, and we visited lovely pubs and bakeries and came away with gingerbread and a glorious painting by Libby Edmondson. Our very favourite hike, though, was an unexpectedly bright afternoon walking along a beautiful purple-black river and ascending up to one of the glacial ponds, Easedale Tarn.
Did you get to do much exploring in 2020? If not, did you find anything special and new in your own local area?
I read thirty books this last year. You’d think, given lockdown and whatnot, that I’d have managed to read more than before, but I’m probably not alone in experiencing a continued dearth of leisure time. I suspect the hours previously spent commuting got absorbed by actually working more hours while at home, plus just, you know, trying to make life go on through the upheaval. Here are my very top ten out of a lot of good, transporting reads.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
In this partly historical, partly speculative story about pursuing freedom, Mr. Whitehead laid nearly all the eras of American racist atrocities out concurrently. It’s a rough look in the mirror but essential. He also tried to illuminate the inner life of a person born and raised in enslavement, and how it might limit one’s focus. I found the protagonist Cora compelling for her determination and understandable cynicism, and it was deeply irritating to see some Goodreads reviews complaining that she wasn’t sunny enough.
“A small freedom was the worst punishment of all, presenting the bounty of true freedom in painful relief.”
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
A fun and thrilling novel about exploring natural history in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and women’s roles in such discoveries. Set in an old mansion by often violent seas, it turns into a murder mystery with small-town treachery, solved by a really clever 14-year-old girl protagonist. This was my Christmas holiday feast following my own fossil-digging expedition the week before.
“It must be very relaxing being Mr. Jacklers, deaf to the crunch of other people’s feelings beneath his well-intentioned boots.”
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
I read the whole Neapolitan series at the start of this year, starting while we were actually in Sorrento, about an hour’s train ride south of Naples. They’re all intriguing, with intimate portrayals yet surprising turns. Elena’s educational journey, though, and the defiance of Lila’s first marriage including the perspective of her confused and brutal husband, made this possibly my favourite in the series.
“She deserved Nino, in other words, because she thought that to have him meant to try to have him, not to hope that he would want her.”
Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis
An award-winning, self-published novel about families coping with the aftermath of a disaster and the inquiry into its causes. Jane Davis created such beautifully nuanced characters in this, it’s hard to believe it was fiction, and I loved the added angle of using art to cope with grief. She also showed impeccable timing in revealing the different pieces and perspectives of the original event. You can read more about the writer’s process and her other (also acclaimed) work in this interview with author Sarah Tinsley.
“‘Artists have to make choices. We can make a small noise about a lot of things or a lot of noise about one thing.’”
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Another superbly crafted book with an enormous cast. It delved into so many different lives, spanning race and sexuality, making each person believable and sympathetic. I loved the ending, when every character was quite perfectly brought together. For me, the narrative style of line-by line rather than in standard paragraph form really worked, as if reading thought fragments, pulse by pulse. I found myself conducting my own observations in the same rhythm for a couple of weeks, it was so transfixing.
“the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some more noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
I hadn’t read any Anne Tyler yet, and I loved this first taste, the idea of the Homesick Restaurant, where diverse chefs cook a favourite home meal different each night, plus of course the distinct characterisations of the whole family in the story. It reminds me of John Irving’s work, which I usually love—but a little more concise and sort of snarky, too. I mean, check out this sample which says so much about the family:
“His mother told Jenny not to slouch, told Cody not to swear, asked Ezra why he wouldn’t stand up to the neighbourhood bully. ‘I’m trying to get through life as a liquid,’ Ezra had said, and Cody (trying to get through life as a rock) had laughed.”
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
A family story and a plague story, this was stunningly immersive. It spins the normal, patriarch-oriented history on its head by never referring to England’s most famous writer by name. He is merely The Tutor, or Agnes’s husband, or Susanna’s or Hamnet’s father. This twist comes off as perfectly natural amidst the insightful re-imaginings of Agnes Shakespeare (Anne Hathaway), and her three children. The smart, strong, grieving mother will stay in my thoughts at least as long as any of her husband’s characters.
“Why would she ever want to behold anything else, when she could be taking in the sight of Susanna’s ears, like the pale folds of roses, the winglike sweep of her tiny eyebrows, the dark hair, which clings to her crown as if painted there by a brush? There is nothing more exquisite than her child.”
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
In a year with minimal travel, more than ever I love a book that can transport me. This one balances two storylines, doubling the mileage. There’s the story of 16-year-old Nao in Tokyo, her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother Old Jiko, and Jiko’s son who was killed fighting (or appearing to fight) in WWII. There’s also Ruth’s story, as she finds Nao’s diary washed up on a remote Canadian Pacific island. This was a great epic about life and death and purpose, while being warm and cheekily authentic.
“Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit?”
Circe by Madeline Miller
Having written my own book from the perspective of Eve, I was eager to read another female-perspective story about an oft-maligned mythological character. Circe the witch, as portrayed here, tells her story in a way I really connected to; she’s empathetic to all others and unassuming about her own power. I preferred hearing about her with the gods and heroes as mere cameos rather than reading their often similarly told stories, and I appreciated the world-building more from this less entitled narrator.
“The darkness around us shimmered with clouds of the Trygon’s gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. “‘Then, child, make another.’”
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Another epic—a bit more serious, a bit more dense, yet truly rewarding and beautiful. We have Marie in Vancouver, seeking her beloved sort-of-cousin Ai-Ming in China. Much of the book is recounting Ai-Ming’s stories about her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, in WWII China, then her father Sparrow adjusting to the fluctuating restrictions and demands of Communism, up to Ai-Ming’s own survival of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. We’re treated to examples of how love and creativity manifest themselves through oppression and separation. There’s so much in this book, maybe it best speaks for itself with this quote:
“‘Don’t ever try to be only a single thing, an unbroken human being. If so many people love you, can you honestly be just one thing?’”
Looking at this list, 9 of my top 10 reads last year were written by women. Not surprising as I only read 7 books by men in 2020. This wasn’t planned or anything, these were just the books I really wanted to read, and through a pandemic, and painful separations, they made me feel I was in the best possible hands.
What were your favourite reads in 2020? Did you have different or similar reactions to the books I’ve read? Do you think current events coloured your choices and your interpretations?
This Week’s Piece of String: Adolescents in a Hospital Ward, 1993
What’s the most diverse group of people you’ve ever been part of? Not just racially or politically, but in terms of experience and beliefs. For me it was hospitalisation when I was 12, in a unit later shut down after a surprise inspection. It wasn’t a nice place, but I quickly learned to like the people I was with.
We were aged 12 to 17, representing all colours, with heritage from Puerto Rico, Greece, and Jamaica. There were teens left there by the state for over a year. Runaways brought in from the street, kids stopping off on their way to longer detention, and private school students whose rich parents didn’t know how to handle them.
One boy, a few months younger than I was, had stolen a gun from Walmart. One girl’s entire family were in detox. There was a virulently anti-racist boy who suffered from muscular dystrophy, a junior KKK member, and a powerful African-American girl who didn’t hesitate to enlighten him. My roommate loved vinegar, Aerosmith, and her little foster brother who had spina bifida.
We kept count of the times we heard The Bodyguard soundtrack on the radio (“Run to You:” 9 times in 2 weeks), and lived for the pizza bagels we were given on Friday nights. We were united against tyrannical psychiatrists and shared affection for the handful of kindlier workers. We jostled for shaving slots, during the one daily hour when we could access “sharps.” Through major personal crises, we cared for each other, and accepted our quirks.
In the midst of a new global crisis, as the government allows us to form “bubbles” of safety, I fear this will result in further entrenching us in homogenous opinions. Every book or TV series I love (and that seem to particularly resonate with readers and audiences) has a motley, diverse cast who beat the odds to save the day. And that’s how my next writing project will be, even if real life isn’t turning out that way.
From The Baby-Sitters Club to last year’s joint Booker Prize winner Girl, Woman, Other, from Star Trek to The Good Place, our hallmarks of fiction showcase diversity. There’s always room to include more ethnicities and sexualities, but it’s also important to celebrate different personalities.
I love how Brooklyn 99 features not just multiple people of colour, but also two characters who are particularly emotionally guarded. Guardians of the Galaxy could be a descendant of Catch-22, in which a group of people with various bizarre passions and tendencies are thrown together to fight a common enemy. Isn’t every iconic friendship a pairing of opposites, an appreciation of certain foibles the rest of the world has rejected?
Scout, Jem, Dill and Boo in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Huckleberry Finn and his travel buddy Jim, the alliances Oskar builds in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Owen Meany and… you know, his best mate who tells his story.
You’ve probably got some favourite examples, too. As the pandemic shrinks our spheres of existence, makes every day similar to the next, and seems to embitter divisions, contemplating variance is refreshing. Have you found that?
Even now that activities are opening up, I still feel trapped in a waiting game. Wondering when I can see all my family in America. Waiting for results from competitions I’ve entered stories in, and still over a month from A-Levels Results Day, when our son finds out his grades and can then know which university he’s able to go to. In the COVID era, this also means that until his results come, we won’t know whether he’ll be able to visit home during university termtime or whether he’ll have to stay there in an allotted “bubble” of people on his course. So after emigrating from my whole family, I might now have to say goodbye to my child, my best buddy, for months on end… Yes, it’s high time to retreat into fiction and plan the next writing project.
Starting a new novel is like designing your own plague-bubble. You’re not considering who to allow in the club, but who’s needed for the mission. I’m preparing to bring characters on board, I’m designing a set for them, and I’m coming up with plot points that ideally I’d like them to hit, but whatever, I trust their judgement.
It’s going to be somewhat apocalyptic; it’s more cathartic to imagine a better way through them than to imagine they don’t exist. Here’s my wishlist, because as writers we get to Write the Book We Want to See in the World:
A gothic-style setting, probably an abandoned manor house
A hint of the supernatural, because my last novel was about Eve and once you get to incorporate dragons and talking animals, there’s no going back.
Six main characters thrown together surprisingly, from very different walks of life
The enigmatic older caretakers of the estate
A spoiled but charming heir
His girlfriend, an immigrant who’s sacrificed parts of herself to assimilate
A recovering alcoholic who’d been homeless for months
A runaway nurse who just can’t take the front lines anymore
Certain personality traits to share around:
Someone obsessed with jigsaw puzzles, because that is one of my favourite Lockdown activities and why not use it?
Someone tuned in to religious iconography and symbols, you know, to heighten the drama
An element of uncertainty as to who’s REALLY in charge here. Which ones are the manipulators, which are the manipulated? Could they possibly, in some way, all be equally obligated to and fearful of each other? Does that mean they all need each other equally?
Art or music or poetry or exotic plants… the estate is bound to have some unique collections which could become significant. I’ll research obscure artefacts and see what I like.
What kind of reading and writing makes you feel better about the world? May your bubbles be safe but exciting, your books and your life studded with colourful characters.
This Week’s Bit of String: School Uniform on Good Friday
On Good Friday we set out early for our daily exercise, before it got hot. It was quiet, apart from two figures on the pavement ahead. A girl, maybe six years old, skipped and stumbled in her pleated grey skirt, and a young mum all in black carried her schoolbag. They were walking away from the local primary school.
How could they not know the Easter holidays were starting? Had they just rocked up for the day after not bothering for a little while, as if school were a drop-in daycare?
Lately, I have a spreading case of Hey-what-are-they-up-to-itis. Where’s that van driver going to dump all that garden waste, while the tip is closed? Do those people gathered in the park actually live together? I don’t think I’m the only one catching this illness. Plenty of people have been crippled by it most of their lives. But I don’t want my sense of other people’s humanity reduced to a behavioural rubric, so I’m looking at what’s caused this other virus to take hold.
Bitter suspicion may be an unfortunate by-product of the talk about sacrifice and community spirit. We’re told to give up even family visits to protect the NHS. Despite rainbows in many windows, despite clapping for frontline employees, human nature doesn’t allow sacrifice without expecting something in it for ourselves.
It’s like when people interrogate benefits recipients or homeless people on what they’re doing with money put toward their survival. That always bothered me. If I donate a minute fraction of my wealth to someone, I don’t feel entitled to a complete accounting of their lifestyle choices. But now, while we deprive ourselves of pubs, beaches, and simply buying supplies to spruce up the garden, we worry that others are not made of the same fortitude and we expect RESULTS, dammit.
(It’s easier to take out lack of results on random people in the street than to hold wily governments accountable by, say, voting out politicians that neglect incredibly well-loved health systems.)
At the supermarket last week, I got in trouble for entering the store. It was an hour before closing, the car park was virtually empty, but apparently I was supposed to wait until I saw someone exit before I could enter. The woman on duty huffily locked the doors after me. “If people can’t follow the rules, we’ll just have to let them in when we know it’s safe.”
I easily did my weekly shop without brushing up against many other customers. At the till, the same worker got chatty when I asked how she was finding the situation. She told me the manager’s wife was an ICU nurse and had just been sent home with a fever and cough, so the manager had rushed away into quarantine as well.
How long before the rest of the staff show symptoms? No wonder she and her co-workers might enforce excessive restrictions. So much else was out of their control. The lack of control can effect the rest of us in a similar way, causing us to exert pressure on others even when there’s not a clear risk to us.
The final reason why we might be thinking negatively about other people is our personal insecurity at the moment. Isolation deprives many of a major boost: employment. It also deprives us all of various little boosts that brighten our days. Friendly smiles, compliments, opportunities to show off or be caught at doing good.
For me, this particularly affects my writing. When people say they’re “using all this spare time to write a novel,” I despair I’ll never get mine looked at when agents open for submissions again with slush piles the size of supermarket queues. I find myself thinking unkindly toward people I’d normally encourage.
In Paulo Coelho’s novel Veronika Must Die, a psychiatrist theorises that Vitriol, or Bitterness, is behind many forms of “madness.” It always exists in each person, but “attacks when a person is debilitated…The right conditions for the disease occur when the person becomes afraid of so-called reality.”
Our reality is pretty scary right now, so we need to stop Vitriol spreading. The best cure is surely empathy, which often emerges as a theme in my writing. For example, my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds follows Charlie, a supermarket worker caught on viral video in a desperate act, and the impact on his daughter, a care home nurse, as well as the girl who made the video. Starting next week, I’ll be reading this in video installments. Watch this space!
In the meantime, how’s everyone holding up? Any symptoms of bitterness, or is that just me?