2021 Reading Round-Up

This wasn’t my most prodigious reading year, but I’m incredibly grateful for the books I did get to read. There were some long-anticipated hits, and some delightful surprises. In my top ten alone, there’s quite a range from comics to inspiration to memoir with of course plenty of forays into fiction.

As always, I’m including a favourite quote from each book. That’s the best bit! Previous years’ top ten lists are here, here, here, and here.

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

This is a quick read, meandering through episodes of Levy’s writing life. From the riveting opening sentence through travels in Majorca and flashbacks to Levy’s childhood in apartheid South Africa, I was engrossed in her reflections. As she crosses geographical borders, she also investigates the borders between secrecy and sharing. How deeply can women writers afford to feel?

I read The Midnight Library while visiting London after Christmas

“Smiling was a way of keeping people out of your head even though you’d opened your head when you parted your lips.”

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

An exploration of the multiverse that can result from a single life, Haig’s popular novel is like having someone read you a choose-your-own adventure book. The protagonist gets to pick different volumes off the shelves and read herself into alternate lives. It culminates with satisfying vibes of “Merry Christmas, you beautiful old broken down Building and Loan!”

“She had shrunk for him, but he still hadn’t found the space he needed.”

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Another volume of her irreverent, candid, hand-illustrated memoir. My whole family loves Brosh’s work. I laughed hysterically reading about how she raided her neighbour’s house as a child, and then later in the book I cried at her struggles. She champions her uniqueness while also being incredibly relatable.

“Because that’s intimacy, Buckaroos. Somebody who understands exactly how weird you are, and you understand how weird they are, and you’re sort of in a mutually beneficial hostage situation.”

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

One sister stays in Bangladesh and tries to earn her living in a garment factory and then as a household servant, while the other comes to London as a Muslim bride, speaking no English. Multifaceted characters, perfect descriptions, a plot spanning two continents and volatile periods in recent history.

Finished Brick Lane while headed north to the Lakes District in the summer.

“Outside, mist bearded the lampposts and a gang of pigeons turned weary circles on the grass like prisoners in an exercise yard.”

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

This is a pivotal read for shaking up your routine, challenging yourself, and making the most of life. It helps you believe in the positives—not just in yourself, but in others. I loved the “Giving an A” chapter, promising students an A in a college course provided they write a detailed letter at the start on what they’ll do to earn it, and then follow through.

“It is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my [music] students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’ I recommend that everyone do this.”

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

An award-winning debut novel tackling race and class, and having to grow up. I loved the depictions of friendships, and child-rearing. The main characters are a baby-sitter who loves her charge so much it brought tears to my eyes, and a mum who is still not comfortable enough in her own skin to genuinely care for a pre-schooler who may have the same insecurities.

“‘You get real fired up about what happened that night in Market Depot. But I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just, like… happens.’”

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is also a dual narrative about race and class, but it’s set in the American South before the Civil War and Emancipation. The enslaved characters try to keep their culture alive and their family bonds unbroken. I read it fearing for their safety, but also admiring the spirit of the main character, Handful.

“You come from your mauma, you sleep in the bed with her till you’re near twenty years grown, and you still don’t know what haunches in the dark corners of her.”

Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A mystery, almost a thriller, as well as a fictional journey of self-discovery. The narrative voice is so compelling, you feel for her and want to protect her even as she self-sabotages her quest for companionship by being harsh with those around her. It’s uplifting to read about Elinor coming to terms with not being completely fine.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer—a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing so horrifying you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Springtime back garden fun with these floofs, reading Brown Baby.

Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla

Reading this memoir is like spending a day with your best friend. I really wanted to turn up on Shukla’s doorstep and ask to go walking together or something. This is a memoir about the sacrifices and joys of parenting, about raising a small person of colour in an unwelcoming world, about grief and making connections with the family you grew up with. He puts everything in it really, and writes with such warmth and humour.

“If you sleep when the baby sleeps, you have effectively given up. You live by their routine. You are pandering to their tyranny. You’re never sleeping longer than an hour anymore. And you’re wearing dirty pants.”

The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh

This hilarious and lovely novel comes from independent publisher Louise Walters Books, and I will be grateful to Twitter forever because without it I wouldn’t have heard about Walsh’s book. Very British and quirky, it takes an endearing, well-meaning protagonist with a Dostoevsky-ish inner monologue through Kafkaesque plot twists with a Dickensian cast of characters. Honestly, it’s just mad fun; please give it some love.

The trouble was, our minds were hard-wired to find patterns in any thing, and to lock into them like meaning-seeking missiles. Not only would we hungrily identify patterns, we would immediately adopt them, fatten them up, farm them, breed and multiply them.”

If you’ve already discovered any of these stories, let’s talk! If you haven’t read them before but decide to give one or two a try, I hope you just love them.

A Christmas Glossary

This Week’s Bit of String: Unexpected roots

Shortly before last Christmas, we heard of a place in Gloucester called Gaudy Green. Bit odd, we thought, so my husband looked it up. Apparently it comes from the city’s Roman days. The Latin term gaudium means “joy.” That’s how we learned that gaudy doesn’t have to be bad–nice to know when you’re about to deck your halls.

That revelation inspires me this year to look more deeply at common words of the season. What can we find by studying certain well-used terms?

Gaudy

We often use this term derisively about something that’s a little too much. A bit overdecorated, maybe cheaply, or maybe overused gold. But in addition to sharing an etymological Latin root with “joy,” gaudy may also draw on the old French word for the weld plant, also known as dyers’ weed, for its yellow dyeing properties. So “gaudy” has links to the colour yellow, and to joy and gladness. Why not, then, revel in what glitters?

Licensed to gaud.

Festive

Sure, this links to feasts and food. But what atmosphere and mood befits this term of the season? Proto-Italic and Proto-Indo-European root words hint at the sacred, with connections to temples and the divine. At the same time, there’s the old French term feste which means “religious festival, holy day; holiday; market, fair; noise, racket; jest, fun.” As pleasant as quiet time can be, it’s refreshing to think that a properly noisy, clamorous family dinner is also completely appropriate for a religious holiday.

Merry

The Germanic root for this pleasant term is murg, meaning “short-lasting.” It’s thought that the meaning evolved based on the principle that time flies when you’re having fun. Anything that doesn’t last (like Christmas, I guess) must be good. More interestingly, during the late 1700s merry developed into slang for sexual activity, such as: “Merry-bout, an incident of sexual intercourse.” Someone tell the Fox News crew that when they insist on wishing everyone a merry Christmas whether they celebrate or not, they’re also wishing them a sexy Christmas. 

Comfort

The word comfort is a bit like the term self-care, and makes me wonder about what’s genuinely comfortable. Is it curling up in a ball or stretching our legs? Helpfully, a look at the Latin root word tells us it comes from the phrase “to strengthen.” Of course–fort is related to “fortify.” When we take comfort, we should be deriving strength. When we give comfort, we should be providing strength. Comfort is not an end, but a means. A rest stop, or a build-up; whatever’s needed.

“A rosy dawn settles all around…”

The angels said Christmas is meant to be about comfort and joy, and those have broader meanings than we realise. In light of that, let us be grateful for what strengthens us, whether noisy or quiet, and for what bring us joy, gaudy or not. Short-lasting though it may be, Christmas contains many moments. We will stow the sad ones to use in future creations, and cherish the happy ones.

Deck your halls as you see fit, friends, and draw strength. 

The Value of Women’s Time

This Week’s Bit of String: The dregs of a ketchup bottle

Sometimes I think about the consistency of time, as if it were a physical thing. With my last job, doing billing and customer management, time was like bottled ketchup. The tasks could be so tedious that time just sputtered and dripped languidly, then a deadline approached and time spurted past leaving a mess.

Now I’m back working in secondary school classrooms, time is more like sand in an hourglass with a particularly generous funnel. Each moment is a grain tumbling through, some with more jagged edges than others, but mostly very fast and after just a couple of hours you get a quick tea break but you’re sifting through the grains to ensure you didn’t miss something really important. A student in crisis, a quiet success, a useful tip for helping someone learn.

Imagine how it would change the flow of a year if Christmas was in January. Would it all be an uphill slog from there? Instead it comes at the end of the year, like a stone in a river, and makes time accelerate and leap around it.

O come let us eat cookies. Baking is a big project for me each year but I love it, as a sort of meditation, a chance to practice other skills with delicious results.

Suddenly it feels as if we’re racing to year’s end, and we have to hold so much aloft as we plunge. We should make the house nice and bake fancy things and organise travel plans, deal with the crescendo at work (supporting students through mock exams, for example), put in cheery appearances at dinners and parties and concerts, secure Christmas gifts for all our family, and the family we grew up with, keeping it as environmentally friendly as possible, and I suspect as a wife I’m not alone in having to sort all the presents for my in-laws as well, plus being the contact person everyone comes to asking, “What does so-and-so want?” And down the cascade we go, still cheering because at least in my case, I quite like Christmas despite the madness.

Supply and Demand

I am lucky to have so many reasons to be busy, to have people I care about enough to work hard and make Christmas special. Some things even work out a little bit like I might have hoped. But I do sense that women generally adapt a wider range of duties year-round than many men do by default, simply by our awareness that they exist.

There are exceptions and even for our men who get a little more free time than we do—we know you have your own challenges, and we’re happy to help. But for many women (including people identifying as female, including those who don’t have children or partners), we have extra people relying on us in weightier ways than men do, and we are stretched in more directions.

As long as this guy gets some carrot, maybe a sprout or two, we’ll be ok.

This year we’re hearing about supply chain problems around the world. Covid slowed manufacturing down, various factors slow down transport, so there may be fewer goods available and the prices will be higher corresponding to reflect the lack of availability. Anything in high demand that therefore suffers scarcity gets priced at a premium. Since women have so many demands on our time—doesn’t that mean it has a higher value?

Our pay doesn’t usually reflect this. Because of family obligations, we often have to take part-time work, low-paying jobs, and/ or jobs without very good benefits. I like that in the UK you can actually look up pay gap statistics for companies employing over 250 people. There’s even advice for companies on how to address the problem.

Overtaking

With frequently undervalued jobs and with off-duty roles which men might not even imagine exist, we have to learn to value ourselves. We facilitate everything from hot meals to regular dental check-ups to artistic endeavours to excited Christmas mornings. Where would this world be without us?

Any spare time we have is a rare commodity and you’re allowed to treat it as such. Guard it by saying no to a last-minute obligation. Insist on its high price. I’m paying a little extra to have groceries delivered this week, because it frees me up to join my Writers Group Christmas gathering, in person for the first time in two years. Or, getting a few minutes to read by candlelight could be worth the price of making someone else wash the dishes for once.

Street art, Birmingham

We can also claim our time by allowing ourselves to go faster. Recently I was pounding along on an early morning hike when I encountered the nightmare scenario of Polite People Everywhere: a man walking very slightly slower than I was.

I thought I’d better slow down to avoid the awkwardness of passing. Men can get defensive if overtaken by a woman. But slackening my pace even a little risked throwing my whole schedule off. I might have to wait longer to get into the family bathroom for a shower; I might encounter more traffic when trying to cross the street on my walk to work. On the other hand, if I sped up, I could begin one of the many jobs on my list for the day.

Reader, I overtook him. We should dare to overtake sometimes, since we have a lot on our plates. Maybe you don’t have a day job at the moment, maybe you don’t have kids or a partner—whatever the situation, if you identify as female there may well be extra emotional duties you’ve taken on simply because society expects it, and you’ll be feeling the burden this time of year. It’s worth acknowledging, and giving yourself credit for that.

And let’s please remember, even as we’re each super busy and missing family we’re cruelly separated from and anxious that our efforts will not be successful… let’s remember that everyone’s got something painfully pulling their heartstrings in some way. Everyone is tired and a bit sad. Check in. Express appreciation. I know, that takes up a little of our overstretched time, but it is one of the most precious uses for it.

I hope you’re enjoying the season and finding many kindnesses, however small.

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?

Counting Mental Calories

This Week’s Bit of String: Full bellies, empty legs

The first time I remember eating way too much was the summer when I was 9, at a barbecue with rarely-seen, well-off relatives in Long Island. So much food we wouldn’t normally have at home, and on such a scale. My sister and I were about to start puberty, approaching the “empty leg stage” as one family friend described the ever-hungry growth spurt. But our appetites were no match for what we consumed at that barbecue. We were so full, we swore we would never eat again.

Reader, we did eat again. And speaking for myself, I have overeaten again. Sometimes, the only way to stave off despair seems to be Bournville chocolate, even though I know my heart will race and my brain will fog up.

A lot of things we think of as treats aren’t really what we need. That’s one reason I dislike the term self-care; some people apply it however and whenever they like. It’s such a vague principle. If we have an opportunity to treat ourselves, does this mean catching up with a friend or curling up for a nap? Does it mean a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or some lentil soup?

Varying Metabolism

“Self-care” wasn’t invented when I became a parent. Or maybe it was; certainly the remedies associated with it existed, but none of them were available to low-income single mothers just out of their teens. Even having self-care in our vocabulary is a privilege. Strategies ranging from socialising to yoga to massages to a decent night’s sleep are completely inaccessible for many people.

Nice smells and warm glows working from home. Gotta love multitaskable luxuries…

I often wonder how people keep going who can’t afford or schedule the things I now think of as treats. For example, what about mums from disadvantaged communities who look after kids poisoned by their drinking water while constantly campaigning to fix the problem? Aren’t they proof that I should be doing even more, not less?

I know, comparing ourselves with other people isn’t seen as healthy. It’s important to note all perspectives, though, and be aware of our privilege.

A Balanced Mental Diet

I’ve started thinking about self-care as more mental than physical, considering the mind in similar terms to the body. Perhaps mental calories are a thing. We must feed our brains in order to get motivation and inspiration. We need thoughts and stimuli from diverse sources, or we’ll suffer a deficiency. But we also need to burn off some of what we take in. If our minds get overcrowded, we struggle to function.

Views that nourish the mind

Different people will have different mental metabolisms. Some might shake things off easier than others. And at times we ourselves will need a higher mental intake or a more thorough clear-out than we’ve needed previously.

If we had mental nutritional pyramids, like the physical ones that used to appear on American cereal boxes, what would yours look like? Mine has rows for keeping up with my job and housework, family time and exercise (though physical it’s absolutely essential to my mental health). Some people are fine doing less each day. When I skip one thing, even if it’s to do something other people find necessary (like meet up with friends or stay in bed past 7), I will be too stressed, struggling to catch up on subsequent days.

Appreciating others’ artwork helps suspend the mental burden of trying to create my own.

And because there’s so much to manage on a daily basis, I have to burn off some of these brain calories, too. Daily scribbles, fresh air, reflecting on art or music or literature, make me feel mentally fitter, a bit more agile and able to cope. Life has been tough lately, so I need to experiment with what else might help.

By considering whether I need more or fewer mental calories, maybe I can tell what sort of “treatment” I need and when it’s genuinely required. It’s tricky though, isn’t it? The lack of real, in-person stimulation during the very long lockdown has skewed my mental metabolism. Tedious things like work and worry make my mind feel full, but not sated. I suspect a cognitive vitamin deficiency of some sort.

What do you think of self-care, and the idea of mental calories? Any suggestions for balancing it all out?

Who to Listen To

This Week’s Bit of String: Lurking teens

There were five of them, maybe seven, secondary school kids in baggy tracksuits. They would slouch in the passageway under our apartment building even though none of them lived there, and they’d munch and smoke and look surly, occasionally erupting in shrieks or guffaws.

Everyone gave them a wide berth and I too felt nervous leading my son, then quite young, past them. Why though? Even if they muttered something about us, what difference did it make? They were just kids.

So one rainy day, I looked right at them and said, “Hiya. What’s going on?”

“Nothing much,” they mumbled, looking at the littered ground, shuffling their feet.

I’d shrugged and carried on, when their greasy-ponytailed leading lady, who’d already been expelled from the local comprehensive school, called after me, “But thanks for asking!”

There was a plaintive note in her voice—she wasn’t being sarcastic. They were an eyesore everyone wanted to ignore, so they moulded themselves to the expectation. I saw this play out again when I took a job at the secondary school. One of our boisterous Year 7 girls with learning and behavioural difficulties went round to a friend’s house. The next day she recounted to me, amazed and flattered, “When we got there after school, her mum asked us all about our day. Like she really wanted to know and everything! I never heard anything like it.”

Giving Voice

In our writing, we take it fairly seriously who we give a voice to. We actively seek ideas and perspectives, rather than just wait for them to come to us. In middle school, my brother and sister got trained up to be junior mediators. The programme’s slogan was: “When I listen, people talk.” At home they grumbled about that motto. It would make more sense the other way around, we were all in agreement. “When people talk, I listen.” Because otherwise, we thought as adolescents, you’d just be sitting around waiting and hoping someone starts to talk.

Welcome to the life of an adult creative… it’s also the life of a parent of teens. We have to meaningfully show we’re ready to listen if we expect either our writing to take shape, or our kids to be comfortable confiding in us. Sometimes, we just have to wait.

It’s tricky when offering ourselves up to different viewpoints these days, though. Everyone seems aggrieved, and some causes are clearly more just (and less violent or downright crazy) than others. The very figures who insist health care, voting, and living wages aren’t basic rights are the same people who howl and moan if they get a book contract or a lucrative college speaking tour cancelled for a racist tweet (or for supporting a deadly insurrection). Is being listened to a human right? Can empathy and a kind ear solve divisions that threaten a Civil War?

This word Peace formed by hundreds of toy soldiers at the Everything is Light exhibit in Stroud. Maybe anything is possible…

Not on a wide, national scale. Democrats in power now can’t just present obstreperous Republican senators with milk and cookies and ask how their day’s been. (I am picturing McConnell and Hawley and Greene in chavvy jogging bottoms, mumbling and dropping crumbs on the floor.) That’s because in order to work with people we need to not have our lives threatened by them, in the same way I had to talk myself out of fear before greeting the neighbourhood kids. The Republican party’s actions are increasingly reflecting their violent rhetoric, so there have to be major changes. But on a more immediate level, in our personal lives, perhaps we can reach out.

Understanding the Appeal

I get it, in a way, the whole QAnon, everyone’s-an-oppressive-threat thing. If a privileged person has used an incident to draw attention to themselves, they’ll have to find a bigger one next time. When the perils of migrant caravans didn’t materialise, a substantial percentage of the American population instead decided child-sacrificing pedophiles were running rampant, because of course everyone who disagreed with them must be in league with the man-goat.

I’m coming down from five years of worrying about Trump, his first campaign, and his administration. There are still many persecuted and neglected people and we have to make sure the new administration Does Something to help. But there’s some mental space free now, and it’s on me alone to use it, channel it into writing and into my family and my immediate community. There’s something almost facile about being caught up in national drama, having the excuse of a broader crisis to distract from the fraying mental health of my locked-down household, the novel ending that needs to be rewritten, and the distinct possibility that the shower and toilet are emptying below the floorboards.

Hence, I imagine, the appeal of QAnon and other Deep State conspiracy theories. You can shout about a crisis and be part of a super attentive group, but you don’t have to put effort into fixing your own life.

There, I’m beginning to form a bridge, by considering why some people might get absorbed, willingly, into this violent cult and admitting that we could have common flaws. I’m not labouring under the misapprehension that anyone from that side is going to cross that bridge and speak to me, but if they wanted to, I’d be ready to listen.

Good Morning, quarantined Dursley…

Last week at President Biden’s inauguration, poet Amanda Gorman won much attention with her poem “The Hill We Climb” and its exhortation to “be the light.” I remember another inauguration, when I’d just turned 12. Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. The last line of her poem stayed with me all this time, almost 30 years on: the hope that we can initiate change by fearlessly wishing each other Good Morning.

One of the things I’ve been telling myself in these recent times of floundering motivation, particularly as a writer, is that Small Steps Are Allowed. I don’t know how far I’m going to get when, but I’m going to do what little bits I can. Same with the world. I don’t know to reach the point where we can abide each other, but we can take this one small step recommended by Maya Angelou.

What if we just ask people around us, “What’s going on? How’s your day?” You never know, it could start a revolution.

Not This Crude Matter

This Week’s Bit of String: A Prickly Tribute

The Clifton Suspension Bridge stands 245 feet above the Avon Gorge. Its piers are an additional 86 feet high, spiking the boundary between the elegant shops and houses and the rugged cliffs. We visited in cold sunlight this week, and took lots of striking pictures. But I keep going back to a photo of a cactus in a plastic pot, placed in a viewing platform corner.

View across the suspension bridge to the cliffs.
Impressive, right?

It was left next to a bouquet of alstroemerias, fleshy pink and still unwilted, a memorial of sorts. Although the bridge is walled and postered with suicide helpline numbers, desperate people will find a way to make the jump.

I’m picturing a surviving family member or partner or friend, piloting through shock at a Lidl supermarket, and grabbing the cactus. Maybe they wanted something hardy. Maybe flowers just wouldn’t do their lost loved one justice.

Cactus left by pier base.
Intriguing, right?

Often it’s a small, unexpected detail that triggers a short story, and not a big, well-known structure. But my focus has been on quite big things, so this was my first short story idea in a few months.

Last week I talked about rekindling a broader vision and protecting our creativity from the ravages of stress by reading more, and writing three thoughts each day. I’ve managed to do that, and my cactus find was just one thing sprouting in my notebook.

A Thicket of Thoughts

Inspiration is a hardier perennial than we realise, and it self-pollinates. I was so excited to remember I’m capable of having ideas, I went and found some more.

It’s not that I wasn’t having thoughts before. There were vicious novel edits, and my day job takes a fair bit of mental agility. Parenting and relationships require constant consideration. (Shout-out to stay-at-home artist parents because that strains creativity too.) Thoughts are tracks leading from A to B, though, whereas ideas lead to destinations unknown. When we’re always thinking, consumed by purpose, we lose imagination’s spontaneous joy.

As writers, we have an extra career. Every time we lift a pen or open a laptop, we envision our target audience and, you know, target them. I’ve always eschewed journalling as unmarketable and therefore unuseful. This argument becomes more persuasive the less time you have.

So taking time at the end of a full working/ parenting/ editing day to jot in a notebook is a big deal. And I’m enjoying it. It heightens my awareness during the day, because I’m looking for things to write down. On Friday I had to work through lunch, but during a loo break I found myself inventing collective nouns for our trickiest multi-site clients, and returned to my desk with a grin.

The Luminous Beings Project

Forcing myself to reflect allowed me to better process what I read and learned.

I went to a presentation on occupied Palestinian territories, held at a local church. It raised money for the Olive Tree Project, which sponsors plantings for agricultural workers who can’t get to their old farmland due to Israeli checkpoints and settlements. This gave me much to consider, as I’m from a culture extremely supportive of the Israeli government.

I read through the latest volume of the online publication Cabinet of Heed. Pop open a drawer here. I especially recommend Mary Grimm’s “When We Lived in the Mall.” Her description of bedding down in a bookstore earned a place in my Book Quotes notebook.

Christmas tree ornaments: Santa bell, Yoda, Chewbacca, snowflake, fuzzy reindeer
Of course we have Star Wars figures among the cherished family ornaments on our tree.

It was a busy week of festive activities. I observed a younger family through their little bow-tied 8-year-old’s first piano solo in a community concert, and listened to support workers chat as they wheeled elderly people past a poppy-festooned tree at a Christmas Tree Festival. I fit in novel edits too (I’m now over 20% through the novel, and have already excised 35K, which is almost half my word-cutting target, so that’s…promising).

With all this going on, I didn’t do much overtime this week. Sure, I’m way behind, but building up an artistic life to rival the office one helps me let that go. Listening to Christmas music when hiking to and from the office resets my brain a little. Here’s a favourite, beautiful Israeli lullaby “Elohai N’Tsoar” from Pink Martini’s Christmas CD.

Of course, there’s no complete cure for work stress. I just woke from an awful nightmare about the office. I found myself on two phone calls at once, an angry developer who did not know her maritime alphabet and was shouting random words to spell out the business name (“Suck! Cup!”) on one line, with a mega-meter-mixup on the other. And I needed to search our system for notes on either client, but the office was a huge kitchen, with the phones on the worktop and no computers in sight, only massive tubs of ingredients.

Where’s the system?” I asked my colleagues. “You know, like the Internet, where we…find things?

They brought me a vat of corn syrup. “Here, you find this in everything. Especially where you’re from, in America.

I know you find this in things, but we don’t find things in it. Guys, come on…

Wicked stressful. But I woke up so terrified by how wrong things were going in that office, it ensured I was distracting myself with my second job by 6:15 on a Sunday morning. Winning.

This project is about, as I mentioned earlier, rivalling the day job and other stresses since we can’t eliminate it. Enriching ourselves beyond the practical. Because I’m completely un-snobby about what stories I take in, I’ve been watching all the Star Wars films with my family before the new Episode 9 hits cinemas. Watching The Empire Strikes Back the other night, I was struck by Yoda’s line: “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

Folks, we have a project name. I hope you’ve found ideas to derail your thought tracks this week, and I hope you glow with pride at each inspiration snatched from the chaos.

Writing Away the Winter Blues

This week’s bit of string: Moss loaves and leaf stew

Narnia-like landscape
Found any countries in the cupboard lately?

As kids, my brother and sisters and I spent our days outside, fortifying dens to protect against unseen armies or searching for faeries. We often pretended Winter is Coming (I’m cross with Game of Thrones for purloining this premise), because the additional threat of nature made it more exciting. This necessitated hoarding of bread and fish: loaves of moss scraped from boulders, and bedraggled leaves caught from the stream.

Even now, the onset of cold and dreary weather gives me a thrill and causes me to particularly relish writing time. Am I alone in being inspired by winter?

Studying the Effects of Temperature on Creativity

There are many factors in the creative process. Research seems to prove that exposure to warm temperatures, even if it’s just holding a warm cup of coffee, inadvertently encourages people to treat each other more warmly, or at least to perceive each other as less emotionally cold. People are more inclined to notice relationships and connectedness when they are physically warm.

Given that conclusion, and my insistence that empathy is crucial to the writing process (and to life generally), these studies make it seem that cold weather might be bad for writing.

However, cold temperatures foster a different type of creativity. According to the same study as above, cold weather encourages metaphor recognition and originality of response. (The latter attribute was partly tested with a pasta-name-inventing exercise. How do they come up with these things?) So perhaps it’s actually a good time to be thinking of new story ideas, building new worlds, and incorporating symbols and meaning into our work.

Advantages of Winter Writing

Resourcefulness: Some of my most unique ideas come during cold months. A story featuring dolphins on Mars, for example, and my play A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division, in which a secret government agency spies on people’s dreams to solve crime. Maybe we harbour an innate response to hazardous cold, an ability to consider options beyond the usual suspects. Isn’t that rather thrilling?

winter-branch
See? Beautiful.

Fewer distractions: Sometimes I think, thank goodness it’s horrible out; I can just get on with my writing. Everything’s stripped bare, and that’s beautiful to me. The bleaker landscape makes shape and rare colour stand out, and that emerges, I believe, in my writing.

Structural integrity: Even if the drop in temperature renders it more difficult to fully appreciate the pulsing inner warmth of my characters, this could be a good opportunity to look at the mechanics of plot and retrace the structural foundations of a tale.

Creating our own heat: Further data shows that winter causes us to seek psychological warmth. People renting online movies choose romantic ones more often in wintertime. What better place to seek warmth than with our characters, preferably while huddled under a quilt and sipping some hot fruity tea?

I realise I’m lucky. I no longer live in part of the world that gets extreme weather. And in any part of the world, winter can have a terrible effect on some people, bringing depression which might dry up the very creative juices which could have sustained them. If that describes you, there are pages on the NHS website and on this useful Writing and Wellness site, which I hope might help. It’s not a problem to be taken lightly.

Taking the Weather With You

frostywebAs it turns out, both my completed novels use extreme weather as a backdrop during the pinnacle of the action. In The Wrong Ten Seconds, tensions escalate during a brutal heatwave in a small midlands city. In Artefacts, everything unravels as the New England temperatures plummet:
“I love looking at you in this spooky snowstorm light.”
“It’s not really a storm.” Helen stared at the snow swirling around a streetlamp. Every now and then, a flake was caught in a gust, and blown upward against the bulb, brilliant as a firefly.

Selecting seasonal details to enhance characterisation and plot is another part of the fun.

Do you think winter affects your creative process? How much does it impact the characters in your stories?