The Exams Rant

This Week’s Bit of String… More a tangle of tension

I despise the British system of exams. I’m not a fan of A-Levels (the exams kids take in formal education at 18), but GCSEs (the ones at age 16) are the worst, because they’re so inflexible and unavoidable.

Exams at my American high school were more like tests. Designed by your teacher for your specific class, they’re marked by your teacher, and in most cases they’re only part of your final grade. You’ll get credit for essays and projects and presentations, homework, unit tests, and even participation in classroom discussion.

None of that is true in the UK. I hate the system as a parent and I hate it even more now that I’m working in secondary education again. This week has been very stressful, as the main national exams began. Our Year 11 students, along with all the 15 and 16-year-olds across this Small Island, sat down at the same exact moment to work through papers which determine their grades for the last two years of learning.

“Learning” being a loose term when it comes to spending two years practising for a passing grade on a paper distributed and marked by a government-sanctioned external body. Because if you don’t pass, the venue you chose for your next level of vocational training or academic education might not accept you.

Coping with stress. One of the Year 11 students and I have been creating our own oil pastel versions of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and it’s been a lovely distraction.

The country has been brainwashed into believing that these exams are the only possible standard of achievement for teenagers. Even those of us who see the system’s flaws panic over what grades our students will get.

Binding the fates of every person in the whole nation to the same tests isn’t actually fair. I hate that every young human, regardless of need, interest, talent, or background, is forced to bow their head as one over a paper. Children are told they must come in even if ill. The student I’ve been working with most this year sat her first English paper on Wednesday doubled over with stomach cramps the whole time. Some go in streaming with hay fever, or fasting for Ramadan. Some go in having just been dumped by their boyfriend of over a year.

I hate seeing kids cry outside the exam hall every morning, or shake, or look miserable. I hate that the exams are so onerous, students joke about how great it would be to get a terminal illness so the exam board in their infinite mercy will tack an extra 5% on their scores. Other students are Googling, “If the Queen dies, will the next day’s exam be cancelled?”

Meanwhile, the 80% of the school’s students who aren’t exam age must spend a month being quiet at break times, moving to different classrooms, and even having their whole timetables changed in order to accommodate the national exams schedule. The teachers are all tense and terrified. They’re not trusted to assess their own students, of course.

There are special staff who monitor the students while taking exams. The invigilators. There are also “access arrangements” for students with special needs. Again, this is a loose term. A person with meticulously evidenced need may be granted access to someone who will read the questions for them, possibly scribe answers as dictated, or they may be granted rest breaks or extra time. Not super helpful for those with issues processing the questions or sitting still, and certainly nothing that helps the many students who struggle with anxiety.

More than half of our Year 11s have access arrangements. When a system must be modified for the majority of a population, maybe it’s time to assess them a different way?

I’m also making sure, no matter how drained I am, to get out at 5:45 for a good stomp in the fresh air to help me cope.

Because of the massive need for invigilating and access arrangements, I have to sit exams too. I sit quietly beside a student with only my bottle of water and my pencil case, just like her. I read her the questions and scribe her answers when asked. I can’t explain anything to her, and I can’t doodle or pick up a book and read. We’re both stuck there until the nationally mandated duration of the exam is up. I despise the sitting still, the stifling air. Students have been told that before entering the exam hall at 9 in the morning, they must decide whether or not to bring their jumpers with them. Because if they get hot in there with over 100 other people, they’re not allowed to take off their jumper and put it on the back of the chair. There could somehow be illicit information scrawled on these black uniform sweatshirts.

I hate that students spend 2 years studying just 2 books for English class, and a few poems. Blood Brothers, for example. I know it has a valid message, but using it to teach literature is like using a sledgehammer for brain surgery. Every student is taught to memorise the same quotes about being poor or rich. Every student memorises “sneer of cold command” from “Ozymandias” and “Be like the serpent under’t” from Macbeth. What a dull time grading those literature exams must be. If only students were encouraged to read widely, find what they love, and defend it.

I hate that for Science, kids are drilled on parts of the cell and the periodic table until their deduction and curiosity cease to exist. One of the questions on this week’s Biology paper was: “Why do you think there were no new cases of skin cancer among boys under age 15?” and our whole class was panicked about it after. “We never talked about boys with skin cancer in class. We didn’t go over that!”

I hate that when exams are finally done, students must wait 3 months to get their results, the anxiety hanging over them all summer as they wait to see if they’ll be able to move on in the direction they want to. I’ll be there that day late in August, telling them that whatever their marksheet says, they have tremendous value and the world still holds great things for them.

Did you do exams here in Britain and have you got any coping strategies or inspiring stories?

Well-Balanced Nightmares

This Week’s Bit of String: How much can fit in one duffel bag

Recently I had a nightmare about being deported to a concentration camp. My family was packing as much as they could into their bags. In my dream no one else realised what this journey entailed, and I was debating whether to tell them what lay ahead; we wouldn’t be able to take our belongings with us.

I’ve travelled the world in nightmares. I’ve climbed trees to escape Rwandan genocide, tried to reason with a mob to save my son from Cambodian killing fields, I’ve found my sister dying in the desert following an ISIS-type invasion. I live a privileged life and such things may never affect me, but when I read about crises such as Rwanda’s, I’m struck by how quickly and brutally people can be turned against each other. Those who participated were, after all, no less human than you or I. My dreams solidify this for me and I’m kind of proud of that.

Do you ever find reading about something isn’t enough; there’s some satisfaction in knowing it’s imprinted on your subconscious?

Evasive Manœuvres

A couple weeks ago, nightmares became a hot election issue in the American state of Virginia—nightmares and racism and censorship. The Republican candidate for governor ran ads with a woman complaining about how the Democrat candidate would allow schools to assign books of the type that give children nightmares. Her son, while in his late teens, had suffered bad dreams from reading a Toni Morrison book recounting some horrors of slavery. Parents should get a say in what their kids read at school, and Democrats would deny parents that power, went the rationale.

A memorial to trafficked and enslaved people, Bristol harbour

While I was in school there were a few books that met with my disapproval. Cormier’s The Chocolate War wasn’t up to my literary standards, for example, and the writer seemed to slip in references to masturbation just to impress his own teen son. Reading about Greek mythology annoyed me; the gods and goddesses were petty and selfish. Because of my own PTSD, I dreaded my sophomore year when I had to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s memoir. But it never occurred to me to object to reading them. School’s all about putting up with things you don’t like. So is life, come to that.

As a parent, I want school to broaden my child’s knowledge. There are plenty of books I recommend that he reads, but school professionals will introduce him to other things. If those things give him nightmares occasionally—good. He’s taking the world seriously.

How do you read about the torture and enslavement of human beings and not get nightmares? Is the discomfort of nightmares a legitimate excuse to not be educated about the crimes perpetrated on millions of our fellow Americans?

Selective Discomfort

Stories highlighting racial injustice and persecution aren’t the only ones parents are agitating to get removed from school curricula and from library shelves. There are a lot of campaigns against books that represent LGBTQIA characters. I’m not sure where the nightmare fuel in those are, although I did dream once that a gay colleague and I ran into King George III, who was going to execute my friend for his homosexuality, and the only way I could stop this was by stabbing His Majesty with a pencil.

It was pretty traumatic, inflicting that wound. But that’s just my brain putting weird spins on things again. The truth is, it looks as if a lot of people are trying to abolish diversity in literature.

I wonder if that video made for some awkward Christmas Eve bedtime conversations.

Years ago I had a brief job looking after 3-year-olds during Bible studies at a church. For Christmas, I was given a video to show them about Saint Nicholas’s life story. It was a cartoon, but it did feature his arrest and imprisonment, and the children were horrified. “Santa’s in jail!” I had seen this trend growing up religious; our church library had videos about Roman persecution of Christians featuring people being thrown to the lions. My friend watched these when she was nine years old.

I suspect the same young man who complained about slavery nightmares (which apparently he’d never have had if he hadn’t been forced to read a Toni Morrison novel his senior year in high school) probably knew the gruesomest details of Jesus’s crucifixion by the time he started Kindergarten. One of my earliest nightmares, at the age of 5, was seeing my mom carrying a cross down our street and knowing what would happen next.

Nightmare fuel?

The boy in Virginia went on to the dizzying heights of interning in the Trump White House. He’s fine. But I think schools play an essential role in helping us equalise our nightmares. We shouldn’t be allowed to only read about threats against people we think are like us. At heart, everyone is like us. Because I’m a law nerd as well as a literature and education one, I found this interesting case from 1977 where a federal appeals circuit ruled a school board could not remove books from school libraries, because students have “a right to know.” We might be seeing this case cited a lot in the coming months.

A disturbed sleep is a small price to pay to keep us in touch with the world, to perceive the harsh realities other people face. I’ve been told some of my grittier stories are “harrowing,” but also that “it’s good to be harrowed.” Sometimes that’s our job as writers. Would you be a bit proud if you wrote something that fuelled a nightmare or two?

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.

What Took So Long?

This Week’s Bit of String: A nation of former slaves

Long known as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, few people know Haiti’s history. It was founded in 1804 by the slave population who boldly overthrew their French “masters.” However, they were then forced to pay money for their freedom or the French (with British help) would reinvade. Haitians started their country in terrible debt, many of them uneducated. The world wouldn’t trade with them. They were never given a chance to catch up to other nations.

In contrast, the American Revolution originated over taxes. I remember my childhood disappointment when I learned this. How unglamorous and ignoble!

Imagine then my distress when I was told a couple years later that the American Civil War wasn’t over slavery, just states’ rights. Yes, it was over states’ rights to hold people captive and abuse them. However, the North wasn’t honourable enough to fight the South over liberty and equality. It wanted its stature and capital back.

One side of my protest sign, the other side reading, of course: Black Lives Matter.

And finally, I was presented with the embarrassing discrepancy between the actual dates of both World Wars and the smaller range of years I’d learned in American history books. We were years late to both fights. Land of the free and home of the brave—where were we?

Now people in my country are fighting for causes of greater value. Do our voices belong in this fight after being silent? What shortcomings held us back before?

Guilt and Persecution

People of colour in the USA and other countries have faced a similarly difficult journey to Haitians. No one rushed to provide freed slaves shelter or teach them to read. No one gave them therapy to recover from family separations. Instead there was sharecropping, for-profit incarceration, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, police brutality, and probably more I haven’t read about yet.

155 years of those things doesn’t enable anyone to get over the even worse 246 slavery years that preceded them. Yet we’ve seen prominent white TV hosts argue that slavery wasn’t that bad, some masters were nice for goodness’ sake, while the same hosts raise hell if Starbucks makes a cup design less Christmassy.

A few of the Haitian people I was privileged to meet, and a reminder that the president insulted their entire country and population with only tepid objections from a handful of Republicans. Haitian lives matter.

Surely Jesus would not have shared Fox News’s priorities. However, religion seems to reinforce white silence now, perhaps because religions are focused around martyrs. Their exalted figures have suffered, and often people reduce that to an idea that suffering in itself warrants exultation. I believe that’s why some evangelicals support Trump rather than the African Americans living under constant bodily threat. His “suffering” is more like theirs.

In the social media age, many of us aren’t great at pausing our quest for attention. No one wants to relinquish a single ‘U ok hon?’ Whenever someone responds to Black lives matter with “All lives matter,” I picture a person uncomprehending of object permanence, who fears if their race loses the spotlight for an instant, they’ll disappear. A person who can’t see what’s worth fighting for.

Anti-racism means more than disapproving of extrajudicial killings. It means accepting—and expressing—that people have bigger, more ingrained problems than ours. It’s maintaining perspective: having to change our vocabulary to eradicate certain terms, for example, doesn’t equate to the abuses and injustices against people of colour which those terms represent. Feeling shame for how our systems treat minorities is uncomfortable, but nothing like actually receiving that treatment.

Deference and Dominance

In Haiti I noticed a lust to be white amongst some of the young people I met, as if their culture were still under invasion. My Haitian friends wrote me letters posted with stamps that showed white fairy tale characters, although their heritage is full of black heroes and legends. Schoolgirls tried to wipe a birthmark from my arm, not wanting my whiteness sullied.

We white people do the same thing, clinging to figures that have done nothing for us. We’ll settle for so little from those in power. $1200 for months of being unemployed during a pandemic, wow! Or: hey, that heavily armed police officer was polite when I asked directions. What’s all the fuss about?

When our race is the one in power, we have an innate belief that we as an individual can make it that far, too. We don’t want to upset the status quo because change might not benefit us. Why struggle against power figures who look like we do, who could one day be us?

Silence is compliance.” Kneeling in memory of of George Floyd with 200+ others in Stroud, UK

Up till now, some liked having local police departments driving armoured humvees. Some were glad when they could go to football games without having to witness a silent, kneeling plea to stop killing black people. And the rest of us who sympathised with Kaepernick’s point, and who felt nervous about law enforcement with deadly weapons, we didn’t want an argument. Partly we cloaked this in insecurity: who are we to speak up, when we’ve not been ordained by racial struggle? But also it was about staying in our comfort zone.

Then there was a grossly mishandled pandemic. The administration didn’t want to share medical supplies, calling them “ours.” Protest broke out and they called cities “battle spaces” and said they’d send in the military to “dominate.” Increasingly it’s clear the president sees America as another building to stamp his name on.

So more of us decide to fight. Our status quo is already threatened from the top. We might as well disrupt it.

It’s human to care more about things that affect us. We still ache for people who live in fear, and who grieve for loved ones unjustly taken. But we’re not the heroes here. In the great white American tradition, let’s fight even though we’re late, even with less than selfless motives.

This is my attempt to examine my own privilege. Hopefully other white people do the same. People of colour shouldn’t have to explain it to us yet again! Let’s listen to their stories and thoughts, not demand them.

Flags and welcome sign in Minneapolis, USA

There are countless black people dealing gracefully with white reluctance to face their pain. Check out American footballer Emmanuel Acho’s series “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man—” spoiler, he doesn’t make it uncomfortable at all. Visit Patrisse Cullors’s website, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement, and understand the aims of all the groups under the Organizations tab. Consider Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: “I don’t want to see white people wasting precious time profusely apologising rather than actively doing things.” Read Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again” and Danez Smith’s “not an elegy for Mike Brown.” Recognise why people are fighting for change.

So amplify, and give money! Support protests as a reminder to legislators that we’re the ones who put them there. Since I’ve been to Minneapolis and loved it but never in my mind connected it to the nearby tragedy of Philando Castile, so far their Freedom Fund is the one I’ve chosen to donate to. Next up: more family discussions, more emails to officials, more sharing minorities’ thoughts and work, more donations to educational funding, and I think I’ll check out Dr. Mary Frances Berry’s book History Teaches Us to Resist.

How are you supporting change?

An Ideal Population

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change Your Work, Change Your Country

This Week’s Bit of String: Allowing subtraction

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

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

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

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

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

Allowing Detraction

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

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

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

Give me your complacent, your unquestioning, your grateful…

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

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

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

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

Never Really Settled

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

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

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

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

Include All the Things!

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

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

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

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

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

Minding Our Language

This Week’s Bit of String: Favourite swears

When I was thirteen and my youngest sister eight, she asked me, her eyes alight and eager, ‘What’s your favourite swear? Is it the f…u…c…k one?’

Even during a slightly rebellious phase, I didn’t swear for fun. I tend to swear when events leave me little recourse. Like when an amazing piece doesn’t make a competition longlist.

Back when I fielded my sister’s question, NYPD Blue was newish on the air. Blazing TV Guide editorials argued whether its use of the f-word was an appropriate reflection of the setting, or a symptom of the nation’s damnation. One letter compared the language on NYPD Blue to the moment in Gone With the Wind when Rhett Butler used the d-word.

Now GWTW is controversial for glossing over slavery, normalising marital rape, and glorifying the roots of the KKK. Not because a protagonist commented that he didn’t ‘give a damn.’ To me, this discloses a long habit of obsessing over language when the actual subject matter should be the issue.

A Tale of Two Comedians

Fast forward about 25 years (sheesh, 25 years!) and comedian Samantha Bee uses the c-word on cable TV. Is this just the progression of opening language barriers, from d- to f- to c-words? Is this one truly more grievous than other oft-used derogatory names for women that reduce us to a single body part?

Many have highlighted false equivalencies between this incident and Roseanne Barr’s recent racist tweet–the one about Valerie Jarrett, as there seem to be a few to choose from. It’s quite partisan. For every Roseanne I name, you can accuse a Samantha Bee. For every time I want to call out Ted Nugent or Scott Biao, right wingers may cite a rapper or pop star who bad-mouthed conservatives.

Large letters spelling out Woman, above a label: The Word.
The Word, Stroud: Right up one of our main streets, it changes regularly. Last week it was fuck. Before that it was suck. I’m not sure the significance of the teapots, either.

Trump—Weinstein. Deplorable—Libtard. It’s like tennis, but (to borrow a phrase from Four Weddings and a Funeral) with much smaller balls.

Let’s call the whole thing off. We can’t call it even, because having someone who says a bad word on one side isn’t the same as having a number of white supremacists on the other. Still, can’t we admit human beings are prone to loss of temper and excesses of vulgarity? It’s not about saying there are ‘good people on both sides,’ but we need to remember there are, in fact, people on both sides and stop reducing political opponents to animals or lady parts. We need to weigh the substance of those people’s message rather than the language it’s couched in.

What’s in a [Rude] Name

It’s perhaps unexpected, a writer’s blog suggesting we ignore words. Of course we spend a lot of time finding the exact right ones, and I get quite dorky about which are correct and preferable.

For example, I checked out some of these terms on EtymOnline (oh, my poor browser history…) In the 1300s, the c-word was a medical term for female anatomy, thought to come from pre-Latin words meaning hollow place, slit, or sheath. Not very flattering, but I’m unconvinced it’s more insulting than less reviled terms.

What about the relatively uncensored word whore, you ask? Its roots are early German, meaning ‘one who desires.’ This jolted me when I read it, because I’m working on a novel about Eve. Part of her curse was to desire her husband, who would then have dominion over her. Eve is basically characterised in the Bible as One Who Desires, and as Western religion assumes all women inherit Eve’s curse, all women are whores. How convenient.

It gets worse, too. The word seems to have sharpened its meaning by taking in a later German masculine term for adultery, and then a middle English word for filth. If all that injustice makes you want to swear, I won’t judge.

These aren’t the only words people haven’t delved fully into. Idiot used to be a disparaging clinical term for the mentally challenged, and berk is short for the Cockney rhyming slang equating to the c-word itself—yet it’s used in completely different contexts, even popping up in the Harry Potter series.

Unless we all want to look properly at the words we use, there’s not much point assigning a random few so much importance in the media.

When No Other Word Will Do

I turned to Twitter to see if other writers might disagree and assign swears more power than I do. But like me, whether for or against using them, no one had feelings so pervasive they wished to convert anyone else. Here are a few answers:

If I believe the character would swear, the character swears. I like to think my characters dictate their language to me.—historian, writer and actor Christine Caccipuoti

Painted on a wall beneath tall office buildings
Deeds not Words, at the Bearpit in Bristol

Some characters would sound false (to me!) if they said ‘oh dear’ or ‘oh god’ or anything else… Who decided these words were bad anyway?Jennifer Riddalls, copywriter and Writers Forum Flash Fiction winner 2017

What comes out of your mouth reveals what’s inside your heart / mind / soul, but I’m currently writing a story in which characters swear (a bit) because of who they are and the extremity of the situations.—Fantasy writer Marcus Bines, published in the Shadows of the Sea anthology

Even if I didn’t write YA I wouldn’t swear in my writing. I think it’s unnecessary but doesn’t bother me to read swear words in books. There are plenty of synonyms that work just fineKelsey Atkins, author of the YA fantasy series Finding the Light

I try to choose stronger words and rely on physical descriptions and reactions to convey strong emotions. —Literary fiction writer and Insecure Writers’ Supporter George R McNeese

I go by the same rule as I do for similes and metaphors. Once a page, tops, and only if you must. personally I find similes and metaphors far more offensive than a good swear…! —short story phenomenon and photographer Jason Jackson

In my current piece on William Morris in Iceland, the decision was already made for me: Morris was well known for his temper and swearing.Laurie Garrison, Founder of the vital Women Writers School

I enjoy a well-timed swear myself. It’s part of the joy of language.Alex Clark, Writers HQ rep and Cheltenham Flashers Club founder

Sometimes it’s more like a spoken punctuation rather than actual words —scifi and fantasy writer Mark Huntley-James

All words are permitted in proper context. Trust your reader.—Stephen Hines

Words are words and they are there to be used. However, on the page they can be a distraction and too many can ruin a good piece of writing. So I am selective but I use ALL of them.–Stephen Tuffin,  flash fiction author and writing lecturer who’s been known to give students a class on ‘Choosing Your Fucks Carefully.’

I respect writers who try to use words other than curses. It sometimes feels like a cheat, doesn’t it, to use a single, often body function-related word to encompass a grave situation? On the other hand, there are a lot of characters who will swear. And to all of us, the characters are paramount, not the language they happen to use.

In the end, words are just tools to chisel our characters. They’re the clothes we dress a story in to send it out to the world. We mustn’t get distracted by them. Let’s mind immigrant children alone in detention centres, plastics going in our oceans, racism in our institutions, intolerance in universities, hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, social anxiety in our kids, and guns going into our schools. Let’s mind all that, and let the language go where it must.

 

2016: Nothing But a Number

The general consensus seems to be that 2016 was a particularly rubbish year. It’s a bit facile, though, to assume recent international disasters sprouted randomly in response to the page-turn of a calendar.

Attack of Trump Man: children's book
Saw this children’s book in a Cardiff shop at the end of 2015. Attack of Trump Man. Was it a sign?

As writers, we tend to reject such premises, and to root around for causes. With minimal detective work we can see that Brexit and the Trump election were a long time coming, thanks to economic disparity, normalising of white supremacist ‘alt-right’ rhetoric, mainstream media obsequiousness, the hubris of established party politicians…I could go on.

The cancer that killed various celebrities was proliferating in their cells before. The citizens of Aleppo have been suffering for years; politically oppressed perhaps for decades. Extrajudicial killings of black people and the militarisation of police was already going on, racial bias and mistrust of law enforcement existing since before the United States signed the Declaration of Independence.

I bear no ill will towards 2016. I’ve watched it be rather kinder than its predecessors to those dearest to me. But I feel trepidation at saying I’ve had a decent year, because who knows what strife or loss germinates as I write this. The same is true for all of us. I only hope the hard work I’ve done this year, particularly in my writing, will later blossom into more success. (Although unfortunately, hard work in actual paying jobs seems to guarantee me very little security, particularly this year.)

Spring leaves and broken windows
Looking from the broken windows of 2016 to the fresh leaves of 2017…Or maybe I just liked this picture.

I’m always fascinated by stories which use the tiniest misstep to accelerate into a wicked tango of tragedy. Stories such as Atonement, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the novel I finished reading the other day, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. These books give me a sense of awe as I contemplate their what-ifs. In my own work, I’ve laid out a similarly inevitable, escalating path in my novel Artefacts, as characters’ niggling insecurities feed off each other until they reach monstrous, crippling stature.

This year I wrote a new novel, The Wrong Ten Seconds, in which a man’s reckless deed becomes a viral video. Disaster ensues—not chaos, because it’s a particularly sequenced chain of events as other characters are drawn in. I’ll be editing my quite rough draft of The Wrong Ten Seconds in spring 2017, aiming to tighten up that chain.

Next year’s other plans—not goals, because I’m actually going to do these things—have their roots in projects from this year. I’ll finish my current novel, Society of the Spurned. I wrote the first half during November for NaNoWriMo. After editing The Wrong Ten Seconds, I’ll research and query agents.

A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division cast
The amazing cast for last September’s production of A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division

Then I’m going to expand my one-act play, A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division, to a full-length one. That’s the bit I’m most excited about. Starting to explore playwriting last January and February, developing an unconventional but exciting premise, and then having it performed in September in its current short form, were highlights for me this last year. Reading at the November Stroud Short Stories event was another exciting moment.

Bank Cafe, Dursley
Preferably, I’ll be working relentlessly while sitting on a comfy couch scoffing posh cups of mint tea and the occasional brownie, such as here in Dursley’s Bank Cafe.

There have been plenty of rejections. I will need to work relentlessly, to read and improve and network. I’m fortunate to have support from my extremely discerning brother—my number one reader—plus a warm and talented local writers group, loads of inspiring connections on Twitter, and a husband who knows how to set up websites.

And of course, I have my beloved characters to motivate me. For example, Charlie’s expression of my general philosophy, in The Wrong Ten Seconds: ‘Suffering adds a whole new depth to beauty.’

And the words of Helen’s brother in Artefacts: ‘Sure, we all make our own beds. But we don’t have to lie there forever! If we don’t like the bed we’ve made, we can jump on it. We can throw the covers off and tear up the sheets!’

The possibilities are endless. I just have to keep my eyes and ears open, to gather bits of string until I find myself entangled in the next project. What threads will you be pursuing in the new year?

The Borders of Sympathy

This week’s bit of string: That person you disagree with, maybe even deplore: What’s their story?

Quite rightfully, we’re hearing a lot now about tolerance and empathy. It’s not easy to strive for these things. One may well deplore people from the opposing political camp. As I watch events unfold, I sympathise with people in the LGBT community or in immigrant populations and other minorities, who fear losing their rights. However, seeing footage of protesters cheering in LA while burning an effigy of the new President-Elect and holding signs saying, ‘We want an inclusive America—’ that gives me some pause. I don’t think of effigies as being inclusive. Can’t we muster up some sympathy for the other side?

I like to think that we writers are in the sympathy-mustering business. We’re the ones who witness a street scene, walk away heavier under the burdens of every single person involved, then transfer that burden into a story. Just last week I walked past a multigenerational family having a cup of tea outside a cafe. The mother was berating a small boy, shouting, ‘You’re stressing Granny out! Remember what happens then? Do you want Granny to have an accident?’ It was hard not to feel sorry for the Granny whose difficulties were being broadcast to half the street, the small boy who was probably rather confused at being blamed for his grandmother’s issues, and even the shouting mum, with her straggly peroxide hair and haggard eyes, who looked pretty stressed herself.

Abandoned high-heeled shoes on front garden wall in Cheltenham
Like these shoes I spotted walking to the Cheltenham Literature Festival. What miles had they walked?

Naturally, I didn’t agree with how the situation was handled. Nor do I agree with people supporting a candidate who mocks prisoners of war and disabled persons, and boasts about forcing himself on women. But I ask myself why they’re handling things this way, and my mind is whisked down a different path. I believe writing is the process of planting yourself and your reader sometimes quite mercilessly in someone else’s shoes.

Rebecca Mead wrote an exceptional New Yorker article a couple years ago, encouraging readers not to shy away from characters different from themselves. “To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.”

Still, people don’t always want to acknowledge that stupid or unpleasant acts have motivations. They might feel victimised by the very people who commit those acts. How do we elicit sympathy for our characters, whoever they may be?

First, let’s consider the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy can be defined as a tendency to feel alike, whereas the definition of empathy goes so far as to ‘vicariously experienc[e] the feelings’ of others (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Maybe empathy is what we should strive for as writers. Instead of searching for sympathetic characters to portray (those with similarities to potential readers), we can create empathetic characters—depicting a diverse range of people so realistically that readers can’t help but feel the story.

I think the key here to reveal our characters’ pain. Most of us, when we see another human being suffer, will recognise that. That was my experience working in health and social care. I’d go about doing my job for all sorts of people who weren’t always sympathetic types. Some made racist or sexist remarks, or were unkind to their families. But when they were afraid or in pain, and said things like, ‘I wish my mum was here,’ the differences fell away and I was fighting back empathetic tears.

It’s not just bits of string we gather as writers; sometimes we feel with particular strength the heavy ropes of understanding that bind us to the rest of humanity.

Many of us writers want to aide the voiceless through our work. But it’s not just the blameless who feel voiceless. After all, if pain is what most draws our sympathy—what’s more painful than guilt? In his epic Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote not just about the heroic Jean Valjean, but also about an abandoned unwed mother, and even delved into the background of the brutally strict Javert. By exposing each character’s background, he made all of them sympathetic, allowed none to stay voiceless, and more fully exposed the effects of poverty and oppression.

In my own work, I’ve given voice to a young Haitian earthquake survivor, a mother who’s left her family to live with her girlfriend, an Evangelical teacher desperate to convey his faith to his students, and so many others. (See more about my work here.) Sometimes, my characters hurt each other, and they pay the consequences as the plot advances. I can’t protect them even when I wish I could, but I ache on their behalf, no matter what wrongs they’ve done, because I know their story. By conveying that story, hopefully I pass that empathy on to my readers as well.

Abandoned mill building with waterfall
Abandoned mill in my hometown.

So, what’s the background of the people who aligned themselves with the KKK-endorsed presidential candidate? David Wong has written a very insightful, if saddening, article for Cracked about what many Trump voters, often from depressed rural areas, have gone through. As it happens, my stories often take place in similar depressed rural areas. And it’s worth remembering that people can feel voiceless or victimised, even when they’re shouting at the top of their lungs and someone else might be cowering in fear at their feet.

I’m not saying we don’t hold people accountable for how they vote, just as we hold politicians accountable for how they respond to the vote. And you may be feeling so frightened, so scarred by what’s happened in your own life, that you don’t wish to look at the horrors in anyone else’s. But if you can find the strength, let’s not tune in just at the end of their story; let’s walk the full miles with them. After all, these are people who were desperate enough to elect a man most accurately described on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe as ‘a sort of guinea pig staring at you through the porthole on a washing machine.’

Doesn’t it almost make you feel sorry for them?