Non-Stop

This Week’s Bit of String: Dreams about reading

A Year 13 student informed me somewhat randomly, “It’s impossible to dream about reading books because you read with the opposite half of your brain from where you dream.”

Given she mentioned this after insisting, during a GCSE Maths Resit lesson on multipliers, “It’s impossible to have anything higher than 100%,” I should have taken it with a grain of salt. But I was intrigued because I do dream quite a bit, and I couldn’t think of any dreams in which I’d been reading a book.

Maybe it was true, a never-the-twain-shall-meet sort of thing. I often dream about getting lost while travelling. Maybe the signs and maps have no words, and that’s why. Have you ever read in your dreams?

Can one truly rest when words are present?

My subconscious launched into gear to prove me utterly and completely wrong. 

The first night, I dreamed about gathering reading material for a trip. There was a photocopied chapter about encouraging students to read, and I distinctly remember reading the title in my dream: “Reading is like getting a big hug!” As if that would persuade my actual students.

The second night, I was in a library with a dusty shelf containing all the stories I’d written, and I searched through for the right one to offer a friend. 

Whether this proves which brain hemisphere is in charge of what activity, I would not presume to say. Maybe words have permeated every function of my mind. Or maybe my subconscious is a stubborn and contrary creature.

All the Words, All the Time

When working with students in lower-set classes, sometimes I turn around to help someone else, reading an extract to them upside down. These kids struggle to read rightside-up, through no fault of their own, so this amazes them. 

I almost inhale words though. I’ve been reading since age three. If there are words anywhere in the vicinity, I will read them. I can barely help reading them.

The problem with reading somewhat involuntarily is that it goes beyond my control. Stories are bigger than we are, aren’t they? I think a lot of writers have difficulty shutting stories off. We rely on this, and it’s marvellous to get lost in a story. My problem is, I can’t stop the words in general. 

Might be nice to just look, not try to describe or capture…

My brain is always writing, if not creatively. It might be planning an email to check in with a friend, or working out how to explain developments to a student’s parent, or considering how to promote my own material, or thinking up character quirks. 

It could be going over what I’ll recount in my daily scribbles: Magnolia blooms like flocks of butterflies. Trying to pass the gauntlet of Key Stage 3 girls outside the toilets between lessons, their handbags pert like ship prows. These thoughts from a Year 10 special needs student: “This might be stereotypical of me, but if I went to Texas, do you think people there would be mean because I’m different? They might stereotypic me because of it. But everyone’s different in some way and can get stereotypicked for something…”

Waste Not, Want Not?

My brain has been programmed to optimise any free moment. It’s learned to write like I’m running out of time, except my body can’t keep up. The second I wake up, even when it’s still the middle of the night and it’s the third or fourth time that night… Words switch right on and I’m rocketing through lots of things to say or write. 

Oberon the baby-cat is responsible for many of these wake-ups.

To an extent, this helps me later on. I can remember how I decided to word that message for work, and I’ll remember the order I wanted to put things in when reunited with my journal.

But it’s also tiring, the constant torrent of words in my head, because it’s difficult to rest when it flows. Then the fog of tiredness is somewhat counterproductive.

Is poor sleep an inevitable part of creative life? Have I unwittingly rewired myself in a harmful way? If we took a machine and rerouted some electrics to provide extra energy to a particular function, then the other functions would not run so well. I’m worried I might have done this to myself.

I now have two weeks off for the Easter holidays. I may commit to the massive to-do list I’ve made which includes sorting the garden out and cleaning the house and stocking the freezer, plus catching up on reading literary magazines and (she adds breezily…) proofreading the latest type-up of my 330-page novel. Or I could try to catch up on sleep, see if I can pause the words, and then when it’s term-time again, throw myself back into the merciless pace of trying to proofread the novel and grow lots of veggies while working a rather intense job and keeping the house clean and meals cooked every day.

I have a feeling my subconscious has already chosen for me. It’s a good thing I’m rather fond of words and writing.

Do you have tips for getting control of all the words in our heads… preferably without stifling creativity?

Literary Mothers

This Week’s Bit of String: Villains in the woods

Growing up, we were always acting out stories. We played them with stuffed animals, listened to them on cassettes, and ran through the woods pretending we were heroes with baddies after us.

We lived beside a rustic, lakeside resort in New Hampshire, and its cottages were scattered above us in the forest, empty until summer. We’d patter along the footpaths, assigning different storybook villains to each cabin. Maleficent, the White Witch, the Big Bad Wolf, Snow White’s evil queen, and the Wicked Witch of the West all holed up in those cottages.

Which baddie might live here?

Mom accepted that we never wanted to play the bad guys ourselves, so she’d put on a crone voice and play the witch part, chasing us along while we shrieked excitedly. She always had to be the villain in our games and by doing so, she gave our games and stories extra potency.
 
As thrilling as Mom made our childhood, I could never write her into my fiction. I sometimes take people or moments that I irresistibly return to, and put versions into stories. But my mother wouldn’t work as a character. She’s too good.

Having devoted every second of her life to four brilliant (I mean, you should see my siblings) but very weird, needy children, plus helping earn a living primarily working with special needs students in elementary schools, plus volunteering at church and generally being a magnet for waifs and strays… She is the Most Patient Person in the World™ and my mother couldn’t be believed if she turned up in a book. 

In modern literature, she’d be covering up for something. Her good deeds would be belied by exerting painful standards on her children. But Mom is almost unfailingly patient, and while she sets high standards for herself, she loves knowing who we really are and accepts our differences. And she’s by no means boring, with her wealth of experiences and her exceptionally tolerant good humour.

The Good Ones

I aimed to do a round-up of good literature mums, and it was somewhat challenging. Just as many fairy tale villains are female, a fair few mothers in contemporary books are abusive (Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine or Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects), manipulative and self-centred (Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk), or detrimentally submissive (The Glass Castle and Tara Westover’s Educated).

This might reflect people being more honest about how hard parenting is. Not everyone is cut out for the job. So many other mums in books are consumed with survival. This absolutely does not make them bad mothers, but it makes mothering secondary to the plot. It’s like when a sitcom couple has a baby and the baby is hardly ever in the show. 

My Mom and my little Bear, 2007

I’ve been writing about Eve, the “Mother of All the Living,” and motherhood looms large in my work-in-progress. But she isn’t a brilliant example because she had much baggage, and no one to emulate. I love reading and writing about mums that know their kids well, mums who, even for a brief scene, play whatever silly thing their kid likes and enjoy it, even while admitting that a parenting day can be long indeed. After all, my mom was like that, and as a mum myself, time spent with my Bear–doing anything, really–is my very favourite thing.

So I’m thinking of Elizabeth Zott in Lessons in Chemistry, who is honest with her daughter about how tough the world can be, but tries not to pass her sadness on. Supporting, defending moms like in Wonder or The Fault in Our Stars

There are incredibly brave and devoted mothers like Mauma in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, who is enslaved but gives Handful as much freedom as she can. The mother in Room by Emma Donaghue whose son is her whole life, quite literally, for 4 years.

Across the Pond

British mums have a different vibe. There’s a looser family dynamic generally, which seems fine, and a sense that kids ought to entertain themselves a lot sooner. Every culture has its own ways. I’ve always appreciated the British phrase “she fell pregnant” implying that motherhood is some sort of disease, because aspects of pregnancy really do suck.

When Bear and I immigrated to join their dad, Bear was just turning 3 years old. Soon after, my mother-in-law complained to my husband that I was spoiling our not-yet-preschooler by playing with them too much.

Signs of spring for Mothering Sunday

My response was simply: “When, precisely, did this spoiling start? When Bear was a baby and toddler, when I was a single mum working full-time and finishing a degree?” My mothering, too, has been pretty survival-focused at times.

Still, I have plenty of British friends who clearly had children for reasons other than to complete housework.

British books have great mums, too: Agnes in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, for example. She seems to know her children on an almost supernatural level. “There is nothing more exquisite than her child.” Nazneen, fellow immigrant to Britain in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, feels similar wonder for her baby. She can’t protect her children from everything but she loves them desperately.

Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Amma in Girl, Woman, Other. I think of her quote as I miss my own kid, now on the other side of the ocean with my mother and all the rest of my family.

“the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some more noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
really”

That sums things up for me. Who are your favourite literary mothers?

2023 Reading Round-Up

I read 32 books in 2024. I’d love it if I’d had more reading time, but often when I set a high reading goal for the year, it makes reading feel stressful. I’m rushing to finish a book when really, I should be enjoying it. So, no regrets!

Here are my top reads from the year, and of course, my very favourite quote from each. Because I have tried over the years to savour books better, I always pause after finishing one and write down my favourite quotes.

As to how I mark the pages of my favourite quotes while I’m reading… I exercise my right of protection against self-incrimination on that.

Quote in my daily calendar for 2023

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
A master intrigue-builder, Harris sneaks suspense in through everyday details and seemingly idyllic settings. The setting here is a boys’ grammar school, secretly crumbling. Since I work in a school, semi-snarky descriptions of teachers and students amuse me.

“Although listening to boys is bad enough, listening to their parents is fatal.”

Cuckoo in the Nest by Fran Hill
I love Fran’s writing, particularly her hearty humour which is specific without being sharp. Her debut novel gives voice to a wonderfully insightful adolescent character entering foster care. This book is a real gift with its empathy to all characters involved.

“I could have done with help defending myself against the way Bridget would experience the emotions she thought I should be having.”

Not Quite an Ocean by Elizabeth M Castillo
Castillo deftly balances beauty and decay, peace and turmoil. Her latest volume explores womanhood through the metaphor of the ocean, inspiring us to reflect on our journey with awe and compassion. Women, the sea, what’s not to love? 

From “Who Will Hold the Ocean?” 
“Who will teach her that the darkest parts of her body are where creatures are the most boneless, and bright?
Who will dismantle the great, iron skeletons of conquest that lie rotting, eating away at her throat, and back teeth?”

Braver by Deborah Jenkins
I adore a story with a diverse cast. In some respects, this novel is as simple as a little group of people banding together to help each other out. But of course the tug of each individual’s needs pulls events into a tangle. 

“There’s the smell of grass and that scented summer air that drifts into your very soul and makes you believe in the safe familiarity of things.”

The Binding by Bridget Collins
Set in a world where books can only be made when a person is “bound,” surrendering their memory to the page. This results in all sorts of secrets and shocking twists. It’s also an incredibly moving love story. 

Summer Solstice 2023

“It makes one wonder who would write them. People who enjoy imagining misery, I suppose… People who can spend days writing a long sad lie without going insane.”

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison
This haunting epic takes place in a climate-wrought [near?] future dystopia, observed by a Shakespearean-style chorus…comprised of rewilded cows. Between flooded coasts and strict urban areas, various communities help each other and revive hope.

“We see you, boy
We see your gentle heart
Keep it carefully
It has work to do”

Game Changer by Neal Shusterman
A high school football player finds himself in an altered version of his universe every time he gets concussed. Each shift highlights issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, and raises questions. What makes us who we are–and how easily could it change?

“If life exists four hundred times smaller than we can see, it must exist four hundred times larger than we can see.”

March by Geraldine Brooks
The imaginary father of Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters in Little Women is the protagonist here. We see his part in slavery, Civil War battles, and early attempts at Reconstruction. Through him, Brooks unforgettably lays bare the national shame.

“And yet I do not think it heroic to march into fields of fire, whipped on one’s way only by fear of being called craven. Sometimes, true courage requires inaction; that one sit at home while war rages, if by doing so one satisfies the quiet voice of honourable conscience.” 

Goodrich Castle, Wales, June 2023

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Written during World War II, this novel alchemically combines some of my favourite elements: a precocious narrator passionate about writing, an eccentric family among castle ruins, class struggle, explorations of love and art. 

“‘Anyway, your father had a very distinguished forerunner. God made the universe an enigma.’
“I said, ‘And very confusing it’s been for everybody. I don’t see why Father had to copy Him.’”

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
A brilliant homage to David Copperfield transplanting Dickens’s expansive cast to coal country, western Virginia in the late 1990s/ early 2000s. It exposes the disadvantages and downright exploitation in rural areas, while also inspiring us with the resilience and compassion of many who live there.

“… Wanting to see the rest of us hurt because she was hurting–You have to wonder how much of the whole world’s turning is fueled by that very fire.”

Are any of these your favourites too, or do you have recommendations to add?

Careful Content

This Week’s Bit of String: Birthday cake beheadings

My mother was really great at baking us birthday cakes catered to our interests. I think there was a Cabbage Patch cake once and Maiden Fairhair barbie type ones, I had a Scarlett O’Hara cake in seventh grade, and with four kids in the family I can’t even remember all the other characters and critters we must have gone through.

The problem with this, of course, is that those cakes then get eaten.

One year, my dad shouted ‘Off with its head!’ as the cake was cut into, and because I got so upset about it, he made sure to do it every time after. Even now, I don’t like eating chocolate bunnies at Easter because I feel bad biting their heads.

I make strictly inanimate cakes. Like this piano for my Bear’s 18th birthday.

I absolutely can’t bear thinking about executions. I remember preparing to emigrate to the UK, I was up late packing because I couldn’t do so during the day as a working single mum, and on one of the two channels my New Hampshire TV picked up, there was a documentary about Shakespeare. It said how in his time, when someone was accused of treason, their entire family was publicly tortured to death. This seems to have happened to Shakespeare’s mother’s cousin as well.

Through the exhausting process of sorting all mine and my toddler’s belongings, through the emotional goodbyes and the harrowing paperwork, I think this was the moment when I was most hesitant about changing countries. I’m going to a place that did THAT to people?

Personal Triggers

My sensitivity about this topic has become more ingrained with time. As a senior in high school I was traumatised for weeks because I saw a black and white predecessor to The King and I in which the Tuptim character and her partner get burned at the stake. I forced myself to learn all about burnings because that was my biggest fear.

It actually took me a couple of years till I was brave enough to even light candles without thinking about hideous deaths.

I have tried a brutal, immersive approach at times, reading accounts of drawings and quarterings and whatnot. That hasn’t helped me sleep better at night. When I’m up in the small, dark hours, there are doors in my mind I have to keep closed or I’ll be too terrified of nightmares to let myself fall asleep. I have lots of ready-made furniture to pile against that mental door: memories of my Grammy, planning the meals for the week; heck, how about naming all the titles from The Baby-Sitters Club?

I have concluded that executions are something I have to give myself a permanent holiday from thinking about. Is that so wrong? Maybe it’s just chemistry, certain things can’t mix. So I artfully plan a printing mission and slip out of the GCSE English classroom during the bit in Macbeth when they go after Macduff’s family. I would certainly never dream of watching something like Game of Thrones and prodigiously avoid anything about Roman times and how they treated captives.

It could be the cruel inevitability of a planned execution that upsets me so much. The anticipation and the degradation and the helplessness. Some part of my mind may connect it to the traumas I experienced, because I couldn’t figure out how to stop those happening and they, too, carried an element of shame.

Content Warnings

To be a productive individual, there are certain topics I have to avoid. It’s tremendously helpful if there’s a content warning which guides me in that. Of course, I then need the self-discipline and self-care to act on the warning. Sometimes a warning makes me think, Ooh, I’d better try and suck up my feelings and read it anyway, what right do I have to an easy existence? But then it kind of wrecks me.

Took this picture in London. The Tyburn Tree was a gallows that could hang 24 people at once. In the 1570s alone, over 700 people were killed here, right above Hyde Park. It’s awful but I did my due diligence and researched it and didn’t freak out too much.

Content warnings are sometimes portrayed as a snowflakey, excessively woke, mollycoddling sort of thing. But there’s a strength and, again, a discipline in knowing our limits. Just because I’m unable to cope with accounts of Tudor torture or Jim Crow lynchings (and honestly, I’ve TRIED), it doesn’t mean I’m ignoring important issues of the day. Hopefully that is clear from my writing.

On a slight side note, I’m glad terminology has shifted from “trigger warning” to “content warning.” The word trigger itself could be triggering, particularly in my home country considering the dangers of gun violence.

Does it really help the world if I get into a bit of a hole and read avidly about brutal colonial punishments in the Belgian Congo, then can’t sleep for several nights and am off my game as a teaching assistant and mum? I’m not sure it does. So, as Guy Fawkes night approaches, I’ll be giving that one some berth, particularly as he may have been set up and led into the gunpowder plot. Didn’t the bloke get tortured enough; why are people celebrating his burning for centuries after? I can’t think of any other holiday which so blatantly revels in pain… Good Friday and Remembrance Day are a great deal more respectful.

Have you found certain content that you need to avoid? Or, what are your strategies for dealing with things that slip through your defences without warning?

Reading for Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Methods

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

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

So good. Anne M Martin was a genius.

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

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

Relatability Versus Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pest Control

This Week’s Bit of String: A pestilence of Shoulds

Do you ever imagine your abstract stresses as actual creatures? I find it makes them more grapple-able.

Lately, the word should is plaguing me. If it came to life, I think it would be a multi-legged trudger, low to the ground with clinging claws. It would blast out barks: Should! Should! and be a right pest.

My mind gets infested by Shoulds, particularly in the summer. During term-time, there’s little question about what I have to do. There’s work, there’s squeezing in chores and writing deadlines and exercise and family commitments around that. But if I get time to myself, I’m overrun with quarrelling Shoulds. The guilt of leaving things undone becomes weightier, because what excuse do I have?

I’m no artist but… I’m thinking stout caterpillar body, claws of a sloth, and stubborn pug face.

You should be writing, a voice in my head says quite frequently. Editing my novel, inventing a whole new book, polishing and submitting short stories, putting effort into a Twitter presence—I should be working on all those things.

But there’s also the cluttered house, and my garden in a riotous bid for attention, and the thought that there’s no time like the present to get extra exercise and stretches in, should I be attempting some sort of social life, and actually, what if I caught up on sleep and reading; shouldn’t that benefit me in the school year?

If I created a word cloud based on my thoughts, the biggest word in it might be should—apart from family member’s names maybe, and definitely the cat and probably, embarrassingly, peanut butter (the latter accompanied by the phrase “should absolutely not eat anymore of it today…”)

‘Tis the Season

For most of my summer, I go to my family overseas. There are wonderful little vacations encased in this, but home time has a serious intensity to it so that I bristle if it’s called a holiday.

Up at sunrise during the summer to seize every moment

As an immigrant, my herd of Shoulds has extra directions to pull me in. And the limits of time give their claws an extra sharpness. It’s super important to me that I help out my parents and siblings and child while I can see them, but that we also make fun memories, and keep my husband entertained since it is, in fact, his vacation, and that I get moments to feast my senses on the mountains and lakes and rivers of home—all while keeping up with writing and exercise. So the Shoulds run rampant.

Without my teaching assistant job playing the alpha role among the Should herd, it’s hard to figure out which Should is in charge. Each seems quite as demanding as the others. Yes, I should dig into writing, but think how bad the weeds will be if I leave the garden any longer. And have I really recovered my strength enough for a new term—maybe I should spend an afternoon lying around reading.

The Long Game

The word should is rooted in debt and guilt. Any argument I come up with against one therefore sounds like an excuse to shirk. Which Shoulds can we allow ourselves to ignore?

Taking my pick.

I’ve tentatively decided one thing. I’m not ready for another deep edit of my Eve novel yet. I’m too frustrated now. I’d have her jumping up and down by the third paragraph shouting “Read me, fools!” like she’s Maleficent or something. I need time to think before the next edit and submission rounds. Maybe I’ll have mulled it enough by next weekend, maybe I’ll leave it for half-term or even next summer.

You know what I ended up spending lots of time on for the end of my break? Foraging. I turned myself into a scrappy little squirrel to combat my scruffy little Should flock. I walked the lanes for hours picking blackberries and elderberries, and cooked them together into jam. With its murky elder depths, I’m hoping it will ward off winter colds. Nothing leaves you helpless at the stubby, plodding feet of a Should herd the way illness does! So maybe I’ve played my priorities right. We’ll see.

What do you do when pestered by Shoulds?

Celebrating Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burrowing and Borrowing

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

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

Hay Festival 2023

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

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

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

Safety in the Pages

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

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

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

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

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

What makes you fall in love with reading?

Over the Rainbow

This Week’s Bit of String: A few hundred definite articles

When I was young and had energy–aged three, to be exact–I started eschewing naps. My mother would put me down for a “Quiet Time” instead, with a stack of books to look through. I knew their stories well, but I wanted to properly read them. Logically I started at the beginning, and as my mother settled me down, I asked what the first word of the top book’s title was.

It was “The,” as in The Wizard of Oz. Now able to read my first word, I went through every book I had and counted how many times “the” appeared in my books. I kept counting wherever I went, well up into the hundreds, until I noticed the word “there,” and counted those. I was in the midst of counting “thens” when all the other words started making sense and I lost count, too busy reading. Sucked into new realms.

Our copy of The Wizard of Oz was a big, almost A3-sized book with illustrations based on the film version. Since it became my first reading experience, I have a soft spot for the story–but clearly I was already drawn to it, since it inspired me to try and read in the first place.

Real Life or Dreams

One thing that bothered me about the movie was how it framed Dorothy’s whole adventure as a dream. I preferred the Chronicles of Narnia, in which all that happened was incontrovertibly real, just occurring in a different dimension (which I tried to reach through many a wardrobe). I felt it diminished Dorothy’s experiences to portray them as just a dream.

Even now, I get a bit ruffled when creators use the “But was it all a dream?” cliche. Hopefully this doesn’t make me too simplistic or uncultured, but I like reality clearly delineated. If an unreliable narrator misleads us for their own ends, or for their own survival, or if they’ve been misled, I’m all in and I have colossal respect for the storytelling (Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Fingersmith, Life of Pi). But if, for example, a TV show or film implies the entire premise has only happened in a character’s mind, as one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tried to do, I’m offended. How dare the whole plot be minimised in this way?

The secondary school where I work just finished an energetic, 6-performance run of The Wizard of Oz. My husband played in the band and I helped a bit with front of house and quick changes. When a production ends, it’s like waking up from a dream. There’s that sudden cessation of energy and the unwinding of a massive, intricate knot as everyone goes their separate ways.

It struck me, watching it again after a long while, that actually the way the story unfolds is just the way a child might imagine it. As a conquering hero, but innocent, with devoted friends and all sorts of magic. It’s not a diminishment of childhood experience, it’s an ode to their imagination, and I was quite moved by it.

Haunted Forests

It also serves as a reminder that even in our heads, even as children, we’re not completely safe. I don’t know any child capable of constructing a fantasy where nothing bad happens. Otherwise, how would we prove our heroism, and our comparative innocence? Dorothy tries to invent a place where there isn’t any trouble, but trouble gets in anyway.

Dreaming in colour

It’s all those anxieties about the future and those fearful spectres from our past creeping up. “Just try to stay out of my way,” they cackle. “Just TRY.”

One of the reasons I’m quite sensitive about stories being dismissed as “all in your head” derives from my experience in a psychiatric ward when I was 12. I was withdrawn and always thinking about stories. The staff wrote in my records that I seemed to be “responding to internal stimuli” and I was put on anti-hallucination medication.

“Are you hearing voices?” the psychiatrist, a toneless woman with an unfortunate resemblance to Jabba the Hutt, asked.

“No.”

“Are the voices telling you to say that?”

“No.”

But the doctors had become too entrenched in their own reality to decipher mine.

Fortunately, the pills didn’t affect my imaginings in the slightest; I could still escape. It shocks me that it never occurred to those medical professionals that a young patient would wish to imagine things outside the immediate reality of strip searches, iron-meshed windows and straitjacketed children screaming for help.

In my opinion, it should have been as obvious as Dorothy dreaming her way from black and white into colour. I suppose it proves how powerful our inner lives are; they can transport us so fully that people watching us have no idea where we’ve gone. I probably looked as if I was responding to internal stimuli when I was three years old counting “thes” and “thens,” and I go round mouthing dialogue to myself sometimes even now. I know what I’ve made up though, and what I haven’t. You can see why I’d find it irksome if someone tried to tell me otherwise.

What takes you over the rainbow? Has it ever gotten you into trouble?

Learning Something New

This Week’s Bit of String: What poems, jellyfish, and King Tut have in common

I am starting 2023 building a new habit. I feel like that sounds more promising than a resolution, what do you think? Anyway, this habit is to learn something new every day.

I think we all learn stuff most days. Part of the reason I relish daily scribbles is because it teases out new information I glean without necessarily noticing. It’s also why I stop after each book I’ve read and write down my favourite quotes, instead of charging on to the next one. Just a little bit of reflection time. Because my mind’s always leaping to the next thing I absolutely MUST get done; the next book to tick off the To-Be-Read list; the next job to cross off from my planner. I’m very susceptible to the look-at-all-the-things-I’ve-done narrative on social media and I have to force myself to stop and reflect. I had to make it a part of my routine, a habit.

My dad used to ask us at the dinner table, “What did you learn at school today?”

We hated it. On principle, we often insisted we’d not learned a thing. And that may have been true some days. We expected that anything learned would be unmistakably gifted to us, not always understanding that we might need to flip through the resources and find what needed to be learned.

Time to turn over a new leaf…

So with this learning habit I’m working to develop, the rule is that the Something I learn for the day can’t be part of my normal reading. It has to be something extra, something I take time to look up and find out about. It IS allowed to be a poem or short story outside of my pre-planned reading list, for example delving into an online literary magazine, as long as it’s not just because I’m prepping my own submission for it.

The idea is to take in information or art for its own sake, free of agenda. To shake myself from the constant bridle of Getting Things Done, and just stretch my brain.

It’s also to repurpose scrolling time. As I mentioned earlier this year, I want to waste less time on social media. I haven’t been terrible about scrolling and spending time online, but I could do better. Instead of scanning Facebook and Twitter, brain on autopilot, just waiting for something salient to jump out at me, I will go and seek salience myself.

So far, my new habit has entailed:

Finding out about early British underground buildings like fogous and souterrains, because for her novel my student has created a Secret Hunting Society which lives in a village hidden underground.

Cooking dinners ahead for the week while listening to these fantastic Intelligence Squared videos featuring William Sieghart’s The Poetry Pharmacy

And this Intelligence Squared Dickens vs. Tolstoy debate, Simon Schama arguing on the latter’s behalf and sharing this Tolstoy quote: “The aim of the artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its manifestations.” (Makes it sound a bit simpler and more feasible, do you reckon?)

Research on jellyfish because I made a little ShrinkyDink jellyfish while crafting with my sisters over Christmas and I added it to my keychain

Reading some lovely poems from Plume Magazine— I particularly loved “The Classics” by Christina Lee and “Cathedral” by Kwame Dawes

Finding out about aphantasia, since another student believes she has it. People with aphantasia don’t see imagery in their minds, which makes it harder for her to connect with material she reads.

Jellyfish!

Researching Tutankhamun because the latest Royal Mail stamps for sending letters abroad have his possessions on them, and I was wondering… Do those really belong to this country?

Looking more deeply into a January 6, 1853 train accident that claimed the life of President Franklin Pierce’s only child just two months before Pierce’s inauguration, because it was alluded to in A Worse Place Than Hell, the book I’m reading. Pierce was the only president to ever hail from my home state, and it surprised me I’d never heard of this tragedy, when it must have heavily influenced his actions during a pivotal period.

Also, trying to find out about women runners in the 19th century because this nonfiction work mentions Louisa May Alcott going running in the early mornings before her long shifts at a Civil War hospital. I’m very curious about what women would have worn for morning runs in the 1860s, and I’ve found some interesting facts about the history of women runners but nothing that illuminates this passage, so if you know anything about it, do let me know.

The different types of attention that may be compromised by social media use, as outlined by Johann Hari on Jon Favreau’s Offline podcast. It rather motivated me to keep going with this little habit of mine!

Do have any suggestions of things I should learn about? What sorts of things have you sought to learn?

Summer Bucket List

This Week’s Bit of String: Can we fit it? … Yes we can

Packing time! 48 hours now till I’m on my flight to New Hampshire, to my son, my parents and siblings and childhood home, friends and haunts. To lakes and mountains and trees, to root beer and Dunkin’ Donuts.

I’m already getting distracted. My point is, time to decide what goes in my suitcase. They’ve changed the allowance from 23 down to 20 kilos maximum. This should be ok; I know by now what not to bring. I don’t need much in terms of dressing up or fancy footwear. I don’t need many books for myself because I often don’t get time to read; it’s all I can do to find moments for daily scribbles so I don’t forget all I’ve seen, what was said.

Busy bee.

Concurrently with my packing, and with cleaning the house and weeding and trimming the garden before I go, I’m going deep with novel edits. This is only my second pass through my story of Eve. It’s familiar territory but not quite as much as an Aer Lingus flight from Bristol to Boston. I’m still learning what I really need and what I might not. It will take me a few more journeys to figure that out, I suspect.

The Days are Just Packed

Even more than keeping my suitcase light and my writing clear and engaging, planning the time while I’m away is a huge challenge. Thanks to working in school and getting a longer summer holiday, I have three weeks in my native country, but that isn’t much when it’s also one of my only chances to Mum for the whole year.

One thing I’ve learned as a writer—and parent—is that the worst thing we can do is tell ourselves there’s plenty of time. It sounds a bit sad, but most people I’ve discussed this with seem to feel the same.

If we are busy, we know we have to dedicate time to something. If we have more free time, we develop a more cavalier attitude and assume we’ll get to everything we want to do.

ALL of it… Photo from 2007.

There’s so much fun I want to have with my kid, and with the rest of my family. We’re hoping to try tubing down a river with rapids and a covered bridge. I’d love campfire chats, board games, kayak sessions, listening to music together, maybe get him to build/ squash a sandcastle or two for old times’ sake. But he’ll also be working, so I’m looking forward to joining him at summer camp for writing workshops, and cooking some of his favourite dinners for when he gets home. We have things we need to troubleshoot together; job applications to fill out and things like that.

Being apart means I feel ready to appreciate even the work of it. Baking in a hot kitchen, coming up with cover letters for prospective employers. It’s not what everyone looks forward to doing when on vacation, but I will feel privileged to do it when I’m finally around more people I love.

Summer Goals

Do you have any aims for the summer? The Internet is rife with reading lists and exercise recommendations. I find them daunting. I just want to read and exercise daily and I’m going to have to be flexible about that.

Exercise: I’ll keep up my daily early morning hikes. No choice; I’m addicted. But I’ll also be incorporating 10 minutes of stretches, at least every other day because the last term at school viciously made me feel my age and then some.

Self-care: Also, I want to have a bath and soak the stiffness out. We don’t have a bathtub here in the UK but my parents do in the US, and on this matter my sister holds me very accountable. She’s already on my case. I’ve got the Lush bomb for the occasion. That’s it, that’s the goal.

Reading: If I can read almost every day, I’ll be happy. So far so good, since school ended last week. What utter bliss, once a morning hike has been completed, and then a bunch of chores and visits sorted, to stretch out with a book for an hour in the afternoon. I’m hoping to keep that routine going while away, and clear five books from my own, personal TBR list this summer.

White Mountains, New Hampshire. Just go with the flow, man.

Writing: There are my daily scribbles, of course. I’ve got a luscious thick notebook for observations, memories, exchanges, ideas. It should last me the weeks I’m away, and keeping up with everything I want to remember is a big commitment. However, I’ve also been pushing myself this summer to sit down and put focused effort into a writing project, for a couple hours maybe four times per week. I had lost the habit of that, since I could only write in small windows of time. It feels so good to stretch my concentration muscles again, to sit editing and not letting myself get distracted. I’d forgotten I was capable of it!

Parenting: My number one priority for the next three weeks. Anything that makes me feel like a mum again will do. Hearing complaints face to face instead of reading a Facebook message. Teaming up to show his dad Field of Dreams so he knows what we’re quoting when we say things like, “Peace, love, doooope!” All of it.

My goals are probably a bit more open-ended than targets are meant to be, but I prefer the term feasible. I advise a slightly gentle approach, because you never know what crises might come up. Do whatever it takes to enjoy each moment, whether it’s relishing a challenge or making yourself relax for once.