Trouble of Our Own Making

This Week’s Bit of String: Saturday morning movies

One of our family traditions was letting Mom stay in bed on Saturday mornings, and we’d watch a movie. This sounds simple, but we had to choose from our videotapes, mostly random stuff recorded from basic cable, plus Disney feature cartoons. I’m the oldest of four kids, with five years between myself and my youngest sister. Certain parties objected to anything in black and white, and it couldn’t be too “mushy,” and one gets creeped out by films with talking animals.

Whenever I vetoed a movie, my siblings would roll their eyes and admit annoyed defeat. “Oh sure, because they get in trouble.”

This movie’s still a nope from me. But the local vet’s window display was very cute!

It’s true, I was super sensitive about misunderstood characters in kids’ films, from Anne of Green Gables to Pete’s Dragon. Lady and the Tramp—I couldn’t bear that one (plus, it had talking animals so it was out anyway). It was the same with books: Curious George, for example.

I was petrified of getting in trouble for something I didn’t do, or even worse for something I did. I was the oldest child in a religious family, sensitive by nature, also traumatised by abuse. My dread of getting in trouble was so severe I couldn’t read or watch things where that occurred.

Causation vs Correlation

Lucky for me, in quite a few children’s films, things just happen. We ended up watching Peter Pan a lot (not the cartoon, but a slightly fuzzy tape of Mary Martin performing the lead in the Broadway musical). Plenty happens in that without the characters necessarily causing it.

It’s different as you get older. Characters must be autonomous, reflecting our quest for independence. This means everything that happens stems from protagonists’ decisions, overreaches, and failures.

Every crime-busting film from Miss Congeniality to Hannibal starts with the heroic detective disgracing themselves, and they must salvage their reputation. Every superhero film first establishes them as fallible; their powers are their only shot at redemption.

We love wonky, flawed characters. But do we have to make them responsible for everything?

Recently while I finished retyping my entire novel with new edits, I streamed Paddington and Paddington 2 to get through the copying. When I mentioned it to my youngest sister, she was like, “Wait, how do you watch those? Paddington gets in trouble all the time!”

Yeah, I kind of got over that. I had to, or else I’d never read or watch anything. Nor would I be working on my current novel, about possibly the most famous Character Who Gets in Trouble of all time: Eve, the original sinner.

As I edit the book, I’ve been reading about story structure. John Yorke in Into the Woods presents the prototypical story structure as a process of awakening. Initially, the protagonist does not deal well with revelations and things continue going wrong. I just finished Nikesh Shukla’s Your Story Matters, in which he emphasises the importance of causality: the plot springs from a main character’s action or deliberate inaction when faced with new knowledge.

In other words, the main character is SUPPOSED to make it all happen. It’s all their fault. They have to fall a long way in order to teach us how to get back up. Every protagonist, in a sense, is the author’s sacrifice.

Agency vs… Real Life?

Now that I recognise how it works, it’s stressing me out and reviving my aversion to characters getting in trouble. I put a film on and wait for the character to completely blow it. I’m anxious while reading because I know the protagonist is destined to screw things up.

There are a lot of things bigger than our characters and us.

I do like a domino plot, though, where each detail causes another; the way John Irving or Margaret Atwood spin massive tales of intricate characters and everything’s interconnected by the end.

As I go through my Eve book yet again, I’m wondering how to cohere the trajectory, Eve’s actions (or inactions) and their consequences. This is a myth retelling, so not everything is strictly in Eve’s control. She has God, Lucifer, and most chaotically, other humans to deal with. Plus, part of my reason for writing this is to repudiate millennia of condemnation. Maybe bucking the traditional structure is acceptable, or am I a bad writer if Eve doesn’t trigger every consequence herself?

I noticed that in Dune 2, the protagonist never fails at any new trick he tries. The developments in the plot are not of his own making—different from a Marvel film. Indeed, Nikesh Shukla notes that the character-triggered consequence story structure is a Western tradition. It makes sense, I guess, that main characters from other, more faith-based cultures have less agency to affect the plot.

We Westerners are obsessed with individuality—the downside being we can be persuaded that any trouble is our fault. In real life, it’s not. Not every time. How tightly do you like your plots linked to your character’s actions? Does it ever cause you anxiety, knowing a character is destined to get in trouble?

The Wind-Up and the Pitch

This Week’s Bit of String: Playground tales

My kid had quite a flair for tales with a twist. Only, I don’t think they meant to be suspenseful; stories just developed that way.

Once, after a solo trip to the playground, they weren’t very forthcoming as I asked about what they did. They didn’t get to climb much, or have a kickaround. It took a bit more questioning before they said, “I didn’t have time to do any of those things… because H was holding my head down on the pavement.”

Now, that’s a statement that will hook a parental audience. 

Eventually, my little Bear explained that while they were climbing and swinging, one of their classmates and his big brother H thought Bear said something rude, and the boys tackled them. My kiddo ended up with a rather large local knucklehead sitting on their back.

Why the delayed reveal? Not for melodramatic reasons in this instance, but probably because Bear wasn’t sure what to make of the whole thing, and needed time before they could articulate such a shocking escalation.

Withholding Information

Deep into novel edits and following research into story structure, I’m still thinking about the most engaging way to develop the plot and the character trajectories. I attended an event a few years ago where the speaker said every story must have a twist, and that disconcerted me. I am not a mystery writer.

But this could be a twist of fate, a turn of events. There are so many types of suspense: suspense for the welfare of a beloved character, tension that an innocent may be misunderstood or that a character with baggage will trip themselves up into yet another mistake.

And there are reveals. Using first-person narration for myth retelling, in The Gospel of Eve the plot follows Eve trying to assert herself to her descendants without turning them against her. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout, building to her memories of taking the forbidden fruit, and essentially, losing two sons. I’ve saved the most well-known, pivotal moments for later in the book, hoping to build trust in the narration and suspicion that there’s a lot more to what we’ve been told before.

Twisting round and round

But it’s not just me stalling and building up. Eve isn’t ready to talk about it. It takes generations (people lived a long time back then, according to Genesis) for her to fully revisit what she remembers of Cain killing Abel. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or other stories like Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the speaker takes time to face up to things, and often events force them to as darkness comes to light.

Scaling Down

The balance between revelation and suspense becomes more confusing in extra tasks like crafting a pitch. At the start of February, I worked on a new, longer synopsis for a submission. A synopsis fully outlines the plot for agents/ publishers, so they know how it develops. It’s tricky working out which events to include and how to inject character instead of a dry summary.

A pitch is different: it’s shorter and you aren’t supposed to reveal everything. You want to hook an agent’s interest, persuade them to want more. (Why do we use the term “hook?” When a fish gets hooked, I doubt it wants to repeat the experience.)

Anyway, I spent the end of February working on a 100-word pitch. It needs to convey the character’s journey, establish the genre and setting, maybe include other titles for comparison, and preferably should all be done in line with the character’s voice.

Hooked!

Again, rather tricky. Ideas played through my mind, even as I did housework while listening to political podcasts. On an “Offline” episode, Jon Favreau (not the cinema Jon Favreau) talked about crafting difficult speeches for Obama. Sometimes, nothing seemed to work, so they’d rip everything up and restart from: “What are the truths we want to tell? Even if we can’t say it for political reasons, what are the truths?”

So I said to myself, “What do I MOST want to tell people about my book?” It took me a few tries, and it’s probably not totally there yet. But I kind of like it! Here’s the opening:

Fruit, fratricide, and feminism: Eve and her oldest daughter Ana retell the creation myth.
Think parenting is hard? Eve plots maternal interventions when at best, empowering her children could lead them to condemn her. At worst, her children will kill each other.

I’m not revealing anything that isn’t common knowledge. Hopefully I’m giving it fresh relevance, though. The fun thing with any story we start to read or to write is that we can never be sure where it will end up.

Do you have preferences over what gets revealed when?

Balancing the Dark

This Week’s Bit of String: Planet Buoy

On a rainy Saturday morning in St Ives, I’m shepherding 7 teens on a 2-mile walk with a seasoned photographer. We are nearing the end of our school Art residential; I’ve spent half my half-term supporting 3 very different students with autism.

Sand feathering

The youngest one is only 14 and prefers to draw comic stories or animals in pencil, so through most activities, he’s put his headphones on and played games on his phone. That’s what he did through the photographer’s introductory talk.

The photographer has worked here in St Ives for 45 years. He says its popularity with artists comes from the “pure, North light.” Standing on a beach he tells me, “The sand in St Ives has a sheerness, and reflects that light.”

Just then, the youngest fellow patters over murmuring, “Miss, I took pictures of the beach.” With his iPhone, he’s captured the effect the photographer talked about. The reflections of the squished-together buildings across the bay appear over the sand in his photo. I compliment him heartily, and he’s off.

He creeps toward gulls, grinning, asking, “Scuse me, can I take your picture?” He aims his phone camera through holes in stone walls that no one else has noticed, sticks it into pier crevices to capture puddle reflections. One of my older students, herself a photographer with autism, is inspired by what he’s finding and so am I.

Planet Buoy

He finds a buoy, pulled up and stashed on top of lobster cages. I join him to capture its weathering with my iPhone. It’s like a planet, with rust crops and barnacle mountains. This young artist is showing what I’ve always found, that once we start looking around with a photographer’s eye, we pick up on so much more.

Balance

It’s like that with stories sometimes too. If we get into ideas mode, we find them everywhere. When I’m out and about, I take pictures partly to remind myself of strands of description for my journal later. Waves blooming around boulders, rust-fall streaming down the lighthouse, Planet Buoy.

Pure light: View toward Chapel of St Nicholas

The photographer we worked with, Chris Webber, makes me contemplate other similarities or counterpoints between the arts of photography and writing. He tells the students: “Your camera has a lot of dials and buttons, but at its heart, photography is about balancing the light. Don’t be intimidated by the camera. You control it. You decide what to shoot.”

It’s a mixed blessing to remember that amid the vast structures of a story, with so many interplaying elements we’re meant to orchestrate—we are the ones who control the pen (or keyboard). It is, ultimately, up to us.

I also wonder if a story, at its heart, might be as simple as balancing certain elements. Except that a story is balancing the dark. As storytellers we wield light and seek to not obliterate dark (because then a story might be dull or saccharine), but to balance it.

Letting in the Light

I read more about story structure and trajectory before my latest novel edits. John Yorke in Into the Woods frames this as a trajectory of knowledge (which suits my creation story retelling, since Eve allegedly plunged us all into sin by gaining knowledge). A protagonist is awakened to something, they experience doubt, they reluctantly accept, they experiment, it backfires, until ultimately there is a reconciliation of the new knowledge: a reawakening and a total mastery.

Weaving: lobster nets on Smeatons Pier

None of this happens without light, and the light would be ineffective if dark didn’t precede it. Presumably, God would never have said, “Let there be light,” if They’d already had all the light They wanted. As creators, we first shine light into a character’s situation so they have to recognise the dark they’re living in. They may react by being overwhelmed; they’re not used to this illumination. Ultimately, we mould the light into hope.

Wishing you a torrent of creativity this week.

Depending on the story, we’ll allow a pinpoint or a whole widening arc of light/ hope. Also, depending on the type of writing, we’ll show the whole landscape or do a macro shot. Chris Webber does dawn photo shoots and landscapes but also food shoots, for catering outlets. He showed my students a picture he took of a sorbet scoop: “Sometimes you don’t want your viewer to paddle, you want them to dive in.”

I’ll definitely keep that in mind while editing. Which bits are especially important for readers to plunge into? How do we direct the light while also bringing out the exciting details?

Seven Wanders of 2023

Hiking around and seeing new places inspire me as much as reading other writers’ work. I don’t necessarily end up writing new stories about the places I see, but glimpses of the spectacular keep some spark alive inside me when the rest of life seems a great stack of to-do lists.

Feeling like an adventurer in the real world can’t hurt our creative life, right? Here are some of my favourite explorations, why they ignited my imagination, and a smattering of my photos.

See also previous years’ top wanders: 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.

Festive Cirencester, Cotswolds UK 

We gave ourselves a couple hours’ break between getting COVID in December and finishing work and sorting out Christmas and travel preparations. Cirencester is fairly local and its alleys and Cotswolds stone lend themselves well to the festive season. 

A wander, the purchase of a jungly fern from a back alley shop overflowing with plants, and cups of hot chocolate at a specialty chocolatier renewed the season’s sparkle.

Widworthy Barton, South Devon UK

While staying near the Jurassic Coast in Southern England, I went out for exercise and discovered a fascinating little story as well. Uphill from the thatched farmhouse we’d rented, I came across an even smaller hamlet and a square-towered stone church with its graveyard. 

A lustrous black gravestone memorialised the village’s matriarch and her husband. He was a holocaust survivor and popularised the Rubik’s cube, and she bought the local manor house and revitalised the community, abseiling down the church tower in her 70s to raise money for roof repairs.

Dovedale Stepping Stones, Peak District UK

In late September we had a rather cold, frequently wet camping trip and finally explored a Peak District destination I’d wanted to see for some time. We were lucky to have a sunny morning at the Stepping Stones, casting a sharp, bright contrast between peaks. 

The stones are set firm and flat in the river like molars, and after crossing, we followed the path under trees and past sparkling reflections. There was a good climb up smooth-worn stone steps laid by Italian prisoners of war during WWII, and then a further walk along the river with pale bluffs on our other side, rising up like mighty ship hulls with dark bird barnacles. We later did a longer, more rugged walk to reach the Chee Dale Stepping Stones–those are quite scenic, too.

Newfound Lake, New Hampshire USA

For me, summer is most blissful at a New England lake. This summer we had a few days with the entire family at Newfound Lake. It’s the third biggest lake in the state and the deepest, reaching 183 feet deep. It’s thought to be one of the cleanest in the world, and the sunsets over low-slung mountains off in a corner were spectacular, the reflections pristine.

We had the trilling cry of the loons at night and that cool lake smell in the mornings. Woods of oak and pine separated the holiday houses, but we got a glimpse when we were out on our kayaks. One house even had its own massive inflatable waterslide tower out in the water, with “No trespassing” painted all over its base.

Portobello Road and Notting Hill, London

I don’t know if it’s hard for places like this to keep living up to their reputation. Do the streets made famous in Disney songs and late 90s films want a break sometimes, want to drop the facade? Well, we took a good walk along here and enjoyed the mix of shabby and cheesy and pushing the boundaries.

We perused stalls and shops selling everything from wool berets to sequined jackets, to prints made from photos of your iris, to last minute pumpkins for Halloween the next day, and we had lunch at a place called Egg Slut–absolutely delicious. Then we did a further loop through the posh neighbourhoods of Notting Hill, with big, pastel townhouses dripping with gauze webs and jack o’lanterns for the holiday. Imagine trick or treating here!

Brecon Beacons Four Waterfalls Walk, Wales UK

Another hike I’d been sizing up for a few years, this too proved well worth it. It was cloudy, but the falls are still quite spectacular. I guess we can thank the rather wet year for that. 

Because it’s quite a popular destination, we couldn’t always get close to the cascades, or behind them. Still, I love seeing how torrents slice through rock, and all the greenery that scales the damp cliff face around and behind the water. One waterfall had dozens if not hundreds of little rock cairns built in the stream below. 

To save backtracking the long, muddy, crowded access path at the last fall, we found a vague trail up the bank and did some rugged scaling. This earned us extra waterfall views from the top and made us feel quite intrepid. 

City Park, New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden, Esplanade Avenue, and St Louis Cemetery #3–Louisiana, USA

Did something completely different over the Christmas holidays and visited America’s deep South . We met up with our kiddo in Houston, then my husband and I roadtripped along the Gulf of Mexico and the bayou, and spent New Year’s in New Orleans.

Staying in the French Quarter, we had the experience you might hope for: strolling out for morning beignets under wrought-iron balconies trailing ferns, pausing to hear jazz bands in the street. Later, we stopped at City Park, a massive public space half again as big as NYC’s Central Park.

We were greeted by long-beaked ibises when we got out of the hired car, and we ambled through the Besthoff Sculpture Garden beneath live oaks dangling Spanish moss and resurrection ferns (ferns that go grey and curl, allowing themselves to survive losing over 70% of their moisture in dry spells). The statues combined cultural elements of the city’s past: a Rodin, a ghostly dress with a solar system model for a head, a conquistador helmet turned to a snail with a little boy riding its back, a glorious African woman, her garment a series of impeccably formed coils.

From there we walked down Esplanade Avenue, with pretty pillared houses and more live oaks, the trees so mighty they were busting up sidewalks and weighing down overhead electric cables. We came back through one of New Orleans’s famous cemeteries, with aboveground vaults since you can’t dig graves below sea level. Some vaults have lots of cupboards in them for family remains, and one had a small ornate frame fixed to it with a photo of the occupants behind a convex lens, like a locket, so you could see the faces of the African-American couple who passed away in the 1980s. It seemed a privilege to actually see what they looked like, and I wish that idea might catch on.

What were your favourite visits and meanders this year? How did you keep your spark alight?

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?

Stuff of Legends

This Week’s Bit of String: A new political slogan?

I work with some amazing students and love my job, but the start of the school year is hard. Somehow there are always vast new tasks to train ourselves in, you know, during our spare time. Plodding to work in the mornings, a mental run-through of the day’s requirements almost overwhelms me.

Then I remember something that makes me smile: “Lying dog-faced pony soldier.”

I know this is ridiculous. It’s not an ideal phrase for the President of the United States to be spouting, even if it’s a movie quote. President Biden including it in a rambling answer about climate change in Hanoi recently probably didn’t advance the cause. (I’m linking to the entire press conference transcript because most of it was on-topic and coherent. I mean, you should hear the other guy.)

But it gets stuck in my head! Is that a writer thing, that words not even sung can repeat relentlessly in our minds?

Siblings are such an influence–here’s all of us recreating a childhood photo

And it’s so random, it makes me laugh. Biden says his brother liked to say “lying dog-faced pony soldier” when quoting a John Wayne film, that it was an insult a Native American character hurled at a cowboy or something. Seems like this alleged movie line gets stuck in the President’s head, too.

It’s weirdly inspiring that a random detail can live on, lodged in the minds of people who never saw the original source. It’s a little different from how the written word lingers in our minds. There’s something special about the oral tradition. I don’t know if we can capture it in our writing, but it’s worth celebrating in its own right.

Family Lore

This is extra strong in families. Maybe it’s because of our deep fondness for each other, and our affinity to one another’s voices, plus shared source material. When someone we grew up with, for example a sibling, tells a story, we can picture especially vividly its setting and characters.

While creating resources on persuasive techniques this week, I learned that the word anecdote basically comes from the Greek roots “not for publication.” (See more on the word’s origins here.) These are little stories that are either too biting, or would lose too much of their aural charm were they printed.

A lot of our favourite family references and legends become so because of how they sound when spoken. We didn’t even have to be there when it happened, we just love hearing about it. Humour’s always a hit, as well as special oral characteristics.

Rhythm: When my sister worked at the town recreational summer camp, she later recounted one boy’s plans for the rest of the day. Imitating his weary exasperation, she recited: “All I want to do/ Is go home/ and eat my sandwich/ and go outside/ and look for salamanders. But I never FIND any salamanders!” Punctuated with sighs, it’s almost like a poem. Sometimes I find myself planning my day to a similar rhythm.

Intonation: On a trip to Naples once, my brother went to the opera. There was a poorly older woman sitting nearby who kept unwrapping cough sweets during the show. This provoked the wrath of a German man in the audience. My brother quoted the man as he complained to the frail woman during the interval. ‘When you go to open up your BONBON… it is AWFUL!”

Transferring the Magic

Just within the last month, I found myself telling someone the bonbon anecdote—in my dreams. It’s that integrated in my subconscious, and I was never even there. I wonder if it sticks with any of the friends I might have mentioned it to in real life.

Blame it on the mushrooms

Sometimes, a little story weaves itself so inextricably into our fibre, we think it is ours. A secretary at my old job back in the U.S. told me one of the company’s engineers once submitted a receipt from a vegetarian meal with his travel expense report. He’d had a delicious mushroom—but the receipt was truncated so instead of asking to be reimbursed for shiitake, he was passing on a charge for “one large shit.”

My husband got such a kick out of this story, he came to believe it was a secretary at his company, across the ocean, who told him the story about one of their engineers. There my husband was, animatedly sharing it at some gathering, and I couldn’t help capping it off, somewhat mystified: “But that’s my story.”

That was only shock talking, though. The tale did not originate with me, and obviously I never intended it to end there either. I think it’s clear that stories, particularly when they’re passed on orally, get absorbed and possessed by all listeners. Isn’t that quite magical?

Are there special anecdotes you’ve heard that become living legends?

Looking the Part

This Week’s Bit of String: Ewoks and hippies

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

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

My new writing companion

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

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

Props and Costumes

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

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

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

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

More Than a Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quaint Customs

This Week’s Bit of String: A world of queens

Years ago my kiddo emerged from a swimming pool changing room and treated me to this fabulous idea: 

“The reason I took so long was because I invented a new musical. It will use the music of Queen and be all about if history had queens instead of kings.”

How would the British empire be different as a matriarchy? If there had been a Henrietta VIII, for example, would she have gone through 6 husbands? Some of the queens they did have were pretty brutal. Would they have felt less pressure to be so if they weren’t sandwiched between kings?

I suspect the ruthlessness lies not in gender but in unquestioned power, in the philosophy that there’s a divine right to rule for a particular bloodline. How then could a monarch, male or female, not believe they’re better than everyone else? Why should they genuinely take interest in what goes on for any of their subjects?

I mean, it’s fun to see something a bit different…

I can’t help thinking about these things with the coronation of the new king. It’s a rather inescapable affair. As an immigrant living in Britain, I was initially bemused by the knitted crowns on top of Royal Mail letterboxes and the bunting strung across main streets. One of my favourite cottages to walk past put up signs saying, “Party like royalty.” Cute. 

Then there were £10 souvenir brochures for sale, and you can’t get a chocolate bar without a shiny crown stamped on it, and the public are offered the “opportunity” to participate in the coronation by swearing allegiance to the king… It became unsettling. Especially considering the monarchy’s cruel legacy of colonialism and the slave trade, and the current cost of living crisis.

Class Differences

When the queen died, it was a day or two after the Conservatives made Liz Truss prime minister, and during the first week of school. When you’re running around making sure your students actually have lunch to eat, swapping in new unelected leaders for old ones does not impress you.

I don’t begrudge people whatever small pleasures they find in life. Clearly some people enjoy celebrating the monarchy. I wish they could get that feeling from other things. It’s like my Year 12 student not wanting to join a cooking class in making burgers, because she’s convinced nothing can be better than MacDonalds.

Patriotism.

Shouldn’t bluebell-carpeted woods, chips from the local takeaway, maybe a trip to a local production of ChittyChittyBangBang, make Britons feel proud of their country rather than a random guy donning ridiculously expensive headgear? 

Many are concerned about the massive cost of this event. I’m happy for the children of our parish if they enjoy the hula hoops our council decided to gift to every schoolchild to mark the occasion. I’m glad if people like getting together for town-funded street parties. But the district Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, for example, has a waiting list of more than 200 young people with acute needs. Hula hoops are fun, but so’s cake and there’s a reason no one liked it when French royalty said, “Let them eat cake.”

Story Selection

I don’t read much about the royal family. I got fed up with it as an adolescent in the mid 1990s when Princess Di or Fergie or the American equivalent, JFK Jr, were constantly on People magazine covers. I do think it’s fascinating how being born to that level of privilege and scrutiny would affect a person and their relationships. There’s a wealth of opportunity for stories there and many have utilised it. For me though, other stories are so much more crucial.

I hope everyone remembers that the queen wasn’t the only person who sacrificed and toiled in WWII; pretty much everyone I cared for in my nursing home job a decade ago did. King Charles isn’t the only person who helps with good causes. So many unsung heroes work hard, or run food banks or volunteer at youth centres or take in refugees. 

I’ll spend much of today on housework and editing my novel’s penultimate chapter, featuring the voice of a refugee girl struggling in a new land. It is different from the chapters told by Eve herself, and I must make this extra, incredibly important voice work. I also plan to visit the swimming pool. It probably won’t be too crowded today while children are forced to sit at home near the telly. I hope they come away with wild ideas about how things could be different.

Will you be celebrating anything today?

Punishment and Crime

This Week’s Bit of String: A 17-year-old’s options

At work, I have a student who’s not sure what to do next. He’s set to pass his exams when he resits them, but because he needed an extra year to do it, the local engineering college won’t take him. His access to transport in this rural area is limited, and so are the apprenticeships on offer.

I brought up his case with the teacher who’s supposed to be our Further Options expert. This got me a lecture on how “cold, hard reality” is about to hit our students after their “cosseted secondary school life.”

Do you remember secondary school feeling particularly cosseted? I wouldn’t have called it that. There’s exams, loneliness, bullies, hormones, plus whatever drama’s occurring at home.

Besides, it’s not the student’s fault that his family can’t provide transportation or that there are only a few apprenticeships around, and far fewer aligned with his interests. It’s not really his fault he needed more time to pass exams, considering that he has learning difficulties.

You can join the bluebells off the path if you want.

He needs more options. It’s not his fault they don’t seem to exist.

As the mum of a young adult, I’ve noticed at work and in domestic life that many grown-ups adopt a punitive attitude toward newer generations. There’s this expectation that they ought to account for every moment, and achieve relentlessly. If a young person chooses something outside the conventional rush toward adulthood, or simply takes extra time, they risk interrogation and censure. 

The Right to Choose

Our ability to make decisions is one of the main things that makes us human. But society seems to dehumanise people the instant certain choices are made. If you decide you need some time off from work, if you think university’s not for you–well, what use are you?

It’s similar with the abortion debate. Beating louder than a cluster of embryonic cells which may one day be a heart is this far-right message: If a woman decides continuing with a pregnancy or becoming a mother would negatively impact her and/ or her family, what use is she

A couple of weeks ago, a state congresswoman caused controversy by referring to pregnancy through rape as “an opportunity.” However, I didn’t see anyone calling out her message’s particularly insidious core. It’s not just that she felt women should be forced through pregnancy and birth after being forced into sex. It’s that she saw pregnancy, any pregnancy, as an opportunity for a woman “to make a determination about what she’s going to do to help that life be a productive human being.”

The implication here is that from the instant of conception, a woman’s sole focus should be contributing a new person to the world. A productive person, mind you, one who won’t have to, God forbid, resit exams or anything like that.

This idea achieves the remarkable feat of dehumanising everyone involved. Women become vessels without bodily autonomy; their babies are essential goods to enhance the “domestic supply of infants.” The men don’t even get a mention in the issue; it’s assumed they want no part. 

What We Deserve

Carrying a pregnancy to term is often framed in a similar, punitive way to how we talk to young people. “You play, you pay.” But is nine months of complete body alteration, often interfering with the ability to earn an income, and then the torture of childbirth, an excessive price for unprotected sex? 

I’m not sure the punishment fits the crime. And what does it say about conservatives’ attitudes toward children if their very existence is a punishment to wayward mothers? (Possibly a throwback to the idea that labour is a divine curse, something Eve wrestles with in my novel-in-progress.) Parenting can be pretty punishing at times, but it’s not actually supposed to be a punishment.

My kid: a truly marvelous human.

The callousness goes both ways. At age 20, I had my baby. I was alone and had terrible self-esteem, so why not just go through with it? I wanted my child, and I’m ever so glad he exists. But believing you’ve got nothing going for you so you might as well give birth isn’t the best child-rearing philosophy.

Meanwhile, no one else wanted me to stay pregnant. It took a while before my baby’s father changed his mind and we got married. I moved our gorgeous, bright little boy over to the UK so we could parent together. But when I got exhausted and homesick and asked for help, my mother-in-law pointed out, “Well, it was your decision to keep it.”

Making a choice doesn’t mean we have to keep doing the same thing all the time. We can take a little break. We can change course entirely. Rejecting an option means quelling one potential outcome, but it enables another. That’s our right as existing human beings. 

It’s tempting to trace all outcomes back to a single decision. Fun to attempt when you’re plotting as a writer; to wind your story tightly around one moment. Life isn’t really like that. You keep choosing things, and you keep getting affected by things you can’t choose. There’s no point, later on, blaming everything on one decision. The challenge of finding a local apprenticeship is not a direct result of one boy’s study habits two years earlier, and nor is a mum needing an evening to herself a complete repudiation of deciding to give birth. Let’s let people make their choices and keep giving them chances.



Seven Wanders of 2020

Predictably, it was all British hikes last year. No European cities or the mountain lakes of home. Still, I’m lucky to live with countryside a mile away, to step out my door and choose a walking circuit of 3.5, 4.5, or 6 miles.

Weeks went by when we weren’t allowed even to drive a few minutes and explore Somewhere Else. Temporary easing of restrictions assigned extra value to sojourns that might otherwise not have been so memorable. And when we couldn’t travel, we could look to rainbows or holiday decorations. I think the people who put out massive displays of festive lights and inflatables by the third week of November, brightening the long nights, deserve to have a street named after them.

Dursley: Our Own Town

We’ve been familiar with the local hills for some time, but lockdown meant perusing churchyards, looking up name origins, finding the rare street less homogenous and more individualised than others.

Living in houses squished right up next to each other is hard. The constant reminders of other people practically on top of you, it’s exhausting. And when we fled for our daily walk, there were always a number of people doing the same. My son and I discovered more paths to the river (now more of a stream) and I may have gone mad without access to water in nature. Every day I incorporate the river in my walk, take my headphones off when I reach it, tell it hello, listen to its hurried reply, and imagine I could be on a riverbank anywhere in the world, letting it drown out the traffic and forgetting there are houses lined up on either bank.

Stroud Area: Selsley and Thrupp, A Few Miles Afield

My office is in Stroud so I used to go to this vegan hippie haven every day, walking the canal towpaths, listening to street musicians, frequenting little shops. For 3/4 of this year we could barely go at all. But our first journey out of town (by 7 or 8 miles) in the summer was to Selsley Common to see the dinosaurs, and my husband and I took a couple of canal walks later.

Woodchester: Local Lakes

Where I grew up every little rural town has its own lake plus various other ponds. That’s how you cool off in the summer. Over here, despite this Island being known for rainfall, there aren’t many accessible bodies of water. We had a couple of hikes (as did many others it would seem) at Woodchester, a National Trust estate with pretty combinations of wooded hills and manmade lakes, guarded by an unfinished gothic-style mansion which is pretty much the sort of place I intend to set my next novel.

Liverpool: Street Art and Maritime History

We managed to get a serious road trip in before this vibrant, friendly city was put into higher tier restrictions. With masks and constantly sanitised hands we explored museums to inspire whole fleets of stories: a branch of the Tate filled with modern art, the International Museum of Slavery, and the Maritime Museum. The grand if faded buildings still convey the city’s impressive history as emigration gateway and meeting place of cultures.

Charmouth, Seatown, and the Dorset Jurassic Coast

Plan E to celebrate my 40th in December was a cottage near the sea and fossil-hunting under the coastal cliffs. Plans A and B would have involved seeing my family in the US—I haven’t had a birthday with them since I turned 23. In the end, we were incredibly fortunate just to have this break 2 hours away, as it fell in the 3 weeks between Lockdown the Second and The Raising of the Tiers. And although the weather was generally poor, it left plenty of fossils to be found.

Combe Martin and North Devon’s Cliffs

As soon as the hospitality industry re-opened slightly in July, we went, for my first days off from work in months. Just to a cottage and lots of isolated hikes, mind you, no crowded beaches or anything like that. We love a bit of rock-scrambling and tide-pooling. The coastline in North Devon is pretty dramatic and made for good, even sunny, adventures.

Grasmere and Easedale Tarn: Proper Lakes

The main bit of our autumn road trip was spent a fair way North, in a Lake District shepherd’s hut with no electricity or running water. We hit Liverpool and the brief luxury of a half-empty hotel on our way back down. The Lake District is special for its own ancient landscape and language: fells and tarns and ghylls. Of course we hiked around Wast Water, England’s deepest lake at the foot of its sharpest peaks, and we visited lovely pubs and bakeries and came away with gingerbread and a glorious painting by Libby Edmondson. Our very favourite hike, though, was an unexpectedly bright afternoon walking along a beautiful purple-black river and ascending up to one of the glacial ponds, Easedale Tarn.

Did you get to do much exploring in 2020? If not, did you find anything special and new in your own local area?