The Exams Rant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.



Filling Spaces

This Week’s Bit of String: Dragons and evacuees and musicals, oh my…

Confession the First: In second grade I had to write a complete story for school, and I sort of stole it from a computer game. I didn’t know how to invent whole new ideas, and my family had been working through Sierra Entertainment’s King’s Quest games 1 and 2. They were monochromatic with blippy music, but loads of fun. I couldn’t get them out of my mind.

In turn, the games themselves borrowed fairy tale elements, so while I felt as if I should have come up with something original, I also figured borrowing stuff was allowed.

A story starts out as a bunch of objects. Why not begin with whatever ones we want?

I was already skilled at pastiche. Before even starting school, I’d assign my stuffed animals roles based on Narnia characters or von Trapp children from Sound of Music, to enact and sometimes remix my favourite tales. Less than a decade later, I devised a series of novels set during the holocaust. I had a plot but didn’t know enough people to inform strong characterisations (particularly of the male variety; middle school does not offer a rich seam of girl-boy friendships).

So, once again, I borrowed. I had characters based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, and other books I liked. I’ve mentioned this before. They weren’t pristine or even recognisable copies, since I was putting them in different circumstances with different companions. But it helped me to carry on creating when I had a picture in my mind.

Just for the Moment…

In the first King’s Quest game, released in 1980, if you tried to turn your character a certain way in certain frames, or if you generally attempted something not in the programming, a message would pop up on the screen: “You can’t do that—at least not now!”

Sometimes, writing is like that. We have some of the ingredients for a full story, but are missing others. And you have to just put something in as a stopgap, in order to keep going.

At work I’m helping students prepare for exams. Every Year 11 in the country has to take the same subject exams, regardless of special needs or life circumstances. If they don’t pass at age 16 they must keep taking them each year. (I could pour my hatred of this system into several blog posts, ranging in temperature from grouchy to scathing, but I won’t trouble you with it now.) Most of my students have processing issues and biological literacy challenges that impair their ability to even understand the questions, which are set to trip students up anyway.

Still, we tell them to try. If it’s a Maths paper, put down whatever calculations you do and write something for the answer, even if it’s a guess. For the English papers, write as much as you can think of. Just put something down in those blank pages, to increase your chances of a pass.

In standard writing practice, we do something similar. A common exercise to get thoughts and words flowing is to free write for 5-15 minutes. You must keep writing the whole time, and you’re instructed, if you can’t think of something to write, to keep your pencil moving anyway. You can write “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” or “blah blah blah,” but keep writing. Fill in the blanks.

Purloined Persons

Confession the Second: I haven’t written new fiction in almost a year. I have written hundreds of pages, scribbling about my daily life and the odd fleeting idea. I’ve done blog posts. But I haven’t created, I haven’t added building blocks to a story. Lack of time, headspace, energy, you know how it is.

All kinds of building blocks to make this wall.

With the Easter holidays beginning, I decided to give it a go. After all, the longer you wait to do something, the more you believe you’re doomed to fail. Have you found that?

I unearthed a pretty decent story opening. I don’t entirely know what’s meant to happen in it. I’ve not been able to pull advances out of thin air. Why not borrow something, then? What if I take someone I know a little bit about, unpick the thread of a distinguishing characteristic or background detail, and then weave those into some gaps in my story?

It sounds kind of ruthless. Callous, perhaps, to borrow a person’s attributes. I don’t usually consciously do this. But sometimes you just have to fill in the blanks, and once you add to the ingredients you’ve already got, it’s all going to change anyway.

Sometimes a song or a picture will unlock a key element we need for our work. Other times we need a stronger nudge. Having come up with this plan, I managed to write 700 new words in just an hour and a half, even while frequently running off to check on dinner cooking. It’s still my own story, I just needed a bridge from reality into my long-unaccessed imagination. Already, now she’s got some words behind her, the character is finding her voice to tell me all sorts of things distinguishing her from her inspiration. And a story gets reworked so many times, characters evolve drastically.

What tricks do you have for filling gaps? Have there been things you loved so much, they may have shown up in your work, one way or another?

The Right Mix

This Week’s Bit of String: A seating plan reshuffle

You know it’s time to amend the classroom seating plan when sitting through an English exam practice question results in two students pelting empty drinks bottles at each other, clipping a staff member’s ear, and unabashedly informing the teacher they’ll f each other up as soon as the bell sounds.

In this case, the teacher begrudgingly typed up an incident report but tried to make me write the new seating chart in my unpaid after-school time.

“Make sure students a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, and i are nowhere near the windows,” she ordered. There are 3 window seats. There are 15 kids in the class.

She wanted at least 6 of them right in the front, but no one next to each other. Consign to some unreachable corner the special needs ones I’m there to support. “It’s a shame,” she said. “Most of them have been working well enough, but we’ll have to move everyone around in order to be fair.”

Rewriting a short story the following weekend felt like staring at the paper on which I was meant to draw up a new seating plan. Where to even start? So much I like, must I really chop and change the whole thing?

Outnumbered

For years since I first worked in the local secondary school, whenever I have to do something hard I have a recurring image in my mind. A dark-eyed little Year 8 slumped over basic arithmetic problems, throwing his head back and groaning, “This is so looooong!”

Long is a big insult from a student. Long is NEVER permissible to them.

Rewriting can feel long. Long and not particularly well-illuminated.

So it is with rewriting, in more ways than one. It takes a really long time, and I’d forgotten that because it’s been several months since I was free to sit down and fully overhaul a project. You think creating, yanking plot and character and language out of thin air, is the hardest bit. It should be quicker tidying things up, but it’s not.

It took hours of painstaking line-by-line work to shrink the word count by 40%, and that’s only the first go. Just as we make our Year 11s do more than one practice paper before exams, it’s going to take multiple versions before I get this story right.

The piece I’m working on is told by a mother of young kids. She has a terrible back injury and her husband’s disappeared. It’s funner than it sounds, because the kids are cute and the woman has a wry sense of humour. However, as with many tales, I have to balance out pain and hope, despair and wit.

Seating Plans Versus Story Drafts

There are a few similarities between helping run a classroom and pulling together a narrative.

No aimless gazing out the window: We want focus in the classroom (easier said than done) and definitely in a story. Every word and exchange should be trained toward the story’s purpose. No diddly passive verbs or excess prepositional phrases, no meandering side glances or navel-gazing either.

Long = Bad: This isn’t always true of course, but we don’t want anyone to feel something’s a slog. We give students various quick tasks to build different skills, and likewise with a story we can vary the tempo. Once I’ve made a major round of cuts, I look at the shape of the paragraphs on the page—are there too many rapid-fire dialogue lines, or excessively dense thickets of description? Where possible, I distribute these and alternate them.

Don’t forget the back row: The first page is like the classroom front row: curated with special care to set the tone. Because so much expectation rests on those initial words, I go over the beginning loads of times. But I also work backwards at some point, line-editing in reverse so my scalpel is sharp at the end for this round of cuts, rather than always sharpest at the beginning.

A little cold round the edges can bring the general shape into sharper relief

Maintaining balance: Move over Hamlet, the REAL question in life is do we lump the bad together so we get bigger swathes of good, or try to pace it out? In schools we often inflict a beastly child upon a lovely one in a seating plan. Otherwise the “bad” kids sit next to each other and form a whole beastly herd in Row 3. As a writer, I don’t want to present readers with unrelenting woe (I mean I’m not Thomas Hardy), so I emphasise warm relationships where possible and sprinkle humour throughout.

Make space for addition: When deep-diving into a rewrite, the immersion lasts beyond the hours of Post-It rearranging, pen slashing, and sitting at my laptop. I’ve reentered the world of my story and it takes a while to find the exit. In my dreams, on my walks, while I’m cooking dinner, I think of things I want to add. Parallels to be drawn more clearly perhaps, quick descriptors to enhance the mood.

Not ideal when trying to reduce word count to meet a competition’s maximum requirements. It’s like unleashing a kid fresh from the Internal Exclusion Room into a previously settled classroom. Will this knock everything off balance? But newcomers, whether people or words, deserve a chance.

Above all, when I’m editing I just wish someone could give me the answers. Does this go here? Am I allowed to keep this? Is something more needed there? I lucked out with the seating plan at school, because the other teaching assistant and I convinced the teacher it wasn’t our job to do it, and that little was required anyway. “You can keep most of the students where they are. It’s not as if it’s a secret why we have to move two or three of them.”

What are your tips for rewriting? Do you enjoy the process or do you find it… long?

The Value of Women’s Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supply and Demand

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

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

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

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

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

Overtaking

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

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

Street art, Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

Resolving

This Week’s Bit of String: View to a sundown

During the recent heatwave, we went out for a late evening drive, finding ourselves at a viewpoint on a local peak. The large car park was almost full. Students in pairs or trios enjoyed the views, family groups packed up disposable barbecues, friends took stock of the situation while balancing MacDonald’s cups on their car roofs.

We wandered to take in the sunset, while dragonflies patrolled the scabia and thistles, and kids laughed and the tractor haying in the pasture below turned on its lights. It was the eve before all restrictions would be eased (despite covid cases rocketing to the same levels as January) and, whether intentionally or not, people were keeping their distances.

We came here in the beginning: March 15, 2020. My husband and I went to a local film festival to see the silent movie Beggars of Life accompanied by a live bluegrass band. There were quite a few empty chairs in the theatre, as people started withdrawing from events, but we thought we’d go, try something a little different, fully knowing it might be our last night out in a long time.

After the movie, we stopped at the same viewpoint and looked at the stars filling in the gap between peak and ground. It felt precipitous.

Unfinished Business

Most people I know are worried about the timing of lockdown’s end. The delta variant of covid seems so contagious; every day we hear of more people having to isolate. The sun has not set on this pandemic.

Even if cases were way down, I think I’d still feel… anticlimactic, perhaps, about lockdown ending. Some people sorted their lives out during that time, it seems. I fear mine is in more disarray than when we started, and I can’t be the only one.

We are all this wind-shoved tree. Still standing…

My son’s first year at uni was a bit rubbish with all the restrictions; now he doesn’t know what he wants to do. Still working full-time, my husband and I didn’t accomplish any stunning DIY feats. We didn’t even have a clear-out since the charity shops and tip were closed. When the toilet and shower leaked under the floor, we peeled the laminate away revealing splintery, water-stained boards, but we couldn’t figure out what to do beyond that. Any further solutions would involve turning the house water off for a while, and we had no other place to go.

I took a lot of good walks—and also got plantar fasciitis and tennis elbow which made many of those hikes quite painful. I finished a handful of stories, and even found publications or events for a couple of them. But I haven’t had the energy or support or just the time to myself to properly tackle rewriting my novel. The loneliness of being an immigrant was more acute than ever. Maybe survival is the one thing I have achieved through lockdown.

Survival Mode

Let’s not underestimate the importance of surviving these times. And let’s not discount the monumental effort of it. When we’re spinning in a frenzy, we’re not going to make an accomplished journey. One about-face and then another don’t really equate to coming full circle.

A strip of wildflower seeds in our garden has brought us as much joy as our carefully planted roses and veggies. Chaos can be ok.

Most stories are written to show character development parallel to event progression. I’m not sure real life is like that. We are constantly challenged, and sometimes it’s not until the next really big test that we might notice what we learned from the last. Getting time to process something is a myth, at least in my existence.

So we emerge, reminded that time and family are incredibly precious. I don’t really care how little I’ve written for publication in the last 16 months, I have notebooks full of daily scribbles on how my husband and son were doing and what small things we did for each other. The clutter in my house hasn’t stopped me working lots of overtime right next to it, from a corner in my dining room; the injuries I had didn’t stop me going out for my alotted local exercise.

We’ve all learned what we can push on through, despite being cut off from others. Very likely, we’ll be doing that some more in the near future. This chapter is ongoing, even if the format’s changed. There’s no resolution yet, but we have resolve to keep working toward one! How are you getting through it all?

What to Notice

This Week’s Bit of String: That ship has sailed

There’s a house I walk past on my early morning hike each day, with a round window like a porthole under the steep roof’s apex. The pane covering it boasted a stained glass sailing ship.

Only it’s not there anymore. I noticed recently, the porthole now has normal glass. Nice glass, with a whorly navel in its centre, but it’s not an adventuring ship. I did not approve this change.

During lockdown one gets attached to certain things. While unable to leave town for months on end, the sights on my limited range of local hikes became my safety network.

Wouldn’t a ship look nice in that window?

Blossoms and blackbirds, shop displays and creeping cats, the church rubbish bin with a fish symbol painted on it just in case the name and location aren’t identity enough. Footbridges and milk deliveries. The man with two huskies who wears a neon vest asking for space, and always smiles Good Morning when I give it to him. The young guy who strides down to the construction depot at the new housing estate and takes position outside the gates to aim a thermometer at the foreheads of entering labourers. The patched and re-patched bit of pavement which my son always said looks like a guitar, insisting we make suitable sound effects every time we walked over it.

So it shook me to realise a little mainstay of mine, something my gaze sought out while I hustled uphill from town, had disappeared. When did I see it last? What if the window was changed a while ago and I didn’t notice?

Missed Signals

I’m not sure if monotony is better or worse for noticing things. We might notice the slightest change, or we might have started tuning out. Even now that lockdown’s over, I use the same 3.8 mile route most mornings because I don’t have to expend energy on decisions.

Baby Georgie.

We need choices sometimes, though; to confront us into consciousness. A couple of weeks ago, one of our guinea pigs got sick, after 4.5 years with us. After multiple attempts to dropper water into him, we took him to the vet, and sadly George died there in the night. Had I noticed his discomfort too late? Should I have put him through the trauma of a vet visit earlier? You can bet we’ve been watching his brother extra carefully. I’m not sure Fred is pleased with the spotlight; he prefers food to affection.

I assume other people struggle as I do to be more present, less dulled by the daily grind. As parents we’ll always be trying to catch up with what we miss, and as writers it can be even harder to notice things, even while we’re the ones who should be super observant.

Taking Roll Call

The thing is, writers have an observing, idea-gathering mode, but also a developing mode. When we notice something that snags our interest, our body moves on but our mind is snared in what ifs, and character-building. While it’s nice to be consumed, to have that momentum, we don’t want to miss too much.

Infinite story possibilities in a rusty ship’s nail

Here’s what I’ve been reminding myself to stop and look out for, even while in the midst of plot problem-solving:

  • Multi-sensory check. Every now and then pause and concoct a quick description for each smell, sound, sight, taste and texture around you.
  • Revel in the wrong. I recently saw a typo in a Missing Person notice, describing a “balding man with a bear and glasses.” This transformed a sober paragraph about a man with facial hair to an imagined adventure with an ursine companion, and my imagination hadn’t had such fun in a long while.
  • All creatures great and small. A ladybird straying across the work desk, snails curled around lavender stalks, their shells listing blissfully sideways, judgmental rooks and feline drama queens. It’s fun to make inferences about all their behaviours.
  • Sift through the remains. Any found object in your travels could tell a story, from a dropped shoe or stuffed animal to a grocery list. A badly repaired square of pavement, allegedly guitar-shaped, brings me happy memories of walks with my son, so truly inspiration can be anywhere.
  • Shameless use of prompts. Every day I try to come up with, for example, a sky description. Or a description of something in relation to the sky. This derives from when I used to use a sentence starter, “The sky today…” and it became habit to look out for the sky and how to portray it.
  • Keep an eye on your people. I have kept up with daily journal scribbles, primarily to leave myself reminders of thoughts and experiences shared with my family. For years I didn’t want to keep a journal, reserving any precious writing time for “real work,” pieces that might be published. Now, I’m so glad I recorded some interactions. These are the last things I’d want to miss.

What have you been noticing lately? Do you have any suggestions on how to keep observational skills sharp and make the most of the moment?

Restarting

This Week’s Bit of String: How to begin a writing day
Battle-scarred fellow traveler

Let your brain drag you out of bed.
It will have jolted you awake several times already, nervous, excited, random, clamouring to achieve release.
It’s been asking, Is this really allowed, is your partner genuinely ok with you spending a whole weekend day on writing work, will you be able to keep up with everything else, is your kid all right too (always is your kid going to be all right), am I smart enough, do I have the stamina, the wit, the imagination to get anything done?
And you’ve been telling your brain, you’ll have none of those things if it keeps waking you.
But this time you must get up, get outside, have some fresh air while there aren’t too many people for you to slalom around.
You have to feel as if you’re ready. You exercise your body to get permission to exercise your mind.
You don’t need the hoodie. No one cares if your frame is visible, if it’s gotten bulkier.
You have been working hard. You have the right to slice through space as bluntly or as sharply as you like.
The same goes for the page. You have the right to be heavy-handed in your first draft. Anything you say can only be used against you when you are ready to reveal it.
Swerve around the mud-spattered fallen geranium and poppy petals.
Nod a greeting to the other early morning travelers: determined snails and industrious blackbirds.
Indulge in the futile summoning of every cat you see, haughty after its night out.
Your legs are stretched. Your brain has been pounded into a rhythm. It has been lulled into focus.
You are prepared with snacks. Fruit and nuts, a politically incorrect tuna sandwich and some chocolate-coated pretzels.
You are an ambitious squirrel, you are a reckless, rule-flouting heathen.
You are a person of great imagination and careful planning, who has reserved fuchsia socks with penguins on them for this occasion.
The blinking cursor awaiting words on your document isn’t taunting you, it’s jumping up and down with excitement for what you’ll come out with. It adores you.
Give the page what it wants, open the cage door and pour your mind into its arms.

Back to the Projects

It’s been a while. The lockdown of 2021 was a tough one, and I haven’t had time to write for submission. After a long lapse, after constant flirtation with exhaustion, I wondered if I had the concentration for it anyway. I booked myself a writing day, using Writers HQ’s online retreat (which are wonderful and free, by the way, try them out here).

Bit rough, but the way through is visible.

There are ideas to work on. There are even plots. My goal was to finish one story, rewrite another, and edit a final one. Submissions will happen once again! It’s hard to contemplate the emotional roller coaster of submitting work when isolation has knocked you down. That was part of my issue, not to mention a dearth of submittable work, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. So I am building up my arsenal of stories, as well as my perseverance to once again plough through the inevitable rejections en route to some kind of success. It takes a lot of rearranging around the weekend chores and the weekday job, but I’m excited.

Daily Words

Despite my inability to write for possible publication, I have been writing every day, in my journal. Each notebook lasts 2 or 3 months, filling up with observations from my walks, reflections on current events, and details from family life. In each notebook cover I write something I want to remember for the period.

The inner jacket of the notebook I started just after Christmas says: “Small steps, long pauses, unlimited restarts are allowed.” And there did come a pause. I’m glad I told myself it was allowed. There was enough stress without beating myself up for not publishing anything.

Now I’m ready to fit in a bit of creating again. If you’re not, I hope you enjoy your break.

There’s a lot in life we can’t do over. But with writing, we can! We can stop and come back to it as many times as we like. Readjusting our balance doesn’t mean we’re not writers, any more than reworking a piece makes it less of a story. If you have to focus elsewhere for a while—let yourself. We know you’re a writer. Your work knows you’re a writer. You will meet again, in better times.

I started my latest journal a couple of weeks ago, and this time the cover has a line from an Avalanches song, “Frankie Sinatra.” It’s highly inappropriate, but I am a sucker for a catchy tune. The lyric goes, “Like Frank Sinatra bitch I do this shit my way.”

Folks, it begins.

Counting Mental Calories

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

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

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

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

Varying Metabolism

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

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

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

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

A Balanced Mental Diet

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

Views that nourish the mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Keep Writing

This Week’s Bit of String: Storytelling bribery

It was the last class of the day. My 13-year-old student was still wound up from lunchtime; someone had incurred his wrath and plotting vengeance was more interesting than a Science lesson.

He squirmed in his seat and flicked bits of paper at his classmates. ‘Miss,’ he said, ‘have you ever punched anyone?’

‘Yes I have, and if you sit quietly and do your work, I’ll tell you about it at the end of class.’

The school had tried to encourage him to settle. Special daily reports signed by each teacher at the end of lessons, plenty of threats and consequences… But I’d finally hit on something (no pun intended). He kept himself cool for the rest of the session, and then I told him and his pals about how I got offended at a birthday party when I was seven years old and punched a boy I’d been friends with for years in the stomach.

Old school.

As writers, we know about target audiences. Any other anecdote would not have pressured my student into compliance. We’re always checking and re-assessing which tale is best to submit to which publication; this takes up a great deal of our precious writing time.

We also need to consider a key demographic: ourselves. Which project will hold our own focus at this time so we can develop it? When so much is out of our control, and so little available to brighten our days or broaden our horizons, not every idea will work for us right now. More than ever, we’ve got to write what we like.

Revisiting

In Britain, since October we’ve had just 3 weeks that weren’t on lockdown and there’s still at least six weeks until we can venture outside the same routes we’ve been walking for ages now. It may not be coincidence, then, that I’ve only this week written my first complete story since last fall.

I’ve had perfectly decent ideas in my daily notebook scribbling, for bizarre, dark humorous stories and feminist stories and tragedies-in-flash. But I couldn’t stick with them—not yet. If I had a few minutes of quiet to work on, you know, non-office work, I’d find myself staring at the computer until I found an excuse to Google something before shuffling off to spoon peanut butter into my mouth. (It’s not just me, right?)

Our writing can welcome us home.

The ones I manage to finish have pieces of home in them. They have youthful confidence and lakes and mountains and music like Salt-n-Pepa or Alanis Morissette played on old, fourth-hand car stereos with the windows down while driving several exits up Interstate 89 to get a root beer float.

These are the things I want, and probably need, to write about right now. There’s heartache and conflict but humour and resilience too—warmth. I’m not strong enough to dissect British daily life or examine the class structure or plunge deep into grief. It’s important that we do those things when we can, but if, like me, you’re just not up for creating such pieces right now, you can help amplify those who are: this upcoming volume of stories from the Lesbian Immigrant Support Group, for example, or Nikesh Shukla’s latest book Brown Baby.

The Places You’ll Go

There’s lots we can still do in our pages. If you’re struggling to get some work done, see if you can write something that feels less like work. Here are some suggestions:

Recreate a favourite setting: Since I can’t get back to New England, that’s become my favourite place to write about. I’m enjoying reading and daydreaming about other destinations (currently one of Peter Carey’s novels about Australia in the early 1900s), but for my writing to flow easily, I need deep familiarity, as with the place where I grew up.

Time travel: Every era has its challenges, but in recent decades at least, they weren’t the ones we have now. Set your characters at a stage in life when they might enjoy things more freely. I’ve been writing about teens who are alienated yet spunky, or about parents with mischievous kids to enliven the pages.

Or a drizzly New Hampshire Memorial Day parade.

Mingle with crowds: Let your characters do things we can’t. School dances, bowling alleys, mountain hikes. I find I’m not just counteracting my own losses and separations in my pages, I’m also imagining the things my son has missed out on, in his final year of school and first year of uni.

Do a remix: If you can’t summon your own ideas, twist a well-known story. You can go speculative on a historical event, or subvert a fairy tale. One of the stories I got published last year was this reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Following a pre-existing plot line from another angle helped me get the work done.

Use a natural progression: Seasons, holidays, milestones—these can help move your piece along. I started one story about growing up in the 80’s/ 90’s and wasn’t sure what would happen, until I used the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as the turning point.

Give hugs: Create on the page the relationships we’re missing out on. This year I’ll have a story published in Retreat West’s anthology that I absolutely love. I wrote it last year, about two sisters. I haven’t seen my actual siblings in over 18 months.

Life’s not easy right now. We still want our writing to be great, and to get it out there, so we’ll make ourselves think of something original or follow a trend or submission theme. But you are allowed to write what you want. Write anything that keeps you wanting to write.