Make Writing Fun Again

This Week’s Bit of String: A library getaway

A couple of weeks ago, a Sixth Form student I’d been working with not only passed her English GCSE re-sit—she aced it. It was a marvellous hullabaloo; the whole school was thrilled.

Now that I’m not accompanying her to re-take lessons with obstreperous peers, or helping her hunt down alliterations and pathetic fallacy, we can spend her supported study periods preparing for independent life, and pursuing her own creative interests.

One of these is writing. She is determinedly working on a novel about a teen with superpowers.

Last week she said, “I know what will happen next. They’ll escape to a library that’s full of magic spell books.” She leaned in with a little smile. “I’ve always wanted to write a story set in a library.”

I had a little, goshdarn-it-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that moment. Should we be thinking in these terms more frequently, focusing on what we’d really love to write about?

Love What You Write

Trinity library, Dublin

Maybe you already do that. Hopefully you do. I fumble around in the chaos of daily life for my little bits of string and try to judge which ones might be the most publishable, the most profitable. Maybe that’s not the best measure of what I should be working on.

Often I seize on a concept, a what if… what if I became intangible and my hands had no impact when I tried to clean or shape or touch, what if eye contact between humans was literally hazardous? I write notes on these and compile images, but find myself disengaged when I start my process with mere ideas. 

I’ve noted this before, but need reminding. We have to write what we like. Otherwise, the slog will be evident. And of course, this is supposed to be fun. It’s necessary to our beings to create, but it’s also supposed to feel good, at least after a fashion.

I’m a bit jealous of poets; I feel as if they’re allowed to take a particularly striking tree, or a memorable event or cherished location and craft with it, run with its imagery and emotion, unfettered by plot. It’s not that I think poetry is simple. You have to imbue it with rhythm and beauty yet make it look effortless… Admit it though, finding a beginning, middle, and end for prose can be a wrench. I’m not convinced every idea is MEANT to be plotted.

A Bucket List for Writing

Or if we could be ancient Greek astronomers, designing constellations, grasping at our favourite stars and assigning shapes to them. I know, trying to make a story out of some random thing that interests us can be as far-fetched as dragging out a concept that doesn’t grip our soul. But it can’t hurt to play around with such things a bit, and see what ends up working.

Tiny kingdom

I’m coming up with a bucket list I want to write about. People (literal-minded characters feeling at odds with their own time period), settings (the sea, a couch cushion den, fairy castle tree stumps with moss-lined turrets and mushroom spiral staircases), props (lilacs, root beer, doll collections…) 

I’m not going to force a single story to revolve around these like a jukebox musical. But they could make good starting points, or exciting background details to add when I’m feeling stuck. 

In a sense, we can incorporate poems, odes to what we love, into the scenery of our stories. What sort of character might love the things we love? Or, what could some of these images mean to someone who’s experienced them completely differently–to someone suffering acute grief, or addiction, or whose perception would be different due to sensory impairment?

I’ve just started another rewrite of my Eve novel. I love those characters and that world, but it’s brutal going through again, making my sentences fear for their lives. I’m also finishing a draft of a short story, and always doing my daily scribbles and fiddling with other ideas.

Watching my student discover the creation process, though, makes me pine for that fresh taste. So I’ve been taking notes on a cast of characters for a new, long project. Pages of family history, sense memories, likes and dislikes, beliefs. It’s such fun, like when you start a relationship that’s all your own and you don’t have to worry what anyone else thinks because they’re all yours; you haven’t introduced them to anybody yet. What a luxury!

Do you relish the creation stage? What would be on your writing bucket list?

Learning Something New

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

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

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

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

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

Time to turn over a new leaf…

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

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

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

So far, my new habit has entailed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jellyfish!

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Wanders of 2022

Because exploring is so beneficial to creative life, I like to pay tribute to some of my favourite excursions, treks, or simply spellbound mooches from the year. I usually walk over 100,000 steps per week (some of that is tracking my students up and down the stairs at work), so I had a few hikes to choose from. See if any of these inspire you. Maybe some already have!

Grand Union Canal, Chilterns, UK

We spent an unseasonably warm, perfect March weekend in a yurt near the Chiltern hills, with the Grand Union Canal just a couple fields away. We followed it around the reservoir at wonderfully-named Startop’s End, meeting geese and mandarin ducks and bulrushes, and down the Wendover Arm. This bit was added in 1797 (yes, a recent addition…) to remedy supply problems in the main canal. There was a WWII airfield nearby, later used to house Polish refugees crammed into tin shelters.

Meredith, New Hampshire, USA

We had a relatively short walk here on a showery August day. This town is on Lake Winnipesaukee so is a bit of a tourist destination, with a giant Adirondack chair, overflowing flower boxes, souvenir shops, Ben and Jerry’s counter, and a waterfall running down from an old waterwheel. The lake itself is a fine sight, nine miles across at its widest, and the town hosts a sculpture trail every summer, with new, enchanting pieces on the waterfront and around town each year.

Exeter, Devon, UK

I did my own personal writing retreat in Exeter, booking a room in a hotel with a pool and editing The Gospel of Eve till midnight at my desk, as well as on the train journey there and back. I visited the cathedral and kicked through autumn leaves alongside the old city walls, locating the arches of the medieval bridge. I trailed the River Exe too, watched the sunset, and got through a whole chapter over a delicious tapas lunch. This smallish city is the perfect size to alternate writing sprints with walks, since there are plenty of destinations within easy reach.

Braunton Burrows, North Devon, UK

I only learned this place existed from Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path. Who would have thought—sand dunes in Britain! We were clifftop camping at the time, and went to check it out. We headed down your average bush-lined path with marshy grasses and the occasional hint of brine on the breeze, and after a while the view widened and the land tilted and we were approaching massive sandy slopes, with people bodyboarding down them. The area was used for practice before D-Day, and is still a military training area. So rather surreally, as we admired the sand in the July sunshine, we heard gunfire and truck engines.

Stowe, Vermont, USA

We visited Stowe during our Christmas trip to be with family, and found a winter wonderland. There were horse-drawn sleighs jingling through the woods, with ski mountains in the background. Our alpine-style motel had hot tubs out in the snow, and easy access to the 5.3-mile recreational path that follows the West branch of the Little River. In town, we made use of the free shuttle bus after grabbing a timetable from the tourism office which also offered rocking chairs in front of a flaming fireplace.

Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK

I love fossil-hunting. There’s something really addictive about it. While staying at a B&B on the Jurassic Coast, we learned about Monmouth Beach, also known as the “Ammonite Pavement.” We’d been to Lyme Regis before but hadn’t realised there’s a fossil beach virtually next to the Cobb. The car park is between them, so we charged our car there while first ambling across Monmouth Beach, with massive fossils visible in slabs beneath our feet, the ammonite spirals taking us back in time for millennia. I dug fragments from the exposed clay layers on the shore. Then we went the other way, past the pretty buildings and under the ammonite-shaped streetlights of the Cobb waterfront, and found some lunch.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park, Woodstock, Vermont, USA

Billings Farm, a working, late-19th century reenactment site, is a favourite destination for us especially since my sister works there and offers expert behind-the-scenes takes. But we hadn’t explored the trails and the area around the main house, now a national park, until this summer. The gardens were beautiful and the pool looked lush on this hot day. We went up through piney forests and around the pond, over South Peak taking in the mountain views, then descended the switchbacks of the Faulkner Trail to find ourselves in Woodstock, with its pretty houses and covered bridges, long green and lively shops. After some well-earned ice cream, we crossed the river back to Billings.

2022 Reading Round-Up

My top ten books from the year again feature quite heavily from independent publishers and writers I know… mostly writers I met on Twitter. So that medium has something good going for it, although in the year to come, I will attempt to convert some of my scrolling time to reading time. Might get through a few more books that way, don’t you reckon?

Cajoncito by Elizabeth M. Castillo

Multilingual poet Castillo gifts us this volume of English and Spanish poems. When she writes about love and loss, it’s as if she’s peeled back layers to say things I didn’t know how to. Many of her thoughts use metaphors of ink and pages, which were beautiful and also motivating to me as a writer. Particularly the first piece, “Can I Send You My Poems?” is perfection.

…Can I cleave
my way, breathless, across the seas? Can I scale
the mountains erected defiantly between us? Fight, bare-knuckled, the beasts that live at altitude?

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I love Anne Tyler’s family sagas. Her characters are always so real, so nuanced and quirky, and the dynamics between them so plausibly fraught, I am amazed at where she finds the inspiration to keep developing such individual ones. I like her straightforward, often humorous style, as well.

But still, you know how it is when you’re missing a loved one. You try to turn every stranger into the person you were hoping for. You hear a certain piece of music and right away you tell yourself that he could have changed his clothing style, could have gained a ton of weight, could have acquired a car and then parked that car in front of another family’s house. ‘It’s him!’ you say. ‘He came! We knew he would; we always…’ But then you hear how pathetic you sound, and your words trail off into silence, and your heart breaks.

A Snow Garden and Other Stories by Rachel Joyce

These short stories are somewhat festively themed, and they reflect the heartache and joy of the holidays. There’s a fun modern-day nativity story, the title piece is haunting, and the final story quite lovely—but my favourite was the first, “A Faraway Smell of Lemon,” which seemed sort of an homage to Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” with its great, moving simplicity.

Binny’s words echo in the silence. The young woman nods. And because she does not reply, because she does not fight Binny’s words, because she does not soften or dilute them with a sentence of her own, they fall for the first time. They land. Binny feels their weight, their loss, but the world does not stop or shudder. Yes, she is still standing. She is still breathing.

The opportunities we discover thanks to books! Braunton Burrows, Devon, UK

The Shadows We Cast by Sarah Tinsley

This is a real page-turner and a true feat of dramatic irony. As readers we know the twist from the start, and we’re desperate to know how the characters will work it out. It’s also an unflinching look at the aftermath of sexual assault, assigning the event its rightful significance while also developing the protagonist fully so she’s not at all defined by it. There’s so much to unpack in this book, I’ve reflected on it further here.

Coming here should have made it better, a distraction from the dreams that left her blunt and smudged. She feels like an echo.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

A travel memoir about dealing with tragedy by hiking the South West Coast Path, I may have particularly enjoyed it because I love that region anyway. I saved the book for when we were clifftop camping in North Devon, and thanks to Winn’s narrative, I found out about Braunton Burrows and we had a marvelous trek over the sand dunes. The book is candid and searching, but often also fun and irreverent.

We hide ourselves so well, exposing our skin in youth when it has nothing to say, but the other skin, with the record of time and event, the truth of life, we rarely show.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

The perfect read for cold January, this surreal, slightly gothic sort of mystery. I was tempted to start naming months in the way the protagonist takes to doing: The Month of Steadfastly Accumulating Tiredness, perhaps. But I don’t have the knack Clarke does. It’s an intriguing concept and so cleverly told.

Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

You know I love a book about a book. Possession, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and this novel by Krauss, are examples of a literary investigation which unfolds into a great personal journey. Here, there’s a book to be translated, and it brings together a girl grieving her father, and a holocaust survivor.

Strange what the mind can do when the heart is giving directions.

I might be needing a bit more bookshelf space in 2023…

Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? by Fran Hill

Fran Hill is a terrifically warm and funny writer, and here’s one volume of her diary-style memoir about teaching secondary school English. This is quite an accomplishment given that a teacher comes into contact with many, many characters. She’s artfully chosen which ones to follow, and tracks relationships efficiently. It’s such an enjoyable read, especially if you work in education.

(Of a Sixth Form English class preparing to read The Handmaid’s Tale) “Rebekah certainly knows her Bible stories. The others hadn’t a clue. Conor thought a Testament was a body part.

Mrs. Narwhal’s Diary by S.J. Norbury

Another enriching, uplifting volume from indie publisher Louise Walters. This one’s in a diary style too, but much more novelesque, with in-depth looks into the protagonist and her family. The point-of-view is bemused and warm, often funny, and all the characters and the setting are so unique. I particularly liked the insights on parenting, and on trying to free a loved one from the clutches of repressed British genealogy.

Why can’t we change other people? Why isn’t there some sort of antidote to their toxic beliefs that we can slip surreptitiously into their tea?

Transcendent Kingdom by Yea Gyasi

This book has so much in it. It’s about families, neuroscience, race, religion, addiction, immigration… The characters were so relatable in their struggle for redemption and belonging, while the story illuminates wider issues of racial justice.

I, too, have spent years creating my little moat of good deeds in an attempt to protect the castle of myself.

Have you shared a love for any of these books? If you haven’t yet, there’s never a bad time to treat yourself. Enjoy!

Feast

This Week’s Bit of String: A whole block of cheese

It’s Friday last lesson again, and the English teacher has wisely chosen to engage our bottom-set Year 10s through writing about food. First, they are to describe their dream meal. I scribe for one of our special needs students while he tells me about his family’s cottage pie.

“Do you put a bit of cheese on top?” I prompt.

“Not a bit of cheese—a whole block!”

He tells me how they melt a whole block of cheese, sprinkled with herbs, and then pour it over the mash. When we move into class discussion, I’m urging him, “Tell about the block of cheese! Tell about the block of cheese!”

The teacher gets it. Her eyes widen as she hears about this feat of culinary excellence, and she calls it life-changing. The other kids, often so derisive at age 14/ 15, are chiming in appreciatively and they listen to each other share, their respect generally unwavering whether it’s one girl talking about her Jamaican parents’ curried goat, or the boy who lives on a farm discuss his chickens, or someone else describe her German grandmother’s bratwurst and peppers soup.

Funnily, the previous night I’d helped host a Women Writers Network Twitter Chat on the topic of Women Writing about Food. Lots of creative women joined to talk about food in literature, about how to describe it and what it can signify. You wouldn’t have thought there was anything amiss in the Twitterverse; it was just people coming together for a lively, supportive discussion.

The Room Where It Happens

While food and eating can have strong associations with loss and self-esteem issues, it also brings us together. Many of us are privileged enough to have happy kitchen memories from somewhere, and we’ll go still and listen when someone else recounts theirs. Being from kind of a big family, when I was growing up we were a bit strapped for cash, but we almost always had supper together and meals were noisome and fun.

I wonder what stories unfold at a kitchen table like this… (Seen in a London shop window)

My original writing location was the family kitchen table, although it was just outside the kitchen at the time. My mom had a typewriter set up there for work, and when I was four, I used it to type my first story. We made Valentines and decorated Christmas cookies and Easter eggs all at that table.

Not everyone gets to have that, of course. One boy in our Year 10 class offered up KFC as his dream meal, and didn’t join in with any tales of lovingly home-cooked food. I worry it might have been hard for him listening to what others were able to discuss.

Sometimes, the longing to connect can make us eat irresponsibly. I related hard to Nikesh Shukla’s chapter on food in his memoir Brown Baby. He writes, “Food is home and home is what I yearn for.” As an immigrant now also dealing with an empty nest, I truly get that.

Present in Its Absence

Almost as significant as food itself is the lack of it. Hunger can motivate creativity as much as satiation can—perhaps more. My first published story, in the Bristol Prize Anthology in 2010, was about a Haitian girl whose mother sold mud pies (literally) for a living. It reflects the fact that there are people in the world so disadvantaged, they eat earth.

Eating also makes a great metaphor. In the Retreat West anthology, my story has a girl called April describing how her older sister was a rapacious learner. I’m still very fond of the opening to that one:

“My sister devoured all history, beginning in the summer vacation when she was six. The century soon ending was Tabitha’s starter. She told me barbed wire cut her lip and toxic fumes tainted everything. Some of it was outer-space-cold, some burning-rainforest-hot.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

I’m not sure I’ve written many stories that don’t at least mention food. My latest novel, currently in polishing stages, is about Eve and the creation myth, so it features the forbidden fruit (which I’ve decided was a peach, by the way. Who gives up paradise just for an apple?) and contrasts the bounty of Eden with the strife of exile. In this story, of course, food is the ultimate separator, as that peach causes all kinds of rifts beyond just banishment. But as Adam and Eve’s family grows, mealtimes are when everyone gets together, round the fire circle, and are often where tensions or alliances become more visible.

How does food feature in your writing? I hope the Thanksgiving feast (if you are of that persuasion) brings comfort, joy, inspiration, and maybe even a whole block of cheese.

Hitherto Unsung

This Week’s Bit of String: Bin day

I like to do an extra long hike early on Friday mornings before work. It amplifies the feeling of accomplishment for the week. Friday is Five Miler Day, but it’s also Bin Day, when the rubbish or recycling gets collected. Particularly now that it’s so dark and dreary, for stretches at a time it’s just me and the wheelie bins out there.

Sunrises and hoarfrosts aren’t exactly enhanced by eau de sanitation truck, or windblown cardboard recyclables. But flashing lorry lights reflected in dark windows, and the vehicle’s clanks and sighs, the passive-aggressive thumps of the bins back onto the pavement, say Friday to me. So I embrace the whole.

The things you find on bin day…

Sometimes I see a former student jogging alongside the bin lorry in his neon vest, grabbing the bins and lining them up to be emptied, and we exchange a wave. He had a great sense of humour in school and liked art and music. I hope that the other sanitation workers are a nice fellowship for him, and that his early waste collection shifts leave him time for creative pursuits. I worry that his duties might feel quite demoralising, though. I’m not sure I could handle it.

Hail the Workers

Perhaps inspired by this young man, I decided to write about a sanitation worker while experimenting in a workshop this week. Sarah Tinsley’s virtual Scribbles workshops are a fun hour of mixed exercises and sharing. We were looking at different ways of communicating what’s going on in a scene–different viewpoints, dialects… I tried a couple sentences in the voice of a young bin man, then a couple in the voice of an elderly man watching from his window.

Then, I had a go at narrating the scene in Homeric fashion, referencing “the rose-fingered dawn” that Homer so liked to mention in The Odyssey. I enjoyed this, so carried on with it. I feel we could enhance a lot of professional profiles by narrating them like ancient Greek epics. There are so many people in this world who go unsung.

“A rose-fingered dawn casts its light upon Ithaca Street, sentried on this fortuitous morn with firmly aligned ranks of fleet-wheeled waste receptacles…

“Sing, o Muse, of one who went valiantly forth and did battle on the field of GCSEs, was bested, and yea, battled them twice more in accordance with the law of the land…

“Sing how with utmost dexterity he wields the malodorous foes. One by one, before each dwelling place, he captures the rejected parcels and upends them into the belly of his vast, clanking barge. He leaves not a single receptacle correctly aligned, fearlessly conveying defiance to the very gods.”

Changing Voices

I think I’ll do more of this. It’s fun. One weekend at university, a bunch of us went on a conference and I decided to narrate the trip there. It was a good laugh. I’d narrated myself sometimes when I was younger, and once found that piping up, “Little did they know, but the girl was dying for some attention” was surprisingly effective. 

The rose-fingered dawn…

With social media now, we kind of narrate ourselves all the time. Remember when Facebook was young and naive and people put their statuses in third-person? Then it moved on to angsty first-person adolescence narration.

I think we should borrow styles more often. Try a bit of Dickensian impersonation, or David Attenborough. Brighten things up by narrating as Bob Ross. My kiddo just dressed up as him for Halloween. I threw in a brief bit of Shakespeare on election day: “Get thee to a voting booth, go!” Another example is sports commentator Andrew Cotter’s viral videos from lockdown, when he narrated his dogs as if they were engaged in sport. 

So, as we head into another busy week, let’s have a bit of fun sometimes and make each other feel epic. Lift up an unexpected character, who doesn’t usually get to play the hero; try on a different style. See what happens!



Engaging in Speculation

This Week’s Bit of String: Rainy day photos

It’s coming down hard outside. The school has a plastic, greenhousy roof and when it rains hard, it sounds through the whole building as if we’re barrelling down Niagara. On the bottom floor, in the Sixth Form Atrium, my student’s ears perk up. She wants to get some good, rainy pictures for Photography class, to convey the wrath of nature. So we leave behind the practice English paper I was scribing for her, and head for the doors. 

“If I drown, give my regards to my sister.” She’s off into the downpour. 

The wending row of young acers behind the school stand like candles in the dreary grey, their red leaves tapered to disappearing at the treetops. Paving stone puddles reflect the brightness, blurred by the pounding fury of more water.

As it calms down, I join my student taking pictures near the Music Block. The ground squelches beneath us and a budding saxophonist attempts “Mack the Knife” from the other side of the brick walls.

Later she asks me, “If photography didn’t exist, what would the world be like?” 

My own rainy photos

She means it rhetorically, a comment of pride in her work. But, as is often the case, I find myself reflecting on this later. There are times when photos, or the flagrant absence of them, have swayed the species enough to alter history. A Vietnamese girl running from a napalmed village; police bodycam footage. 

Beyond that, though, what would our society be like if we were not constantly confronted with extra images? If we didn’t have framed photos of the past, and we didn’t worry about how we looked when captured for posterity, I wonder if we’d be better at focusing on the present.

Considering the What-Ifs

This week I helped host the Women Writer’s Network Twitter chat on speculative fiction. We had some great conversations, which can be followed here. Margaret Atwood defines speculative fiction as “literature that deals with possibilities in a society which have not yet been enacted but are latent.” It can be science fiction, political thrillers, fantasy, multiverse… all sorts of things.

I like to think of it as entering parallel universes, branching off from a point, recent or historical, in the known timeline. I’m not fantastically imaginative, so most of my stories are written like this anyway, by rubbing at the edges of reality. I might consider people I’ve heard of and shade them into fiction, or in the novel I’m currently working on, I’m taking a well-known story and telling it from an alternative point of view.

Sometimes, what-ifs plague our personal lives and can make us anxious. It’s a relief to turn the tables on them and create our own hypotheticals from the past or present rather than cower under worries about the future.

Kids’ Questions

Our students, when they leave their this-is-boring, I-hate-school ruts, like to distract themselves by speculating about alternate realities. They’ll ponder how WWII would have gone down if Hitler were Jewish, or lament the lack of natural disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes in the UK (until I reminded them that those might be accompanied by loss of power and wi-fi).

Some almshouses built for the “deserving poor” would have been funded by the slave trade.

The other day when we learned the prime minister had resigned, my Sixth Form student said: “If the next prime minister is crap again, I’m going to march to Winston Churchill’s grave and find a way to bring him back to life so he can sort this out.” I’m pretty sure he’s not the inclusive, progressive leader we need right now, but I do like imagining past figures reappearing to witness the world today.

Imagine if James Madison came back to life just to stand in the front row while Lizzo played his flute. We’d see him swoon like a slaveholding snowflake, or maybe he’d applaud politely like a mature and intelligent human being and accept that he was wrong about certain things. Either way, I wouldn’t mind seeing it. 

I wrote a piece a few years ago about Edward Colston randomly coming to life on a Saturday night in the centre of Bristol. Colston contributed toward Bristol’s prosperity in the 17th and early 18th centuries (even though he lived out of Bristol for most of his life). Much of his wealth came from trafficking human beings, so his legacy is corrupted. I liked picturing his confusion at the noise, colour, diversity, and excess of a Bristol weekend.

Where have the What Ifs taken you lately? Is there a point you’d like to stray from on our timeline?

Suspense

This Week’s Bit of String: A childhood phantom

When I was little, I worried about the devil. Not in the way you might expect, though. My family was religious, I had a very strong impression of good and bad, and I was convinced Satan would jump out and drag me to hell if I so much as left a toy out of place.

I remember walking past our toy shelves once, and a stuffed animal fell off behind me. I stood there, thinking, Should I pick it up? I didn’t actually knock it down. Probably the good thing would be to pick it up anyway. Is Satan watching me, giggling like a cartoon villain, hoping I don’t pick it up because then I’ll be his?

Although I was genuinely frightened of hellfire and other punishments, I also found it exciting to imagine this powerful baddie investing so much attention in me. Everyone likes inventing villains, it’s not just writers. Politicians require them, social media users relish them.

What perhaps sets apart my early exercise in this is that I never believed he could force me to do wrong. I was worried about myself making a bad choice.

Cheltenham Street Art: Don’t believe everything you think.

I still worry about that last bit. I think that’s the root of the concerns many of us face. I’ve realised that a source of constant stress for me is actually suspense, and a lack of trust in myself.

Will I sleep too late? Will I say the wrong thing at work? Will I manage to meet my own high fitness and writing expectations?

We’ve just had World Mental Health Day, and it’s the spooky season coming up. So I’ve been contemplating this fear that underpins so much: fear of failure.

What Happens Next?

Fear of the future is one thing. I have a newly moved-up GCSE student who will halt in his tracks, and look at me with panicked eyes. “I can’t cope anymore,” he says, “I just want to know what will happen.”

He’s terrified about the exams he’ll ultimately take, and about his home situation, and he puts it so plainly and recognisably. The world is massive and we’ve seen how easily we can be separated from those we love, how thoroughly our routines can be disrupted. Sometimes we just really want to know what’s going to happen!

For me, I assume that spanners will get in the works. Something will break down, someone won’t turn up, prices will keep rising, plagues and insurrections and natural disasters will occur. Life will try to stop me doing what I want to do. The question is, will I let it? How easily will I allow myself to be derailed?

The nice thing about writing stories is getting to decide what happens. I can stop a short story if I don’t want to know the ultimate fate of the main character is. Leave it with a trace of hope, a flicker of possibility. Or I can go super-omniscient, and decide the entire life of someone. In my current novel, based on the creation myth, some events have been decided for me, but there’s a lot of wiggle room. Eve’s motives and responses weren’t included in the Biblical account for some reason.

As writers, though, we do get an extra heaping of suspense and anxiety. Will it be good enough? Will anyone care?

Self-Trust

It’s hard to escape the fears regarding our own capabilities, partly because there will be things we WON’T be good at, people we can’t please, days we don’t finish everything. But constant mistrusting ourselves, dwelling ever in suspense and suspicion, nervous we’ll let ourselves down, that is unsustainable.

One reason why I’m particularly attached to this routine…

Here’s what it looks like for me, in case it’s similar for you. I like to take an early 2.5-mile walk, in addition to walking to and from work, and running around while there at school. I love being out in the quiet, and I like to bank some good exercise before the day begins.

I have to wake up around 5:30 to do this, and I avoid the disturbance of an alarm. So from 4-ish onwards, my mind wakes me up every 10-20 minutes checking I haven’t missed my chance.

Once I’ve gotten up and done my walk, I almost immediately start wondering if I’ll manage it tomorrow. Sure, I succeed most days, and I did so today. But what if I don’t tomorrow?

Silly, isn’t it? I’ve never thought of myself as an anxious person in the sense that other people struggle with anxiety. This issue for me is by no means crippling. Remaining in suspense, though, means that my feet don’t often touch ground. That is exhausting.

It helps to name the issue and recognise patterns. I like the term suspense. An edge-of-my-seat, thrill-a-minute existence as I compete with myself. It’s less clinical than anxiety, sometimes downright exciting, and perhaps, like a page-turner of a book, I can learn to pause and put it down now and then.

The other day, I broke my routine to show it will be ok. Instead of a morning walk, I went on the treadmill after work. Lo and behold, there was still time (and energy) to make dinner, do all the washing up, make it to a writing workshop on Zoom, and critique someone’s novel chapter afterward.

Finally, if I ensure that I’m speaking kindly to myself in the midst of this, it’s less scary and stressful. I’m pretty good at telling myself what I’ve done well, and cheering myself on. I just need to put more belief behind the thoughts, and trust myself.

Do you find life gets a bit too suspenseful sometimes? How do you deal with it?

Back to Eve

This Week’s Bit of String: Debating Lady Macbeth’s villainy

The Year 11s are learning Macbeth for their GCSE in Literature. I help sometimes in the small class with a number of special needs students, who have become impressively engaged in debating who the true villain of the play is. (The appeal for one boy is the “high kill count” in this particular story.)

To delve into the imagery Shakespeare uses—flowers and snakes and whatnot, and perhaps to help get us through the last lesson on a Friday afternoon, the teacher showed a brief video about the Biblical creation story. It was an outrageous little cartoon. God sounded super American; Adam (predictably lily-white and blond) had a slightly less egregious American accent; Eve sounded Eastern European but with strange, digitised diction as if she were a Satnav; and finally (again, sadly predictable) the devil-serpent had a British accent with African tones.

Both Eve and Lady Macbeth probably had a few things they wanted to wash away.

Eek. The makers of the video had also added a whole conversation between Eve and Adam, after the snake tempts her and before she takes the fruit. It was not unlike Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Act 1, Scene 6, along the lines of: “I think it would be great for us if we ate this fruit.” “What, no way, God said we shouldn’t…” “Come on, pleeeeease?”

It was as if some sect read the the start of Genesis and said, “This account is clearly written by woke amateurs who failed to spell out how fully the blame should fall on women. Let’s fix it.”

I took it as a sign, on that sunny autumn afternoon, that I should really get cracking on the in-depth edits for my own Creation myth.

Work in Progress

Drafted three years ago, The Gospel of Eve is my novel telling events from her point of view. It’s had terrific feedback so far, and I’m terribly fond of it, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to see what might need improvement.

It helps when I’m reminded why I wrote it in the first place, to explore the story and come up with an alternate voice. More specifically, I had been thinking about how Eve would learn to be a mother with no role models or preceding matriarch, how she would negotiate between guilt and hope, how desperate she’d be to give her children better lives, how not all of them would appreciate that. How she’d have to play matchmaker to her own children, and how that might make her reflect on her own relationship with Adam.

Contemplating what went on both in and outside the Garden gates

It’s tricky writing about mothering, because it’s such a consuming theme. By writing about Eve as a mum, am I stifling her individuality? Plus, living in prehistoric times it’s not as if she has recognisable hobbies of her own. A favourite book, a group of peers to hang out with. So in addition to firming up the narrative around Eve’s journey as a mother while I edit, I’m also trying to make sure her own voice comes out loud and clear.

Since my only child moved overseas 5 months ago, writing about being a mum is a nice substitute for a lot of the hands-on mothering I once did. Parenting is still a big deal in my life, and really it’s one of my favourite things. I’m glad it consumed me. But now I must pick at the bones that are left and see what comes up, while still juggling work and chores and waking up frequently between midnight and 3 a.m. to check online messages from my kiddo. (Don’t you love time zones?)

Cradle of Civilisation

Millennia later but not far geographically from where Eve’s story takes place, more women’s voices are being heard, as brave people rebel against Iran’s morality police and authorial government. I’m inspired by this as a writer and a human. I loved Rana Rahimpour’s interview with Jon Stewart. Her anecdotes will amaze you.

Cultural aspects of this region should amaze you too. I loved researching evidence of early Middle East civilisations, and learning how they used to store ice in the desert, or irrigate crops with tunnels a bit like underground canals. I ended up using the latter as a fairly pivotal plot point.

Considering how upset some people are that elves and mermaids can be depicted with different colour skin, I’m interested to see how they’d react to the parents of all humanity being casually described as having brown skin. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that humans populating punishingly hot regions and formed, according to legend, of the earth itself, would NOT be lily-white and blond. But people are weird. Gives me another incentive to promote this alternative, though perhaps more accurate version (if “accurate” is a term we can apply to a novel containing angels, demons, talking animals, and 800-year-old people).

So many thoughts and findings I’m eager to share. I’ll just make sure everything’s up to scratch! What challenges have you faced when editing? What challenges would you imagine for the first woman on earth?

Literary Locations

This Week’s Bit of String: Under the patchwork quilt

My grandparents’ guest bedroom was one of my favourite places. A rocking chair in the corner, a handmade crazy quilt on the bed. Shelves of AMC magazines that my Grandpa kept, unwilling to throw away anything with portraits of cinema’s Golden Age stars. The nightstands, under the dropped eaves, were metal and wire 1970s pieces loaded with books.

The books would change, and I never delved into how or why. Was my Grammy exchanging them with her sisters? Did my older cousins swap them out? However it happened, rootling around in this bedroom was where I discovered Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

This is the quilt from Grammy’s house, in a writing corner I briefly had here before some, erm, home “improvements” commenced

It was an abridged version, still hefty, a yellow hardcover with that plastic that peels off in satiny strands if you pick at it distractedly while you read. There were a few black and white illustrations, the sisters each given distinct appearances. 

I was 9 or 10 when I found the book and read a few pages while my siblings ran around. The opening image of Jo stubbornly tomboying, sticking her hands in her pockets and whistling, made me laugh and I read it to the others and we all mimicked the gesture.

Family Home

At that point, my grandparents had lived in their Vermont house for at least 50 years, raising 6 children there. A pastiche of wallpapers, AM radio, the smell of American chop suey or home-baked donuts, and all objects well-worn, softened at the edges. Keeping the same house for so long felt magical, as if the air we breathed there was different, the atmosphere more sustaining.

During my latest summer visit to New England, I took a trip with my two sisters down to Massachusetts to see Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived with her family (after they’d moved dozens of times, due to financial struggles). It was a hundred degrees out, with a major heat warning cautioning everyone to stay inside. Fortunately for us, Orchard House is gently air conditioned, preserving the many artefacts within.

Recognise it?

We were amazed at how authentic the place still is. Nearly all furnishings were used or made by the Alcott family. Paintings by Louisa’s youngest sister May (aka Amy), doll clothes stitched by Lizzie (Beth), crocheted bedspreads and even the wedding dress of the oldest sister Anna (Meg). We were quite awestruck.

In the master bedroom, there was even a timetable devised by Mrs. Alcott (Marmee), allotting how many hours the girls ought to spend on learning, on chores, and on other types of enrichment. It reminded us of the chore charts our mother would create to encourage the three of us plus our brother to each do our share.

A Room of One’s Own

While my clever and crafty sisters took great interest in different crochet and knitted pieces, I geeked out over Louisa’s room. She had her own writing desk, a white, rounded table her father built her. It jutted out between two sunny windows. This was exceptionally rare, for a women to have a desk.

The desk was ornamented with a nautilus-shaped inkwell, very Transcendentalist, and pens given to Louisa by her mother. Mrs. Alcott had composed a little poem to go with them, a prayer that the Muse would keep Louisa’s creative fires burning. Such obvious support really moved me.

I’ve now read Little Women more than once, unabridged as well as that old abridged version, along with some of Alcott’s other works. If you’ve also read it, and/or watched the film adaptations (two of the more recent ones were filmed at the actual Orchard House so it is instantly recognisable), you’ll remember that Jo (aka Louisa) writes up in the garret, and stores her pages in a disused tin kitchen. However, Orchard House doesn’t have an accessible attic.

Schoolhouse behind Orchard House where the Alcotts and other Transcendentalists educated newly freed people from Missouri.

Much of Little Women is based on Louisa’s life, and I’m sure in the dozens of other places she lived while growing up, she did write in attics and in all kinds of nooks and crannies. I wonder if she looked back on those corners with the most nostalgia, and perhaps even found them more inspiring, despite the wonderful space she ended up with.

Certainly, creating a writing garret for the character of Jo was a brilliant authorial choice. Think of how many young, non-affluent readers Louisa made writing feel accessible to. You don’t need a desk, or a view, or a room of your own to write. Not according to Little Women, anyway.

That was something that I loved about the book growing up, and the Winona Ryder film version that came out when I was in high school. Thoughts of Jo, bundled up against the cold, writing through the night really motivated me to work harder. Whether it was under that quilt on my grandparents’ guest bed, or in a basement corner on a typewriter that cost $5 at a yard sale and that I later abandoned after finding a snake in it, or in countless notebooks on bumpy bus rides or squishy sofas or prickly theatre seats at dress rehearsals; whether it was with shouting children or my husband trumpeting upstairs; whether it was scribbling at a bar between taking orders from customers or in the back of a woodworking shop while my students were learning new skills on a field trip… Sometimes, the most unlikely writing places are the ones that stick with us. They yield the hard-earned words, they witness the flood of the ideas that simply will not be kept back.

After all, a main message of Little Women is how hard work makes life feel more meaningful. It was nice to see this backed up by the many loved, homemade objects in the Alcott house, just as I remember them being in my grandparents’ home.

What sorts of places have you written in, and who are the writers or characters that have inspired you to do so?