how to be in the world

A short story of mine gets a reading on Radio 4 this Friday. Possibly this post will only make sense once you have heard it (thanks for reading! thanks for listening!). The Poison Frog is about possible courses of action open to us when we have been dealt an ugly hand – by family, perhaps, or by others. The character in my ‘curious tale’ suffers because of a parent’s dysfunction but instead of translating this suffering into anger or self-harm she converts it into something loving. Instead of turning her back, she takes what is most hurtful and poisonous and tends to it. Instinctively she knows that in doing so, it might turn into something more benign. It’s a lesson for us all in these difficult post-Brexit times no? If someone expresses sexist, racist, homophobic and/or xenophobic views there is likely to be a reason they hold such ugly views and if we can bear to listen, we might find ourselves in a position where we are able to transform such poisonous views into something more constructive.

When I am writing short stories I find my material often tends towards fable, as if storytelling ancestors are dictating shape and tone. Ancestors are wise and we can learn from our histories/herstories. Certainly some fairytale endings are easier to achieve in fiction but it’s worth remembering that from our earliest age, stories are how we learn to be and how we learn to be in the world.

The Poison Frog is on BBC Radio 4 at 3.45pm Friday 8th July

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07j7nv7

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writing out the psychic self

It’s not uncommon to hear writers talk spookily about their characters taking on lives of their own. However, even when a writer has planned a character’s journey through a novel, there are always changes of direction that happen during the writing process. Rather than put this down to any supernatural occurrence, I believe this apparent loss of control – as if characters are ‘taking over’ – is a sensation that occurs when the writing self and the psychic self become aligned. It is the sensation that occurs when the writer is open to both their writing and life experience that informs it.

The child narrator of Alarm Girl is a fictional character and a composite made from features from real life models (some of her attitudes and mannerisms reflect those of my youngest son, for example). She is also recognisably a version of my younger self – that is, the person I was psychologically speaking, when I was young. People who knew me as a girl say they can see me in Indy. Her circumstances are entirely different from the ones I grew up with but psychically she is me – as far as I am able to tap into this level of self.

Some writers talk about being ‘possessed’ or mention characters having a will of their own but I think the rush they are describing is simply what happens when one is open to both the writing and the life experience that informs the writing. The feeling this gives a writer is incredibly liberating. The conditions in which it can happen require open-ness and awareness as well as a commitment to the writing process (in terms of time, mostly). It’s also why timing is so crucial – as writers we might not always be at a stage in our craft to sufficiently express our experience and we might not be at an emotional pitch that is conducive to this process. All these elements need to be in place and in smooth conjunction with one another, aligning like planets.

Living with Grandparents

July 4th was my nan’s birthday. She’s dead now but I have been thinking about her today.

In my novel Alarm Girl, the eleven year old narrator Indy and her brother live with their maternal grandparents. This wasn’t my own situation but the intimacy of the relationship between the children and their grandparents, tempered by the distance of their remove (in the novel this is not just generational distance but also distance caused by issues relating to bereavement) reflects my interest in the ‘gradients’ of child-grandparent relationship and of course expresses my own relationship to my grandparents.

Both my grandfathers and both my grandmothers are dead now, the deaths of the grandfathers bookended by the deaths of the grandmothers, one of whom died at only 54 and one who lived until she was 92. Memories of our grandparents probably remain strong because we get to know them at a formative age – an age when we pick up on the intimacy they share with our parents and at an age when we are likely to be struck by their difference. When we visited Nan and Grandad the gravy was different to the gravy we ate at home, the soap in the bathroom smelled different. There were sugar lumps in a bowl and sweets in a tin. Us kids were alert to these differences right from the moment of arrival – we loved to ring the doorbell with its Big Ben chimes. The garden was neat. There were shag-pile carpets and chintzy curtains, antimacassars on the armchairs and place mats on the table, illustrated with country scenes, plus a host of ornamentation including carved wooden elephants, horse brasses and porcelain shepherdesses as well as (randomly) a statue of Buddha next to the log effect gas fire, not at all like the taste Mum and Dad had for minimalist modern interior design.

My own children pick up on similar contrasts. They find the smell of their grandparents’ homes comforting and they associate certain foodstuffs (Birds Eye potato waffles, roast dinners) with them. They are quick to notice details of their dress (their grandparents’ choice of shoes seems to be a source of entertainment, as does any attempt of theirs to dress formally).

When my sons were babies and I was commuting to London, they were looked after by both grandmothers. On the days my mother-in-law looked after them, she would often have their cousins too so all four boys grew up with very strong connections to one another which survive even though now they see far less of each other now they are grown. The hours they spent with ‘Granny Pat’ when they were young, watching Pixar videos and falling in her pond constitute a huge part of our family mythology. The boys discuss those times with extreme nostalgia, even though they are still only teenagers. My mother-in-law allows them the run of her attic and shed just as she allowed them the run of her house and garden when they were little, with scarves tied around their waists as ‘tails’. Now the bottles they suckled have been replaced by cans of beer and her home remains a sanctuary, allowing distance from the parental realm.

If they overhear me criticise my parents or parents-in-law, my sons are quick to defend their grandparents. There is a special intimacy between humans who perhaps live by different values and yet share familial loyalty – ‘blood is thicker than water’ perhaps. As children, we are sensitive to the intimacy of our parents’ relationship with their own parents and it is this which percolates down, I think. We can’t explain it, we sense its importance at an animal level.

I acknowledge the significance of my own grandparents in totemic ways – when it’s chilly, I wear a cardigan hand-knitted by my maternal grandmother. It has her name label sewn into it, testament to the last years of her life, when she moved to a residential home. When I go on holiday, I use her suitcase. It has her old address written on its inside, in her slanted handwriting. A rag doll made by my paternal grandmother sits on a shelf in my bedroom – once a cherished plaything, now an ancestral relic.

cardigannan's caserag doll

‘Forget what’s in the Book’

One of the biggest pleasures in having my first novel published is listening to readers talk about my characters as if they exist outside of the book. In addition to public literary events I have visited book groups run by my mum, my brother-in-law, friends and ex-students to discuss Alarm Girl.

However, I am keen to get folk who don’t know me to read my work, too, and to this end I asked my partner and my eldest son to help me make a short promotional film.

Alarm Girl is partly narrated by eleven-year old Indy, so casting was tricky. While it delicious to have readers discuss my characters as if they exist (which of course they do, in the writer’s imagination and in the reader’s imagination), I was hesitant at the prospect of my child narrator coming to ‘real life’. I wanted to protect the private version of her I had in my head and wanted to protect the reader’s imagined version of her too.

The novel is set in South Africa, so shooting on location immediately proved a challenge. We substituted close-ups of the sandpit in our local park for a South African beach and by lucky chance, the publisher’s publicist was visiting South Africa on holiday so we gave her a camera and asked if she wouldn’t mind filming some bits and pieces – a beach, we suggested, some scenery out of a car window…

A Facebook friend had a daughter of the right age for Indy and happily, soon after our first meeting I found myself accidentally calling her ‘Indy’ – a good sign, I thought.

My partner works in factual television but even in so-called documentary, narrative is essential. I was shocked (and I admit, a bit hurt) when he told me ‘forget what’s in the book.’ Our task, he said, was to find economic visual signifiers and allow enough blanks for potential readers to fill in.

The film we made has a narrative of its own – one that the viewer constructs from the associations they make between the visual images and the spoken element. As with the book itself, the viewer, just like a reader, fills in the blanks and creates a story.

 

‘Writers Block’

Following on from my last post, one of the most powerful ways we can deal with something objectionable is not to give that thing credence, right? This is why I tell Creative Writing students that I don’t believe in ‘Writers’ Block’.

Again, this is an approach I have adapted from a child-rearing context. Parents are advised not to tell a child he or she is ‘naughty’. Instead, it is suggested we tell the child they have done something naughty. There’s a difference, obviously, and to focus on the behaviour rather than the child affords the child an opportunity to change their behaviour. To label a child ‘naughty, for instance, inhibits such a possibility.

In the same way, I find that to declare one has a writing block is to suggest that this is a state which is more intractable than perhaps it might be. It permits such a state – dignifies it with a name, fetishises it, even.

More helpful, I find, is to accept that there are days when words won’t come, or come less easily, but I won’t call this ‘Writer’s Block’. It’s all about words.

Turning away, respectfully

On Saturday March 21st I will be taking part in a panel discussion about depression and suicide as part of Brighton’s Sick Festival events. There are also events taking place in Manchester.

Each one of us exists on a spectrum of depression, don’t we? Some are further along this spectrum than others but if we’re alive, we have the capacity to feel both joyful about this fact and agony, too.

My approach to dealing with those moments when the agony presents itself more forcefully borrows something from child rearing advice. I view any threat of depression as if it is a wilful, demanding child of mine. I take responsibility for this child – it’s mine and there are things I appreciate about it – it is a privilege sometimes, to see the world through this particular child’s eyes. As with child rearing, though, when the behaviour of the child threatens to be destructive – to me, to others – the most effective and humane way of dealing with it is to ignore the child and hopefully discourage it.

For this reason, I choose not to acknowledge depression – in myself, I mean. I know for others it can be important to have it recognised and certainly ‘not to acknowledge’ is not the same as denial, which is rarely helpful. The choice I am able to make is a luxury that some further along the spectrum may not enjoy and certain environmental conditions (a loving and boundaried upbringing, for example) probably make it easier to turn away. It is a turning away that is required for me, however – a turning away gently and respectfully.

To find out about events taking place as part of Sick Festival visit http://www.sickfestival.com

Time (and the mother of all inventions)

Happy Mothers Day.

I had a peculiar experience during the casting of my radio play Come to Grief, which was an adaptation of a stage play I wrote during a residency at the National Theatre Studio twenty years ago.

At the time of the original production I identified with the character of the daughter, who was roughly my age. During discussions about casting for the radio version, I found myself thinking that actors the director suggested for the character of the mother were far too young for the role – he was considering actors the same age as me but I was the daughter’s generation, wasn’t I?

Twenty years ago, perhaps, but not any more…

This experience brought home to me the ongoingness of the living, writing self compared to the written self, which is finite – contained within the boundaries of character. We all turn into our parents apparently, and it seems I have already become my mother – the mother of my own invention, perhaps – but maybe that’s all any of us are to each other. Famously, the American novelist Austin Wright’s last words to his daughter on his deathbed were ‘You. Are. Invented.’

BBC i-player countdown: there are 12 days left to listen to my radio play here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04980dx