Madeleine Thien’s ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’

Tiananmen Square, 1989

Writing about – and teaching a class on – Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing wasn’t easy. It was hard enough to read. This novel is intricately put together in several senses: structurally, linguistically, thematically. While at first, I felt Thien was working her way through a cynical ‘literary prize’ checklist, I soon decided her ambitions were much higher. This is a novel with a lot to say, about music, politics, philosophy, time, language, love, the self, duty, loss, censorship… And all of it, through a madcap structure which serves to elevate those themes, and through a cast of characters sprawling enough to rival Elena Ferrante. There is so much to learn about Chinese culture here: its joys and limitations. What it means to be a Chinese emigrant, compared to a national. This book is like a Rubik’s Cube. The more you twist it around, the more the pieces make sense, and come together as a beautiful whole.

I am not Chinese. Nor have I ever been to China, so it would be arrogant to suggest that this book has allowed me to even scratch the surface of understanding what it means to be Chinese. But I had to teach a lesson on it. Two, actually. So I’ve had a pop. If you are Chinese and happen to have stumbled across my blog, I’d be more than grateful to hear your thoughts on the book – or anything that I’ve written about it – in the comments below.

Emily x

Introduction

Although this book, like our last, contains a male character who dreams of fleeing to Canada in order to escape his own oppressive culture and be with the man he loves, you could be forgiven for missing the connection. Sparrow’s yearnings for Kai, once they have both (like Harry Cane) committed to conventional married life and fathered daughters, are just a single note in the epic symphony of Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The scale and ambition of the novel – both in terms of its sprawling cast of characters and its portrait of modern Chinese history – is dazzling. The novel’s narrator, Marie, like Thien herself, has lived in Vancouver all her life. But it is the question of what it means to be Chinese – the culture that both Marie and her creator have inherited – that Thien seems compelled to explore.

Time, Music and Language

In terms of its presentation of time, the novel’s structure is playful to the point of being disorientating. The first section, Part One, contains chapters numbered from one to eight, while the second section, Part Zero, counts backwards from seven to one. Within those chapters, we jump back and forth between the lives of three generations, leaping between Big Mother and Swirl’s youth in the forties, Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai’s childhood in the sixties, and Marie and Ai Ming’s early lives, from the eighties to the present day. Besides the family ties, the narrative threads are linked by The Book of Records, the love of which seems to bind together the generations.

It is notable that both the structure of the novel and the characters within it resist the idea that time is linear. In one storyline, Swirl claims that it is “foolhardy to think that a story ends. There are as many possible endings as beginnings.” In another, Marie states that “the past was never dead but only reverberated.” The link between these ideas is that Swirl’s statement arises from a reading of The Book of Records, while Marie’s is prompted by listening to a recording of her father playing Beethoven. Thus – as we concluded in our discussion last year of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Thien seems to suggest that the passing of art from generation to generation is an essential part of humanity. The idea is expanded on through a monologue from the Old Cat to Zhuli: “The things you experience are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again to the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life, something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth – all we are – is a record; copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, and on and on we copy.”

In light of this statement, Thien’s use of a circular narrative (which begins and ends at Chapter One, and with the voice of Marie) seems pointed. So too does the theme of classical music, which places emphasis on repetition and recurring motifs. But more importantly, the tragic implications of Mao’s cultural cleansing –the destruction and banning of art and artists – are brought into sharp relief. How much of that cultural heritage – so essential to our humanity – was lost?

It is also interesting to consider time in terms of how it pertains to Chinese language. Quite early on, Marie states that: “in English, consciousness and unconsciousness are part of a vertical plane, so that we wake up and we fall asleep and we sink into a coma. Chinese uses the horizontal line, so that to wake is to cross a border towards consciousness and to faint is to go back. Meanwhile, time itself is vertical so that last year is the year above and next year is the year below. […] This means that future generations are not the generations ahead but the ones behind.”

Not only does this concept of the order of generations link to the Old Cat’s discussion of originals and copies, it also sheds light on another interesting point: that the construction of our language can shape the way we think about the world. Perhaps the most interesting example of this is the lack of tenses in Mandarin, which limits the ability to discuss – and think about – how things were, and how things might or could be. While in the English language, we are encouraged to think of time as a straight line, Mandarin Chinese expresses all events – past, present and future – as occurring simultaneously.

Suicide, Confucianism and Shame Culture

From the first page, suicide plays a key role in Thien’s novel. Both major and minor characters – across generations – take their lives. It is perhaps unsurprising then, to learn that China’s suicide rates rank amongst the highest in the world, particularly for women: while globally, suicide is three times more common in men than women, in China, female suicides outnumber male suicides by a ratio of 3:1. What’s more, studies have suggested that relatively few of these suicides are linked to psychiatric disorders or depression.[1]

A possible root of this high suicide rate is China’s ‘shame culture’. By contrast, most Western cultures are, due to the prevalence of Christianity, guilt cultures. The New York Times defines the terms thusly: “In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.” This definition – as it pertains to suicide – certainly seems to ring true in the novel. Many of the professors at Zhuli’s university take their own lives when the students rise up in an effort to violently “trample every bit of their prestige into dust”. Zhuli, whose role as a musician morphs from prestigious to shameful overnight, reflects on her decision to commit suicide thusly: “she still knew who she was, before they broke her down again, she wished to choose a future and to leave.”

Zhuli’s rationale is interesting for a few reasons: among them, the idea that suicide is a ‘future’ that can allow an individual to preserve a sort of fidelity of character. This attitude is perhaps better understood in light of Confucianism, which fosters a shame culture by placing great emphasis on accepting one’s role and living in line with that role, while striving for harmony with other people and one’s self. Crucially, there is a place for suicide within Confucianism. The Confucian scholar Mencius wrote: “Though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. That is why I do not cling to life at all cost.”

Thus it seems that Zhuli, in seeing a sudden conflict between her true self and the expectations of her society, sees suicide as a more viable future than life. In her words, it is not “fear” she is running from, but “discontinuity.”

When Zhuli’s spirit haunts her cousin Sparrow, as he lies in bed with his lover, Kai, she asks him: “haven’t you understood yet Sparrow? The only life that matters is in your mind.” This philosophy – as well as the Confucian rationale behind Zhuli’s suicide – recurs when Zhuli’s niece Ai Ming (who, notably, is described as looking identical to her aunt) ponders: “what was fortune? She had come to believe it was being exactly the same on the inside as on the outside.”

It is ironic that Sparrow, unlike his beloved cousin and daughter, spends the majority of his life suppressing his inner self – both his musicality and sexuality. He eventually decides to travel to Hong Kong and commit to living an authentic life with Kai, but dies before he can make it. Kai – racked by grief regarding Sparrow’s death as well as shame for having abandoned his familial role – jumps from a window. Thus, another suicide in the story finds its roots in China’s shame culture, amplified by the damage caused by an oppressive regime which sought to oppress individuality and freedom of expression. It seems fitting that – for the majority of the novel – this suicide is framed not from Kai’s perspective but in terms of the people he let down, and the ramifications his death has on their lives. Indeed, on the novel’s first page, Marie describes her father as having “left” them.

[1] Law, Samuel & Liu, Pozi (February 2008), “Suicide in China: Unique demographic patterns and relationship to depressive disorder”, Current Psychiatry Reports, Current Psychiatry Reports

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Colonialisation VS Assimilation: explorations of culture in Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’

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Modern Montreal, which is actually about equidistant between England and Winter, because Canada is bloody massive, but that’s the only part of Canada I’ve been to so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

On the approach to my late twenties, I came to accept something about myself that I had spent a quarter of a century resisting: I bore easily. While it worked for my parents, who thrive on structure, the idea of staying in one organisation for the duration of my working life doesn’t suit my magpie-like temperament. I am fickle and attracted to shiny things, but is an attribute which can be embraced. Consequently, over the past couple of years, I have begun to develop a ‘portfolio career’.

In less wanky terms, that means I do ‘a bit of this, a bit of that’. On Mondays, I write. (Yes I’m still writing, yes I know I said I would use this blog to be accountable for my progress, yes I know I failed). On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I home school some students, tutor some others and run an adult literature class through the WEA. On Thursdays and Fridays, I work in a college now, helping young adults to pass their English GCSE if they failed it the first time. Here and there, I ghostwrite biographies, mark exam papers and sell teaching resources online. I rent out my spare room on AirBnB, too.

As things stand, it’s great. I don’t have the time or energy to get bored. Before any of these jobs have a chance to get repetitive, I’ve stopped doing them and moved onto something else. The repetitive thing is gone for another six or seven days. It suits me down to the ground. Maybe it’d suit you too. Portfolio career: think about it.

Anyway, as part of the WEA literature class, I write blog posts summarising my ideas. They’re sort of part book review, part literary essay. This year, our theme is ‘Migration and the Migrant,’ and the first book of the year is Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter. This is not a book I would’ve picked up if the group hadn’t selected it. The title didn’t intrigue me, and I judged the cover. Hard.

patrick winter

Looks lame, doesn’t it? But trust me: this is the avocado of the literary world. It feels so good that you’re sure it must be trash, but it leaves you feeling cleaner and richer. Go read it.

So, the point of this is to say that I’m including my blog posts here, in the hopes that they reach a wider audience and perhaps inspire people to read some of the wonderful books my class and I discover.

Emily x

Colonialisation VS Assimilation: explorations of culture in Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’

“The question of what constitutes civilised behaviour is at the heart of the plot. Is civilisation just about populating an area or is it more complicated? The Cree, the Native tribe Harry encounters, had an old, complicated civilisation which settlers wiped off the map. The inequities in Canadian society are every bit as bad as those in Australia, in terms of the bitter legacy of colonisation.”- Patrick Gale

Introduction

We open our exploration of this year’s theme – Migration and the Migrant – with an examination of the ways in which a culture can both liberate and constrain the individual. Gale’s 16th novel (and his first foray into historical fiction) takes the diaries and letters of his own great grandmother – wife to the real life Harry Cane – and attempts to make sense of his great grandfather’s sudden and inexplicable journey into the wilderness of the Canadian Prairies. Why, Gale wonders, would an Edwardian gentleman of leisure – settled with a wife and an infant daughter – opt for the uncertainty and discomfort of a labourer’s life, thousands of miles from the land and culture to which he was accustomed? Gale’s conclusions seem logical: his great grandfather was homosexual, and living in a world where homosexuality was not only socially unacceptable but punishable by law. Gale’s further conclusion – that the constraints of Edwardian culture could suffocate an individual to the point of corrupting their sanity – is not hard to believe either.

And so it is that A Place Called Winter begins in an asylum, telling us in no uncertain terms – in the form of a flash forward – that Harry’s destiny is not a good one. When Chapter Two pulls us backwards into the protagonist’s life as a young gentleman of leisure – pottering through a civilised routine of steam baths, newspapers and contented luxury – we have the unsettling knowledge that this peace and comfort will not last. The introduction of Browning – who at once provides Harry with the knowledge of who he truly is as well as the realisation that he can no longer live the life to which he is accustomed – acts as the ‘hero’s call’ in the adventure element of the narrative. Gale wastes no time in uprooting Cane from his somnambulant existence in Edwardian London and dropping him into the vast, hoar-frosted landscapes of unchartered Canada – give or take a boat or train ride along the way.

Plundering and Opportunism: Troels Munck

It is on these boat and train journeys that we are first introduced to Troels Munck – a character so borne of the realms of fairy tale that it imbues his very name (his nickname is troll), and that Gale (through Harry) concedes the hyperbolic nature of Troels’ “evil like in a fairy tale” in the narrative itself. But in terms of our theme, it seems most relevant to consider Troels as an emblem of Viking invasion. In his sexual abuse of both Harry and Petra; his aggressive approach to everything from recruiting soldiers to eating breakfast; his Danish origins and even the “violent pleasure” he takes in standing on the bow of a ship and looking out to sea, Troels seems to embody every element of his ‘raping and pillaging’ Scandinavian ancestors. From the upper class “puppies” he exploits financially to the prostitutes he frequents; from the farmers he cows into conscription to his treatment of Harry himself, Troels takes no interest in respecting or learning from others: his modus operandi is to take what he can from others through aggressive means and without remorse. Through the trail of destruction Troels leaves in his wake, Gale uses Munck to leave us wondering about the damage that has been done, historically, by this violent and unsentimental approach to migration. What cultures may have been trampled under the feet of men like Troels, beyond the realms of fairy tales?

Assimilation and Understanding: Petra Slaymaker

Providing a neat counterpoint to Troels’ attitude to other cultures, Gale offers us the formidable, practical and always respectful Petra Slaymaker. It is hard to imagine that Gale plucked a name like ‘Petra Slaymaker’ out of thin air. Petra derives from the Greek for ‘rock’, while ‘slaymaker’ translates from middle German to mean ‘maker of shawls or veils’. Petra Slaymaker is an aptronym indeed, then: Petra is a rock to Harry, offering him unwavering emotional and practical support, but she also provides him with a ‘veil’, acknowledging but not condemning his relationship with Paul, and gladly helping him to conceal their romance in exchange for a mutually beneficial ‘marriage of convenience’. Petra is the first character to accept and understand Harry as he is. And this attitude – as unremarkable as it may seem to the modern reader – is the radically defining characteristic which underpins Petra’s approach to culture, too. Unlike the majority of Winter’s residents, Petra accepts and understands the values of the Cree: the indigenous culture of her patch of Canada. While other English emigrants view the Cree as savage and inferior – a culture to be trampled over in the march of Edwardian progress – Petra views them as equals. She teaches the Cree English but learns their language too; she gives them homemade jam, but respects their wisdom, and knowledge of local flora (an attitude that Gideon dismisses as “self-aggrandising shamanism”, and which even Harry – when he meets Lily Thunder – is suspicious of).

Petra’s own reluctance to conform to the stereotypes her culture demands of her (as a westerner and a woman) also allows her to appreciate Harry’s own claustrophobia – as a heterosexual and an upper class gentleman. Through Petra, we see the reverse of Harry’s comment on his own repressed homosexuality: “When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.” Petra – as a nurse, a teacher and the source of Harry’s eventual self-acceptance – exemplifies how an ambitious woman may thrive, if she is able to escape the limitations her culture imposes on her. In the small community in which Petra exists, Gale constructs a microcosmic utopia which values assimilation and understanding: within it, women are allowed to be independent; homosexual men are allowed to express their  true selves and different cultures are able to learn from and enrich one another. Again, through Petra, we are left to ponder over how much has been lost through the ages – in terms of individual freedom and cultural diversity – through the wiping out of past civilisations.

Gender and roots: Gale’s presentation of the Cree

The third character worthy of consideration in terms of our theme is Ursula, Gale’s most well fleshed out Cree character. While the Slaymakers provide an environment in which Harry may escape the weight of heteronormative expectations, it is only Ursula that suggests to him that his difference may be a positive thing: “you are a two-souls Harry”, she tells him. “It’s a blessing and a curse. It can make you strong in [your mind].”

Harry, in turn, acknowledges and admires the blurred boundaries of Ursula’s gender:

“The further they walked from Bethel, the less she resembled the nun-like Ursula of mealtimes, so refined and modest. Nor was she like the young athlete who had so expertly driven the cart to town and back. Rather, she became an energised combination of the two: her true self, perhaps.”

Thus, through Ursula, Harry begins to imagine that his truest self may emerge as a consequence of embracing both the masculine and feminine elements of his personality, as opposed to struggling to live up to the prescriptive image of stoic masculinity that Edwardian culture has encouraged him to live up to. But this is not the first time that Harry has noted the less defined gender boundaries of Cree culture. When visiting the Cree encampment with Petra, he muses:

“[Harry] was not always sure if he was faced with a man or a woman. The men were beardless, and men and women alike wore their hair long. Over a certain age they were uniformly wrinkled, the women’s features often just as powerful and craggily angular as the men’s. To his untrained eye, the traditional clothes of one gender seemed confusingly like those of the other, a matter not helped by women electing to wear the most practical of Western garments, which were male, of course. Compared to Western women, for whom femininity often seemed a complex and time-consuming game they were obliged to play, Cree women struck him as unconstrained, as assertive, as powerful, even, as their menfolk. He suspected this was one of the things that had attracted Petra to their culture.”

            With this insight in mind, Ursula’s apparent “religious mania” and “compulsive transvestism” seems in fact to be another example of individuality stifled by culture. But while Harry has struggled since childhood to fit into the Edwardian culture into which he was born, Ursula struggles instead to adapt to it, having been “taken from his tribe when he was barely twelve.” To Gideon and the staff of Bethel, Ursula’s “equilibrium” is broken by Harry’s encouragement to “dabble in the teachings of his youth”. But it is apparent to the reader that the damage is in fact done by the repression and rejection of those teachings. This idea is represented most neatly in Harry’s description of Ursula’s hair, as he sees her for the last time:

            “With what seemed like unnecessary cruelty, someone had cut his hair to collar length so that, instead of cascading down his back, it sprang out irregularly from his face, making him look the very type of lunacy.”

Since Harry has already learned that neither male nor female Cree wear their hair short, this image can suggest only one thing: it is not “compulsive transvestism” that Gideon is seeking to eradicate here, but every trace of the Cree culture which forms the heart of Ursula’s identity.

In a sense, Gideon’s unquestioning belief in the superiority of his own ideas seems representative of Winston Churchill, his faith in the British Empire and his treatment of Indians, for instance, as “savages” who stood only to gain from colonialisation. Churchill himself claimed to “hate Indians”, accusing them of “breeding like rabbits” and therefore causing the Bengal famine (which led to three million deaths, and was largely caused by the export of Indian produce to Britain). Similarly, Gideon makes no attempt to understand Ursula’s history, and dismisses her at the novel’s close without reflecting on his own failure, stating instead that he will “have no more Indian patients”. The ironic misuse of the term ‘Indian’ here only serves to compound our sense of the ignorance of the ‘good doctor’.

 Conclusion

Gale seems to be making a liberal argument here, and a realisation which seems to land in the lap of every wide-eyed backpacker, as their passport fills with new stamps: we stand to gain much more through acknowledging, respecting and learning from one another’s cultures than by eclipsing one with another. Just as the genetic pool is made healthier and richer by diversity, so is our cultural landscape. This is a book in which migration offers an escape route for some, but a strait jacket for others. And alongside his fairy tale characters, Gale gives us a slice of fairy tale morality: how much more beautiful and liberating might our world be, if we migrated to understand, instead of to conquer?

 

Further Reading

 

How to Structure a Story like Dan Harmon

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If you’re a fan of Community and/or Rick and Morty, you may, like me, have marvelled at the plotting. Although the concepts/premises are totally different, there are a lot of similarities in their deployment of the traditional sitcom storytelling style, in particular their reliance on spoofing other genres and their inclusion of absurd, high-concept adventures. Their similarities are unsurprising, since both shows are creations borne from the mind of Dan Harmon, and both shows rely heavily on DH’s tried and tested method for scriptwriting: the ‘story circle’. It is this story circle which is perhaps at the core of the sense of satisfying ‘neatness’ to Harmon’s writing.

DanHarmon's BasicModelForStoryStructure

He’s even been kind enough to share the details of his method online, in granular detail.

But if you aren’t interested in granular detail, and are just looking for the TL;DR version to apply to your own writing, read on here.

The ‘story circle’ method is actually just a visual representation of the 8 plot points which exist in any story. And not just in sitcom scripts: ANY story. Four hour biopics, thirty second adverts, you name it. And those eight plot points are:

  1. . A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. . But they want something.
  3. . They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. . Adapt to it,
  5. . Get what they wanted,
  6. . Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. . Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. . Having changed.

If you look carefully, you can see that it’s actually two sentences. A character is in a zone of comfort, but they want something. They enter an unfamiliar situation, adapt to it, get what they wanted, pay a heavy price for it, then return to their familiar situation, having changed. Harmon contends that our brains are wired to see the world in cycles like this, and so we respond to any story that conforms to its structure. Once you get used to it, it becomes really easy to reverse engineer Harmon’s own plots. Take, for example, the episode from which the above still is taken: Total Rickall.

  1. Rick’s family are eating breakfast with their beloved uncle
  2. who Rick identifies as a parasite and kills.
  3. They realise they are infested by parasites posing as friends
  4. and quarantine themselves to identify the root cause.
  5. They manage to get rid of all of the parasites
  6. but accidentally kill Mr Poopy Butthole in the process.
  7. They return to their family lives,
  8. traumatised by MPB’s death.

If you’re not already a fan of Rick and Morty, don’t be put off by the character name ‘Mr Poopy Butthole’, by the way. Ok, here is the story circle theory applied to some other stories. See if you can guess them…

  1. A girl lives in a small, French town with her father
  2. But craves more mental stimulation.
  3. She moves to a creepy castle with a horrible, beastly master,
  4. and soon comes to realise the beastly master is not as horrible as she thought.
  5. She falls in love with the redeemed master
  6. but must battle to save him and his employees from the heretics in her town.
  7. She can then live happily ever after with her lover
  8. (who has literally physically changed) in the town which has come to accept him.

Or how about…

  1. A girl is moving to New York with her rich fiance, by boat,
  2. but she’s miserable and tries to take her own life.
  3. She’s rescued by a poor man
  4. who she falls in love with
  5. and who she decides to disembark the ship with.
  6. The ship sinks, taking the poor man with it,
  7. and the girl returns to her life alone
  8. but leaves her wealth and fiance behind.

Or even…

  1. A woman wakes up from a coma
  2. and wants to take revenge on the people who put her there.
  3. She sets out on a mission to kill all those involved
  4. with a tailor made sword
  5. and manages to kill them all.
  6. She laments the final murder – of her beloved ex partner
  7. but manages to complete her mission and return to her life
  8. with the daughter she believed to have died.

Or finally

  1. A psychologist loves his wife
  2. but senses she doesn’t love him anymore.
  3. He begins treating a new patient
  4. and learns that the patient is plagued by visitations from the dead –
  5. an affliction that the psychologist treats
  6. because his own death means that the child can see him too.
  7. He returns home to his wife,
  8. now aware that he was dead all along.

Did you get them all? I’ve included pictures at the end of this article, if you didn’t.

The story circle might seem like a ridiculously simple concept, but it’s actually really useful in helping you to be productive with your writing. You can use it to:

  • Generate Ideas

Even better if you’re working in a group, draw a circle and divide it into eight, then pass it round the circle and each add a stage to the story until it’s complete. Rotating in a group means you’ll end up with ideas that you couldn’t have imagined on your own, and can take your plot in a direction you might not have envisaged for yourself.

  • Plan And Structure A Story

Sometimes you can feel that you have a good idea for a story, but it dies when you start trying to write it, because what you actually had was a good premise. Put your premise to the test by seeing if you can tie it to these 8 pivot points. It may help you make sense of why your story doesn’t feel like a story yet. As you get on with the process of writing a story, reminding yourself regularly of the key points that your story needs to address can be really valuable in terms of keeping yourself on track.

  • Understand Your Story

If you’ve managed to get to the point of having actually completed a manuscript, or you’ve acquired an agent who’s willing to try and help you publish your work, you’ll inevitably have been asked to write a summary/synopsis of your story. And when this happens, it can suddenly cast doubt on the whole process. You can suddenly feel as though you don’t actually know your story at all! Using this frame can actually help you to clarify in your mind what the main beats of your plot are, which can be a useful tool in communicating your ideas to other people. Additionally, it may help you in the editing stage, when a section feels as though it’s flagging but you can’t seem to figure out why.

Ok, I’m going to go and attempt to generate some new ideas with the story circle!

Emily x

  1. Beauty and the Beastbeauty and the beast
  2. Titanictitanic
  3. Kill Billuma-thurman-sad15804
  4. The Sixth Sensethe_sixth_sense_63555-1600x1200-900x675

Lessons Learned while Long Distance Walking

This post should really be entitled ‘Lessons Learned while Long Distance Walking and Marking GCSE Exams’. It’s a less catchy title, but a more accurate summary of what this post is going to be about. Because for the summer of 2017 – so far at least – I have mostly been marking and walking.

The marking was the main subject of my June. I’d signed up to mark 300 AQA English Literature GCSE scripts (modern texts and poetry, if you’re interested) over the space of three weeks.

‘Easy’, thought May 2017 Emily. ‘I know teachers who do this on top of a full-time teaching job, and I’m only tutoring part-time. I’ll be able to do a few scripts every morning and spend my afternoons reading, writing and getting back into running again.’

Lol.

June 2017 Emily did no reading or writing at all. June 2017 Emily did not get back into running again. June 2017 Emily forgot to clean her teeth or get dressed some days, and came to see leaving the house as a grand achievement, as she turned all of her attention to meeting her daily target of fifteen scripts, while bitterly cursing the name of any teacher who managed to do this on top of a full-time job.

It got easier, of course. I managed to pick up the pace, and by the third week I was confident that I would meet my 300 script target. I even started brushing my teeth, and went so far as to take most of the day off to go to London with my parents (though I did mark some on the train). But the easy bit wasn’t the interesting bit. The interesting bit that I want to dwell on was the first week, when I worked 9-5 to complete approximately five scripts per day, and yet never once questioned that I would somehow find a way to complete the task at hand. I became methodical about the solution, sorting through my diary to set realistic daily targets that would account for any plans I’d made, and using fifteen minute timers to keep myself on track. I accepted the possibility of late night marking sessions, and I experimented with different marking techniques to see which was most efficient. And in the end, I got the job done.

I don’t say all this to blow my own trumpet, but rather the opposite. Because if I can be so committed to marking 300 exam scripts for AQA, why am I finding it so hard to write a second book? Isn’t it ironic that I left full-time teaching to pursue my passion – writing – more fully, but find it easier to throw my energies into the trappings of the job I left behind?

And it’s not just marking.

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Between Borrowdale and Grasmere, July 2017

The start of my July was spent, as I mentioned earlier, completing a long distance walk. Bright and early on Saturday 8th, Pete and I struggled onto a train from York, weighed down by day packs and 30kg of camping equipment, each bearing a one way ticket to the seaside. The plan – and it had been a plan of ours for almost four years – was to dip our booted feet into the Irish Sea, pick up a pebble from the beach at St Bees Head, and then to begin walking east. 192 miles would roll by, as we strolled through twelve long, light days of English summer before arriving in Robin Hoods Bay, dipping our still booted feet into the North Sea and casting our pebbles out into their new, more Easterly home. I envisaged the walks energising me with endorphins which would allow me to tapp into rich seams of creativity in my mind, which I would then channel into luxuriating prose in the evenings, nestled cosily in my camping chair, with the smell of campsite cooking and the bleating of sheep as my lullaby.

LOL.

Well, I was right about the sheep at least. There were bloody loads of sheep.

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Cuddly sheep near Reeth, July 2017
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Shy sheep near Ennerdale water, July 2017

Perhaps you understand miles better than me, but 192 is a lot of them: especially when you’re intending to walk them in twelve days. Perhaps you understand England better than me, but the route across the Lake District is not a route along which one ‘strolls’. The elevation involved in the walk is – apparently – the equivalent of ascending Everest. Write I did not. Tap into seams of creativity I did not. The Coast to Coast walk, we soon realised, was an endurance challenge. And that was without the added stress of camping, and the fact that we’d shaved two days off of the suggested itinerary length.

But we did it!

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A bit weepy and a lot tired, Robin Hoods Bay, July 2017
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A commemorative plaque on the wall of the Bay Hotel, Robin Hoods Bay.

And don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed it too. It continued to be tough, yes, and there were lots of moments in which I struggled, ached and contemplated catching a bus, just for a few miles. But of course, that was never really an option. We had told ourselves we would complete the task, and complete it we would. And as anyone who has run a marathon will know – equally anyone who has moved to a new place where no-one knows them, or who has forced themselves out of bed at ridiculous-o’clock to rehearse or practise or train towards something – there are few better feelings than completing a task you once thought you couldn’t.

One of the teachers on my MA advised that we should work hard and set ourselves high standards, and that we’d be surprised by how much we could achieve that way. She is right, and I’m reminded of it every time I complete something that I once doubted was within my grasp. The achievement is an exhilarating and elating feeling; it expands one’s comfort zone, in such a way that the comfort zone can never shrink back.

So why can’t this knowledge be applied to writing a book?

Is it the lack of external pressure? I completed the Coast to Coast walk at least partly buoyed forward by the fact that I’d told people I’d do it, and it’d be embarrassing if I failed. It was the same emotion that pushed me to complete the marathon. But I’ve tried telling people that I’m writing a book – even giving them daily word targets and a deadline – and it didn’t work. No one really judges you for not finding the time to write a book.

Is it the intangibility of the result? The stages of the Coast to Coast walk are clearly laid out, and there are countless blogs on how to train for and run a marathon. The miles were hard, but none of them were unexpected. Writing a book, to paraphrase another of my MA teachers, is like trying to hack a path through a dense thicket with an axe.

Perhaps this is the big problem. It’s certainly the biggest shadow that looms over me during the process. As many flashcards and bullet points and character sketches as I scaffold myself with, there’s no escaping the fact that to write a book is to try and invent something that didn’t exist before.

But I have done it once before, and so this answer isn’t enough, on its own. And yet, funnily enough, the book I did manage to complete was only completed because I’d entered the first few chapters into a contest and lied about having finished the manuscript. There was a grand plan to complete it before the deadline, but of course, I forgot. Aspiring writers enter a lot of competitions, and the percentage of those entries which turn into rejection emails mean that it wouldn’t be healthy to eagerly remember them all. So when I received an email asking for the full manuscript – with a generous 14 days to make any final tweaks – I hadn’t gotten any further than the few chapters I’d submitted. But I dug deep, cancelled all my plans, replied gratefully to the email and finished my book in two weeks.

I say finished. It was far from perfect, and it didn’t win the competition, but I had a finished manuscript. It’s a lot easier to edit a finished manuscript than to edit one that doesn’t exist. I now have a polished manuscript which I’m truly proud of, and it’s all thanks to that email, which set me a seemingly impossible deadline.

So perhaps external pressure is the key ingredient, after all. Perhaps it’s just about finding the right kind of external pressure. Maybe shouting into the darkness of the internet – in this instance – is more valuable than a supportive friend. My intention is, in this case, to use my blog to do just that – to chart the progress I hope to make. If you’re reading this and you’re struggling with the task of writing a book too, please do get in touch. Shouting into the dark is fun, but hearing a voice shout back is even better.

There are certainly lessons to be learned from AQA marking and long distance walking, which can be applied to writing a book. Break your task down into chunks. Give yourself enough time. Take pressure off yourself in other areas. Look at your previous achievements and realise how much you are capable of. Completing the task is better than deliberating over how to complete it best. And while preparation is key, sometimes, the only route to success is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. With lots of little steps, eventually, you can walk from coast to coast. And with lots of little words, eventually, you can write a book. Now I just need to take my own advice.

Emily x

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Thirteen Writing Tips from Stephen King

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It’s Friday the Thirteenth today! Spooky, huh? And what better way to spend a portentous day like this than by reading thirteen tips on writing from one of the most acclaimed and prolific horror writers of our time?

Did you know that Stephen King wrote The Shawshank Redemption? And Green Mile? And The Shining? Oh, and let’s not forget Carrie, Misery, Pet Sematary, The Mist, The Running Man, It, Salem’s Lot… For what it’s worth, my favourite piece of writing by King is a chilling short story called ‘Survivor Type’, which you can read online here.

But besides all the chill and gore, King has also penned an acclaimed ‘memoir of the craft’: On Writing. Of all the books I’ve been recommended on the topic of improving my writing skills, this one seems to have come up the most. So today, I’ve been reading through it and picking out tips, which I’ve summarised and paraphrased below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and On Writing really is worth your time and attention, if you’re a person that takes their writing seriously. To clarify: this is the advice of Stephen King, and does not necessarily reflect my own opinions or experience as a novice writer. There’s a lot of good advice for the taking, though. Plus, if you buy the book, there’s an exercise you can do, which you can then submit to the author himself!

Happy Friday! And don’t forget to lock your front door…

Emily x

  1. Writing is telepathy, so what message are you trying to send?
    Put in slightly less enigmatic terms, writing is taking an idea from my head and placing it into yours. To illustrate this idea, King describes a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink rimmed eyes, sitting in a cage on a red tablecloth. The rabbit is munching on a carrot stub, which it holds between its paws.On the rabbit’s back, marked in blue ink, is the number 8. Can you picture the rabbit? King imagined that rabbit in his basement in Maine, back in 1997. Now here I am, in Beeston in 2017, receiving the image, loud and clear. Where are you, in space and time? Can you see the rabbit that passed from King’s mind to mine? King points out that he doesn’t labour over the description of the tablecloth or the cage, because it’s not important. What he wants you to focus on is the number eight. Why is it there, on the back of this caged rabbit? So as a writer, are you spending too long describing the tablecloth? Are you pointing out which shade of red it is, and whether it’s made of cotton or lace? Think about the story you want to tell, and tell that, not anything else.
  2. Don’t make a conscious effort to improve your vocabulary.
    Got a big vocabulary? Fine, so does H.P.Lovecraft’s writing. Got a small one? Fine, so does Steinbeck’s. Words are communication tools – pick the best one for the job, not the longest. Sometimes, ‘said’ is fine. Sometimes ‘fine’ is fine, too. How should you decide which word to pick? King’s advice is to “use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful”.
  3. The adverb is not your friend.
    That’s words that describe actions, like ‘quickly’, ‘eerily’ or ‘smoothly’. King’s suggestion is that you’re probably over-explaining. You may think it’s useful to add ‘firmly’ in the sentence ‘he closed the door firmly’, but have you considered whether the surrounding context of the scene has already done that work for you? The key message here: if you’re using a lot of adverbs, you’re probably not trusting your reader – or your prose – enough.
  4. ‘Said’ is the best form of dialogue attribution.
    Forget what your teacher told you. Or, if I was your teacher, forget what I told you. Your reader can probably figure out how it’s being said from the dialogue, so loosen the reigns a little bit. Again, avoid the adverb. Consider the following examples:

    “Watch where you’re going, loser”, Tom said.
    “Watch where you’re going, loser”, Tom said, spitefully.
    “Watch where you’re going, loser”, Tom growled.

    Did you learn anything more in the second two examples, about the kind of voice Tom was using to speak? Probably not. It was probably implicit for you in the dialogue. King suggests that – again – this kind of overwriting is a case of underestimating your reader, or underestimating yourself.

  5. Avoid the passive tense.
    Every verb has an active and a passive form. With the former, the subject is doing something: “Jenny bit her lip.” To translate that to passive, would look like this: “the lip was being bitten by Jenny.” The passive tense is the meek, indirect voice of business emails and instruction manuals. It sucks the life out of a story as quickly as a needle in a balloon. Make your writing active. Make Jenny bite her lip.
  6. Chekhov’s gun works in reverse, too.
    You may have heard of the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun. The idea is that every memorable element in a piece of fiction should be necessary (even if it’s necessary as a red herring). In Chekhov’s words: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” King points out that this idea is also true in reverse: if the main character’s lucky Hawaiian shirt plays a role in the story’s resolution, it needs to be introduced early on.
  7. Avoid over or under describing.
    Enough to ground the reader, not so much that they’re drowning in imagery. King suggests that a few details can stand in for everything, and the reader will fill in the rest. He also suggests that the first few details that come to mind are probably the best, and that “the key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary”.
  8. Omit needless words.
    Sounds simple, huh? But bear in mind that in your first draft, you’re creating a world. Once the world has been created, probably about 50% of the words you used to build it will turn out to be scaffolding that you can now discard.
  9. Read a lot and write a lot.
    Sorry, guys. There’s no escaping this one. Would you open a bakery if you weren’t willing to bake and eat cakes? King writes daily – 2000 words is his target, and he sets his mornings aside for the task – and says that if he doesn’t, the characters start to go stale. He suggests that you could start by aiming a little lower – perhaps 1000 words a day – and should take no more than one day off a week. In terms of reading, he advocates for reading widely and across genres, and not to dismiss bad books as a waste of time – they teach you just as much as the good ones. King says he reads 70 or 80 books a year. I managed only 27 last year. Must try harder.
  10. Write what you like, as long as you tell the truth.
    This is a variation on the cliched aphorism that you should ‘write what you know’, which creates space for writing about monsters and spaceships and bringing a monster to life on a dreary night in November. King phrases it thusly: “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.”
  11. Start with situations and characters, not plots.
    King makes the excellent point that you want your characters to “do things their way”, instead of marching them through a carefully planned plot.
  12. Dialogue is crucial in defining character.
    In King’s words, “talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character.” The way a character speaks can show your reader how smart your character is, how honest, how direct, how malevolent… It’s a great way to live up to that old writing cliche of ‘showing, not telling’. Good dialogue, King points out, is a delight to read. Bad dialogue is embarrassing.

  13. Put your first draft in the proving drawer.
    You should leave it alone for six weeks at least, according to King. Let yourself get so involved in a new project that the old one becomes less precious and immediate to you. Then, once you’ve gained enough distance from it, you’re ready to do a good job of re-reading and editing. Do it in one sitting, if you can.

The Emily Awards 2016

 

As I was ruminating on the books I read last year, I thought it might be fun to pick out my favourites and to briefly summarise what I liked about them. So without further ad0, may I welcome you to the first annual EMILY AWARDS! Drumroll…

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Best Novel: The First Bad Man – Miranda July
I don’t want to say too much, except that the first page made me gasp with surprise and laugh out loud, and that carried on happening throughout. As original and playful as Vonnegut. Like Vonnegut, I liked humanity more by the time I reached the final page. Read it.

The Godfather Award for Best Sequel: The Story Of a New Name – Elena Ferrante
I really liked My Brilliant Friend but I loved The St0ry of a New Name. I felt as though MBF did all of the grunt work of establishing place and characters (so, so many characters), so that TSOANN could really get going with telling a focused, atmospheric story. Lena and Lila are some of the most complex and fully realised female characters I’ve ever come across, and I felt myself copying Ferrante in everything I wrote, for a good while after reading this. Whoever the real Ferrante is, she gets female psychology. And she gets that it’s not always men we’re mooning over.

Best Hangover Read: The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
I dislike the snobbery that surrounds genre fiction. Sometimes what I want from a book is to be wrapped up in its plot, to be immersed in its world and to be distracted from my headache and the smelly man in the seat next to me on my route back from a heavy night in Manchester. Plus, it’s always great to discover a flawed female protagonist.

Best Re-Read: The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
I first read this in 2011, because it won the Man Booker prize. I read it on tubes and while walking and always because-I-thought-I-should. I was glad when it was over, and couldn’t see the point of it. When I re-read it this year (in order to teach it), it took my breath away. There was a philosophical undercurrent that I missed on first reading, and ruminations on ageing that I wasn’t ready to understand. This read taught me that enjoyment of a novel is all about timing, and that you perhaps shouldn’t read while walking if you’re hoping for a profound literary experience.

The Tom Waits Award for Experimental Fiction: Grief Is The Thing With Feathers – Max Porter

For the line ‘OH NO YOU DON’T, COCK-CHEEK’. But also for the beautiful rendition of romantic love in a way that celebrates friendship and childishness. For the fact that it is both poetry and prose, both terribly sad and terribly funny, and it has a massive crow in it.

Honourable Mention: Zadie Smith – On Beauty

 

Site Updates: am I a writer yet?

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In my classroom on World Book Day with Emma. Saigon, 2015.

When I was a teacher, I felt very confident that I was a teacher. It said it on my PGCE certificate. It said it on my GTC membership certificate. It said it on my job contract. It said it on my payslips. When I turned up to the building known as ‘school’ five days a week, I was regularly addressed by small people as ‘miss’, which is of course shorthand across the Western world for ‘female educational professional’ or ‘teacher’. There was no doubt then, that I was a teacher.

So when am I allowed to call myself a writer?

Well, I write most days. I send bits of writing to contests often, and last year I poured a sizable chunk of my savings (from teaching) into obtaining a qualification that would declare me a Master of Writing. I’m currently working on finding an agent to represent me in getting my first manuscript published.

But there is no job contract.

And although my certificate declares that I have mastered the skill, this is more of a comment on what I’m capable of, as opposed to an entry pass into the magical theme park of paid writing opportunities.

And there are definitely not any pay slips. (Rough calculation: money made so far from teaching: £100k +. Money made so far from writing: -£10k +).

Perhaps most disheartening of all, there is no building that I can go to in order to be referred to as a writer. The boost in esteem that came with being a teacher (and the positive impact that allows you to make) was, for me, enormous. By contrast, the process of writing stories and submitting them to strangers who – 95 times out of 100 – will ignore or reject them, is the equivalent of shoving your self esteem into a tumble drier full of rocks and rusty nails.

So. If a writer writes and no one is there to appreciate it (or pay them), are they actually a writer?

Well, in my case, yes. Because as of today, I say so.

I didn’t feel the need to get below a certain pace before I started calling myself a runner.

I don’t feel the need to have visited a certain number of countries or to have read a certain number of books before calling myself a traveller or a reader.

I am a writer because I write. Being paid to do it would be nice. Being paid and acclaimed would be even better.

But for now, I am a writer, because I write. And for now, that is enough.

If you’re reading this and you have aspirations of being a writer, I hope you’ll take this as encouragement. If you want to be a writer: just start writing. As often as you can. Every day if possible. The rest – I hope – will follow. 🙂

Emily x

P.S. I have made some little changes to the title and subheading of the site (though the URL hasn’t changed yet) to reflect the fact that – now that I’m a full time PhD student of writing – I’m hoping to start including posts about the process of writing and my attempts to embark upon a career in writing.