May 2021. The writing life. What I’m reading and viewing. Reading stories to a three-year-old. How to relax in a post-pandemic world.
The writing life
2020 was a strange year. The 2020 lockdown has had an upside though. It’s provided me with the opportunity to complete a project that I’ve been thinking about for a while. And that project was writing a speculative fiction novel.
The writing process for the novel has been an interesting experience. It’s the first novel-length piece of genre fiction I’ve written. I have always felt that I’m more of a functional storyteller than a literary wordsmith. It feels great to recognise this and put it into practice.
The year (or two) that follows on from an MA in Creative Writing is probably as critical as the year (or two) spent completing one. That time has given me the space to let my thoughts settle and figure out what I really want to do. Writing speculative fiction has been unexpected, new territory for me. It’s been an exciting journey, and I’m pleased with my progress.
What I’m reading and viewing
Over the last year I’ve read a lot of books, 1 viewed plenty of films, and binge watched a few TV series. It’s provided inspiration for creative reflection, and developing new ideas.
I’ve just finished reading Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974). There’s a particularly brilliant middle section where the protagonist returns to Earth. Earth’s society has changed since the protagonist has been away. Now the world is coping with the reduced availability of resources. The new currency system uses the calorific unit of energy.
The Forever War won the 1975 Nebula Award, and the Hugo. It echoes Haldeman’s own Vietnam War (anti-war) experience by way of Starship Troopers . The return to Earth section reminded me of 1970s films like Soylent Green .
Cli-fi themes of pollution, and eco-disaster are indirectly referenced in the novel, but the highlighted issue in The Forever War is over-population. It’s interesting how eco-awareness issues were important in the 1970s, but were pushed to the side in subsequent years. These issues are incredibly relevant and have come back into vogue.
The question is, will society act to face these issues today or will eco-consciousness fade into the background once again? Will it be left for a future generation to solve this problem?
Reading stories to a three-year-old
There’s a lot a writer can learn from reading stories to children. It’s a surprisingly challenging audience. When I’m reading stories to my three-year-old daughter, literally, before I’ve even finished the first line, I get asked the same question.
Question : Where is (insert name of main character)? Answer : (Insert name of main character) isn’t here yet.
My answer always gets a puzzled reaction. She doesn’t understand why the story has started without the main character.
Then, as soon as a character has served his or her purpose and disappears from a story:
Question : Where has (insert name of character) gone? Answer : I don’t know. Maybe he’s gone home? Question : Why? Answer : I don’t know. Maybe he’s having dinner? Question : What’s he having for dinner?
A three-year-old’s experience of a story is like an exaggerated version of an adult’s. Stories reflect the child’s world-view. All my daughter’s toys are girls (absolutely not boys) and they are all likely to be some form of princess or mermaid. Whatever they are, do, or say, its safe to assume that they do everything that she likes and does.
What happens to the Huntsman from Snow White when he disappears from the story? He probably goes back home and has a double whisky, knowing that he’s going to be thrown into a dungeon sooner or later… or something far, far worse. Explaining that he’s going home for dinner is the easy, and suitable, answer for a three-year-old. What is he having for dinner? Easy. He’s having what you’re having.
Reading stories to a three-year-old can provoke some awkward questions that can be tricky to answer. Reading Snow White out loud involves a judicious on-the-fly, real-time editing process. The Huntsman takes Snow White into the forrest to stab her to death. How do you explain that to a three-year-old? You don’t, of course. In the version for my daughter, he’s taken her there so that she becomes lost. To my daughter ‘getting lost’ is dangerous, but it’s a relatable fear.
The Bible and children’s fairy tales are packed with disturbing and horrific acts of violence (not to mention gender stereotypes). What happened to the witch in Hansel and Gretel ? How do you explain the crucifixion in the New Testament to a three-year-old?
My daughter is really interested to know what kind of bed Jesus sleeps in. It’s a nice bed, I tell her. She needs the specific detail. Is it a big bed, or a small one? What colour is it? I tell her, it’s like your bed. She is satisfied with this answer. It’s relatable and fits into her world-view.
How to relax in a post-pandemic world
As things go back to ‘normal’ — whatever that means, the same old normal as before, or a slightly different one — we’re all wondering what the post-pandemic world will look like. In a year’s time, in two year’s time, will we have forgotten about the pandemic? Or will it continue to have a lasting, residual effect? Are organisations ready for ‘hybrid’ working, or will they cling to reassuringly traditional real-space processes? We are living through a real-world experiment.
As well as being engaged with news and events, it’s important to relax and take time to switch off. How much news do we really need? How much time on social media? I haven’t done social media for years, and I haven’t looked back. Luxury is both ‘access to’ and ‘freedom from’. Freedom from social media’s depressing echo-chamber is a luxury that anyone can afford.
Writing is a brilliant way to escape. I’ve recommended it to friends, even if they aren’t planning on selling a manuscript. It’s an incredible and enriching creative experience.
In a world obsessed with the god of productivity, there’s a lot to be said for relaxing, enjoying a quiet cup of tea or coffee, noticing the play of light change — observing the simple magnificence of nature (I defy any artist to come up with something quite as amazing as a cherry tree in blossom).
Another way I’ve found to relax is by watching videos of people making South Korean street food. 2 Watching these videos is weirdly mesmerising, almost like a form of meditation. If you’d told me that I’d be viewing videos like this a year ago, I’d probably have laughed and not believed you.
My personal website has provided a valuable space for reflection and contemplation. Blog posts are particularly good for this. If I didn’t post them online, I know that I wouldn’t write them in the first place. It’s served me well. I’ve enjoyed using Kirby CMS and the excellent Blog Theme 1 , but I feel that it’s time for a change.
For a while now, I’ve been looking to code my own plain-vanilla HTML website, one that doesn’t rely on a server-side framework. So, for now at least, the blog (as it was) has come to an end. I will, however, keep publishing less frequent general updates (along the lines of this one).
My apologies to anyone who has enjoyed reading the posts and would like them to continue. I know that I’ll probably be receiving some emails about this! If you’re keen to re-read a specific post, there’s an archive available.
1 I can split my reading from the last year into two chronological categories, (first), spy and crime fiction : Len Deighton, John Le Carré, Stieg Larsson, and Lee Child. And, (second), speculative fiction and science fiction : George Orwell, John Scalzi, Margaret Atwood, Orson Scott Card, Walter M Miller, Ben Smith, James Dashner, C A Fletcher, John Lanchester, Rob Hart, John Birmingham, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kazuo Ishiguro, Isaac Asimov, Suzanne Collins, James S A Corey, Richard K Morgan, Blake Crouch, Omar El Akkad, and Liam Brown.
2 If you liked that one, here’s another South Korean street food video .