Cold comfort – The Handmaid’s Tale

18 Jun

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The content of this post may upset you.

I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 14. I loved that book, not only because of Atwood’s skill as a writer, and the way she swept me up in Offred’s world, but because her story brought me comfort. Given the novel’s shocking and harrowing content, that may seem like a very odd thing to say, so let me explain.

The summer I turned 14 was followed by the first year of my GCSE’s, and new GCSE classes meant new classmates. One of those classmates was a girl I’d never really spoken to before. She was quiet, studious and awkward like me, but also funny and warm. We bonded over the ridiculousness of our physics teacher’s hair, over the pertness of our biology teacher’s bottom and over a mutual love of chocolate, which we sneaked into class and ate whole bars of during endless afternoons stuck in the labs. She quickly became my best friend. Not that being around her was always easy. She could be moody, withdrawn, and sometimes cruel. I remember her laughing in my face over some small embarrassment more than once, and in response I would retreat, deeply hurt. But I never questioned her treatment of me. I never stopped being her friend. I only tried harder to be whatever she needed on any particular day; funny, attentive, silent. Because I quickly realised that something was very wrong.

I don’t remember the first time she self-harmed in front of me, slicing up the back of her hand with the blade from her pencil sharpener. I don’t remember exactly how I found out about her dad. There had been rumours, a year or two before, rumours that I hadn’t really understood. And then there was the fact that she had two social workers and a shrink, something she’d told me one day in class as if she was just commenting on our homework. Piece by piece, over the months, she revealed the truth to me. And the truth was ugly.

Her dad raped her. Frequently. When she’d started at high school, she’d told everything to an elderly teacher with a kind face who’d called social services. My friend’s dad moved out of the family home, was taken to court, and found guilty of her rape. Then her mother and aunt (a woman I never met, who accused my friend both of being a ‘lying whore’ and of ‘asking for it’), said that if she didn’t let her dad move back in, they would disown her and kick her out of the house. So she told the social workers he could come home and the abuse started again.

I can’t explain what it’s like to have your best friend tell you this. There are no words to describe my fury, disgust, bewilderment and the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that I felt, knowing what was being done to her and knowing there was nothing I could do. Because I couldn’t tell the adults. My friend had confided in me, made it very clear this was a secret for me to carry, and besides, she’d already tried speaking up and it had done nothing to help her. So it was just me and her and this terrible truth. I couldn’t process it, not at 14. The knowledge was there in my head but I pushed it away and focused on my friend, on listening to her, on trying to find the right words in response, always with panic fluttering against my ribcage. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know what to say. What do I do?

I didn’t tell my parents, not then.

When I read The Handmaid’s Tale later that year it wasn’t shock that I felt most strongly. It was relief and recognition. In Atwood’s world, those in authority couldn’t be trusted, and had imposed an awful, degrading hypocrisy on the protagonist. In my world, those in authority (my friend’s parents, social services, the staff at school who knew what had happened and did nothing to check she was okay, not even when she cut herself in class) couldn’t be trusted, and had imposed an awful, degrading reality on my friend. Knowing that someone out there was experiencing something similar, even if that person was a fictional character, brought me immense comfort. Offred’s understanding of how horrible her situation was, her absolute belief that it was not okay and must be fought against, no matter how much those around her presented it to her as ‘normal’, was vital in a situation where all the adults around me and my friend were acting as though everything was absolutely fine. It was such a relief to see someone else struggling in the face of something so awful, to know that it was okay to struggle.

For me, the Handmaid’s Tale didn’t just point a finger at the most shadowy corners of humanity, it provided cold comfort for me and my friend, trapped there in the darkness through no fault of our own. It said: ‘yes, what you’re experiencing is wrong, you deserve to survive, so please keep fighting’. The book and Offred’s character helped me to stick by my friend, to support her through what I now know to be PTSD, intermittent anorexia, frequent suicide attempts and a life-threatening personality disorder. I am very pleased to say – more pleased than I can express – that my friend is not only alive but very well. I owe a little bit of my part in that to Atwood.

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The Dark is Rising

30 Jan

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I always thought I hated winter, with its cold dark days when the chill seeps into your bones and you just want to curl up in bed and sulk until the sun comes back.

My least favourite things about this time of year include: getting to work in the dark, leaving work in the dark, people on the bus taking turns to exhibit their hacking coughs, always losing at least one glove, and icy pavements, which I don’t seem able to walk across without imitating an elderly constipated penguin.

However, I have to – grudgingly – admit that the darkness brings something with it; there is magic and mystery in the shadows. Back in December I found The Box of Delights on DVD and watched it over a long weekend, nestled under a blanket on the sofa. This series is based on the children’s book of the same name by John Masefield and its events unfold during one boy’s snowy Christmas holiday. Clandestine villainous meetings are held in murky back streets, wolves give chase in the night, and at one point the antagonist calls up a blizzard to cut off the epicentre of events from the rest of the world. I can’t imagine this story working, or generating anywhere near the same amount of threat, if it was set during a blisteringly hot summer.

There are many other children’s books that I could say the same about; The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis, and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Jane Aiken are just three.

I think the reason for this prevalence of winter-time settings in children’s books of a fantastical and frightening sort is two-fold. Firstly, it’s easier to imagine the existence of mythical beasts or the occurrence of magical events when the world is in shadow. Again, I don’t think the bright light of day lends itself as well to the mystical. Secondly, we humans have retained our fear of the dark; of what could be lurking beyond the reach of the light that shines from our windows. It’s very easy to squint into a moonlit wood or even to walk down a darkened street and imagine you see something moving slowly towards you, a black shape full of evil intent.

Let’s face it, the dark still spooks us.

So winter is a gift to writers, particularly those who want to evoke the feeling that all is not well, we really aren’t safe, because something is out there in the shadows.

Maybe I like winter after all.

How I write short pieces: ‘We Serve Beer As Cold As Your Ex’s Heart.’

10 Dec

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Warning: contains spoilers! (If you’d like to read the story first click here.)

Over the summer I decided to write some short pieces, mainly flash fiction with one or two short stories thrown in for fun. Oh yes, I know how to enjoy myself.

By the end of August I had seven new pieces of writing, one of which – We Serve Beer As Cold As Your Ex’s Heart – will soon be published on the Expanding Horizons website, I’m very happy to say. That piece, like any other I’ve written, went through several editing stages, and I thought it might be helpful, and hopefully interesting, to share these.

The inspiration for the story came from a sign outside a pub that I spotted in Jersey in July. It was the week when temperatures got up to 36 degrees and the pub’s owner had wisely recognised that an ice-cold beer would be on the minds of many potential punters. For me, that sign got me thinking.

One particular thought bounced around my head for a few days until I got home and switched on the laptop. I wanted my story to be about getting over an ex, so I spent a bit of time researching the usual stages of grieving for a relationship and the likely behaviour of someone going through that process. Obviously I’ve had ex’s myself, but I find research useful to back up and build on my own experiences.

My other preparation for writing had been spending the previous few weeks reading short story anthologies. I find this helps my brain get into the right mode, as I subconsciously absorb the format and particularities of the short story. Beyond that, I felt ready to write a first draft, as I had a good, simple premise. That’s not always the case; often I’ll get an idea and have to spend time mulling it over and figuring out details of plot and character.

So, I sat down at the laptop. When I’m writing a short piece, so long as I have a decent grasp on the plot I don’t find myself making a lot of conscious decisions. For Beer As Cold I was mainly thinking about the beverages which my protagonist was going to be served and the effect they’d have on him.

The first draft wasn’t bad (I’ve written far worse) but certainly one that required some polishing. So I left the story for a few days and then came back to it and tidied it up, cutting out unnecessary words where possible, checking for repetition or poor grammar. After that I decided – in my usual, slightly terrified manner – to send it to a writer friend whose opinion I trust, and who is very good at pinpointing exactly why a story isn’t working.

She pinpointed exactly why the story wasn’t working. It was a clarity issue, because I hadn’t quite conveyed what was in my head. My opening paragraph didn’t make it obvious exactly what was happening, and one or two sections needed expanding to get across what the reader needed to know. I did another edit and sent it back to her, and this time, she gave it the thumbs up.

Now that the story was ready – perhaps not in its final state, but ready enough – I looked at the bank of websites I have saved in my favourites as places to submit work to, and chose one that felt like a good match. The work was rejected, so I cheerfully noted that in my submissions spreadsheet (I love spreadsheets, I know this makes me weird and I’m perfectly happy with that). I did another edit of the piece, deciding to cut the final paragraph as I felt it was unnecessary. Then I sent it out again.

When the reply from Expanded Horizons came, it started off like any other rejection email. Except they said they wanted my story. I might have done a bit of fist pumping at that point. Then cheerfully noted it in my submissions spreadsheet.

And that is my writing (and publishing) process for short pieces.

Guilt: a writer’s guide.

7 Dec

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I spent a fair chunk of last Sunday editing a few short pieces and submitting them. Once I’d finished, I realised – again – how much I actually enjoy writing. It makes me happy. And the reason I forgot that? I was too busy feeling guilty about not getting more writing done.

Setting yourself writing targets and completion deadlines is a great idea and can be very helpful for those of us who otherwise lack motivation. However, if these deadlines do nothing other than make you feel anxious about the fact you’re not going to meet them, perhaps you need a re-think.

I’ve recently started a new job. I knew this would take some adjustment and that, being on a massive learning curve, I wouldn’t have as much energy left for writing in the evenings and weekends as usual. Even knowing that, I still managed to convince myself that I should try and do a complete edit of my work-in-progress between September, when the job began, and Christmas. Now I’m three months in I can see this was just silly, not to mention physically impossible without the aid of some sort of time travel machine and / or someone to cook, clean and socialise on my behalf. In spite of understanding how silly this deadline was, I still feel guilty – massively guilty – that I haven’t achieved more in the last few months.

This is because there is a tug of war going on in my head. Part of me wants to look after myself and keep me from working too hard and getting stressed out, and another part of me wants to JUST GET ON WITH THE WRITING. This tug of war makes me feel frustrated, resentful and grumpy as well as guilty. But actually it’s important that my ambition is tempered with self care.

I’ve just spent three and a half years completing a creative writing master’s degree and writing a book while working full-time. That was hard and I am tired. So maybe – and I’m doing my best to believe this – maybe it’s okay for me to take the writing at a gentler pace and allow myself a bit of fallow time. The problem is that when I give myself space to recharge, guilt creeps into it.

With this mental push-me-pull-you going on, it’s tricky to get the balance right between resting, writing, and all the everyday chores that need doing (yes, writing brain, you do have to go to work today. You like eating, right?). If anyone out there has any tips, I’d be glad to know them.

Oh, and I am certain there are many other types of writerly guilt. This is just mine.

Tripping the Light Fantastic

16 Oct

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I’ve always been drawn to fantasy and science fiction, to stories of other worlds and to other versions of this one. Although I do enjoy a bit of non-fiction (mainly sociogenetics or ancient history) I don’t often read novels set entirely in reality. The problem with reality is that it’s where I spend the majority of my time, and when I’m reading I’d rather be somewhere else. When it comes to writing I feel much the same, preferring to work under the umbrella of speculative fiction.

Someone said to me recently that immersing yourself in fantasy – whether you’re reading it or writing it – can be a coping strategy for dealing with a real world which is disappointing, difficult or dull. As a child and teenager I certainly experienced a fairly large amount of disappointment and difficulty. I ended up dealing with events that a mature and well-balanced adult would find extremely challenging. Perhaps as a result, I had no interest in spending my free time reading about the same sorts of events occurring within the world that was treating me so badly. Therefore to some extent I believe my friend’s comment is true: speculative fiction provides escapism.

However, it also offers an alternative lens through which the writer or reader can filter their experiences. A lens which, being one step removed from reality, allows you a little more space for processing the disappointing or difficult. You can explore cruelty, heartbreak, abuse and betrayal, and the characters and content are authentic within the context of their world. This authenticity allows the reader to feel a connection to the story through common experience, even if their experience is based in the everyday, rather than on a distant alien planet.

At a recent book reading I went to, a young adult author commented that dystopian fictions are so popular because of how closely they can be related to the reality of being a teenager. Negative events feel like the end of the world, your best friend suddenly becomes your mortal enemy, the adults are dictating exactly what you can and can’t do, and sometimes when you have a decision to make, there is no right or easy choice.

It’s important for speculative fiction to show that life is hard, to show that, even though the protagonist is living 4000 years in the future, they still struggle, are let down by people, experience misery. It’s important too that the characters find joy and triumph in spite of all that, at least some of the time. And if the horror of the fantasy world gets too much, it can be dismissed with the closing of the book, thus providing a safe space to explore the dangerous and unpleasant. This offers the reader so much more than simple escapism. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a fan of speculative fiction.

The post-novel void.

6 Aug

I knew it was going to be odd, not having a novel to work on any more, I knew I was going to suddenly discover oodles of time that I’d previously spent editing, but one or two things did surprise me about my post-novel void.

It’s been three months since I finished my MA and three months since I looked at the book I wrote for it. In the initial days after hand-in, I mainly went to work, celebrated, and slept. I used my suddenly abundant spare time to patch up my social life, which had been somewhat neglected in the run-up to the deadline. I basked in the fact I’d actually finished the book, and encouraged my writing brain to chill out.

After a week or two came the sadness that I was expecting: sadness at the end of a three and a half year process of learning and fretting and learning to fret less, and getting to spend time with people who cared about writing as much as I did. I still miss all of that, very much, but I’m lucky to have some excellent writer friends – both from the course and otherwise – who have massively reduced my withdrawal symptoms.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was how much writing had become a habit for me. My brain soon started craving its laptop time again and I was surprised by how quickly ideas began dropping into my head. I thought I’d need a long fallow period to recover from such an extended stint of work, that I’d be out of action for a while, and rightly so. But that was the other thing that surprised me: almost as soon as I’d handed in my MA novel, I began to feel like I should be writing something else, a sort of “okay, you’ve finished that, but what are you doing now?”.

I have a habit of putting too much pressure on myself, so I resisted this persistent little voice for a while and stubbornly stuck to having some time off from writing. I read a lot, which was just lovely, and very much helped to fill the post-MA void. Then I came up with a plan. I like plans. I dislike floating about waiting to see what happens, and plans keep me occupied and positive. My plan was to re-read the majority of the short story books that I have – more than I’d realised as it turned out – then spend some time turning the ideas that appeared in my head into short stories and flash fiction pieces.

And for the past few weeks, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I’m lucky, I get a month off in the summer, and aside from lie-ins and reading and plenty of tea and cake with friends, I’ve been reading and writing pretty much every day. I’m not working for as many hours per week as I was on the MA, but that’s just fine with me. I am meant to be on holiday, after all. But I’m very glad that writing is still a part of my life, and that I still enjoy it so much.

Once the summer is over, it’ll be time to get out the book for another edit, and actually, I’m really excited about getting reacquainted with it. I know I’ll do a better job on this edit having had a decent break and maybe that’s really what the post-novel void is for: to recharge. To rest and read and let your enthusiasm for your work return so you can make it better. I hope so anyway…

Guest interview: Steve Toase on Haunt

24 Jun

Steve Toase, author of unsettling fiction and one of the lead writers of the Haunt project, takes time out of his busy schedule to talk about homelessness, collaboration, and a ghost walk with a difference…

Steve Haunt picture for blog

You can find out more about Steve, his published work, and the Haunt project at http://www.stevetoase.wordpress.com, http://www.harrogatehaunt.wordpress.com or on Facebook @stevetoase1.   

Hi Steve. For anyone who hasn’t come across Haunt yet, please could you explain what it is?

Haunt is a project which explores how the lives of people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing are haunted by the identity of Harrogate. It is about bringing the stories of people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing to the fore, and including them within the voice of town.

How did the project start?

I’ve been carrying around the seed for Haunt since at least 2009. Then, in 2014, Tessa Gordziejko from Imove Arts contacted me to ask if I had any project ideas. I suggested that if we could get a bit of funding I’d put together an anthology of stories based on my own experiences. If we could get a bit more then I wanted to bring Becky Cherriman on board and run writing workshops for people experiencing homelessness. What I really wanted was to create a performance and installation inspired by these experiences, and the idea of people being haunted by the identity of the town. Imove liked the idea and agreed to produce the project.

Who else is involved in Haunt?

Many, many people! I’ve been working with Tessa and Becky pretty much since day one. We’ve worked with Harrogate Homeless Project and Foundation UK (who help people aged 16-25 threatened by homelessness in Harrogate). Throughout Haunt we’ve worked with a vast number of participants. Some only came to one session, others to every one.

We’ve also been working with Paul Floyd Blake, who has taken photos for the project. Bean & Bud hosted an exhibition of Paul’s photos, alongside writing from the workshops, which can now be seen at Harrogate Theatre. Harrogate Royal Pump Room Museum included work from Haunt in their Harrogate Stories exhibition and we’ve held pop up readings at Corrina’s Community Café, and Bean & Bud.

For the latest stage we’ve been joined by physical performers Zoe Parker and Tom Hunt, Kwah, who is responsible for sound design, Al Orange working on the projections, and Steph Jones who is assisting with production. Harrogate Theatre have included Haunt in their 2’s Company Festival, and have been fantastic during the development of the performance.

Why was the focus on homelessness so important to you? And why in Harrogate?

The main reason for Harrogate is because it ties in to my own experience. I was thrown out of home when I was 16, just before my GCSEs. I found myself living in tiny bedsits inside large townhouses, where I felt haunted by the physical presence of Harrogate’s identity within the physical structure of the building.

Harrogate is perceived as a rich place to live and has a history of opulence, yet there is a high level of homelessness. Up to twenty people a month are referred to the local homeless hostel but in a recent survey over 60% of people thought there was little or no homelessness in Harrogate.

In addition, the bedsit type of accommodation isn’t really separated as it is in some places. A street may have a five bedroom family home, a house of flats, and a house of bedsits. Often these can only be identified by the multiple doorbells. This creates a very distinct experience that I felt needed to be brought to a wider audience.

Were you surprised by the quality of work produced by workshop participants?

I was surprised by the range of stories and experiences. We had people coming to the workshops who wrote regularly and at least one who hadn’t written anything beyond a shopping list since school. Every participant wrote work of a high enough quality to be included in the anthology.

What were your aims in setting the project up?

There were a number. One was to show that homelessness is present everywhere, not just in urban centres. That anyone can end up homeless: it just needs family breakdown, or a run of not covering bills, and then the floor falls away. Another aim was to show that each person who is homeless has their own story. They are not an amorphous whole, but individuals with aspirations and hopes. We only see people at one moment in life. If you’d met me in March 1992 the perception of who I was/where I was going would have been very different!

Hand on heart I can say we’ve achieved far more than I ever hoped. Changing perceptions of homelessness is a long process, but if people who read the anthology or come to the performances maybe take a moment to think about the person sat begging who they pass every morning, take a moment to pass the time of day, then we will have succeeded.

Congratulations on your Saboteur Awards shortlisting! Why do you think Haunt has struck a chord with so many people?

Getting onto the Saboteur Awards’ shortlist was amazing! I was a bit overwhelmed when I found out, but so pleased we were shortlisted for Best Collaborative Project. Collaboration is at the heart of everything we’ve been doing.

I think Haunt has struck a chord for several reasons. Firstly, I think that hearing people speak about their own experiences of homelessness is very powerful. It’s a subject that is discussed a lot (particularly in light of recent attempts to impose Public Space Protection Orders, which would have criminalised rough sleepers in specific areas), but normally by people outside looking in.

Secondly, that challenging of perceptions carries over into confronting how Harrogate is seen. Even if people are not personally familiar with the town they will know its reputation. I’ve had several conversations about towns such as Oxford or Bath which are perceived to be wealthy, but also have a lot of people experiencing homelessness.

Having already published a Haunt anthology (which is excellent, by the way), you’re now in the process of creating a public performance of the work. What made you decide to do that?

Thank you! We put a lot of thought into the anthology. The book is small enough to fit into a pocket, so someone experiencing street homelessness can keep their copy with them. The font is Windsor, used in a 1920s brochure for Harrogate, and of course the back cover is one of Paul Floyd Blake’s excellent photos.

I wanted to put on a performance as a piece of site specific theatre to take the stories to a different audience, and to make it a full sensory experience. I don’t want to give too much away, but it will be a ghost walk with a difference…

The performances will take place on June 30th, July 1st and 2nd at 2pm, 5pm and 8pm. The 2pm performance will be slightly different and family friendly. Tickets can be purchased here: http://www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/Haunt