Relatable: writing the real world, and The Real World

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Last week I told my faithful beta reader Sam that I would have something ready for him to read fairly shortly, and gave him the blurb (at least, as far as I could remember it off the top of my head).

He said,

Well, there’s a story I can relate to! Not the being a lesbian part, or the doing the PhD, or wanting to talk to a dead person… just the real world being a bit of a confusing mess! And that seems like it might be the joy of the story. Personally, I can’t relate to anything you just said in that blurb other than the real world being a crazy place, but I do feel I can relate to the whole thing still. So something’s right with it all!

And this strikes, albeit at something of an angle, at something that has been worrying me a little bit about my book. It’s something that worries me a little bit about every book that I write: what if X reads Y and thinks it’s about them?

I don’t mean the deliberate things. I borrowed the wheelchair conga line in the last book knowing exactly what I was doing. (I still have very fond memories of that party!) This time round I emailed somebody to ask, ‘Do you mind if I appropriate your church’s backstory?’ I don’t mean things like that. I mean the occasions when I go, ‘hang on, that thing happened! to X! I wasn’t thinking about X when I wrote it! oh shit! what if they think it’s about them and then they hate me?’

It’s usually something that was quite an obvious way to take the story, something that was quite easy to write. It hits me when most of the plot’s nailed down and I can’t easily take it out.

The thing is, whatever Y is, it probably also happened to several other people.

One’s early twenties are a confusing, difficult time. It’s the combination of having to deal with money, large amounts of money, or the lack of large amounts of money when one needs them to survive, and coming to understand that one’s parents are human and have human failings and are mortal and will eventually die, and wondering what on earth one’s going to do with the rest of one’s life, and encountering failure, and learning how to deal with serious relationships, and, and, and…

For some people it happens earlier; for some, it happens later. Personally, I spent the year after I turned 21 letting go of what I thought I was meant to be doing, and 22-23 just about clinging on to what remained. There are whole chunks of time that I just can’t remember at all. (This is a little irritating, because some of them would have made good material for this!) I look back at diary entries from that period and think, goodness, I really should have talked to somebody about that. And of course some people have more going on, more to deal with, than others.

But it’s very likely that what I’m writing about is going to match up with somebody’s history more closely than I’d intended. And on the one hand that’s good – as Sam points out, I’m trying to write things that people can relate to! And on the other I am hoping and trying not to inflict needless hurt.

Which brings me on to something that was originally going to be a separate blog post, but what the hell.

Yesterday the House of Bishops released some ‘pastoral’ guidance responding to the fact that opposite-sex civil partnerships are now possible in the UK.

It didn’t say much that we didn’t already know, but it said it in a spectacularly insensitive fashion, which has inevitably and deservedly been reported as ‘sex only for opposite-sex marriage, say bishops’. And there are a lot of LGBT+ Anglicans who are feeling pretty hurt and angry, and a lot of allies who are being very vocal too. It hurts. I have dodged a load of bullets and it still hurts. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are right in the firing line.

Meanwhile, lit Twitter was talking about American Dirt, which I don’t think I shall bother reading. I was particularly struck by this piece, which actually predates the current kerfuffle, but which got linked to illustrate the point that books about marginalised people don’t need to be trauma porn to be important. Life isn’t, and literature doesn’t have to be, wall-to-wall misery for immigrants, for queer people, for anyone. And the message that you’re doomed to unhappiness simply because of who you are is… not one that I would wish to endorse.

This is a balance that I’m trying to strike.

One of the major points of conflict in The Real World is the fact that ordained ministers in the Church of England are not allowed to marry someone of the same sex. This is a source of grief and pain in the real world; it’s destroying relationships and distorting lives. I have done my best to work with this and still write a book in which the richness and beauty and joy and delight of queer relationships can be discerned.

Whether I have succeeded… is the wrong question. Whether I will have succeeded, we’ll find out. It still needs work. I’m still filling in holes in the text, even as Sam looks at what I’ve done so far (‘seventeen pages of red marks’, he says). It is a way off being finished; a long way off being as good as I can get it; further away still from being as good as it can be.

(And then sometimes I think that all I’ve done is written a less posh, more liturgically accurate, Four Weddings and a Funeral. But that’s another story.)

Welcome to The Real World

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I’ve been ignoring The Real World (my book, I  mean, not the actual real world) since October, in order to get a bit of distance. Last week I printed the manuscript out and (when I wasn’t standing in the rain for three hours waiting for a rail replacement bus) read it through and scribbled on it.

It isn’t bad at all. It isn’t done, but what’s there is OK. If all goes to plan, it will come out in September.

In the meantime, I wrote a blurb for it, and here it is:

Colette is trying to finish her PhD and trying not to think about what happens next. Her girlfriend wants to get married – but she also wants to become a vicar, and she can’t do both. Her ex-girlfriend never wanted to get married, but apparently she does now. Her supervisor is more interested in his TV career than in what Colette’s up to, and, of her two best friends, one’s two hundred miles away, and the other one’s dead.

Welcome to…

The Real World.

2020 reading challenges – a bit behind the times

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Having – somewhat to my surprise – filled an entire bingo card on the Indie Challenge last year, I had a vague idea of quitting while I was ahead, and not doing any reading challenges this year. Then I was messing around on Twitter and found a couple that looked a) interesting and b) manageable.

  1. The #EU27 project. This involves reading one book from each of the 27 EU countries that aren’t the UK. I’m late to the party on this one, as it began when Article 50 was triggered, and here we are over two years later. I’m going to miss being part of the European Union, and I rather like the idea of this challenge as a way to remain connected with the rest of Europe in at least a small way. I will write up books from this challenge on this blog. The majority will be translations: my French is good enough to read Jules Verne in the original, if not Colette (mind you, I get bogged down in Colette in English, too) but I don’t think I can say the same for my smattering of German and Spanish, let alone my opera fan Italian – and that’s as far as my languages go.
  2. #TBR20, which involves making one’s first twenty reads of the year books which one already possesses, and which appears to be a descendant of the TBR Dare (which involved reading only books that one already possessed for the first three months of the year). Since I’m likely moving house in March, this seems like a useful discipline, and I’m going to go for both goals: the first twenty and the first three months. I won’t be reporting back on these unless they also count towards #EU27.

The other thing I’m trying to do is use Goodreads and LibraryThing more. I don’t do star ratings, which in my experience are pretty much meaningless, but I will be posting text reviews. We’ll see how it goes…

December Reflections 31: my word for 2020

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I mentioned yesterday that earlier this year I attended an event called Thoughtful Eating. Much of what was said there wasn’t new to me. But the conclusion – an attempt at a Biblical approach to food – sparked something in me. In particular, two words: delight and sharing. They’ve stuck with me through this year.

So I put delight and sharing at north and south for my 2020 compass. The rest of the qualities fitted in around them.

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I expect 2020 to be difficult in many ways, and exciting in many ways, and enjoyable in many ways, and challenging in perhaps all of those ways. I wish to approach it seeking (look, there it is at south-east) for delight.

Delight, at north, is really another form of sharing: it’s noticing the good things that have been shared with me, seeing the holiness of them, and, if I can, sharing those things and that delight with others.

As, for example, the moment, looking back at almost the last daylight of 2019, when a swan swooped overhead just as I had my phone out to take a picture of bare trees against a clear, clear sky, wheeled around with a keen whirr of wings.

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

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… surprising and exciting developments.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be surprising. When in the autumn we added up the balances of our various savings accounts and found that they made a mortgage deposit, that was after many years of channelling a direct debit in that direction.

What else?

The opportunity to serve on a Cursillo weekend. I wrote a couple of days ago about ‘the privilege of loving people’, and this was largely what I had in mind. Making tea for people, putting chairs out for them, washing their hands… it was wonderful.

Good progress on two books. The Real World is more or less there in terms of word count, and I’m looking forward to diving back in with a red pen in a couple of weeks’ time. The Rassendyll Kidnapping is a lot more nebulous, but a whole load of plot came together in my head at the beginning of December, and I got most of it down before I forgot it again.

Time with family and friends – particularly a week with my family at and around Ventnor Fringe, and a week with the in-laws on a narrowboat on the river Avon, and another week with my friend Anne in York. I’d like to see more of more people next year, though.

The chance to see the best cyclists in the world ride past me.

New people and new places. Theatre. Museums. Good books. Good food. A really interesting talk that made me think about food differently. (The very short version: delight and sharing.) Wide-ranging conversations, leading (I think) to interesting places.

2019 hasn’t been a year of fruition, exactly, but it’s certainly been a year of emerging shoots. And I’m thankful.

December Reflections 29: home

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Up until five years ago, I lived in places where the horizon was adorned with a decent border of hills, or where the land fell away and fell away and fell away to the sea. I lived in places where hills or sea or both played intermediary between me and the sky.

I’m still learning how to feel at home under this vast pearly, milky, sky; to orientate myself against a horizon that’s low and flat and at once remote and close; to measure myself in a landscape where the tallest thing is a tree, or was built by human hands.

But it’s the same sky: this wide blue-and-white sky; this low, sulky, grey sky; this deep blue, starred sky. It stretches over everywhere I’ve called home, and the places I have yet to call home.