Writing Writers

They say you should write about what you know, which always makes me wonder how writers of historical fiction ever so much as get started. With the best research in the world, understanding what it was truly like to live in, say, Roman Britain, or 5th century China, is, at best, an exercise in convincing guess-work. Maybe historical fiction attracts those authors largely because no-one alive can refute their interpretation – their best guess as to what it was truly like, is as good as anyone else’s.

Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books

Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books

Today, I was struck by the frequency with which protagonists of certain types of fiction – particularly fiction aimed at girls, I suppose, that being what I’ve been reading – are carefully guided by the author into becoming writers of fiction aimed at girls. It is true in Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, where the lead character, Joey, goes from being an unpolished but clearly innately talented writer of fairy tales, to being a producer of schoolgirl fiction almost as prolific as Brent-Dyer herself (but not quite – I imagine it took her all of her time to come up with a title and plot summary for 58 real Chalet School books, without producing a similar number of pretend ones). In Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series, it is the similarly-named Jo who validates the author’s life choices with her writing. Indeed, there is a clear and barely disguised influence of Alcott’s lead character over Brent-Dyer’s, right down to the choice of name. Over the last few weeks, I have been reading L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, and I find a similar pattern. Anne is a flighty and overly imaginative child, likeable, but widely considered to be in need of containment by the other characters. As she ages, she becomes a girl who writes rather than play-acts, and into adulthood she becomes a published author in various small-scale magazines, gaining increasing acclaim for her (short) stories. So far, I am half-way through Anne’s House of Dreams, and she has yet to produce anything in the way of a full-length novel, and has just rejected a potentially interesting writing project as being unsuitable to her talents, offering it up instead to a male writer who wanders her way, and who is seeking to produce “a great Canadian novel”.

Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.

Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.

Now, I’m not here to pick holes in the gender stereotyping that is rife in a book written over a hundred years ago, and seeking to depict the slightly old-fashioned life of a rural, colonial community, even then. Obviously, the expectations held in those books are going to jar somewhat with my modern, sophisticated(!) 21st century reading. Mostly, I am fascinated by the apparent need for women authors to validate their own choices through the similar choices of their lead, and generally clearly favourite, characters.

Is it simply an act of self-reassurance? Are they shouting, “Look! Anne is a lovely girl, and she writes stories! And I write stories, so I can surely be lovely, too?” Are they seeking to declare that their writing is a valid activity, a reasonable choice, not an act of selfish conceit in the face of real, more womanly responsibilities? Joey Bettany continues, rather implausibly, to rattle out book after book, whilst apparently producing and adequately caring for no less than eleven children. Anne Shirley, on the other hand, spends much of her life thus far being too busy to write – too busy studying, too busy teaching, too busy keeping house for her new husband. She fits it in to summer vacations, and winter evenings, and doesn’t seem to fit it in at all once she is married, although her husband seems broadly encouraging. The only time that Joey is censured by the author for her writing, it is because she has become consumed by it. Clearly, Brent-Dyer saw this a serious risk. When Joey locks herself away for weeks on end, trying to produce her first full-length novel, she is described as risking her health by her inattention to the basics of food, sleep, exercise, and social interaction, and the book she produces is dismissed as being unspeakably, unsalvageably bad, to the point that she realises her mistake, and burns the manuscript.

Anne, insofar as I can say, having only read half of the series, avoids this mistake, by always allowing her domestic responsibilities to override her desire to write. So she teaches, she helps Marilla with the twins, she cooks, cleans, sews, gardens, and has no time left over for the self-indulgence of writing.

These are the protagonists of fiction for girls. They are role models. What are they trying to say to me? That all the best people write novels, as long as they are careful not to court criticism, by failing to be all the things that nice girls should be, as well? First, even? That my role as a woman is to be there for everyone else, just as women have always been expected to be, but to somehow prove myself to the the world by also doing this extra thing?

Writing is a pretty self-indulgent activity. It involves sitting quietly, preferably, as pointed out by Virginia Woolf, in a room of one’s own, with a door that doesn’t get people banging on it for one’s attention. It requires taking oneself away from the places where one can be called upon to support everyone else. It is an absenting of oneself. And that’s really, really hard. It’s hard to justify, in a 19th century culture that views women as the oil that greases the household. If you are brought up to see your job as being to facilitate, to support, to meet everyone else’s needs before your own, the act of locking yourself away from all those needs and demands might appear like the ultimate selfishness. It might seem morally bankrupt, to actually choose to make yourself unavailable.

The thing is, even now, when we all believe that women are equal to men (in theory, at least, if not always entirely in practice), look around the women you know, the ones with children, or other caring responsibilities, or jobs, and ask yourself how many of them carve out regular time to do something that makes them unavailable to those people. It’s terribly, terribly hard. All that the alleged liberation of feminism has brought many modern women, is an even longer list of things to do. Now we work AND take on most of the childcare. Change is slow in coming, and for as long as stay-at-home-dads remain the exception, and ultimate responsibility for housework remains, in most houses, the woman’s, there is no hope of what amounts to additional leisure time. Women’s lib has only liberated us to do more than ever. There are no areas in which we are free to give roles up.

Of course, what is statistically true is not universally true. I am one of the lucky ones, in some ways. I have a thoughtful, considerate husband, who works from home, and is therefore both willing and able to take on a larger domestic role. His sheer presence has increased his parenting role with the children, and he watches me flounder with the housework, and is perfectly willing to take on jobs that will, hopefully, take the pressure off me. He wants me to have time and space to write, if writing is what I want the time and space to do. That I consider it a self-indulgent triviality, that should be fitted in after I have adequately cleaned, and cooked, and educated, or not at all, is not really his fault.
The thing is, I strongly suspect that in order to do anything really well, in this world, it has to be your priority. If writing doesn’t come first, then I will never be a first rate writer. If music doesn’t come first, I will never be a first-rate musician. If I don’t practice, refine, hone my craft, if I don’t put in my 10,000 hours, as per Malcolm Gladwell, how will I ever get good enough to succeed, by whatever terms we choose to define success (a discussion for another day, I suspect, since this is becoming untenably long already – see how much I could benefit from refining my craft?!).

I would like to write more. I would like to develop the subtle talent for creating whole worlds, people, situations that chime with the reader, that seem magical and fantastic, but no less plausible for that. I would like to somehow recapture the creativity of a childhood that never struggled to pretend, to create alternative realities, but be back in time for tea. Nothing makes me want to write more than the act of reading what others have written. If only I could do that. If only I could put you inside a special, secret world that was just ours. If only I had that power. I would love that.

But the only way to get good at writing is to write. So I intend to write. More often. More regularly. More thoughtfully.

We’ll see whether it lasts.

Straddling the borders

A friend of mine has started a new blog on the subject of autism, and her relationship with it. She doesn’t have a diagnosis for autism – she’s in the process of trying to get one, having reached her forties, and concluded that such a diagnosis would help her to understand herself properly, and manage her life better. She has suffered from all of the hurdles that people talk about in these situations – it took two attempts to get a GP to take her seriously enough to refer her to the fledgling adult autism unit in her area, and what sounds like a very assertive presentation of opinions on the telephone to the said unit, to persuade them that if their telephone assessment returned a borderline result, then that is a case for pursuing diagnosis, not a case for dropping the process.

I don’t really know this person in real life – we met, briefly, once – but my understanding of her, based on how she presents herself online, leads me to think that she probably does have a case for diagnosis. I’m no expert, but knowing that autistic women present differently from autistic men, that they learn at an early age how to ‘fake it’ in many social situations, but live with high levels of stress from the effort of doing so, and that being a “high-functioning” autistic person doesn’t make you any less autistic, I think that if she, an intelligent person who has struggled for years, and who can search the internet at least as well as you can, thinks she might be autistic, she should at least be able to get someone to listen to her.

My dad thinks he’s autistic. He usually uses the term Asperger’s Syndrome, which, as I understand it, is just a particular type of “high-functioning” autism. I’ve known my dad for nearly forty years, and I strongly suspect that he’s probably right. He doesn’t seem to have a particular need for a formal diagnosis. He’s fairly content with the book he read on the subject, and the epiphany that came with it. Again, he suddenly understood the ways in which he had struggled for so many years. The knowledge hasn’t changed who he is, but it has given him a sense of understanding, and of accepting himself, in the face of being told he just wasn’t good enough, for so much of the time.

As well as believing himself to have Asperger’s Syndrome, he has also concluded that I have it. I was distinctly ambivalent about this idea when he first presented it to me, since I (like you, probably) like to think of myself as basically normal. But, do you know what? I’m not normal.

I’m not far from normal. I don’t necessarily think that, if I went down the diagnosis route, I would get a diagnosis. That’s how borderline I think I am. But I do have certain traits. I have difficulty in interacting in large groups, and a preference for talking to people in ones and twos as a result. I have a history of engaging rather obsessively with fiction (must collect all 62 Chalet School books, must read reams of Harry Potter fan-fiction to comfort me over having finished the actual books, must watch a TV series to the very end, long after everyone else jumped the shark because it became so bad). I can be equally obsessed with non-fiction-based hobbies – computer games which I can’t drag myself away from for weeks on end, knitting and crochet projects that are all I’m interested in for periods of time. I spent a big period of my adolescence, basically depressed by my inability to understand other people, and I have difficulties in coping with loud, shrill, or just plain busy noises. Even typing this, I find I’m in a room full of people, someone is playing music, and my senses are overloading to the point that I’m having difficulty getting my thoughts onto paper. And yet, the thoughts are filling my head too much for me to ignore them. So here I am, trying to blog in a completely inappropriate situation, and feeling overwhelmed as a result.

So, I might be slightly autistic. I certainly have some autistic traits. They come out when I’m stressed. The things that cause me stress are, often, related to the autistic traits, and the things that I consequently find difficult. The effect can be circular – things that are stressful, but generally within my capabilities, suddenly become insurmountable if my general stress levels are high. If I’m suffering from a sense of not understanding the rules, or of not being able to meet the expectations of other people, then the odds are that my ability to make a business phone call will evaporate.

The thing is, (and this is what I really came to say), I don’t believe in a mystical line. I don’t believe that all the people on THAT side of the line are autistic, require help and support, and can benefit from the self-knowledge that diagnosis offers, while all the people on THIS side of the line are perfectly normal, and need to just pull themselves together. I don’t believe it.

There are people in my life who think that talking in terms of autism, as a strategy for self-understanding, is a cop-out. They think it’s an excuse for being selfish, for being badly behaved, for not trying to put myself out for them, for just not trying hard enough. I disagree.

I don’t need a diagnosis. I don’t need someone else to tell me that the things I need to cope are valid. I already know that they are. I have learned, from life experience, and from reading, what those things are, or could be. All I really need, is to understand myself, and to be allowed, by the people around me, to make judgements for myself about what I can and cannot do. I am the person who understands me best, and nobody else has the right to tell me that my coping mechanisms aren’t good enough for them.

If you think you might be autistic (or ADHD, or anything else, really), and you think that a formal diagnosis would benefit you, then I encourage you to pursue that. Depending on whom you ask, and what you’re after, you may have to push quite hard – if it’s necessary to you, then push as hard as you need to. If you think there are tangible supports that you could access with a diagnosis, or even if you just think it would help you to understand – if, in short, it’s worth it to you, then push for it. You deserve those benefits, and I would hate for you to see me, stating that I don’t need that, as somehow dismissing you.

But much more important to me is knowing why I struggle. Which side of the mythical line I happen to fall is much less important to me, than seeing that everyone struggles with the how the world is – everyone. It’s just that the ways in which I struggle lean more toward the autism spectrum, than in any other direction. And knowing and understanding that, gives me somewhere to start in looking for strategies that will help me cope – things that have worked for other people, and might just help me to find my way through day-to-day life more easily.

Since my dad first suggested to me that I might have Asperger’s (or at least, since I first came to terms with the possibility that he might be right), I can honestly say that it has helped. I believe I understand myself better, now, than I ever have. I can see precisely why certain things cause me intolerable stress, and I can give myself permission to refuse to be in that situation. It has been a benefit to me. It has put me in control. And that is much, much more important than the process by which I got there.

Fat patients should use fat doctors

This is the life lesson I have learned, today, and which I am generously sharing with you.

Fat doctors are much more likely to get it. They, like the rest of us, have agonised about the weight loss debate, worried about the damage to their health that their BMI might be doing, have lost weight only to pile it back on again, with a little more for good measure, have hated themselves for being fat, for being unhealthy, for being unable to exercise the required self-control to magically become a thin person. It’s not guaranteed, of course, because a fat doctor can always decide to project their self-loathing onto you, and if they try that, you should seek another doctor. However, if they’ve reached a certain age, and come to the conclusion that, rightly or wrongly, fat is what they are, and isn’t about to change, you stand a good chance of discussing your health with someone who sees your body shape as a parameter, not a problem to be fixed. And that clears the way for an intelligent, grown-up dialogue about what health options ARE available to you.

The other thing I learned, today, is that if you are generally against random health-screening that doesn’t relate to the reason you went to the doctor’s in the first place, you should say so, and loudly, at every interaction. Because if I had been consulted 6 weeks ago, I would never have agreed to the liver function screening, which bore no relation to the random white blotches that had appeared on my face, and I would not now be in the middle of an investigative process to find out what is wrong with my liver, the end result of which will be, us knowing what is wrong with my liver. There is no treatment. There are no symptoms. There is no problem that we are seeking to solve. We just randomly screened my liver function, and now we know it’s abnormal, we can’t possibly resist finding out why.

That annoys me intensely. I don’t believe in random screenings. I think the medical profession – particularly at the policy level, rather than the sitting-in-a-room-with-you level – is inclined to entirely disregard the emotional toll of false positives (generally more likely if testing decisions were not risk-based in the first place), of being presented with a health “problem” you didn’t know about and which doesn’t affect you, of needing to spend your perfectly good and limited time and energy on visits to blood clinics and ultrasound labs, and so on. These things are not nothing. These stresses can actually bring a health cost of their own, though they are rarely evaluated in that way. I believe, instead, in risk-based testing. So, if there is evidence to suggest a child MIGHT be being abused, we investigate – we don’t do spot checks on every family just in case. If there is evidence to suggest that there might be a problem with my liver function, we test it. If we think my complaint might be caused by lipid deposits relating to high cholesterol, we test for that – and nothing else!

Essentially, the uncomfortable conversation I had about dieting, with the previous GP that I saw, and the subsequent five weeks of worrying that there might be something seriously wrong with my liver (there isn’t), and that if there was, I was going to have to face a major confrontation with the medics regarding my refusal to attempt to lose weight, were unnecessary stresses, brought about by the first GP I saw (different one again) who took it upon herself to measure things that had nothing to do with why I had gone to see her.

She should have at least asked me. Because that’s five weeks of stress that I could have been spared.

MPs pay: get the facts right, please

If you like it would appear most MPs don’t have the time / inclination to read the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) report into MPs pay, you should at least get an idea of what it (not the press) says.

It’s not 11% pay rise it’s 9.26% yes it’s high but lets get the number right – the pay rise happens in 2015 – and between now and then MPs are getting a 1% pay rise a year anyway – so in 2015 values they go from £67,731 to £74,000

The recommendations are cost neutral to the taxpayer (so overall they are not getting more money) – while the headline pay is going up, MPs will lose out on the payments they get when they leave parliament, what they can claim (they won’t be able to claim evening meals for example) and their pensions is being downgraded significantly to be more normal.

Once it’s implemented MPs pay will be linked to average earnings - So this shouldn’t happen again.

IPSA were asked to fix a problem and they have – they have looked at where MPs wages should sit in relation to other jobs, removed some of the rouge payments around the edge and have set out a way for this to remain fixed into the future.

You can agree or disagree with the levels and how but you should probably understand how they reached the numbers they did.

The biggest argument I can see for not paying MPs this money – most of them blatantly haven’t read or understood these reports and that in my opinion raises competency issues.