Link to a new post on Medium

If you’re not at your wits end keeping up with what I’ve already sent out, you can find a new post I just put on Medium. It’s about what, if anything, it means to be Jewish. And an atheist. In Cornwall, where I’m not likely to find another Jew for miles in any direction, including up, down, and out to sea.

As an aside: The contrast between the British and American attitudes toward atheism surprised me when I first moved here. In the U.S., before I called myself an atheist I tended to stop and ask myself whether I had enough energy for the reaction it might cause. I’m happy to talk about religion and the lack of it, but I don’t have a lot of energy for tense, over-emotional discussions, and they can get that way. I don’t enjoy upsetting people. It’s also, honestly, not the topic I find most interesting in life. So I tended to say “I’m not religious,” which as far as I can figure out means the same thing but didn’t shock people in the same way. In Britain, though, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal, which I love.

If you haven’t discovered Medium, it’s an interesting–I’m not sure what to call it. How about phenomenon? It sounds more specific than thing, although it’s not really. It’s a place to post essays and stories, and it structures in a way that helps people to find them–or tries to. Punch in a topic that interests you and it should call up a range of posts. Many of the ones I’ve read are very good. Within it are several magazines, which if they accept your work can give it a bit of an extra boost. And if they don’t accept it? You just post it anyway.

Does my vocabulary look too British in this?

The differences between British and American English are an endless source of—well, pretty much anything you can name: confusion, fascination, amusement, bad temper, accusations (subtle and otherwise) of either ignorance or stuffiness, depending on which side of the Atlantic taught you your rash assumptions.

I’ve written about the differences between British and American English before, which means I’m supposed to slip in a link or ten to tempt newcomers deeper into the blog. That sounds ominous—step deeper into the dark and trackless blog, my dears. But I have to do it anyway. Who am I to defy the rules of the blogosphere? (Note: I already do with my irrelevant photos, and I’m not likely to stop, but once in a while I should behave like a serious blogger.) So here’s the link: This will connect you to a whole category of posts. You can pick through and see what interests you. Or not. I’ll never know.

Semi-relevant photo: What's more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the guy on the right looks like he's about to brain the guy on the left. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Semi-relevant photo: What’s more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the big guy on the right looks like he’s about to haul off and brain the guy on the left. If you squint, the whole thing begins to look like a brawl. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Where was I? I’m returning to the topic because Karen wrote to say my writing sounded British to her. I asked what specifically struck her that way and she said what “sounds to my American ears not-so-American” were the phrases “‘he wasn’t being immensely clever” and “trying to conduct a bit of business.” 

I’m probably the last person who’d know if those are not-so-American. When I talk, I still sound American enough to get asked if I’m enjoying my stay (well yes, although it seems like I’ve been here for years), but Britishisms have crept into my brain and my speech. I’d like to think I notice them and build walls around them—you know: the kind with turnstiles, so I have to sacrifice a coin before I can get at them—but I’m not sure the system’s working.

In the first phrase, I wonder if what struck Karen isn’t the word immensely, which is formal—a tone I fall into a lot when I’m kidding around, although I’m never sure if it works. On the other hand, clever may be more common in Britain than in the U.S.  Emphasis on may. I’m not sure. But I can call up the sound of an English accent saying “you clever girl” or “clever clogs” (one is a compliment; the other probably isn’t), but I can’t come up with anything like it in an American accent.

What about the second phrase, trying to conduct a bit of business? Bit shows up a lot in British English. Bits and bobs. Or Zadie Smith’s wonderful phrase about nudity in a movie, the dangly bits. Do we use bits much in American? Ask someone if they’re tired and “a bit” wouldn’t be a strange answer, although “a little” might be a bit more common.

Did the bit in that last phrase jump out and sound British?

Conduct again has a formal tone, and although I’d guess it’s used equally in both versions of the language, we (the we here being Americans) do tend to think British English wears a corset (or at least a top hat) while American English slouches on the couch with its feet on the coffee table. That’s because we think everyone in Britain is belongs to the aristocracy. Even when we know better. We know the laws of physics decree that you can’t have an aristocracy without a whole lot of peasants to keep them fed and et cetera’d, but somewhere underneath whatever our good sense we have we still believe the British are all aristocrats.

We (again meaning Americans) are both right and wrong about the formality of British English. It can be more formal. It also can be gloriously rough and informal—like, I’d guess, any language or national version of a language.

Karen went on to write, “Isn’t this a problem writers encounter all the time when they create characters who are ‘other’? How does a woman writer ‘sound’ male? How does a thirty-something author ‘sound’ like a teenager? How does an American ‘sound’ British?”

The answer is that at their best, writers listen, deeply and actively, and learn their limits. I don’t hesitate to write dialog in a man’s voice, or to write from a man’s point of view. We’re not as different as the world tells us we are, and even if we were I’ve lived around men I don’t live with one, but I know what they sound like.

I wrote from man’s perspective in parts of Open Line (and here we go with the links again) and felt that I knew the character well and did him justice. He wasn’t an admirable person, but I ended up liking him. I’d lived inside his head.

Writing the male characters in The Divorce Diet was different. I only got to see them through my central character’s eyes, and if she was fed up with them, so was I. They’re not as fully realized because of the point of view I chose. You can’t tell every story from every perspective. But their dialog? It didn’t feel like a stretch.

But I know my limits and I stay well away from the edges. I’ve watched writers write dialog that goes past theirs. At its best it embarrasses me as a reader and makes them look ignorant. At its worst it comes off as racist. For myself, the rule is this: If you haven’t lived with it, don’t write it. If you don’t know the accent and vocabulary and attitude and life first hand, don’t write it. That doesn’t mean limit yourself to characters who are replicas of yourself. It means know your limits, and if they form too tight a circle, learn more. Live more widely.

Sorry: I’ve expanded the issue beyond vocabulary, but dialog isn’t just about word choice, it’s about the character. And writing about someone from a different demographic group isn’t just about finding the right words. If you don’t know the reality of another person’s life, you won’t write it with any depth or power. Or respect, no matter how good your intentions are.

Maybe that’s why so many male writers have written paper-thin women: They couldn’t see beyond what they wanted from women, or how women affected them, so they couldn’t create any depth in the women they wrote. You can plug other categories of writer and character into that sentence in whatever combination you like, but I have an English degree and ended up reading a dismal lot of paper-thin women. My patience wore thin and it doesn’t seem to be one of those things that repair themselves with time.

But let’s come back to the original question about words. It worries me when Britishisms creep into my brain. Picture me as an auto mechanic and someone’s slipped metric wrenches my toolbox, which would be fine except I work on American cars and nothing but American cars. They’re fine wrenches, but they don’t fit anything in the shop.

I’d love to work on both kinds of car, but I’m just the kind of maniac who couldn’t keep my wrenches apart.

I’ve tried keeping British words out of my head and it’s not possible. My brain loves words, and it vacuums them up wherever it finds them. And as I typed that, a voice in my head supplied the phrase hoovered them up. Because vacuuming’s a brand-name verb here, based on the Hoover vacuum. Like the American word band-aid, which in British is the generic (if, to me, bizarre sounding) sticking plaster.

Some words get planted more deeply because I use them, however hesitantly. There’s no point in asking where the band-aids are if no one knows what I’m talking about. Others plant themselves deeply because they sound good. People here have such a way of leaning into the word bloody that it makes me want to say it myself. If I find myself in the right time and place, cells in my brain jump up and down like popcorn in the microwave, begging, Can we say that? Please can we say that?

The wall-and-turnstile approach to keeping my vocabularies separate hasn’t been a screaming success. I might have more luck if I think of myself as having two toolboxes (or if I run those pesky foreign cars out of my garage), but I doubt it. It’s a problem I haven’t solved.

Any comments on what I sound like to you are welcome. Or on anything else that comes to mind. This should be interesting.

More about Charles Causley: a bonus post

In “Tea on the Lawn,” I mentioned the poet Charles Causley, who lived in North Cornwall. It was an aside, but R. emailed to say that she was involved in Causley’s care toward the end of his life and that he was a lovely man.

I never know what part of a post is going to activate someone, and that’s one of the things I’ve come to love about blogging.

Causley “wrote one of the first poems that ever really struck a chord with me,” she emailed, “’The Ballad of the Bread Man’. It was a reworking of the Christmas story. I was eleven or twelve when it was read out at the Christmas assembly at my school. I didn’t know who’d written it, and though it always stayed with me, I didn’t actually come across it in print until after he’d died.”

Irrelevant photo, but foggy cliffs seemed to suit the mood.

Irrelevant photo, but foggy cliffs seemed to suit the mood.

As a result, she never got to tell him what it had meant to her. But that didn’t stop her from talking about literature with him.

“We used to have some wonderful conversations about Laurie Lee, and Ted Hughes and the like. And I remember a Fortnum and Mason hamper arrived at Christmas for him; a gift from his publisher. I was so impressed, and all he said was: ‘Well they do get money from selling my books, you know.’

“He was made Companion of Literature. It was 2001 and he got it at the same time as Doris Lessing. It’s held by a maximum of ten people at any one time, and it’s for life. He said they’d only given it to him because he wouldn’t be keeping it for long.

“He’s extremely well loved in Cornwall.”

She added the following memory to give “an impression of his ready wit, even at eighty-four: I was helping him walk down a corridor and the call bell went off.”

Making a reference to the poet John Betjeman’s blank verse autobiography, “he said: ‘Oh you poor girls – summoned by bells, as my friend John would say.’ “

(I’m not sure how important it is to know this, but Cornwall inspired many of Betjeman’s poems.)

“There was a campaign to have Causley made poet laureate when Betjemen died.”

Writing British English & Writing American English

Someone asked me a while back if I would ever set a novel in the U.K.

I’ve been tempted. I even have the first few scenes of one on paper. (Yes, paper. You remember paper. It’s that stuff the kitten chases when you crumple it into a ball.) If I’m smart, or at least cautious, a few scenes is as far as that novel will go. Because it doesn’t take long before I/you/whatever writer we’re talking about here comes to one of those spots where British and American English branch off in different directions and chooses the wrong path.

A good copy editor could save our writer, but a good copy editor doesn’t always pop up at those forks in the road, so the writer marches bravely off in the wrong direction and ends up wandering through the wilderness. Days later, she stumbles into town, having missed a few meals and sporting twigs in her hair and mud on her clothes.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie attacks the laundry basket. I'll impose a short moratorium on cute kitten photos after this.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie attacks the laundry basket. I’ll impose a short moratorium on cute kitten photos after this.

Where was the copy editor? Semi-comatose at the computer. Or firmly rooted in the wrong version of our shared language. I’ve been a copy editor. We can’t be specialists in everything. We do a bit of fact checking, but nothing guarantees that we’ll check the right facts. And a word we recognize as right? Unless we’re fully bilingual in English, we won’t stop to question it.

When you’re paid by the word, you don’t have time to ponder deeply.

So I don’t assume a copy editor can save me. Whatever version of the language I write in, I’m responsible for getting it right.

I’m not a careless listener. When I started writing fiction, I trained myself to hear not what I thought people said but what they really said. Because speech isn’t even close to the English that we’re taught is correct, and nothing sounds as phony as characters speaking in perfectly formed sentences. I used to listen to snippets of conversation and then write down as much of them as I could remember, paying attention to word choice, to unpredictable phrases, to pauses, to the ways people waited each other out and cut each other off, to run-on sentences and sentence fragments, to the genuine and glorious insanity of the spoken language.

A high point in my eavesdropping career was a conversation between a Minneapolis cop and a man—white and presumably drunk, although I couldn’t swear to that second part—who was lying on my neighbors’ front lawn. The cop was trying to persuade him to move on, and the man, by the time I started listening, was sitting up and holding a hamburger in the air like Exhibit A.

They said a few words back and forth, then the man was on his feet and heading down the street and the cop yelled after him, “I’m gonna come to your house and sit on your lawn and eat hamburgers. See how you like that.”

It was a mix of things that made this memorable. The “and…and…and” rhythm of the cop’s comment. The “see how you like that,” which made him sound like a twelve-year-old. But mostly it was the sheer craziness of a cop, with his gun and his club and the full weight of the law’s machinery on his side, threatening to sit on someone’s lawn and eat hamburgers.

I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down as much of the exchange as I could, because if I let it wait I wouldn’t believe I was remembering it accurately.

So, there’s my proof—my hamburger; my Exhibit A—that I’m not an untrained listener. Move me from Minnesota to Cornwall, though, and my carefully tuned ear goes off key. I do listen to the Britishness of British speech, and I keep a mental list of phrases I love, because even the clichés sound fresh to me. Someone says, “Oh, she’s away with the fairies,” and I laugh as if she’d invented the phrase. I’ve been hearing it for nine years now, but it still makes me picture fairies.

M. has two stock phrases that sound fresh to me, although I know she didn’t invent them: “He’s all talk and no trousers” and “she’s all frill and no knickers.”

When we bought our house, we asked a different M. to give us some advice about the garden. She showed us a broken pot with blade-like leaves growing out of it, which had been left behind.

“If you have to have these,” she said, “make sure they stay in the pot. Those,” and she pointed to some other plant, although I can’t remember what, “are invasive, but this is a thug.”

I laughed and got one of those blank looks you get when you’ve laughed at the wrong thing. She wasn’t being immensely clever. Thug is a category of plant that any gardener here recognizes—one step worse than invasive.

So yes, I listen and I appreciate and I remember. But I still hesitate to write either Cornish or more standard British dialogue. Sure, I can tuck in a phrase or two, but after that? I’d write something I think is neutral and without knowing it rely on something hopelessly American. Because it’s not the phrases you hear and remember and are delighted with that matter. It’s the ones you don’t hear. It’s the times you don’t stop to question yourself but turn out to be writing your native English instead of that other, related language.

I catch British journalists doing this when they interview Americans: “I just reached into the drinks cabinet,” they’ll have someone say. Into the what??? We don’t have drinks cabinets in the U.S. We have— Wait a minute, what do we have? Liquor cabinets? I never actually had one, so it’s not a phrase that has much life in my mind and I can’t remember what to call the damn things.

Let’s fall back on another example. A while back, I read an interview in which some American actor talked about his mum. His what? Americans have mothers and moms and mamas, but we do not, in any regional or ethnic accent I ever heard of, have mums. But it’s what the writer heard because it’s the word the writer uses. We translate without noticing.

I love running into stuff like that. It makes me feel gloriously smug. Not because I couldn’t do exactly the same thing but because this particular time I didn’t.

For a post about paying the tax on my car, I wrote about being in the post office and trying to conduct a bit of business that we couldn’t finish and couldn’t abandon and if you ever want to bring a small post office to a halt, talk to me because I know how to do now. After what seemed like forever, I was able to step aside and the woman behind the counter called out—

What the hell did she call out? At first I wrote, “Can I help the next person?” I was pretty sure that was wrong, but I left it because it got the job done.

The next day, hesitantly, I changed it to, “Can I help?” and then to “Can I help who’s next?” which is a weird phrase, and grammatically strange enough for me to believe I didn’t invent it, but I checked it with a friend anyway, and she confirmed it: That’s what the woman would have said.

So I got away with it, but I hesitate to write more that a few lines in any of the many versions of British. Because it’s not the stuff you hear that trips you up but the stuff you don’t hear. The stuff you take for granted, that your brain translates automatically. It’s the drinks cabinet. It’s the mum.

Waiting for the publication fairy

The Divorce Diet is available today, and having promo’d it shamelessly up to now, I’m not doing that today. This is about waiting for some publisher or award committee to wave the magic feather of approval over your work.

A.L. Kennedy, speaking at an awards ceremony, said, “It’s a hard and a lonely life to be a writer—it’s not hard in the manner of being a nurse or a coal miner, but as a writer you have to believe in yourself a lot before anyone else does.”

the divorce dietSome days it’s harder to believe in yourself than to think, Maybe I should just pack it in, which is probably why so many of us look to an outside source for proof that what we’re doing is worth the bother.

Before my first short story was published, I believed publication would transform me into—although I didn’t use these words, even in the privacy of my own head—a real writer. I still believed that before my first book was published, and my second book, and I’ve kept on believing it as The Divorce Diet, my third, worked its way toward publication. Somehow, we never stop believing in the good fairy, even after she morphs into the publication fairy. We still think that as soon as we’ve proved our worth she’ll wave that magic feather. The problem is that the way we have to prove our worth keeps getting harder. There’s always one more test. I’ve read about famous writers who felt slighted because they hadn’t won the Pulitzer, the Nobel, the Massive Damn Whaddayacallit Award. They were still waiting for the publication fairy and her fancy feather.

But before writing can be about publishing, it’s about the act of writing: putting one word after another; and even before that, it’s about finding the place inside you that needs to speak, and charting a path from that place into the world. And then—once, twice, and a thousand times—it’s about believing that the act is worth the effort.

And after you get published? It’s still about the act of writing. We keep going back to that or we’re lost.

I’m writing this in advance of the TDD’s actual release date, so I can’t report on how I feel moment by moment, but I can predict pretty safely: At some point I’ll remember that what day it is and I’ll look around for a big feeling to match it, and it won’t be there. I’ll be the same me that I’ve always been. And when I next sit down to write, I’ll be the same writer I was before, not some magic-feathered genius.

Let me go back to A.L. Kennedy. She’s worked, as a writer, with “people in care homes and hospitals: psychiatric outpatients, people in prisons, people trapped in their own homes, people with all kinds of degenerative diseases or learning difficulties.” And writing could be life-changing for them not “necessarily …because they will end up being writers professionally,… [but] because they get practice to find the words to say who they are and what they want and how their world is and—in short—they will find their voices. And having a voice and knowing you can use it is a very beautiful thing.”

If you blog or write for other reasons, you know this, but it’s easy to lose track of in the scramble to transform ourselves into whatever we think real writers are.

I’m not saying that recognition doesn’t matter. I want it as badly as the next fool. But never think that it’s all that matters. Write because you must. Write because you love it. Write because it gives you strength. If you reach only yourself, you’ve done something of value. If you write well and purely and reach other people, you can give them strength. Or make them laugh. Or let them see the world in a new way. If you reach one other person, that’s a gift to you both. Take joy in it. For its own sake.