Writing Experiment No. 65: An Archive Of Belonging

There are lots of theories about the number of stories there are: two, eight, twenty, sixty-four. But I have a hunch that most stories boil down to just one story, and that’s about the search for home.

I’m not sure quite when I decided on this. Maybe it was when I read Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which at its end, after all the fuss and fatwas, is about people looking for home.

Which takes me to Rushdie’s brilliant essay, ‘Out of Kansas’, on The Wizard of Oz, which reminds us all that There’s no place like home.

Which takes me to all sorts of friends of Dorothy. The logical family that forms on Barbary Lane in Tales of the City. The home created by Sue and Maud in Fingersmith. Jeanette Winterson’s story of adoption in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and the even more extraordinary true story in Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? The Moomins defending their home from comets or welcoming odd bods into the Moominhouse. When I was eight years old I was always drawing plans for my own Moominhouse. It had two verandahs.

The stranger in a strange land (the Durrells with their strawberry-pink, daffodil-yellow, and snow-white villas – which all had verandahs drawn by me too). Or: the stranger comes to town (Gatsby). A migration to a new home (My Antonia). Defending a homeland (Game of Thrones). And think of the grand narratives of the idea of home that infect public life today: ‘I want my country back,’ exclaimed the gammon-face on Question Time. Me too, love.

Even the story of someone staying in one place – say, Emma Bovary in provincial France, or Olive Kitteridge in her seaside town in Maine – can be a tale of building a home: maintaining it, facing your own reality, messing things up or holding things together. Recently, Amanda Berriman’s powerful novel Home is narrated by a homeless four-year-old who reminds us that home is not something we can take for granted.

In thinking about the idea of home, something else that comes to mind is the blog of Bhanu Kapil, where she talks about the experiences of coming from a migrant family and being a migrant herself. Please read this post, where Bhanu describes an astonishingly generous gesture made towards her family shortly after they arrived in London.

Lo: look at the light that shines out of that beautiful story. Bhanu calls this the first entry in an Archive of Belonging. In these fractious times of Brexit and Trump and school shootings, much public discourse bubbles over with rage and spite, and it’s too easy to dwell among the noises and disagreements and slurrings. So it’s lovely to read such a story of creation and celebration. It’s important, too. As Bhanu says: ‘This kindness and hospitality is somehow unimaginable in the era we have entered now, and yet, perhaps it is not.’

Home, belonging, security, the quest for wholeness, loving and being loved, acts of generosity and creation. I think of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’, an inspirational essay on the work of the writer that concludes with ‘a new definition for Work‘: LOVE.

So: as a writing experiment, let yourself have a few moments of contemplation, and take yourself to a time when someone gave you something that made you feel that you BELONGED. Then write about that experience. It could be about someone else, if you prefer. It could be a true story, or it could be fictional. But fill it with people and places and telling details (such as Bhanu’s Aunty Catherine’s lily of the valley perfume). Fill it with LOVE as you CREATE something or some things that made you (or other people) feel at home.

Maybe creating entries in our own Archives of Belonging will make us kinder and more generous people too? The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation, etc. (That’s from ‘La Vie Boheme’ in Rent – another story about creating home.)

Ongoing writing experiment: Continue to add to your Archive of Belonging.

Alternative exercise: Draw a plan of your own Moominhouse. (And don’t forget a library.)

And if you’d like to try some other writing: Writing Experiments.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 36: Second Homes


I’ve just returned from a trip to Boulder. It was wonderful to be back there. Through my eyes I breathed in the vast open spaces of the high plains, the Front Range rising in the distance. Ah! That vista conjures up so much. I felt back home.

I took two buses to Loveland, thinking that Loveland, Colorado is one of the most magical names a town could dream of. When I changed buses I stood under a tremendous old tree in Longmont, and thought of Sal Paradise sleeping under a tremendous old tree in Longmont in On The Road. I beheld an even more tremendous old tree in the great sycamore that Naropa’s Arapahoe campus is built around.

I befriended a dog and a cat and a parrot, and saw again an old-friend dog and an old-friend cat, and I read some of a book about dogs, and I heard stories about squirrels and raccoons. I also heard some shocking stories about the floods in Colorado, about streets turned into rivers and houses swept away and rain that was silver and hammering, and shocking simply because it was so there. I went for a walk along Pine Street, visiting great friends as well as Mork and Mindy, and then passing by the house where we used to live, and finally heading to the Boulder Public Library, where I saw more flood damage.

I ate chile rellenos, and deep-fried Brussels sprouts, and espresso-glazed donuts, and an apple and kale salad that must rank among the best things I’ve ever eaten. Gluten-free has replaced soy as dietary neurosis. Lots of homeless people. I meandered down Pearl Street, and bought books in my favourite bookshops (the Boulder Book Store, Red Letter, and Trident); the weight of the twenty-five of them in our luggage confirm that print is not dead. I thrilled for various friends’ publications past, present and future. I went to yoga, and was taught how to speak to plants. I saw many old friends. Seeing old friends and meeting new ones was probably the best part of this trip.

A particular highlight was visiting a class at Naropa. Thank you for making me welcome, o writers of Experimental Prose, and for giving me a copper heart from the class shrine. Afterwards, I realised, this gift made me feel like the Tin Man. And there was I thinking I was more like Dorothy. (Ella: you make a great Wizard. Bhanu: you are a great teacher.)

This reminds me of another Dorothy, a member of the British Airways staff we befriended on trips through Denver airport when we lived in Colorado. She was English, from Malvern. She’d married an airman and moved to Colorado, another Dorothy in the wide open spaces of the American West, but this one a Midlander. She had the best stories, the best lines. ‘Here, have a bottle of champagne and a crap sandwich.’ ‘Have rods been through these?’ (She was talking about curtains, relative to customer service in England.) We like to think we are friends of Dorothy. And there’s no place like home. This Dorothy had homes in two places.

Even though my home is now London, Boulder will always feel like home to me in some way or other too. For various reasons, and because life is always complicated (and yes, these are First World problems), living in Boulder was not always easy, just as now living in London is not always easy, as any Londoner will agree, and as I discussed with natives of London in Colorado. And just as complicated are the attachments and nostalgias you can feel for a place you’ve left. Home is such a rich idea, but it can be complicated, can’t it?

But life goes on, and we make accommodations, and indeed we use the power of that word accommodate to settle ourselves into a place. What was instructive, a while back, was one of those Colorado-resident natives of London telling me that Boulder would always be a home for me. Even if I’m not living there, it simply occupies a space within me, and I just have to create space for that and let it be. It’s as easy as that. If we think in practical terms (a flight, a passport), every now and then we can physically go home again too: it’s always there, available, if we let it. And of course we are lucky today to have other ways to maintain connections too (Facebook has its uses). But most of all it’s a state of mind, or maybe the heart. The Dorothy stranded in Oz was looking for home, and eventually found home was wherever she made it, and perhaps however she made it; there’s no place like home, and that was Oz as much as Kansas.

I’m thinking too of the powerful conclusion of The Satanic Verses, and the ways in which its characters succeed (or fail) at creating homes for themselves. So many great and well-loved books are about the search for home.

For this week’s writing experiment: Write yourself back to another home of your own that you created for yourself. Somewhere you know well, even though you are no longer there. Somewhere you made home (rather than the home you were born into). A place you can return to, maybe. If you want, do this for a character of your creating. Or fashion an ‘I Remember’ out of your reminiscences of what once made someplace your home.

Establish a setting, and maybe people this landscape with a memorable character or two. Think about tone, maybe write with affection, and to bring that place to life you’ll probably need (as ever) concrete and specific details.