Thoughts on breaking a digital barrier

If, a couple of years ago, anyone had suggested that I’d willingly remove the sticker from the lens of my web-cam and watch myself chatting on-line, I’d have said they were crackers. Ask any of my family and they’ll confirm that I loath having my photo taken. I am the phantom of our family album.

Image taken by Juhanson , published on Wikipedia.

I’ve been told it’s vanity. Even that blow at my pride doesn’t work.

I’ve an antennae for cameras aiming in my direction that has me ducking or turning away as the shutter is operating. So me, flattened onto a screen, for minutes at a time? That was a, NO, even before I realised that taking part in an on-line activity meant having to see your own face in a little box on the corner of the screen too. Watch myself talking? NO THANKS!

It’s one thing to stand in front of my students and deliver a class. I see their faces, not mine. I know I’ve brushed my hair and straightened my outfit before I start. Once the class is running I’m concentrating on the plan I’ve worked out, not what I look like.

My first on-line meeting was some teaching-training I’d volunteered for, without properly reading the details. ‘Where is it?’ I texted my line manager, the day before the session. ‘I need to book a train ticket.’ It was lucky I hadn’t phoned, my response to her answer might have shocked her.

I wanted to get the knowledge on offer, but was I ready to pay the price? I wasn’t sure. Right up to five minutes before the start-time I didn’t think I could do it. I brushed my hair and tidied the kitchen, but that was just-in-case.

When I took a deep breath and logged in I felt like a teenager in a new school. I was on screen. There was a moment of heightened self-consciousness as I stared into my own eyes, then the class began. We were introducing ourselves, and I was looking at the tutor, taking in information, making notes and concentrating.

Two hours later, when the class closed, I realised I’d forgotten about being on-screen, except occasionally. And that’s how it happens, I’ve discovered, as the on-line meeting format has replaced geographical ones over the last year. After the first few seconds, when I’m horribly self-conscious, interest takes over.

This has been a rewarding learning curve for me. Last week I delivered my first on-line creative writing session, Writing Haiku’.

Was it scary? You bet. I spent even longer preparing the session than usual. Was I self-conscious? Only at first. Once the session started I was too busy making sure my students were comfortable, adapting my plan and listening to their responses. I didn’t think about watching myself talking.

Advertisements

Who was the author, anyway?

Can a writer be unravelled from her writing? I’ve been discussing Elizabeth Taylor short stories again, this week, and as she was getting published at a time when another Elizabeth Taylor was regularly in the headlines, this has involved some investigation into the writer’s life.

The role of the author was one of the questions we examined when I was at University. I’m remembering in particular, the 1967 essay, Death of the Author, by the French critic and theorist Roland Barthes.

Barthes argued that reading with an awareness of the experiences and biases of the author, limits our experience of the text. He suggested that it is only when the text is anonymous, that we can see multiple layers of meaning drawn from “innumerable centres of culture”.

He went on to propose that the reader was more important than the writer. It’s a useful thought for a reading group, from an essay that was intended to raise debate.

If ever there was an author who seems perfectly fitted to this warning to read the text without expectations, it’s surely Elizabeth Taylor. Here was a woman who looked middle-class, was married to a successful businessman, had two children and lived in a large country house. A lot of her stories involve just such women, and a lot more don’t. Yet somehow she came to be seen as a writer who was always looking back. Worse, she wrote about domestic situations, so in Britain, she became known as a woman’s writer.

One way to counter this narrow approach might be to read Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor. It contains some surprising revelations about the life of the woman who in 1953, told The New York Herald Tribune:

I am always disconcerted when asked for my life story, for nothing sensational, thank heavens, has ever happened.

Our idea about how this statement works depends on the definition we assign to that word sensational. But put that aside, because even if you decide that Elizabeth Taylor was being evasive with her answer, reading the biography still returns us to the question of ‘so what?’, in terms of how we read her fiction. Do the unexpected aspects of her life mean her writing should be read in a specific way?

Perhaps we should turn to another author to think about this. In 1986, her friend Robert Liddell published a memoir about his friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton-Burnett.

“Later we were  both shocked (as Ivy was) by the betrayal of Rose Macaulay by her literary executor, who published some of her intimate correspondence, and Elizabeth remarked how coy and silly letters could look when seen out of context.  We both detested Katherine Mansfield and her whining, coarse letters, and we were aware that our private jokes and Ivyisms would look no better to outsiders than her Dickensianism and her ‘my strikes!’ […] in the course of the years, there were some letters that were painful, and meant for no other eyes: and no other eyes will see them.

Elizabeth and Ivy by R Liddell

How tricky it is to hold true to the wishes of the dead. I might condemn John Middleton Murray for going against his wife’s bar on publishing her private letters and diaries, but I’ve read them. I claim it was background for my reading groups, as I do all the material I’ve looked at for Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Gaskell, Somerset Maugham, T.H. White, Kate Atkinson…

I’m left with the question that I keep taking to my reading groups: does knowing more about the lives of writers inform us as readers, and/or writers, or is story enough?

When you don’t start with a plot…

I couldn’t think what to write this week.  This is my fifth start.  However, my deadline is approaching, so the pressure is on. I have to go with whatever slips onto the screen.

Actually, I prefer this way.  You know that old Tommy Cooper joke, ‘I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not quite sure’? That’s me.  I’m hopeless with all kinds of decisions if I’m given some space, from what to order in cafés; to deciding on paint colours; which film to see, or which book to read next. In such situations, ditherers like me can be time-consuming nuisances.

Set me a snap-decision-situation, though, and I’m transformed.  In writing terms, I’m what’s technically referred to as a ‘seat of the pants-er’. I tend towards instinct rather than working to a plan.

Even when copying notes from the page onto my laptop, I often stray from the original, and it only takes a couple of extra words to throw a character off-plot.    I used to try and control this, to align the new material to my original plan. It never worked. Situations became forced, characters acted in unnatural ways, spoke lines I didn’t believe in.

Some writers work out every stage of their story before they pick up a pen, or touch the keyboard.  I’ve tried pre-plotting: used post-its, mind-mapping, charts, story-boards…  They’re in boxes at the back of my office, mouldering.  Ideas may have spun off them, but the careful central workings remain untouched. Why?  They feel wrong.

It was workshops that helped me to become comfortable with ‘pants-er’ writing. Taking part in timed-exercises, when the aim is to produce a first draft for re-working at home, often I’d produce something that felt close to complete.  Sometimes it was only as I took my turn in reading out, that I realised the sense of what I’d written.  I’d come away from those sessions walking on air.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGradually I learned to trust my creative responses.  Over the years I’ve stopped measuring how random or surreal a starting point is.  I let the words, the characters, lead me.  Sometimes they go no-where, but I keep them.  I’ve found, often, that it can take time for the sense of a piece of writing to become clear.  The opening lines for one of my stories that made it into an anthology waited over a year in my notebook, before I began to see what it could become.

*Picture by By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40274671

Trust me.

fairies 2You’ve got to see this.  I had such a surprise as I glanced through the blinds of my office window on Saturday evening that I grabbed my camera.  Of course, like every other photographer of fairies, I’ve not managed to capture any clear image.  Look carefully, though, and you can see three of them on the left hand side of the picture, glowing against the ivy.

What do you mean, no one believes in them any more?  These pictures are incontrovertible proof that I saw them.  Okay, so I only got three dancers in any shot, and there were about fifteen, but they moved surprisingly fast. Several of my pictures missed them entirely, and their colours have come out as closer to pink than gold…

No, I hadn’t been drinking, though I was still buzzing after a lovely day leading a memoir-writing workshop.  I wasn’t looking for fairies either.  I haven’t thought about them for years.

I was unpacking my class notes and reflecting on the activities I’d set. I scribbled a few reminders about the adaptations I’d made onto the session-plan, then slotted it back into the folder.  It was as I lifted the folder into its space on the shelf that I noticed the glimmer of movement outside the window.

Coincidentally, over the course of the day we’d had some discussions about writing truthful life experiences.  There had been questions concerning the reliability of memory, interpretation and partiality.

Perhaps all of the recent furores around ‘false news’ has made us more conscious of the difficulties in providing an account of events that is true.  Maybe you’ll need to look closely at these two pictures, but once you do, I think you’ll agree that you can trust me…

fairies 3fairies 4

 

Autumn thoughts turn to classes

blackberrying Angus Racy HelpsI’ve never understood why I was taught to think of Autumn as a metaphor for closing down.  Okay, so my early school was rural.  In this season tractors hauling crops regularly passed our gates, and after 3.30pm many of us roamed amongst the workers gathering things in.  We even helped, occasionally, especially if fruit was involved.  Yes, days were getting shorter and winter was approaching.

But, and it’s such a big but I was tempted to set it in capitals, at the same time as harvests were happening, soil was ploughed, harrowed and sowed with crops for the next year.  In the UK, it’s one of the busy times of the agricultural year.

The same rule applies to learning.  Autumn is the beginning of the new academic year.  Remember the noise and excitement of that first day at school, the energy: the excitement?

Working in the FE sector on short courses, I’ve learned that September and October are still the main time when people think about signing up to learn something.  Are we wired to look for classes in autumn, or just following a pattern established in childhood?

Either way, now’s the time when I begin to check in with the office to see how the pre-enrolment numbers are going.  What will be popular?  How busy will the next few months be?

Busy, busy, busy, that’s my view of autumn.  Okay, so the days are shortening, but far from life slowing, in the classroom, the energies and excitements of the summer are being re-focused.  What better way to keep spirits up, as the light levels drop, than to learn or practice something?

It’s easy to feel that once we reach adult-hood we can, or maybe even should, put ‘school’ away.  Not so.  While it may be tricky to fit learning into the busy modern lifestyle, once tried, many stick with it.  They discover that joining a group of focused and enquiring adults can be stimulating, fun and stretching.

Aside from the chance to make new social connections, there are long-term health benefits to returning to classes as an adult.  In a Radio Times article from April 2016, Ellie Walker-Arnott reported that:

A Scottish study has tested over 600,000 factors in a group of 79-year-olds regularly since they were 11. It found that a quarter of brain ageing is down to genes while three quarters (75%) is dependent on our lifestyle choices.

One of the lifestyle choice the studies advocate is on-going education.

Learning something new changes the micro-structure of your brain and sees its size increase in certain areas, rather than shrink.

If you do similar sudoko challenges every day for 10 years it won’t work different parts of your brain, it’s got to be something new. Life drawing is a good option, as each picture is a fresh new challenge. As is learning a new language. Whatever you choose, continuing to learn as we age can have a “dramatically positive effect.”

Autumn thoughts, it seems, should be active.

 

*    Illustration at top of page, ‘Blackberrying’ by Angus Racy Helps.

It’s official, creativity is good for us.

Take heart, friends, involving yourself in the arts has finally been recognised officially as improving our lives.  Yes, you may have missed this, I nearly did, but the All Party Enquiry into the Arts that has been investigating the latest innovations in the ‘field of arts and health’ since 2014, has released a report saying that creativity is beneficial. Wow, is that good?

David Shrigley

Illustration by David Shrigley, from The Arts Report 2017

 

Well, in theory, it should be, but what will happen to these findings, I wonder?

 

Ideally, it will be reflected in practical ways, and the value of adult learning that is not job-centred will be recognised by the funders.  According to Mark Brown, writing in the Guardian, the former Arts minister, Lord Howarth, said:

 “Sceptics say where is the evidence of the efficacy of the arts in health? Where is the evidence of the value for money it can provide? We show it in this report.

“The arts can help people take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing in ways that will be crucial to the health of the nation.”

Don’t get me wrong, learning for work is good, very good.  As someone who came late to Higher Education I value the chances to re-train, and change professions. But I also took part in creative writing evening classes for adults for several years before that, and we definitely were part of the ‘recreational’ learning provision.

Our ages ranged from early twenties to late seventies.  Some of us had jobs, many were retired.  For two hours a week we put aside our other lives and entered new worlds.  I’ve never forgotten the joy of having that space, or the way we were encouraged to share ideas and reach outside of our boxes.

If most of the students kept their classes at hobby status, that didn’t mean the courses were frivolous.    What I saw then was how the mix of ages and ambitions came together to create something enervating.

I credit those classes with giving me the confidence to get back to formal education, when the opportunity arose, even thought that wasn’t their purpose.  Classes have always been about so much more than training.

The social interactions between people who share interests doesn’t just stimulate the learning synapses, it engenders social skills.  Students exploring ideas on one subject digress onto others, share experiences, interact with people they might not have had chance to mingle with any other way.

Is it too broad a generalisation to say that learning turns us outwards, rather than inwards?  Now that I view the world from the other side of the desk, my answer is no.

So I do think these findings are important, but I’m also concerned about what might be done with them.  Let’s not think only in terms of placing creativity where it is part of a therapy system, we need to recognise that giving everyone access to creative-learning benefits the system.

It is important that the therapeutic value of the arts is recognised, and expanded on, and this report is valuable on those grounds.  But let’s not forget preventive strategies.  In other health reports, we’ve been told that keeping our minds active is one of the keys to achieving a healthy and happy longevity.

Ed Vaizey, arts minister for six years, said:

“I was very conscious as a minister that I worked in a silo and it was incredibly hard to break out of that silo, incredibly hard to engage with ministers from other government departments. The arts, almost more than any sector, is a classic example where silo working does not work.”

Feedback sessions in a writing group.

Can enough ever be said about the value of thoughtful feedback?

The feedback that generally happens in my writing classes is based on the heard story.  The author reads their work and the group respond.  That’s pretty standard, and it’s a lovely, if initially scary, experience.

dog-paintingI hope I will always remember my own early experiences, when I rushed through the words that I had sweated over – usually the night before it was due to be read.  Terrified and exhilarated at the same time, I set off reading at such a pace that my tutor needed to pause me at the end of the first page, and remind me to breathe.

I credit my good friends Ruth and Lynda, who between them coached me through the ‘Story-telling’ module at University, with the fact that I can now read at a more measured pace (thanks pals).  But that’s another story altogether.

Crimson and gasping as I invariably was at the end of those early reading slots, I went back for more, week after week.  What drew me?  Well, aside from the joy of finding other people creating stories and poems in their spare time, and the stretching of my creative horizons that happened during writing exercises, I had an audience for writing that until then, I had mostly been doing in secret.

This was not family or best-friend feedback.  My fellow scribblers responded with constructive, impartial support.  I began to see where my writing worked, and how it could be improved, which both encouraged and challenged me to work harder.  I became more confident about my ability to put words together, and critical of what I was doing.

The next level of feedback is to look at the story, rather than listen.  That way, what happens on the page is the story.

Sounds obvious?  Well think about how much the ‘telling’ style directs us.  Delivery (the pauses, accents and intonations), plays a part in how we respond to the events being described.  It is one speaker’s interpretation of what those marks on the page mean.

So this week the aim is for no reading out-loud in my class.  Each writer will have a papertwo-diaries copy of the homework-writings to study and respond to.

This is a big step to take, but an interesting one.  To sit quietly and hear what someone else understands you to have said can be challenging, particularly if they’ve seen something you didn’t intend.  Does that mean they’ve missed the point, or, have you?

Perhaps you’ve not written that scene clearly enough: or is it that depths have made their way instinctively into the construction of your writing?  Sometimes, it takes a reader to see the writing road that you’ve side-stepped, and what better reader than another writer?

 

Photo from, 1952 film, The Importance of Being Earnest.  Dorothy Tutin and Joan Greenwood.

Where did you find out about that?

As you may know, quite a few of my classes are organised by the WEA.  ‘Who are they?’ people tend to ask, when I tell them who I work for.

‘Workers’ Educational Association,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ they say.  ‘Where’s your college?’

‘There’s no campus,’ I say.  ‘Classes are organised within the community, by volunteers who run the local branch.  There could be some taking place just around the corner from where you live.’

‘Really?’

weaI’ve taught in community centres, out-of-hours schools, village halls, church and chapel halls, library meeting rooms and pub-lounges.  These are all places where people pass through and might see the posters, even if they don’t sign up.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, Saturday I went to the WEA Area Meeting, where delegates from four of the local branches gathered to exchange news and share ideas.  Publicity was one of the items on the agenda, and despite the fact that this year there have been some popular courses put on, there was still a general feeling that the WEA needs a higher public profile.

pitmen_paintersThis is an organisation with a one hundred and thirteen year pedigree: that’s created a healthy alumni and alumnae.  Yet apart from the wonderful, Pitman Painters play by Lee Hall, there’s not much mention of WEA in the national or local press.

Some branches post on social media, and most put up posters and leaflets.  Finding spaces for paper publicity is tricky.  Many of the places with ‘What’s On’ displays are managed by commercial organisations, and often that limits the room left for others.

Our local newspaper used to produce a supplement that contained all of the adult education courses on offer in the county.  That’s how I came to sign up for my first creative writing class.  I remember that I browsed the list, and then took out the page I was tempted by, folded it to the relevant section and kept it on the side for a couple of days as I psyched myself up to phone and enrol.

What I’m wondering is, how can we do that with social media?  The posts on twitter and face-book move rapidly down the page, it’s no wonder that people using it for publicity put out so much duplication.

Is this chatter the best way to attract the attention of a tentative first-timer?

wea-4

 

 

 

‘WEA? It stands for Workers Educational Association,’ I reply.

There is a moment of thought, and then Jackie says, ‘Does that mean you’re socialists?’

I smile and shake my head.  ‘We’re not a political organisation.  “Workers” were who the organisation was originally set up for, in 1903, so that they could access higher levels of education, and have the chance to improve their opportunities,’ I say.  ‘The title’s historical.’

Jackie wonders how she’s never heard about WEA before, if it’s been around so long.

‘It always surprises me how many people haven’t,’ I agree.

‘So what is it about now?’ says Jackie.

‘It’s still about improving lives,’ I tell her, ‘but that doesn’t necessarily mean economically.  It’s also about health and well-being, about keeping our minds active and enquiring, and getting us involved with our communities.’

I think about all the different sorts of classes I’ve been involved with since I started tutoring for the WEA over a decade ago.  As well as the Open Access Programme anyone can sign up for, there have been community groups set up for students with chaotic lifestyles, and disadvantaged backgrounds, where creative writing activities have provided a safe outlet for self-expression, and for some, has provided a first step  into employment or back onto the education ladder.

‘People come to classes because they want to learn, not because they have to,’ I say.  ‘That creates a real buzz in the room.’

‘So your students are still workers in the sense that they’re working at their education?’

‘I like that,’ I say.  ‘I might steal it.’

‘Help yourself,’ says Jackie.  ‘Can I keep this brochure?’

workers_educational-association-wea-adult-learning-course-reuben-internet_main

 

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.