Liebster Award – part 2. Am I random?

Early in my blogging life I decided my posts would be around 500 words.  I haven’t stuck rigidly to that, I probably average 600. It’s been a good discipline for someone who loves playing with vocabulary: I’ve learned about brevity and shaping a story.

Last week, when taking part in the Liebster Award, I had just over 400 words of instructions to paste in. I knew I couldn’t create an introduction and 11 answers with what was left, so for my peace of mind, I decided to only count my responses.  That worked for the set-questions (750 words), but left no room for two optional rules which I thought intriguing.

  1. Write a paragraph about what makes you passionate about blogging
  2. List ten random facts about yourself

Consequently, this post takes a few liberties.

Firstly, I have to wonder, am I passionate about blogging? It depends on how we think passion manifests.  If it’s waves crashing over lovers writhing on the shore, or, as the dictionary lists the synonyms, it is vehement, fiery, heated and feverish, then the answer would have to be no.

free-png-hd-world-globe-download-png-image-globe-free-download-png-1024However, what blogging has developed into for me is not just a regular commitment to writing, it’s a place where I connect with bloggers around the world.  I like to think my horizons are continually broadening, and my weekly posts happen because I’ve made friends. I’m no longer sending words out into the ether, people read and respond.  There is an energy involved in this process that is fed by my friends, and drives me to continue writing.  In other words, this is all your fault.  Really!

10 Random facts:

  1. Never give me an inch, because I will take a mile.
  2. I use random facts to create characters.
  3. I only buy black socks.  It means not having to worry about making up pairs.
  4. There are five hats on top of my wardrobe, two of which I’ve never worn.
  5. DSCF8175I’ve been soaking the blocked black ink-jet on a printer for two weeks, and am determined that this printer is not going to be dumped.
  6. I don’t always try to tell the truth in real life, but I value honesty in fiction.
  7. Despite severe pruning last winter, my fig tree has again grown right across the kitchen window.
  8. I believe that sometimes it’s better for a glass to be half empty.
  9. I will not make a mosaic from the box of crockery shards I have been collecting while walking Rusty across ploughed fields.
  10. I have twenty-two hand-knitted jumpers.  Thanks, mum!

Ray’s just read this, and he says:

“It is difficult to pin down the origin of any thought.  So, we have to question what random might actually mean.  No matter what you do, you cannot find out where a thought originates.  You pick up something intuitively, and have to follow it.  If thoughts only originate in the world, how would we ever be able to use them to express something new?” (Taoism)

Total:  491 Words (including this).     :~)

confuscious, Lao Tsu, Buddha

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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.”

The joys of a Treasure Hunt

Once, these were the staple event of children’s birthday-party games.  Remember?  The simplest, youngest, versions took place in a sitting room, with an adult directing us:  ‘Hotter, hotter, no colder, freezing-colder … that’s better, warming up…’  I know it wasn’t just me who got excited, because that game was always followed by: ‘I think we need to calm down now.  Let’s play statues.’

It disappeared from the party menu long before pass-the-parcel or charades.  I suspect it was too stressful, both to organise and, to watch as the carefully tidied party-house was usually dismantled in the process.  Hide-and-seek was an easier replacement.  It was fun, but lacked the sense of story that a true treasure hunt has.

enid-blyton-illustration-famous-fiveI think the hours I spent with Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timmy gave me high expectations, because although I’ve never told anyone before, I’m ready to share my certainty that one day a treasure clue would come my way.  I wasn’t sure I’d be as clever and brave as the Famous Five, but I lived in expectation of adventure.

Long John Silver had shown me what a real treasure map looked like.  There was no sign of one in any of our books or boxes, and believe me, I looked.  So one summer afternoon my friend Jane and I created our own treasure map.

It took hours.  This was no casual project.  It was paced out, checked with a compass and taken through several drafts before we made our best copy.  There were landmarks, written clues, and a large scarlet X to mark the spot where we had buried a carefully wrapped ladybird book for our brothers to find.

The final document was drawn on a heavy fly-leaf that I ripped from an old book.  I hope it wasn’t anything precious, even then I don’t think I would have damaged a book unless it was already in a bad way.  But if I did, it was worth it.  I can still remember how impressive the finished article was.  We artistically ripped the edges, then aged it with cold coffee before rolling it up, tying it with a red ribbon, and hiding it in a jar.  Then we handed out the first clue.

Much later I created treasure hunts for my niece’s birthday parties.  Each one reminded me of that long summer afternoon.  I don’t know what we did with that first map.  Perhaps it’s still tucked amongst the paint pots in Dad’s shed.

pirates-of-the-caribeanThis year my grown-up nieces asked me to create another Treasure Hunt, for Boxing Day.  It was fun working it out.  This time the map was in my head: the clues were anagrams, puns, allusions and poems that I secreted along a footpath to a distant field, then back again.  While the family were out of sight, I snuck into the garden and set a final leg that led them round the house, to finish with a hoard of chocolate coins hidden near where they’d started.

And you know what?  It was a creative buzz.  In this story I had real characters to work with.  I’d set them a journey that I hoped they would be able to pull off, but I wasn’t sure.  I climbed up on the picnic table to watch for them.  Was it too easy?  Was it too hard?

Oh, the relief when they came into view.  Keeping out of sight, I watched them track the next clue, then gather to read and discuss it.  I sneaked closer, and eavesdropped. Even when I saw that it was working, I couldn’t walk away.  This was story, and I was in it too, a flawed, but omniscient narrator.

 

 

The deadline of Dead Lines is not always what it seems.

I wrote three-hundred and forty-two words on Wednesday, in a hurry to meet my self-imposed dead-line.  I know, that was one hundred and fifty-eight short of my stated target, but hey, who’s counting?  I set words on the page this week, that’s what matters.

facesThey were not good words, but they weren’t bad.  Taken individually, I used some lovely ones.  Yes, I have favourites…’seriously’, ‘draped’, ‘however’, ‘softly’, are some of my current ones.

Thursday morning, I took out all those favourites plus a few more, to see if I had the beginnings of a story.  My word count shrank to two hundred and ninety eight.

I’d love to tell you that I discovered something worthwhile, but my phrases lacked an essential for successful storytelling, plot. I had a static character drifting around a landscape.  Where was the tension?  Nowhere.  What was at stake? Nothing.

Pah, I thought, spinning the page onto my personal slush-heap, so much for deadlines.  It was time I returned to Middlemarch.  People to see, actions to judge, ideas to question: to hypothesize.  This writer sculpted layers with her words.

Time passes.  Time….passes. (Do you see that?  Do you get it?)  Words, love ’em.

Later, in the crow black, slow black night, I dreamt.  (Sorry, told you I have favourites.)

Dawn, rosy fingered warning of storms ahead (okay, a little bit of poetic exaggeration here) and inspiration, because I wake with a thought.  A fragment of story was lodged within those words from Wednesday, and now I know what is at stake.

Good old subconscious, world within worlds within us.  Keep throwing in the material, and who knows what will come out.

Taking a closer look at the magic of Star Wars

star wars 1Three months ago, when asked what he would like to do while he was staying for a long weekend, Brandon’s face lit up with hope. ‘Have you still got all the Star Wars movies?’  In the mayhem of settling him and his two sisters in, it wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered he’d forgotten his hay-fever tablets, and by then, he was suffering.

We bought some replacement tablets, but with the oilseed-rape in full bloom we could only encourage him to sit indoors, with the windows shut and wait for the antihistamine to work.  So it was hardly fair to make the usual ‘square eyes’ comments when Brandon opted for watching tv, rather than chasing around outside with Samantha and Breanna.  Anyway, it was supposed to be a fun, nag-free break.  Brandon pulled the curtains and settled for Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

By the next day Brandon’s hay-fever was under control, but he was in the grip of a tremendous force.  Although he emerged from his viewing-room for meals, and trips out, we weren’t convinced he’d left the world of the Jedi behind.

By the time he got to Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, four days later, the rest of us were with him, hooked by the fragments of story that we’d caught while checking he was okay.  We’d started with brief recaps: ‘So is this the one where they defrost Hans Solo?’, or ‘Isn’t Yodo in all of them, then?’  Soon we were talking about the plot.

‘What is it you like?’ I asked Brandon.  He couldn’t pin it down.  ‘Maybe it’s just nostalgia,’ said the fifteen-year-old.

‘Good versus evil,’ said his grandfather, ‘and heroes, action and technology.’

Star-Wars-Shared-Universe-MoviesIt’s worth a writer thinking about the formula though, if they’re looking for broad appeal.  We forgive the errors with plot, some anomalies, convenient lucky escapes (the First Order are frequently shockingly bad shots at crucial moments for The Resistance), and some incredibly clunky dialogue that at times suggests we’re too daft to figure out what is happening, or why.

It works, because although the good-guys have their backs to the wall, they are determined to fight the dark side.  The central characters are flawed, experience serious doubts, then comes a crisis.   Worlds are at stake. If the heroes fail, they lose everything. They take up the challenge, and we’re gripped. We expect them to win, but the odds against that are stacked so high it’s hard to foresee how that can come about.

Winning can’t be easy.  We want heroes who, when faced by an enemy of phenomenal power, get themselves out of trouble.  The Force is always there, we just don’t always understand how strong and clever we are until we face that blank page.

 

 

The ideal writing space

Faced with a cramped work space, and wondering how to organise clutter, or is that just me?  This week I’ve been trying to work out how I’ve accumulated so many oddments, or more specifically, if there are any I could ditch.  It’s not just the books, you see.

I don’t like to think of myself as a hoarder, but I’ll admit to a magpie instinct.  A lot of my early collections were gathered on walks…horseshoes, ancient bottles, pottery shards, attractive pebbles…things that don’t belong in the house, and so have found spaces in the shed that now doubles as my writing space.

Shelves have been added, and added, and over-filled…you get the story, don’t you? This week, I began to consider whether I needed an annex for my shed.

It was when I found myself measuring up a corner next to the greenhouse that I woke up to where I was heading.  If I continued to think like that, I would have a one woman business park instead of a garden.  So, jumping in the opposite direction, I tried to imagine myself a minimalist.

Where to start?  Well throw away something easy, like the heap of writing magazines. I could rip out any interesting and/or useful articles, and keep them in a folder.   George-Bernard-Sha_2071154iLike this picture of George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed.

Aha, I thought, tearing the page out, serendipity, I’ll pin this on my door, and it’ll help keep me focused.  After all, what more should one need than a chair, a level surface and writing materials?

GBS, as he was known, named his shed London, so that unwanted visitors could be simply misled into believing he was away from home, leaving GBS in peace to scribble.  His simple and austere box looks about the same size as my office, it’s just barer.  What was good enough for him…

I dropped the rest of the magazine into the waste paper bin, took up the next one, and found Roald Dahl’s writing hut.  My heart didn’t flip, but I had a moment of honest recognition.  roald Dahl's writing hut

It would take an awful lot of effort for me to achieve and maintain the kind of simplicity that suited GBS: energy and time that I would prefer to use for writing.  Dahl’s hut has been preserved for visitors to look at, I wonder if it was usually as tidy as this?

It’s a crammed space, with just room to get from the door to that chair with its lap-tray for writing on.  I could get lost in the details here, I could lead you on to look at the sheds, huts and summerhouses other writers have created or commandeered to work in.  They’re lovely to look at, to set us dreaming a little, but actually, they’re a luxury and a danger.

If we concentrate too much on what a writing space should look like, we might forget to settle down and write.  Famously, Hemmingway would plonk his typewriter on any available surface and type.

The reality for most of us is that we make do with a corner of the kitchen, spare bedroom, sitting-room, at quite times, or relocate to cafés or libraries.  Anywhere that allows us to close off the door to domestic chores, such as tidying, is a good space to concentrate on writing.

 

 

 

Prevarication, displacements and motivations.

This week, in an odd ten minutes when I went to my office to write, I began to tidy.  Yes, it was a displacement activity, but to be fair, my desk had disappeared beneath an avalanche of papers and books.

The papers had been dumped on my desk when we were expecting visitors earlier in the week, and I needed to clear them off the kitchen table.  What had started on Saturday as a couple of ideas about a lesson on the back of an envelope, had by Tuesday afternoon, multiplied into a phenomenal heap also containing grocery lists, outstanding jobs, appointment reminders, some junk-mail and a recipe book (so that was what I’d meant to do with those courgettes).

edward_collier still_lifeBecause time was short, and there were other aspects of tidying to be done, I weeded the recyclable portion of this heap straight into the recycle-bin, and put the rest on the only surface available in my tiny office, the desk.  In the next few days I added to that.  A couple of writing magazines arrived, then Nancy gave me four paperbacks she’d finished with and thought I might like, and there were several reference books I might need again.

So you must, mustn’t you, agree that the desk clearance was a necessity?  What’s not quite so certain is whether I can justify moving on to the collection of quotes pinned to the inside of my office door.

It’s true most of them are curling at the corners, but obviously that hasn’t bothered me…for years, judging by the way the paper had discoloured.  I twitched the nearest one down but instead of screwing it up, gave it a quick glance, and…

‘…and nobody could write about Danny the way I might if only I had the courage to fail.  Someone no doubt could write it all more perfectly, but no one can say what I have to say unless I say it myself.  It’s the doing that counts…’

Ann Netzke

…the reason I’d kept those words in the first place caught me squarely in mid-procrastination.  I’d stuck them at eye-level to my chair, and then looked above, below and to the side of them ever since.

I can’t remember who Ann Netzke is or was.  I’ve tried an internet search but only found a series of ancestry sites.  It doesn’t matter.  One of these days, now that I’ve remembered where to look, I’ll stumble across her, and think, aah, of course.

But if I don’t, her words are back on my door and this time, I’m keeping them in sight.

And, since I’ve cleared the top of my desk, I’ll need a different set of excuses for further procrastination.

 

*Illustration, Still Life, by Edward Collier 1699.

A fine sense of place: Henry Fielding.

With all this reading of classic novels and short stories I’ve been doing lately, I can’t help but be reminded how important literature is as source of social history.  I’m not just talking distant history, either.  It’s one thing to set out to write about the past, and consciously recreate a historical period, but I’ve been thinking about how sense of place works when we’re reading it in the future.

Illustration_from_Tom_Jones_LACMA_M_78_94_15

Illustration by Jan Punt 1750

For instance, Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones, with the intention of making his contemporaries think…really think, about how their world worked, and how novels could be written.  How do I know this?  Each of the eighteen books begins with a chapter where Fielding sets us up for the coming events.

 

You could see these as being the equivalent of tv adverts: those fragments of scandal and adventure that tease us into tuning in for the next episode, or the new drama.  There is something of that happening in most of them.  However, their real purpose is to educate, to teach readers not to be passive consumers, but to think about the characters and their actions, to be judicious readers who will exercise judgement, for ,

…I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein.

Here is a novel that broke established rules.  It skips over time, it reminds us continually that it is a work of fiction.  So many things we take for granted were fresh with this novel.

You can skip those first chapters.  Our narrator gives his permission at the end of his book-five essay.  He has, of course, first gone to a great deal of trouble to explain how drama and comedy need to be contrasted with their opposites, in order to gain their full comic or exciting aspect.  In fact if you’ve read to that point of the chapter, it’s to be hoped that you would disagree that these are ‘laboriously dull’, and ask yourself what Fielding is really suggesting when he says;

 ‘…I would have the reader to consider these initial essays.  And after this warning, if he shall be of opinion that he can find enough of serious in other parts of this history, he may pass over these…and begin the following books at the second chapter.’

Some do take his words at face value.  I have a rather attractive paperback on my shelf that came out with the 1963 Tony Richardson directed film starring Albert Finney and Susannah York in the lead roles, that has none of the essays, despite Fielding’s warning.

As someone who aspires to the good esteem of the narrator, I opt for the essays.  Besides, for a true sense of place and time, I want the whole time-travel experience.   The language used, the rhythms and shapes of the speeches are as valuable to me as the insights into the way the characters interact, and the lives they are living.   To get that I need all of the voices, and our narrator is the best guide I could ask for, tricky, wise, wry and observant, he keeps me up on all the latest ideas.  I’m not just learning about the past, I’m thinking that some of the political preoccupations speak to the twenty-first century too.

 

 

 

 

Ringing bells and not just whistling Dixie.

Last week I accidentally discovered how to ‘like’ comments that are left on my blog. I’m not sure how long this facility has been available, though for several months  I’ve had likes from other bloggers so for sanity’s sake, please don’t tell me.

I’d looked, in what I considered to be logical places, for a ‘like-button’.  I’m not sure my school bellbrain is wired for technological logic, because when I didn’t easily find it, I assumed that the other bloggers were subscribing to a more sophisticated version of WordPress and gave up.

I should have checked the help page, of course, or asked on some forum.  Except that takes time, and in the bigger scheme of things, does it matter if I’m not quite au fait with all the bells and whistles?

WhistlesI’ve thought about that.  I’ve been feeling uncomfortably bad-mannered over not returning greetings.  I’m glad to get responses, so I’m sure you appreciate some recognition too.

Besides I like the etiquette of blogging, that ether-level connection I have with other people posting from all sorts of exotic and local places.  It feels like a meeting of minds to connect with the words, and occasional pictures you post.  I want to get it right.

I’m like that about stories, but I give time to my reading and writing.  I study those bells and whistles, figuring out how they function, and seeing how I can apply them.

I suppose I’ve been thinking of this blog as being part of that creative process.  Not only because committing to a Monday morning post provides me with a weekly deadline, there’s also the challenge of finding my subject, then composing and editing it.  These things feel like good practice for a woman who already has too many hobbies and ambitions that are firmly fixed on wordsmithing.

Chersonesos' BellSo I’m not making any rash promises about exploring all the gizmos of the blog world.  I’ll only ask for your patience if I’m a little slow on the up-take.  Sometimes, it takes me a while to catch up with the rest ofwhistle poster the internet community.

 

 

 

 

 

What future for the written word?

DSCF6479I’m told that no one writes letters anymore, and so I log into facebook to see where my friends are, and what they’re doing. It’s all on-line, from the mundane to the wonderful, along with appropriate headlines.  Has the internet been beneficial?

Well, we’ve become a race of witticists, it seems. Posts are bounced back, forth and across as we match or transcend quips.  All those, ‘You know you’re….’ starters that we contribute to.

Who needs editors and influence? Anyone with a media link can join – which opens up opportunities that would have been undreamt of for most of us in previous decades.

Thinking along family history lines, I’m wondering what our descendants will feel though, sifting through our digital trails. The stories behind my likes, favourites and shares are complicated by loyalties, genuine feeling, good manners, ignorance and enlightenment.  What I read is only partially covered by the on-line evidence: what I learn is even less so.

Surely, though, growing up with the language of social-media will mean that future generations develop a method of reading between our lines. Someone will adapt and develop a methodology.  I foresee seminars and thesis creating lines of argument, and theory to be applied to the clouds we’re creating.

Because whether we intend to or not, aren’t we creating ourselves as flash-fictions every time we turn the screen on?