Sunday, 25 November 2012

Books that silently follow you....

The love of books
A colleague's Facebook status made me stop and think. They had been to see a play and they were saying how good it was it had been silently following her several days afterwards. How many times can you think of books that have done that to you? You finish reading them but yet several days later they still come back to haunt you - in a good way. They make you ask questions of yourself and your surroundings perhaps. Or have just wrapped their metaphoric arms around you making you feel warm and wonderful.

Lots of books used to do that to me when I was a child. I was an avid reader. I used to love escaping into their worlds and then creating my own. Books like Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes was one, Nina Bawden's Carrie's War, K.M.Peyton's Fly-by-night, Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden and, of course, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, all had that sort of impact. And even now if I go back to them I can get that same feeling of being at home and being thrilled by the story as they silently follow me still decades later.

As you get older it seems that not quite so many books have that impact and silently follow you. I have read many, many books over the last few years as part of my academic career. Some books have left me cold (and probably unfinished) and others I have enjoyed but they haven't stayed with me. Some books have stuck out though, books like: Louis Sachar's Holes, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Once by Morris Gleitzman, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses, Meg Rosoff's How I live now, Tabitha Suzuma's A note of madness.and Sophia Bennett's The Look. This is not an exclusive list but they were the ones that first came to mind. I have just started reading David Massey's Torn and I get the feeling that is going to be another book that silently follows me.  

To a certain extent that is the disadvantage of leading an academic career. I can read so many books that even though they may be fantastic and do live with me silently for a few days they don't stick in the mind. I think it is T.S Eliot who said every time something new is written all the authors and writing beforehand have to shift along a bit to make room, it sounds like a huge bookshelf to me and it is something I find when I am having to read so much. Some things must inevitably fall off that metaphorical book shelf. I just need to remember to go and pick them up again and put them back on the shelf, ready to be read at a later date.

What are the books that follow you silently?

Seems appropriate to listen to Simon & Garfunkel's 'Sound of Silence' for all those books that follow you silently and, with regard to my previous post, allowing your brain to be silent so you can listen to the answers. I was lucky enough to see them perform back in the early 80s.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Creativity is making connections

I have been reading a  book by Jonah Lehrer entitled Imagine How Creativity Works. (Canongate, 2012). It, as you can see by the title, explores creativity and some of the processes. It is about 'the ability to imagine what never existed.' I have since found out that it has been discredited as a book. Even so, one point that resonated with me was the idea that just before inspiration arrives we can have a crisis or hit a brick wall. It is at this stage, when we are giving up, that the solution will appear. The example that is used to explain this idea relates to Bob Dylan and his experience leading up to writing 'Like A Rolling Stone' (See below to listen to it). He had given up music because he felt burnt out and was planning on writing a novel, but the song took over and just had to be written. What a success it proved to be too! This may or may not be true but was an interesting example.

It is an intriguing story and one that I could empathise with on a basic level. I often see it happen with my students, particularly when working on their dissertations. On a personal basis though, in the summer when I was trying to rewrite Trafficking I had a real crisis. I couldn't work out how my story was going to end - what was the denouement? I got so frustrated and angry I was ready to throw my lap top across the room. Instead I decided my laptop needed to be saved so I 'walked away,' I decided to read a good book for a bit of escapism. It wasn't even a piece of young adult fiction. It was everything my story was not. But it was whilst reading this unrelated book that the answer came to me  in the form of a 'what if' question that answered all my problems.

I know I am not the only one to experience this and I am sure I have spoken about similar ideas in the past. I could probably fill several pages of examples and I am sure you can all recognise these moments in yourself. I actually believe it goes beyond this. You can have these answer moments but you have to be able to make the connections. Creativity is as much about connections as it is about inspiration. It is about making the links which allows the narrative to flow and to keep the readers' attention. These connections need to move from your brain to the page and then to the reader. They need to be able to understand what you are saying. Adam Phillips, the psychologist, believed that stories are all about making the connections and that these connections can help you understand the world. As a writer, therefore, you need to get them write [sic]. Happy writing everyone.

Here is Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone.'

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Graduation 2012

Sometimes when working in HE it is too easy to become swamped by all the pressure. We live in an atmosphere of government enforced financial cuts and ever increasing expectations. We are meant to be research active but finding the time can be incredibly difficult. Consequently it is too easy to lose sight of what we are actually doing.

Yesterday was graduation day for the students I taught last academic year. Unfortunately I wasn't able to go into the ceremony as I was teaching but I raced down afterwards. With another colleague we stood at the entrance to Winchester Cathedral and waited. Soon a long winding line of excited students, all dressed in black, purple and cream flowed out of the double doors to the applause of lecturers. It is the most wonderful pageant.

They were as excited to see me and Mel as I was to see them on their special day.  I was amazed and delighted that despite their excitement every single one of them said, 'thank you for teaching me, I had the best time ever.' Yes, I must confess that was a thrill to hear but what I didn't expect and what totally blew my mind was the number of their parents who came up to me and shook my hand saying 'Thank you for taking care of them.  I have heard so much about you. You supported them so much. Thank you.'

I apologise if this sounds like I am blowing my own trumpet but it made me realise how the little things can matter. The taking time to listen when things aren't going great. To share in their joy when they are. They are all simple things that I don't think we even think about as lecturers, its what all of us do. But it can make a huge difference. Thinking about it afterwards I thought that I should know  and understand this of all people. I wouldn't be a lecturer with a PhD if it hadn't been the fact that I too had had lecturers, who have now become friends, that supported me and encouraged me throughout my degrees. They gave me the world and I hope that I have passed that on to my students.

Congratulations to the 2012 Creative Writing graduates, you were  a fabulous lot and I am proud of every single one of you. Thank you also for reminding me how great it is to be a lecturer.

It just had to be - an oldie but a goody - 'Winchester Cathedral

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Stories are never ending

One of the happiest days of my life!
It is a year ago since this photo was taken. Again it has been an amazing year. I have two jobs now that I didn't expect to have then. I am involved in a fantastic project which I also knew nothing about then - there will be more information about this in the next few weeks. I had my first independent article published. I have had a chapter in a book on teaching creative writing published. Plus I have given papers and I worked on collaborative paper/chapter with a great friend and colleague from the other side of the world - Skype is a wonderful thing. I have a book proposal in and I have been asked to write a chapter for a book with a colleague. On the creative side my novel is being read  by an editor - what more could anyone want. All potentially mind blowing experiences, particularly if they all come about. At the time of my graduation I wasn't sure anything could beat that feeling but life is pretty good, if exhausting these days.

Yesterday I bought the little man in the picture his first shoes. He seems to be growing up so quickly.  His idea of bliss is to sit and take every one of his books off the bookshelf so they all surround him. He then spends hours 'reading' each and every one of them. (there are a lot and those are just the ones downstairs). Some are old traditional ones, others are brand new and innovative, all are respected and loved by him. One of his all time favourites at the moment is Old MacDonald Had a Farm. My daughter and I would love to know why because the actual illustrations are not the best I've seen. It intrigues us. Perhaps it is in part because he loves the actions we all do when we read it to him. The most important point is he loves books - what more could a grandmother ask for.

I believe I have said this before, but as children's writers we are lucky, there is a perceived ever growing market for us. At the moment people still love giving books to children. They love the tangible feel of a book. I am also aware as I watch my grandson work my phone and my daughter's tablet that the current generation will probably get as much out of ebooks as they do 'traditional' books. Is this really a problem as long as they are reading and we (children's writers) are writing these stories? Does it matter what media it comes in? Not really I suppose but I confess I do love a good book to hold in my hand - showing my age I imagine. I will just keep writing my stories and not worry about what format they will be produced in. Having said that I do sometimes look at my stories and think, would this make a film? Does anyone else do that?

I was reading a bit of Al Alvarez's The Writer's Voice and this one phrase struck home: '...prose is never quite finished.' (London: Bloomsbury, 2006 p.44) How true is that? For me it goes along with the idea, which I know I have mentioned before, of Blanchot who suggest that the writer leaves questions on the page for the reader to pick up.  Thinking of both these ideas seemed to highlight that a story is never ours alone, it belongs to everyone. Every reader will interpret it differently, influenced by their own cultural space and experience. In the same way, and we tried this in class the other day, if we gave every one the same sentence to start with or sat them in the same place and asked them to write about it, every story would be different. (And it was, some brilliant pieces came out of the exercise) That is what is glorious about creativity. We all have different stories to tell even if we start in the same place.

A TED talk worth listening too is by Chimamanda Adichie and the danger of the single story.

Cathy Cassidy put this up the other day and I feel it is quite appropriate. It is Elvis Costello's 'Everyday I write the book'