A tribe of writers

Did you know that there is no collective noun for writers?

I suppose it’s not so surprising, really, what with writing so often being a lonesome experience: sat with a notebook, or in front of a computer, or reading a novel, or lost in important imaginings.

But actually, it’s pretty hard staying focused on all that without a group of people around you that know what it’s all about.

Plenty of people have mulled over this question of what that group should be called: I quite like ‘an alliteration of writers’ – if only for how it sounds. Or a ‘hyperbole of writers’ – but maybe just because it’s one of my favourite words… For me, my group of writers is most definitely a tribe.

Mainly our interaction exists in this virtual world – we met through social media, and our blogs, and through the wonderful What I’m Writing community. I found it all a bit awkward at first: I realise meeting people online has been pretty standard for years now, and on a more personal level I don’t think I would ever have become reacquainted with the man who became my husband if it hadn’t been for Facebook. Still, though, it took me a while to get my head round the fact that these people who I knew only through their words, who I had never actually met in real life, could become my friends.

Turns out that was nonsense.

It is different, getting to know people online. But in a lot of ways it cuts through all the crap. Reading people’s blogs is like a little window into their souls, and much as it can feel strange sometimes to share perspectives on the world which might only come out in real life after hours of chat with people who are essentially strangers, it all becomes worthwhile when you find the words which dance around the same frequency as your own – and even more so when you meet the people who wrote them.

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When you end up with a lunch like the one we had on Saturday, which starts at 1pm and lasts into the evening, with eight creative and talented and opinionated and awesome women sat around a table sharing their thoughts on everything from politics to parenting to relationships to, of course, writing. When you realise that somehow by bonding over words of fiction you have happened upon a group of people who share a deep injustice at the state of the world and the determination to do something about it. When you accept that each one of them will do that differently, but that’s ok – just like we’re all going about this writing thing differently, and that’s ok too.

We spent ages dissecting the pros and cons of self-publishing and agents and independent presses, of aiming high versus getting your words out there, of writing what you want versus trying to shape your work for the market. And our conclusion? They’re all just different ways of doing things, and we all have different perceptions of the way that will work for us.

And that’s ok. And more than a little bit liberating.

I am so grateful for all of the amazing friends I have met during the different phases of my life so far, and to have come across this brilliant group of women now, just when I’m starting to own this current incarnation as a writer, feels almost too good to be true.

Because although writing is by its very definition a solitary pursuit, there is a strength in numbers that cannot fail to help when the self-doubt sets in. And after Saturday, it feels more than that: we protect each other, sure, but we inspire each other too – and egg each other on to pursue our own impossible dreams.

The world has felt like an increasingly scary place to be this year, and whilst part of my response to that has been reaching out to old friends and finding with relief that they are very much still there, the fissures that have opened up in our society have made me doubt whether my place within it is quite as secure as I once thought it was. Having focused for a long time on carving my own path, confident to choose the road less travelled if that is the one that calls to me, I am feeling the need for back-up.

And here, through my writing tribe, whether they are tapping away at a keyboard hundreds of miles away or sharing just one more glass of wine across the table as day turns into night, I might just have found it.

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“A portrait of my child once a week, every week, in 2016”

This boy is so fascinated by cameras.

I suppose it is only to be expected, given that his life has been so carefully documented. He is particularly drawn, though, to the older cameras in my collection – the ones which don’t get used as much as they should since I have discovered the wonders of the iPhone.

I’m not sure he’s quite old enough yet to manage my digital SLR, but I’m tempted to let him have a decent go…

Presents for my almost four year old

The unschooling diaries: week forty-five

Christmas has been creeping in determinedly to our house this week.

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We spied a little tree when we were out and about last weekend, which Arthur and I decided would be perfect for my study – we spend so much time there after all, writing and playing by the fireside, that it’s nice to make it festive.

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It was there Arthur wrote his very first letter to Santa this week. Well, I say wrote – he dictated, and I scribed the words. He added pictures too – the bow and arrow and the spaceship, and a little self-portrait with a woolly hat.

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He very rarely wants to draw – it’s one of the things that niggles at my brain as I worry that he should be doing it more often. It was lovely to see him pick up a pencil for something other than scribbles, and he was so proud of his pictures that I think he might just be tempted to do it more often…

We actually made another tree too, this time for Arthur’s bedroom. Again it’s somewhere he spends a lot of time – often playing there for at least an hour in the mornings before he emerges to start the day. There was a large cardboard box waiting to be recycled in the kitchen, so we decided to put it to better use.

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So far it is decorated with a fairy and some glow stars, but creating some sparkly baubles is top of our list for the week to come.

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Alongside all this, my mind has been mulling over presents. it’s not just Christmas we have to prepare for – Arthur’s birthday is only three days later, so I need to get myself organised for that too!

I’m really keen to add to his inspiration bank at home – it feels especially important because he spends so much time there. His interests have flourished over the past couple of months, so he’s given me lots of ideas.

These are just a few of them…

A book of poems

Arthur is developing a real love for poetry, which began with listening to poems read by Daddy during his bedtime baths.

I love the idea of this book, which has a wonderful selection of classic poems, one for every night of the year.

A little friend

Whilst Arthur’s social skills are coming on in leaps and bounds, he is also very happy to play alone. Recently, though, he’s enjoyed chatting away to his dolly – a Waldorf doll I made him for his first birthday.

I think he’s going to love this Finn doll, from the makers of the child-friendly Lottie. Especially because he’s small enough to not only play with at home, but also to come out and about with us on our adventures.

A marble run

Arthur discovered marbles a couple of months ago, and we’ve experimented with making marble runs from cardboard and networks of tubes in the garden.

This set from Hape looks incredible though – giving him the tools to create his own structures to send his marbles whizzing round. He’s really into building too, so I think he’ll relish the challenge.

A lego community

This love for building has recently exploded with the discovery of ‘grown-up’ lego. He still enjoys his duplo, which we’ve moved to his room to keep him entertained for those early-morning wake-ups, but he will spend literally hours piecing together tiny bricks to give shape to the forms in his imagination.

His selection of mini figures is essential to the process too, inspiring him to create new structures for them to inhabit. I reckon this set of community figures would be a brilliant addition to his kit, and give him all sorts of new ideas about what to build.

A kid-safe knife set

Arthur is always keen to help in the kitchen, especially if it involves cutting things. We bought him a child’s knife last year, but the blade is really not sharp enough to be much use.

This chef set, which includes a peeler too, looks much more effective. And might just have the added bonus of him taking over peeling the potatoes!

I know that too much of a focus on ‘stuff’ isn’t healthy, but I really do take pleasure in selecting gifts for Arthur which he will enjoy and which will help him learn.

(And I’m sure I can help Santa find a fire engine and a spaceship and a bow and arrow too).

I can’t wait for the start of December so Christmas can begin in earnest: choosing and decorating our main tree, and putting up Arthur’s advent calendar!

I do love this time of year.

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Impartiality in our post-truth age

At what point, I wonder, will history judge us to have crossed the line?

There’s no doubt that this year will factor large in the curriculum in the years to come. Maybe as part of a wider module, one on the collapse of neoliberalism and the rise of the right. Or perhaps just all on its own: a year which, in its myriad of tragedies and political upheavals, will come to symbolise the downfall of modern society.

I have been trying to keep abreast of the news this week, but every time I read a headline or watch a report I feel like I have accidentally sidestepped into an alternate reality – one where the rules have all changed, and the values that I and so many others have fought to protect for so long have become obsolete.

I have found myself shouting at the screen, exasperatedly suggesting alternative ways of presenting things which would cut to the heart of what is actually going on.

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Like when The Guardian suggested that Trump’s insistence that Farage would do a ‘great job’ as the British ambassador to the US put Theresa May in ‘a difficult position’. I mean, what? Since when do foreign leaders get a say in who is appointed as ambassador to their country? And since when would the government even consider a man who has failed in his attempts to be elected as MP no less than seven times? It’s absurd, even when you take party politics out of the equation, but the attempt to keep a distance, to balance both sides, makes it sound like Trump is being genuinely reasonable.

There’s the language being used to describe Trump too. BBC journalists have been referring to the president elect and his allies as ‘controversial’ and ‘populist’ – both things which sound pretty positive to disenchanted ears, and completely belittle the fact that he has publicly bragged of sexually assaulting women and has vowed to remove an entire religious group from the United States. In comparison Corbyn is regularly described as ‘hard left’ and ‘extreme’ – mainly as a result, it seems, of his desire to move towards a more equal society.

This comparison of the way right and left wing politicians are described is significant, especially when it comes to the BBC. For years the beeb has been attacked by conservatives for showing bias towards left wing ideals – though as someone who has closely followed both politics and BBC journalism for at least the last thirteen years this simply doesn’t ring true. Ironically most of the people I know who work for the BBC – and I know a few – largely share my political views. If you were just to look at the demographic of the broadcaster’s staff then an accusation of bias might hold some sway. But as they are educated, thoughtful professionals, and closely bound by the directives they have to follow – directives which ultimately come from the government, upon whom the BBC are reliant for their funding – they would not dream of allowing their personal views to influence their reporting.

There appears to be a fear amongst left-wing journalists of seeming to take sides – especially with the side they are, ultimately, on. And yet in their pursuit of balance, of attempting to appear impartial, very often the content that is produced leans heavily towards the right. Or at least towards the status quo, which with our current staunchly conservative government is very much the same thing.

I think the problem lies in the way in which this concept of balance is realised. I’ve experienced it first hand, in interviews for local TV news. For every opinion I expressed, there had to be one on the opposite side to counter it. So far so straightforward – except in reality it was more problematic.

There was a story on my work as a councillor exploring bringing refugees to Brixham, for example. In order to balance out my opinion (tentatively expressed as an elected representative) that this would be the morally right and appropriate course of action to take, the opposite view had to be shown – represented in this case by screenshots from the Facebook pages of the extreme right ‘Populist Party’ and ‘Refugees not Welcome in Devon’, pages which are full of racist bile (the latter has since been taken down). They both declined to comment, but their views were validated by being given that platform, and no doubt gave weight to the unease some local people were already feeling in the wake of the bombardment of scaremongering from the tabloid press.

I got into a discussion which reminded me about all this with an old friend on Facebook today. His argument was that we had to give a platform to these views, had to bring them out into the open, as otherwise they would just fester. We were specifically discussing Milo Yiannopolous, whose appearance on Channel 4 news made my jaw hit the floor when I saw it earlier.

He is charming, charismatic, persuasively condescending. And, like others who are part of the ‘alt-right’ movement, he views women, non-whites, people with disabilities as essentially non-humans, who have no right to be offended by the verbal attacks he perpetrates.

This is a view that no doubt resonates with many to some extent or other. And yet for Yiannopolous, and for others like him, you could substitute ‘neo-nazi’ for ‘alt-right’ and find it hard to separate out their views.

And I’m pretty damned sure we should not be impartial about that.

It is possible to argue, convincingly, that in a free press all of these opinions, however reprehensible, should be given air time in order for people to make up their own minds.

But we live in a society where the whole of our media is dominated by right-wing propaganda. Where the vast majority of headlines evoke fear through their demonisation of minority groups. Where the outspoken voices of the far right are not afraid to employ overt rhetoric in order to get their views across – where charisma and personality count for infinitely more than the facts at the heart of the matter.

It’s ironic, given that the ‘alt-right’ claim to be reclaiming facts over feelings. But in their post-truth universe spin trumps integrity – and that universe is emerging all too neatly out of our own.

Meanwhile our few remaining ‘respectable’ news outlets are too polite to play the game. They let people have their turn, they trust that the population will see through the spin to the immorality that lies beneath it.

And yet nothing about 2016 suggests that will be the case.

So when does it stop? At which point do these hate-fuelled, extremist views get recognised for what they are, and at which point do our journalists refuse to endorse them? To be impartial when faced with racism, misogyny and xenophobia is to condone it, to qualify it as a justifiable way of looking at the world.

But it is wrong. It is all so wrong. And one day people will look back on us, on the media we bankrolled and the news we accepted as truth, and they will judge us with the outrage and disgust that we deserve.

 

Writing Bubble

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“A portrait of my child once a week, every week, in 2016”

We went to the Advent Fair at South Devon Steiner School at the weekend. It was a lovely event, and a real reminder of how different education can be.

There are still several things about the Steiner approach that make me doubt whether we could embrace it entirely, but Arthur was most definitely inspired. Whenever we’ve talked about school before he has been adamant that he doesn’t want to go, but when I explained to him that this place was a school too his eyes widened: “It’s just like a big boy’s forest school”, he exclaimed. Needless to say, he LOVES forest school.

The highlight of his day came towards the end. I’d got distracted by the stalls, and emerged to find Leigh and Arthur peering through the gate of the forge whilst the school’s blacksmith crafted something in the flames. It turned out that Arthur had got chatting to him and asked for a sword, and the blacksmith cheerfully agreed.

So Arthur watched, fascinated, as the metal was heated and twisted and sculpted into shape, and when it was cool he held it in his hands.

We’ve had some serious chats about the responsibility that comes with such a gift – its end is blunted, but it’s still a solid lump of metal. Arthur chose a hook for it in the kitchen, and we’ve agreed that he will only handle it when we’re there – that he can use it as a prop in his imaginings, but it is not for play fighting.

So far he’s risen to the challenge, and handles his very own sword with the utmost care. It is wonderful to see what these little people are capable of when we trust them.

Adventures in friendship

The unschooling diaries: weeks forty-three and forty-four

As I type, the rain is beating against the windows and the wind is howling its displeasure in every nook it finds. There is something comforting about being inside, with the crackle of the fire and the glow of the computer screen, but still a bigger part of me is yearning for the simplicity of the temperate outdoors – or more specifically, for a yurt in Lanzarote.

We had the most glorious holiday there, last week. I feel almost guilty for having had such a lovely escape at a time when the world was plunging into new depths of disastrousness, but it really was the perfect place to be. Beachfront tapas, good wine, fervent discussion under the stars.

We cooked up this plan as the summer in the UK drew to a close with one of my oldest, bestest friends and her family. They are currently living in a yurt, and I was eager to show them the yurtastic idyll that is Lanzarote Retreats. We’ve been there already once this year, but it has been such a year that Easter feels like forever ago. And besides, to launch into this adventure with friends was a whole new level of awesome.

Especially for Arthur.

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Emily’s oldest daughter is mere weeks younger than him, and over the past few years, during sleepovers and festivals, they have formed a quiet bond. Her youngest is now old enough to be a proper little person, and the three of them, during our week of adventures, became thick as thieves.

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There is something lovely about watching children come together when they are faced with experiences that are new and unusual, watching them make sense of the spectacular windows on the world that travelling affords.

These three embraced the adventures they were offered in parallel, bouncing their interpretations off each other and finding solace from the strange in the familiarity of friendship.

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And that friendship was built in lego bricks, in early mornings and stolen moments back at the camp. Arthur brought with him a little stash, one which he swore on the plane on the way over that he would not share. That didn’t last long, though.

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Holidaying with friends is not something I have done often, but it is something I really hope to do again – soon. Especially with these ones.

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I am always proud of Arthur’s ability to play alone, but it was wonderful to watch him create a world with these girls. In the closing hours of our commune he had begun to refer to them as his sisters. I don’t think that relationship will be lost, somehow. Though I wish our respective homes were not quite so far away.

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The whole experience really made me think about community, and socialisation, and how we are going to create that without the status quo of school. We need to find the people near us who will make us glow like these friends do. But whilst we’re working that out the nourishment this magical break gave our souls should last for a good while yet.

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Writing at the end of the world

Let’s just take stock of where we’re at.

The UK is hurtling towards an ungainly Brexit, voted for by just over a third of the adult population and headed up by an unelected Prime Minister who is swiftly making Margaret Thatcher look like some sort of socialist saint.

The US, not to be outdone, has voted in a billionaire who openly gloats about tax avoidance and assaulting women. The percentage of the population who are happy about this is even lower than the ‘overwhelming mandate’ leading our country into disaster, and both of our nations, who can thank for their successes generations of immigration and open-mindedness, are battening down the hatches for an extreme right-wing orgy of which Hitler would be proud.

Alongside this, the world is still facing (if not yet facing up to) the worst humanitarian crisis since World War One, military leaders from Russia to China are seemingly putting things in place for yet more global conflict, and our media is having a field day in this post-truth age which has never been less interested in the facts of the situation where there’s a good story to be had.

And don’t even get me started on the travesties that are quietly being played out on our doorsteps behind this international shitstorm. The health and education services that are being dismantled and sold off to the highest bidder, the fat cats getting fatter whilst the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are living hand to mouth, or dying behind a smokescreen of spin.

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It is hard to know what to do.

It is hard to know what the point is of doing anything.

And yet…

I was reminded the other day about why it is I am a writer: why I love books, and art, and culture. Why it matters even more when everything else is falling apart. It was one of those rare moments when the different parts of my life collide: I was at a Torbay Culture Forum meeting to discuss ideas for the future of Shoalstone Pool, and I found myself surrounded by a table of inspiring, talented people who have an unshakable belief in the ability of culture to affect change.

I do, too: that’s why I was passionate about teaching literature and drama and film as well as the more functional elements of literacy and media studies. It is why I trained as an actor many moons ago, and is why I have spent so very many hours over the last few years carefully crafting three novels whilst learning what it is to be a mum.

It is easy to forget, though, at times like this. It is easy to think that it is only by addressing politics head on that you can really make a difference, and that artistic endeavour is frivolous and self-indulgent. I think I’ve been stuck in that space for a while now.

But it’s time to break out. Something clicked when I was away last week, and I have come back with a renewed sense of what I’m doing and why.

I have an idea for a collection of short stories, inspired by this impending sense of doom but altogether more hopeful than that sounds. I’ve been putting pen to paper, playing around with words, and finding the whole process quite therapeutic. As stories emerge I’m planning to set them free into the world and see if any of them can find a home, but I’m feeling strangely liberated by the fact that I’m envisaging this as a collection too, a cohesive work that I might be able to put out there myself someday soon.

I say soon, but I still have no idea where that bigger picture of submissions is taking me. What I do know, though, is I need to own this writer hat, to separate it out from the new-mother angst that spawned this blog. So I have a separate writing blog in the works, which hopefully will be ready to launch in the new year.

This links in to another realisation I’ve had, about what it is that ties together all the stuff on this blog that isn’t about writing – and that is, surprise surprise, linked closely to that sense of creeping armageddon too.

It’s all about changing the world, basically. About nurturing a new generation – as a parent and a teacher – that will do things differently. Do things better. And I think I want to explore this more explicitly, with a blog dedicated to this idea of child rearing as a quiet and determined revolution.

It fits quite neatly with all my thoughts already about parenting and education, but I think the time has come to own that side of me too – not just to voice my thoughts and apologise afterwards for failing to embrace the status quo.

So.

Change is afoot.

Time to silence that demon who has taken a break from criticising my writing to laugh at me for believing that I can make a difference, however small that difference might be.

Because if not me, who? And if not now, when?

Writing Bubble