Monthly Archives: March 2016

A lesson in slow crafting

The unschooling diaries: week ten

Arthur has yet to show much of an interest in arts and crafts. When he was tiny he just couldn’t abide the mess – he’s still not super keen on getting paint on his hands. Now that he’s older he’ll dabble, but it’s still really not his ‘thing’.

I’m ok with that – mostly – even though my inner crafter is crying out for an excuse to spend afternoons surrounded by tissue paper and glitter and it really doesn’t help my fear that he’s missing out on something by not being at nursery when I see all the pictures of toddler creations fellow mums share proudly on Facebook. But when over breakfast one day last week he started getting enthusiastic about the idea of making some Easter cards I couldn’t help but get a bit excited. Not least because it meant we might finally got round to saying an extremely belated thank you for his birthday and Christmas presents…

The teacher in me leapt to the blackboard to note down his ideas (sidetracked a little by Winnie the Pooh as his most vivid understanding of Easter comes from ‘Springtime with Roo’ – I have no idea where the armour came from).

He happily settled on the idea of painted eggs though – he frequently dances around singing ‘we’re hunting eggs today!’ at the moment, and I’m very much looking forward to his very own egg hunt on Sunday. He then decided he wanted chicks in his eggs (well he said ducks, but I think that’s what he meant…) which led us very nicely to an easy to accomplish collaborative card idea. It might not be very original, but he liked it.

Having bought in some supplies (very important to have the right shades of glitter), and prepped some eggs for him to decorate, we set aside a couple of hours last weekend to make a start. And he of course lost interest within approximately three and a half minutes.

I battled with him for another two before reminding myself that that really was not the point, and calmly telling him that it was fine – we’d come back to it when he felt like it. I didn’t tidy everything away, just organised his workstation enough for it not to descend into total chaos. And sure enough the next day he gravitated towards his eggs again, did a few more minutes of gluing and glitter scattering, and moved on.

And that’s sort of been the background to this week, really. Every so often this little activity has piqued his interest again, and he’s added a little to his eggs. We’ve tried out a few different techniques along the way – stamping, mixing colours to get the shade of pink he wanted, watering paint down so he could ‘dye’ his eggs, mixing it in with glue and glitter. And every time, just as I thought he might be getting into it, he’s walked away again, his attention taken by his diggers or the urgent need for a banana.

We’re still not quite done, but we’re getting there. He’s declared that the eggs are finished at least, so there’s just a bit of cutting and sticking left. I might need to take the lead on that bit, what with it being Good Friday tomorrow and everything, but I reckon that’s ok. I can’t expect him to do all the work!


On first drafts and freedom

I realised a few key things today – about my writing, and about me as a writer.

It was three years ago, almost exactly, that I began to write the first draft of my first novel. In the time that has passed, I’ve written in the region of 200,000 words of fiction. They have, collectively, taught me an awful lot; and in doing so they have liberated me from some of the self-imposed rules that may previously have held me back.

Not just the words themselves, or the processes by which I came up with them in the first place, but also – perhaps mostly – the reworking that has happened along the way.

Most of 2015 was taken up with editing and redrafting my second novel. I didn’t enjoy it much – not as much as the heady excitement of the first draft anyway. And I’m still not entirely convinced that story is where it needs to be. But as my third novel gathers pace it is clear to me that it was an incredibly valuable learning process.

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I am loving being back in the unknown territory where a new adventure is beginning to unfold. One where I know the final destination (or at least I think I do), but still have much to discover about the intervening terrain. And having spent so long agonising over the details of second, third and fourth drafts last year I really am relishing the freedom that comes with the first.

I realise now that this is where I get to try things out. That I need to be bold, and follow my instincts. If a scene wants to be written in a particular way then I need to let that happen – even if it doesn’t entirely fit with what has gone before. Last time round I think I worried too much about the finished product, even at this very early stage. I didn’t want things to be inconsistent, but in avoiding that I might have fallen into beigeness – I didn’t let myself  pursue my whims, figured I’d save that for later. But there is no better time to be true to your characters and their voice than the first time you hear them speak.

I’m letting myself be freer with the plot, too. I sort of know which way I’m going, but when I come to an unexpected fork in the road I’m more confident now to follow my instincts even if it means taking a different path to the one I’d thought I would.

And in fact the most important path – the overall structure that will eventually lead the reader through the narrative – is hardly featuring in my mind at all. In the past I remember deliberating for ages about where chapters should start and end, whether what was happening in this particular scene would fit with what the reader already knew. Now, though, I’m relinquishing control to the narrative itself. I’m letting that lead the way, and I know I will have plenty of time to mould it into a structure later.

I think that what I’m ending up with is more authentic, more true to me and my voice. It’s rougher round the edges than my previous first drafts have been, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing – potentially quite the opposite.

More than anything I am not allowing myself to be paralysed by the pursuit of perfection – either in what I’m writing, or how I’m writing it. This whole thing is just the latest phase in this epic learning journey I’ve entered into, and if I can trust myself and the words that want to flow then I’m pretty confident I’m heading in the right direction.

 

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

Hurrah for Spring!

For warmer days and shorter nights, for grass running and tree climbing, for sunshine smiles and muddy knees.

Living where we do, it’s pretty hard not to get out and about all year round. Still, though, this time of year makes everything into an adventure.

I love nothing more than following the lead of my little explorer, and watching him absorb and embrace so much more than he could a year ago. His world is just buzzing with potential: and that means mine is, too.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

The web of research

Have you ever stopped to wonder what the internet search history of a writer looks like?

As I was pootling along with my draft this week I couldn’t help but smile at the diverse directions my ongoing research is taking me in.

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It’s not quite as extreme as my last novel, where the bulk of my online explorations were delving into the psychology of narcissism, manic depression and schizophrenia, not forgetting the murky world of electronic surveillance. Still, though, when writing a novel which (at least for the thirty thousand words I’ve written so far) is set in the 1970s and early 80s, it turns out there are an awful lot of gaps in my knowledge that need filling.

Most of them come from the fact that, having only been born in 1978, I have no personal experience of the little details of everyday life. Like, what were people called? What did they wear? Teenagers specifically? How did they do their make-up? Did they smoke? What did they drink at parties? What did they study for A-levels? When did they take their exams? When was the Walkman invented? What music did people listen to?

It’s all well and good talking to people who were around at the time, but I’m not just talking about general trends here – I’m talking about the specific aspects of fashion and popular culture that would have appealed to the blossoming characters I have been developing over the past few months, my two protagonists especially but the supporting cast as well.

Then there are the other details that anchor the world of my novel in time and place. The coordinates of my key locations, and the relation between them and the rise and setting of the sun (and the moon). The times of sunrise and sunset in summer, and any notable weather in between. Impossible to begin a novel in 1976 after all and not acknowledge the heatwave and the impact it had on peoples’ lives.

There was the politics too of course, and what it meant for peoples’ working days, as well as things like the prevalence of streetlights in a small seaside town.

Time and place aside, there are other things too I’ve found myself investigating to get up to speed with my characters’ interests and areas of expertise. The mechanics of butterfly stroke, for example. And the names of the different parts of a fishing boat. Not forgetting how to kill a mackerel.

It is all quite fascinating, and much as I’m trying to make sure I don’t get so completely sucked into the research that I fail to do any actual writing I can’t deny that I’m enjoying all the little bits of learning along the way. I know it doesn’t matter if not every little detail matches the facts, but if I’m having to make decisions anyway it’s nice to be helped along by the wealth of information that’s out there.

Remind me what people did before the internet again?

 

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Going with the flow

The unschooling diaries: week nine

I’ve been mulling over various different options for this post today – Arthur’s delight in playing with sand at Paignton sea front, his growing interest in helping in the kitchen, the hours of roleplay that followed when we found a Buzz Lightyear costume in the charity shop – but it’s actually an almost inconsequential moment that I keep coming back to.

Leigh was late home on Friday, but with it being the weekend I figured we’d wait for him before pushing on to bed after Arthur had finished his dinner. That’s daddy time, generally – the chats about the day and the washing things and the stories – and both of them miss it on the odd occasions when he can’t be around.

I didn’t really have a plan – which could, at the end of a long day, have ended in disaster – but as it was distraction came in the most unexpected form. I’d been unpacking a delivery whilst Arthur ate his dinner, and it had arrived in a box filled with little polystyrene pellets. I normally whip them away from Arthur whenever I order from this company, but on Friday I guess I was feeling a bit more relaxed and so I let him explore. And the resulting play was, I think, the best fun he’d had all week.

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Things started pretty simply: having watched me unpack my order from the box, he proceeded to fill it with all of his precious things and offer it to me as a present.

Then once I’d gone through and admired each of his ‘gifts’, he decided that he wanted to see what it was like in there himself.

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Then of course came the tipping out, and the moment when on another day I might have put a halt to all of it. The tuff spot comes in handy for that – even if it didn’t contain the pellets for long…

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He piled them up and drove his diggers into them, threw them in the air to see how they fell, smooshed them and squeezed them and generally just experimented with this new material that had previously been off limits.

And whilst he played I sat and watched and laughed, until his daddy arrived at the door and came in to find us giggling in the midst of a pile of mess. Fortunately he got it too.

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I couldn’t tell you exactly what Arthur learnt from this little bit of unplanned and unstructured play, but still it felt important: to give him permission to go a little bit wild at the end of the day, to go with the flow even if a part of me was raising some serious eyebrows, to let him lead and explore and make us both laugh.

As much as it’s great to have some carefully thought out activities on hand too I think it is moments like this that remind me why I am leaning towards unschooling, and the freedom it gives my son to be who he wants to be.

 



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

Looking back over my photos from this week, it is the ones of me and Arthur together that stand out the most. I know it’s cheating a little bit to call this a portrait of him, but in my defence he still, even as a confident and independent three year old, feels in many ways like an extension of my self.

I wonder if it always feels like that, being a mother? There’s a quote it brings to mind:

“Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body” Elizabeth Stone

For me these toddler years, with all of their wonder and challenge, are a critical moment in this. Perhaps it is because I have chosen a route through parenting where we are very much attached, but it is only now that I am really starting to feel us begin to articulate our separateness. Him as an incredible bundle of energy and potential, me as a whole new creature to the one I was before I bore him.

It’s exciting, but it brings with it too a sense of loss.

The cuddles help with that though. And this week we have loved exploring our together-yet-apart bodies through yoga. By which I mean mainly me attempting to rediscover well-worn poses whilst he clambers delightedly all over me.

I pretend to be annoyed that it makes it near impossible to practice how I used to, but secretly I love it.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

On women and writing

My son has not been 100% the past few days, which has meant much more time sitting on the sofa having cuddles than usual. During one of these moments yesterday afternoon, whilst savouring the calmness of the three year old nestled at my chest, I had a bit of a revelation.

I found myself looking at my bookshelves, idly imagining my own published work sitting up there one day, and then it struck me: the overwhelming majority of the books in my life were written by men.

I couldn’t in that moment put my finger on why that was, but I knew it was significant for me – as a woman and as a writer. So today, what with it being International Women’s Day, I decided to do a little investigation.

As I am so often wont to do, I turned my gaze inwards first: tried to work out what it was about me that had led to such a literary gender imbalance. These books I have around me chart my reading history back to my teens. I have never got around to organising them in any particular way, and the resulting cacophony of titles is not easy to analyse, but however many times I went back again to look the facts remained the same: I have, over the past twenty years of my life as an avid adult reader, amassed a library which is almost entirely male-generated.

McEwan, Banks, Rushdie, Murakami, Self: all literary idols of my teens and twenties, all fantastic authors in their own right, but peculiar role models for a young woman trying to find her way in the world.

I didn’t think so at the time of course. I remember having a strong desire to be taken seriously as a reader and as an intellectual in my very male-dominated social and family circle. I remember arrogantly dismissing Austen – the only female author I remember studying at school – for what I saw as her obsession with vacuous romance. I remember being switched off by chick-lit as frivolous and a waste of reading energy (though I never looked beyond the covers to find out if that was actually true).

Of course as time went on I read – and loved – books by female authors too. Just not enough.

As my mind shifted to the context of all this I began to wonder whether it was merely a phenomenon isolated to my own book collection. I suspected probably not – certainly my sense of the world of the professionally respected writer is of one that is very male dominated. But I had already established that my lifetime’s research in this field was somewhat skewed, so I figured it was worth investigating.

Turns out it wasn’t just me. A quick google search threw up a woman whose novel proved eight times more attractive to agents when submitted under a male pseudonym; a study which revealed that 75% of the books reviewed in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement were written by men. I’m sure further research would have given me plenty more reassurance, but I’m pretty confident that it’s not just my bookshelves that are biased.

The reason why is somewhat more elusive. Are there actually less female authors than male ones – or good ones anyway? This question was explored at length in a fascinating essay written by Francine Prose in 1998, resurfacing when V.S.Naipaul expressed a similar disparagement towards Jane Austen as my teenage self in comments he made in 2011. The answer is of course complex and multilayered, with a multitude of reasons why women write, or don’t, and why people want to read what women write, or don’t (or at least what the publishers think in this regard).

A hypothesis that has recurred over the years is that is has something to do with motherhood: that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. Or if you are going to succumb to kids, just make sure you only have the one.

For me, the opposite is true. Or at least I thought it was. I found becoming a mother extremely motivating – liberating, even – and the birth of my son will always be intrinsically linked with my reasons for finally putting virtual pen to paper and writing my first novel. However as time goes on it has all started to feel a little self-indulgent, a waste of my ‘potential’, of my ‘education’  – both the desire to plunge myself headfirst into parenthood, and the equally strong desire to use all my spare moments to write. The voices from my past are surfacing and telling me that just writing and looking after a kid are hardly valuable uses of my time. So those precious minutes are being eaten away because I feel like I should be earning money (though I am lucky enough at the moment not to strictly need to) and because I feel that I should be doing something ‘worthwhile’ (though I have already dedicated ten years of my life to teaching).

I am wondering now, as I work all this through, whether I shouldn’t be seriously rethinking my priorities. But that would mean a commitment to this role of Writer, an assertion to myself and to others that I am good enough, and it is worthwhile.

I’m not sure that I’m there yet. Though coming across another article about how what separates unsuccessful female writers from successful male ones is the very reticence that I recognise wholeheartedly in myself has given me even more pause for thought.

And I am glad to say that my explorations did not throw up only negatives. I found this article about ten women authors who published after age forty particularly encouraging – there is still time, and hopefully plenty of it.

Also encouraging is the fact that one of these authors is currently sitting on top of my reading pile: a reading pile which for perhaps the first time ever is made up of books entirely written by women.

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None of this is by design. I never consciously set out to not read books by women, or indeed to seek them out as I grew older. But the shift in my literary gender balance is not entirely accidental either. I think it speaks to where I am right now with myself, as a woman and as a writer.

I’m still figuring out exactly where that is, but once I do? You’d better watch out, world.

 

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