Monthly Archives: May 2016

22/52

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

This boy.

We have just come back from four days in Florida to celebrate the wedding of one of my bestest friends. I was a little apprehensive in the run up: the journey either end was going to take twenty-four hours all in, and I wasn’t sure quite how Arthur would cope with that – or the hecticness whilst we were there.

But he really did take it all in his stride.

I am so glad we are raising such an awesome travelling companion. It makes me very excited about the many adventures still to come…

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

21/52

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

We have had a day of ‘getting things done’ today, which has meant that for much of it Arthur has been left to his own devices.

Sometimes, that’s a disaster.

But today, with Leigh and I busying ourselves with organising and tidying and planting, he has been a little star.

I found him at one point this afternoon with his balance bike upside down, bits of twigs strewn around him. I asked what he was doing, and he told me he was using his bike as a stick cutter. Obviously.

I’m still not entirely sure what that meant, but he was clearly utterly absorbed in experimentation. And rocking quite a cool outfit too…

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

Venturing into the forest

The unschooling diaries: week eighteen

I am always on the lookout for new and exciting learning opportunities where Arthur gets to hang out with other kids, and in the past couple of weeks we’ve found a brilliant one.

My main motivation for leaning towards homeschooling as a vehicle for Arthur’s education is the complete pedagogical divergence between how I know children learn best and the constraints and controls being put on our schools by our current government. I am not anti-school per se, and I’m definitely not anti-teachers: I just wish our education system was able to be fed by the wealth of research over the past fifty years that advocates a child-led approach, steeped in creativity and the natural world. It is just so depressing that instead our schools, and our children, have been hijacked by a government obsessed with data and narrowly-focused assessment.

It’s not like there aren’t real alternatives to the system that is currently stagnating in the UK. Finland has had amazing results with an approach that is much more closely aligned to my own beliefs. One of the cornerstones of that approach is the dominance of forest schools, particularly in the early years: and I decided a couple of weeks ago that I owed it to Arthur for that to be part of his early-education experience.

And so, for the past two weeks, we have travelled to the little village of Stoke Gabriel on a Tuesday morning to join in with their forest school. It’s a bit of a mission – I still don’t drive (though I’m determined to do something about that this summer) so with the limited bus service it means getting taxis. But we are rewarded by our efforts with four and a half hours in the wilderness, which without a doubt makes it all worthwhile.

Weeks alternate between a community orchard and the forest, depending on whether the tide is too high to cross the weir. We were in the orchard for our first week, and I was struck by democratic, respectful atmosphere that pervaded – children were trusted, and they rose to that challenge. There were planned activities – from worm charming to clay modelling – but around that there was plenty of time for children to just play, inspired by each other and the world around them.

This week, we ventured into the forest. And it was amazing. The journey itself was rich in challenge and learning: navigating along the shore of the millpond, walking carefully across the weir and climbing up into the woods. Along the way the children were encouraged to be mindful of their environment – of plants, and insects, and the (metaphorical) need to tread carefully so as not to leave too significant a footprint.

After close to an hour, we reached Mr Magic Tree, the guardian of the woodland playground, and passed into a world of natural balance beams and fire pits and bug hunting and wooden xylophones. Again the time was punctuated by shared experiences (like cooking nettles to see if they lost their sting), but largely the children just played, and   no doubt learnt more than we could ever truly compute, let alone measure.

I think we’re going to have fun at forest school, Arthur and I. There is so much to learn, so much to experience.

And underpinning it all is a pedagogy that makes my heart sing.



Keeping focused

For once, this isn’t actually a blog post about the struggle to focus on the novel in the midst of everything else that’s going on in my world. That is still (and will ever be) a challenge, though the early mornings are definitely keeping things ticking over.

My latest issue, though, is keeping my focus where it should be within the novel writing process itself. Since I’ve jumped almost twenty years into the future, picking up with my teenage protagonist as she navigates her way through adult life, I’m finding my mind increasingly drifting towards structure.

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I think it’s partly because, 75,000 words in, I can begin to taste what the novel might be like in its finished form. It is still a long way off that – far more than either of my first two novels I have really let myself be liberated by the first draft, and I know what I’ve ended up with is much rougher around the edges. Still, though, I’m finding it hard not to project a response onto future readers, trying to imagine how satisfied they will be with how I’ve told the story, how much they will empathise with my protagonist both now and in her past.

And actually, ultimately, what is seeping in at the corners of my mind are those questions about how exactly am I going to tell this story.

I’ve written it chronologically, starting when my main character was ten and peeking into every summer until she was sixteen, and everything began to come tumbling down. There’s loads I’ve left out – some I’ve alluded to in dialogue, some that is there in an exchange of letters. And then of course there’s a whole seventeen years that’s missing between the two different phases of life the novel covers. The bulk of the story happens – and is told – in the past, but the ‘present’ is vital to understanding its significance.

I always imagined that I would structure the final narrative in a way which travelled between those two phases, and that is still my goal. I told myself just to get the story down first, and to worry about that particular (albeit major) detail later. And that is ultimately still what I’m trying to do. But it’s so odd writing something when you’re not entirely sure what your reader already knows at that point – or what they don’t. So hard to think about building suspense when you know that you might already – intentionally – have given the game away.

I’m not expecting any answers here. It’s an interesting process, and one which I think I just need to hold my course on if I’m going to be able to find out whether it will work. There are a handful of key scenes that remain to be written, and once I’ve done that the solutions may well emerge all by themselves. Even if they don’t, I’m quite looking forward to the jigsaw puzzle challenge that the next phase of this novel looks likely to present.

I just need to make sure that I have all of the pieces on the table first before I try to see the bigger picture.

 

Writing Bubble

20/52

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

Leigh and I had a very rare trip up to London this weekend, just the two of us.

Arthur stayed with my mum, and though we were only away for a night it was remarkable to see how much he seemed to grow up in just those twenty four little hours. This picture is hers, from a walk in the woods that they took before bedtime. I love the look of wonder on his face, the way he is poised for exploration and adventure.

It took us a long while to leave Arthur overnight. I could not imagine anything I less wanted to do in the first few weeks and months, and as time went on people were full of cautionary tales about how he would never be able to cope without us if we didn’t start to reduce the attachment that felt so natural for us to nurture.

In fact the opposite has proved to be true. We still hang out together an awful lot, but when Arthur is given the chance to be more independent he rises to it – confident that we will return, and full of excited stories to share with us when we do.

And cuddles, of course. There were lots of cuddles too.

 

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

Project metamorphosis

The unschooling diaries: week seventeen

Just over a month ago, we were in my parents garden when we spotted clusters of tadpoles in their pond. I mentioned how cool it would be to have some for Arthur to watch grow at home, and a little while later my brother appeared with a jar containing four little tadpoles and a healthy dose of pondweed. Thus began our science project for the past few weeks – one which fascinated me at least as much as it did Arthur!

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First step was to prepare a suitable habitat. A bit of googling suggested a fairly shallow container with space for the tadpoles to swim and also to hide, and rocks for them to crawl up on once they developed legs. I decided that the fish kettle was the closest thing we had to a tank, and Arthur helped me collect a selection of stones to help make it a bit more homely.

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He was pretty chuffed with how it turned out, and loved to watch the tadpoles swimming around and getting used to their new home.

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In fact each morning we both gravitated towards the tadpoles to check how they were getting on: Arthur curious to see what pets were up to, me desperately hoping that I would have more success with amphibians than I do with house plants.

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They seem to get on ok, but after the first week or so it was clear that we were going to have to clean them. My mum brought over a fresh supply of pond water, and Arthur helped me clear out the worst of the muck using a baster (thank you google again) which worked surprisingly well!

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All of these online investigations, though, were making me doubt the wisdom of the receptacle I’d chosen to contain them. Apparently you shouldn’t use anything made of metal (though I didn’t manage to find a reason why) and, more compellingly, a lid would come in very handy for stopping seagulls from sourcing an easy lunch when they were out on the deck and stopping the little froglets themselves from climbing (or jumping) out when metamorphosis kicked in.

So I found a cheap and cheerful fishtank, and Arthur helped me transfer them over (with another dose of pond water for good measure).

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The transparent tank had the advantage of making it much easier to see what was going on, though I’m not sure how much the tadpoles liked being on display 24/7…

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Under our constant surveillance it did feel, for ages, as if nothing much was happening. The tadpoles were definitely getting bigger: we experimented with feeding them finely chopped, frozen lettuce, though to be honest I think they preferred the pond weed. We read some books, so we knew what was coming: Osbourne Beginner’s Tadpoles and Frogs was predictably good, as was the slightly macabre Tadpole’s Promise.

But every morning when we checked they were still just tadpoles. Until one day things began to change… And once the metamorphosis had started they seemed increasingly frog-like (and increasingly well camouflaged) every time we looked.

One of the things that I thought was particularly interesting (and particularly apt, seeing as we were right in the middle of our anti-SATs campaign), was the different pace at which the tadpoles developed. Even though they had all looked identical at the start, their metamorphosis progressed at quite different rates.

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They all got there in the end though, and one morning we came down to find four tiny but perfectly formed frogs witting on top of the rocks.

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It was at this point that I started to get really worried about keeping them alive – whilst the tadpoles can survive on pond weed, frogs are carnivorous and need live insects to sustain them. There were a fair few bugs in the pond water, and we increasingly left the tank outside to entice others into their lair, but still it was clear that we were going to have to return them to their habitat sooner rather than later.

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And so, on a suitably grey and rainy day, we took our little frogs in their tank back to my parents’ pond, and released them back into the wild.

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It was genuinely a little bit sad to be saying goodbye to them (though I was secretly proud as well that we still had four). Arthur was incredibly careful and gentle as he helped me transfer them one by one from tank to pond, and once the frogs had got over their initial bewilderment at how big their world had become they hopped happily away.

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We did have one little guy who seemed less sure about the transition, but once we’d persuaded him to check out the world on the other side of the tank he seemed to agree it was preferable.

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All in all this has been a wonderful learning opportunity for Arthur (and me). I’m already keen to do it all again next year, and in the meantime am thinking about what our next living science project might involve.

Arthur’s asking for a dog, but I’m thinking worms might be more likely…



A new voice

So despite all of the crazy busyness of the last couple of weeks, the novel has managed somehow to hold its own. In fact last week I was flying – on Thursday and Friday alone I managed five thousand words, which helped me get my head well and truly back above the water.

It wasn’t just about the words, either: plot points fell into place, my characters led me through some tricky resolutions, and my head was bursting with ideas about where I wanted to take things next. Out of nowhere I had found some much-needed momentum, and just for a while it felt as if the story was writing itself.

But of course that didn’t last; I knew it wouldn’t.

The downhill cartwheels that were powering me through were gathering speed as I grew closer to an ending: the end of my protagonist’s childhood, and also the end of the section of the novel that is set in the (not so distant) past. But it is not the end of the novel. My task now is to get to know the adult she has grown into, and that is a whole new challenge.

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Yesterday, I mainly scribbled notes – adding to the initial ideas I’d had about those almost-present-day chapters and hovering my pen over emotions and actions that suddenly didn’t feel right. I thought I knew her, adult Catherine, but it turns out that maybe I didn’t.

I suppose it is only right that having spent several months (and sixty seven thousand words) travelling through her teenage years the woman who I am faced with now at thirty three is different to how I had imagined. She’s much more rounded, which is good. Initially when I was planning I only had the outline of the tumultuous events that had shaped her, I didn’t know exactly how she would respond. So I am almost starting again, in some respects, mapping out those future echoes with a preciseness that was previously beyond my reach.

Much of the details will come out in the writing itself. I began a scene today which, when I let it, filled in the gaps for me. It’s slower work though: finding a character who is changed and yet consistent, a tone which is complementary and yet not just more of the same.

I’m trying hard not to get frustrated.

I can see that 24th May deadline that I set myself looming up fast over the horizon, and I suspect I might not meet it. I don’t even know right now whether ninety thousand words are going to be enough to tell the story I want to. There’s definitely going to be some serious editing when it comes to the next draft, but I suspect the raw material may spill over once I’ve found my flow again.

And ultimately, I have to remind myself what’s important. The deadline was only ever a cursory one, the word counts plucked out of the air to give me something to aim for. Part of me is impatient for the next stage. I want to see how all of these parts are going to fit together, how the story will weave its way between past and future. But I know I need to get the whole of the story down before I can do that.

So I will carry on, listening hard to the voice of this damaged and disillusioned woman at the dawn of the new millennium. After all there is nobody else that can tell me the rest of her story as well as Catherine herself.