Tag Archives: creativity

The wisdom of a child

I have been working on two pieces of writing this week. My December resolution seems to have done the job, and whilst I haven’t written every day I have relished that blissful state of being immersed in creative writing – though interestingly both pieces have their roots in fact.

One more solidly so: each year at around this time since Arthur was almost one I have written a book about the previous twelve months – lots of photos, and words that attempt to capture the essence of his adventures and how he has grown.

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The first was a chunky board book made by a company in the states. I couldn’t actually find anyone who would create a custom one off in the UK (business opportunity anyone?), so that was pretty expensive… The next two I made myself using blank board book templates. Totally achievable, especially with some sticky-backed printer paper, but more than a little time-consuming.

This year I really couldn’t face the logistics of actually putting the book together, and now that Arthur is old enough that chewing books isn’t generally in his repertoire I figured a standard paperback would be fine. So I went to Blurb, and used their very excellent software to put this year’s book together. It would have been almost entirely painless had I not left it until the last day for ordering to get it delivered in time…

I can’t wait to see it, and to read it with him. It’s interesting for me seeing how these books are developing year on year: there’s a lot of rhyme, and more so this year just because there’s more text in general. There’s also definitely more imagination creeping in, reflecting Arthur’s cognitive growth and understanding. I think as he gets older the foray into metaphors might be quite fun – and there will still be the base pleasure for him of a story that is based on his own experiences.

The second piece I’ve been writing this week is too, in a way. It was inspired by something Arthur said to me a little while ago – actually woke me up with, as in crept into my room and whispered it into my ear whilst I was still half-asleep. He said “I dreamt this house was the Millennium Falcon, and outside was the entire galaxy”.

Recalling that now I guess I could have taken the story it inspired into a whole intergalactic sci-fi direction, but in fact the world it brought to mind (particularly in the context of those sleepy mornings) was one where a mother and son were trapped, facing seemingly unsurmountable challenges together.

It has an aura of Room about it, but it’s actually closer to 28 Days Later – without the zombies. I really enjoyed the process of writing from a very intimate, domestic starting point and through my characters (who are not exactly me and Arthur) discovering a whole other backdrop to their existence that I had no clue about when I began.

I took the time to plan once I started to realise what was going on, though, so I think I know where things are headed now. One, or maybe two, more sessions and I should have a first draft done – and I’m quite excited about crafting this piece into something submittable.

It’s all been a wonderful reminder of how utterly inspiring hanging out with a little person all day really is. There is no doubt that it’s hard work, and sometimes I find myself wishing that I had more hours in the day that were not filled up with the mundanity of family life.

But it took having a child to finally empower me to realise my dream of becoming a writer: and when I take a moment to stop and reflect on just how magical that child is it is not hard to understand why.

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Lego love

The unschooling diaries: week forty-six

It feels like I’ve been writing about Arthur’s love of lego a lot recently, but it is such an important part of his life at the moment that it’s hard not to.

It’s actually been about six weeks since I first focused on his growing interest in lego in depth, and reading back over where he was then it is quite astonishing how much his play has developed. He has fully embraced his small lego now, and will spend literally hours building increasingly complex creations.

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In terms of our unschooling relationship, it’s a really important development: suddenly spaces have opened up in the rhythm of our day when I know Arthur is actively engaged in something he is passionate about and I can turn my attention elsewhere guilt-free. Occasionally I have to take him along with me to meetings, and now he actually has something to do – something that isn’t entirely reliant on the iPad.

Intermittently he will want to show me something he has created, and we talk through his ideas and how he’s brought them to life, and then he will bounce off to develop something else, new stories and whole worlds emanating from the plastic blocks.

He likes it when Leigh or I build with him too – and that as well is opening up a whole other angle on the parallel learning that is central to our aspirations for our unschooling journey. There is something about focusing on those little blocks that tunes out distractions and makes it easier just to be in the moment, together. Occasionally, especially when new lego finds its way into the mix, that togetherness is centred by the attempt to build something that follows instructions, but actually mainly we just use the jumble of pieces from all the different little kits to build the structures in our imaginations.

I think it’s kinda important that Arthur doesn’t feel overly bound to the rules, that he embraces the freedom to make what he wants rather than what he’s ‘supposed’ to. The other thing that’s I love about the way he plays is that he totally accepts the transience of his creations. There were a few hairy moments in the early days, when he would drop something he had made or press too heavily on a brick causing the whole thing to fall apart, and his world would fall apart too. Now, though, he will play with something he has made for a while before choosing to transform it into something else – and if he accidentally breaks it he is starting to see it as an opportunity rather than a disaster.

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He’s starting to articulate this process too. As well as his own advent calendar, he is enthusiastically sharing Daddy’s – a lego Star Wars one. I heard a squeal of delight when they opened yesterday’s window, and a few minutes later he came running in clutching a small TIE fighter. He was so pleased with it, but said unprompted “If it breaks I can make it again – or it can turn into something else!”.

This potential for open-ended play is one of the things I love most about lego, and which elevates it from everyday toy status to something approaching perfection. Coincidentally I came across an article yesterday which was claiming exactly that – celebrating the longevity of lego in the toy market and exploring the ways in which it has changed.

There was much about the author’s enthusiasm that I agreed wholeheartedly with, but her conclusions were not unreservedly positive – honing in on a particular family, she lamented the move towards the very specific kits that now dominate lego’s sales.

It’s a concern I had myself before I watched how Arthur played. Lego was a big deal in our house growing up – my brothers and I would while away whole days building together in the specially constructed playroom Dad had built to maximise the potential of those little bricks. But I don’t remember ever following instructions. I’m not even sure if there WERE any instructions – and there certainly was only a fraction of the variety of bricks that Arthur now has at his disposal.

I worried that by being exposed at such a young age to these complex kits, ones which enabled him to build Spiderman’s lair, or a scale model of a space shuttle, he would not be able to see beyond them to the infinite potential this toy held.

Somehow, though, in the space of a few short weeks, he has decided that whilst the official creations are cool, the things he can create by putting their very specific components to new use are way, way cooler.

And I can totally get on board with that.

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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…

Perfect pumpkins

The unschooling diaries: week forty-one

This is not a reflection on my amazing pumpkin-carving skills, but rather just a realisation of how the humble pumpkin makes a perfect vehicle for learning.

Our pumpkin journey began back in May, with three tiny plants from Rocket Gardens. Arthur helped me plant them, and over the weeks that followed we watered them and watched them grow.

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And grow.

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And grow!

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To be honest I had probably been a little ambitious with the amount of plants we tried to squeeze in to our raised beds, but the pumpkins soon made a break for freedom and found the space they needed by crawling across the deck.

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Arthur has been asking since August whether it is Halloween yet – he has been desperate to bring the pumpkins inside and carve them into lanterns. And this weekend we finally did.

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He was bursting with excitement as we cut the pumpkins open and scooped out the seeds and flesh from inside

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He had very clear ideas about what he wanted to create from his pumpkins: a ghost, a spooky dog, and an astronaut (we had to pilfer a squash from our veg box for the third one).

We looked online for images that fitted his vision, and then he guided me as I drew the outlines on the orange skin. We worked together to carve the shapes out, using Arthur’s ‘ghost knife’ that we’d picked up this time last year and a handy little saw.

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As soon as the lanterns took shape Arthur sought out candles to illuminate them, insisting that we took them somewhere dark immediately for a better view and staring full of wonder when night began to fall and he could watch the flames flicker at the kitchen table before we finally dragged him off to bed.

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This was only the start for the pumpkins, though.

Whilst Arthur and I had been carving their shells for Halloween lanterns, Leigh had been busy making pumpkin pie for Sunday lunch.

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And once the carving was done, we dried and roasted the pumpkin seeds for snacking on – a real treat in my nut-allergic world where every packet of commercially available seeds warns of possible cross contamination!

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There is even a portion of pumpkin puree left in the fridge, waiting to be cooked up into Halloween cupcakes this afternoon.

Honestly, who would have thought a simple vegetable could bring so much joy – and so much learning? I think we’ll all be sad to see the pumpkins go once this week is out. I’d best get thinking about what we can grow next…

What History of Art A-level meant to me

I have got used to shaking my head in disbelief when the government’s latest education initiatives are announced, but when I read this week that A-level History of Art had been removed from the options lists forever it hit me harder than I was expecting.

This is not the only subject to have been made a relic by the Tories after all – the full list of opportunities that are no longer available to our young people filled me with fury. But twenty-two years ago History of Art succeeded in saving the dying dregs of interest in academia from the apathy of my sixteen year old self – and it is no exaggeration to say that without it my life could have turned out very differently.

I moved from Birmingham to London for my sixth form studies. I didn’t want to at the time – nothing against London per se, but my mental health was fragile and I couldn’t see a way forwards without my small but trusted circle of friends by my side.

My academic record was strong, but the ‘A’ grades hid a complete lack of interest in my studies – and a complete lack of confidence in my self. I selected my next raft of subjects pretty randomly – A-levels in History, English and Biology, and AS level in French. I wasn’t much more inspired by these than any of the other, mainly traditional, offers on the table, but I figured I’d be able to see them through.

Then in my first week at my new school, and my very first lesson with my new French class, I mustered up the confidence to speak and was laughed at by the stranger who was my teacher because of my (admittedly pretty dodgy) French accent. I walked out of the lesson through a blur of tears, and after a brief conversation with the administrators switched to an A-level in History of Art – one of the few subjects still with space, and something that piqued my interest with its novelty.

It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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Our class was small – there were six of us I think, meaning that in today’s cash-strapped educational climate the course probably wouldn’t have run at all. I couldn’t be invisible in that room though – not like my other classes where I often slept behind a carefully placed hand propped on the desk.

I learnt so much more than was contained within the confines of the subject. I learnt how to plan an essay – techniques which I applied to great success in all of my A-level subjects and have used endlessly since as a student and as a teacher. I learnt how to revise, and how to organise my time. I learnt that it was ok to be interested in something that not many people saw the value of – and that in fact sometimes the most obtuse pursuits can bring the most personal reward.

The subject itself, it turned out, was so much more than I could have ever hoped for.

There was an interplay between art and science, which appealed to the way my brain works: I never have been very good at putting things in boxes. This was particularly true with our study of the history of architecture, with the exploration of classical forms bringing mathematical certainty into the sometimes nebulous analysis of artistic endeavours, and the ways generations of architects riffed around them giving me concrete examples of how creativity evolves.

Understanding how buildings and towns were designed made me think, too, about the way our society is structured – something which we also discussed animatedly when we looked at the work of artists who protested explicitly against the societies they worked within, comparing that in turn with those who played by the rules to fit into the canon. Generally I learnt loads about our culture, and that of other countries. We went on a group trip to Paris (where finally I got to work on that French accent) and wherever else I travelled then and since I found myself looking at the world through a new pair of eyes.

Beyond the studies, my personal self was developing too. I had found my first intellectual tribe – a very necessary counterpoint to my emerging new social group who whilst they would go on to include lifelong friends did not encourage the healthiest of pursuits.

Weekends of clubbing, house parties and festivals meant that (at least) the start of each week often passed in a blur – but I could not let myself let things slip entirely because I didn’t want to sacrifice the learning and the community that my History of Art lessons gave.

This motivation, and the skills I learnt as a result of it, carried me through to another surprisingly good set of grades, and from there on to university – to study History of Art, along with Philosophy.

My History of Art A-level taught me that I am on a fundamental level an intellectual, but that the intellectual study I enjoy is one firmly rooted in society. It taught me that I respect those who know when to play by the rules, and when to break them. It gave me the confidence to express my opinions about the world around me and the people who inhabit it: that even if my opinions are not the same as those shared by others my ability to explain them is more important than just fitting in.

I’m not saying that every teenager would respond the way I did to this particular subject, but I honestly think that the fact that it was not as ‘pure’ as the other subjects I was studying, not quite so epic in its scope, made it easier to delve deeper into it, to create links for myself rather than having to regurgitate the views which were expected of me. It gave me an outlet for my stifled creativity, and the confidence to think.

Studying History of Art gave me the skills to collaborate with a friend to put on art exhibitions, to develop my photography, to teach Media and Film. It enriched my analysis of literature, and ultimately gave me the confidence to put pen to paper myself and give voice to the stories in my head.

It makes me so sad that because besuited politicians in Westminster cannot see the value in this subject future generations of teenagers might not have the opportunity to ignite the spark that might propel them along an unexpected path.

Like so many of the educational reforms that make me angry, this reduction in options seems to be driven by a misplaced certainty in what our society needs. What we really want is the space to make that decision for ourselves.

 

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Building ideas

The unschooling diaries: week thirty-nine

Arthur is seriously into lego at the moment, and it is so awesome to watch him play.

He had been going through a bit of an in between phase with it all – his duplo was starting to feel a bit big and clumsy, but he didn’t quite have the fine motor skills to get to grips with the smaller lego bricks. He’d been bought a couple of kits as gifts, and loved the idea of the superhero worlds and vehicles he saw on the boxes. He couldn’t make them himself, but he watched enthusiastically whilst we did, and loved playing with the finished product.

I couldn’t help wonder what the point was though: lego was for creating, surely? Not just playing with things someone else had built…

And then suddenly things began to change.

It was sparked off as these things often are by a bit of a reorganisation of his toys. The drawers in his bedroom were full of things he’d grown bored of, so we decided to move the duplo up there. We grouped the bricks by colour, and suddenly they were much more inviting to play with.

The idea was that this might be a way to keep Arthur entertained in the mornings: he has a gro clock, which is set to the rather ambitious time of 7.30am to give me a chance to ease myself into the day. He’s generally pretty good at waiting till then to come and find me, but he’s often up a long time before, pottering and playing in his room. And his environment there really needed some enriching: we didn’t want to risk unsupervised play with the tiny grown-up lego pieces, particularly as Arthur often separates stubbornly tight ones with his teeth, but we thought this might just be a way to give the duplo a new lease of life.

And it’s really worked!

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As soon as he’s awake in the mornings Arthur turns on the light and goes to explore the drawers, sitting happily on his rug for an hour or more creating worlds to entertain himself. When the sun comes up on the gro clock he’s quick to come and find me, but when I peer into his room later in the morning the evidence of his play is clear to see.

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Last Sunday Leigh and I both went in to see what he’d been up to after breakfast, and Arthur delighted in talking us through his creations, from double-ended fire engines to a ‘sort of Snapping Banshank’, a curious creature that frequently reappears in his stories and drawings.

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The early-morning exploration has given him confidence to experiment more with the smaller lego, too. That is stored in a very handy playmat that doubles up as a bag, so can move easily around the house depending on where he wants to play.

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He’ll sit in the lounge whilst I’m preparing meals, or in my study whilst I write, and create robots and machines and lasers with the tiny pieces held carefully between determined fingertips.

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He is loving the freedom to create exactly what he wants with his bricks, big and small. He often comes back to weapons – guns and blasters, mainly. Leigh and I were nervous when this world of violence first entered his play. We’d done nothing to encourage it, and had actively avoided stories and films with that kind of imagery. Well, until Star Wars at least…

By that time to be fair he had already begun to fashion guns from sticks or even just his fingers, and in the spirit of respect and freedom we are trying to nurture through unschooling we held back our judgement and held our tongues. My research reassured me that not only was this desire to explore the world of violence through play entirely natural, it is arguably essential for his developing brain.

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And anyway, it might be that I was loading the guns he created with too much socially constructed significance anyway.

We’ve talked about why they make me feel uncomfortable, about the hurt and damage that they can cause, but that seems a bit irrelevant in the face of Arthur’s pride and delight at the creation of his colourful machines.

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Especially because they might not be what they seem at all.

He built a gun the other day, a complicated construction which to me looked a bit like a dragon.

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When I asked him about it he said:

“This is my idea gun. I actually made it out of ideas. It’s a gun that shoots ideas out, so you can make something.”

And I’m not going to argue with that.

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The waiting game

I’m in a bit of a quandary over where to take my writing at the moment.

Having decided to stick with pursuing the traditional route for now as far as publishing’s concerned, I have released my third manuscript into the ether for (hopefully) some useful feedback before another round of submissions.

And I guess to be honest if the feedback is not hopeful, then it will give me a mission in terms of either working on a redraft on my own or (and?) searching for other places to submit it.

But for now I am waiting – for the verdict on my latest novel, for the outcomes of a couple of competitions I’ve entered myself into – and it’s making me feel quite antsy.

(Here’s a beautiful picture of the seaside to induce some calm…)

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There is – obviously – plenty to fill my days with. Blogging for Connecta Baby Carrier, grant applications for my beloved local lido, continuing along the unschooling journey with Arthur. It’s not writing though – or at least not WRITING writing.

It’s times like this I feel very grateful for my own blog, and even more for the wonderful What I’m Writing community. It gives me focus, support and accountability without which I might not think twice about letting the WRITING writing slip.

But instead I have spent the last couple of days dwelling on a focus for my #whatimwriting post, and in the process have realised that I need to find a focus for my writing itself.

I thought it might be competitions, but it turns out that besides the Mslexia novel competition that I entered recently there’s very little out there for unpublished novelists. Which I suppose makes sense. I’ve found one other to have a go at – and admittedly haven’t got round to it yet – but that’s not going to be all that much of a step forwards.

Because what I really want to be doing is writing – writing something new. I don’t want to make a start on another novel. I don’t have a pressing idea anyway which makes that option highly unlikely – but I feel like I need to make some headway with the first three (or at least one of them) before I get caught up in another. So I am coming back, in stolen moments of potential creativity, to the idea of short stories.

It was supposed to be my project over the summer. But, you know: summer. It didn’t happen.

Now though? I reckon it might be time. And – exploiting that aforementioned accountability – I am determined to have at least the start of something by this time next week.

I cannot wait to get stuck in to writing something – something new!

 

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