Tag Archives: reading

Seeking inspiration

Having successfully got a lot of my antsiness out of my system last week, I have found myself since embracing the space left in my days by not currently having any writing or editing to work on. I still have milling around in the back of my brain the intention to write some short stories, but before I do I am going to enjoy gathering some inspiration.

I’d forgotten, actually, how pleasant this phase in the whole writing cycle can be.

Instead of focusing inwards on the worlds laying down roots inside my head it is a time to reach out, into the ‘real’ world and the imaginations of others, and build up my bank of ideas. It is a time to listen, and to breathe; to watch, and to consider. It is a time to learn, consciously and hungrily.

Autumn feels a particularly apt time to be doing this. It is as if I am gathering food for the winter ahead, squirrelling away supplies in my den whilst the ground is still soft enough to break through. I am looking forward, too, to the moment when I can light the fire and curl up in the darkness to nourish my creativity with the embers of my explorations, but I have no fixed intentions yet.

Lots of this preparation has involved reading. I’ve read two whole novels this week – more than I’ve managed in the past couple of months, embarrassingly!

The first is one I’ve been eagerly anticipating for months, Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith. It didn’t disappoint: I loved the dystopian premise that was woven through it, found the characters flawed to just the right degree and relished the startlingly accurate depictions of motherhood (even if the context itself was highly unconventional!) It is inspiring on so many levels to read a novel written by one of my blogging friends and to love it as much as I did, and it has made me curious to read more from Mother’s Milk Books, the independent publishers who put it out into the world.

The second novel was one I picked up at the airport in Boston in January and had never found the time to read. How to Start a Fire tells the story of three friends as they grow from college students into middle aged women, weaving a complex web of misdemeanours and mistakes along the way. I think I was initially drawn to it because of the promise of strong female characters: they were brilliantly drawn, and the fractured narrative was compelling. I appreciated too the sensitive exploration of mental health issues, something which I am discovering is a recurrent theme in my own writing.

There is also a non-fiction book that I’ve been dipping into, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which through its particular philosophies is giving me a new lens through which to look at life and the ways we make it mean something.

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Outside of books, I have found myself watching the world intently.

Generally I have been tuning into other peoples’ conversations far more than I probably should, guiltily seeking treasure like a magpie that I can take back and hide away in my nest.

I was moved almost to tears by a family I observed on a bus the other day, and found myself scribbling down their narrative – what I’d seen and what I imagined was behind it – at the earliest opportunity.

The experience reminded me of a blog post that has been ringing in my ears since I read it, a scathing analysis of modern Britain by the brilliant Cash Carraway. I have often found myself paralysed by anxiety in recent months fuelled by a complete disbelief at the mess our society seems to be descending into, but this post reminded me that I could use that anxiety, and the anger that inevitably follows.

I’m still not sure how yet, or in fact where any of this will take me. But for now I am savouring the time I have until, from the spoils of all my scavenging, inspiration strikes.

 

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Emerging literacy

The unschooling diaries: weeks thirty-two and thirty-three

Arthur hasn’t been exposed to anything yet that might constitute formal literacy teaching. And that’s totally as it should be in my opinion – he is after all not yet four, and both my instincts and my research tell me that he is far too young for his ever-expanding conception of his world to be constrained by the often clumsy rules of language we inflict upon it.

There are though still times when my conviction wavers: when I see children his age and younger already trained to write shaky letters and even words, or hear others confidently identify the majority of the alphabet.

I know that he will master these things when he’s ready, that in the meantime his overflowing imagination and fascination with the universe is more than enough to both demonstrate and drive his learning. But I have wondered whether there is more I could be doing to help him along.

Except actually, in the past few weeks, he’s been helping himself.

It started with Alphabites, milk-drenched letters held up from his breakfast bowl as he asked me what they were. We named them, and explored their sounds – finding different words he could apply them to.

Then there is ‘I Spy’. We’ve actually sort of played it for months, but recently he’s really started to get it. We’ll use the sound of letters rather than naming them, and it’s a brilliant way to pass the time on long journeys or when we’re out and about.

He’s started expressing an interest in the phonics apps on his iPad too, carefully tracing letters to win fireflies.

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Through his app, and through various ‘ABC’ books we have floating around, we’ve begun to explore the notion of capitals and lower case. He wouldn’t believe me at first, that ‘a’ was actually ‘A’. But he’s starting to get it, and we’ve had interesting discussions about the ways that the different versions of each letter are similar and different.

Of course alongside this the most important influence on his emerging literacy is reading. We love to read together, and we are never far from a book when we’re at home. He picked one of Leigh’s up last week and said he wanted to be able to read it – not to have it read to him, but to read it on his own. So we talked about the process that might get him there, how all the games and activities he was exploring would help him break the code, but that there really was no rush.

And actually reading is about way more than decoding anyway, and he’s learning all the stuff that goes around that without us even trying.

On a rainy day at the weekend, stuck in the campervan to escape the relentless drizzle, his friend picked up one of Arthur’s Star Wars books (a current fave), and Arthur offered to read it to him. They sat side by side as Arthur told him the story from a combination of memory  and interpreting the images. His friend asked him questions about characters and plot, and Arthur answered. It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

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It’s good to reflect on how much of this more ‘formal’ learning Arthur is managing to discover for himself, and I am way more excited about him finding his own path to reading through fascination and wonder than about navigating the thorny and often irrational world of synthetic phonics to force him there before he’s ready.

Forcing learning is after all a bit of an oxymoron, and I have no doubt that there is way more going on beneath the surface than I will ever really know.

This is literacy

There were all sorts of things that wound me up about the government’s response to yesterday’s kids’ strike, but by the end of the day the number one accusation I was reeling about was that the tens of thousands of parents and teachers who supported the strike did so because they do not have high enough expectations of children’s literacy.

There are many things I may have fallen short of as a teacher and a parent, but having high expectations most definitely isn’t one of them. It is just that, like many others, I seriously doubt the validity of the narrow interpretation of literacy that success in the SATs exams hinges upon – and fear for our children’s sanity when they are expected to be able to absorb and regurgitate complex grammar knowledge that stumps everyone from masters graduates to the very Schools minister who champions this rigorous approach to assessment.

I am not convinced, actually, that Nick Gibb knows much about the content of the tests he reveres. In press statements yesterday he talked about the importance of basic comprehension and the use of capital letters. It made the people opposing the tests look pretty stupid – and fuelled the hundred of trolls who engulfed social media to pour scorn on the intentions of parents who pulled their children out of school. The fact is, though, that we’re not just talking about learning basic literacy here: we’re talking about learning (by rote) huge swathes of linguistic terminology. There are many people who have written about this more expertly than I have – I especially like Michael Rosen’s blog for no nonsense critique of literacy in schools. What I want to highlight here though is not only that what primary school children are being expected to learn (and be summatively tested on) is excessive and in many case irrelevant, it is on the most basic level the opposite of what literacy really is.

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The simplest definition of literacy is being able to read and write. As an English teacher, and then a parent, and now a writer, these are both skills that I believe of course to be essential: being a confident reader and writer opens a door to a whole other world of learning and communication. But is being able to confidently label fronted adverbials and subordinating conjunctions really a central part of literacy, or even any part of it, for ten year old children? I think not.

Nicky Morgan says that the new tough regime of SATs exams will help increase the numbers of young people achieving the top grades at GCSE, but if it extinguishes the curiosity that drives the desire to learn then there’s no way it will do that. She insists that the knowledge that the SATs examines will, once children have mastered it, allow them to be more creative. But in saying this she is completely ignoring the much-researched developmental window before the age of seven which has inspired play-based curricula worldwide – and leads to many successful education systems holding off from any formal education for children before that age.

The government accuses us of dumbing down, but I would argue that what they are doing is dumbing down our children: producing a factory line of automatons who have missed out on the opportunity to fully develop their own personalities or a sense of who they are as members of our society.

My concept of literacy is considerably more ambitious. My desire to truly understand how children become confident readers and writers has been rekindled by watching my three year old son learn and grow, and that is what is at the root of my fear of what the SATs, and the pedagogy that is seeping out from them, is doing to our children.

My son is a reader. He tells me the story of pictures in the books we share, interpreting the images themselves and augmenting that with his imagination and his memory of the words being read aloud. He seeks out letters in the world around us – not yet being able to differentiate between more than a handful, but knowing that letters make words and that words label things and concepts. I am confident that, as we continue to make books and stories an integral part of our lives, he will make the transition to reading independently. He will begin to use the multitude of cues available to us as readers to make his own sense of the written word – and he will want to, because he already knows what treasures there are to be found within the pages of his books.

As an aside, I have to admit I really don’t understand the government’s obsession with synthetic phonics when it comes to teaching children to read. Some degree of phonics, sure. But to strip back the process of reading to solely decoding? To insult children’s intelligence by making them read ‘nonsense’ words just for the sake of catching them out? That doesn’t make sense to me . But I guess it’s easier to test than a system that recognises the real nuances that underpin the process of becoming a confident reader.

My son is also a writer. Don’t get me wrong – he can’t actually form letters yet. In fact he shows very little interest in concentrating on the fine motor skills that will eventually lead to him writing down the thoughts that are in his head. But what thoughts he has! He picks up new vocabulary like a sponge, knows exactly how to use words to achieve particular effects, mirrors the complex sentences he hears and reshuffles them for himself to suit his purpose. He tells stories to his teddies and his trains, comes up with brilliant if unlikely explanations for particular juxtapositions of objects in his play, and is developing a very strong line in persuasive reasoning. When he is ready to put pen to paper I have no doubt that these skills and knowledge will underpin his actual writing, but he already demonstrates the aptitude that I admire in any writer who has mastered their craft.

I know my son is not unique. He is doing exactly what every three year old instinctively does – experimenting with language and relating it to the world around him. But I worry about what will happen if he is asked to put all of those thoughts and ideas into nice tidy boxes for the sake of standardised assessment.

I worry for him, and I worry for all of our children.

This worry has not come about because my expectations are low. I have the highest expectation of young people, one that will empower them and motivate them whilst they are at school and throughout their lives: I expect them to want to learn. If they want to learn, if they want to achieve, if they are inspired, they will use that as a drive to overcome whatever obstacles are in their way – including those basic reading and writing skills. Hell, one day they might even be driven by the desire to be able to confidently identify those subordinating conjunctions and fronted adverbials. But if they aren’t? I think they’ll be ok.

I am not sure though that our kids will be ok if this government is allowed to plough on unchecked with its imposition of an increasingly restrictive straightjacket on literacy and learning. And it is our responsibility to stand up for them.

May 3rd 2016 was a momentous day, and it was incredible to see the impact that parents can have on the dialogue surrounding education in this country. We cannot stop now though: parents and teachers need to draw strength from this groundswell of passion and purpose. There is still so much work to be done.

 

 

Writing Bubble

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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Library love

The unschooling diaries: week six

I used to visit the library all the time as a kid. I loved to read, and it was the perfect way to feed my insatiable appetite for books. My mum tells me that she used to take me and my three brothers every week: we’d each choose our books, and when we got home I’d power through my selection before hoovering up everyone else’s.

I’ve never stopped loving books, but somewhere over the years my enthusiasm for the library (at least as a source of stories) faltered. I’m pretty sure it had something to do with all the fines I managed to amass as a teenager…

And then libraries began to fulfil a different need as I began to study. I savoured the quiet and calm they offered in the midst of my frenetic student life, but I would use them to sit and pore through piles of reference books instead. Before Arthur came along it had been many, many years since I had given the fiction section more than a passing glance. And it has taken us until very recently to begin to see its full potential.

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We signed Arthur up to the library when he was tiny of course, and enjoyed several sessions of ‘rhythm and rhyme’ until somehow other things started to take over. There were so many other activities to go to, playdates to be had – and that’s all before the irresistible pull of the beach come rain or shine. He’s always loved books, but there have always seemed to be plenty at home.

Except when I started to think seriously about unschooling the library started to take on a whole new significance. What better place to let Arthur loose on the captivating potential for human learning? A place where he was not restricted by prior choices I’d made on his behalf and could truly follow his instincts to find the things he was interested in and wanted to learn more about.

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On our first visit a couple of weeks ago that meant mainly playing with puzzles and looking at the globe whilst I picked out a few books I thought he might like to read at home.

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But this week was different. To start with the trip was initiated by him – he’d been flicking through a ‘Thomas and Friends’ magazine we’d picked up and come across an advert for ‘Bob the Builder’. He’s never actually watched or read anything about the eponymous handy man, but still somehow he was on his radar, and he wanted more. I said maybe we could go and see what we could find at the library, and his eyes lit up with enthusiasm.

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He gravitated straight for the board books when we arrived, finding one all about construction which he began to read to himself. We then went together to the longer picture books and found a brilliant book about demolition. The new concepts and vocabulary he learnt has influenced his play all week, and talks are now afoot with his dad about building a crane…

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We chose some other books together too, read one on the sofa in the library and took the rest home. Not only has he enjoyed the ones we picked out, but he’s also found a renewed enthusiasm for reading his own collection. It’s made bedtime a bit more of a protracted process, but I reckon on the whole it can only be a good thing.

 

On joy and freedom and making links

The unschooling diaries: week three

This past week has been super busy, with precious little time for stopping to reflect. Before I miss the window completely, though, here are three little moments that have stuck in my mind.

First up, there was Arthur’s unbridled joy and wonder at discovering the book ‘Mog and the Baby’.

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He’s been listening to the story for the past few weeks: for his birthday we bought him an MP3 music player to feed his growing enjoyment of listening to stories. Almost every time he settled down to listen he would request ‘Mog and the Baby’. The way it works it would then scroll through the other Mog stories we’d saved for him, but he kept coming back to that one.

We’d intended these audiobooks to supplement our enjoyment of reading together rather than replace it, but I’d become increasingly aware that Leigh and I were reading to him less and less. So this week we’ve both made an effort to make physical books available whenever we can – not to force Arthur into engaging with them, but just to remind him that they exist. And he’s loved it.

More than anything, though, he loved discovering the book of the story he’s been listening to so often – seeing the pictures bring the characters to life, and sharing his favourite moments with me and his dad.

The second thing that sticks in my mind from this past week was a moment of learning for me more than Arthur.

I’d had a pang of doubt, fuelled as usual by comparing us to others, when I realised that Arthur had shown no interest at all in figurative drawing. He’d gone through the motions of copying lines and circles for his two year developmental check, but since then has not shown much interest in drawing beyond scribbles and swirls of paint – and we haven’t pushed it.

I’d found myself wondering whether we shouldn’t in fact be encouraging him to draw in a more structured way, accelerating his progress towards that fine motor control that will of course be so important for when he comes to write!

But then I checked myself. I read some more about unschooling, and the Montessori methods I find myself gravitating towards. And I remembered that of course there is no rush to begin to constrain his explorations into more easily recognisable forms. So instead I waited, and watched.

And then one day whilst I was preparing lunch I noticed Arthur rooting around by his easel, looking for something to paint with. Together we chose some colours, and I left him to it whilst I got on with making lunch. I glanced over from time to time, and freed from any concerns about whether he was drawing people or things that we could label, marvelled instead at the care he was taking about each seemingly abstract line and curve. I watched as he picked out his colours, stepped back from time to time to make decisions about where to go next, and waited until he had decided he was done before we sat down together for lunch.

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He was so proud of his painting, and so was I. And I’m definitely not in any rush to put any constraints on his creative freedom any time soon – I have a feeling he’ll be able to come up with way more interesting ideas all by himself.

And on the topic of interesting ideas comes moment number three. We were having a chat in the car on Friday, and Arthur started telling me about how astronauts carry their air on their backs so they can breathe (something we’ve talked about before). Then he told me that divers were just like astronauts. I asked him why, trying to work out the connection, and he explained that they have to carry their air on their backs too. He’s been becoming increasingly interested in both space travel and underwater exploration, fuelled by inspiration from all sorts of stories, but it was fascinating to see him drawing links between them and getting to the core of understanding some of the processes behind them.

I’m curious to see where these interests will lead us in the next few weeks – it’s definitely uncharted territory for me, on all sorts of levels.

 

Setting the tone

I came across an article this week which really resonated with where I am right now with the novel. It was outlining Zadie Smith’s perception of the two kinds of writers, quoting from a lecture she delivered in 2008. Aside from making me realise that I really should read more of what writers I admire have to say about what it is we do, it got me thinking about the thorny issue of tone.

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I’ve really struggled with the tone of this novel. I’ve known the main characters pretty intimately since they first appeared in my mind, and the plot – though it evolved in the writing of it as they so often do – has remained basically the same since my earliest outlines. I thought I knew what the novel was about too – on a big, important, thematic level – but that has all changed recently. And as it has I’ve started to see the cracks in my manuscript that had somehow remained invisible up until now.

According to Smith’s ideas, I am pretty solidly a Macro Planner. Not entirely – I can’t quite conceive of starting to write anywhere but at the beginning, can’t imagine flitting around my plan and shifting the structure as many writers apparently do. But I do need a roadmap of sorts – I couldn’t plunge into writing without a fairly detailed plan. At least I don’t think I could.

But there were elements of Smith’s description of her process as a Micro Manager which really appealed to me – not least her assertion that when she finished writing a novel she was actually finished, with redrafts being unnecessary. For her, everything begins with setting the tone – making the first twenty pages a crucial and lengthy process:

“Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters — all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows.”

This is pretty much the opposite of where I’m at right now. Four drafts in, I have a structure, plot, characters – but the tone which seemed to come so naturally on first writing (so much so that I didn’t really think about it at the time) suddenly doesn’t quite fit.

I think perhaps part of the problem is that I’m only now really beginning to understand what tone is. That might be a bit of a bold admission for an experienced English teacher to make, but for all of my ability to recognise tone, to use it effectively, to explain it through examples, I’m not sure I really got what it is all about. Now though the definition, borrowed here from Wikipedia, suddenly seems to make a whole lot more sense.

“Tone … shows the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work.”

It is here, I realise now, that everything starts to come together. My attitude to the subject (my characters, the story I’m trying to tell) meets my attitude to the reader (where I’m positioning myself in relation to them, the genre in which my novel sits). As I type this it seems far too obvious for me even to need to say it at all, but then it is sometimes the simplest lessons that are the most powerful.

So I will hold those things in my head as I make my way once more through my manuscript, creeping forwards through the words and sentences and paragraphs whilst darting back from time to time to tweak details that no longer fit. There are a lot of words to get through, but I believe it will be worth it.

And what of my initial approach, of the type of writer I am? Could I have avoided this quandary by micro managing, by manipulating the tone in the creation of those first twenty pages until everything else fell into place? I’m not sure, to be honest. So much of Grace’s story only became clear when I could see it from the outside – and actually crucial elements of her character were only revealed to me once I had taken her through her journey.

I guess like everything there is no black and white: whilst the two approaches Smith describes seem on one level to be mutually exclusive I suspect that most writers embrace elements of both.

As for me, I think I’m still working out what type of writer I am.

And I think that that’s ok.

 

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