Teaching Uncertainty

So here we are, fresh into the new semester at BSU, and this week my students have made me think about the role of uncertainty for teachers in the classroom.  This all started in the module Teaching Writing where I’m teaching students how to teach, a class that can become so self-referential I keep expecting to meet myself at the whiteboard.  We were discussing an academic article by Lee S. Shulman called quite pithily Signature Pedagogies in the Professions which received mixed reviews from the students, but one aspect that created an interesting discussion in one of the classes was how feelings of vulnerability and insecurity can affect not just students, but teachers too.

Uncertainty is something every teacher has to deal with, whatever their level of experience.  Students are peskily unpredictable creatures.  You never know what they are going to say or do, and sometimes you just can’t get them to follow the lesson plan you’ve spent a few coffee-fuelled hours preparing.

One thing I like about delivering a lecture is the feeling of complete control.  Yes, I have a scary sea of faces staring at me expectantly, but I have my material prepared, my Prezi all lined up (if you haven’t used/experienced Prezi before, get with the program people), and I also know that I know my stuff.  These are the security blankets that make that sea of faces a little less daunting, and these are the things that appeal to my inner control freak.

Seminars, however, are a different matter.  I want the teaching to be student-centred, drawing on their experiences and opinions to debate and discuss, and this is where the uncertainty comes in.  You just never know what direction they will take you, and as the teacher you may be responding to points you are uncertain about yourself, and sometimes the discussion goes so off-track that you may as well throw that coffee-stained lesson plan in the bin.

This is exactly what happened in one particular class.  Normally I would be thinking fast, covering my growing panic and putting diversionary tactics in place to get back on message.  But this class was different.  In Teaching Writing I’m not just covering teaching pedagogy and analysing the theory, I also need them to see what teaching is like in real life too.  So instead of covering up the fact that everything was going horribly wrong, I drew attention to it, told the students my thought process, how I should have steered that conversation better, and how I now needed to change the next exercise because the one I  planned didn’t really fit with the discussion we’d just had.  Hopefully, I managed to turn a potential car-crash of a lesson into a demonstration of one of the pitfalls of real teaching practice.

As you can imagine, teaching how to teach ramps up uncertainty to a whole new level.  Recognising your mistakes, being flexible and adapting your lesson in response to the students is good teaching practice, and in this class I have to be transparent too.  I can’t be a control freak about it.  I can’t hide the messy, unpredictable, imperfect side of teaching or the students won’t gain a well-rounded knowledge of what the role requires.  So I just have to let it happen.

I’m sure I’ve blogged the following quote before, but it’s so relevant here I’m happy images-2to repeat myself.  It’s from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, She says perfectionism is ‘based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die… people who aren’t even looking at their feet are doing a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.  Stop looking at your feet.’

I’m sure I will continue to be a control freak in my other classes, forever in pursuit of The Perfect Lesson, but in the Teaching Writing module, I’ll be trying hard to stop looking at my feet.

The Power to Change

Writing has helped me through many dark times, and so it does again now.  I do write this with trepidation though, not because of what I want to say, but because I’m unsure how to say it in the most appropriate way.  Just words on the screen, I tell myself, but it’s more than that, isn’t it?  Words add themselves together until they mean something, and meaning has the power to heal as well as hurt.  Knowing this means that I don’t write this post lightly.

I haven’t written anything in nearly a month because a tragic event put everything on hold, personally and professionally.   The most important people in that time (and still now) are my family, but just today, in this moment, the emotions are a little less raw so I’m starting to reflect in a more personal way.

Over the past few years I’ve gone through several life changing events, and as a writer this often comes with conflicting emotions.  On the one hand there is a needle prodding my brain telling me I’m using myself and other people as material, I’m feeding on their pain or the events in their lives for something as frivolous as making up stories.  This needle is crippling and destructive, bringing with it guilt and deeply unattractive defensiveness, and it’s invasive enough to stop the creative process at the first hurdle.

But the other feeling is actually to do with understanding myself.  My true self.  I’ve come to recognise that I am a writer because it is my way of making sense of what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking, as well as what the people around me are experiencing.  Making up stories is a way of exploring lives, not just the good things that happen to people, but the tragedies too, and in this way I can understand why or how something can happen, and I hope that my readers can too.

This recognition is what moves reading stories from a frivolous activity to something that has the power to change opinion, heal a wound or give strength in dark times.  It’s why people are compelled to write, whether they are published or unpublished, and it is why people read novels or watch TV drama or listen to radio plays.  In understanding another person’s experience, maybe we can come to understand our own.

I still need to take the time to reflect and think through what has happened, and it will be a long and difficult process.  Throughout I will have to tell myself not to be afraid, that my writing will be effected by what has happened and this is okay, because only then can I write in a meaningful way, creating characters and stories that can make a difference, even if it’s just in a small way.

I hope to be back to posting more regularly now, but for anyone who has lost someone they love, I recommend A Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, who asks ‘Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?’.

The New Publishing Dynamic

What on earth is going on in publishing at the moment?

Yes, I know, it’s a question that has no answer so why even bother asking the question, but seriously, what on earth is going on in publishing at the moment?

A-Naked-SingularityThe industry is undoubtedly in a state of flux, with the rise and rise of ebooks and the ability of authors to publish themselves in a variety of forms and media, making traditional publishing look like an old man stuck in a rocking chair.  But my bafflement was increased last week when I read an article by Robert Collins in The Sunday Times about the next great novel on the block, A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava.

This is a novel that nobody wanted.  De La Pava spent three years sending it out to agents and he either got a straight no or they didn’t even bother replying.  So he self-published in 2008, expecting it to languish in obscurity as many self-published books do, but through the tenacity of his wife sending out copies to the community of on-line reviewers, the book’s profile began to creep up.  One reviewer compared it to Moby Dick, another to Crime and Punishment.  Of course the mainstream publishers can spot a ready-made buck when they see it, so it was finally picked up by Chicago University Press and Quercus, and has now won the PEN prize for a debut novel.  Collins himself writes that it is ‘remarkable’ and ‘unputdownable’.  High praise indeed.

There have always been stories about the problems of getting published, how difficult it is for agents/publishers to spot a really great book, and how even then all the elements have to be perfect with the stars aligned and the perfect combination of cappuccinos and muffins at the acquisition meeting for them to actually say yes.  But it seems to me something else is happening here.  With the option of every author to self-publish this has enabled publishers to absolve themselves of actually having contact with new writers until they have created their own success.  Self-publishing has become the new slush-pile, and all the hard work has been done for them.  The reviews are available to read on-line, the readership is already established, the author’s name can easily be Googled for more information on his/her writing and his/her life.

At the moment, I don’t think anyone knows what this means for books, writers, readers and the publishing industry.  There will inevitably be problems along the way, but as I’m ever the optomist I’m hoping this new dynamic will become a revolution in the variety and depth of literature available, a levelling of the playing field for writers, and it may even make the industry less conservative.  As I said, I am ever the optimist.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear.  All writers need to go out and get themselves a diligent wife, someone to cook the meals while the great masterpiece is being created, and then send it out to the reviewers when the hard work is done.  I’ve started looking for mine already…

A Satnav For Life

The last few months I’ve found myself wishing for some kind of device that will tell me the right path to take, some sort of satnav for life, if you like.

The maze of decision-making.
The maze of decision-making.

Whatever you want to do career-wise there will be decisions to make, moments where the path ahead forks with no way of knowing which one to take, and being a writer is no different.  Sometimes these decisions are small and inconsequential, such as which competition to enter, should you really edit that story after a glass of wine, or how will your character react to her husband’s infidelity?  But there are others you just know are the game changers, the gut-wrenching heart in your mouth while you plunge into the darkness decisions, like can you afford to give up work for a year to concentrate on your writing, should you write that steam-punk sci-fi gangster novel that’s been bothering you for months, or should you go with an agent/publisher or self-publish and become an independent writer?

If you take the self-publishing route the decision-making seems to be constant, often without the necessary knowledge or experience.  At each stage of the process the ramifications of a bad choice is all the more scary because if it goes wrong you only have yourself to blame.  I had all this going on in the back of my mind when I started working with The Illustrator on my book cover.  We developed ideas together, with several drafts before we settled on what the final image would look like.  There were various problems growing along the way, but I’d already started on this path and I was hopeful that we just needed to keep going and things would come right.  But then the whole process faltered and I found myself having to make the decision — keep on this path even though I can see it’s probably not best for the book, or go back, admit defeat and start on a new path?

I make it sound easy, summing up the situation in one paragraph, but it was tough even getting to the point where I acknowledged a decision had to be made.  I also had to face the fact that my expectations were too high, I’d done the wrong thing and most crucially I’d wasted time.  Where was my inner satnav when I needed it?

In the end I called a halt, turned around and trudged back to the starting point, feeling despondent and defeated.  But then I made a few new contacts and had a tentative conversation with a graphic designer.  I love what I’ve seen on her website and started to feel excited about how she would interpret the story.  I realised I’d already started on a new path, my inner satnav rerouting me without me knowing it.

I still feel the loss of that time, and my relationship with The Designer is at an early stage.  I won’t know if this is the right path until I’ve travelled along it for a while, sussed out the scenery, got the vibe of this new journey, and I’m trying to look at my mistakes in a positive way.  Steve Jobs once said, ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.  So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.  You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever…’  And I suppose the way we connect up the dots is by making mistakes, taking time to reflect and then learning from them.  Apple have not (yet) created a device that will tell us the right thing to do, so we just have to have faith and if it feels right in our gut, just do it anyway.

The Genius of Voice

Have you ever read a book where not very much happens, there isn’t any particular narrative drive or mystery or puzzle to be solved, but regardless you still find yourself desperate to know what’s going to happen next?  This often results in trying to explain the wonders of the book to a fellow reader, but whatever you say sounds a bit dull because not very much happens and there’s no mystery or puzzle to be solved so you have to say, you’ll just have to trust me, it’s good.

imagesThis is where I find myself with The Genius of Little Things, by Larry Buhl.  The good thing about the lack of plot means I can summarise in a sentence.  Geeky orphaned teenage boy with obsessive behaviour does whatever it takes to get into the college of his choice, while trying to emancipate himself from his foster parents.  That’s it, in a nutshell.  Of course things happen, he gets a job in a care home, has to take a cocktail of prescription drugs to stay awake or go to sleep, and has a faltering romance with the lovely Rachel.  But none of this is what kept me reading.

The key to this novel is the voice of the main character, Tyler.  He is one of those rare narrators that has a slightly different view of the world, and manages to convey an array of neuroses with an entertaining turn of phrase and a naivety that sometimes had me shouting at him as though he was right there beside me (think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory but more endearing).

Here’s an extract, a scene with Tyler and his foster mother (or FoMo to use Tyler terminology):

“How was the first day of school?”  I noticed Janet and Carl often asked the same questions separately.  I wished they would be in the same room at the same time so I could avoid redundancy.  I stopped next to an enormous Indonesian cabinet and told her nothing terrible had happened.
She laughed.  “No bombs went off?”
I assured her no bombs had exploded.  I didn’t know what was funny about bombs.  I wondered whether there had been bomb threats at Firebird High in the past.  I made a mental note to research that.
She started talking about her day.  After a minute, it still wasn’t clear what her job was.  I narrowed it down to something sales-related.  My small talk session with Carl hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped, so I tried to be more proactive in chitchatting with Janet.  “The bees are still dying,” I said.
I explained colony collapse syndrome, in which honeybees were leaving their hives and dying by the billions.  The latest research showed that the die-off could be caused by anything from an undiscovered fungus to cell phone signals that mess up their internal radar.  I segued into an explanation of why bees were so important.  For the record, they pollinate a huge variety of crops.  Take away the bees and you take away up to one third of the human diet, from almonds to zucchini.
“Guess we’ll have to live on granola bars pretty soon,” she laughed.
I was silent.  I could have pointed out that some granola bars have almonds, but chose not to.

It is this voice as well as Tyler’s thoughts on life and the people around him that for me is what drives the story forward.  There is something reassuring as well as exhilarating for a reader when you believe in someone so much that it doesn’t matter what they do or where they go, you will follow them anywhere.

images-2images-1Other compelling first person narrators that stand out to me are Rose and Ruby Darlen in The Girls, by Lori Lansens, and Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith.  What is common in all of these books is the off-kilter way the main characters view the world around them and the way they express themselves.  They think differently to me, and this helps me to view the world and my place within it in a different way too.  The ability to change a reader’s perceptions is a powerful one, and goes a long way to explain why stories and novels will exist for as long as we do.

So for anyone interested in character-driven stories with a quirky and original voice, give The Genius of Little Things a try.  You’ll just have to trust me, it’s good.

How to Live a Writer’s Life

Now, I realise the title of this post is a bold statement because let’s face it, finding the best way to live a writer’s life is the Holy Grail of all writerly quests.  It’s one of the reasons I started writing this blog in fact, after having no end of sleepless nights trying to juggle teaching and still be a productive practitioner.  My feeling was, and still can be to a certain extent, that I’m not giving full commitment to either, and therefore I’m failing at both.

Anthony Burgess composing and smoking after stacking the chairs.  A true multi-tasker.
Anthony Burgess composing and smoking after stacking the chairs. A true multi-tasker.

But in order to look at this issue with some kind of perspective, it helps to step back for a moment and look at the lives of others.  At the MIX Conference a couple of weeks ago, Sophie Rochester talked about the writing life of Dostoyevsky, scraping a living doing a variety of jobs to support his writing, and often having to self-publish to get his work into the public domain.  Throughout history the story is the same.  Anthony Burgess, as well as being a genius with words was also a teacher and a composer of music.  TS Eliot worked in a bank, Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor, Dickens was a journalist, and most intriguingly JD Salinger organised entertainment for a cruise liner (now that’s an evening out I’d like to experience).

This list is just a snapshot, and not just that but a snapshot of a narrow and privileged band of writers that made it into the big time.  And they still struggled to make a living by their writing.  So if these writers have to juggle, compromise and scrape by, what about all those other writers, mid-list, low-list, self-published and just plain hopeful?

The main thing I take from this knowledge is that even though I’m constantly juggling, sometimes well and sometime really not, it doesn’t mean I’m failing.  There are times when I feel despair that I don’t have enough time to write, that my work isn’t good enough, that I’m not helping my students in the right way, and this doesn’t even broach the tricky business of being a mother too.  But a writer’s life isn’t just about sitting in a room and tapping away on a laptop.  It is about being human too and this means living a full life, feeling the determination when faced with adversity and doubt, using the elation of every small success to push you forwards, being a part of other people’s lives, and knowing that ultimately, this is what will make you a better writer in the future.

Oscar Wilde famously said ‘Those who can do.  Those who can’t teach‘, but Joanna’s presentation and my own experience confirm what I’ve suspected for a while now, that for writers around the globe, those who can do, and those who still can’t make a living from it teach, as well as finding a whole host of other ways to just keep bloody writing.

Listen… Can You Hear The Stories?


As anyone who read last week’s post will know I have recently come back from three days at the MIX Conference, run by The Literary Platform and Bath Spa University and showcasing projects that combine writing and digital technology. I’m still in recovery and need some kind of post-conference rehab program to integrate me back into society, but while I’m battling through the re-adjustment process I’ll tell you about the final day.

This was the Making Day, an opportunity to do a hands-on workshop with experts in their field.  I joined The Object of the Story, run by Barney and Lucy Heywood of the Stand + Stare Collective who are based in Bristol.  The purpose of the workshop was to create and record a story using objects as inspiration.  This recording would then be attached to the objects using RFID technology (Radio Frequency Identification Device), as though the things themselves were telling their own history.  My love of radio drama came into play here, although I had to work through the fear of recording my own voice, an uncomfortable exercise for most people I think.

My partner in this workshop was Michelle Newell (visit her fascinating blog where she writes about Mass Observation) and we bonded over writing for teenagers, turning up too early for festivals and buying second hand goods on market stalls.  We started by prayer_candlechoosing from a collection of objects.  Michelle decided on an antique compass, and I chose a candle in a glass jar with a prayer printed on the back.  I’m not a religious person, but something about the words appealed to me and the idea that someone in need would be grateful for a ready-made prayer.  I also like the duality of candles.  They are functional objects but also have the ability to transform feeling, within a person and a room.

We had just over an hour to write and record the story, and being YA writers we both liked the idea of a dystopian scenario, using dramatisation to show the characters’ situation.  The compass and candle fitted with the idea of two strangers flung together by circumstance, hoping to find the right path despite their differing personalities.  We took a character each and quickly developed a script, thinking about how we could show the story with only dialogue and sound effects.

Recording is a strange process.  Your senses suddenly focus on the slightest sound, the noise your body makes as you move, the sound of placing the candle on the table, the acoustics in the room, the disintegration of the whole process when you fall into a fit of the giggles.  But finally, and in a remarkably short period of time, we had a couple of minutes Unknownof audio drama, and when each object was placed on a wooden plinth, that section of the story was played.  We only had time for a couple of takes and there was very little editing, but if you can tolerate my dodgy acting and sticky shoes (it was a very hot day) you can listen here for the candle, and here for the compass.

There were many fascinating stories created in this workshop with some genuinely compelling voices, and it reminded me how multi-faceted objects can be as a starting point.  Whether it’s a personal memento you carry with you every day or an impulse buy from a market stall, there is something about a concrete thing with scuffs and scratches, marks and dents, that can trigger unconscious connections in the brain.  It may trigger a memory, it may remind you of someone important in your life, it may be a relatively random association, but whatever connections you make the most mundane things can become full of possibilities.

So stop for a moment.  Look at the objects that surround you.  Some will already have your stories attached to them and some will have the stories of other people layered beneath your own.  Either way they are all there, waiting to be heard.

The Nature of Art and Words

What do you do when you’ve been working hard on a project and it feels like you’ve run out of words?  Do you persevere, force the words out from their dark hiding places however unformed and jumbled they seem to be, or is there another solution that doesn’t involve stick-your-fingers-in-your-eyesockets agony?

Last weekend I decided the answer was to get the hell out of the house and see what was happening in the Frome Festival, always an eclectic mix of things to do and see including art, music, performance and literature over the ten day period.  One of my favourite events is the Open Studios, where artists show their work in various galleries and shops, with exhibitions varying from painting and sculpture to textiles and ceramics, so I picked up a trail map from the library and off I went, happy not to think about work or words for an hour or two.

Yellow Hammers, provided by Julia Manning

One of the spaces I visited was tucked away on Catherine Hill, and I was immediately drawn to the images of wildlife hanging in the circular gallery.  It was the work of Julia Manning, who is clearly passionate about the natural world and birds in particular, using wood and lino cuts and other printing techniques to create striking images full of movement, colour and light.

What also interested me were some of the labels that gave the title of the piece and often a short description.  It seems that many artists see these details as a straightforward and practical necessity, but Julia’s had more depth than that, using lyrical and visual language to give an insight into the moment the image was captured.  Now, I realise the point of my excursion was to get away from words, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and there was one line in particular that made me stop.

Isn’t it amazing how this happens?  You are doing something exterior to yourself, adjacent to your own life, but then you hear something or see something that you suddenly connect with internally and even if you don’t know what it means at the time, you know it means something.

Marloes Mere, provided by Julia Manning

This is very often the way I get ideas, and in this case I saw Julia’s description as a beautiful opening to a short story.  Luckily Julia was around to talk to and I very cheekily asked if I could have the line, which she graciously agreed to.  With some embarrassment I realised I’d come out with no writing materials so I had to borrow a pen from her and scribble the line on the back of her flyer.  We talked for a while about her work and the places she finds inspiration, and I realised I had one of her cards I’d bought long ago for someone’s birthday, but had never actually parted with because I loved it so much (a picture of her own dog, Pearl).

I didn’t go to the festival that day looking for inspiration, I just wanted a break.  If anything I was rather closed up with regard to creativity, but it reminded me to be open to the world around me.  It’s so easy to become focused on one piece of work (essential if it’s going to be a good piece of work), sitting at home and expending energy and imagination in one direction.  But we have to remember to fill up again, to go out in the world and be nourished by what it has to offer, listen and watch and live, so that creativity is never stagnant, is always an ongoing and constructive process, and then the words will come into the light to play on the page and remind us why we love being writers.

I recommend a visit to one of Julia’s exhibitions (in Frome until the 14th July), or at the very least see an excellent selection of her work on her website.  Either way, remember to take a notebook and pen with you.

The Art of Book Covers

While researching cover design for my YA novel The Big Deep, I stumbled across a brief imagesbut fascinating film about the cover of The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer: BBC Entertainment and Arts.  It gives an insight into the vision behind the design and the various interpretations the art department at Harper Collins came up with.  This was very much a collaborative process, with the Art Director, the illustrator (Charlotte Farmer) and Filer himself talking about its development and how ‘connecting to the feel of the book’ was one of the most important aspects (although it’s unclear how much input Filer had on the final decision).

A good cover does a lot of work on the writer’s behalf, giving a flavour of the story, almost a promise of what is to come, and I’m all too aware that I don’t have an art director to help steer this delicate balancing act.  I do have Mrs Editor Lady though, and we spent an afternoon looking at YA novels in Waterstones getting ideas of what we liked and didn’t like (original illustrations, striking colours good, generic photographs of teenagers from a distance, gold/silver lettering not so much).

Of course, what we were forgetting was that I’m publishing an ebook, not a paper book, so while many of the considerations are the same, this is not a ‘cover’ in the conventional sense.  What I’m really doing is creating an image for Amazon, where prospective readers will see a thumbnail that will hopefully be intriguing enough for them to read the blurb, then maybe buy the book itself.  So actually, one of the most important considerations is how it will look as a small image.  Will it pack enough punch, give enough suggestion, tick enough metaphorical boxes for the reader to want to know more?  Another consideration is use of colour.  While images on the Amazon website are in full colour, once it’s uploaded to the Kindle it becomes black and white, so it needs to work in this respect too.

I’ve been working with The Illustrator for quite a while now, and we started by discussing ideas.  Visually I wanted something unusual and striking, original and non-generic.  I want it to have a sense of threat too (as the story is a psychological thriller), as well as showing something of the motivations of the characters.  I realise this is a tall order but eventually we had a first draft, which was pretty close.  It did need further development though (luckily The Illustrator is as much of a perfectionist as I am), so there have been many conversations with me saying I think we should include this, and then I think you should take that out, (sometimes it’s the same thing) and she’s been extremely patient with me while I’ve been indecisive, dictatorial and open to her suggestions within the space of a single conversation.

I think we now have a working final draft.  This is the nervy doubt-ridden time while I wait for the finished version, hoping that it will say what I want it to say, worrying how it will look when it’s the size of my thumb nail.  I’ve found one of the best ways to check this is to photograph the illustration, upload it to my laptop and size it right down to check if the image is still clear and the title and name still readable.  The decision making at this point has been if you can’t see something clearly, does it earn its place?

As with The Shock of the Fall, this has been a collaborative process.  I’m sure my experience has been more full of worry and insecurity and rubbing out, but I have been my own Art Director and this level of input and creative decision-making is the thrill of becoming an indie writer.  I have full control over my own work and how it is presented.  I can connect my own vision to the feel of the book, and I will own what I do wrong as well as what I do right.  And that is truly empowering.

Here is a random selection of book covers I love, ranging from classic to contemporary, with varying degrees of success as a thumbnail.  I always love hearing from you, so let me know what book covers stand out for you, and why…

images-5images-3images-4the road finalimages-1images-2IainBanksComplicityEarlyimages-3