Tag Archives: writing

Mind your sexist language!

A few years ago I became involved with someone and when it became serious I decided to tell my mother about it. ‘Oh darling,’ she said. ‘Don’t be rash!’ To which I could only reply ‘I‘m in my 50s, for goodness sake. If I can’t be rash now, when can I be?’ It made me realise that in my childhood I was often accused of being headstrong. Now there’s a word. I don’t believe that in my childhood boys were called headstrong. I was also known as a tomboy. These are all things that go against what society expects of its girls: being rash, headstrong and tomboys. Oh no, I should have been patient, pensive and feminine. Quiet and unnoticed, in other words. We still use words to indicate deviation from expected norms, especially for women and girls. (And there is a whole other vocabulary for older women, but that’s for another day).

In this post I’m going to look at a few sexist words that have evaded my attention until now, and say something about how to detect them and what to do about it.

Girls reading: Photo credit: USAID Africa on VisualHunt.com

The reversibility test

In the ‘70s I belonged to a women’s group. Today I would be described as participating in the Second Wave of feminism, but at the time we mostly called it raising awareness. I recall that at one meeting we watched a film. I don’t remember a huge amount about it except that it was in B&W and made in a Scandinavian country. The language was no barrier for there was none. The film made its points through the shock of reversing the roles of men and women.

For me the most powerful scene was in the office, where women sat behind huge desks and summoned the men to take notes, or bring them cups of tea or to have their bottoms pinched. The men worked in cramped rows typing away (it was the ‘70s). For lunch the women were provided with a lavish meal in a special dining rooms while the men went off to do their shopping which they then placed in lumpy bags at their feet under their desks. At the end of the working day the women got into their huge cars and drove home. The men picked up their awkward shopping bags and went to queue for the bus. 

From this film I learned to use the reversibility test for any situation where there may be sexism in play: would it look the same if the men and women swapped places? If not then it is usually to the detriment of women. Would a particular word mean the same thing about men and women? 

Mea culpa!

Gossips: deti_leta on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

So it was with some shame that a dawning realisation came over me that I had not been applying this test in the language I used in my reviews on Bookword. I came across a long twitter thread about all the words used about women which are not commonly applied to men. Here are some examples: 

  • Gossip
  • Feisty
  • Frumpy
  • Bubbly
  • Curvy

The originator of the twitter thread had posted some that she thought were common and invited further contributions. The thread went on way beyond my patience, listing word after word. Sadly I have not been able to rediscover this thread. (Please send it to me if you noted it and can find it again.)

It was the second word on the list that drew my attention: feisty. Quite close, people noted, in meaning to spirited and I know that I have used both these words approvingly of the authors of, for example My Brilliant Career and Mary Olivier: A Life

In my own time, as well as the above, I have been called:

  • Bossy
  • Aggressive
  • Ambitious
  • A career woman

The first three words are not intended as complements. And probably behind my back I was also called

  • Bitchy
  • Hormonal
  • Emotional
  • Catty
  • A nag

And I might even have been described as a working mother.

Applying the reversibility test you can see that some of these words indicated that I was transgressing in some way. Women were not supposed to be or do these things: but whoever refers to working fathers, or a career man? Being bossy is another way of describing a leadership role (I was a headteacher); ambitious suggests that women should not seek to advance themselves in work; and aggressive (also known as abrasive) is another term for being direct. And so on …

Devant l’affiche de “j’accuse” : Jeanne Menjoulet on VisualHunt/ CC BY

So where a word suggests that the user divides the world by gender, two categories only of course, it can be identified as sexist. 

And there’s more

I have drawn attention to 20 words. Here’s a link to an article where the writer had a list of 122 words with subtle sexist overtones. It appeared in Sacraparental in May 2016: EVERYDAY MISOGYNY: 122 SUBTLY SEXIST WORDS ABOUT WOMEN (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM). Read it here.  

So what can we do?

Use the reversibility test and then if necessary …

Call out the user of such terms when you hear them, name the practice as sexist. 

Call out and name the practice when anyone does it about you.

And another thing …

And in case you think that writers of books use gender-free terms, here is the link to an article that revealed in August last year that a robot read 3.5 million books to find women were overwhelmingly described by appearance, and men by virtue. Read it here

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

And while we are about it, I would love you to read Ursula Le Guin’s debunking of the use of he to include to all humankind, I am a man, which you can find on this link. As you might expect she is funny and to the point. 

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Five Things on my Writing Desk

Recently I read 5 Things on My Writing Desk on Shelley Wilson’s blog. Like a magpie I pick up good ideas. It’s all been a bit heavy on this blog recently as I grappled with technical issues. They are all resolved now, I hope, and so a little light blogging is in order. Here are five of my things on my writing desk.

Laptop

Not much comment needed on this. I love my laptop, so long as it keeps working. It’s my typewriter, word processor, research tool, photo hoard, access to other people … My everything.

SAD light

This year I decided to try a daylight lamp to counter SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). It shines brightly in my face when I am on the computer. I’ve no idea whether it is working or not. Just in case, I keep going with it.

Pinboards

I have two pinboards: on the left a photo board, mostly pictures of women. On the right are some reminders, useful codes and numbers, lists and my blog schedule. The bearded gentleman, still visible, is a self-portrait of my great-great grandfather. The young boy is my grandson sitting in my former office at the Institute of Education in London. I don’t go much on quotable quotes, but occasionally I pin one up, and this is an example of something I like to be reminded of:

Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? [Mary Oliver]

Cards and photos

I always have a few more cards and pictures around, sometimes birthday cards waiting to be sent. At the moment I am looking at a photograph of my grandmother on her wedding day. I recently acquired her wedding dress from c1923: it’s fuchsia. She died soon after, giving birth to my mother. When I first saw this photo I thought it was me. I have aged, while she has not.

Piles of Stuff

And piles and piles of stuff, all work in progress. Not necessarily creative writing, some of it is to do with other projects (school history project, volunteering, blog stuff, forms to fill in for blood donation) old notebooks and just stuff.

I’m not sure what you would make of any of this. Perhaps not much.

Your Five things?

Care to tell us about your 5 things on your writing desk?

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Imagination and the writer: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin died in January this year. She was a writer that I admired greatly. I came to her in my 20s through the children’s book A Wizard of Earthsea, and moved on to her adult novels, mostly sci-fi set on planets with a resemblance to Earth or with characters that shared traits with humans.

Lately I have come to enjoy her essays. Here is an example from Introducing Myself in The Wave in the Mind:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. (3)

You can hear her reading this on BBC Radio 4 here.

Recently I have been using Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

You can describe her as a writer (or a man) but she was also an anthropologist, a thinker, a feminist and an encourager of others and many other things.

I enjoy reading about writing and her thoughts on imagination filled me with positivity. What follows is a revised version of a post from July last year. There are more posts about Ursula K. Le Guin on Bookword blog.

Imagination and The Operating Instructions

It’s always good to find someone who practises what she preaches, and even better when that someone is a writer. In this case, it’s Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes about writing as well as having given readers some of the most imaginative fiction there is. She combines story and thoughtfulness in ways that enthral children as well as adults. The key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

Imagination is not the same as Creativity

Ursula K. Le Guin’s imagination did not leave us on earth. She took us to other planets, other times, other cultures and showed us that our world could be other, different, we could make it better. And this difference depends on our imaginations – her imagination as a writer, and ours as readers (and writers).

The word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with ‘creativity’ she notes in The Operating Instructions, her talk in 2002 to a meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts, reprinted in Words are my Matter. But it is worth considering why we have two words, and why one might serve writers better.

Businesses and many organisations like the word creativity because it sounds as if it leads to outcomes: there will be creations. As Ursula K. Le Guin says

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (3)

But imagination is not a means of making money. Imagination is a bigger concept than creativity. In her words imagination is ‘a tool of the mind’, the most useful tool we have.

The connection to literacy

Ursula K. Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world in her speech. I find this short piece inspiring. I immediately want to take imagination for a walk.

She suggests that we need to learn to use the ‘tool of the mind’. This is an important idea for our school curriculum, and for supporting human development.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

Literacy, the capacity to use words is central to learning to use imagination.

We are a wordy species … Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. (4)

Stories are the ways that cultures define themselves and teach their children how to be people and members of their people. She has explored these ideas in the novels, the Earthsea Trilogy. I recommend these for an imaginative quest for the significance of words and naming by a novice wizard as he journeys towards maturity and wisdom.

The stories of our culture, she said in the talk, provide us with a home. And therein lies the importance of reading and the understanding that using imagination is a community activity:

Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. (6)

My great-grandfather referred to reading as half an hour’s conversation with a writer.

Housemaid by William McGregor Paxton (1910)

At the opening of her talk, Ursula K. Le Guin referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends with a proposed revision.

The reason literacy is important is that literature isthe operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6)

So …?

We must never stop using our imaginations. We must never stop training ourselves and younger generations in the skills of imagination. We must feed it with words and stories, with connections beyond our ‘physical & conscious cognizance’, with joy and those of us who write must follow the example of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

See also:

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 20014 by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by The Eight Mountain Press in 1998.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin first published in 1969. I have an edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

My review of The Left Hand of Darknessby Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project in 2017 can be found at this link.

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A Writer trains her Imagination

There are many reasons to admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, not least her novels, such as Americanah, but also her stance on feminism, We Should All Be Feminists. Recently I read this from her:

Imagination doesn’t fall from the sky. You have to work with something.

[quoted in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On How to Read and How to Write, in Lit Hub 15th Sept 2017, from interview with Salon]

And as I have been thinking about imagination and writing since I wrote about it earlier this year I began to think about the ways in which I find those ‘somethings’. These might be ideas for this blog, or for my creative writing activities, or for non-fiction work.

And I love the idea that the word inspiration is linked to breathe, we should breath as naturally as we take in air to our lungs. And that the word imagination links with the visual stimuli, having the same root as images.

The central question is What if …?

Imagine memorial to John Lennon. Designed by Bruce Kelly.

Writers need to ask ‘what if …?’ again and again. Most frequently it is what if I lived in a world that was different from mine in some significant way?

  • What if dragons were real and living close by?
  • What if Mr Rochester already had a wife?
  • What if Mr Darcy had no money and a modest nature?
  • What if the ugly duckling were just an ugly duckling?
  • What if women had all the power?
  • What if I wrote the story backwards?
  • What if I made the characters into animals?
  • Imagine …

There are so many ways of asking this question. Pantsers are especially good at creating wild and elaborate plots. I have just read Swing Time by Zadie Smith, and the world she conjures seems to want to escape the 450 pages of the novel.

Ursula le Guin is justly renown for creating worlds that contrast with ours but also reflect aspects of our own. In The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, she asks what if gender difference was periodic and inconstant? Writers can suspend normal rules and see what happens, as in Orlando by Virginia Woolf, in which the protagonist lives for centuries and changes gender. Or writers can create a book to be read in one order or another depending on which copy is bought, as in Ali Smith’s How to be Both.

That’s the beauty of writing and reading fiction. It takes you to places you might not have yet imagined. And so it can be very subversive.

Finding sources for imagination

Murmuration

It is apparently one of the most common questions that published writers get asked – where do you get your ideas? Some writing groups I have tried focused exclusively on prompts. But having had an active imagination since I could speak, I am practised in using my imgaination. Here’s what I do:

  • read
  • notice
  • listen
  • respond
  • use prompts
  • walk
  • travel
  • write

In each of these ways there are a myriad of sources in which imagination can be piqued. Writing in the style of, or paraphrasing a noted writer’s text are ways in which imagination can become unblocked. Noticing, noting the world around us: on the bus, in the news. I wrote a story called The Welcoming Committee after a prompt from a writers’ groups and found I was asking what would have happen if a group of English people had met American soldiers in the Second World War. The prompt was too many cooks.

Writer’s Treats are a great way to help see the world anew or even differently. I favour art galleries and opera. It helps me think about how other people see the world. Some time ago I described how I Write One Picture – a strategy to practise writing. The source of this idea was a project for primary schools. I wrote a short story, called Paintpot, about a war artist who witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, inspired by a drawing I saw in an exhibition. What if I had been present at that dreadful scene?

I have been lucky to travel for professional as well as personal reasons, and in 2009 I wrote a story about Roaring Billy Falls in New Zealand. It was about the restorative power of landscape, but I think the title was its best feature.

Recently I have been working on a short story about a Conscientious Objector in the first world war. Here are the gates to his work camp.

Dartmoor Prison Gates

Training the Imagination

Ursula Le Guin’s suggestion in The Operating Instructions that we need to help people learn to use imagination bears repeating.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

To learn to use imagination well there are many things I do:

  • Practice using it – all the above activities
  • Review the effects of these activities and their outcomes
  • Learn from the exercises
  • Consider how to put the learning into effect in my own writing, or not.
  • Collaborate with others in imaginative activities.

And in writing as in other art forms there is no limit. No limit. We can use our imaginations to take us anywhere, everywhere.

Over to you

And what do you do to keep your imagination topped up? To find those somethings?

I wrote on the topic of imagination three months ago: inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s essay The Operating Instructions, which you can find in Words are my Matter.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016.

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Photo crredits:

Murmuration: biggles621 via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Imagine: Chris Parker2012 via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-ND

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The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

Many novelists enjoy writing about writing and writers. I can think of a few novels where the main character is a writer. I guess its what they know about. However the main character in The Crime Writer is not Jill Dawson, but Patricia Highsmith.

So why write a novel about a real writer? Well, it allows Jill Dawson to do what she does so well, write fiction about real characters and events, eg Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover (2009) and the mystery of the Penge murder in the 1920s in Fred and Edie (2000). Her subject matter allows her to mix fiction and fact in a way that the reader cannot quite penetrate. Writing fiction about a writer allows her to explore the processes of writing and challenge us as readers. And it’s fiction so the author’s imagination is not bound by inconvenient truth.

303-cr-wr-cover

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, mostly psychological thrillers, and eight volumes of short stories. She was the originator of the stories behind such movies as Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley and, most recently, Carol. This last was published as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

Her publisher described her as ‘mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving’, according to Wikipedia. These characteristics are evident in the main character in The Crime Writer.

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

The story

It’s the 1960s and Patricia Highsmith has come to a Suffolk village from Paris to escape a stalker, and to work on her novel and a book about writing thrillers. She is interested in what happens in the mind of someone who commits murder. This is what Jill Dawson examines in the novel.

Pat is distracted, first by a journalist, Ginny Smythson-Balby, and then by anticipating the arrival of her married lover, Sam. From time to time her reputation as a writer must be acknowledged. Ginny persuades her to do a radio interview with the cold and calculating Frances. She is awarded a Gold Dagger and must attend the award ceremony.

She mostly wants to be on her own, or with Sam. On her own she writes, draws, paints, and indulges her interest in snails. She also likes woodwork and keeps her tools to hand. One visitor she does welcome is the rather effete but steady Ronnie. He is a version of Ronald Blythe, who wrote Akenfield, portrait of an English village (1969), based on conversations he had with local people.

Patricia Highsmith has her demons. She is revisited by recollections of an unhappy and neglected childhood, and believes that she has been receiving letters from a stalker who may be her stepfather. She lives in fear of being discovered as a lesbian. She is alarmed to find that her stalker knows that she now lives in the village. She drinks and smokes excessively, and suffers something of a breakdown when Sam will no longer continue their affair.

These demons all come together in the climax, the crime at the novel’s centre is committed and hidden, the stalker is revealed, Pat drinks herself into a stupor, and her mother arrives. There is so much mess for Pat to clear up.

The story unsettled me, unnerved me. Perhaps things are not as they seem. Perhaps I just have an overactive imagination, living in a village as I do.

The writing

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

The writing deliberately unsettles the reader, I believe. Some of the text is narrated in the first person, the moments of high tension in particular. Other parts are in a more distant third person, but always from Patricia Highsmith‘s point of view.

The isolation and starkness of Suffolk, and especially of the shore at Aldeburgh at night is beautifully written.

Writing fiction in The Crime Writer

I have tried to be very careful in this review, to allow the fictional Patricia Highsmith to exist within the novel and not permit anything I read about her to intrude. And not to assume either that Jill Dawson is trying to speak through her fictional Patricia Highsmith.

There are some interesting discussions about writing fiction in this novel. Here Patricia Highsmith is rejecting the label ‘crime writer’, in a passage that also foreshadows the events of the novel.

She’d had to explain, for possibly the hundredth time in her career, that she didn’t write crime novels; she wasn’t a crime writer. The damn fool girl [Ginny] had protested by naming some of her best-known novels, as if Pat didn’t know her own work, to which she had patiently explained: ‘Would you call Dostoevsky a crime writer for writing Crime and Punishment? Edgar Allen Poe? Theodore Dreiser? I don’t happen to care for the label “crime writer”. There is not much detection in my novels. There’s rarely any police involvement at all . . .‘ (3)

She prefers to describe her work as suspense, ‘that is, stories where there is felt to be a threat of imminent danger’. (9)

And she is also adamant about the notion of messages in novels. Again she confronts Ginny:

‘Message? Holy crap, not really?’

Her bottom lip comes out then, a little stubbornly.

‘There clearly are messages in your work. You know, the ordinariness of evil lurking in domestic settings, the doppelganger theme, the bad guy and the good guy who change places, who are the same person. And there’s the murderer celebrated as ultimate rebel, an amoral or subversive hero, the forces of law and order as toothless against evil, the victim as repulsive or contemptible, or silly in some way and deserving of death …’

‘I wonder why reviewers and critics always put it like that? As if I’m writing in another language that they need to translate? Why should I go to the trouble to make up characters, plots and settings and all that? You talk as if a story is just a bottle to hide a message in. Ornamental words to hide a rational thought, which no doubt you think is the true thought.’ (134)

Again this works on different ways, as a provocation to those who speak of messages, as a description of the plot and suspense in the novel, and as a challenge to readers of fiction.

Some people will read it as a suspense novel, and I think they will find it works well. But the title, subject matter and the plot all require the reader to consider the art and skill of writing a novel.

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2016. 242 pp

Over to you

I have been unable to find any reviews of this book on-line that add to my understanding or appreciation. Any thoughts?

 

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A little rant about … writers’ work-life balance

Work-life balance is claimed to be essential for a good life, in the well-being movement. I reject the idea, for writers at any rate. In fact it annoys me so much that I am writing another in my occasional series of little rants. I reject the idea that balance is necessarily a good thing, in diet, expressing a view and in relation to life or work. This is why.

Separating work and life

The idea of balance, like a seesaw, or the scales of justice seems to be good like mother and apple pie. But balance implies that two things are separate and in opposition. This is clearly illogical: my life includes work; I can’t have work outside of my life.

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Okay, so life, in the context of balance, means some kind of different thing from work – enjoyment, socialising, family, hobbies, interests, sleep, chores. But for many, many people the separation is not possible. Many people need to work long and exhausting hours to support themselves and their families. (I might do a rant about Cameron’s favourite phrase hard-working families if May resurrects it). Women in particular work both outside and inside the home, doing more of the housework and domestic chores. Life in the sense of not-work means so little to people who struggle to survive economically.

295-coveryear-of-the-runaways

Not only women, of course. It’s one of the most moving themes of Sunjeev Sahota’s Man Booker shortlisted novel The Year of the Runaways. Our eyes are opened to the sheer amount of work that the young men from India had to undertake in order to pay off the debts incurred in their project of coming to Britain. Frequently their families were in danger if they failed to make the repayments. Frequently there was no work. Or they had to take two or even more jobs. Life for them was working long hours in poorly paid illegal jobs or chasing badly paid illegal jobs. It’s a recommended but hard read.

Is balance a good thing?

It may be that by balance we really mean a more complex concept, integration, a sense that different aspects of our lives have connection and relevance, come together in wholeness.

It is possible to argue that unbalance in our lives, or parts of our lives, is a good thing. I argue this in relation to learning and to writing. The idea of cognitive dissonance, as a necessary precursor for learning, is one I find attractive. Cognitive dissonance means having or encountering inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes and this forces a person into rethinking preconceived ideas or understandings. It’s not balance but tension that is the dynamic force here. Being unbalanced is a good thing in this context.

I have been heard to argue at times that the purpose of writing is to create unbalance, uncertainty, requestioning.

Writing and living

As a writer I use my experiences, that is my life, to inform my work. There is no division between my writing and my life. I draw on my childhood, my years of regular employment, my previous writing, and what I read, see, overhear, experience …

What others say

295-cover-3-marriagesI am a great fan of Maria Popova and her Brainpickings. In one post in March 2015, linked here, she picks over the idea of balance in life by drawing on a book by David Whyte, the English poet and philosopher. The book is called The Three Marriages: reimagining work, self and relationship. It’s one I intend to read. She takes ideas of balance to a deeper level than I have, and as always says wise things. Her blog is a gem of thoughtfulness.

Over to you

Can you see any value in the idea of work-life balance for a writer? How is it for you?

 

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Writer’s Treats

Treats for writers? What can they be and why do writers need treats? The answer is quite simple really. Writers spend so much time on their own, involved in their own worlds and preoccupations that they need to replenish their energies with enjoyment from time to time. When I am in need my solution is a writer’s treat. Let me explain.

292-artists-way

You have heard of Morning Pages, I am sure. Morning Pages were popularised by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Many writers and other artists use Morning Pages to begin their day. It’s a form of free writing and is known to help people get the splurging over with, generate ideas, think through problems, record ideas and passing thoughts, and, for writers, it oils the pen for the day.

Less well known is the companion activity of the Artist Date. My version of this is the Writer’s Treat.

The Artist Date (aka Writer’s Treat)

Like Morning Pages the Artist Date is a ‘basic tool,’ of creativity, according to Julia Cameron – although she warns that you might think it is a nontool or a diversion, a distraction from the artistic endeavour. So what is it, this artist date?

An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on this artist date but you, and your inner artist aka your creative child. That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children, – no taggers-on of any stripe. (18)

And the purpose and form of the date?

Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to. … A visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie, seen alone together, a visit to an aquarium or art gallery. (19)

More examples: a long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunrise or sunset, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighbourhood to taste foreign sights and sounds.

Writing and the Artist Date

Like many people I have read The Artist’s Way, and continue with a form of Morning Pages. I have also adopted the Artist Date, but over the years I have left behind the rules and I call it Writer’s Treats.

The rules for Julia Cameron were

  • Set aside time
  • Set aside time every week
  • Plan
  • Keep it to yourself: no lovers etc.
  • Commit to the date

I don’t have any rules for my writer’s treats. I just do them.

I do them when I feel like it, and especially when my writing is getting a little cramped, rusty, wayward.

292-walk-signpost

I don’t always plan my treat. If something is bothering me I’ll change my shoes and set out on my favourite short walk, up through the woods on the local common, and out to a bench, where I can sit and look at Dartmoor and the weather. Sometimes I take my notebook. Sometimes my camera. Sometimes I just sits and thinks and …

Some treats I do plan, especially as I no longer live in easy reach of museums and art galleries. In London I could more easily go to a concert or the opera, or drop in on an exhibition, and just look at one picture or object. For example, I am always moved by the display in the British Museum of two people’s diet of tablets throughout their lives (see photo).

British Museum, tablet display

British Museum, tablet display

I am usually alone. Since my teenage years I have gone to the cinema, concerts, theatre, travelling abroad on my own. Not always, but often. A creative focus can do without social distractions, but I also enjoy social interactions like any one else.

Examples of Writer’s Treats

Treats can be small, like a coffee in a local café, with my notebook out and ears open. A short walk by the sea. They can be large, like a trip to Amsterdam, spending a whole day in the Rijksmuseum. Here’s a model that inspired a short story.

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Nowadays they are often associated with visits to London, like the weekend during which I went to the Freedom From Torture Write to Life Group’s production of Lost and Found at the Roundhouse. I spent a morning at Cornelia Parker’s Found exhibition at The Foundling Museum. I used to sing in a community choir at the Foundling Museum, so I also enjoyed some nostalgia amongst the Hogarth paintings. And Georgia O’Keeffe’s show at the Tate Modern. And as I was away from home and on my own I was reading, reading, reading.

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Concerts are always a treat, and this year the Dartington Summer School in August featured some talks as well: Jo Shapcott reading her poems, Alfred Brendel talking about Beethoven’s last three sonatas. I noted at the time that I was entranced by the combination of his accent, his intellectualism and how he used words to unpick music.

In September I had a treat with my grandson, a trip out of Plymouth Royal William Dock in a boat to demonstrate marine biology hydrophonic equipment on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

I have heard people call this feeding the soul, and they’ve got a point. It also, I reflect as I write, looks like the most enormous self-indulgence. Perhaps it is both. But it is about not getting rusty, enjoying the creativity of others, being exposed to new things. As a result of my treats I often see things in new ways, see and hear things I haven’t experienced before. I can react without worrying about my companions, or any task, such as writing a review. It rests my mind from struggles with writing.

The Artist’s Way: a spiritual path to higher creativity by Julia Cameron, published in the UK by Pan books: first published in 1993.

Related posts

I wrote about Morning Pages on this blog in April 2013 in a post called Do writers really need a routine?

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Walking in Four Novels

Writing and walking work together very well. I explored some connections for writers in a recent blogpost: Steps to Improve Your Writing. Here I explore four novels to consider how walking features in them.

Few characters walk in novels to get from A to B or for the good of their health. These aspects of walking do not contribute to interesting plots. Instead, some characters walk to escape, such as the woman in white, Rosaleen along the Green Road, or Harold Fry. Some characters need to walk to be connected to other people, the history in their surroundings, or their memories. Frequently by walking, characters assert their independence, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

279 The_woman_in_white_Cover_1890

Who can forget the first meeting with the woman in white? The narrator has visited his mother in Hampstead and is returning on foot at night to London. He is, indeed, walking from A (Hampstead) to B (back to London). The stage is set: dark, isolated and already a bit weird.

I had now arrived at that particular point on my walk where four roads met – the road to Hampstead, along which I returned; the road to Finchley; the road to West End; and the road back to London. I had mechanically tuned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road – idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like – when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my young body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.

I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening around the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her. (23-4)

It is dramatic and weird. Who would not read on to find out the mystery of the pointing Woman in white?

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, (1860), I used the Penguin Classic edition.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

231 Gr Rd cover

In the second novel, Rosaleen also takes a night walk. This walk shapes a dramatic scene, towards the end of the novel, as if it will lead to a reconciliation or final departure. It is late on Christmas Day, in west Ireland near the Flaggy Shore. Rosaleen, an older woman, leaves her disconnected family for a solitary walk she has taken many times along the Green Road. It is cold and dark and she is plagued first by the wind and then by reflections on her life.

She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer. (259)

Like many walkers, she responds to the elemental atmosphere.

Rosaleen spread her arms wide and flung her face up.

‘Hah!’ she said.

In the middle of nowhere, on Christmas Day, when no one was out, not one person was walking the roads.

‘Hah!’

Old women were not given to shouting. Rosaleen did not know if she still could, or if your voice went slack like the rest of you, when you got old.

‘Oh, don’t mind me!’ she said. She roared it. She stuck her fists down straight by her sides. ‘Don’t mind me!’ (260)

She is walking along the Green Road in response to her fractured family, the loss of her husband, her advancing years.

This is why Rosaleen had come up here, to this wild place. She had come to cleanse herself of forgetfulness and of fury. To shout it loud and leave it behind. To fling it away from herself. (265)

Rosaleen gets into trouble in the dark and the cold and her family must find her. It should lead to reconciliation. This novel is highly recommended, by the way, for many other qualities too.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015), published by Vintage and winner of several prizes including the Man Booker Prize. My full review can be read here.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

136 Pride & Prej

Elizabeth Bennet is a walker, energetic and undeterred by poor weather. Her walks are associated with key plot moments in Pride and Prejudice. She walks to Netherfield Park to take care of her sick sister, Jane. The reactions of those in residence reveal a great deal about each of them, as well as about Elizabeth. Mrs Hurst, Bingley’s sister, makes the following comment.

‘To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.’

‘It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,’ said Bingley.

‘I am afraid, Mr Darcy,’ observed Miss Bingley, in half a whisper, ‘that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.’

‘Not at all,’ he replied; ‘they were brightened by the exercise.’ (82)

Elizabeth walks a great deal in the grounds of Rosings and here is met by Darcy the day following his disastrous proposal and he must give her a letter. She next meets Darcy accidentally when she is walking in the grounds of his great house, Pemberley. And finally Darcy and Elizabeth ‘get it together’ on another walk near her own home. As Willoughby says, in his cheerful way, ‘Mr Bennet, have you no more lanes in which Lizzy may lose her way again today?’ (383)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813. Edition used: Penguin English Library.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

279 Harold Fry

The fourth novel is structured by Harold Fry’s walk, He is an older man, retired, who has lost his energy, emotionally and physically. Harold receives a message to say that an old friend he lost touch with is dying. He sets off from his home in Kingsbridge, Devon to post a letter to her, but just keeps on walking, and after 87 days arrives in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He walks 624 miles and along the way, as is the case with pilgrimages, he meets other people and has adventures which help him understand his life and other people. He is reconciled with his wife and learns a great deal about himself including his own resilience.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce published by Black Swan in 2012.

Some other novels that feature walking

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, compared to her short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Long Walk by Stephen King

Over to You …

Can you recommend other novels that feature walking?

 

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Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Reading, Reviews

Getting feedback to improve our writing

Not all feedback helps to improve writing. Have you ever-experienced killer feedback? It’s the kind of feedback that makes you feel ashamed, humiliated and as if you wanted to put away the writing for ever. Everyone I know has received it at some stage. I remember the reviewer’s comment on an article I’d submitted to an academic journal. This was the sentence that did it: If the author aspires to an academic position they should learn how to reference. It was doubly killing as a) I was already a university lecturer and b) there was nothing wrong with the referencing. Nevertheless I abandoned the article on the spot.

Yet feedback can be very helpful. The three authors of The New Age of Ageing sought out readers to provide different types of feedback, and to learn from and improve our writing by taking their comments into account. Here are our reflections on our learning from this process.

243 New Age cover

Marianne Coleman says

We have asked for and received feedback throughout the writing of the book: right at the start on the proposal; on individual chapters and on the full draft.

It was really important to get feedback on the proposal. The publisher asked us to suggest suitable people to read our initial proposal so that they got a view on the viability of the book. That feedback was positive and constructive, and we took it into account when finalising the proposal, which was the initial skeleton of the book.

Throughout the course of the writing we were getting feedback from each other. For me the best thing about having co-authors has been the process of shaping the individual chapters and the book through the wonderful discussions we had each time we met. We also gave feedback to each other on draft chapters and that was incredibly useful. Obviously this can only work when you trust each other and can be honest, open and respectful of each other’s work and feelings.

In a wide-ranging book like ours, we covered areas where we were not necessarily fully expert and it was vital that we checked our facts with people who were. Their invaluable feedback enabled us to have confidence in what we were saying, but we found that we had to use our judgment about how much of their advice and how many of their suggestions to incorporate. Sometimes the sophistication and detail of their arguments were too much for the general nature of the book and more suitable for a thorough exploration of their particular area of expertise. This meant that sometimes after incorporating expert suggestions, they were trimmed back for the final draft.

A particularly useful feedback came from one of our readers at the point where we had a nearly complete draft. She came back with some vital over-arching comments including that we had not really established the standpoint from which we were speaking. This feedback made us think hard and helped us sharpen our thoughts and message for the final version.

The most recent feedback came in the form of editor’s queries. Although these tended to be mainly about consistency of spelling, punctuation and missing references, sometimes the editor has picked up a badly expressed thought that can be refined and improved for meaning.

But that is not the final feedback. That will come from our readers!

DSC00853.JPG

Eileen Carnell writes

What we know for sure is that feedback can help authors become much better writers. But asking for, writing and getting feedback can be a tricky business. The process can be emotional and needs to be done with care. Here are 7 important points about feedback.

  1. You have to trust the readers of your work.

You need to have a good relationship and be prepared for the experience to be reciprocal. You are asking people to be generous with their time and be encouraging while providing authentic critique. Providing effective feedback is a highly skilled process. It’s about providing information, not about giving advice.

  1. All information about your writing can be useful.

Information can vary from seemingly small technical suggestions to comments about the overarching themes, consistency of arguments, important missing elements and the value of the project.

  1. Information provided is for the writer to work with.

As one reader said: ‘… just things which would have made my own reading of it easier – for you to take or leave as you feel fit,’ indicating that he knew that the writers are decision makers, not passive recipients of the comments.

  1. It can be helpful to ask readers for specific information.

We were particularly keen to know whether the voices of the three different authors were knitted together across the book and were keen to know if male readers would feel included.

  1. Getting feedback can be an emotional process.

Constructive criticism from others may feel like a criticism of the person rather than a critique of the writing as Caroline suggests when talking about ‘killer’ feedback. This may be even more the case when writing fiction.

  1. It can be helpful to get feedback from people who don’t know much about the themes or who are not experienced writers themselves.

Non-experts may ask questions that indicate that further explanation is needed, whether the writing is clear and if the argument is consistent.

  1. There are different ways of relaying information about others’ writing.

Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.

255 Fbk for L cover

Caroline adds

On a writing course once, I was reminded that you cannot stand alongside everything you write and explain to the reader what they have not understood. In fact it is rare to receive comments directly about your writing. So when you get the chance, listen to the comments, take them into account and learn from them. You don’t have to agree or act on all of it. I try to remember this.

We would like to thanks the readers of the whole book who took on a huge, time-consuming task. We are very grateful for their generosity and expertise. We are also indebted to the many readers of individual chapters who made really helpful observations. Even though there were three of us writing this book getting feedback breaks the isolation of writing and it is really good to get a range of different perspectives.

Note: Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September.

Related posts

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing a book. Earlier posts have included

First Catch Your Publisher (April 2016)

One Book, Three Authors (March 2016)

Writers’ Residential (February 2016)

A post focussing on relationships in the feedback process is Critique Etiquette: the Ultimate Guide for Giving and Receiving Feedback by Angela Ackerman on Writers in the Storm blog in March 2015

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Filed under Books, Publishing our book, Writing