Writing Over Death

Herein a little vlog about how writing can transcend time, space and culture…I love the silly still photo on this film!

From time to time
the clouds give rest
to the moon beholders.

Basho

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Why We Need to Fund Libraries 3/3

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If you haven’t visited a library in years, you might think nobody goes to libraries any more. Well, you’re wrong. In the time it takes to read this entire sentence, 40 people have visited a library in the UK.

You might not need a library today, or tomorrow, or for years. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want one in your community. Because like a hospital, or a second bridge over the Bristol Channel to Wales, or the police – one day you might need it. And when you do, just like you’d need those other things, you’ll really, really need a library. Someone else in your community needs one like that today. 

Libraries are often used by people who are in transition from one thing to another. People who are in between being born and going to school use the library for stimulation and to begin to understand book-based culture for the world of learning. Older children, learning to work independently, use the library for help finding valid references for essays. People looking for new courses or careers use the resources of the library. People who are in a new town, finding out more about their past, recovering from illness, spending hours alone in old age…all these people regularly use the library.

Where else can you go that costs nothing and always welcomes you? Where you can not only be entertained and distracted from what ever problems you are facing, but also get reliable information on solving those problems?  I said in a previous post that a library is the intellectual hub of a community – sometimes people very much need the access to knowledge it contains. And more than that, they need to be physically inside a place that celebrates and collects the fruits of human struggle – they need the companionship that place brings to their own situation. Because a library is also a place personal difficulties are recognised and normalised.

But that’s not to say that libraries are only warm and fluffy. They’re also a good investment. Libraries pay great finaincial dividends. The young people using the wifi and quiet they can’t get at home will get better exam results. People in need will recover from their problems more quickly and contribute once more to the economy. Companies thinking about locating in the area look for libraries as a marker of the quality of potential employees. Children with access to books in the home attain much better in school than children without. In pounds and pence, as well as in hearts and minds, a library has a value that is nearly impossible to overestimate.

That’s why we need to fund libraries.

A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.

Andrew Carnegie

 

 

Why We Need To Fund Libraries 1/3

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Let’s start with the basics. What is a library?

A library is not a collection of books. Above you’ll see why it’s not. This is The Ship’s library. The Ship is my local pub and this is their book corner. It started off well, but in the three years I’ve been…erm…monitoring it every Friday evening (with a pint or two), it’s gone right downhill.  All that’s left is old tat.

That’s because there’s no librarian. Any fool can bring books onto a shelf – any fool can buy all the latest books the reviewers say are good and stack them in alphabetical and Dewey Decimal order. But librarians don’t just know how to do that…they also know what to throw away.

Librarians are trained to curate information; trained to gather information (yes) but also to evaluate it, decide if it’s still valid and get rid of the bad stuff. They’re Snopes  in real life. Only they don’t just evaluate the worth of internet memes and rumours and fake news…they can monitor and evaluate EVERY BIT OF INFORMATION ON THE PLANET. They can also store it, manipulate it, find it, file it, retrieve it and archive it and will know when to do all those things.

Let’s look at another example: A friend of mine was at the dump/tip the other day and saved a first edition of George Orwell’s 1984 from going in, not even the book bin (which gets picked over by charity shops) but the paper recycling.

Librarians also know what to keep.

Libraries aren’t stacks of books: they’re the repository of a society’s knowledge. In good libraries, everything on the shelves is of worth; good fiction, up-to-date and verified non-fiction, poetry worth reading, how-to books that actually teach you how to do something, reference materials that are collections of the latest and best thought humanity has to offer.

They’re the intellectual hub of our communities and librarians are their maintenance crew. Trying to have one without the other is like trying to run an airline without any mechanics. The planes might look very pretty. But I wouldn’t like to fly in one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Things I’ve Learned Playing Bubble Witch Saga

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I’ve been writing. No, I have, really. I’ve been away for a fortnight, travelling on my own, and I’ve been logging in the hours.

But I’ve also been thinking. Writers spend a lot of time thinking. It’s often called procrastination…but it’s not, really. The fact is, the part of your brain that does the writing needs time to just…think.

Philip Hensher watches (often quite crappy) television. On a recent school visit, he told young fans that his partner says, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ and he says, ‘I am. I’m writing.’ And then his partner says, ‘You’re not writing. You’re watching Deal or No Deal.’

Fay Weldon, this autumn in conversation with Hilary Mantel, says she has written a book a year for…forever. But she spends most of the year, ‘Sitting there, not doing anything. I have to do that.’ She said, ‘I sit and mess about for about eight or nine months and then do the rest in a huge rush.’

Right now, I’m playing an awful lot of Bubble Witch Saga.

I’m thinking. I’m thinking about my place in the publishing industry, about what I want this book to do, about what kind of writer I really want to be. And I’m thinking about the nuts and bolts of the writing. And I’m thinking about things I’m not telling myself, but will come out in the writing.

And these are things I’ve learned while playing it:

1. ‘They’ want you to do something…in this case, pay for extra bubbles or lives or other help to play the game. ‘You’ want to play the game, but not spend your family’s hard-earned cash on Bubble Witch Saga. Your play takes place in the overlap of those two desires. This makes things more difficult, but you can’t help that. It’s all about integrity and who you are.

2. It’s never a good idea to start a ticking bomb. Sometimes it seems like an adequate shortcut, but it’s usually not. Shorting yourself on time is not a good strategy.

3. Sometimes you will lose. If you didn’t, it wouldn’t be any fun and you wouldn’t be pushing yourself hard enough.

4. If you quit a game, the witches get all upset. That doesn’t mean quitting isn’t the right decision.

5. The goal of the game is to burst the bubbles at the top. If you spend time doing anything else, no matter how satisfyingly creative, you will not win.

6. Sometimes you can’t win, and should use your time to get better at playing that level.

7. Fiendishly difficult situations are difficult to engineer, so once you find a way around them, you can get around them again.

8.  Sometimes you can play beautifully but, because of the ways the bubbles bounce, you might not be awarded stars. This is about the bubbles and spiders, not you.

9. If you think about it, you can get your spiders lined up when your bubbles are ready to drop, giving you more of a chance at stars.

10. Friends are helpful. You need three to travel to a new level.

Happy thinking….

Reading for Writers

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A little while ago, I talked about how revealing it is to write. It’s true…you can’t hide when you are writing. What and how well you think, what and how well you feel – it’s all there, all over the pages. 

And what’s also visible is how much and what you’ve read.

Every author I know would rather read than breathe, if they were only given a choice. I read, I recently told a third year class, about a novel a day, or two or three days. And that’s with my busy life as a writer, teacher and mother. When I was their age, I usually read one in the morning before classes and one in the evening. They looked at me as though I’d suddenly sprouted antennae. 

I read very quickly, but I have excellent retention. Sometimes I forget the name of the author, or the title of the book, but I remember the characters, the setting, the plot and whole segments of text.

And that latter bit is very important. Every time we read, we are unconsciously absorbing technique. We see how the author handles the technical challenges of fiction. We’re not only enjoying the story and the beauty of the writing…we’re building a library of technique. 

Some of my undergraduate students worry about writing too much like the authors they read. In fact, some of them use it as an excuse not to read. But the answer to that is to read more, not less.

The more widely you read, the more and different approaches to the technical challenges of writing fiction you absorb. How Jane Austen uses punctuation is much different to how William Burroughs uses punctuation and you never know when the perfect solution to where you put that tricky comma will come from one or the other. 

But of course the real value of reading widely comes from that connection between reading fiction and empathy. The more you read, the more empathy you can feel about different kinds of people. Young women, pressured to marry if they are to avoid poverty, for example. Or a junky trying to survive in a menacing and unknowable world. 

And that means the you that is revealed in your writing is a better you, with every book you read. 

 

 

 

Being Nice

Photo on 2013-06-27 at 10.45

 

I worked with Fay Weldon on Monday (sometimes, I really do have a glamorous literary life). As usual, La Weldon said a lot of interesting things. But one of the most interesting, for me, anyway, was, ‘A lot of women writers are held back by wanting to be nice in their fiction, because they want to be good girls and please everyone.’

Just like many young women don’t think that there’s any need for feminism anymore, many new female writers think that their fiction will be a gender-free zone, where their womanliness has no impact on how they are read. Of course, both are sadly mistaken. There is still a 10% gender pay gap in the UK, women pensioners are, according to the government, ‘significantly more impoverished’ than male pensioners. 1 in 10 men will be treated for mental illness and it’s 1 in 4 women… And, despite Hilary Mantel’s recent successes, the vast majority of literary prize winners, grant awardees, Visiting Professors, etc, etc, etc are men, even though, on any given post-graduate course in Creative Writing, women predominate.

‘Girls will read about boys,’ my first children’s editor told me. ‘But boys won’t read about girls.’ I thought boys grew out of that, but an editor interested in the book that became The Saint Who Loved Me thought differently. ‘No man is going to read this,’ she told me sternly. ‘It’s got things about tampons in it.’

I hadn’t realised that. I hadn’t realised that because I wrote about a woman’s experience of the world, and wrote about marital problems, spirituality and life choices from a woman’s perspective, I was alienating 48% of my potential readers from the get-go. Male readers very much liked Welcome to Eudora from the various reviews and letters I got from them. How they got their hands on it remains a mystery, though…it was often shelved under ‘Romance’.

If you happen to, or make up your mind to, write in accepted literary models and if you write, in a way, specifically for men, you don’t seem to be ghettoised. But if you are a female writing primarily for women, you can pretty much forget being taken seriously by the literary establishment. Even today.

How much of that problem is about the writers being too ‘nice’ in their fiction and how much is about marketing, cover design and titling (the working title for The Saint Who Loved Me was  St Rock) still remains a mystery.

But I know one thing – nobody is going to take my books seriously if I don’t. If I don’t stop being nice and wanting to please everybody.

I’m writing in the café today, because my new cleaner is in my house and my shed is still on order. While I was madly typing away (the tea here is strong enough to be a Class A drug), an acquaintance approached, smiling.

‘May I join you?’ she asked.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’d rather you didn’t. I’m working.’

She raised her eyebrows and looked hurt as she turned away. I fought the instinct to run after her…to abandon my manuscript and explain. But I didn’t.

It’s a start.

Getting A Little Organised

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My daughter found her squirrel pencil case and didn’t need her pink one anymore. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘You need one.’

This was news to me, but she’s still young enough to humour. I shook out my bag and put all my pens and pencils into the pencil case.

A week later, I read an article about stationary by Lucy Mangnan (who is nutty about stationary – I was part of a Radio Four programme she did about it). It talked about pencil cases and what women keep in theirs. Phone charge cords featured heavily.

I’m always losing my phone charge cord and not getting important calls. I started keeping my phone cord in my pink pencil case.

The pink pencil case is made out of oilcloth and patterned with butterflies. It has a little Velcro-shut pocket on the side. On my recent tour of externalling, I kept my receipts in there. It is the first time, ever, that I haven’t lost some of my receipts on a business trip.

My daughter was right – I did need a pencil case. I just didn’t know it.

I can’ t get too organised. I can’ t schedule every hour of every day. I need time to be able to say, ‘Hey, that’s a nice flower. I wonder what it would be like to be a bee and go inside. I know, I’ll stop my bike and use my lipstick mirror and get really, really close to the flower and write a little bit in my notebook about how furry and comfy it all looks in there.’ I need time to lie on my bed and worry that everyone writes better than I do. I need time to lie on the sofa and read and time to drive like a lunatic to the cinema so that I can watch a film I just read about on Twitter that starts in two minutes.

But I also need time to write and a place to go to do that. I’ve blamed work, my family, even the dog sometimes for not getting time to write. But, really, I just need to get a little more organised.

Just a little, mind…