Jericho Writers’ Self-Editing Your Novel Course, and the wonders of Atlas Obscura: destinations, food and drink

I’m in the final week of Jericho Writers’ Self-Editing your novel course run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin and all I can say is if you’ve written a first (or even a twenty-first) draft of a novel and you know something’s wrong but you can’t put your finger on it, or you’ve had agent(s) ask for a full manuscript but they’ve decided against taking your work on at the final fence, then this is the course for you. (Jericho Writers run lots of other writing courses, but this one is the biz.)

I’ve done an MA in Writing and many shorter courses in writing fiction but never ever have I done a course with such practical application. It’s (relatively) easy to write a novel by instinct when it’s all going swimmingly, but when it goes wrong you need to know the questions to ask yourself. Now I know the structural, vocal, point of view, psychic distance (do the course and you’ll discover), character-in-action and many other questions to ask and in the new year, by the end of March I hope, I’ll have a final redraft I’m finally proud of.

And the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible this month is Atlas Obscura. It’s a travel-guide website, but it’s much much more than that. As they say:

Our mission is to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we all share.

Click on Random Place to be taken to destinations you’d never thought of travelling to. Or try Gastro Obscura to discover wondrous food to explore and enjoy from anywhere in the world. Why not give it a go this Christmas?

Coffee in White Coffee Cup

Posted in Drink, Fiction, Food, Places, Rewriting, Storytelling, Third Novel, Travel, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Courses | Comments Off on Jericho Writers’ Self-Editing Your Novel Course, and the wonders of Atlas Obscura: destinations, food and drink

How Doctors use Poetry, and a blue-green stone

Recently I spent a night in hospital and the thing that struck me about the nursing staff, as I watched them admit new patients to the ward, was their infinite kindness; their ability to explain exactly the same things to each new, slightly-groggy patient as she was wheeled in, as if she was the only person they’d ever admitted, as if she was the only one who mattered. Nursing staff aren’t paid to be kind but, in my short experience on the Isabella Ward at Kingston Hospital, the kindness of the nursing staff was as important as their expertise. It helped me take in what they were telling me, made me feel they knew what I was going through and so I had complete faith that they’d do the right thing for me.

The Hippocratic Oath has been modified since it was written somewhere between the fifth and the third centuries BCE. The version most commonly used today, when physicians graduate, is the one Louis Lasagna rewrote in 1964. It includes this sentence:

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug,

I stumbled across this article the other day. It was written in September for the American magazine Nautilus by a newly-qualified doctor who, when he recited the Oath, felt more attached to the scientific nature of medicine than to its art. [Alteration since posting: a newly-qualified doctor should read a second-year medical student. I qualified him too soon!] But, about a year later, he changed his mind. He’d begun to realise the difficulties patients experience when trying to make sense of medical language. He discovered research studies that showed:

That both types of art therapy [music and poetry] produced similar improvements in pain intensity and depression scores. Only poetry, however, increased hope scores.

Patients, including children, were encouraged to listen to poetry and to write their own. To express they way they felt about their illness and treatment and to listen to poems that addressed these things. Contrary to what you might expect, the researchers found that:

Poetry … is a way to both embrace the hospital encounter, and escape from it.

As a result this young doctor, Danny W. Linggonegoro by name, has decided to:

Learn how to meet my patients beyond the chart documents; [to] encourage them to write their own empowering stories; [to] heal as well as treat. In other words, that I’ll honor each and every word in the oath I took last year.

The kindness of the nursing staff on the Isabella Ward also heals as well as treats.

And the thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is this jewel …

… for its depth, for its colour, for the way it catches the light and for its mystery. It hangs on the simplest silver necklace and I wear it often. But sometimes I just gaze at it.

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Happiness & Rights balanced by Meaning & Responsibility; and William Golding on Women

Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life: an antidote to chaos said, in an interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Radio 4 recently (these words come from the beginning and the end of the programme):

We’ve been fed a diet of happiness and rights for two or three generations [but] it’s thin gruel … . If you think the purpose of your life is to be happy then, during those times that you’re not happy, you’re bereft and that’s not helpful … . Life is very difficult. It’s much better to let people know that it’s meaning that sustains life and not happiness. And that meaning is to be found in large part as a consequence of responsibility.

The world has lots of problems and they’re deep and worse than you think. But you’re more than you think you are. If you put your own house in order, if you take the trouble to find out who you are, then you will discover what you can do globally, locally and for your family … . You’ll be able to help other people avoid terrible things.

That’s your destiny. Not happiness … but shouldering as much responsibility as you can, without breaking.

Responsibility bestows meaning and meaning brings happiness, fulfilment and purpose. Meaning is the right counterpoint to happiness; responsibility is the right counterpoint to rights. And importantly for us, particularly the young among us who may feel aimless, depressed, anxious or prematurely cynical, the thing to say is, ‘Yes, our world is a troubled and difficult place, but each one of us has enormous potential’. If you can find compassion and empathy within yourself, and if you can resist nonsense whenever and however it appears; if you can be true to yourself and above all speak out against the prevailing attitude or opinion, especially if you think it nonsensical (often groupthink, whether racial, religious, political, gender or any other group makes it difficult to say, ‘Yes I am this, but I’m also that,’) that’s the most useful thing you can do (and the thing that will mean the most).

Young people from all walks of life who marched for saner gun control resisted nonsense in America earlier this year. Some corporations responded by promising to curb gun sales and the gun control movement is mobilising for America’s midterm elections, this November.

Separately, and in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite, this is the thing I’d like to have said. But, being a woman, I couldn’t. So here’s William Golding, one of my all-time favourite writers (The Inheritors is a favourite and of course Lord of the Flies) saying it:

Posted in Fiction, Gun Control, Literary Prizes, Morality, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Women, Writers | 4 Comments

Creativity and Patience; and walks with Mental Health Mates

Being an artist means … ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms … summer [will] come. But it comes only to the patient … patience is everything!
from Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to Franz Xaver Kappus from Letters to a  Young Poet. Quotation found here.

Patience. Now there’s a thing to cultivate.

And the thing I’d love to have invented this month, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Mental Health Mates. I heard the extraordinary and courageously honest Bryony Gordon talking about it at this years Hay Festival in June. She set up Mental Health Mates because, when suffering her own mental troubles, she feels (felt) entirely alone. She wants each of us to find our We. Because we are not alone (even if we think we are):

Gordon has written several books. In MAD GIRL she writes:

Your parents warn you about the monsters you might encounter in dark alleyways, but they never warn you about the monsters you might find in your own mind, the ones that taunt and trouble you, and make you question yourself to your very core.

Wise wise words. Look up Mental Health Mates if you feel like going for a walk (or setting up a walk) and talking to people who know that to think the way you think and feel is NOT unlike the way a lot of people think and feel.

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Literary Villains, Literary Summer Reads and an idyllic treehouse in East Sussex (where you can stay)

Forty of the Best Villains in Literature appear in this article at The Literary Hub (where you’ll find many literary goodies). The villains include the obvious: Mr Hyde, Mrs Danvers, Uriah Heep, Mr Rochester, Dr Frankenstein, Hannibal Lecter and many more. But also the not-so-obvious: Infertility, Vanity, Suburban Ennui and Slavery to name but ten from the forty.

If you’d rather not read about villains (or you’ve read them all already), here are some of The Literary Hub’s recommended literary summer reads. They include: The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, Patrick Melrose by Edward St Aubyn and The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl – none of which I’ve read but all of which I plan to read, particularly the last. You can order any of the books from The Book Depository with free worldwide delivery.

The perfect place to read a book or seven in, and the thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is The Buzzardry.

Isn’t it beautiful? The rooves alone are things of wonder. It sleeps two couples, it’s in the most gloriously secluded location, it’s – I think – entirely idyllic and, look, you can even read in the bath and still see the view. Find me something better for a romantic weekend in the woods and I’ll eat my hat.

The photographs were taken by Adam Scott, but so recently they’re not yet on his website. And you can find out more about (and book to stay in) The Buzzardry here.

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Women writers, and children; and Retro Peepers

I’ve never had children and the reason (apart from meeting the man whose children I’d love to have had well beyond my fertile years) is that I was always afraid that looking after children would eat so far into my writing time that there’d be no time to read or be out in the world (to fuel my writing), let alone to write. And / or that I’d be a neglectful  / bad / cross and resentful (because no time for anything else) mother.

A 2013 article in The Atlantic claimed that the only way to write, as a woman, was to have only one child. It also claimed that (some) female writers made bad mothers. But the counter-argument, in an article in The Telegraph, showed that many women make good writers and good mothers. And it said there was absolutely no need to limit your offspring to one. I read somewhere recently that Maggie O’Farrell said that now she had children she was tougher about her writing (implying, I think, that because she had less time she had to make that time work). But, as Jane Smiley wrote, in the Telegraph article:

The key is not having one child, it is living in a place where there is excellent daycare and a social world that allows fathers to have the time and the motivation to fully share in raising kids.

And therein lies the problem. In my childbearing days such attitudes were much rarer than they are now and such facilities thin on the ground. But I am in exceedingly good company: Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës (to name but six) didn’t have children (although Charlotte died tragically in childbirth). So perhaps I wasn’t so much ahead of my time, as out of my time.

And the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Retro Peepers. They do exactly what they say on the tin. Their frames are handmade vintage- or retro-style classic and designer so, if your glasses have begun to feel ordinary and you’re in need of a change, become Marilyn or Frida or Betty or Amelie; Cooper or Groucho or Woody or Hemingway (and many many more). Make a different framework (see what I did there?). I’ve just ordered these two …

… and I can’t wait for them to arrive.

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John Clare, gardener and writer; and Bloom & Wild

In this strange spring and early summer of ours, where March’s snow, frost and ice stopped all plant growth and May’s hot days and tropical rainstorms encouraged it wildly, I’ve been wondering how many writers worked as gardeners. I only found one: John Clare.

John Clare.jpgJohn Clare, 13 July 1793-20 May 1864 (aged 70)
by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

Countless writers’ work has been influenced and informed by plants, flowers, trees and the glory and gore of the natural world, and George Orwell did grow vegetables at Barnhill on Jura where he finished 1984 but, as Robin Lane Fox writes in a 2014 article for the FT:

Great writers write powerfully about gardens that they visit, see or, above all, recall [but] … the very idea of James Joyce hoeing is hilarious.

But the young John Clare did work as a gardener at Burghley House in 1807 and again between 1816-1817 and, in his cottage garden at Helpston, he grew some of the plants he discovered there. To this day, every summer, children from the John Clare primary school put Midsummer Cushions on Clare’s grave. As Clare wrote:

A very old custom among villagers in summer time [was to] stock a piece of greensward full of field flowers & place it as an ornament in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer Cushions.

He gave the name to a collection of poems he tried to publish in 1832 which were eventually published 150 years later. He also documented the natural world near his village, Helpston, in Northamptonshire. In 1824 he wrote a group of letters which became known as an unfinished Natural History of Helpston. They too weren’t published until 1983.

I wonder what Clare would have made of the thing I would love to have made this month, in a world where time is infinite and all things are possible? Bloom & Wild deliver flowers. So do thousands of florists, of course they do. But Bloom & Wild pack many of their arrangements so they’ll fit through your letterbox thus solving the difficulty of delivering flowers to busy people who are out at work, out with children, or just plain out. Clever, aren’t they?

Posted in Artists, Fiction, Gardening, Mental Health in Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Uncategorized, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on John Clare, gardener and writer; and Bloom & Wild

Writers on writing, and an exquisitely beautiful tea

When our writers’ group met this week one of our number described how the rise of the ‘plotting and typing’ approach to writing was driving her demented. How all the work is done before you’ve typed a word and then you just carry on thwacking through, typing typing typing … .But how, however much is planned ahead (even though planning is necessary), in the end the story will just be what it will be. How a story is quite subversive in the way it will just suggest things. How getting it right is a very mysterious experience.

Needless to say I entirely agree. And then I found an essay by Patricia Lockwood at The Tin House, called How Do We Write Now? Lockwood is a poet so her prose is particularly lyrical. The full article is here but she said she was happy for me to quote a few of her suggestions for what to do (and what not to do) first thing in the morning, if you write:

The first necessity is to claim the morning … if I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day.

The single best way to give the morning back to myself is to open a real book as I drink my first cup of coffee. I’m not sure why real books are best. I think the pages remind me that I have fingerprints.

It sometimes helps to let someone else tell you what to do, so listen: … Read the most minute descriptions you can find about other artistic processes: Moss Hart writing plays with George S. Kaufman, his teeth glued together with terrible fudge; Maya Angelou on the road in Europe with the company of Porgy and Bess.

If you have an afternoon, cook something that takes a long time, it will think along with you.

Keep a physical notebook. Remember how to use the kind of pen that runs out … . Learn the names of trees.

The best advice. All of it.

And the thing I would love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is a glass of tea I was given the other night after dinner. I had no idea how it would look or taste, I just asked for what Frantoio – a restaurant in London we’d never been to before – described as lily and jasmine tea. The first thing that happened was a waiter brought a large wine glass and set it beside me. Then he put something that looked like a nutmeg into the glass. Then he poured boiling water onto the nutmeg lookalike and told me to wait. So I did. And this is what happened.

And it was entirely delicious. And, if you’re my kind of vintage, it might remind you of those magical paper flowers you dropped into a glass of water and watched bloom.

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RMS Titanic: on this day 106 years ago … & Samira Addo, Portrait Artist of the Year

It’s 106 years ago today that the ‘unsinkable’ passenger liner, RMS Titanic, hit an iceberg and sank in just two hours and forty minutes. For years the tragedy was a matter of private internal horror: people didn’t talk about trauma then and only two years later the First World War broke out, eclipsing Titanic’s tragedy with its own tremendous tragedies. Then came the influenza epidemic, bringing tragedy upon tragedy, then there was a brief respite before the Second World War brought more terrible tragedy … so it wasn’t until the release of A Night to Remember in 1958 (a film based on a book by Walter Lord and starring Kenneth More) that public consciousness of the Titanic tragedy surfaced.

My great-grandmother, Noël Rothes, helped pilot Lifeboat No 8 which was commanded by Able Seaman Thomas Jones, but although her family knew she’d sailed on Titanic and had survived, no details were known until after she died in 1956 (she never talked about the tragedy). But when my grandfather and my aunt were sorting through Noël’s papers they found letters, newspaper cuttings, her evidence to the enquiries into the disaster and a plaque that Able Seaman Thomas Jones had made for her to thank her for her:

courage under so heartrending and terrifying circumstances

Bronze 8 from Lifeboat No 8, RMS Titanic

We make much of the Titanic tragedy these days (I include myself, I give a talk about my great-grandmother and the able seaman and how they worked together in Lifeboat No 8) but it is salutary to think that, at the time, many of the survivors never talked about it.

On a happier note, the things I would love to have made this month – in an alternate universe where time is infinite and skills multifarious – are Samira Addo’s portraits, particularly her Portrait Artist of the Year winning paintings. Here they are:

Emeli Sande by Samira Addo

Zandra Rhodes by Samira Addo

Aren’t they stunning – even in these small reproductions? Here’s how Addo talks about herself and her work and you can see all her portraits here and here. Before Addo’s work was chosen to win, one of the judges, Tai Shan Schierenberg, the only portrait artist among them, said:

What we want to see is not only the ability to capture likeness but to make art, to make something that tells us about what it is like to be alive today.

I wanted Samira Addo to win from the beginning of the final. Her work stood out for its brave originality. Hers aren’t conventional portraits: her approach seems to me to be to paint a likeness with a vision that shows the person clearly, but her unconventional colours and the way – sketch-like, apparently rough but actually not rough all when seen finished – she captures the nature, the very essence of a person as well as what that person ‘looks’ like is, I think astonishing. Tai Shan Shierenberg was in tears as he tried to describe that ‘extra something’ that Addo’s work has. When he found his voice he said:

Portraits are about the specifics of a person at the same time as being about shared human experience and I like that to come across in the paintings being made during the competition. Portraiture has a long tradition, of course, but I always hope to see artists who have found a way to reinvigorate it or reinvent it with their unique artistic language. 

Addo’s work undoubtedly does that. But when Tai Shan Shierenberg was momentarily lost for words I thought he illustrated perfectly the point of great art: it doesn’t need words, it speaks for itself.

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Social media and the writer; Modigliani and Akhmatova

It’s wise for writers to have a social media presence these days. Publishers don’t exactly insist on it, but they like writers who have significant followings. (Followers equal interest in the writer and so potential sales, obviously.)

But how does a writer balance the time she spends on social media and the time she devotes to her fiction?

Dani Shapiro‘s article here, tells how, when she had a book coming out in 2010, her publisher urged her to start a blog. Now (February, 2018) Shapiro writes, ‘The blog seems quaint’. But she’s kept with it and, here, see how she turned her blog into a book … .

The way I divide time spent in cyberspace with time spent talking to and writing about imaginary people is this: I still blog (quaintly, perhaps, because only once a month and I doubt there’s a book lurking there). And I have a Facebook page and a Twitter page @AngelaYoung4 where I post Goodreads reviews and other writing-related things. My blog subject matter is usually connected with writing / the creative process, and then a paragraph about something which, in a parallel universe where time is infinite, I’d love to have made. I refuse to allow it to take up too much time, the vast majority of which is spent doing the thing without which I couldn’t properly exist: writing fiction, with my email and internet connections turned off.

And this month, the thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is this:

Possibly Anna Akhmatova,
by Amedeo Modigliani

The sculpture is probably based on this drawing:

Drawing of Anna Akhmatova’s head, by Amedeo Modigliani

I saw Modigliani’s sculptures at Tate Modern’s exhibition recently (it’s on until 2 April) and, when finding out more about them (I never knew Modigliani made sculptures), I discovered, through the eloquent Richard Nathanson, in his article here, that:

Throughout her stay in 1911 [in Paris], Modigliani repeatedly took … [Anna Akhmatova] to the Louvre’s Egyptian gallery, so that he could see her among the statues and friezes.
The drawing is closely related to the carving [sculpture] … . The rich heavy black seems already to be ‘feeling’ the sculpture. The dream-like quality of the face. Its length. And implied mass of hair [‘à l’Egyptienne’] with its distinctive fringe, suggest that Modigliani ‘saw’ Akhmatova in this drawing.
‘He used to rave about Egypt,’ Akhmatova wrote. ‘He drew my head bedecked with the jewellery of Egyptian queens and dancers, and seemed totally overawed by the majesty of Egyptian art.’

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Teaching kids to fall in love with science (a different kind of love for Valentine’s day); and things to do with rubbish

I was noodling around on the internet wondering what I was going to post about this month when I discovered Arvind Gupta. He won the Padma Shree on 26 January (India’s Republic Day) for his work in literature and in education, particularly scientific education. He’s an engineer, toy-maker, scientist, teacher and book-lover who spends much of his time making toys from trash to demonstrate scientific principles. And he’s delightful to watch, see here (it’s about 4 minutes long, but it seems far less):

Doesn’t he make you fall in love with science? I wish I’d been taught by him. And didn’t he say, somewhere in there, that, ‘Rubbish [waste, trash] is the birthplace of creation.’ When we’re struggling to find ways to recycle the mounds of plastic we’ve decided it’s sensible (not) to use and breaking our hearts over our own stupidity, Gupta shines a benign, practical and humourous light.

And the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and anything is possible is also connected with rubbish, plastic in this case. Norway’s plastic-bottle recycling idea recycles 97% of all their plastic bottles. (That’s 97%.) This BBC News article describes how the Norwegian scheme not only recycles, but repays you for the cost of the bottle when you return it and reduces the need to make more plastic bottles. That must be good. (And it seems we in the UK might adopt the Norwegian scheme. I hope hope hope we do.) Here’s the YouTube vid from the beginning of the BBC News article.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Design, News, Science, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Teaching kids to fall in love with science (a different kind of love for Valentine’s day); and things to do with rubbish

A new writing resolution; and a new (to me) altruistic way of advertising

I’ve made a new writing resolution: I will not allow the confusing complexity, the sheer size and the constantly changing, shifting nature of a novel’s first draft to eclipse the excitement I felt when its guiding idea first electrified me. I. Will. Not. Ever. Again.

Which means I’ll hang on to my curiosity however much confusion and chaos threaten to extinguish it. Because curiosity is the headlamp that shows me the way through the dark. Albert Einstein said:

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

Asking What If? And Why? And refusing to judge my work (or refusing to take my judgements seriously) before the first draft is finished is the only way story, narrative, character, plot and all the rest have a chance of seeing the light. Sandra Scofield wrote about this and much else in The Last Draft. Her article about it – which sparked my resolution – is here.

And the thing I would love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is a lateral approach to advertising that focusses less on getting people to buy things and more on helping people become what they’d like to become. I was chatting to a millenial the other day (I’m a baby boomer) who told me how the company he works with has made it possible for people to go to film school for free (in association with a photographic product, of course, but film school for free? How miraculous). And how, among other things, the company has brought artists and scientists together (in conjunction with a PC microprocessor, but still … brilliant) to discover what they might create together. Our conversation made me wonder about the differences between his generation and their work ethic (more altruistic?) and mine.

I found this here:

Millennials vs. Baby Boomers

Photo courtesy of

Baby Boomers value success while Millennials value individuality. [Baby Boomers] … grew up with ideals of anti-war and anti-government, believing anything is possible … looking for personal gratification and growth. Millennials have high morals, focus on achievement, are tolerant … [believe in] civic duty and are the most educated generation with realistic values … . Millennials are [also] … extremely technologically savvy.

There’s much more here and it’s got me thinking.

Posted in Baby Boomers, Creativity, Fiction, Millenials, Psychology, Rewriting, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Uncategorized, Writing | Comments Off on A new writing resolution; and a new (to me) altruistic way of advertising

Our Christmas Tree: a work in progress … and The Connection at St Martin’s

My other half put our Christmas tree together yesterday (it has hundreds of branches, all with different colour codes, all with their own little slots in its metal trunk). He also strung the tree with lights. Now it’s my turn to put on the decorations. So it’s a work in progress.As everything is. Especially our lives. So the thing I would love to have dreamt up in a parallel universe where time is infinite and everything is possible is The Connection at St Martin’s. The heartwarming stories I’ve heard from homeless people whose lives have progressed through The Connection, not only with the obvious things like a temporary roof, warmth, hot food, somewhere to sleep and feel safe, somewhere to clean-up and wash clothes, but with listening to what’s happened, listening to why that person became homeless in the first place. Listening and staying, as the vicar of St Martin’s Sam Wells says, with people when they reach the most scary point in their story. ‘By walking with them,’ as he says, ‘while they address the issues in their own lives.’ By listening as they painfully unearth trauma. By listening without ever attempting to fix and without ever assuming there’ll be a happy ending. Because it’s only through listening and allowing the pain and the fear to be expressed that there’s a chance of progress.

The people who work at The Connection deserve anything and everything we can give them … especially our hearts, as the carol suggests:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.

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Atul Gawande and Being Mortal; and a Remembrance Poppy Badge

Atul Gawande‘s Being Mortal – which I wrote about here in the context of his 2014 Reith Lectures – is extraordinary for its courageous and honest confrontation of our failure to confront how we want to die. Or, as Atul Gawande would say, from a surgeon doctor’s point of view:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. .. . Wherever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

In other words it’s all about how we want to live out our final days or weeks or months, or even years, if that’s what our final disease allows. It’s all about perspective. And if our doctors ask us the questions that allow us to face what’s coming and how we’d like to face it then we can remain the authors of the stories of our lives until the very end (as opposed to having a structure and a routine imposed on us as so often happens in nursing homes where what happens is organised to suit the staff rather than the residents: it takes an elderly infirm person much longer to dress him or herself and so staff will hurry her or him along which results in a loss of autonomy and often a resigned giving-up). Whereas in the original assisted living idea residents can lock their doors and be in charge of their medicines and their lives (with help near at hand). And, as Being Mortal shows, residents in such homes, or who have hospice care at home which is tailored to the way they’d like to live to the very end, these people live more fulfilled lives right to the end.

And the thing I would like to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and anything is possible is The Royal Hospital Chelsea (London)’s poppy brooch. So many people have commented on it this Remembrance Week and it really does look beautiful and, more importantly, it makes you notice it and so it makes you think about all those young men (and they still are mostly men) who’ve died in conflict. And it lasts and lasts and lasts. Lest we Forget.

Posted in Death and Dying, Psychology, Storytelling, Things I'd Love to Have Made | Comments Off on Atul Gawande and Being Mortal; and a Remembrance Poppy Badge

Chaos & Creativity; and Beautiful Bookshops

I dislike hate chaos. Very much. Who doesn’t? But it’s an essential state if you want to write fiction. Messiness of the mind is the sine qua non for writers. But, when a piece is finished, it looks so orderly that we – when we first dream of becoming writers – think the process must also be orderly. We have no idea about what happens before that book is neatly printed and bound and settled in its right place, waiting to be to read.

Malcolm Gladwell – he of The Tipping Point and The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – says creative people have messy brains (here’s an illustration of mine: a noticeboard in my study):
And, of course, writing and all creative work is the making of order from chaos. But it’s such an uncomfortable vile feeling that I resist it every day. It’s why I procrastinate. I don’t want to feel that churning, frightening, I’ll-never-make-any-sense-of-this feeling. I don’t want to fail to make order. I hate looking at all the notes I make when I’m not at my desk (conversely I love making them) in their higgledy pile because I don’t know how I’m going to make a story from them. It’s why, on the worst, days, I wish I had a job at a check-out: it would be so very simple (and orderly). But the joy, the indescribable joy, of pulling something through the chaos, finding there really is a working story and a story that works, that joy, that sense of fulfilment, is worth a great deal of uncomfortable chaos. So finding a way to live with acute discomfort of the psyche is essential.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests we creative folk embrace the chaos. Because, he says, if you’re selling soap you have to focus on selling soap and throw every irrelevant thought or idea out, otherwise you won’t be a very good soap-seller. But in the creative world the opposite applies: we gather everything and anything, anything that appeals, anything that sparks an idea or that might work in a story, anything that might become an essential key to a character. But then, naturally, we end up with a pile of chaotically disconnected ideas.

I was talking to a friend the other day – just after the funeral of another friend, so we were in sad and thoughtful mood – and she asked me if I ever felt a sense of chaos when I was writing. I said, ‘Often.’ And as soon as I said it I realised I’d never said it to a single soul before. And so we started talking and thinking and now here are a few more thoughts. And a few conclusions: find a way to embrace/accept/not-run-from the (inevitable) chaos. Know that it will lead somewhere, eventually. Know that it is an essential part of the process. Know that without it, creation cannot happen. Trust the chaos … .

And the thing I would love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and anything is possible, is a beautiful bookshop. At the end of August, Literary Hub published an article about the most beautiful bookshops in the world. Have a look. There are several illustrations, including this bookshop, in Maastricht:

Boekhandel Dominicanen, Maastricht

Doesn’t it make you want to go there immediately?

Posted in Artists, Bookshops, Creativity, Fiction, Psychology, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on Chaos & Creativity; and Beautiful Bookshops

Rejection is a rite of passage for writers, and the Raw Chocolate Company

One of the things that a writer takes a while truly to believe (it’s taken me a while) is that rejection is part of the process: it’s necessary, inevitable and makes our work better. It’s a rite of passage.But the thing is, no piece of writing is born fully formed, just as no child is born able to walk, talk or do calculus (no, I’ve no idea where calculus came from either). But accepting this incontrovertible fact isn’t easy. The pieces we write are our babies. They’re precious and – almost always – have taken so long to write that the idea of rewriting, of changing a thing, is anathema. But if, when the rejections come (and they surely will) there’s the smallest hint of a suggestion about how to improve the piece, value it as if it were a piece of delicious chocolate (see below) and digest it. Stephen King got this rejection once:

Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.

It changed the way he wrote forever.

Susan Sontag, said this:

I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.

Vladimir Nabokov, this:

I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.

And Colette, this:

Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.

All quotes (and more) from an Atlantic Daily article here.

I had a wonderfully productive conversation with an agent in August about my third novel. (It was she who wrote that rejection is a rite of passage for writers.) She loves the idea, says I write beautifully, but has several worries about the way the novel is written. We talked for about an hour and now I’m rewriting. I hope very much that as she reads my rewrites she’ll feel the novel is heading in the right direction. I know I must hang on to my courage, take risks, get things wrong before I get them right and throw out what doesn’t work as I go … then the novel will have a chance of becoming its best self. As Ernest Hemingway said:

The only kind of writing is rewriting.

PS Calculus is (I’ve just looked it up in case you, like me, have never really known what it is): the mathematical study of continuous change. Now there’s a metaphor: writing as calculus.

And the thing I would love to have invented, in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite, is the Raw Chocolate Company. I love hot chocolate and have been making it with Raw Chocolate’s raw cacao for a while. They sell many delicious chocolatey things which are all certified vegan, vegetarian, organic and whose ingredients are simple. They don’t use cane sugar but Xylitol (meaning ‘tree-sweetness’) made from Finnish birch trees. Xylitol has a tenth of the glycemic index of standard cane sugar and is great for those who want to avoid sugar altogether … so what, as they say, is not to like? 


Posted in Creativity, Fiction, Rejection, Rewriting, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Third Novel, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on Rejection is a rite of passage for writers, and the Raw Chocolate Company

A very small trawl through a few less well-known news sites

This month – perhaps because it’s the silly season when news tends towards the frivolous because the House of Commons is in recess and us ordinary folk go on holiday – I thought I’d have a little light trawl through a few lesser-known news outlets. Obviously not these:

I found one called KarmaTube whose aim is to:

bring inspirational stories to light, using the power of video and the internet to multiply acts of kindness, beauty, and generosity.

And I did find an inspiring video from Jane Goodall about how her mother was responsible for her scientific nature: she never told her off when she took earthworms to bed or disappeared for hours in the chicken shed (to see exactly where eggs came from). The video is a delight (as are many others on KarmaTube). 

I found The Canary which states that it:

remains completely independent of any advertisers, funders, companies, political organisations, or political parties.

It’s left of centre and pro-remain, unafraid to say what it thinks and has pomposity-bursting satirical section called Off the Perch.

Then, I found (wishing I hadn’t) the terrifying Trump Real(?) News channel. One Kayleigh McEnany who, until 5 August, worked for CNN, now presents the ‘news‘ for this, erm, channel. Let’s hope it has as short a working life as many of Trump’s staff. Or, that it’s very soon mistaken for an amateur version of Off the Perch (see above).

Then, I found the HuffPost’s Weird news site (you never knew you wanted to know about kilted yoga, did you? Or the odd things people do in the shower that have nothing to do with washing and no … it doesn’t include that).

And then I remembered how very much I love Prospect and how I still haven’t finished the July issue, let alone the August one, so I stopped my tiny trawl and retired to read it.

Happy summer.

Posted in Creativity, News, News Outlets, Science | 2 Comments

Blurt It Out and Instead of a Card

I’m submitting the manuscript of my third novel to literary agents. It’s a process that requires much patience, a certain amount of luck and, most importantly, the ability to pitch my work well to the right agent at the right agency at the right time. (I’ll post the result when there is one.) Recently I pitched on Twitter which is both terrifying (is it really possible to describe the essence of a novel in 140 characters? – yes, and it’s an extremely useful process: you find out if you really know what your novel’s about) and exciting (if an agent likes your Tweet that’s the signal to send the synopsis and opening extract direct to that agent).

In the process I saw that an agent had tweeted about Blurt It Out, an organisation dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding of depression. The link between Blurt It Out and me, my novel submission and the agent’s tweet is nothing more than the fact that I saw it on her twitter feed. But for many people the link between their depression and its cause is hazy or entirely unknown. But talking helps, even though it can feel terrifying as Blurt It Out say:

Telling people is tough, and not everyone will understand. We’ve compiled a library of resources to help you understand depression and what it means for you.

Blurt It Out are dedicated to helping people with depression in all kinds of ways, including a lovely idea: you can sign up for occasional freebies-and-kindness emails (about half way down this page).

And the thing I’d like to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is Candlestick Press’s Instead of a Card. Instead of a card you can send one of their (many) poetry pamphlets (collections of ten poems). They cost just under a fiver and aren’t much fatter than a card, but they mean much more and last far longer. Here’s one to inspire you:

Posted in Creativity, Fiction, Mental Health in Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Third Novel, Writing | 2 Comments

Words on Writing, and Pass on a Poem

There are hundreds of thousands of words written about writing fiction: how to write, why we write, what to do when we can’t write and on and on so that, sometimes, I feel as if I’m adrift on a sea of advice. 

But at other times wise words become the lifeboat that takes me safely back to my story. Image result for wooden dinghyHere are a few that have done that recently (some of the authors’ names link directly to the source of the quote. Others link directly to the author):

Hold out your hand and the stories will come. John Steinbeck

We restore order with imagination. We instill hope, again and again and again. Walt Disney

Grief is love with nowhere to go. Anonymous

It’s not the subject matter, but what you do with it that counts. Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

Plot is what happens. Story is how the characters feel about what happens. Neil Landau

If you make your characters properly they will simply do what is within them, they’ll act out the nature you have given them, and there – you’ll find – you have your plot. Hilary Mantel

My life would be more possible with the women’s movement existing and no running water than the other way around. Naomi Alderman in her acceptance speech for The Power‘s 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize win.

And Pass on a Poem is the thing I’d like to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible. Small groups of people meet from time to time to read poems they love to each other (any poem, except their own). They meet in various parts of the country at various times. Pass on a Poem is owned by the wonderful Reader Organisation who run shared reading groups across the UK and who’ve discovered that shared reading not only brings communities together but that it enhances empathy, as Jane Davis, founder and director, writes. (I wrote about the organisation here, too.)

Poem Clip Art

And here’s a link to Helen Dunmore‘s wonderfully empathetic poem about death, Hold Out Your Arms, written on 25 May, just eleven days before she died, on 5 June. It likens death to a mother holding out her arms to a shy child. Read it, weep and wonder at what the imagination can do.

Posted in Artists, Creativity, Death and Dying, Fiction, Literary Prizes, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Women, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on Words on Writing, and Pass on a Poem

Auditioning to become a WI Speaker, and ‘Born Baffled: Musings on a Writing Life’

In March I auditioned to become a WI speaker. The WI, you say? Don’t they just make jam, sing Jerusalem and talk a lot? Yes to all three, but no to JUST. There are 6,300 WIs in this country with 220,000 members and their community interests and campaigns have a long reach and are extremely varied. They campaign for equal pay and climate change, to fill gaps in the midwifery workforce and to save the honey bee. They also provide a focal point for women in rural (and urban) communities and if you know nothing else about the WI you surely know about the Calendar Girls Campaign for Bloodwise (to raise money for leukaemia and lymphoma research with what might be called a stripped-down campaign …). They’re a very effective bunch, they take their talking seriously so I was nervous.

image from

So nervous that it took me half an hour to set up my projector, laptop etc., because my right hand was shaking which meant I failed to plug the scart cable securely into my laptop and the slide image kept disappearing. By the time I was (shakily) guiding the mouse to cancel the image for what felt like the fiftieth time, I had to hold my right wrist with my left hand and when one of the (very kind) organisers suggested I was taking rather a long time (I had half-an-hour to set up, do a snapshot of my talk and take down) I shook all the more! Happily I was the first to audition so I’d begun my set-up half an hour before I was due on. If I’d been second or anywhere else in the audition list I’d have spent the whole time (shakily) setting up and they’d never have heard a word.

Image result for not hearing from someone

Sorry, what was that dear?

The introduction to Surrey Federation WI Members at that particular Speaker Selection Day included the fact that WIs are often asked for recommendations for speakers by other organisations. The Members were advised to think carefully and to choose wisely. I reckoned they wouldn’t be choosing me: they’d already seen me struggling with my extension lead, microphone, laptop, projector, images … and the fact that the table wasn’t high enough for the beam from my projector to hit the screen on the stage above it. Until I and another kind organiser (they were all kind, but they must have been wondering who on earth they’d invited) found a milk crate to put the projector on.

I’d projected neither a careful nor a wise image of myself but – with a millisecond to go – I was ready. And, dear reader, it did go well. Thanks to the WI Members kind attention and the courage of two particular people, an aristocrat and an able seaman, who helped twenty-six others in Lifeboat Number 8 on the night Titanic sank. So now my talk is about to be included in the WI Speakers Year Book and I’ve already had twelve bookings which just goes to show that nerves really can be a good thing, in the end.

And the words I’d like to have written in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible are these wise ones about writing. They come from a much longer article by Parker J Palmer, syndicated from at The Daily Good a blog I love (I wrote about here).

Care more about the process than the outcome.
Be generous in order for luck to play its part.

And, my favourite:

Dive deep, dwell in the dark, and value beginner’s mind no matter how loudly your ego protests.

Posted in Psychology, Talks, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Titanic, Women, Writers, Writing | 3 Comments