Thursday, 28 February 2013

Wearing two hats, by Maxine Linnell

After my blog last month, Lynda Waterhouse asked me about what it’s like to be a psychotherapist and a novelist. Thanks Lynda, you made me think about it some more! 

I’ll start off with two people I’ve met who’ve been both a writer and a therapist. About 25 years ago I knew a  therapist who worked with people for a couple of years, then suddenly stopped for no obvious reason. A few months later her book of short stories was published. The linking theme of the collection was the relationship between a psychotherapist and her clients. I knew one of her clients, who was pretty sure one of the stories was about her.

A few years ago I met a well-known novelist, who was a psychotherapist for many years. As her books became well-known, she began to have problems in her therapy world. She worked hard not to use any of the people she had met in her consulting room. Her clients read her books. Some were convinced they were the basis of a character, and were angry. Some were hurt and angry that they were missing from her books! Eventually writing took over, and she no longer works  as a therapist. 

It’s a bit of a minefield, and clearly not just for me. I’ve never used the experience of someone I’ve worked with in my books, stories, plays or poems. I feel very strongly about the privilege of people sharing very private aspects of themselves with me, and would not knowingly betray their trust. So I’ve been very careful. But some of the themes and difficulties I write about have been issues for people I’ve worked with. It could be easy for someone to feel betrayed by reading my books, even if I think there’s nothing that comes from them in the stories. It feels very important not to cause harm. 

On the positive side, there’s so much I’ve learned from the people I’ve known, sometimes over years. I’ve learned to listen very deeply, to hear what people say, and what they might be saying under the surface. I wouldn’t presume to say I know, but in the job it’s important to ask, to check it out. So I’ve heard a great deal. I also know a little of how people get hurt, the strategies we find to cope, the best and the worst aspects of human beings. And how none of us is only one thing, and all of us change over time.

I think that’s helpful for writing - I like to think I trust my readers to look beneath the obvious, to be able to handle characters who aren’t just good or bad, heroes or monsters, who develop and change, often through meetings with important people in their lives. 

And there’s that tricky job for novelists, finding an authentic, consistent voice for our characters and ourselves. In Closer, Mel speaks of her experience, what she knows, what she guesses, and what she’d rather not know. Readers usually work it out long before Mel does, and have to go along with her as she discovers the truth, her reactions and feelings, and eventually finds a way through. Perhaps I’m inviting people who read my books to listen as accurately as I try to as a psychotherapist, to look beyond the words on the page.

The training and the work of a therapist also develop empathy. It’s essential to be able to imagine what other people think and feel, to walk in their shoes. There is some research to show that reading stories and novels develops empathy. Through identifying with characters in books who might have very different lives from our own, we can find compassion and understanding for real people. There have been so many times too, when as a reader I've felt a writer really 'got' something I've been feeling or experiencing - and it's helped me know what's going on. Deborah Moggach said recently ‘reading sensitises us as human beings’ - though perhaps that depends on what we read! We can recognise that people have different perspectives, different backgrounds and cultures, different needs and intentions. Writers also need empathy to be able to create believable characters whose lives readers will want to follow. The connections are clear.

Most of the time we look at people from the outside, and they seem all in one piece. I’ve learnt in my therapy work that so many people are walking miracles. They adapt, they learn, they recover, they love, even when they’ve experienced huge suffering and damage over many years. That’s something I want to pass on in my writing: the recognition of how each of us has come through something and managed the best way we can.

Maxine Linnell
Vintage and Closer, published by Five Leaves
Breaking the Rules, published by Bloomsbury
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d'Urbervilles retold, published by Real Reads.
Mentoring and teaching.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The work of reading – Lily Hyde

Recently I’ve been attending play readings for a small theatre company, where actors together with the director and producer read through plays to judge if they might be suitable for production.

Since most of the actors are coming to the plays ‘blind’, feeling their way into the roles as they go along without any idea how their character or the story will turn out, they are a bit like novel readers turning the pages to see what happens next. It’s really interesting – and awe-inspiring – to see how they manage to inhabit their parts with no preparation whatsoever.

What really strikes me, though, is the attitude of actor, director and producer alike to the text. It is one of appropriation. They are all thinking: what can I do with this? How can I bring it to life? Can I make it rewarding for me to engage with, and for an audience to watch?

The script is treated as a dynamic thing, a map from which the theatre company will create their own journey. The director tells me her first action when she’s interested in a play is to cross out all the stage directions. She and the actors look at the words of the script, of course, but just as much they look at the gaps between the words, and explore how they can fill them.

Can and should readers apply the same process to novels? These days everything is supposed to be participatory, and so novels come with author interviews, notes for book groups and lesson plans. Readers engage with the text through personal contact with the writer, through reviewing, writing fanfiction, dressing up as the characters…

Ever since Roland Barthes, we have known that the author is dead, and that every written story is created anew in the mind of every reader. But I sometimes feel that while we as writers are supposed to be engaging with our readers more than ever, opportunities for those readers to really interact with a text are often being limited.

How many of you writers out there have been told to remove words that readers might not know, spell out every step of the plot, simplify your sentences, explain in exhaustive detail your characters’ motives and internal thoughts? I know that the editorial or publishing motive behind this is to make books accessible to a wide audience, and reading in general terms more participatory. That’s an important motive. But I feel that by not demanding real input from our readers, we also deny them any power, and half the enjoyment.

I love books that make me do the work of an actor or a director. It’s a question of trust. Every playwright must start from a position of trust, that actors and directors are able and willing to take the words and make them into something – running the risk of course that the ensuing production will be awful, but isn’t risk inherent in any meaningful relationship? As a reader I want to be trusted to fill in gaps between the words, take the implications and run with them, guess, infer, appropriate: bring the story to life. As a novelist I want to trust my readers the same way.

The word ‘work’ makes this sound pretty unappealing (see Nicola Morgan’s recent post on ‘readaxation’ for contrast). But everyone really has a lot of fun at those play readings. Even the simplest, least demanding book requires work from the reader, to transform black-and-white symbols on a page into places, situations, people and ideas in the imagination.
That work of transformation is the magic of reading. It’s how a book becomes a part of you.

It’s a truism that the more you put into something, the more you get out. From a reader’s point of view, I think its a truism worth repeating. What do you think, writers and readers?  

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Learning What It Feels Like to Be You - Andrew Strong

What do these have in common?

personal finance
self defence
Mandarin Chinese
media education
computer programming

These are things that at one time or another I’ve heard people propose as subjects that should be introduced into the primary school curriculum.  My favourite, one that I’ve not included on this list, is golf. 

Whenever I hear some expert or other spout off about what it is should be added to the curriculum I want to ask them whether they can suggest what should be removed from the school day so that their particular obsession can be added to the list.

I can think of plenty of things that shouldn’t be taught. The curriculum is bloated with content.  Much of what children learn in school they forget within a few months.  Perhaps some of the things we assume are sacrosanct should be scrutinized more objectively. 

Primary schools seem to put much more emphasis on, symmetry, for example, than they do on trying to equip children with the means of understanding why other people behave as they do. Perhaps symmetry is easier to teach.  A Martian observing the typical day in a British primary school would probably imagine that after leaving school humans spend most of their lives puzzling over how to add fractions or recognising the properties of 2d shape.

I’ve often wondered if most of the curriculum is devised as a means of managing large numbers of pupils.  It’s much easier to control children if they are busy trying to solve a problem using pencils and paper, than through the volatility of a discussion, or role play, unpeeling the layers of difference between the way individuals see the world.

You may say that pupils will learn this sort of thing anyway. But it’s my experience that they don’t. Misconceptions about motives aren’t learnt in the playground.

And why, for example, is there so much emphasis on writing? Writing, and particularly writing stories has formed an essential and unquestioned part of the primary school curriculum in the UK for as long as anyone alive can remember. And as someone who is fond of writing stories, I have, perhaps, turned a blind eye to the fact that not all children love it as much as I do.  All the technical aspects of story writing are incredibly difficult to teach to a ten year old farmer’s son who has never read a book out of choice and who would rather be outside scrambling on his motorbike, or helping with the lambing, something that is very likely to earn him a living in the years to come.

Writing stories is a very particular skill, a language all of its own. But do all the tricks children must learn to write stories successfully – for example, using the past tense –  benefit them in any other way? I don’t mean listening to stories, or recounting them orally, I mean writing them.

Once I’d got used to the idea that perhaps not every child I’ve met is as excited about writing stories as I am, I wondered whether writing could have a purpose that transcends the story. And I’ve come to believe that it does.

Earlier this week on Radio 4’s ‘Who Was Rosalind?’ I heard it mentioned that as part of learning Latin, boys in Shakespeare’s time were taught ethopoeia.  They were expected to write and perform a speech for a person very different from themselves, often a woman, and as much as possible see the world from this other’s point of view. Thus, it was suggested, Shakespeare learnt to understand how to think, and write as a member of the opposite sex.

Just before he died, David Foster Wallace gave a very moving description of why he writes.  One fundamental reason, he said, was to understand others.  He imagines his default reaction to seeing a woman yelling at her offspring in the supermarket.  But then he tries to imagine her life:

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”

This may be extreme, but it makes a point. We don’t really know what is going on in stranger’s lives, or in their heads.  Developing ethopoeia could encourage a suspension of judgement of others, a willingness to imagine their point of view.

Encouraging this particular form of empathy could also further a better understanding of the importance of reading.  I love this passage by philosopher Denis Dutton, discussing literary scholar Joseph Carroll’s study of Pride and Prejudice.  Forgive me for quoting it at length, but I think it’s very pertinent.

‘Mr. Collins introduces himself to the Bennett household in a letter that is read by the family. This letter is, as Carroll nicely describes it, “an absolute marvel of fatuity and of pompous self-importance,” and much is revealed in how mother, father, and the Bennett sisters react to it. The excessively sweet-tempered older sister, Jane, is puzzled by it, though she credits Mr. Collins with good intentions. The dull middle sister, Mary, says she rather likes Mr. Collins’s style. The mother, in her typical manner, only reacts to it opportunistically, in terms of a potential advantage in the situation. It is up to Elizabeth and her father to see clearly what a clownish performance the letter represents: their understanding marks an affinity of temperament and a quality perceptiveness the others lack. But what Carroll’s analysis makes clear is that there are two more people — not fictional characters, but actual human beings — who are in on the agreement between Mr. Bennett and his second daughter. These two further individuals are also members of their “circle of wit and judgment.” First, there is Jane Austen...and second, there is you, the reader. The creation and experience of the novel brings about a uniting of points of view, a sense of shared sensibility not open to everyone, and a broadening of perspectives. It is no small enjoyment for the reader to be included in this exclusive group.’

Being able to stand in the shoes, sit in the clothes, inhabit the bodies as well as understand how different people see the world in completely different ways, these offer us the opportunity to question many of our assumptions about gender, age, race, sexuality. Reading can do this, and writing has the potential to achieve it too.

Of course this isn’t the only function of reading and writing and the last thing I want to do is advocate what for me are pleasurable experiences as a means to an end.  But if the concept of ethopoeia were introduced, then being able to empathise could be given the same status as spelling or long multiplication, computer programming and even golf.  I think it would help make a better world.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Of Snow and Snowdrops - Tamsyn Murray

I don't know about you but one of the things I like about being a writer is the amount of time I get to spend alone. Ever since I was a little girl, reading my way through the local children's library, I've been comfortable with my own company (never truly alone, because you aren't with a book) and now I'm mostly grown up, I'm still OK with not talking to another living soul for several days. Not that I get to go several days usually, but on the rare occasion it happens, I don't feel lonely.

So when I heard (last year) about a February meeting of children's writers, some of whom I knew online and others I'd heard of, I wasn't immediately sure I wanted to go. But one of my writing resolutions for this year is to socialise with fellow writers more, so I booked up and promptly forgot about it.

The grounds were covered
in these little beauties
The weekend of the meet up arrived and last Saturday morning, I found myself looking for excuses not to go - I'd had a chest infection I wasn't completely over, it was snowing, the baby needed me, the dog needed me and (scraping the bottom of the barrel) surely my husband needed me for something. Once again, I reminded myself that I was meant to be being more sociable and set off, hoping for friendly faces when I arrived at the snowdrop-bedecked Orton Hall in Peterborough. Of course, I needn't have worried - children's writers are famously lovely and the ones I was spending the next day and a half with were no exception. Funny, friendly and so generous with their experience and expertise, they were a pleasure to be around. I learned a lot but, more importantly, I was reminded that while you can talk to friends and family about the business of writing, no one understands you better than another writer. Over the course of the day, and then again over dinner, I talked to a lot of lovely people, all of whom knew what it was to receive a flurry of rejections, or get a character just exactly right, or just worry that you're RUBBISH. On Sunday, some of them very generously shared the ways in which they'd improved their social networking or helped sales or thought outside the box and introduced new ways of working.

At lunchtime on Sunday I made my way home, feeling inspired and refreshed and a little bit better equipped to deal with the ups and downs of writing. Of course, it will come as no surprise to any of you when I say that the brilliant group of writers I met was the SAS. Thanks for making a virgin Sassie so welcome, I'm so glad I went - bring on next year!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Searching for Sugar Man, by Sue Purkiss

Someone in my book group recently recommended to me a DVD called Searching for Sugar Man. I don't normally buy DVDs, but it just happened that the shop in Bristol where she found it is on my beat at the moment, and so I went in and asked for it.

It's a documentary, and it tells a real Cinderella of a story. In the early 1970s, two eminent record producers discovered a singer playing his guitar in a bar in the back streets of Detroit. No-one knew much about him; he even played with his back to the audience and a hat shading his face, as if he shunned publicity and played only for the sake of his music. His tunes were melodic, the kind that stuck in your head; his words were intriguing and seemed to come from the heart. He reminded them of Bob Dylan, but with a sweeter voice. He was called Sixto Rodriguez.

They made an album with him, using all their considerable expertise and resources, and, delighted with the results, they sat back to wait for America to fall at his feet. But it didn't happen. There was nothing but a resounding silence. Inexplicably, it bombed, as did the next one. Talking about this in the film, one of the producers was almost in tears, even after so many years: he simply could not understand why it failed. The record company let him go, just before Christmas: prophetically, one of his songs had been the story of a man who lost his job two weeks before Christmas.

That would have been the end of the story. But unbeknown to anyone in America, somehow or other a bootleg recording found its way to South Africa, where his protest songs found an echo in the hearts and minds of the people there who were rising up against apartheid. Over the next twenty years, Rodriguez became huge in South Africa: anyone who had a record collection would have his music in pride of place. It was the background to their lives.

No-one knew anything about him. There were rumours that he had committed an ultimate act of protest or despair, and killed himself on stage. Eventually, two South African fans decided to investigate. As far as they were able, they followed the money: to whom had the profits from all his record sales gone? The trail grew blurred, but in the end, they found a different lead - and a simple phone call established that Rodriguez was not tragically dead; he had simply returned to his life as a builder, and continued to live in the same house he'd always lived in. No-one he worked with had a clue about his early brush with fame, and he had absolutely no idea about his extraordinary popularity on another continent.

Well, the two investigators went to see him. They persuaded him to visit South Africa, where he played concerts to thousands and thousands of ecstatic fans. He strolled out there into the spotlight as if he'd been doing it all his life. His voice was just as good as ever. And the profits from his new-found fame? He wasn't interested. Apparently, he has given much of the money from recent concerts and records away to family and friends. he still lives in the same house, and he doesn't give two hoots for all the lost profits from the million of his records sold in South Africa during the lost years.

The film is absolutely gripping. It's just won a Bafta, and deservedly so. 

Of course, I could make a parallel between the undiscovered genius of this likable  unassuming man, and the fate of who knows how many other artists - children's writers among them! - who have also languished in obscurity, in or out of a garret. But in truth, that isn't the point. I just want you to look out for this film, because it's the most feel-good work of art I've come across in a good while. And the music's good too!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Including Details Beyond The Obvious - Lynne Garner

Whilst in our local book shop purchasing a few Christmas presents last year I decided to treat myself to a book on the craft of writing. The book I chose was Your Creative Writing Masterclass by Jurgen Wolff.

Now for me the sign on a good non-fiction book is the number of pieces of paper slipped between the pages. By the time I'd finished reading this book it had a large number. One highlights Chapter 24; It's in the details. Two of the questions posed in this section resonated with me: 
  • Have you appealed to a variety of senses, described not only what things look like but also how they sound, smell and taste?
  • Have you selected details beyond the obvious?

These two questions urged me into action. I decided to use one of the many diaries I'd received as a gift as an observation diary. Basically my aim is to observe something 'beyond the obvious' every day for the next year and record it. So far I've managed to achieve this goal. Here are just a few of my observations:

Now the snow has fully melted the mud is back. Listening to the squash, squelch, slurp of the mud I have to decide. Do I let the inner child enjoy the sensation and the sounds? Or do I let the inner adult force me to walk along the very edges where the ground is drier and safer?   

Piles of brown leaves, huddled around a tree trunk still lie in the shade. Most of the hard frost from the night before has gone but it still outlines their veins.

A large flock of pigeons cover a field, all busy scratching for food. I'm reminded, for some reason of a dot-to-dot page. I wondered what picture would emerge if I joined those dots.

The above isn't fantastically written. However if I'd not forced myself to notice and write them down, they'd be forgotten and I'd never have the chance to include in future stories. 

Another plus is that in the short time I've been keeping this diary it's already given me two new ideas for picture book stories. 

To finish this post I'd like to offer the above as a tip. So if you have a diary hidden away unloved, dust it off and create your own observation diary.

Lynne Garner
I'm also part of the team on The Picture Book Den and AuthorsElectric

Friday, 22 February 2013

Readaxation - by Nicola Morgan

"Reading for pleasure" is something I think and talk about a lot, as I know many of us on ABBA do. I believe there are major benefits to individuals and to society in people spending time reading for pleasure - by which I mean "reading intending to enjoy it".

It's important for at least two reasons:
  • The logical one: young children need to spend vast numbers of hours practising reading if they are to become expert or even functionally literate, and young children especially just won't put in those hours if they don't enjoy it. So, it's got to be pleasurable for them to do it enough.
  • The evidence-based one: research (for example the 2009 PISA report into the levels of and trends for reading for pleasure in 64 OECD countries) suggests that young people who read every day for pleasure do better at school. (On its own, this doesn't prove causation but the study alos considered socio/economic effects.)
There's another reason, though, and I was thinking about this the other day because I'm working on a book about teenage stress: reading for pleasure feels like a very good way to reduce stress

I did a bit of digging and found this report on a study by Dr. David Lewis, cognitive neuropsychologist at the Uni of Sussex, showing that reading (even for a few minutes) had a greater effect on reducing heart-rate than the other methods tested, with a reduction of 68%. Dr. Lewis suggests an explanation: "By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book, you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world, and spend a while exploring the domain of the author's imagination." 

I never believe a newspaper's interpretation of research so I went hunting for the actual paper. I couldn't find it, just eleventy-million press reports! But I did find this interesting critique, which alerted me to the fact that it was a very small study, on only 16 participants, so probably not really enough to get too excited about. 

However, since I'm not a scientist and since anyone who is stressed doesn't have time to wait for scientists to prove properly that reading can relieve stress, I'm going to continue to believe that it does. Because I feel that it does and I bet lots of people agree. Frankly, that's quite enough for me. I don't need scientists to prove that reading is relaxing - though I'd eagerly read their research if I could find it.

Anyway, I've decided that the idea of Reading to Relax - Readaxation! - is going to be part of my work as Patron of Reading at Larbert High School. Here's what I plan to do:
  • Commit myself to spending at least twenty minutes a day reading to relax. How can I ask pupils to do it if I don't?
  • Aim to create a state of mind called narrative transportation during that reading time - in other words, not just skim-read but make sure I read something I'm enjoying so much that I become engrossed. I suspect this is important for the stress-relieving aspect.
  • Ensure pupils understand the benefits to them of daily readaxation.
  • Motivate keen readers to set aside that time and to value the pleasure, not just treat it as a treat.
  • Motivate and help reluctant readers to find something they will genuinely enjoy reading. I'll use keen readers to help here, by recommending exciting reads. I have a fun plan for this - I will report back to you if it works!
  • Show all pupils how to notice and record their feelings of stress before and after their daily pleasure-reading dose.
I'd love to know any other insights you might have into the idea of readaxation? 

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Writer's Pets - Ruth Symes / Megan Rix

Most of my books have had an animal star in them - certainly all the picture books and the Megan Rix ones. Plus as a work-from-home writer (apart from when I'm walking the dogs by the river) I usually have a dog or two next to me while I'm writing and, when they were small enough, a pup fast asleep on my lap as I wrote at the computer in my office.

If I write on my laptop on the bed Traffy still crawls onto my lap for a cuddle - and she's pretty huge now.

To me, writing and pets just seem to go together. And as far as I can tell from the comments and writers of this blog lots of ABBA-ites agree. So I did a quick bit of research on authors and their pets and found some photos I'd like to share. There were far more than the few below but these are some that jumped out at me:

Stephen King working with Corgi Marlowe. #books
Steven King with Marlowe

Beatrix Potter with rabbit Benjamin Bouncer. #books
Beatrix potter and Benjamin Bouncer

Maurice Sendak and Herman
Mark Twain with Huckleberry cat ;-) #books
Mark Twain with Huckleberry cat

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Flush

I think Elizabeth's poem to her dog 'Flush' particularly resonates with me at the moment - having had a cold for the past week or so and knowing how much nicer taking an afternoon nap is with a dog cuddled up beside you.

Although my two would rather be having wild times!

What's your writer's pet like?

There must be something down here.

Ruth's latest book is Cat Magic published by Piccadilly and her website's

Megan's latest book is The Great Escape published by Puffin. It's been shortlisted for the East Sussex Children's Book Award. Her website's