Writing for pleasure

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As my last blog testified I’m never sure where I am going or what I’m doing with my life. Whether I’m in the right job is part of my uncertainty. Then I have a day when work is suddenly uplifting and I feel my role fits me like a glove.

In broad brush strokes, my job is to increase the number of children and young people taking part in art and culture in our city – and to work with schools and organisations to make these experiences valuable and relevant.

On the day I’m referring to I was in a meeting with education colleagues about how to inspire children and young people to write a diary. The trigger for this initiative was concern about academic standards in literacy in this city. Test and exam results fall short of those achieved by pupils in other cities with similar demographics and Ofsted is breathing down the necks of school leaders. One of the challenges is that many children start school with lower levels of vocabulary than children in other parts of the country. But where do words come from?

The meeting could have focused on ‘outcomes’ such as better levels and results. Instead, it narrowed down to enjoyment. How can we make learning, and the listening, speaking, reading and writing we develop as as skills and tools for learning, pleasurable for children?

It is experience that triggers in me the undeniable urge to write. Something happens, someone says something, I see or read or hear something, I dream about or feel something…and I want to write about it. It’s an instinctive desire to explore experience through words…maybe to share it, but fundamentally, to simply examine and reflect on what it means.

If we dig deeper beneath the numerical data that shows ‘under-achievement’ in school, it’s clear that many children in parts of the city live in quite insular bubbles that do not offer them a diverse range of cultural experiences. Is it a lack of different places, people, activities, stimulation that makes it difficult to learn new words?

Partly.

But I think that the main issue is our relationships with children and young people and how we communicate with them. What feels to me like an instinct to write may be partly genetic, but it’s also borne out of the encouragement I’ve had all through my life to express myself. Parents and teachers who listen and are genuinely interested in the stories I want to tell.

Teachers today are under so much pressure to focus on the curriculum and the outcomes and levels they are expected to help children achieve. Subjects are divided up and split off from each other, even though there are links and connections weaving through them that it makes no sense to break.

There is sometimes a lack of time to simply tell stories to children and let them play and imagine in their own space, exploring the way that different subjects and topics interweave and telling or making up their own stories in response. Opportunities to talk, sing and read also open up language. Some children lack this at home (if they have one – over 1000 children in this city are in care and may regularly be moving from one place to another, sometimes up to seven or eight times in just one year). When you are a child living in difficult and stressful circumstances, meaningful one-to-one conversation and consistent relationships can be hard to come by.

Listening and speaking is the foundation for learning – leading on to reading and writing about all subjects. And the foundation for listening and speaking, imagination and ideas, is stories. These can come from within our own heads, but ideas are stimulated by experiences and the culture, community and society around us.

So yes, the privilege of a diverse range of experiences in children’s lives might inhibit their language development and inspiration for writing. I grew up surrounded by books and it was the Diary of Anne Frank that triggered my own diary writing (I wonder how many middle-class girls like me started splurging their thoughts onto paper after reading Anne’s diary – a whole generation I should imagine).

But I think it is the relationships in children’s lives that matter as much as the trips, visits and existence of books at home. The anchor of a committed teacher, youth worker, parent or other significant adult, someone who listens to children’s own experiences and stories and actually cares about them. Someone who is not just rushing from one case load or specification on the curriculum to another, but who encourages play, self-led exploration and experimentation with ideas that spark imagination.

The education system is broken and the pleasure has been sucked out of learning (thanks Gove).

But I’m looking forward to being involved in something that will, if driven by passionate and committed teachers, kindle the imaginations of children and give them a reason to write, not just because they have to, but because they want to.

Grappling with uncertainty

A while ago, I read about a decision making technique that advised broad thinking, emotional detachment and caution about making over-confident assumptions.

The advice came from Chip and Dan Heath in their 2013 book: Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.

The broad premise of the book is to highlight common faults in our thinking and share a process that is designed to counteract this. The four faults are:

  1. Our focus is too narrow – we are guilty of the most obvious and visible options and miss information that is not within our immediate view.
  2. We fall into confirmation bias. We develop a quick belief about something and then seek out information that confirms that belief.
  3. We get caught in short-term emotion. We are too emotionally connected to the decision and struggle with being appropriately detached.
  4. We are guilty of overconfidence. We assume that we know more than we actually do know and jump to conclusions, thinking we can accurately predict the future.

To challenge these faults, the book recommends four steps:

  1. Widen your options
  2. Reality-test your assumptions
  3. Be objective – step back before deciding
  4. Prepare to be wrong

I’ve struggled to make decisions – big and small – all my life. Ironically, I’ve pretty much made a career of helping other people make decisions: coaching, mentoring, signposting and ‘facilitating’ teachers and creative professionals and artists. I’ve got a whole bag of planning and decision making tricks up my sleeve, it’s just that I never apply them successfully to myself.

Someone once told me that it’s better to decide and move on rather than put off making a decision. Why flounder in the oxygen-starved shallows of uncertainty when we could swim deep and taste the experience? Or ‘suck it and see’, as the saying goes – and spit it out/change direction later if it doesn’t work out.

But any big decision really worth making will be life-changing, and necessarily involves an element of risk. And whilst I have had some adventures in my life, they’ve been pretty spontaneous or based on running away from commitment (mainly to being grown up and making decisions). So is it safe to say I’m not a risk-taker? See, I’m not even sure about that.

Sometimes people are cowed from taking the bull by the horns (no pun intended) because they a) fear failure; and b) fear what others will think of them when they fail.

I’m fascinated by the concept that we can control our own state of mind, and patterns of thinking, simply through ‘self-talk’. Please choose one of the following thoughts:

  • I am comfortable and confident about who I am and don’t worry about how others perceive me. It’s OK for me to fail.
  • I’m reasonably OK with myself…I sometimes question my integrity and how others perceive me, but failure makes me feel ashamed.
  • I doubt myself and I’m paranoid about what others think of me all the time. Failure is not an option.

I do wonder how many of us stop ourselves in our tracks because of lack of confidence. Such a travesty that this could be the only barrier to fulfilling our potential.

Is this what stands in the way of making decisions? Or is it really just NOT KNOWING?

Rasselas in Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson doesn’t lack confidence. He’s just genuinely and infinitely dissatisfied and searching. It’s easy to blame this existential angst on human consciousness, which makes us constantly wonder about the point of being alive. But there are so many people who drag themselves out of this philosophical rut and do something constructive. Nature doesn’t make us all indecisive and feeling incomplete. So are some of us simply genetically predisposed to procrastination? At least Rasselas got out there, experimented with life, and moved on when the disillusionment set in.

Perhaps those of us who dither could take a leaf out of George Cockcroft’s book, The Dice Man (published under the pen name Luke Rhinehart) and make life decisions based on the casting of dice.

As for me…I think I’ve done enough blogging about uncertainty and decision making. So I’m never going to do it again. Ever. There. Decision made.

Fact or fiction?

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What I love about fiction is the opportunity it gives authors to play with narrative voice, persona and identity. The book I’m reading now, The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain, is a straightforward third person narrative. It tells the story from the perspective of an observant, sensitive and confused child but allows the reader a wider understanding than he has of the motives and prejudices of the characters around him. Whereas Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which I read a few years ago, is one of those novels in which you don’t know who to trust. This makes it an addictive, compulsive read, forcing you to guess the true nature of the two main characters. They alternate as the narrators and they are opaque. The author withholds facts and complexities about them, merely drip-feeding information.

It made me question the possibility of ever really knowing or understanding a person intimately. Including myself. People are so good at hiding things about themselves, faking certain characteristics to fit a certain type they think is popular, good, socially acceptable or attractive. And sometimes there are no hidden depths, or we fool ourselves we are something we are not.

Around the time I read Gone Girl I also came across a review in the Guardian about a book on mental health and the old nature/nurture chestnut (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/19/semantic-polarities-psychopathologies-family-review). It apparently advocates not laying blame for mental illness or instability on any one particular relationship or incident we have experienced, as we are just an intricate web of responses to every significant person or event in our lives. Impossible to untangle and resolve. Or prevent the fucked-up-ness from kicking in, when something so irrevocable as, for example, a dominant personality in a sibling or parent affects us, but in weird and unpredictable ways depending on our own natural personality type.

I can relate to that. I aspire to being like my sensible, hard-working, civically responsible, morally upright mother. But I’m more like my chaotic, creative, philosophical and morally questioning father. Though more socially outgoing than both my parents, I have struggled to ‘find myself’ and find it very difficult to make decisions.

Maybe I’m just fickle. I’m easily influenced by charismatic people who have been significant in my life. My head listens to the sensible advice and wisdom of my mother; my heart (and genetic inheritance) leads me along the higgledy-piggledy, experimental path of my dad, who is forever dabbling in different ideas and projects. Most of these are interesting and fun so it’s not all doom and gloom. It means I’ve done a lot of things, from teaching to travel to community development to media to training in journalism to working for children’s charities to being on the periphery of the arty, creative, cultural sector (but only to help other people be arty, creative and cultural).

I am constantly wondering if there is another life journey, an incredible creative path, available to me. But this remains elusive. It would be much more convenient if I could just be satisfied with what I’m currently doing. Can I change or am I genetically fixed?

I continue to question my own identity and ponder on my career path. But as I progress through middle age I am trying to accept my capriciousness and settle into a life in which relationships, art, culture and literature bring pleasure and the digital age keeps me guessing as to what innovation will surprise us next (much as Gone Girl kept me guessing about its protagonists).

Whilst I’ve often turned to others to reflect back to me who I am, I think I have to take responsibility for deciding that for myself. I think what matters is that I am comfortable in my own skin whilst I explore who I am, perhaps never experiencing enlightenment.

And I think it’s important, the next time I share an idea or dream that I have of my future, some vision of who I want to be and what I want to do, that I am not cowed by the response I get from those who I share these ideas with.

It’s up to me to decide what I want and who I want to be and I have the right to change my mind as I go along. I’d like to be braver about taking steps into the unknown, towards being the person I imagine I could be.

I’m not sure I will ever be clear and certain about who I am. But then, who is? Some people seem to live and breathe their identity without much self-doubt but if we don’t question, reflect or challenge ourselves we are not open to learning and new ideas.

I love the way that fiction is able to recreate that shifting sense of self, the lack of solid evidence about anyone else’s true thoughts and identity. But what fiction can do that real life often can’t, is reveal the true identities of those who seem most trustworthy and reliable, with core principles, moral values and beliefs. What if we could peel off the masks of those around us and see the intricate workings of their deepest, inner thoughts?

I believe 100% that I have only one life. I’m probably more than half way through it so I’m going to embrace this uncertainty about myself and others and enjoy the ride – what’s left of it.