Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Welcome to Ridley's Reading Rooms

This is the first in what I'm thinking will be a monthly feature where I share with you my reading highs and lows of the past month.  It won't be everything I've read (over three hours today reading up on the laws of defamation....I will spare you the details) but certainly it'll be a brief review of the stuff I choose to read....If you have any thoughts or feedback on any of the books, I'd love to hear from you.

So I kicked January off by reading one of the books I got for Christmas.

The Testament of Mary is a first person narrative by Mary, mother of Jesus, and her reflections and recollections in the time that she lived following the death of her son.

The novella is irritatingly scattered with well-known scenes from the New Testament.  Toibin seems keen to avoid filling in the blanks of the life of Christ as witnessed just by Mary - even to the point that Mary exits the kitchen when her sons group of 'misfits' gather together, so that she has nothing to say about the early disciples except that she finds them foolish and cruel.

The strongest 'retelling' by Mary is of the events she attends or witnesses in person - such as the wedding at Cana and the meeting with Lazarus who has been raised from the dead.  Here Toibin looks at the 'miracle' of resurrection from a more practical point of view - what must it be like to have died and returned?  Mary's empathy for Lazarus, her descriptions of him, alone and utterly isolated, as well as her confusion about what has happened are eloquently expressed.  Less successful are the scenes where Mary is being 'told' about miracles such as Jesus walking on water.

On the one hand recollecting familiar New Testament events is in keeping with the actual Gospels themselves as each one tells parts of the same story from a slightly different point of view.   On the other hand, the hinted at and darker political story of Mary being held half prisoner and milked for her recollections is far more interesting and not fully explored.

Ultimately the book failed for me because I was not convinced by Mary.  At times I felt she was closer to Mandy Cohen from The Life of Brian than a mother dealing with firstly outliving her son and then with having to live in fear for her own life because of his status as a prophet and the son of god.

My second read of the month was also a Christmas present from a friend.

The Power of Now is a book about spiritual enlightenment and how we can achieve it for ourselves.  Tolle tells in the preface how he experienced his own dark night of the soul in which he felt he could 'no  longer live with himself'. In that moment of darkness there was a flash of logic for him - who was the 'I' that could no longer live with 'him'?  Was he in fact therefore made up of two selves?  Having had his mind thus twisted into this very zen conundrum he set about understanding the 'self' beneath the 'self'....Still with me?  Excellent...on we go.

Tolle suggests that we are in fact made up of two parts - 'mind' and 'being'.  'Mind' is the noise, the endless chatter that you hear in your head. Tolle believes we allow 'mind' to dominate and that this domination of 'mind' over 'being' is the seat of all unhappiness, suffering and pain in our lives. Tolle points out that we can only live in the present, in the 'now', but the chatter in our heads is mostly about the past or the future, places we cannot physically 'be'. He recommends we listen to the 'noise', find the silence underneath it and thus inhabit the 'now'.

January is typically the month for detox and that reaches into the area of the soul as much as the stomach. Which isn't to say The Power of Now doesn't have a value.  Tolle makes a lot of sense, even if he sometimes feels a bit repetitive.  The plethora of books on the subject of mindfulness available at any good bookshop today suggests we are living in society that is overworked, overwhelmed and in need of some spiritual solace.  You could do a lot worse than reading The Power of Now if any of those thoughts feel familiar to you, though I would recommend the orange version 'Practicing the Power of Now'.  It's the same material just packaged in a more succinct, user friendly way.

Stargazing was my charity shop find of the month!  It is the memoir of an arts student who dropped out of college in 1973 to become a relief lighthouse keeper for six months. It is a beautiful book which tells the story of lighthouse keeping, captured just before lighthouses became fully automated.

It is the story of a most diverse group of men (all lighthouse keepers were men...) living a very peculiar, routine and quite solitary life.  Lighthouses were always manned by three people at any one time so the men didn't live alone, but someone needed to be awake and to tend to the light throughout the night - the hardest and most solitary shift being the 'Rembrandt' night watch which began at 2am and ran through to morning.

Hill captures the characters of the men that he spent time with on a number of lighthouses around the coast of Scotland and in particular captures the spirit of storytelling that seems to be the unifying characteristic of all the light house keepers.

Whilst Hill ultimately returns to art school the time working on the lighthouses provides him with the space and solitude in which he is able to develop into himself through learning and living in a world in which routine and discipline are central tenets.  Hill's experience is a Romantic one and the book left me with an absolute nostalgia for peopled lighthouses and a craving to go live in one for a while...

So it felt serendipitous when my second charity book shop find of the month Lighthousekeeping turned out to also be set on a lighthouse, Cape Wrath, off the Scottish coastline.

Our hero Silver is orphaned at 10 (in 1979 literally just before the lights stopped being manned!) and sent to live with the lighthouse keeper Pew as an apprentice.

The story is a wonderful Winterson work of magical realism and so it complemented perfectly the factual book I'd been reading just before.  It revisited tales about the Stevenson family - engineers who had lighthouse building and design in their blood since the first lighthouses were built.  It included stories about Robert Louis Stevenson and the way in which lighthouses had played a part in his early life, potentially influencing the stories he wrote.

Through stories about the very Victorian character of the Reverend Babel Dark, who was born on the very day the lighthouse at Cape Wrath was completed, and his connections with RL Stevenson, Darwin, and Molly O'Rourke Silver experiences love and loss whilst trying to figure out what her own story might be.

For Winterson 'lighthousekeeping' as a profession is a euphemism for storytelling - which fits beautifully with Hill's description of 'real' lighthouse keepers as compulsive storytellers.  Through reading Lighthousekeeping I'm reminded what a great author Winterson is and am keen to read much, much more (I mean everything) that she's written.

So that was January at the Reading Rooms.  The coming month is likely to feature some (but almost certainly not all) of the following books.......

I hope you pop back for some more tea and book chat next month.  Happy reading y'all! xxx

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

How to survive an MA (and run a half marathon)

Term officially started today for us MA Journalism students at UWE.

Not so much with a bang as with a thin, mildly depressed, whinging noise.  The computer systems were down; the grades we'd been awarded for the work we handed in before Christmas hadn't been issued to us despite our lecturers working like the clappers over the break to ensure we had them back on day one of the term; the email about the change in both the time and the room for our seminar today had only gone to about half the class so a whole bunch of people couldn't make it. M-I-S-E-R-Y prevailed. Resigned misery at that.

And we're not alone.  Our tutors are equally harassed and harangued by it all.  On one module, despite our MA course leader saying he DIDN'T want us to do an essay in the same semester we have a pretty critical law exam, because the system says we're supposed to hand in a piece of work this term we now have to do an extra piece of work......'Computer says no' has nothing on this.

The thing is, some of this is simply the sort of bureaucracy you have to expect from any large organisation that has been made 'lean' or has been 'six sigma'd' to within an inch of its life.  Energetic drives to automate the heck out of processes, find efficiencies within the system and cut out the fat of humanity tends to leave a trail of the disgruntled and the dysfunctional in its enthusiastic wake.

Beyond that though, some of this is even more simply about just doing an MA.  I have friends who shot out of university and straight onto MA programmes.  It's a harrowing experience.  There's no room to settle in, get comfy, enjoy the ambience of being at university.  It's about producing work and hitting the right mark immediately.

I have other friends who have, like me, undertaken their MA part-time.  It's a different type of battle.  Constantly weighing off work priorities with studying ones. The giddy highlights are finding yourself in the library of a Saturday afternoon and wondering how come you don't normally have this sort of time on a weekend to spend surrounded by books and loveliness.  The lowlights are however much, much darker.

I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to quit the course.  I really can't.  Even Dave, who mostly has to pick up the pieces of my 'make-this-madness-stop-now' ranting would struggle to give you a meaningful number.   Last term was significantly better than the previous academic year in terms of work/life balance - I became fully self-employed and halved my working time (and consequently income) so I could do justice to the course. It has been decidedly less stressful even if I'm poorer for it. However there were times when if you had said to me words to the effect; 'you're on the last lap of the race, one more semester and you're done, just hang on in there kiddo' you would actually have been taking your life into your own hands.

But the race analogy works well.  Whichever way you do an MA a lot of it is about stamina and in any race much of that is about your mental attitude.  When I wanted to quit last year, it was mostly out of fear that I couldn't do it, I wasn't good enough, I was a fool to even think of doing such a thing.  This year is quite different.  As I was embarking on the course last year my old boss, an extremely astute person, passed a comment that it wasn't that I needed the MA for the skills it was imparting to me, so much as for the confidence I personally would gain from having the piece of paper to back up the fact I really did have those skills.  Note the closeness of this observation to my frets of failure last year.

Oddly enough the course has already given me a level of confidence that I didn't have previously.  It is the confidence to say I am so over further education.  That isn't by the way to say that I haven't learned a huge amount during this course. I have, absolutely.  It's not about the course.  In some senses it's about the love affair in my head that I've had with education since I left it full-time years ago.  I have romanticised it to the highest degree and, like most secret crushes, the reality of it has fallen wide of the mark, nicely grounding me.

Doing an MA (certainly part-time) is a lot like middle distance running.  I'm reminded of Haruki Murakami's What I talk about when I talk about running who says that having a mantra to get you through a long run is essential.  A favourite that he quotes resonates with my experience of doing the MA: "Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional". He goes on to explain: "Say you're running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can't take it anymore.  The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself."

This is true of anything. It's not what we do, it's how we do it that counts and when doing anything over a sustained period of time simply continuing to do it, to be motivated and focused is the real challenge. I see fellow students beside me who are equally over education.  They are absolutely gagging to just get out there and start doing journalism 'for real'.  I see other students who have near as damn-it decided that journalism isn't for them but who, in the face of the challenge of completing the course come what may, have raised their game massively and are producing some incredible work.  I see other students who are absolutely blossoming as they soak up everything the course has to offer.

My own mantra for the last twelve weeks of classes is 'Sod off voice of doom'.  It isn't particularly philosophical. It isn't elegant and it definitely isn't graceful. I figure however it IS the tough line I probably need to make it through to graduation.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

When do you go to the doctors?

Right now, I'll be honest with you, you all sound like Daleks to me.  I sound like a Dalek to me. I should probably go to the doctors but it IS getting better.  Kind of.

I assume everyone has 'rules' about when they go to the doctors.  For me it's if I've got the sort of temperature that no amount of over-the-counter drugs seem able to bring down.  Or if I physically can't move because of a severe pain somewhere in my body.  Or, failing that, if something 'a bit odd' (maybe like everyone sounding like Daleks for nearly 10 days) goes on for 'too long'.  The 'too long' bit depends on how odd the oddness is.

I was a pretty sickly kid, especially at primary school.  There are an embarrassingly large amount of photos from my childhood of a very pale and pasty looking child laid up on the sofa with pillows and a blanket, smiling 'bravely' at the camera.  Why my parents felt the need to document my sickness in this way I cannot imagine. Unless it was simply that I was ill so often it was impossible to avoid.

I'd go to the doctors as a child and be given a bottle of sweet yellow medicine.  They said it was banana flavour but that's because grown ups don't really think kids know anything about anything and so they're comfortable telling those sort of lies.  It didn't taste like bananas but neither did it taste bad though and I HATED, with a passion, being made to take pills, so I was okay with the lie.

Mostly I had ear infections.  Then, when I got into double figures, mostly I had tonsillitis.  Eventually they cut my tonsils out when I was 15 and a half.  This was only after I'd had a particularly bad year where I'd had tonsillitis 7 times in less than 12 months. Finally they referred me to an ear nose and throat specialist.  Not long after the operation I got glandular fever.  There were a few murky days when they'd mixed up my blood test results with someone else and so they 'weren't really sure what the golf ball size lumps are on the throat of your daughter Mrs Megson but I'm afraid we can't rule out throat cancer at this point'.  That was fun.  I am probably the first child ever to be pleased to be diagnosed with glandular fever.  I am also probably the first child ever to recover from it in about a fortnight...

Once I got to sixth form and started doing A-levels I did seem to finally do what doctors had been promising me and my parents since I was about seven - I grew out of being ill.  My immune system suddenly woke up and started doing it's thing.  I became 'mostly well' and I have been ever since.  Baring the odd attack of darlek hearing issues of course and the appropriately seasonal cold, nothing too major (*touches wood*).

I also became a bit of a hippie in terms of not wanting to take drugs.  Despite the fact that a brief review of my childhood medical history probably suggests that in another (pre-antibiotic) era or in a less well developed country with poorer medical provision I may not have survived to live such a healthy adulthood, I became a true believer in the fact that my body ought to have the ability to heal itself.

This is partially the arrogance of living in developed country.  Partially it sprang from a sort of fear that I've consumed so many antibiotics over the years it couldn't possibly be good for me - especially as even then I'd started to hear that it was taking more and more antibiotics to kill something that previously had been wiped out with a tiny percentage of the drug.

The thing is I was really pleased when I grew out of being ill.  Obviously I didn't notice right away.  I was too busy being healthy and well.  But chatting to a friend yesterday, I realised that I've also become incredibly self-critical of illness.  I describe myself as pathetic and compare myself unfavourably to the rest of society.  It's like I see it as some sort of personal failure if I get ill and because, let me be really honest, although I was proper poorly as a kid I also loved the attention of it, I worry that part of me is just attention seeking.  I worry that if I go to the doctors they will see right through me and tell me to pull myself together and stop wasting their time.  Consequently I ride the storm of any seasonal lurgy, wearing a 'brave' smile,  until my hearing gets so distorted all my friends and family begin to sound like Daleks.  Smart huh?

Related links
'Golden age' of antibiotics is 'set to end' - BBC News
'A pill a day won't keep diseases at bay' - Article on the World Health Organisation Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly

Spreading their oats: Reflections on the Wildseed Studios ‘Character Mapping’ workshop

Laurie Hutzler Character Mapping at Wildseedworkshop
My new years resolution is to get the wild story ideas in my head down onto paper and to not stop scribbling until those ideas have turned into characters that have turned into stories that have turned into plays that have been performed.

My worst self is shouting all sorts of abuse at me right now about how I shouldn’t have told you that and how you’ll laugh at me later this year when I have to admit that I’ve failed in my endeavour because really I’m just no good and I should give it all up and for god sake, get serious, get real.

Fortunately my best self was the one in control of things when a couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a not-to-be-missed offer of a free (my favourite price) character mapping workshop at the Alnolfini.

The event took place this Saturday and was the brainchild of Miles Bullough and Jesse Cleverly, Directors of new company Wildseed Studios.  (NB: Wildseed Studios are worth looking into because they have MONEY and are looking for creative types like YOU to pitch your ideas and work with them to make it happen.  There’s ton’s of details on their website if you fancy checking them out)

The one-day workshop was led by Laurie Hutzler, a television, film and online content consultant. The event promised to help me “create a visual map for my fictional character’s emotional journey” by applying some of the tools that Hutzler has created and used with household names such as the BBC, Channel 4, Aardman Animation, Disney and Dreamworks (amongst others on an exhausting  and overwhelming list).

Hutzler is a self-declared ‘practical mid-western girl’.  In no nonsense tones she politely threw out standard story theory as “very interesting, but just cocktail talk, nothing more”.  What she’s passionately interested in is great story telling and for Hutzler great stories have audience emotion and feeling at the centre of them.

Hutzler is a great storyteller herself and endlessly quotable (often repeating key phrases for us to dutifully write down and stick to our writerly work stations when we returned home).  Before the first tea break she had us answer six personal questions about ourselves (see box below).  After the tea break she took the answers from one ‘volunteer’ and used them to character map a fictional person ‘Sarah’.  These six questions form the basis to any character map.  Applying those questions to ourselves first ensured that we were sold on the effectiveness of the technique.

Audience hooked, mesmerised and emotionally involved
At ten minutes before lunch the auditorium of nearly 150 people was almost silent.  No hungry shuffling and coughing.  Hooked, mesmerised and emotionally involved Hutzler had the attention of the whole room.  Later, in the queue to the ladies, I overheard a couple of girls discussing how surprised they were (in a good way) about the extent to which the session was personal and emotional.  But for Hutzler everything starts with the artist.

Hutzler points out as writers we tend to shy away from being hard on our characters.  Subconsciously we want to protect them but actually that’s the worst thing we can do.  Both our characters, and ourselves as writers in Hutzler’s world, need to come bang slap up against those fears and, yeah you got it, do it anyway.

What we learned was that when stories and scripts fall flat: “the problem is very rarely with what’s on the page; the problem almost always is what’s not on the page”.  Hutzler recommends that we watch our characters ‘with the sound down’ to see if they are acting in a way that is believable given the parameters of the character’s personality.

Whilst characters may do amazing and surprising things, Hutzler explains this can only ever be on a continuum of who they are as a person.  Character mapping therefore is a way to understand that continuum - the ‘worst self’ and the ‘best self’ of a given character. 

It follows that all action in a story is driven by the tension between these two dynamics.  Through character mapping you know what buttons your antagonist has to press to get your protagonist to a crisis point, a metaphorical cliff edge.  If your character meets that challenge with a leap of faith they will be rewarded by being their very best self; if not they will go over to the ‘dark side’ of being, their very worst self.

In order for the audience to care your character has be authentic and the character map stress tests authenticity.  Once you’ve got a character your audience can believe in (note: they do NOT have to like them!) it’s time to generate an emotional response by making your character vulnerable.   

If at any time your story is getting boring Hutzler believes you need to figure out where your character is in relation to their fear.  All character development needs to fall out of the audience seeing how a character acts in response to events that trigger their fear, which triggers them behaving according to their strongest traits (learned coping mechanisms) leading to a crisis point to which they have to react (the payoff).

Whilst some of the motivational stuff was perhaps somewhat un-English it was inspirational and definitely the sort of stuff we need as writers to keep our ‘worst self ‘ monsters down at the beginning of the year.  What Hutzler and the Wildseed workshop delivered for me was some practical tools and the confidence to get on with writing ‘my best self’.   I’ve got my character map pinned up on the wall, and a notebook crammed full with Hutzler’s words of wisdom.  Let’s see what happens next….

Getting started the Hutzler way:

Start with the artist.  Answer the following questions for yourself:

1.     Among the people who know you but don’t know you well what’s the biggest misconception or misunderstanding about how you are?
2.     Think of a time when you were small and had trouble falling asleep because you were anxious about something – what was it?
3.     List your three strongest traits
4.     List three personality traits that you admire but you don’t have
5.     List the three qualities that get you into trouble
6.     List three things about people that really bug you and make you intensely dislike them

Be really specific when answering the questions above e.g. if your anxiety when you were small was being scared of the dark – why? What was the specific fear about being in the dark? 

Have a look at the free (still my favourite price!) character mapping materials on Hutzler’s website for more details on what each of these questions relates to in terms of character mapping)

Do the same exercise again but for your main character.

Some Hutzler ‘motivationals’ to tape to your writerly work stations:
“If you are constrained by fear you cannot write your best self.  Write your best self.”

“Storytellers are the most powerful people on earth because they have the power to move the human heart.  Go forth and be powerful.”

First published on Theatre Bristol Writers website

Thursday, 9 January 2014

What would Dylan Thomas have made of 'Dry January'?

I've given up drinking for January.

Apparently I've also given up for February and March too.  This is because I am being 'supportive' to Dave who believes the motivation of a pint waiting for him at the end of his thesis submission (in March) will spur him on to meet said deadline.

The spur of course can only work if the prize is a forbidden fruit until then.

Dave feels great and is confident this is down to ditching the booze.  He says he's sleeping better and he  even feels he's more productive because of it.

I on the other hand feel none of these things predominantly because as of 2nd January I was hit by the seasonal lurgy.  For days now I have wanted to drink nothing other than lemsip and tea.  I am so tired that the very thought of going out of the house makes me want to curl up into a little ball of blanket and hot water bottle. Much moreso the thought of going into a noisy busy pub.

Dave says my illness is a sure sign of my body's addiction to alcohol and that the lurgy I am feeling is probably just me experiencing withdrawal symptoms.  He also thinks he's so funny.

I did have my first experience of going out and not drinking last night though.  It was a gentle introduction as I went to see the Little Mermaid at Bristol Old Vic with a friend - hardly a massive bender of a night out - but there was a bar and therefore a pre-show drink, an interval drink and a post-show 'whadiyathinkofit' drink.

I don't know if it's the lurgy talking but two things fell out of that experience for me.  The first was that it wasn't hard and, after the initial dullness of having to explain my non-alcoholic actions, it didn't make any difference to the evening.  The second was that I was much more acutely aware of how tired I was - something I suspect I drink my way through sometimes.

Before Christmas Dave and I were getting into a bit of a routine whereby I'd finish work at Colston Hall, pick him up from the lab as I walked past and then we'd nip into one of the three very fine pubs that form our route home for a 'swifty'.

Not drinking is a way of breaking this routine which is great but it's interesting as going to the pub for a pint has also been our way of doing something non-domestic together, hanging out in a different space and catching up on stuff that isn't about putting the recycling out or fretting about deadlines (there's a lot of fretting about deadlines that goes on in a house with an MA and a PhD student in it...).  And we're just not at the stage of going to the pub for a lime and soda yet, that simply doesn't feel.....right?

I read an article which suggests that it's pretty negative and pointless to give up drinking in January - apparently it's just something else to fail at; it leads to a greater likelihood of an alco blow-out on the 1st February and it doesn't encourage you to make a more meaningful and lasting lifestyle change.

But actually I'm quite up for it.  There really IS something about January that makes me want to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, to make resolutions and changes in the what and the how of being.  Drinking is so entrenched in our society as the primary way to have a good time, experiencing a month (or three...??!!) not doing that is going to be really interesting.

I'm not sure Dylan Thomas would've agreed with me though....

Related Links:
Dry January
WHO status report on alcohol and health in 35 EU countries
Alcohol free pubs