Tuesday, 9 December 2014

7 things I learned from failing #NaNoWriMo that have already made me a better writer…(and might help you too!)

This is the second time I’ve committed to NaNoWriMo, but the first time I’ve FAILED to make the magic 50k word count. 

Oddly I’m happier this time round and I’m writing more and better since the end of November. Why? Well, the lessons learned are listed below…

Cats never fail! But thanks Chuck Olsen for the photo
1) Know your enemy
80% of the novel writing effort is spent fighting demons that say, “You can’t write,” and, “You shouldn’t be wasting your time writing, who do you think you are?” whenever you sit down to write.

Lesson: Knowing that means I’m ready for them. They’ve immediately lost the edge of ‘surprise attack’.

2) Learn how to be a demon-fighter
Continuously turning up and writing pretty much every day reduces that demon fighting effort to more like 20%.

Lesson: By turning it into a routine, writing just becomes less of an effort and more normalised. I think this lulls the demons into some sort of sleepy state…

3) Mission possible
It is possible to write 40,000 words in a month and still…. go to work, have a social life, read some books, sleep 7 hours a night, meditate for 20 minutes a day, deal with family crises and have 8 days in the month where you don’t write a word at all.

Lesson: The Jane Austen/make-do-and-mend method, where you make the most of the scraps of time available, is actually pretty effective and much more workable in my world.

4) Live your choices; love your choices
It isn’t possible to write 50,000 words a month with all of the above happening though.

Lesson: And that’s okay! There’s a strong theory that you have to give up things that you love or care about if you’re a ‘real’ writer. That’s probably true for some people but look, I had a life AND wrote 40,000 words. The most I gave up on was some household chores.

The thing is, ultimately you get to choose. You. Not anyone else. Set your targets according to your choices.

5) Keep a track record
A novel is a really big thing. Even a short novel.

Lesson: Keeping a track of who, what, where, when is super challenging. I found my main character went from working at a local council, to being an accountant, to being an IT consultant (you get the drift, she wasn’t the most exciting person, right?!) depending on what I needed her to be able to do work wise to keep the story going. I found having a ‘Legend.doc’ and a ‘Timeline.xls’ really really useful.

6) Kill characters rather than your enthusiasm
Most people on NaNoWriMo seem to be writing fantasy novels with lots of battles and deaths.

Lesson: The point is they were having fun. Writing should be fun first and everything else after!

7) Find your favourite format
Writing a novel is harder and slower than reading a novel. More to the point I found the sense of having to focus on pushing the story forward (and pushing the word count probably…) meant that I didn’t get the same level of joy that I get when I’m playing with a much smaller world.

Lesson: Consequently…I’m revisiting the short story format again! I’m engaging with the short story in a much more conscious way than before and enjoying my writing more. NaNoWriMo helped me to think much more about format and what works best for the kind of stories I most want to tell.

I'm pretty sure I'll NaNoWriMo again. I'm not done with the novel and I find the focus of telling a big story in a month a really revealing writing exercise in terms of understanding my own writing process and preferences. This year was a WIN for me on that basis alone. So here's a big fat cheer to the success of failure!

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

5 ways being a journalist is a lot like being a smoker - and 1 way it isn't...

Journalism, like smoking, is an oddly addictive profession that isn't necessarily good for your personal health or the health of those around you. Often unsociable and these days associated with stereotypes of bad behaviour, is it a journalism ban that we most need to see in this country? 

Rebecca Megson lights up the similarities between smoking (which KILLS by the way kids) and journalism...

All the President's Men
- Journos pursuing lies at the heart
of 'democratic' government*
1) The cool and the beautiful do it on the big screen - making it look cool (Hoffman/Redford, journalistic truth-hunters extraordinaire in All the President's Men) and beautiful (a la the iconic smoker Mrs Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction. Less pretty when's she's OD-ing later but that's off topic...)

2) The first time you try it (smoking/journalism) you can feel quite sick and disgusted by it...

3) ...but before you know it you have an insatiable hunger for the newsroom/next smoke. Your heart races with excitement/stress. The adrenalin is pumping over whether you'll get the story/get caught smoking by your neighbour ('who will tell your mum what you've been up to young lady'). There is a sense of survival.

Mrs Mia Wallace in
90s cult movie Pulp Fiction**
4) As a journalist/smoker you are something of a social pariah, especially amongst professions that mistrust you (TIP: don't go to a party predominantly filled with scientists and/or doctors and admit you are a smoker/journalist unless you are ready for the cold hard stare of 'Oh, well that certainly changes how comfortable I feel about talking to you').

5) There are particular types of smoking/journalism (aka weed/investigative) that will find you locking yourself in a darkened room for days at a time, rejecting friends and family, living off snack foods and paranoia. You vet anyone you speak to for trustworthiness and then (once they pass the test) reveal everything you've found about the latest conspiracy theory.

And one way it isn't....

1) Unlike tobacco, the very best journalism can be a force for good....

For example, CBS aired the first TV news segment alleging links between smoking and lung cancer in 1955 which revolutionised what we knew and thought about smoking//The Guardian broke the first news story into what would become the hacking scandal, revealing the dirtiest and most unwholesome side of journalism imaginable at that time.

And that is what makes journalism a worthwhile career to pursue (and why we shouldn't ban it!)

*All the president's men" by IMPAwards.com. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of All the President's Men (film) via Wikipedia
**Pulp Fiction cover" by The poster art can or could be obtained from Miramax Films.. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Pulp Fiction via Wikipedia

Friday, 22 August 2014

On finding your path or being really frustrated reading The Alchemist

A two-part blog on figuring out your purpose and then getting on with it - despite your best efforts to sabotage yourself...

Years ago a really great friend of mine lent me The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  I really admired her and thought highly of her taste in books so I read it avidly.  It's a short book so it didn't take long to read. It was quickly evident to me that it was an allegorical tale but I stuck with it.  I expected there would be a great REVEAL at the end of the book, something that would help answer all the questions I had at that time about my purpose in life.

Let me just point out that if you haven't read it and don't want to know what happens at the end you should probably stop reading about here.  This is your penultimate paragraph SPOILER ALERT.

I'd just finished university. I'd completed a degree in English that I had entered full of optimism about becoming a journalist and a great writer. I'd been somewhat disheartened by the ruthlessness of media behaviour at the time and totally fallen in love with the process of studying so I'd emerged feeling quite confident that actually I was going to do a PhD in English Literature and become an academic.

Ma and Pa had other ideas.  They were supportive; "That's really great love", but had some practical reservations, "So how are you going to pay for it?" I blithely explained I could probably do some part-time teaching.  They pounced on this and before the day was out I had pretty much completed an application to take a PGCE in Secondary English.

The long and short of it is I signed up for a PGCE, got three weeks in, knew I hated it but was determined not to be beaten by it so stuck it out.  Once I qualified I did the only sensible thing any person in my situation would do, I ran away to the theatre, and there I met my friend, who, after some time, proffered me her copy of The Alchemist.

So, here we have a novella about a shepherd who dreams of treasure.  He ditches his calm and peaceful life with his sheep in order to go on a long and winding journey to find said treasure.  Only, when he gets to the place where the treasure is supposed to be he finds out that actually it is back home under the place where he originally fell asleep and dreamt about the treasure.  Urgh.  The irony.  Only Alanis Morisette enjoys that level of it.

I threw the book across the room when I first finished it to be honest. I was calmer when I returned it to my friend but I let her know I was disgruntled.  "Why does nobody ever write one of these kind of books about a real girl who works in a real office and doesn't know what to do with her life? Why does it always have to be allegorical."  I was moody and a bit petulant.

My friend was sympathetic and, knowing my own dream was to be a writer, suggested that was up to me to write that very book.  I nodded with a desperate sinking feeling that I couldn't do it and who the hell was I to sit around dreaming of being a writer, I should just get real and get on with the business of living, which consisted of earning enough money to pay the bills and generally getting over myself and my ridiculous writerly ideas.

Well, that was a few years ago.  I've journeyed to a few places since then - literally and metaphorically.  Wherever I've travelled the dream of writing comes with me, like some mangy stray dog, ever more insistent that I pay it attention to it, feed it, love it.  So although I came to Bristol just over two years ago with every intention of throwing myself more wholeheartedly and deeply into the theatre*, I found myself one bright September day in 2012 NOT rocking up to the first day at Bristol Old Vic theatre school but rather to UWE to start my MA training in Journalism.

And that is your first clue, in the non-allegorical, true-story, of figuring out what your purpose is in this world.  It's pretty unlikely to be something you haven't already thought about, even if you've denied the thought. It's more than likely going to be something the universe keeps tipping in your general direction.  It might be that the people you hang out with or date tend to be artists or creative types, or lawyers, doctors, wannabe actors - whatever your thing is or really damn close to it.  You probably spend your time supporting and helping them to be the thing you know THEY should be.  It might be that you find the shows you watch on TV always seem to have a character in it doing the thing that you once thought you'd really like to do but you never got round to it.  In all sorts of ways, the thing that is most essentially you will already be a part of your life, you're just probably too close and too resistant to quite go for it yet.

In my next blog I'll share with you my 'shepherd realising the treasure was back where he started' moment. Only in real life it's not a single moment, it's a series of moments....

A bientôt

#findingyourpath #underyournose #amwriting #amblogging

*Amongst other things I was just emerging from an 'accidental' and unchosen corporate career that had made great parental sense but not fulfilled me.  Bouncing out of it I, of course, again ran away to the theatre....

Monday, 14 July 2014

Auschwitz-Birkenau: the unquiet of heritage tourism

I wanted to go to Auschwitz from the moment I knew I was going to Krakow to meet up with some friends for a few days earlier this month. 

My parents were both born and grew up in Leeds, just after the Second World War.  They had lots of Jewish friends and, obviously, the war was something much closer in time and memory to their lives.

Their connection to it and to people who had been affected by it drove their personal/political outlook, and in turn affected mine.  They believed that both fascism and the Holocaust needed to be spoken about and spoken against - passionately and regularly; they believed that we should all be on guard and active against such events happening again.

So it seemed entirely appropriate that, as my most wonderful friend (and WWII historian...) Rachel and I were in Poland together, close to Auschwitz-Birkenau, we should go.

On the other hand, there is something distinctly uncomfortable about the ‘desire’ to go to a site where atrocities have been committed.  We did not want to partake in any sort of ‘day trip’ that made a theme park out of crimes against humanity.

And to be fair, the State Museum of Auschwitz endeavours to cater against this.  Between the hours of 10 – 3pm you have to be part of a small(ish) tour-guided party but if you arrive between 8am and 10am (or after 3pm, until close) you are free to roam the place on your own.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is actually two camps – Auschwitz the original camp and Birkenau the significantly bigger overflow camp where millions of people were put to death in gas chambers – some after having worked in the camps, some barely hours after arriving into Birkenau on the transports.

If you want to avoid the tourism crush you need to get to Auschwitz itself before 10am (we failed, partially because travelling with me should come with a health warning about the likelihood of getting lost.  The 10 – 15 minute walk to Auschwitz from the train station, according to all the best guidebooks, was, thanks to my special directions-based curse, closer to an hour.  And we arrived at Birkenau first…).

Auschwitz should be seen first because it is a museum. It is smaller, busier and has all the trappings of a tourist site (the shops, the cafés, kiosks, loos, the hoards of people and the coaches and car park outside).  Walking under the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gates, with the mandatory tour party and headset, feels odd, and indeed familiar - doubtless because we have seen 'those gates' on television and in films so often.

Rachel and I found Auschwitz surreal and uncomfortable. It was loud, busy and cramped. But a part of that is because we had been to Birkenau first, which was altogether a different and much more contemplative, memorial, experience.

We spent three hours wandering around Birkenau.  It was vast, silent, apart from the frogs and the birdsong. More camp huts than we could count stretched out in all directions in the preserved areas of the camps; endless chimney stacks in the areas where the huts had long since been burned down. We walked up the length of each crematoria, stood at the entrances of the now burned out gas chambers, still and unquiet. Everywhere there were watchtowers and miles of barbed wire, utterly at odds with the pastoral landscape. 

People I’ve spoken to say you should go there in winter to really feel the rawness of the experience. I say simply go there when you get the opportunity, if you want to.

The reality is that we are fed and free from fear, limitations that can only barely be mitigated by standing in the cold for a few hours, staring at broken bricks and information boards.

As we were leaving we stopped off at the information desk to enquire about buses back to Krakow.  A group of Orthodox Jews were in front of us. They had just discovered the 'you-have-to-be part-of-a-tour-guided-party' rule.  They were not impressed.  They had not travelled all this way to receive a history lesson.  They had not travelled all this way to be part of a tour-guided party.

The mother of the family angrily cried out that she had lost five grandparents in Auschwitz and she had a right to be allowed in to honour them.  The younger son banged on the window of the information desk and demanded to see the supervisor. The harassed woman on the other side tried to reason with them, remaining adamant that they had to have a guide (though she was also frantically trying to sort them out a personal guide and, I suspect, would have waived any fee).

Rachel and I caught the bus back to Krakow just across the road from Auschwitz - thus avoiding any unnecessary but likely hour long walks back to the train station - and wondered how often altercations like the one we had just witnessed took place.

We felt bruised by our chaotic experience of the Auschwitz museum; overall the day had been exhausting, moving and compelling.  We returned to our hotel room, drank tea, read books, wrote and mused on the day and the history, trying to process the enormity of the Holocaust.

That was two weeks ago and I'm still processing I think.  WWII was not, ultimately, the war to end all wars.  The Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, set up to ensure we never forgot and that we never allowed such horrors to be repeated, can seem like an exercise in idealism in a world where war and horror are part of our daily flow of news. None of the realities of now however undermine for me the importance of the act of remembering, of looking and of making ourselves look. The contortion of our minds to try to understand a past that is endless moving away from us, is, for me, a necessary exercise however challenging to assimilate.

Things to read to help with the 'processing'...
This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski - unsentimental tales of life in Auschwitz-Birkenau (and a couple about the dizzyingness of life afterwards) by Borowski who survived Auschwitz and took his own life in 1951, not yet 30 years old.  Visceral, blunt, heart-breaking. 

God's Playground: A history of Poland - Vol II by Norman Davies - Beautifully written. The second volume covers the modern period from a mostly unknown (in the UK at any rate) view point, creating a pivot upon which to turn any previously Anglophile understanding of modern history.  

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman - Apparently there was a movie??  First few pages brilliantly map the journey from being a free person in a free city through the incomprehensible trauma of being under siege and then occupied.  We're so used to seeing how things look when 'war torn' on the news, I'm really interested in that moment of change just before and just afterwards...

Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places by Erica T Lehrer - this is currently hanging out in my 'wish list' and likely to be the most money I've spent to date on a kindle book (just awaiting payday...).  I flicked through a copy in a bookshop in the old Jewish quarter in Krakow but was at that 'crikey I've spent a lot of money already' point in the trip and so, with great strength of will, put it back down.  I'm attracted by the title (which I've bastardised for the title of this piece) and subject matter because I think ultimately this is what I bore witness to and was a part of - heritage tourism and the unquiet it creates....

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

How reading can save the world

Just mashing up two current news stories - Gove banning* books from the secondary school curriculum that haven't been written in the UK - and the rather terrifying swing to the right we've seen with UKIP taking the majority of the votes in the European elections last week -  and I have a suggestion.

A reading list to save the world.

Yes, it's a grandiose claim, but frankly I never feel better about life than when I'm quietly ensconced somewhere with a cup of tea and a book, so what are the chances this feel-good route to zen might be equally applicable to the rest of this nation?

High, I reckon.

But seriously - we know that what we read affects how we understand and feel about other people.

Perhaps if we read more by writers from Europe and her border neighbours (as a start - the rest of the world next up on the hit list) it would revolutionise our understanding of how we fit into the great mystery that is the European Union?

It's hard to hate, or call people stupid, or call them names when you've read their history, you've championed their heroism, fallen in love with their poetry and cried at their tragedy.

So let's not stop at taking the American novelists off the reading list (and as John Steinbeck's biggest fan, trust me it pains me to say that...).

Let's take the books written by the British off the curriculum.

How might the following reading list alter the world view of our students, who will become our workers and our leaders:

  • Hans Fallada - Alone in Berlin
  • Bruno Schultz - The Street of Crocodiles and other stories
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard - A Death in the Family
  • Francoise Sagan - Bonjour Tristesse
  • John-Paul Satre - Iron in the Soul
  • Yuri Andrukhovych - The Muscoviad
  • Jachym Topol - Devil’s Workshop
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun
  • Primo Levi - If not now, when?
  • Haruki Murakami - Sputnik Sweetheart
  • Jorge Luis Borges - Labyrinths

It's a random rag tag of books, by writers from various places (European and beyond).  Not better, nor worse than any other list, just made up of a selection I grabbed from my bookshelves. And I agree my approach is very Matthew Arnold - the Victorian prescriptive 'improving' nature of reading. But I think it would be wonderful if our school system helped us work towards proving the hypothesis that the pen is mightier than the sword....

And so to bed. To read, obviously.

*So it turns out Michael Gove hasn't banned any books from the curriculum - in fact he wants to 'broaden' the books that kids read at GCSE.  That the prescriptive nature of this broadening may in some circles be interpreted as 'double speak'.  Let's hope Orwell's 1984 continues to be squeezed into the free choice selection of the curriculum (as Gove himself apparently hopes it will)....

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Should I even be here? Reflections on #WHA67

This is a question that rattled round my mind when I came to the World Health Assembly (WHA) last year and, arriving back in Geneva for WHA67, I find myself chewing over that same question again.

After all I'm not a doctor and I have no medical or scientific background to speak of (living with the mad scientist probably doesn't count...), nor have I been schooled in public health policy.

So immediately I'm in a position of 'not knowing'.  And there's just so much to 'not know'.

The language spoken here is at times impenetrable.  This year the conference is abuzz with discussion about the formal inclusion of 'Non-State actors' at the World Health Organistion (WHO) table.  These people are not, as it turns out, Shakespearean bards funded from a supra-national purse*, they are in fact (for those of you who hate a mystery) the private sector, universities, philanthropic funds and Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - most of whom are currently (officially at any rate) outside of WHO inner sanctum of proceedings.

Similarly someone you know may at this very minute be suffering from a Non Communicable Disease (NCD).  Again, this doesn't mean they are particularly shy or mute, but rather that they have heart disease, diabetes or are obese (e.g a disease you can't catch, hence non-communicable).

The really scary thing is, the examples above fall into the category of 'the easy stuff'. Easy or not it can be intimidating for the uninitiated - knowledge is after all power (as Foucault would say) - and last year I was definitely intimidated.

It's not just the language or the science though.  It's the politics.  It honestly hadn't dawned on me prior to last May to think about health as an international diplomatic bartering chip.   Not until I realised that many of the ministers rocking up to the World Health Assembly were actually Minsters of Finance or Foreign Ministers in their own countries, rather than (or, in addition to) the Health Minister.  There's more than just health policy happening here then.

Health is an economic issues too - who has the money to fund the initiatives, who receives money, how much and how do they use it?  (Hence the presence of Finance Ministers as well as NGO's lobbying for their issue to be focused on and, a new one on me this year 'BINGOs' - Business Interest groups apparently acting as Non-governmental/benign organisations.  The plot thickens...).

It's also a community.  Everybody knows everyone else and there's so much gossiping (I mean important and profound conversations) about what's really going on happening in the lobby areas and coffee shops at WHA.  But like the new girl on the first day of school you can hardly just walk up and into one of these conversations.  It takes time, you have to become known and, presumably, trusted.

Last but not least in the intimidating stakes is the super size of the WHA.  Some 2000 delegates and lobbyists (and a handful of journalists....), many of whom are at the top of their professions and so represent a vast depth and breadth of knowledge in their areas, gather for WHA.  And where do they gather? In the very opulent and grand Palais des Nations - a building that by design is grandiose and imposing.

So frankly it's hardly surprising that on my first visit to WHA last year I was a little overwhelmed.  Nor is it surprising that this year's World Health Communication Associates (WHCA) graduate journalists have felt overwhelmed and intimidated once or twice.

But that is the point of the WHCA Health Communications programme.  To bring 'cub' reporters into a huge arena that is over-briming with fascinating stories and give them enough courage and support to dive on in ask questions.  We're in a perfect position to make those who talk to us explain in plain English what is going on and then to share that information with the rest of YOU who equally probably don't talk this very special blend of bureaucratic, scientific and political patois.

Despite the fear and trepidation that we shared as graduate journalists embarking on the week at #WHA67 I think everyone has emerged from it feeling more capable and able to enter the arena of public health.  Perhaps our biggest challenge if we continue working and writing in this space is to keep enough of our innocence and our everyday language in our reports.  We have to ensure that our reports continue to be accessible and written for 99.9% of the world, for the people who are impacted by the issues and the decisions made in these hallowed halls, whilst learning and knowing enough about public health to be an effective and trusted translator rather than pseudo medic or politician.

 (*although I do know a Shakepearean actor who was paid to be a virus at a WHO event once....)

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Welcome to WHO and the global health tardis (yes, it really is bigger on the inside...)

So.  I'm in Geneva gearing up to attend the 67th World Health Assembly (WHA67) which kicks off here on Monday.  The what, I hear you say?  You're where?  Why do I care?

All good questions.  Basically I'm here as part of an event that aims to increase global health awareness and understanding. It has been organised by the World Health Communication Associates (WHCA) and I'll tell you a bit more about them in a mo.  I came last year and having caught the health bug (yes, I really did just say that....) I'm back again along with a fresh cohort of newly graduated international journalism students (some of whom are pictured in the top lefthand corner there at our first briefing this evening...).

How healthy you are, the decisions you take about your health or about the things you do that affect your health will be determined for the greater part by the communication and information you have about that topic.  Which makes it pretty important that there is good, trustworthy and accurate information available to you.  Right?

However we're all familiar with the challenges of getting good, trustworthy, accurate health information. The (mis)information about the links between the MMR injection and autism is one example of how what's communicated in the media affects the decision making of parents.  Or the current row about statins which has left people feeling pretty confused about what they should do and when/if they should take them.

Dizzying complexity

The WHCA believes that health literacy of a community - e.g. how much you know about health issues - directly relates to the health and wellbeing of the people in that community. The media in particular have a huge role to play in this of course. But here's the thing: Actually health is complicated.  For a start there are so many health issues and the complexity of the science underlying each of them is dizzying for any would-be journalist needing to get their 400 word copy out by deadline.  Copy that needs by it's very nature to be crystal clear and readily understood by the woman/man/child on the street.

Add into that the economics of health - staying alive and well is an expensive business at the individual and the national level - and the fact that disease doesn't pay any attention to the boundaries we draw between countries. Suddenly you start to see that health is an international, political and economic issue as well as a personal one.

There are 193 health ministers from around the world about to congregate here in Geneva.  They are going to get together in a room and decide what the worlds major health priorities are today and who is going to do what about them over the next 20 years. 

This is what the World Health Assembly does.  It is the decision making body of the World Health Organisation (WHO), an arm of the United Nations.  It gathers government officials, policy-makers, non-government officials and medical professionals together in one time and place and provides leadership and direction for and with them in terms of global health. 

This means that what is discussed here over the next few days will, in no uncertain terms, have an impact on your life.  Which is pretty important I reckon - after all you've (probably) only got the one and it is a wild and precious thing.

My intention over the next few days is to blog and tweet about what's happening here and to take a deeper dive into some of the issues being discussed. I hope to throw some light on the workings of the #WHA67 and kick off some discussions on the rights and wrongs of health journalism as it stands today.  But for now.....I'm going to take a spoonful of some of the best medicine there is, sleep.  A demain.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

What one word would your friends use to describe you?

It’s one of those damnable interview questions that I don’t know about you but I definitely stumble over – how the heck would they describe me?  I tend to fumble around for a bit before mumbling something about ‘maybe a good listener?’ and tail off with some words about being ‘fun to hang out with’.  Miserable stuff.

So the other day I actually did it – I asked a few friends what one word they’d use to describe me.  They are my friends so they said some lovely lovely things (thanks friends!) but there was one word, one description I was kinda looking for because it’s really the thing I wanted to talk about in this post.

The closest anyone came was: “Industrious” 

24/7 Overload 

It’s a nice word isn’t it?  Bit Victorian perhaps.  But a good word.  A solid word.  A word you can trust to ‘get things done’. 

It is also, quite possibly, a word that describes the very worst part of myself; that bit that is ALWAYS doing stuff, ALWAYS busy. 

One of the things I often wonder is what it’s like to not be busy?  What is it like (and please, feel free to comment below with any answers you might have….) to come home at the end of a day, flick the kettle on and I think “Oooh, dunno what to do with myself tonight”? 

Whilst I think most of us are to some extent are suffering from a 24/7 culture overload I think, for me at least, it would be wrong to blame ‘the world in which I find myself’ entirely.  It would feel the same as blaming the existence of cigarettes for the fact I smoke (I don’t by the way, but I have been a smoker in the past).

There is always a choice made in starting something and there is always a choice to make in opting out of any addictive habitual cycle.

A fellow student on the MA and I recently jointly made a (frankly exhausted) vow to NOT rush into the next big thing life-wise.

And yet.  Only yesterday I caught myself thinking about how once this exam is over (less than a week to go….) and coursework submitted (this time next week…) I’ll suddenly be free of the constraints that come as standard with an MA. 

Now.  Was my mind wallowing in the warm shallows of how wonderful it might be to experience the dolce far niente, the infamous Italian ‘sweetness of doing nothing’?  Was it even gasping grateful gulps of joy at the time suddenly available to let the stories that have been running round in my head out and onto the page finally after months of being penned up (excuse the pun…)?

Don’t be ridiculous.  Mostly I was thinking of the day trips I could do to catch up again with friends and family; jobs I could do; gifts I could make for people; things I could do to best support the mad scientist; new and exciting sporting ventures.  You know the sort of stuff…

The list escalated from there to be honest and it was only thanks to the remembrance of that conversation with my MA classmate that I managed to catch myself in the apparently compulsive act of quadruple booking myself.

What my soul longs for most days is some solitude and reflective time but I battle endlessly with a sense of guilt if I am anything other than (i) busy with work/study or (ii) busy with social. The truth is I have an over-developed tendency to swing interchangeably from one busy-ness to the other.

I’ve found myself asking; ‘when is a good time to give up being busy?'  As any addict will tell you, there’s NEVER a good time.

You can spend a huge amount of time navel-gazing to work out why you’re like this and what the triggers are.  But I suspect in the long run it’s a case of committing to quitting. What worked for me with giving up smoking was going cold turkey and just, frankly, not smoking.

So, the busy-ness detox started this weekend.  The mad scientist and I went to his family’s farm in Sussex. 

Work got done.  Walks in the bluebell woods happened.  More work got done.  I finished my reading-for-pleasure book.  We went to the pub.  Still more work got done.  I fell asleep meditating.  We had an incredibly yummy Easter Sunday dinner.  And yeah, there was a bit more work done too.

Rather than punishing myself with a gruelling Easter weekend at home filled with endless work and beating myself into senseless depression about what needed to be done, I packed the laptop, some good intentions and had a (shock horror) ‘balanced’ weekend. 

Did I get as much done as if I’d stayed at home, trying to pretend I wasn’t hanging out on Facebook?  As we don’t get to live parallel lives, I’ll never know.  But what I do know is that I had a happy weekend and I’ve emerged into the week contented (and probably more pleasant to be around).

And those text messages from my friends assures me that they are a lot less interested in beating me up for my social flakiness than I am.  Which tells me I could turn my internal ‘guilt-o-metre’ down and get on with booking in some time to simply hang out with my inner Italian….

Related links:

Thursday, 3 April 2014

5 ways to get your creative idea funded in Bristol

Let's be honest, creative working is still assumed to be something you do for love rather than money.  After all you're just having fun so it's not really work, right?

Bristol is recognised as a creative and cultural hub and for many of us that's the very reason why we moved here in the first place.  But balancing paying the rent and giving your creative projects their all can be a real challenge.  I spoke to some of Bristol's creative community to find out what top tips they could share.

Novelist Ben Dickson says a video is a must for any
successful Kickstarter funding bid
Graphic novelist Ben Dickson has published four books and has a fifth coming out later this year.  However he is exploring the world of Kickstarter as a way of getting his book Unfinished City out there to the public.

Kickstarter is a crowd funding platform that helps people fund projects from films to stage shows, music, comics, video games and design related projects.  'Kickstarters' set up a page to ask for funding for their idea in exchange for which 'backers' receive a personalised copy of the created end product.  Each Kickstarter has a target amount they want to reach within a set period of time.  If time runs out and the funding goal is unfulfilled backers get their cash returned.

Dickson said: "We didn't want to take it directly to a publisher because it's an unusual project - it's set in Eastern Europe, it's not about superheros and it's a crime novel - which is a niche genre.  Self-funding through Kickstarter will ensure that the book is done the way we want it to be."

Read my full interview with Ben here and find out more about Unfinished City here.

"Is your work an act of self-expression or an act of communication?"

There are many routes to funding your ideas it can be hard to figure out which one is right for you.

Former BBC Head of Co-Production and Acquisition, now founder of production company Wildseed Studios Jesse Cleverly advises would-be creatives to ask themselves this tough question first: "Is your work an act of self-expression or an act of communication?"

Cleverly says having a clear answer to this question will automatically direct you in terms of where you pitch for your money: "Funding bodies and grant giving organisations are the people for an act of self expression - broadcasters and commercial production companies are the people to go for acts of communication as they are interested in making "products" that are designed to travel out into the world."

Whether your work is a heartfelt, personal piece or it's designed to cause a specific reaction on an audience 'out there' here are five routes to finding the pot of gold you're looking for:

1. Self-funding

A quick survey of Kickstarter shows that one in two Bristol projects are successful in their funding bids, so it's worth a punt.  Ben's top tip is make a video - you're unlikely to succeed without one.

2. Commercial funding

Bristol based Wildseed Studios offer an interesting model in which the creator and the company go into a commercial partnership.  You pitch your idea, they give you the money to make it. They advise, mentor, support, market, sell and monetise the content and share in the commercial success with you.

3. Grants and funding bodies

Other funding options include checking out what Bristol City Council offer and organisations such as Arts Council England. Arts Council England's South West Area Director Phil Gibby says when applying for arts funding there are a couple of obvious pointers to follow including reading the guidance carefully and seek advice of others who've written successful applications previously. He also said: "If unsuccessful, do seek constructive feedback from us - we're always happy to provide it!"

4. Socialism

Get involved in the creative community.  Bristol is a hugely helpful and friendly place.  Have a look at what venues show the sort of things you're interested in producing, follow them on Twitter and  Facebook.  Social media is a huge way that creative organisations let you know if they've got competitions or internships coming up.  I got my first paid for (yes, paid for!) script opportunity through tweeted information...

5. Think creatively

Yeah, you do this all the time I know, but what I mean here is opportunities do exist in more obscure places.  Bristol is about to be the European Green Capital next year for example but a key element of the bid is how we express that creatively as a city.

Locklease Labour councillor and spokesperson on arts and culture, Estella Tincknell (@EstellaTincknell) warns against going too far with this approach though.  She says "I'm not an expert on funding but I think it's important that you don't bend your project to fit the criteria of funders or you'll end up with a project you don't want to do!"

Right. Well then.  What are you waiting for?  Go get that money and get creating!

Related Links:
Bristol Theatre Net is the network to be hooked into if you're interested in anything theatre in Bristol
Creative Bristol is an online resource for all things art, craft and design in Bristol
Bristol Short Story Prize for the writerly types out there
Bristol Culture for news on all things cultural in Bristol

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Comics, Kickstarter and Unfinished City: An interview with novelist Ben Dickson

As a kid I read any number of comics from the Beano to Misty.  No preparation for a holiday in Cornwall was complete without the pre-requisite trip to the newsagent to stock up on comic books and magazines – doubtless a desperate parental attempt at keeping things quiet and peaceful between my sister and me for the eight-hour (traffic-gods willing...) journey down to the West Country.

Last week I found myself chatting to Bristol based graphic novelist Benjamin Dickson (@beniswriting) about his latest project, Unfinished City.  The conversation has decidedly rekindled my interest in the comic medium, not least because of his decision to fund the completion of the novel through Kickstarter.

Unfinished City is a crime drama set in former Yugoslavia co-written with Sylvjia Martinovic.  Dickson and Martinovic met whilst working at Studio Upstairs in 2007.

“We were both already writers and after a couple of weeks of getting to know each other we thought ‘Shall we do something together?’  Sylvjia said ‘Let’s do a crime drama’.  She had lived in Montenegro, in a town that, rightly or wrongly, has a reputation for crime.  I was up for it because the Eastern European setting was exciting and had an exotic edge.”

After two years of working on drafts and a further two years searching to find exactly ‘the right’ artist for the book Dickson and Martinovic teamed up with Croatian illustrator Robert Solanovic.

“We both really wanted an artist from the Balkans because they would be able to give a level of visual reality to the project that other artists couldn’t – they would know what plug sockets and street signs should look like.”

Despite commercial success (Dickson has already published four graphic novels and has a fifth coming out later this year - Santa Claus vs the Nazis) the team wanted to ensure they maintained autonomy in the production of this particular book.

Dickson says: “Unfinished City is unusual because it is a crime drama, told from a female point of view, in Eastern Europe, as a graphic novel.  To the best of my knowledge, that’s never been done before.”

Dickson has been interested in exploring the Kickstarter funding model and decided this could be an interesting route for Unfinished City.

Kickstarter, for the uninitiated, is a crowdfunding platform that enables you to set a financial target that you reach through investment from people on the net who are interested in seeing your project happen.  If the goal is reached within the time set then investors will receive a copy of the item – with larger backers receiving more ornate, specialised and bespoke copies.  If the goal is not met, investments are returned and, very sadly, the project isn’t funded.

For Unfinished City the Kickstarter funding will pay for the illustration of the book and pay for hardback and paperback copies that the backers will receive.

“Kickstarter is simply a means of completing the book and getting it out there to a first audience.  Once we’re there hopefully we can do more fun things with it.”

Dickinson says: “I won’t personally see a penny of the funding!  I’ll only make money of it if we exceed the goal and/or hopefully get a foreign language edition developed – this is very much a labour of love for me!”

It will take nearly a year to produce the whole book, however it has been written as a trilogy and will be released in three 48-page instalments (as per the French ‘Bande dessinee’ model).  Dickson and the team anticipate sending out PDFs of the book to backers every time an instalment is completed which they expect will be every four months.

Despite the drop off in comic sales and interest in the nineties Dickson feels there’s been a real resurgence in interest in the past 10 – 15 years. Dickson believe we’re now living in a second golden age of comics – but this is happening in bookshops and comic shops rather than on the newsstands as it did previously.

Historically the US and UK market have been pretty different – the US literally have the market on Superheroes.  Dickson explains that UK comics have tended to be more Action-Adventure for boys and drama and romance for girls but that what is happening now in UK comic development is pushing the boundaries of the medium even further.  Whilst you still won’t find many British superheroes, Action-Adventure is joined by more arty and socio-political work in comics today.

Reading the free 20-page sample of Unfinished City there is something decidedly European about this story which promises to progress into an increasingly challenging and tough crime drama.  Dickson warns readers not to be too quick to judge the fact that hero Nadja Djurkovic is a girl.

“It makes it a far more interesting story actually.  The fact she’s a she changes they dynamics but that’s not exactly a bad thing. There’s a particular moment at the end of the first part when I asked Sylvjia what she thought would’ve happened at that particular moment if Nadja had been a man.  She said, ‘They definitely would’ve killed him’. It’s a simple as that.”

Dark indeed...

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

And miles to go before I sleep - Review of Almost Heaven: Travels thought the Backwoods of America

I have been travelling across North America for the past month or so - down around the South and then up and out to the West.

Well. Imaginatively speaking I have. I've been reading Almost Heaven: Travels through the Backwoods of America by journalist Martin Fletcher.

As a child I was fascinated by the USA and absolutely desperate to live there.  I stumbled across some stories a while ago that I'd written in Primary School which I'd set in the States.  Upon re-reading them I found had no idea where the places I named actually were. To be honest I assumed I'd made them up but some quick googling showed my childhood geography of the USA to be accurate, if not a little obscure.

As an adult I've travelled to North America a few times. Despite fears that my childhood crush may have been misplaced my visits have never been anything but awesome and awe-inspiring.  Right now I'm too poor and too busy with my studies to even contemplate making any transatlantic journeys so a bit of armchair travelling with Fletcher seemed like a reasonable substitute.

As the title suggests Fletcher is captivated by the more obscure and geographically remote places in the US.  He tells of Appalachian snake handlers who believe they live or die in their handling of venomous snakes by the will of god; he hangs out with a Cajun fur trapper and visits an alligator farm in Louisiana.  He goes to Texarkana - a town that straddles the Texas-Arkansas border and therefore, amusingly, has to have two of everything - two mayors, two councils, two police forces, two fire services, two court systems...

He tells of American communities that I'd never heard of before such as the Gullahs in South Carolina - descendants of freed slaves who bought land just after the Civil War and are still singing songs that can be traced back to a village in Sierra Leone. He meets Melungeons, a community of people who may be descended from original 16th century Portuguese settlers and visits towns like Muenster in Texas where German is still the first language for many of the older inhabitants.

I think for any traveller there is a sense that once you've been to a place a part of you belongs to it; you have a sense of connection that comes from having walked the roads and spent time with the people there. I know this is how I feel about the USA and in some senses I guess I looked to the book to confirm my belief about the America I have experienced and loved.

And Fletcher doesn't disappoint.  He tells tales of America and Americans that I recognise, of people and places that are impressive in their ingenuity and their eccentricity.  He does not however refrain from also showing the less flattering side of American society.

Threaded throughout the book is commentary and discussion about racism. Fletcher visits 'The World's Only Ku Klux Klan museum' and 'Redneck Shop' in South Carolina. He finds that Greene County in Alabama is 'in practical terms, as segregated now as it was in the 1950s. Blacks and whites live side by side but seldom mix.'  He meets Clarence Bradley who was wrongfully arrested and tried for the rape of a white girl in 1980. Fletcher describes the affair as the closest thing to a 'legal lynching' and believes it 'reveals the darkness that still lurks behind the peaceful and pleasant facades of some small American towns'.

Fletcher ends his journey near as damn-it in Idaho which is the childhood home of one of my very best friends and a place I've visited on a couple of occasions.  I saved the chapter because I wanted to savour going back there in my mind. The Idaho I am most familiar with, that I would most call home-from-home is a place of hippies and off-griders, people who are independent spirits and Fletcher does deliver some of that in this chapter.

However what I always forget about Idaho is that it is also home to the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and its political arm the Aryan Nations.  This penultimate chapter then was not necessarily the comforting read I was hoping for.

Fletcher undertook his journey in 1997 which is on the one hand a long time ago.  Recently we've been reminded in the UK of the institutional racism inherent in our police system that was uncovered by the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993.  But I can remember 1997.  I can remember 1993. It all seems too recent for such out-dated and out-moded views to have persisted even then.

As perhaps all great journeys tend to do, Almost Heaven challenged my view of a place that I am fond of and feel connected to and reminded me that none of us, wherever we are in the world, can rest easy in the belief that bigotry is a thing of the past. Whilst at times the roads we travel may feel almost heaven, the truth is that we are, sadly, still very far from any kind of equitable Eden.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Behind the scenes at the Bristol Improv Festival

Highlights from interviews with the Festival directors Andrew Yeoh and Nathan Keates and with Impromtu Shakespeare earlier this week at tech rehearsals at the Bierkeller Theatre.

 And a 'newsy' piece for UWE MA Journalism Multimedia news day:


Mayor presents BTA contributors with copies of book celebrating 25 years of friendship between Bristol and Tbilisi

First published on the Bristol Tbilisi Association website.

The Acting Mayor of Tbilisi, Sevdia Ugrekhelidze, celebrated the publication of Tbilisi City Council commissioned book on Saturday 8 March with a presentation ceremony at the Colston Hall in Bristol.

The book ‘A Bridge of Friendship – Between Mtkvari and Avon’ is filled with the personal stories of a number of people who have been involved in twinning links between Bristol and Tbilisi.

At the presentation the mayor met with a number of people who have contributed both to the relationship between the two cities over the past 25 years and to the content of the book.

Speaking to the group Mayor Ugrekhelidze said: “The most important thing is the friendship between the citizens of these cities.....the personal relationships are the spirit and soul of the connection. It is very hard for any book to adequately reflect such friendship.”

The mayor explained the book is an attempt to catalogue the projects and initiatives between the two cities over the past 25 years.

She said: “I was personally keen to meet all the people involved in twinning links between Bristol and Tbilisi. The book is as a result of the contributions of all of you present and a number of other people who could not be with us today.”

Mayor Ugrekhelidze highlighted the work of Professor Henry Parry and Paul Garland. She described them as: “pioneers....who laid the solid foundation for what has become a 25 year long relationship.”

The mayor concluded: “My hope is for many more good pages and chapters to be added to this friendship in the future.”

The book presentation occurred after a busy couple of days in which the Tbilisi delegation had met with, amongst others, Bristol elected Mayor George Ferguson. Ferguson has said he is very enthused about the relationship and has in principle committed to a return trip in October to Tbilisi when the city hosts their own jazz festival.

The delegation met with Andrew Kelly Director of the Bristol Festival ideas and John Hirst Chief Executive of Destination Bristol as well as key people involved in the Harbour Festival, Balloon Festival and the Arts Council. Ideas were shared and discussed about potential cultural and economic collaborations between organisations in Bristol and Tbilisi.

Mayor Ugrekhelidze’s words were translated by Nino Beglarishvili, Chief Officer of the Department of International Relations in Tbilisi’s City Hall.

Story by Rebecca Megson

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The News Minute//Vacancy: Poet Laureate wanted for tuberculosis

Just recording the piece I had published www.thenewsminute.com in February on the blog.


London, one of the world’s leading financial and cultural centres, is also known as the ‘tuberculosis capital of Europe’.
You may already know this, however it is a piece of health information that I like to pass on to as many people as possible.
I’ll be honest, I’m not doing this as a way of performing a sort of personal public health service, at least not in the first instance. What I’m looking for is a level of knowledge or awareness in the people around me.
What I get, repeatedly, is surprise.
Yet the description of London as the ‘tuberculosis capital of Europe’ dates back as far as December 2010 and, a brief Google search reveals, it has been used in UK headlines ever since.TB in badgers is more talked about in the UK than TB in humans, though the human version is on a par with HIV and Malaria as one of the top killers in the world.
Historically TB is thought to be one of the oldest diseases we have – with human bones from as far back as the Neolithic era containing traces of the bacteria. It was rampant in the UK in the 18th and 19th Century, across all classes of people including doctors and poets, giving it something of a Romantic reputation.
Advances in the development of a vaccination and antibiotic treatment of TB has enabled the UK to become complacent about a disease that for most people is now consigned to the history books. As Head of TB Surveillance for Public Health England, Dr Lucy Thomas says: “TB is a preventable and treatable condition” which is only life-threatening if untreated.
And yet. There are nearly 9,000 reported cases of TB in the UK. Whilst the latest report from Public Health England (PHE) shows that rates of TB have stabilised the number of cases is still significantly higher than the rest of Western Europe.
It is a disease these days of the dispossessed. Despite the mythology that all British cases are imported the UK Government state that eight out of ten Londoners with tuberculosis in 2012 were UK-born or had been living in the UK for at least 2 years prior to their diagnosis.
Those infected with TB are however likely to be living on the streets where a persistent cough, night sweats and weight loss are low priority on their list of concerns. Identifying people with the disease is hard enough, ensuring they complete the minimum 6 month course of treatment required is a challenge; knowing who else they have been in contact with is nigh on impossible.
Let’s be clear on a few things here. The nearly 9,000 reported cases of tuberculosis in the UK is tiny when you consider the global picture of 8.6 million new TB cases worldwide in 2012.But the latest, ugliest monster in the global village is the development of new, drug resistant strains of the disease. We’re not staring down the barrel of an epidemic right now in the UK but as MP Andrew George says “TB does not respect borders, and drug-resistant strains of TB pose a major risk to the health of the British people.”
TB was once a disease that we believed we could wipe out completely by the 1980s. Quietly, however, it has crept back into our dark, unseen and unloved corners, where poetry is not, as yet, to be found.