Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Online writing workshops.

Meanwhile, I'm still doing the MA. And this term we have weekly, online, workshops. Three of us write about 3000 words, submitted in advance, and we gather in a virtual chat room to post our comments. The tutor does her best to keep some sort of order, making sure we each comment in turn, and tapping her virtual ruler on the virtual desk if we retreat, too often, into playing.

So - that's the practicalities. I want to write about how this feels for me - I can't speak for any of the others. There were nine of us at the beginning of term, and only one has dropped by the wayside (with, no doubt, his own reasons). We all come with our own stories and prejudices and interests.

In the real world, I also belong to a writing group. We have been together a long time; we know who is robust and can manage having work dissected until it is in ribbons, and who needs a more gentle response. We care for each other, and produce the best work we can.

I put myself in the robust category. I am quite clear that someone pulling my writing apart is not saying anything about me. Sometimes I write reasonably, and sometimes I write rubbish, but all the time I am still me. There is no way to give that message to others we meet in a writing group online. Similarly, it is impossible to know the dreams, or the luggage, that our fellow writers might have when we cannot see their faces, or read body language.

Over the term we have grown braver in challenging each other. Initially we were generous, even gushing, in our praise and criticisms were well-hidden underneath the repeated assurance of how we absolutely love this book and can't possible wait for it to be published. While that is still there, we are less cautious with our comments now. We are learning from each other, from our moments of inspiration and our countless mistakes. Which, for me, makes the workshops more useful, even though it may mean some might find them more personally challenging.

We have formed an odd connection with each other. A strange familiarity - based only on the personnas we present in the chat room and our writing. There are spin-off 'friendships' on Facebook. We do our best to support each other, in a strange, virtual way.

So - is this group, with its tutor and its structure, a more useful learning exercise than my ad hoc, chatty, hyper-critical writing group. I have no idea. They both have a role to play. And you - have any of you experience of both? Which made more sense to you?

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Planning a trip, and a book?

Actually, I'm only going to talk about planning a trip. There is probably a metaphor in here somewhere for planning a book, but I'll leave that to you to work out. I need to make it clear I'm not talking about a holiday. Holidays have boundaries - in terms of where you will stay, what you hope to do, how you will get there. There is an expectation that you will come home, pick up life-pieces and carry on much as before. They are a glorious, and essential, interruption to the scheme of things.

These days, I go travelling. For me, that includes significant not-knowing. This allows for the unexpected, for changes of mind, for following that little road into the mountains just to see where it goes.

But not - I hasten to add, as my daughters read this - recklessness.

I begin, almost always, with the flights. I'm trying to think of a time when I booked flights and it was glorious weather here - and can't recall any. Prolonged rubbish weather tends to send me to the cheap-flight sites. Which is one reason why I'm off to Nepal in mid-March.

Well, why not?

It's beautiful, I have people I need to visit (for those who have read the book - Tika has a new baby! He told me he would not have another child until he could afford to pay for his education. So he must be doing well), and I want to do meander in the Annapurnas again while I still have knees. (Yes, my knees know how old I am.)

But my planning - well, I have flights. I know when I leave, and when I come home. I have a hotel for my first night in Kathmandu, and a flight the next day to Pokhara. I have somewhere to stay there.

And then what? There's a possibility that Tika can take me into Bhutan - off the beaten track in Bhutan. I can't organise that till I get there, as he has to pull strings to get me a visa. I'd love to go to Burma, but that might have to wait for another trip. And there are great swathes of south-western Nepal that I've never visited - transport is particularly 'interesting' there, but I'd like to see it. (Note to self, it's malarial down there.) I could always go back to Chitwan, and get in the water with the elephants. Tika has even suggested I go white water rafting. (Note to daughters, will check if I can be strapped in.)

So, it's back to my Lonely Planet - an up-to-date copy, as things change all the time. Check visa arrangements; make sure I still know how to say 'thank you' in Nepali. Drool over photographs of temples and markets, and suddenly wish I could go for six months.

Is this anything like writing a book? Looks a bit random, written like this. But I realise I approach a book with the same haphazard enthusiasm. I knuckle down and organise it eventually. And you - can you see parallels in the way you approach other important aspects of your life and how you settle to write?

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

An unsung heroine, till now.

My cousin received her OBE yesterday.

I'm no Royalist. I struggle with the idea that one woman should be more important than another. I don't suppose she'd stand up if I walked into a room, yet she'd expect me to. Having said that, I am impressed that she is still vigorous in her late eighties.

But I am hugely proud of my cousin; and - given that OBEs are the way her work is recognised - I raised a glass to her yesterday and will drool over her photographs.

Her award is for 'Equality and Child Protection in Sport.' (No, I'm not sporty either). She has spent forty years working to protect children who join football clubs, swimming clubs, fencing, yoga, basketball - anywhere adults volunteer to help children and young people in sport. When she first launched her campaign it was acceptable to joke about coaches ogling little boys in the shower; to turn a blind eye at the gym teacher stroking a little girl's thigh as he held her handstand. All this is no longer funny - and my cousin was the first to make herself unpopular by standing up and saying this is wrong.

Yes, it still happens. We may never find ways to deter the most determined and persuasive abuser. But the systems are there for children to report anything that worries them, and for allegations to be investigated. The message is out there - sexual abuse in sport is wrong.

And it all began with my brave, independent, bolshy cousin. Celia Brackenridge - I'm proud of you.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Do you do as you're told?

I'm trying to remember the current Government advice on how much wine we should drink. It seems to change fairly regularly; but we are all, presumably, meant to note each new communique and respond obediently. (I think advice about water-drinking also fluctuates, but somehow that doesn't arrive with the same fanfare.)

We must also exercise. This isn't tightly defined, and again the amount seems to vary. Sometimes we only need to walk for twenty minutes a day; other times we should make ourselves puff three times a week (so the newly-married should be ok?). I'm not sure if there is an allowance made for age: should I be striding down to the gym three times a week? Does yoga count - I can manage worshipping the sun, though not when it involves getting down on the floor and up again several times a second. And I can manage a tree-pose provided I can prop myself up on the wall.

Then we have to eat - no salt, unless you have low blood pressure and then you must eat salted crisps. But you must avoid fats. Fruit and veg: good. Sugar, chocolate: bad. Red meat - who knows?

I am aware that there are people who need help to look after themselves. They haven't got the hang of eating to keep well, and moving around comfortably.

But most of us - well, what is your response to each new Government edict? Do you measure your salt intake, study the ingredients on the side of tins for saturated fats, wake up on Tuesday and know that if you don't go for a swim today you'll turn into a pudding? And drink - have you ever said, 'sorry, I've had my fourteen units this week, I can't have any more until Sunday?'

So - tell me I'm not a rebel, just because I think for myself. Sometimes I drink more than the recommended units; I taste my food and decide if it needs more salt; I eat fruit - because I like it. I walk the Wiltshire's glorious Downs because they are beautiful; I walk through Savernake Forest because some of the trees are over a thousand years old and they remind me just how ridiculous - and insignificant - I am.

And you? Do you think for yourself? Obey Government advice to the letter? Or do the opposite just because you can? (Or do you simply not notice when this stuff is in the papers anyway?)