Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Creative Alternatives

This week I completed a six week course called Creativity in Health. The course is run by Creative Alternatives, an award winning arts on prescription service based in Sefton. Creative Alternatives provide arts on prescription as a remedy for stress, anxiety and depression. The Creativity in Health course is for arts practitioners who want to expand and develop their practice and learn more about arts in healthcare settings. Jessica Bockler, Programme Leader at Creative Alternatives led the course, alongside Philip Wroe, Senior Arts Development Officer at Sefton Council and invited speakers from across a variety of arts in healthcare settings. As well as great teaching and practical tips on pitching, evaluation and practice, Jessica and the course speakers provided invaluable resources and documents.

I feel like I've been on a steep learning curve. There is an awful lot of jargon surrounding arts in health. The course helped me separate the wheat from the chaff and define some of the terms used within the sector, refining and honing my knowledge. I don't like blagging things so pitching for commissions in this sector was a mine field I hadn't felt confident in navigating, which is why I went on the course. I know I deliver great workshops. I know I'm a good facilitator and practitioner, but felt I needed equipping with the right tools to present myself specifically within healthcare contexts. I'm feeling a lot more confident now, and highly recommend the course to arts practitioners wanting to develop their skills in the healthcare setting.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Litfest 2013

I was delighted to be able to make it to another Litfest event this week. Short Stories: Wide Horizons featured Alison Moore and Aamer Hussein hosted by Carys Davies. The event was a reading and opportunity to explore some elements of the short story narrative.

Alison read two short stories from her new collection The Pre-War House and Other Stories. 'Overnight Stop' is about a newly married woman with a delayed flight to her honeymoon destination, who has an encounter with someone from her past. And the second story, 'The Egg' is a darkly disturbing narrative about a man with a special collection.

Aamer followed with 'The Swan' a story about two friends who encounter one another over and over each time failing to quite click decisively in the way the reader / listener desires. They rescue an injured swan called Satin. A profoundly moving and beautiful story. It was a delightful coincidence that these two stories, 'The Swan' and Alison Moore's 'The Egg', had similar motifs and central images, around the swan. Maybe it was just me, but it was hard to separate Aamer's swan from the one in Alison's story. In the serendipity of narrative creation, these two stories sidled up to each other and shook hands. It was lovely.

A great opportunity to hear stories from two writers I admire, particularly Alison whose novel 'The Lighthouse' is the kind of book I just want to give to everyone. And hear their thoughts on narrative creation and the beginnings of stories.  

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Litfest 2013

Litfest, Lancaster's 35 year old annual celebration of Literature, is a highlight of my year. It's ace.

At last night's event, writer Sara Maitland and physicist Rob Appleby discussed Science and the Short Story, hosted by Jim Hinks, an editor at Comma Press.

Sara, a brilliant writer I can't rave about enough, read a story from her new collection Moss Witch. Moss Witch is a collection of stories springing from Comma Press's Science into Fiction series. Sara's is the first solo collection to be made up of science into fiction fusions, where each of the fourteen stories in the collection comes from conversations with consultants at the cutting edge of their various scientific fields. The premise is just so deliciously ambitious. I've been looking forward to getting my paws on it for ages.

Sara read 'Dark Humour' from the collection. It made me cry (the auditorium was dark, thankfully no one noticed). Read it and see if it does the same for you. The story is about a couple, reunited after time apart due to work commitments. Both physicists, in differing fields of work, they grapple with the four elements; earth, air, fire and water. The story explores physic theory through the lens of human emotion and interaction. Grounding these theories in this way, to me, makes them more accessible and processable. I feel it gives readers an 'in' - a hook on which to begin to grow understanding.

Sara spoke about the challenge of finding the narrative in the scientific fact and that some stories sprang more easily than others from the scientific root. There was a fascinating discussion about pattern and rules; the pleasurable symmetry of physics, particularly, that can make it comparable to the structure of poetic forms such as the sonnet. There was lively discussion about the story's exploration of the romantic, and less romantic, names given by the physics community to physical aspects; quarks, gluons, neutrinos, as opposed to NGC 406 and H11.

Rob Appleby, the physicist consultant on this story in the collection, followed Sara's reading by expanding on some of the theory in the story. Rob spoke with passion about the theoretical principles of matter, of particle physics. Rob talks with his hands. I love this. I think things are easier to grasp when people use their hands to further illustrate what they're saying. Perhaps it makes for a better teacher; having an ability to clarify spoken word with physical gesture. Many of us have bad experiences with science, often stemming from it being taught poorly at school (perhaps down to a restrictive curriculum). It can feel like the penny dropping years later, as an adult, when things are explained with such clarity, energy and helpful imagery as Rob Appleby did at last night's reading. I have been doing some research into physics recently, particularly thought experiments, and suddenly I've started noticing things in everyday life that are fundamentally connected to these principles. Seeing things a little differently. My ears prick up when the Hadron Collider is on the news and I understand why Walt White chose Heisenberg as his pseudonym.

Brilliant event, Litfest. Thank you to Sara Miatland, Rob Appleby with all the other consultant scientists and Comma Press for this exciting and important collection. And to Litfest for organising a
great do.

Friday, 18 October 2013

You know how it is... there are no literary festivals, then three come at once. This week I've glutted myself on fantastic literature events.

First off, on Thursday, my bestie and I went to see Will Self reading from his latest novel Umbrella. It was a bloomsbury Festival lecture hosted by UCL, with Dr Nick Shepley, discussing The Madness of the Modern City.

The evening really began when a man on the front row with a camera started taking flash photographs of Will Self. Self asked him to stop. When the man unblushingly bantered back, Self told him to shove the camera up his arse. There were a few sychophantic cheers towards the back of the audience and anxious shuffling through bags and pockets to do the just-in-case OCD check that phones, pagers, any other sources of irritation, really were off. Subsequently, when the photographer continued to take shots while Self read, albeit without the flash on, every time he lifted his camera our whole row, seated just a couple of spaces back, shrank in their seats wincing. I am so averse to confrontation that I wished Self had clarified whether he just didn't like the flash (it was quite distracting) or any photographs at all. It took me a while to let go of this and just enjoy Will Self reading from Umbrella.

But Self reads brilliantly. There is a delight in listening, akin to being a child, hearing a really great story told in all the voices. The novel's stream of consciousness narrative, about the treatment of Audrey De'Ath who has encephalitis lethargica, is fast and intricately written. You feel you need to hold on tight, like the story is a balloon that could spiral away from you if you don't stay focussed.

Self talked later about his interest in writing fiction that demanded more from the reader. He spoke about the intertextuality of the work. About how readers through history have approached literary texts. He talked about correlation between city and mind, about how mental illness is written, prescribed and understood, about the fads and fashions that accompany mental health treatment and dialogue. There was time for questions.

Later, over cocktails, my friend and I discussed the questions we'd wanted to ask Will Self, but didn't, in the aftermath of camera-gate, for fear of being made to look like a tit. Plus, the highly intellectualised evening had given us both a desire to leap lemming-like into the realms of silly. A bit like when you feel a convulsive urge to point out a comedy moment during a cremation, or to burp the alphabet in a meeting with your accountant. Our questions included: 'What is your favourite animal and why?' 'Cake or death?' and 'What would you cook if you were on Come Dine With Me?

But the question I genuinely wanted to ask was about Self's writing process - something I'm always interested to hear about from writers I admire. It was touched on tantalisingly briefly a couple of times and in reference to Elizabeth Day's interview with Self in The Guardian last year, about Self using Post-It notes to map story and research.

There was a dumb pause when Self stated that the literary novel is toast; a dying beast, due to the impulsive short attention spans of generation-COD and the banal narratives propagated via online and digital. (Self explained he wasn't passing judgement on this societal shift, just that he was observing it.)  I found Self's declaration of lit-novel-as-toast a bit trite, (although I don't necessarily disagree) because I think he was saying it to effect reaction from the audience, and I find this desire to shock somewhat feeble. A bit like the vicar who stands at the front of church and declares, anticipating the gasp of surprise, that church is often boring and outdated. But it sparked an interesting conversation later (over more cocktails, natch) about the importance of tat - the kind of inane formulaic and short gratification narrative that Self indicated was the death of the literary novel. Does it perhaps have a role to play as a foil to the cerebral and literary? In the course of a day, when an individual has been working on a task at a particularly intense cerebral level, switching gear from that for a while feels healthy; there is something satisfying about watching or reading or interacting with an undemanding narrative. For my friend, currently undertaking a Phd, spending hours over intense chemistry lab work and processing the sort of statistics that would make Carol Vorderman weep, Eastenders works pretty well as a hit of narrative pleasure and cerebral breathing space. For me, after stints chewing over my own writing, struggling to create something worthwhile, honest, trying to capture in words difficult emotions that are probably best avoided, lunch is down time. Before returning to my writing in the afternoon, lunch is Neighbours time. Every day. Without fail. God help anyone who rings or calls round at 1.45pm. And I know the soap is utter guff, but for me at that point, it is breathing space. If it were my only source of narrative fulfilment, I'd be deeply unhappy. I need the persistent nourishment of quality, challenging narrative. But for that moment, for that space, it is soul food. So, perhaps my never-asked question to Will Self should be, just like a Masterchef sometimes craves the simplicity of beans on toast, is there a beans on toast narrative that Will Self would choose, and if so, under what circumstances?

I got my copy of Umbrella signed after the event and started reading it on the train back up north. I'm enjoying it very much. I recommend seeking out Self at a reading or event, he's engaging and dynamic and it was an enjoyable event. Just be sure to leave your camera at home.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Sleeping out for the Birchwood Centre

You know when someone has a bright sparky fundraising idea, and you agree to join in because it feels like so long away...

A while ago, a group of us decided to raise money for a fantastic local charity, The Birchwood Centre, where young people who find themselves homeless can go for accommodation, support, mediation, personal development and training. Brilliant stuff. We wanted to support what they do financially and also raise awareness of homelessness issues.

Homelessness is often a hidden problem. Young people sofa surf, moving from place to place; it becomes a difficult cycle to break. So we decided to sleep rough in our village for the night not only because it seemed to fit the cause we were raising for, but also because we hoped it might be a visible way of highlighting this problem.

Clearly, our experience will not be comparable in any way with a young person who actually finds themselves on the street. We have warm sleeping bags. We have access to safe toilet facilities and a community police officer dropping by to make sure we're okay and crucially we're only do it for one night. When it's over, we'll go home, take a shower and get on with our lives.

So I commit to remembering young people who deal with this every day. I hope what we'll be doing will raise useful funds, and also help to raise awareness of this problem. If you fancy sponsoring us, please do drop by our Just Giving page. (and please wish good weather for us tonight...!)