Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Writing Wednesday: Seeking perfection

Great was my pride when I finished Draft 2 of my travel memoir the other week. I had been working at the edits since Christmas and it was a wonderful feeling to reach the end.

I printed it out onto pristine paper so I could review it again. But silently, quietly, I was thinking:
This is it! 
A few spelling mistakes, a couple of tweaks, and I'm done! 

See how beautiful it looks! Clean white pages. Sharp black print. All in line, numbered, sorted and ready. It is even a brand new lever arch file (nothing but the best for my baby!)

I took a couple of weeks away from it, giving my brain a little space and a break from the words swimming around my head. I had been only a week or so late for my half-term deadline for Draft 2, so there was still plenty of time until my Draft 3 deadline (Easter). Why worry?

Besides, it looks great!

This week I resolved to do the final bits and pieces, pull it all together, begin the final run through. Yes, I was starting the third draft later than planned, but I remained confident that I could run through it before Easter, before the children are on holiday again and mess up all my routines.

Half an hour, and the first page looks like this:


Looks like I'll have to revise my deadlines again...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Writing Wednesday

No man is an island,

entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

                            As well as if a promontory were.    
As well as if a manor of thine own
or of thine friend's were.

Each man's death diminishes me,

for I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls:

It tolls for thee.

Is this a comfort, or does it just make us more miserable?

Written by John Donne in 1624 it was originally part of a meditation he wrote in prose, but is generally appreciated these days as a poem. (Which does beg the question, what is a poem? ... but that is a question for another day.) For now, I offer up thoughts on the sentiment. 

When a loved one has died, is it a comfort to know that others are saddened by the death. When someone dies - distantly related, or perhaps unknown through an earthquake, war, tsunami, drought - is it part of us that dies too? Is that what makes us so upset when we witness disasters on television? 'No man is an island': we are all part of the worldwide community and another's tragedy is to be taken as our own. Thus we grieve, we mourn with our friends in Japan, or Libya, or with the poor and malnourished.

What Donne doesn't mention is that we should also share the joys. There are many of these too. And I celebrate life today, as I see the sun shine form a clear blue sky, bright yellow daffodils waving lightly in the breeze, buds appearing on the trees. Spring has sprung. New life will rise again. Even in death, there can be joy.

 For Linda, 1949-2011

Monday, 21 March 2011

Motherhood across the generations

I have been thinking a lot about motherhood lately. This is partly because of the themes in The hand that first held mine, which I reviewed last week, and partly because it was discussed at our writer's group last week (when I read a chapter of my book connected with my own mother's death).

This week I visited my friend's mother. I have known my friend since primary school, presumably since I was two when we moved to the village. On and off we have been friends throughout the last 40 years. His mother and mine were friends. We went to the same church. Our sisters were similar ages too, so there was a lot of time spent playing together as we grew up.

His mother was there for me when my own mother died of breast cancer. She told me: "You will always be someone whose mother died when she was sixteen." She was right: it is like a weight that I carry everywhere with me, invisible to most, unknown to many, but something that makes every day a little more difficult than I would like.

But she was more practical help than that. We often went round for tea (spinach and cheese pancakes - that's what I'll remember!) and their family home was a release valve for the stresses that being a teenager without a mother inevitably brought. She told me about different types of contraceptives, for example - a conversation that I cannot begin to imagine having with my father even now!

I went to visit her because she has only days to live.

She has breast cancer.

Oh, the irony of that. The lady who became so much of a mother to me when my own mum died of breast cancer is going the same way - admittedly 20 years later and at an older age, but even so.

But what has struck me is how important she is to me not just because of the time immediately surrounding my own mother's death, but also because of all those primary school years when we were in and out of each other's houses. It wasn't just her: there were other friends whose homes I played in. All those after-school adventures and games, overseen by 'shadow mothers': mothers who loved me as their child's friend, who loved me almost as a daughter of their own.

They had a hugely important part in my upbringing, in making me who I am today. They permitted different excesses, had different skills to teach (one could make bread; another could sew; another had piles of lego or mechano or monopoly), had different family relationships that stretched my understanding of 'normal' and broadened my horizons.

And now my children are running in and out of their friends houses I see history repeating itself. My friends - their friends' mums - are a part of their upbringing, of knowing right from wrong, of learning skill sets and of celebrating achievements. And so - in 30, 40, 50 years' time - they may mourn the passing of their 'shadow mothers' with a similar grief to mine.

Childhood days are never forgotten and I am so grateful that I have had such wonderful shadow mothers. I have been blessed by them throughout my life. I also know that I have wonderful friends now to whom I entrust my children on a weekly basis. Perhaps one day the children will appreciate them as I appreciate my mother's friends.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Writing Wednesday: Haiku

Poetry is not a genre that I am comfortable with writing. I have read much which is good (moving, funny, story-telling) and much which is rubbish. Sometimes it rhymes (and I wince at forced rhyme) and sometimes it is rhythmic prose (and I wonder why they didn't just write sentences in a paragraph or two). Usually it passes me by.

Haiku is a unique style of poetry. I was taught that it was to be 17 syllables long, three lines, in the rhythm 5-7-5. It doesn't need to rhyme and sometimes is in the form of a riddle. It originated in Japan in the 1600s but is relatively recent into the Western world (principally in the latter half of the last century). The mathematician within me likes the style for its rigidity and logic. My father has written what I consider a feat of genius: ten haiku to describe the ten ways of getting out at cricket. Even its title is a haiku!

Every day I get an email from AWAD: A Word A Day. This week it is celebrating 17 years of existence. It is giving me a 17-letter word each day to consider - although it is most difficult just to read them, deciphering the syllables and stresses within the word. They are running a competition to write a Haiku about the words this week.

It is an interesting coincidence that this competition should be run at the same time as we are watching from Japan the results of one of the worst earthquakes the world has ever experienced. The scenes are horrific and my heart goes out to all those involved there: the homeless, the rescuers, those in positions of responsibility.

Inspired by these events I have attempted a haiku myself. It does not claim to be the best but even its simple creation has helped me work through some of the events that I am witnessing via my television. Perhaps poetry can help you too?

Quake sends out rings of fear
Ocean swirls and swells and floods
Nature always wins

Monday, 14 March 2011

Curling up

Son wants long hair.

To be fair, he has had it quite long for the last year or two. I think he wanted to have hair like our friends' son's, who came to babysit at our old house. He was a mini-god in my son's eyes!

Unfortunately, our babysitter had straight, dark hair. His cut was very Beatles-esque: clearly stylish, well-kept. My 10-year-old Son's original blonde has darkened over the years. His hair suffers from running around, never being washed (unless under force and duress) and general boy behaviour.

But none of that would matter. His biggest problem is that he has inherited his father's curls.

Now, to look at his father you would never think he had curls. His preferred cut is a number 3 all over (or perhaps a number 2). His problem is hair loss, not hair gain.

But Son has curls, and the longer the hair gets the more noticeable they are. It makes the hair stick out at funny angles and, in the morning, is quite wild. They aren't ringlets (like Ryan Sidebottom, pictured above) nor are they tight Afro, but they are not loose enough just to hang in a wave.

We tolerate the lengthening hair well. No, I lie. I tolerate it well. My husband hates it and is longing to give him a number 3 all over (or, as a concession, a number 4!)

And so it was with trepidation that I sent them to the hairdressers together on Saturday. I fear my husband dictating the style. My more laid-back approach is that my Son is the one who has to live with it, be ridiculed at school or get frustrated by its mess. If this is his rebellion against his parents then I can cope with it! (I am dreading teenage years...)

Back to Saturday. Apparently the girl looked at my son and said, "We've got to get rid of these curls!"

A few snips later and he has a lovely, smart haircut. Curl-free.

But short.

Son doesn't like it.

It isn't as short as his father would like, but the length at the back has gone. On top there is still some volume and I can't deny that he looks great. So I tell him that, and reassure him that his hair will grow again.

Then I wonder. There's my son: losing his curls. And here am I: contemplating getting them put in.

Why are we never satisfied with what we have?

Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Writing Wednesday: The hand that first held mine

The more I write, the more I appreciate the art of others' writing: how to draw the reader in, how to avoid adverbs, how to create movement, passion or tension. In Maggie O'Farrell's The hand that first held mine I was reading the work of a master craftsman. I was gripped from the first paragraph, from the first word.

Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.

The story is split between the 1950s and the present day, between the vivacious Lexie striking out in 1950's bohemian Soho, London, and Ted & Elina's struggles with the birth of their firstborn child. They are linked, but only as the plot slowly unfolds do we piece together their combined histories. It is a story of love, of motherhood, of maternal obsession and passion.

To an extent, we know what will happen. We know there is some link. I assumed Lexie was related (mother? grandmother?) from the start, yet I think much of the art of this story is that I still wanted to know more, I still wanted to know when events would happen, how they fitted in. The characters were rich and believable, the narrative tracing the passage of time, tying all the people and places together in the seamless way that history evolves.

I read this for a local book group and was concerned that the week I had given myself might not be enough. However I could not put the book down. I even woke at 4am on Sunday morning wondering whether Ted was going to talk to Elina or not - and had to pick the book up again to find out!

I long to be able to write like this, drawing pictures with a minimum of words, crafting a story that tantalises and excites. I have been told that other books by Maggie O'Farrell are even better, so they are already added to my wishlist. I can thoroughly recommend reading it - do let me know what you think!

The hand that first held mine by Maggie O'Farrell, published by Headline
Support your local bookshop or library!

Monday, 7 March 2011

The hunter and the hunted

As we sit down for tea, I ask my daughter what she has been doing at school.

"A story," she says, "about a hunter."

"Oh! What's it called?"

"The Hunter."

Given my daughter's poor comprehension skills I am surprisingly delighted by this response! She struggles to recall stories and tales with any accuracy, and open-ended questions are a virtually a no-go area.

"So, tell me about The Hunter. What happens in the story?"

"Well - " She screws up her face trying to think. An open-ended question: almost impossible to answer. I prompt her again.

"Who is in the story? What are the characters?"

Her face lights up. She can do this. "A hunter." I'd guessed that! "A girl and an elephant - a baby elephant."

"Oooh. What happens to them?"

"The hunter kills the girl and the elephant. Shoots them." This with dramatic demonstration.

"Really? The hunter shoots the girl and the elephant?"


She is adamant and won't be dissuaded. The hunter kills the girl and the elephant. I can't quite believe that school are reading this to 8-year-olds, and there doesn't seem to be much plot line behind her retelling of the story. I'm highly suspicious.

"And is that it?"


"The end of the story?"


There is no movement in her tale and she doesn't seem at all upset. I leave it, but speaking to the teacher subsequently I learn a different story. The hunter kills the elephant's mother (shades of Bambi here, I suspect!) and the girl and the elephant run away to escape the hunter. A much more likely story, spread over a week of readings and class exercises.

It is just another demonstration of how she struggles to grasp the facts of a story told to her - and, of course, any other facts (such as the teacher telling them to sit down and do some sums, or make an aeroplane, or whatever is next). Because of this, she falls behind in class.

Yet, given the menu at Sunday lunch, she can read words like 'sizzling' without batting an eyelid. Reading good, spelling good, comprehension negligible.

I shall enjoy the memory of the dead girl and elephant for what it demonstrates about my daughter. And I'll continue to enjoy her story-telling because she is trying and she is caught up by the magic of the tale, even when wildly wrong.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Writing Wednesday: World Book Day

Tomorrow is World Book Day, which (in our house) means creating amazing outfits without (a) going to any expense and (b) using up too much time. This year I am to create a butterfly and a leopard, in line with their respective school themes of Rainforests and Africa.

I love the fact there is a day to celebrate books. After all, they form so much of our history and our education. They enlighten and inspire. They make us weep and whoop! Even more so for children. They can be so caught up in a story, faces lit up by the suspense of the simplest tale. So celebrating World Book Day at school has to be encouraged as a way for them to make the paper and words real to them.

My only headache is that this involves costume work for me! I am, by nature, lazy, so enjoy the routine of school uniform (no decisions every morning, although mild panic when I look at the ironing pile). Of course, the children partly love World Book Day for exactly the reason I don't: they throw off the uniform and dress up.

The school try to make it simple. "Just joggers, a T-shirt and a made-up face is fine." And who makes up the face? I'm even less of a painter than a seamstress!

Wish me luck for tomorrow. We'll all be up at the crack of dawn, getting more and more wound up before school starts. One yellow-t-shirted leopard and one floaty butterfly, tons of face paint and two smiling faces: that's what we're aiming for.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Back to the grindstone

Half-term is over! At last!

Now I can ...

  • get on with editing my writing
  • read the book for my book club without interruption
  • sneak a chocolate biscuit from the tin with no-one watching
  • enjoy peace and quiet in the house
  • not constantly be the arbiter in the sibling wars

I can also ...

  • file all the paperwork that I put on hold
  • pay the bills that have been building up 
  • do the ironing in front of my TV choice
  • have time at home to do the washing and housework
  • find things where I leave them (well, roughly)

Oddly enough, I miss the pair of them. We had fun together, going shopping, playing games, having tea and toasted teacakes. They had time with their friends; they had time with their grandparents; I had a day in London with my husband (a big treat - thank you Grannie & Grampa!) 

A week off, and we've all relaxed and unwound.

Now all I've got to do this week is swimming lessons, Cubs, Brownies, band, drama, choir, playdates, homework, birthday party presents and get two outfits sorted for World Book Day.

Back to normal then ...

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