April 10th, 2019

On Waking Up

waterfall

“What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and your feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly back up, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed…For a joke you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling!

It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit.”

ANNIE DILLARD, The Abundance

It is frighteningly easy to sleepwalk through life. And I realised, recently that this is perhaps my greatest fear (aside from something awful happening to loved ones). That death will come like a thief in the night and I won’t be ready. I will have let the days slip by too easily and not paid attention to the things I ought to have. These short days that add up to my one, wild and precious life.

And it is troubling to think that how much time has passed since I last wrote here. And when I think back over that now lost time, I am aware of the things that have made me drowsy, the things that have caused me to waste valuable minutes, hours and days and those which have made life more luminous and bright, and caused my heart to swell and thrum within me.

Watching a few seasons of a certain medical drama, for instance, was definitely a waste of time and I even felt it to be so whilst I was doing it *…and yet! In The Abundance, Dillard writes of the dangers of drowning in your own spittle or waking up dead in a small hotel, ‘watching TV while snow piles up in the passes’, realising too late, that you were never truly awake, that there were real treasures to behold- like the Moray Eel (I’ll let you look that one up). I can quite well imagine my last words being ‘but-’ whilst simultaneously thinking of all the things I didn’t get round to doing because I was too afraid to try or wasn’t quite ready for it. And even if we are actively trying, there is a battle going on- our attention is constantly being fought for. We are surrounded by voices that demand to be heard, that seem urgent, pressing – like the latest news, fashion, gadget… but actually deliver little in reality. At the end of this deluge we are left feeling more hopeless, fragile and small.

Each of us, though, can identify things that are life-giving rather than life-sapping, that make our souls rise up and sing, make our whole being pay attention and be present, even as time whistles past. For me, these are:

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November 16th, 2017

On Writing and Motherhood

michael rosen sad book

‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’

Ernest Hemingway

Ten years ago I stood outside Michael Rosen’s old east London home, clutching a tupperware box full of dark chocolate cupcakes. I was nervous and now looking back, completely unprepared.

To start with, Michael Rosen, (who is perfectly suited to a Quentin Blake illustration), answered the door in his dressing gown. This was unexpected, but also remarkably reassuring. It confirmed to me that, aside from the Children’s Laureate bit, he was just like my uncle Geraint – as not only did they share the same politics, postcode (they were neighbours) and accent, they had the same taste in robes.

I offered the cupcakes to him, by way of thanks for agreeing to see me and he carried them through to his daughter, who was colouring in the warm kitchen, to see if she wanted one. She took one bite and decided to leave it. I apologised, wishing I baked something more enticing. Now years later, with two daughters of my own, I realise I should have brought something sweet and colourful with rainbow icing and a unicorn on the top. Hindsight and all that. Anyway back then it left me sitting in their kitchen floundering. Rosen kindly offered me a line:

      ‘So your uncle says you want to be a writer?’

      ‘Yes’, I say. ‘Any advice?’

      ‘Just write.’

To the point, not dressed up – much like his attire. His response was so simple,  I felt foolish for even asking. I don’t know what I expected. A magic formula probably, something I could stir into my morning cup of coffee. Anyway I didn’t really know what to say to that and watched the golden ticket I’d been given fade away. Still, despite my obvious lack, he was kind to me and sent me away with a gift much better than the one I brought- a copy of his ‘Sad Book,’ a story about his grief at the sudden death of his son. A poignant, wonderful, necessary book, that is very treasured in our house. But alas, in the same spirit as everything else I did that day, I forgot to get it signed.

What Rosen didn’t say was how difficult it is to ‘just write.’ When the subject of what I do comes up in the school playground, as it invariably does, I think the other mums and dads don’t know whether to take my response seriously or not. ‘How nice,’ they reply, as if I spend my days dreamingly staring out of the window, occasionally penning a word or two. An easy, simple life that must be. My husband, Kenny knows different. Last week he said: ‘Why are you still writing?’ You’ve chosen two of the hardest jobs in the world,’ by which he means writing and being a mum.

Writing is a mountain of work with little pay, crumbs of affirmation- if you’re lucky, with a lot of lonely fumbling around in the dark, hoping that in the end all your efforts will produce something good. You waste a lot of hours battling self-doubt, thinking you could never ever write anything near as good as the award-winning book you’ve just read while at the same time trying not to refresh your inbox just in case someone somewhere thinks what you’ve written is worth publishing. I know, an enviable job spec- right?  A dream? Well yes. No. Sometimes. And this is probably why you should be a writer- that in spite of everything, you keep going regardless. Because while being good with words and loving stories are the foundations to being a writer, they won’t help you finish a first draft. Or a second. Or even a tenth. But perseverance, grit and determination in the face of everything – will. And it makes sense. To be good in any job you have to put in the effort, time-  you have to turn up.

The problem is finding the time or money to turn up when your other job is being a full time mum. It’s not as if you can leave your kids back in the office- or that being a mum supports your writing in any way. And you don’t get weekends off, holidays or days in lieu. Let’s just say you have to be flexible, ideally have a supportive partner and be prepared to go a little insane- waking up at 5am to write sometimes, writing with a kid on your lap, taking a notepad with you to the park. Now my youngest is in nursery I have a few dependable hours to write in the morning, but it would be great if there were more spaces and opportunities for mums to ‘just write,’ for mum’s who choose creative careers, because they can’t imagine not being creative. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if more residencies offered a creche or a family space or there was funding available for childcare costs? Just think of all the writing we mums could do then. In the meantime these little pockets of time are all I have and so I am going to try, with all the grit and determination I can muster, to use them well. 

April 26th, 2017

Clubs Rule – OK?

 

When I was in primary school I was lucky enough to make friends with a girl called Lisa. She had green-eyes, straight blonde hair and was very neat. Although slight, she was strong and could run faster than most in my class (and for that was called a dark horse by my teacher). She was also very bright, in a quiet, unassuming way (the best way). She read a lot and was always asked to read her stories out loud in class. She taught me how to write in paragraphs. She spurred me on to be better at reading, writing and playing the piano. She was the first one in her entire family to go to university.

But of the many wonderful things she did back then, one of the most charming, was her ability to make up clubs. These clubs were very inclusive and very organised and on joining, you were rewarded with an eraser, pencil and notebook (it was fortunate for all of us that her dad worked for Hallmark). She also made us all badges. Laminated. And so there was an ornithologist club called ‘Tweak-a Beak’ and a book club. I expect there were at least two other ones besides. And passwords. None of them lasted very long, but they were important.

Lisa went onto secondary school with me and we stayed friends. And then by the time were were fourteen, Lisa and I belonged to another sort of club. A crew. There were about seven of us, more or less. Boys and girls. By now we were too old for notebooks and pencils and stickers. But still there was a sense of belonging. We spent most of our time hanging out- sitting around campfires in the woods, listening to music, wading through the Ford, cycling through bracken, camping in the garden or at Reading Festival, watching horror movies through splayed fingers. It made being a teenager better. It made the bus journey to my local comprehensive school better – where certain bullies gobbed in your hair or nicked your bus pass or punched you in the arm for no reason other than to get a few laughs. A school where it was cool to be hard if you were a girl – to swear at and fight with other girls, to scrunch your hair back so tight that your scalp flaked at the edges. It wasn’t girl power – because at the same time you had to wear heels, roll your skirt up and plaster your face in orange make-up. And the reward? Being able to hang out by the bench and a chance to be asked out by one of the popular boys who were otherwise very preoccupied with farting, putting others down and drawing inaccurate anatomical sketches.

The school was good in lots of ways (there are some teachers who I will be indebted to my whole life and support staff who brought a lot of joy and help to my sister with additional needs), but being in the playground at break and lunch felt like an act of survival. Belonging to a group away from this was therefore a bit of a life-saver, especially when some of us had things going on at home too. And it made the memory of being a teenager good – rather than full of anguish and anxiety. And I know I was lucky- to have found such kind, trustworthy friends that I didn’t have to impress, that I didn’t have to prove anything to. For whilst at school we had to try and keep our heads below the parapet- to not appear too brilliant or too stupid or too anything- at the weekends we could be ourselves feeling secure in the friendships we had. (more…)

February 26th, 2017

Eight Things I Learned from Running a Writers’ Workshop

workshop 1

Last week I ran a workshop for adults interested in children’s literature, called ‘The Enchanted World.’ ‘Great title!’ I hear you say. Yes I thought so too. Especially right now when everything seems decidedly disenchanted. 2017 is already feeling outrageously bleak, and it’s only February. The state of the world, our bank accounts, kitchens and shoes after stepping in the dog poo someone so kindly left for us outside the front door, mean it’s difficult being an adult.

But it’s difficult being a child too – I remember worrying a lot when I was little about things that seem so small now, but felt huge and significant then (like pretending to finish a maths test that was too difficult for me). The difference is children still have an amazing capacity to wonder in spite of their worries, and to wonder not even at great things but at small, everyday objects, at the world outside our front door. We have a lot to learn from them, a lot we need to remember and treasure.

It was lovely to be re-reminded of this as I facilitated this workshop. Reading excerpts from children’s literature (Katherine Rundell, Roald Dahl and E.B White amongst others) and taking inspiration from the illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg, David Wiesner and Aaron Becker, the ordinary became extraordinary. Something to be celebrated. And it was wonderful to see this in the work of those that attended the workshop. They produced such inspiring, creative work and it was a privilege to hear some of it read out loud.  I loved facilitating this workshop and I’m glad I did it.

Here are a few things I learned from the experience:

Be early

This is a very good idea. You do not know what you are going to face when you get to that room. For me it was a great whirring fan in the ceiling, all pipe-shaped and industrial.   It rather liked the sound of its own voice and wasn’t shutting up for anyone. Of course the first thing I had planned was a quiet musical activity to gently lull people into the morning. Ha! Thankfully I was early enough to set up some speakers so I could play Vaughan Williams loudly and beat that fan into submission.

Choose a workshop topic/theme you’d like to attend yourself

Sounds obvious but sometimes the temptation can be to choose something you think sounds worthy or erudite or popular. Or for writers, to teach something technical like ‘Plot essentials and avoiding a saggy middle,’ or ‘How to write without eating everything in the fridge,’ or  ‘How to write an award-winning, successful novel in two weeks,’ (if you run a workshop with any of those titles, please get in touch). Choose a subject you are passionate about and find yourself day-dreaming about. Which section do you visit in the bookstore? For me it’s children’s fiction and nature writing. And books with nice covers.

Plan

And then plan some more. I’ve never been a ‘winging it’ sort of a person, but I imagine that only works sometimes…and you have to be quite eloquent, knowledgeable and maybe have been teaching for a few years. I say have a plan and know how long each activity is going to take. Know what resources you are going to need for each activity. Always check the facilities of where you are doing the workshop and always have at least one spare activity up your sleeve, or on the table or in the bag you have with you. Not in the bag you’ve left at home.

Be flexible

You may have a plan (see above), but if everyone is very engaged with an activity that you thought would only take two minutes, don’t stop the activity because at 10:15 exactly you are supposed to be doing some literary lunges (I just made that up). Someone may be in the middle of coming up with a new short story idea. In the same vein, if your writing activity is supposed to last ten minutes but everyone is sitting there looking at the ceiling, or worse, looking at the door, or the clock, maybe stop and move onto the next thing in your plan.

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January 3rd, 2017

The Freedom to Roam

 

anwen-on-beach-1-of-1

“Children…at the end of the nineteenth century… had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children. They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no other company than that of other children.”

– A.S. Byatt

The first house I ever lived in was magical. It was an old Victorian house situated in the middle of a long narrow drive, with peeling white paint, a very large chimney and a porch which was useful for housing naughty children who were not inclined to eat their tea. Inside the house was cold and smelled of coal, velvet upholstery and Imperial Leather soap. My parents scraped together all their pennies to afford the house. Pudding at times was a luxury and so we made do with buttered toast and jam. But it was a house that was warm with memories, a house that deserved to be in the pages of a children’s book.

The house was surrounded by a magnificent garden. It was long, stretching to just under an acre and had an orchard with apple, plum, and crabapple trees which produced the most beautiful blossom in spring. The grass in the orchard was knee height and I remember the sound of it as you walked through it- like the sound of shoelaces being snapped. The long grass attracted butterflies and insects and it hummed in summer. At night as we lay dreaming in our beds, foxes and owls and badgers came out to play and so did the stars, in their hundreds, enjoying the vastness of the sky, breathing eternity.

We played for hours in that garden. The pampas grass bush was always a favourite, even though dad tried his best to keep us away from it. We liked pulling out the long stalks and waving the feathery ends in the air, like we were royalty, or challenging each other to a duel. Then there were the trees. Trees we were allowed to climb: the funghi covered tree stump, which sat like an island in the middle of the garden, and trees we weren’t: the gloriously tall horse-chestnut tree, with a view across the border from Wales to England.

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November 25th, 2016

Why Poetry is Important

‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words’

– Robert Frost

Reading poetry as a child was as playful as the rest of my life. Poems encouraged nonsense, humour and imagination: unicorns in the garden, jellyfish on the stairs, sleeping giants, friendly turkeys, the wind, the snow and the rain. But then one day, without warning, poetry got very serious. I was about fourteen and in an English lesson at school. Poetry which had once leapt laughingly from my mouth was now booked in for surgery- as I was made to dissect, cut and scrutinise verses with clinical precision. Play no longer featured. I couldn’t enjoy poems for themselves, or just talk about how they made me feel, I had to probe them for hidden meanings and explain them using grand, lofty language. Words like enjambment, assonance, alliteration, metaphor, irony, cadence were bandied around the classroom. Poetry which had seemed light and fun – was now something which felt much more difficult. Something I was going to be examined on.

I thought I had abandoned my love of poetry then, but it was there in other ways- in music mainly. Ballads, rap, lyric and song. And it was vital. When I didn’t know how I felt, when all my simmering emotions were trying to find a voice, songwriters said it for me. I remember sitting there in my room, feeling my heart rise with the music, and saying, ‘me too’. To be understood, when I felt mis-understood (like most teenagers), meant everything. These songs captured my emotions and put them into words.

And this, I later realised, is actually what poetry is about. It is about trying to find words to our emotions, to find what makes us ‘laugh, cry, prickle, be silent,’ what makes us know that our ‘bliss and suffering is forever shared or forever all [our] own’ (Dylan Thomas). And because poetry is about what we see, hear and feel, because it is a reflection of the world, it is also mysterious. Poetry, like life itself, cannot be pinned down by logic; it cannot be solved, or explained in full. Poetry is alive. If we try and fix it in place, we’ll kill it. That is not to say that we cannot enjoy the craft of poetry, that we cannot appreciate assonance and alliteration and metaphor – because knowing these can make our experience of the poem richer. It is more that we should not be afraid of poetry we do not understand. We should embrace and delight in its mystery.

Sadly a lot of parents don’t read poetry with their children. This might be for a number of reasons. Perhaps growing up, poetry had the fun kicked out of it, or it felt difficult, or maybe it wasn’t presented as something that mattered. But parents and children are missing out on another way of understanding each other and the world. Poetry can be a way for children to articulate their feelings, for them to say ‘me too’, when they don’t quite know how they feel. Poetry can also expand a child’s imagination, vocabulary, rhythm, sense of humour and ability to memorize things. Poetry can take children to the edge of language, where prose does not.

Since reading poetry with my daughter Anwen, she has started to try and rhyme words. This leads to a lot of giggling and nonsense words. And poets are good at nonsense. Like Lewis Carroll or Edwin Morgan. Perhaps if you don’t already read poetry with your child, you could give it a go? Here are a few of my favourites: ‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash, ‘Talking Turkeysby Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘Maggie and Milly and Molly and May’ by E.E Cummings, ‘Is the Moon Tired?’ by Christina Rossetti and Windy Nights’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. 

November 9th, 2016

Why I Read Children’s Literature

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”

―Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

 

Almost every morning, my four-year old daughter wakes up begging to look at the sky. She knows that each day the morning will paint something different, something new to look at. The pink of yesterday could today be fiery orange, midnight blue or even the scream of scarlet.

To look at the world through a child is to look at the world anew. Nothing is taken for granted. The ordinary is extraordinary. A spider’s web, regarded by adults as a nuisance to be dusted away, is looked at as a marvel. A leaf lying on the pavement is pocketed, rather than crushed underfoot. And every stone at the beach, no matter how dull, no matter how ordinary, is an instant treasure.

Children’s literature is important because it mirrors how children perceive the world and that is in need of remembering. For a child, everything is possible and nothing is so hopeless that it cannot be overcome. Children are brave and bold; natural adventurers who seek to explore the world. But by the time we are adults, many of us lose this gift. Our lives become smaller and less enchanted. And each day, as we listen to the news, to the media, we are encouraged to begin the day with trepidation, protecting ourselves before we even know what the danger is. Our focus becomes about survival, about getting things done. And so we forget to pay attention, to look around and wonder at the beautiful, ordinary things that are within our reach each day. The world becomes something which merely sustains us, rather than something we enjoy. But in spending time with children, or in the pages of children’s literature, we can find the wonder which we have lost and look again with glittering eyes at the wild magic of the world.