Tag Archives: Writing

We need to talk about writing

Every so often I decide that I ought to be a Responsible Parent, and I take against technology.  I hide the iPad in my desk (you can rarely find anything in there, once it has been sucked in – this is partly because the drawer handles have fallen off and been put in some unknown safe place that is not entirely obvious, even to me, the putter of things in safe places), and refuse to tell anyone where I have put it. This makes the children cross, but after they have shouted at me (and each other) for about half an hour, they go and find themselves something else to do.  Usually this involves books, or lego, or a bit of colouring or a jigsaw.  Sometimes, this means writing.

When I was a little girl I loved to write; my dad got into the habit of squirreling away little bits and pieces that amused him.  In the days before photocopiers, accounts I had written in school were copied out, phonetic spellings and all, and every so often, when I find something they have written, I do the same.  The odd book they bring home, at the end of the year, makes its way into the bottom drawer, and I smile to myself at their turn of phrase, or the little things they chose to write for news.

It’s difficult, though, to put the teacher-me to one side when I read their writing.  I become easily annoyed at the absence of full stops, concerned that the sentence appears to have been left behind in the desire for wow words. I’ve read an awful lot of children’s writing, you see. I’ve sat in countless meetings, discussing the merits of spelling and handwriting, whether, on balance, a collection of work denotes a specified standard – or not.  I have become boggled by reading the same subject rewritten by countess childish hands.

It’s a funny business, this assessing of children’s writing.  Very quickly, in order to make your judgement, you find yourself sliding down into a grammatical morass.  Noun phrases, extended or otherwise, ambitious vocabulary; the hunt for shifts in formality (google it) clutches at you as you pass by, pulling you into a swamp of disconnected detail. It’s very easy to lose track of what it was they were trying to say, when they put pen (or pencil) to paper.  It’s oh, so easy to forget that they are, in fact, children, adopting as they do, as if they were clacking round the garden in their mother’s high heeled shoes, the voice of an adult addicted to purple prose.  Sometimes, I wonder if the purpose of teaching children to write hasn’t become in order that they may fulfil our official (if temporary – hopefully) checklist.

Until, that is, I see my children writing at home.  Here, there is no purpose other than their own pleasure (or rage, if you are my daughter and you have filled a notebook with all your plots for revenge upon your older brother/s* *delete as appropriate), no teacher with a red (or purple, or green or pink or any other colour you care to mention) is going to come along and tell them what it was they did wrong, to force them to fit their ideas into the convention.

Sam used to write only lists (and occasional notes on the calendar when he had decided that it really oughtn’t be a school day and instead he was declaring an INSET day).  Now it seems he, as I have done, ever since my teenage years, can be found using writing to tell whoever cares to read about his day.  His words, his voice, are there on the page and I, his proud mama, will put them in the safest of safe places and think upon what it was he was really trying to say.

 

 

There are two consultations at the Department of Education that will close on the 22nd June.  They are about school assessment; one on primary assessment and the other on the recommendations of the Rochford Review.  Please take the time to read them and let them know your thoughts.  You can find the link here.

Free Knitting

My mum is the sort of woman who is always learning. From a post-graduate diploma in theology to typing, to Shakespeare’s Women or Jane Austen’s Men; she always has something on the go.  The latest was Free Knitting. She went away for a couple of nights in half term, ready to be inspired by learning something new into a creative outburst. She is currently, when she isn’t off swimming or volunteering at a charity cafe or visiting family and/or friends, to be found under a pile of yarn in varying states of fluff, knitted into triangles she tells me she will turn into a bag, or a cushion cover, or something.

Now, I can knit (although I find it difficult to maintain the level of concentration you need to achieve success over the long term); I quite like the feeling of warmth that steals over you as the fabric grows into something you hope will be shapely and usable. But I have no desire to immerse myself in handicrafts. One reasonably successful knitted nativity, and I feel I have paid my dues to yarn.

But she has given me an idea. It’s something I have been mulling over for a while, a return to telling stories. Not the stories of the reality of life as it happens to me and my family, stories of Sam, but fiction.

I’ve been turning the idea over in my mind, that of creating a character with Down’s syndrome, someone in a story who doesn’t exists merely as a plot device, but who has real agency; a character without whom the story wouldn’t happen. The point at which the world turns.

I might know how the story will start, but I have no idea how it will end, or the journey it will take in between the two.  Usually, when I write, I have it all planned out. I know the who and the why and the when, what brings them together and what drives them apart. Usually, I have at least an idea of where I am going and what I hope to achieve.

This time it’s different. This time I intend to free myself from conventional confines and find out if, instead of forcing out a narrative, a puppeteer playing a particular tune, the story is hiding inside, asking me to take the time to find it, to piece together the triangles, as it were, and form them into something new.

So I’ve started a new blog. I don’t know how often the posts will come, only that they, slightly scarily, will.

Books : A Review

***SPLOILER ALERT*** THIS BLOG CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS

I read a book the other day.  This is a remarkable thing, in a way, because, despite my bookworm tendencies, I haven’t read a book, a novel, for a long while.  I’ve been reading other stuff, academic stuff, school stuff, stuff rooted in my reality, and my novel reading habit has taken a bit of a back seat.  But, at the recommendation of my friend Carol, and because my mum gave it me for Christmas (such was her surprise that I hadn’t read it that she bought me a copy so that I could remedy the situation), I sat down the other day and read a novel, cover to cover, in a couple of sittings.

I’ve never been a particular fan of John Steinbeck, I have to admit.  I read The Grapes of Wrath (Mum, again) during my A Levels, and failed to be blown away (other than to be icked out by the idea of a woman breast feeding her husband out of desperation), I failed to connect with the subject matter or any of the characters, and never really went there again.  But, seeing as Carol (and Mum) told me I should read it, and I had some spare time, I did.

Of Mice and Men.  It’s an interesting book, in a writerly way.  It reads like a play (I read the introduction too, so I know he meant it that way); you can imagine it on film, what with the way he describes the settings, as if they were the shots he would order if he were calling them.  I liked the spare-ness of it, but I can’t say that I liked it, however skilfully written it is, however interesting or innovative its style.

It’s Lennie, you see.  Lennie, and how he is represented.  The things he does, the things the other characters say to him, say about him, and in the end, do to him.

The first time we meet Lennie, we know that something isn’t right.  He doesn’t drink the water like a normal person.  He sticks his head in the pool like an animal.  He doesn’t know his own strength, he kills other things with astonishing ease, and doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions.  His sexuality is a powerful, frightening and unrestrained thing.  He isn’t like us; he isn’t like you and me.

George, his friend (I could never quite work out of they were relatives, certainly George is very keen for his work-mates to know that they aren’t), his carer, has a complex relationship with him.  On the one hand protective, on the other, frustrated.  He blames Lennie, fair and square, for the fact that he can’t go ahead and do things at his own speed.  Lennie is holding him back.  If it weren’t for Lennie he would be somebody, do something.  He bullies, and yet protects him, when it is to his advantage.

Lennie, it is quite clear, is learning disabled.

Not that Steinbeck would have conceptualised him in that way, of course.  Steinbeck was writing in the 30s, in a different ideological age.  No doubt he would have classified Lennie in a way that would make us in the early 21st Century wince, and feel glad that times have changed.

Except that I can’t help wondering.  At the end of the story, George kills Lennie with a single bullet to the head.  Like the dog in the middle part, his life is ended for him; he is put down.  Is it to prevent his suffering?  Is it to save him from a lynching?  Is it a release?  Is it an execution?

Is it, when you think about it, despite its age, that much different to the stories we tell about disability today?  To abort and try again (in order to increase the sum total of happiness in the human condition)?  To, as in the Me Before You film (trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh993__rOxA ) , end suffering – because a life with disability, for some people, is a life so far away from what it means to be a man, that it is a life not worth living?

What, I wonder, will A think of this book, when (if) he reads it at school?  Will he have a sensitive teacher who understands that here is a boy whose older brother has learning difficulties, for whom he feels a complicated love?  Will he have to write essays about it, try to explain?  Will A be as tired, as I am, of the negative, ending-in-death, everything-is-difficult-and-it-isn’t-fair-on-me disability story?  What will he think of the unsaid narrative that the best way to ‘deal’ with people like Lennie, people who are different, who don’t fit the mould, is to get rid of them?

A couple of weeks ago I read another book, a different book, and one that lifted my heart.  In it, Mia tells the story of her sister, a little sister with a learning disability, with Down’s syndrome.  (For more information and how to buy, read Hayley’s post here http://www.downssideup.com/2014/05/i-love-you-natty-siblings-uplifting.html )  She doesn’t moan, or complain; she doesn’t make out that disability is the most important thing about her sister.  She doesn’t tread the old paths, re-write the same old same old doom and gloom.  She writes a new story – and I love her for it.

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On Writing

For years, I was going to be a novelist. I was going to be a writer of stories (and possibly a pop star or ice skater, while I was at it), make my fortune, have a swimming pool; all the things that writers do, in fact. The thing that I didn’t appreciate, when I was making my plans though, was quite how difficult it is. Writing.

The thing that’s so hard, you see, is coming up with a story. One of the nicest things to happen to me, in terms of writing novels, was the email a publisher took the time to write (to say thanks but no thanks) and softened the blow of rejection by telling me she thought my novel was well written with a clear authorial voice. It meant a lot. It meant that I knew what I was doing with a keyboard.

But it turns out that coming up with a good story is the difficult bit. It turns out that that’s the bit that stumps me every time. I start out with an idea, it seems great, I start to write and it, well, fizzles out. It turns out that it wasn’t so original or funny after all. Nothing special, in fact. Nothing to write home about (or win a novelist’s contract). It turns out I wasn’t (or aren’t yet!) a novelist. It turns out I have a different sort of story to tell.

Whereas I sat and stared and swung on my chair and squeezed out a thousand words if I was lucky when I was writing romances, when I write this blog, or write my column, or when I wrote my book last summer, the words flew off my fingers and onto the page (or screen). They pour out in one long stream.

Of course, this might be because the process of writing something completely new is extraordinarily difficult. Now, I happen to like reading light romance, particularly comic fiction or historical whodunnits. I will probably be pilloried for my taste, but, frankly, I don’t care. What does make me cross, however, is when these genres are poo-pooed as somehow less worthy than more serious work, as if the light touch is somehow easier to do. It’s not.

Of course, it does help that I have the nuts and bolts of writing pretty well under control (although my mum does still criticise my grammar). It’s true when they say that practice makes perfect. After a summer of book writing, it was far easier to come up with a blog post than it was in the spring (even though I didn’t have time for more than the odd hundred words, here or there), but what really makes the difference is that I have something to write about.

Now, if you don’t mind my saying so, this is where I get really cross with the likes of education ministers. I noticed, over my porridge the other day, that they were in the news again, pontificating about standards in schools. Mr Gibb decided, in his wisdom, to attack teachers on Monday, in a speech he gave at Durham University, reported in a national newspaper no less. Apparently, we are teaching ‘joyless skills’ and not the wonders of science or art or anything interesting like that.

It’s at moments like this that I want to sigh deeply. You see, in a strange kind of way I agree with Mr Gibb. Children, like adults, need something to write about in order to use the skills they have learned. There’s nothing like writing up a real science experiment, or an account of a school trip (yes, we still do those), to lend purpose and meaning to a written task. I only have to look at Sam’s shopping lists and menus, pinned up in the kitchen, to know the power of purpose in terms of motivation and voice.

But let’s look at the standard of writing expected of 11 year olds in England. The exemplifications came out this week. Comparisons were made with the English GCSE. I sigh, and I wonder how many people know just what it takes to get an eleven year old child to write in the style of someone three years older than they are? I wonder if they know how many school hours it takes to get them to perform this way; to know what a semi-colon is, and how to use it? To use and understand an extended noun phrase? To write in clear paragraphs, with links and cohesion? Believe you me, it takes a long time, and a lot of hard work on everyone’s part.

And while we are going over and over and over the mechanics of writing, guess what we don’t have any time to do, other than in the most cursory way? All that science and art and music and history and geography – all of which might actually give children something to write about, rather than expecting them to somehow pick content out of the air.

A knowledge rich curriculum? Maybe if the skills of the writer weren’t so high up on the list of checks and measures, making sure that we were doing our jobs, then that might have been what we actually had. In the meantime, what you measure is what you get, and you can look to yourself for that, Mr Gibb.

Handy Tips for Bloggers

 

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time (and even if you haven’t) you will know that I don’t often, if ever, attempt to tell anyone what to do.  This blog is a place for me to reflect upon events that surround me, and contribute to wider discussions I see taking place upon Social Meeja.  However, there was an interesting reaction to my Nurture 15/16 post (where I have, I freely admit, relentlessly focussed on the positive things that have happened this year, who wants to hear about my bad back, after all?), and in particular those connected with this blog, so, in the manner of encouraging wannabe bloggers who feel a bit nervous of putting their toe into the blogosphere, here are the things that have worked for me.

  1. Decide which blogging platform you want to use. When I started this one, I wanted it to look a particular way.  I also wanted it to be easy to do (I am not overly techie) and I wanted it to be free.  I like WordPress for all of these things, but there are others.  I discovered that the blogging sites have communities, and these can be really helpful.
  2. Do a bit of reading around your chosen platform. When I signed up to WordPress, I followed the links to all of their newbie advice.  It was all a bit intimidating when I realised quite what a big world it is, but, as I write about children (and my own children in particular) I persevered and took their advice very much on board.  If you write about children I would strongly recommend that you do this too – before you publish anything.
  3. Think about what you want to call your blog. I originally thought up the title years ago, when I was thinking of writing it as a book.  I couldn’t quite marry up the blog address with the blog name, but never mind.  I’m not a total perfectionist.  I started off by using my own name as the web address – which I felt was a mistake, so I changed it.  (There’s loads of musings and ramblings around, so you might want to avoid them as potential titles.)
  4. Think about what you want to write about. I thought about this really carefully when I started, and settled on three main themes: Down’s syndrome, parenting (in particular the experience of mothers) and education, and the interconnections between them.  The education bit took over a bit (!), but I’ve been really strict and stuck to like glue to my starting principles.  I realised pretty quickly that there are about a million Down’s syndrome parenting blogs, and the teacher blogging world is equally huge – I didn’t want to be just another little fish in the big wide ocean, so I thought carefully about what I could uniquely add to the discussions.  What did I have to say that other people might want to read about (or, in sales-speak, what is my USP)?
  5. Think about your principles in blogging. Some people blog commercially and promote/review products on their blogs.  I felt really uncomfortable with that (and am no doubt a huge disappointment to people who supply such things), so I don’t.  People also tell me about SEO, but, for me, my blog is about the writing, and I don’t want to compromise my artistic choices, if you know what I mean, and if that doesn’t sound unbearably pretentious. Don’t tell lies.
  6. Decide on a schedule. I decided to write weekly, and I still just about manage to stick to that.  I was discussing this with my friend Jack – as his other writing commitments have grown, so the regularity of his blogs have changed, and it’s the same for me.  When I started I had ideas falling off my fingertips – now that I’m writing more for other people, I need to honour those commitments.  When I’m really busy I can’t blog, so I have had to learn to forgive myself for that  – and hope that my readers do too.
  7. Decide how long your posts are going to be. This is a bit of a monster.  I don’t usually like posts to be as long as this!  I tend to favour stories, but sometimes poems pop out, or letters.  Don’t be afraid to do something different.
  8. Decide on how you want to publicise your blog. Most of my readers come from Twitter, which I really enjoy.  I could have joined Mumsnet or Tots100 or Britmums, but I was a bit intimidated, worried about the reaction I would have as a teacher.  I have a Facebook page for my blog so that I can separate out my blog from a platform I essentially use for keeping up with friends and family (who have generally heard me going on and on before, and don’t necessarily want to read it on my blog).  You can use Facebook to build up your own communities, but I like Twitter for that, and I haven’t got all the time in the world to devote to it.  There’s Pintrest too, and Instagram…publicising and working on your blog can become a full time occupation if you’re not careful.
  9. Don’t worry about the stats. I love seeing which posts go well, and which ones die a fast death, but I don’t let it consume me.  I’m happy when anyone reads this blog.  I’m not prepared to put any old rubbish on here, just so that the stats look better.  I’ve got something to say and I want people to read to the end, not just click and then click away.  Make it easy for readers to follow you, so use the sharing add-ons if your chosen blogging site has them.
  10. Think about your readers. Who are you writing for?  I reckon I have a specific audience, mostly teachers and people with an interest in SEND – and lots of parents too.  I try to make what I write accessible to them.  For me personally, I generally start with an idea that I want to get across, and then I spend some time thinking about how I am going to do that.   I write it out on the computer (or by hand if I have to), generally on one day, and then edit the next, put it on the blog and then read it aloud.  That way I can really think about what I have written, and hopefully not publish too many mistakes (you can always tell if I haven’t gone through this process).  It also gives me a chance to think about whether what I have written will cause any harm, in particular to my subjects.  I have people I turn to if I am really not sure, and they have been happy to read a potential post for me and make suggestions.  Sometimes I have binned the post and gone back to the drawing board.

 

So that’s about it.  I hope that’s helpful.  I’ll end with that Virginia Woolf quote again – because letting voices that are not ordinarily heard is important, and that voice might be yours.

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.”
― Virginia WoolfA Room of One’s Own