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{Wed 12 January 2011}   Reblog: Story Gardens of Holon
Happy New Year!

New Year, new start… well, that’s what January’s for, no? Due to (lots of lovely) work (for which I am very grateful) and an extraordinary amount of travelling, family visiting and hosting in different countries, six months have whizzed by. Well, here I am again, full of fresh passion and resolve!

One of my new roles this year is Social Media Manager for Poet in the City (PinC). I have begun facilitating the organisation’s presence on various social media platforms, including the new Poet in the City Blog. The engagement with social media involves a learning curve for all Poet in the City volunteers, including myself, so I am looking forward to that, and also to introducing PinC’s very large audience to some of the best digital poetry.

Mindful of my own slow and sometimes reluctant journey from being entirely text-bound to enjoying the delights of digital literature, I would also love to see more transliterate discussion here on TiaTalk, so I’ll start by reposting a piece I wrote for www.transliteracy.com. This was published on 29 December 2010 — sandwiched between two humongously extended public holiday weekends in the midst of the festive season, this date was probably not the best time for anyone to read it, so I’m giving it another go here. Please let me know what you think!

Reblog: Story Gardens of Holon: 3-D, immersive, interactive, social and offline

During our MA studies, it was suggested that digital storytelling is non-linear whereas text-based storytelling is linear, and that engaging with online stories is immersive, active, interactive and social, as opposed to offline reading which is less immersive, relatively passive and often solitary.

Those of us who since childhood have known the pleasures of immersing ourselves in a book, imagining our own versions of scenes described, placing ourselves in characters’ shoes, and engaging our friends in repeated acting out of the stories in our own gardens or living rooms (accepting with good or bad humour the inevitable story variations that arise when actors, props and locations do not exquisitely reflect the text), initially found it hard to accept these distinctions.

In one online discussion with classmates, I said,

I was quite startled to realise that … new media art might be defined by non-linear narratives. Is it always a requirement that the reader not be offered, or be able to choose not to follow, a linear storyline? … when I think about the interactive possibilities of the new media, I can see ways to engage the reader and enable them to contribute, but still have them follow a narrative chosen by the writer.

I went on to say,

I think of the non-linear approach as more ‘poetic’, in the sense of the genre of poetry. The best way to engage with this kind of work is in a meditative frame of mind, where one takes the time to dwell with sounds, images and associations and follow these imaginatively. A poem may, of course, have a strong narrative structure, but much of the pleasure if offers is found ‘along the way’, before one reaches the conclusion or the resolution of any ‘plot’. Even in a linear story, attempts to evoke the emotions and perceptions of characters or of the reader may create ‘poetic’ moments during the story. If one maximizes these moments and reduces the linking narrative, even to the point where it is implied rather than described, one may produce a relatively ‘non-linear’ story (although the idea of story inevitably contains linearity).  I suppose that this is my perception of how Inanimate Alice works. There is a linear chronology, but this is suggested rather than detailed, and my experience as the reader is of poetic moments at intervals along that chronology.

This was my limited view of new media’s potential at the time and, of course, it turned out that there was some sense in what our teachers were saying and we learned to identify and value the different kind of immersion, as well as the relative autonomy, creative freedom and social discourse offered to the reader by many online stories.

However, I still felt that these comparisons, necessary though they might be, could devalue the power of text-based stories. I longed to hold on to them while still embracing video games, MMOGs, cross-media narratives and all the other online possibilities… I did not want the new literacies to supplant the old.  Thus, I was delighted when a recent visit to a Story Garden (“Gan Sipur”) in Israel suggested a way of creating and maintaining a transliterate approach to the enjoyment of stories.

Holon, a large city south of and adjacent to Tel Aviv, has 31 of these Story Gardens. Along with the Children’s Museum, the Mediatheque Cultural Center and various other youth-friendly initiatives, they contribute to Holon’s growing reputation as a “children’s city”. Hana Herzman, managing director of Holon Municipality, and Moti Sasson, Mayor of Holon, are credited with originating and driving the development of the Story Gardens project. They explain the concept further in this video:

Story Gardens of Holon (view on YouTube)

In other words, Story Gardens are landscaped sculpture installations where the sculptures are characters, objects or abstract representations of thoughts and emotions from well-loved children’s stories.

Each garden (there may be several within a park) is a visually identifiable, cohesive space for one particular story, but offering unlimited points of access and egress.  A path suggests the author’s original linear progress through the story, but nothing prevents the experiencer from being attracted to or seeking out alternative routes through the story.

Thematic and aesthetic cohesion for a particular story is established by having one sculptor per story, so only one artist works with a particular writer or text to interpret that story, but these unique story gardens are then united by tasteful, spacious landscaping in and between each “storyverse”, as though an editor had placed them in an anthology. See some more examples in Yair Karelic’s photos here:

Holon’s Story Gardens (1 of 2)

Holon’s Story Gardens (2 of 2)

Besides the simple pleasures of experiencing the gardens themselves, from an analytical point of view, the collaborative creation and the confluence of literacies here is wonderful.  In creating a story garden, an author’s text is interpreted by a selection committee, a sculptor, and architects, environmental planners and engineers (often in live discussion with the author), and then re-interpreted with great satisfaction by teachers, parents, grandparents and, most importantly, by the children at whom the entire exercise is aimed.  And taking transliteracy a step further… some of the stories have even morphed their way into the world of philately through photos of the sculptures!

And the text is never far from the story experience, despite its outdoor, 3-D, immersive, flexible and very social nature: apparently the most popular books in Holon are those featured in the Story Gardens. They are borrowed from the Mediatheque library and are taken to the gardens to be read aloud or home to be enjoyed again, by parents, teachers and children.

In a recent wide-ranging post, Reading in the Digital Age or Reading How We’ve Always Read, Kassia Krozser of Booksquare muses most engagingly on the technological developments required to facilitate social reading in the online environment, but what struck me is her assertion that reading has been a social activity for much longer than it has been a solitary one. She reminds us that

Social reading is normal reading. …  Even after the invention of the Gutenberg press, the possession of books was outside the reach of most people. …. The tradition of people reading to each other remains alive and well. …  It wasn’t until mass market books became available that reading, as we know it, was identified as a (almost-solely) solitary activity (overall literacy rates had to catch up as well, but that’s another issue).

I sometimes think of reading as “story absorption” to remind myself that stories were not always bound in books, but I am also glad that, at this point in the evolution of storytelling, when “wreading” happens in a Story Garden (because analysis, comment, reinterpretation and embellishment are inevitable parts of creation and of play), texts may still be part of the discussion.



{Fri 4 June 2010}   Living in a Digital Economy
Living in a Digital Economy

On Wednesday I attended a great talk hosted by Amplified Leicester at the Phoenix Square Digital Media Centre, Leicester. John Stobart of Harvey Ingram LLP gave an excellent presentation titled “Legal Aspects of Online Business and the Digital Economy Act 2010”. I’ve written this up in more detail on my business blog at http://get-it-write.com, but just wanted to review here my feelings about it.

Of course I feel, as a content creator as well as a content consumer, that I want my copyright to be respected. Although it’s unlikely at this stage that any of my articles, poems, etc. will generate millions of dollars for anyone, including myself, I think I share with most artists, writers or even idea-generators who haven’t yet implemented or will never implement their ideas in concrete form, the desire for at least the bare minimum of recognition by people correctly attributing to me any work or ideas of mine when they publish them in any form.

But I don’t think that the way to enforce copyright is by introducing legislation which penalizes everybody who uses a particular internet connection just because some other user may have used it illegally. This creates fear and uncertainty and will likely hamper creativity. Rather, I think we need a massive education campaign to teach what copyright is, and which emphasizes both respect for original sources by users AND a more generous attitude on the part of copyright holders so that the wonderful creativity which new media has spawned and facilitated is not choked off. Creative Commons is the way to go!

I think my view is shared by most people who work online for a living, even when their income depends on their being paid for their creativity. After the talk on Wednesday, I had the pleasure of lunching with Jayne Childs of Creative Coffee Club Leicester and George Ballentyne of the Leicester Council of Faiths. Like others at the talk, they were more concerned about the potential for heavy-handed abuse of the DEA’s provisions than they were excited about the powers it gives to copyright holders. Copyright is already well-protected in UK law.

Notes

Here is the text of the Digital Economy Act 2010, which is now law.

You may still be able to influence some aspects of its implementation via the current Ofcom consultation on how “to give effect to measures introduced in the Digital Economy Act 2010 (“DEA”) aimed at reducing online copyright infringement. Specifically (they) are seeking views on a code of practice called “the Online Copyright Infringement Initial Obligations Code”. This consultation period ends on Friday 30th July.

For general information apart from the Act itself, the Wikipedia entry is a starting point with its selection of links to external sources.

John Stobart is a partner at Harvey Ingram LLP and specialises in Corporate Finance & Transactions. See http://www.harveyingram.com/biographies/john-stobart.aspx.

George Ballentyne is the Equality & Diversity Officer for the Leicester Council of Faiths. He blogs at http://equalitydiversityofficer.blogspot.com/ and his latest post is about the John Stobart presentation mentioned above.

Jayne Childs is the Project Coordinator for Creative Coffee Club Leicester which is based at Phoenix Square in Leicester. This is the place to meet like-minded creatives in Leicester, or meet them online at www.creativecoffeeleicester.com.



Overcoming barriers to making an online living

My MA project is well under way. Submission date is 1st September, so I will be pretty busy with that for the next six weeks or so. After that, I intend to get back to earning again! The full time year of study has been a wonderful privilege, but I’m tired of not being able to afford things that were an easy part of my life a year ago. A lot of people have had to adjust to a leaner life due to the credit crunch rather than to study choices, but we’re in the same boat in the sense of not being able to look to an employer for income. If I want to make some money, I need to do it on my own, and I want to do it all online.

The topic of how creative writers can monetize content on the web interests all those on my course. There are several barriers to overcome if you want to make money on the web as a writer. For word count reasons, I’ve decided not to include these five main barriers in my dissertation text, preferring to concentrate on guiding writers to think about solutions, but these are what I address.

Barrier 1: Competition from free content on the web.
Anxiety about the future of print media is widespread. Authors, publishers, journalists and editors across the world are scrambling to understand the import of the global access to information and entertainment that the Internet is bringing to increasingly technologically sophisticated audiences. They are desperate to find or develop monetization models that will still pay skilled professionals. Jolyon O’Connell, in weekly news digest, The Week (30 May 2009, Issue 717, 5), summarised as follows:

The Guardian’s Ian Jack thinks the game is nearly up for professional writers. “We are in the twilight years of a certain kind of paid employment,” he writes, “the business of inking words on paper… The fact is that generations are now growing up with the idea that words should be read electronically for free – a new human right…” Because of the internet, writers may end up as poorly remunerated as they were in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare, after all, only made money because his plays had paying audiences. … It was in the 19th century, when the British middle class expanded rapidly, that writing became a potentially lucrative job, with Walter Scott sometimes earning £20,000 a year, Dickens making a fortune for Chapman & Hall and the word of God enabling William Collins to buy a country house and a steam yacht by selling 300 000 bibles a year.

But now we can all be authors, and publish ourselves on the web: it just doesn’t make money. As Jack says, the age of the gifted amateur is “surely about to return…”

Yes, but that’s not bad, is Chris Anderson’s conclusion in his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. High quality free stuff is actually good for business; you just need to think creatively about how to persuade people to pay for other high quality stuff that appears alongside it.

Barrier 2: Time constraints

Conceptualising and writing may take the same time as for print publication, but implementing and testing new media content, especially bearing in mind global audiences and different platforms, takes longer. Even presuming you are commissioned, or have a definite target market willing to pay for the product, can you charge enough to justify the time spent? Making time is an important survival skill for the online world, but even with time management and automation of processes, writers making their living in new media (and this may eventually be all writers) cannot rely exclusively on any model of income where earnings are directly related to time spent on work, because those earnings will always be capped by the number of writing or creating hours one can squeeze out of any 24-hour period. You need to sell some things that are not time-dependent.

Barrier 3: The technology
As mentioned above, technology has a time cost, but it also costs money and effort. Hardware and much software, plus time and expertise for learning, implementation and testing across multiple platforms, must be included in the writer’s time and money budgets. The learning never ends: the creative writer who wants to stay at the cutting edge needs to master the latest tools as they come out. On the other hand, posts like the Institute for The Future (IFTF)’s Hello? Most Americans not superempowered IT people (which quotes an Accenture report) and The Mobile Difference report from Pew Internet indicate that most of the potential online audience will not be familiar with the latest tools. Therefore, writers must make decisions about the use of tools depending on their intended audience. If the audience is unlikely to be familiar with a tool, then either it must be abandoned or persuasion and facilitation may be required to help them use it.

Barrier 4: Lack of vision
Despite our excitement at the possibilities unfolding before us, many of us still lack “digital imagination” (a term suggested by Chris Meade of The Institute for the Future of the Book). Publishers and writers accustomed to old print media just cannot see how it could work, financially speaking. There are too many opportunities and we feel overwhelmed by them; we feel we will never master the necessary e-literacy; our concerns about privacy and over-exposure hamper our experimentation. We do not yet have enough case studies comparing online and offline working for us to be clear about which approaches will be both effective and financially lucrative. The only alternative is to look at what others are doing, make some educated guesses and try out various models for ourselves.

Barrier 5: Lack of business nous
Despite the digital medium, in most respects online business is like any other business. Even if none of the other barriers apply to you, a lack of business sense, of the ability to market and sell a product at the right price while keeping an eye on the bottom line, and to keep customers coming back for more and referring others, might scupper your chances of success.

In the mean time, the antidote is to understand that while the media change, the same principles apply online as offline. Writers care more about getting their story out to people, than which form of print they use … why not extend this attitude to the screen? When considering the form your writing takes, why not think of it as choosing packaging for your ideas that is appropriate to the medium? Why not assume that social media provide new ways of doing the same networking done at cocktail parties? To win friends and influence people (and to sell your work to gatekeepers, peers, sponsors, and customers) you still need to convey genuine interest in others. You can stay human while using different media.



The Loquat Tree

Following the “film of  your life” exercise in our Memoir workshop with Jonathan Taylor, one of the next instructions was to create ” the photo of your life” by choosing one of the memories to “write a passage describing minutely where you were, what you were wearing, what was around you (scenery, furniture, wallpaper, carpets, flowers, etc.), who else was there, what happened, what was said, and so on. Be as detailed as you possibly can. If you can’t remember details, make them up.”

I found this exercise interesting  because it caused me to doubt the accuracy of my memory, and also because it engaged my interest in research!

One thing that struck me as I read the question and looked for instances in my descriptions to answer it, was that I have absolutely no memory at all of what I was wearing at any point.

I had decided to write about climbing the loquat tree, but as I tried to describe the texture of the bark, and its smell, I suddenly wondered whether I was remembering it correctly, so I looked it up on Google. I found very many sites giving descriptions of “Eriobotrya japonica”, with varying assessments of the size of the mature tree, the number and prevalence of its varieties and fruit colours, and contradictory descriptions of it as a “shrub” or a “tree”.  I am sure that the tree in our garden in Northcliff was very large; clearly it had been there for many years (although a smaller tree may be “large”, when one is seven years old, of course, but I know that it was climbable).  I am also sure that it was not a “shrub” – I remember a  large single trunk, although it was vertically ridged, so possibly the individual “shrub” branches had grown together over many years. This is possibly why I found hand- and footholds to enable me to climb. The shrub-like growth of the higher branches may also be why I remember that it was not very comfortable to sit in the tree for long periods of time (as I sometimes did in other trees).  Suddenly, simply “remembering” is not very simple at all! But the discoveries I make during the process are intriguing, and I see why it may be necessary to “make things up”. Even if I base my descriptions on research, so that they are “likely” to be fairly accurate, that does not make them into my own memories.

Anyway, here’s what emerged:

————–

My hands slid over the bark of the tree, seeking purchase. The bark was smooth over the sinuous vertical ridges of the separate boles that had grown together long ago to form this wide trunk, but split in places by small lumpy outcrops or the base of a broken-off twig.  I loved the occasional harshness that pressed against my skin, and the smell of the dust disturbed by my hands as it mingled with the strong oriental perfume of the few white flowers that had not yet given way to fruit. As I found a handhold, then another, then a foothold, I entered the world of the tree, leaving sunshine and everything else behind. My goal was the sweet orange-yellow globes that I could see hanging amidst the shiny dark green leaves above me. I heaved myself up, scraping my tummy against the cool wood as I stretched for branches small enough to hold onto securely. It was only when I had settled, breathless, into the sharp fork between two of these branches, that I noticed I had grazed my knee. It wasn’t sore. I studied the greenish-grey dirt around the broken skin. It must have rubbed off the tree bark as I climbed. Then, as a shaft of sunlight played across my shoulders, I lost interest in the wound and looked again towards the golden fruit. Placing my left foot uncomfortably into the sharp fork beneath me and the right on a knot in a neighbouring branch, I seized the branch in front of me with both hands and stood up. From this position, I was able to reach up and break off a cluster of the fruit. I had done it! I noticed that I could now see through the leaves into the lower garden. Apart from the fact that the grass was fairly short, there was no sign of human habitation or civilisation. Inside this tree, clutching my prize, I was king of my own wild world.



{Mon 2 February 2009}   Seeking the ideal daily routine
Seeking the ideal daily routine

Sue Thomas posted this question under Talking Points in our Creative Nonfiction module today:
I came across this very interesting website http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/ which prompted me to ask – what is your daily routine? Do you have one? Do you wish you had? What works for you?

I found this website fascinating. One thing that struck me particularly was how few writers write for more than three or four hours a day. Another was how many of them write in the morning. I am also a morning person. Sometimes, I jump out of bed with a huge sense of urgency at 3, 4, 5 or 6 and head straight to my computer. If I do start writing then and if nothing else actively demands my attention (I am very good at procrastinating about things that should be done but aren’t actually shouting at me), then I can write or design projects easily until 11 or 12 am.

Usually, though, I have a much more disciplined routine which results in far less writing! This is because I’m married. Because I currently work and study from home and my husband has to travel to work, all the housework and catering falls to me. His necessary routine dictates mine. We rise at 7 (if I’m not already up) and I must have a cooked breakfast on the table by 8am at the latest so that he can be at work by 9. I usually fit in some housework and about 45 minutes of exercise between 7 and 9 as well. I am much more regular about exercise if I do it in the morning. If I miss, sometimes I can persuade myself to get on the stepper in front of the TV in the evening, but I have to talk to myself sternly to make myself do this!

From 9 I’m back at the computer and work through until 12 or 12.30, when I break for lunch for an hour (in which time I’ll do some laundry and possibly get onto the stepper in front of the TV if I missed it in the morning). Then at 13:00 or 13:30 back to the computer until 6.30 pm. I often have a concentration slump somewhere between 2 and 4pm, so I might read online news, answer emails, browse websites or even watch TV then. At 6.30 I start preparing dinner to serve at 7pm (I don’t do fancy cooking!). By 8pm I’ll finish clearing up, laying the breakfast table and preparing my husband’s work lunch for the following day. Then it’s time for any collaboration with him on online projects or domestic issues, or if we don’t have anything pressing, we’ll both return to our computers until 10pm (well, we always say 10pm, but inevitably end up only getting into bed by 11 or later because he’s a night owl).

I deal with household admin and finances – property, banking, insurance, investment issues, etc. for at least an hour a day. Most of this is online or call centre work which I dislike intensely, and some letter-writing, and it usually goes better if I do it in the morning, but I often leave it until late in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, I don’t function well on less than 8 hours’ sleep, or if I get to bed any later than 11pm. I would so love to be one who could manage on 6 hours!

Sometimes, when I’m deeply engaged in a project or piece of writing, none of the above applies. I’ve been known to spend 12 to 18 hours solid at my computer, only drinking or eating when my other half realizes that I’m shrivelling up and brings me something.

So, that’s my reality, which doesn’t really work for me. One possible improved schedule would be:

06:00 Yoga, self-care, planning
07:00 Light breakfast; read
07.30 Write, study
11:00 Online chores
12:00 Lunch (main meal); read or walk
13:00 Write, study, work
17:00 Housework, dinner prep with music
18:00 Walk or read
19:00 Light dinner and clearing up with music
20:00 Read, play games, collaborate, dance, singing, drawing or music practice
09:00 Prep for sleep
09:30 Read in bed
10:15 Sleep

Seems so simple…. why is it so hard to make this happen regularly?

One answer: Csikszentmihalyi talks of the “activation energy” needed to transition into activities that produce flow, and of the dangers of the lure of passive activities like TV that require very little activation energy. TV is a big problem for me because it’s easier than all the other things. If I could, I would throw it out, but hubby won’t hear of it. Although, recently, I’m glad to report, I’ve been so interested in what I’m learning and doing on the course that I’ve been watching a lot less.

I’d be happy to hear what routines others have or have tried in the past, and especially what motivates you to stick to them.

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{Sun 11 January 2009}   Story and Story of Story
Story and Story of Story

After submitting work to an Online Workshop for the Methods module of the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media (MACWNM) at De Montfort University, students were asked to write a critical commentary describing their creative process in making the work and in responding to feedback on that work. Throughout the Methods module, several models and tools helped us understand the creative process while engaging in it. I was fascinated by the two different kinds of writing, storytelling and commentary, arising from one starting point. I determined to learn to do both well.

This response attempts to showcase this learning.

The Story The Story of the Story

Fruit and Veggie Stall by Monique Jansen

Fruit and Veggie Stall by Monique Jansen



{Sun 11 January 2009}   Saving The Market Way

Saving The Market Way

In a time-pressed world, it’s hard to resist the enormous convenience of supermarkets. It’s two minutes’ walk to my local Marks and Spencer’s. This proximity allows me to indulge my worst habits of laziness, last-minute catering and impulse-buying. I can delay domestic drudgery until five in the afternoon, safe in the knowledge that I can rescue my dinner party by popping in to that purveyor of guilty pleasures such as dressed chickens, prepared vegetables and decorated desserts.

Over the past few years, however, I’ve had an uncomfortable pricking of conscience on two fronts. The global warming crisis has given rise to much speculation over the role of supermarkets in promoting short-cut farming methods and over-packaged products. More recently, the credit crunch has forced me to consider closely how much I spend, not only on luxuries, but also on essentials. This is why, one day, I decided that I must do my bit, for the environment and for my domestic economy, by trying out a local market. After looking up recommendations and directions online, I felt fully equipped to try out the real thing; convinced I’d return feeling more virtuous and richer than I usually do after a shopping trip.

On a warm, spring Saturday, I set off, with curiosity and a sense of adventure, along a road I had often used, but from which I had never spotted anything that looked like a market. Was it a mysterious shopping underworld that manifested only to those in the know? The Google map was easy to follow, though, and I soon found Lodge Lane Car Park. A non-descript lot behind the main street shops, one wouldn’t notice it in the course of daily business unless one needed to park there. This market day, however, it had transformed into a colourful, ant colony of commerce. Hawkers’ cajoling cries soared through my open window over a hubbub of conversation and movement. Pleased at my discovery, I swung into a bay, killed the engine, distributed about my body all necessary shopping accoutrements, and sallied forth to sample market fare under the benevolent sun.

Immediately in front of me was a large stall brilliant with blooms. A mixture of rose and freesia fragrances wafted toward me. At the entrance, two towers of lazy-eyed susans glowed amongst blue and magenta clematis. Behind them, cerise geraniums tumbled over the edges of a turquoise pot, and consorts of cosmos in mauve, white and purple nodded alongside. Enquirers besieged the smiling, silver-haired stallholder while her burly companion broke off to right a fallen cloud of mauve fluff. The insubstantial mist of flowers gave the light breeze sufficient leverage for play, and the pot was dancing. After several attempts, he left it prostrate before its admirers, and went back to selling daisies.

Beyond the floral drama, I squeezed into a narrow passage between blue plastic walls on which were tacked a determined, but tasteless, array of mobile phone covers, thongs and baseball caps. Hurrying toward the light at the end of the tunnel, I burst out into a mêlée of one-pound-T-shirt shoppers, intent, as they ripped the clear plastic packages, on finding the colour or size they simply must have at that price. Greens, yellows and blues, juggled from hand to urgent hand, floated above hasty trestle tables before settling into seething piles of discarded items. Less agile browsers burrowed into these volatile mounds, risking life and limb for the red or the orange. Taking a gulp of air, I plunged in, nimbly rescued three still-cellophaned shirts, deposited three coins into a smuggler’s hand and exited on the same breath.

A kind of optimistic sanity prevailed in the organic area. People were bustling, but grounded by the smell and touch of soil-moist carrots, celery, tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflowers and broccoli. They pottered happily between enormous oranges, blushing grapefruit and rows of multicoloured nectarines ripe for eating. Begging a large broccoli box off a stallholder, I filled it quickly. The huge strawberries and fresh black cherries were so cheap! I had to quell the impulse to dive in with both hands, fending off other comers with my elbows like a one-pound-T-shirt veteran. Instead, I hoisted the sagging box onto my hip and enjoyed the market banter as I waited for the scales.

At last it was my turn. The overwhelmed vegetable attendant rechecked her snake of figures; I paid her and returned to the car in high good humour, pleased to have bought so much for so little. The new T-shirts were perfect for our upcoming beach holiday, and we would eat well and guilt-free at dinner that evening and for the coming week.

Still in this happy haze, my attention was caught by a bright yellow square on the windscreen. Startled, I scanned the vicinity and saw that I was, indeed, parked under a large sign listing parking charges, which my rose-tinted spectacles had blanked out completely on arrival. The morning’s savings were wiped out. As I stood there indecisively for a moment, the burly flower-stall man caught my eye. He took in the situation at a glance and pointed to the sky, “At least the sun is still shining!” He had a point. Inside M&S, I wouldn’t have noticed the weather.

Listen to the audio version of this story (Market Magic).

See a Feedback Action Plan created from feedback received on this story.



{Wed 10 December 2008}   Apostrophising the apostrophe
Apostrophising the apostrophe

“Oh, great squiggle in the sky, insert yourself into our empty spaces,
Deliver us from plural confusions and possess us with your graces!”

No, I’m not starting a new religion, or being lewd, but I confess that this is a shameless grammar and punctuation plug, as well as a plea for the improvement of our reading environment. While I’m sure that none of us at Master’s level* would ever dream of intentionally inflicting on others a piece of work for reading or review without running it through MS Word’s spelling and grammar checker first, the simple truth is that this less-than-beloved software doesn’t pick up everything, so we simply have to learn a few rules if we want to be writers.

Of all the errors that grate on my reading nerves, the misuse of the apostrophe definitely tops the list.

I love apostrophes, because they’re really useful. However, they’re pointless when used in the wrong places. In fact, they’re worse than pointless then, because they actually interfere with smooth reading. A bad apostrophe is not neutral, it’s negative! In the worst cases, it alters the meaning, but even when the context tells me that it just can’t mean that, just one bad apostrophe in a paragraph, even in an entire page, makes whatever I’m reading seem unprofessional. I immediately find it difficult to focus on the content, even if I’m really interested in it.

I’m very lucky in that I was well-drilled in spelling, grammar and punctuation at my school (we were always a backward lot out there in the colonies, so we didn’t “benefit” from educational fads like the “grammar inhibits creativity” one that has betrayed recent generations of UK children), but I still come up against the occasional grammatical situation where I have to think twice about the apostrophe.

So here are two sites that I’ve found helpful:

A. The Apostrophe Protection Society: http://www.apostrophe.fsnet.co.uk/

This site has a really poncey name, but it’s a useful quick reference because the Home page contains the bare essentials in big text. It gives the traditional explanations of correct usage for missing letters and for possessives (remembering to except the exceptions). The easiest-to-remember advice from this page is:

“Apostrophes are NEVER ever used to denote plurals”,

so if you mean “more than one”, don’t even be tempted! Just remembering this rule will halve your apostrophe problems immediately.

B. The Dreaded Apostrophe:  http://www.dreaded-apostrophe.com/

I like this site much more, because:

  1. It reduces all the rules to one: “Use an apostrophe when letters are missing”.The writer explains that the apostrophe ALWAYS signifies one or more missing letters, even in possessives, because the old form of the possessive used to have an ‘es’ ending. Pronunciation has changed and the ‘es’ form has contracted, so that it is now represented as “‘s “.
  2. There are good examples and a great Q & A page giving answers to difficult apostrophe questions. Surprisingly, it makes quite interesting reading!

On the other hand, if you don’t have time to look it up, you can always recite my daily prayer,

“Oh, great squiggle in the sky, insert yourself into our empty spaces,
Deliver us from plural confusions and possess us with your graces!”

and maybe the muse will give you a clue!



{Sun 7 December 2008}   Home

Another recent creative writing exercise for our course (the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media) was also based on a popular trAce project, now archived at http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/home/

It asks several questions about the meaning of home … here are the questions and my responses.

Q. What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?

“Home” conjures images of open spaces, blue skies, trees, grass, animals; freedom to walk barefoot when and wherever I wanted to, room and time to run, play, think and read, read, read – this is not my present home, but one of those that I believe I knew and for which I yearn. There was also much, much aloneness, but I did not call it loneliness then.

Q. Please describe the home of your childhood.

I lived in South Africa until I was thirty. There were many homes, but one stands out in my memory, particularly from the period before I went to boarding school at the age of eleven. We moved to Bryanston, Sandton, when I was eight. It was a three-acre property with a lovely farm-style house that my mother had inherited from my grandmother. As a younger child, I had visited her there a few times before her death, and had even stayed with her for a week. Then, I had found the house strange and cool, musty and lonely, because grandmother herself was strange to me. However, once we had moved in, it very quickly became our house.

I remember the whole property as beautiful, and I remember the additional delight that each new beautification brought to all of us, but especially to my mother, who energised each change – the extension to the lounge that brought light in everywhere, the oregon pine floors that I proudly helped my father to lay, the enormous new main bedroom with built-in cupboards lining its entire length on one side, big enough to hide a built-in sewing station and to give access through a cupboard door to a magical en suite bathroom with a huge picture window.

I loved my father’s study. It was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases that he had built himself from golden pine. The lines of books were broken with staggered double volume frames that gave space for lamps and objets d’art, so the small room was never oppressive, even with its thousands of books. There were good science fiction from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and bad science fiction from Andre Norton, good romances from Georgette Heyer and bad romances from Barbara Cartland, good westerns from Zane Grey and bad westerns from Louis L’Amour, good thrillers from Graham Greene and less good thrillers from Ian Fleming; there were adventure stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, encyclopaedias and dictionaries and Greek myths and fantasy novels and children’s stories, including the complete series of Biggles, Just William, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton. All of these, and more, he and I devoured. From that study, I took my heroes out to the garden to become them there. I was Tarzan (my brothers were the apes), I was Lord Greystoke, I was John Carter of Mars, I was Hiawatha, I was Robinson Crusoe, I was Peter Pan… I was never a girl, because they were seldom heroes, although Georgina from the Famous Five was alright, because she was a tomboy and could climb trees, like me.

The garden was not manicured like those of our neighbours, but it was a wonderful wild space for me and my younger brothers. Pretty Jacaranda trees lined the boundary with the busy main road. There were also two huge Acacia Elata trees, with dark brown bark and dark green leaves, that were easy to climb all the way to the top. Unlike our neighbours, we had no wall or fence along that road, although my parents had created inside the line of trees a row of grassy hills from building rubble and soil to act as a sound barrier. I loved to sit at the top of the tallest tree, alternately playing my recorder and singing my heart out, sometimes for hours. Inside the main garden, there were a syringa and a willow and a yellowwood, and many other trees. My favourites were the small Chinese oak that turned brilliant shades of red and orange in Autumn and the huge tree down the slope from the patio which my brother called the helicopter tree because of its winged seeds. From its huge branches hung our car-tyre swing and the birdhouse for the twenty or so white doves that my mother had installed on a determined whim. As they were not caged, the population, inevitably, did not remain pure white, but we loved to see them coming and going about their bird business.

The other animals were our beloved dogs, including Juno the boxer who had been with us ever since I could remember, and a succession of others – Buster, a black pointer, who ran away, a bulldog called Belinda who bit my father, at least two gorgeous Bouviers, Casper and Gigi, from whom my mom bred a few litters. Watchdog duties were performed by the geese. I also always had a cat – Mischief, Peculiar, Malkat (mad cat) and then Afterthought, a pure white, blue-eyed, deaf albino who always came late for everything. For my eleventh Christmas, my best Christmas ever, my parents gave me a cremello-coloured, sweet-tempered gelding called Butterscotch. My younger brother, Ian, received a cheeky cross-Welsh pony called Prince, who was black with a white blaze. We would ride them for hours, bareback, in the garden, or saddled, through the surrounding countryside. They lived in the stables and paddock that my father and my uncle had built and fenced in the acre to the rear of the house. Every so often, we would wash the horses with apple-scented shampoo and set them free in the garden to graze on the greener grass in front of the house as a reward for their good behaviour under the hose.

Q. Please describe the scent, taste or feel of home.

As I look into that word-picture, I smell new-mown grass, wet dog, apple-scented horses, brown bread baking, my mother’s Lanvin perfume, and the fresh air that I took absolutely for granted then.

Q. Which object most evokes home for you?

A purring cat.

Q. Where do you feel you ‘properly belong’ now?

I do not know.

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{Sat 6 December 2008}   Dawn-Noon-Midnight Quilt

One creative writing exercise we were set for our course (the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media), a few weeks ago, was to experiment with the Noon Quilt idea.

Prof. Sue Thomas, who sets the exercises, told us that this was originally a trAce writing project which assembled 100-word patches from writers around the world to create “a quilt of noon-time impressions”. Apparently, trAce was later commissioned by the British Council to make two similar quilts—The Dawn Quilt for South Asia and The Road Quilt for Russia and Eastern Europe. Our exercise was: “Look out of a window on three occasions during the week, at Dawn, Noon, and Midnight, and describe exactly what you can see. If you find a story there, feel free to tell it. ”

Living in London, I’m never usually up at either dawn or midnight, (or I don’t notice when I am because there’s usually not much clue from the sky!) but for the sake of this exercise I made a special effort, even going so far as to get the exact rising and setting times for the Sun from http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/astronomy.html?n=136.

I found that doing it all in one day made for stronger links between the patches;a sense of a continuous narrative.

So this was the day:

Date: 4 Dec 2008
Sunrise:
07:48  Sunset: 15:53
Length of day: 8h 04m 53s  Difference from the day before: − 1m 46s
Solar noon: 11:51  Altitude: 16.2°  Distance (10E6 km): 147.428

07:48

Through rain-spotted glass I see, no, feel, a grey sky. I see the white-rimmed eyes of human habitation staring across grim gardens. Here and there, a few glow with manufactured morning warmth. The sun is a secret. Inexplicably, the cloudy canvas lightens slightly. Stark winter trees stand against the grey, shivering in the meaningless wind. The flesh sags from my cheekbones as I imagine the cold wetness of the bark. I look back to the rows of neighbouring windows, but now all are dark and empty. The people inside have also become secrets.

11:51

The rain-spots have dried into dusty acid traces on the window panes. Beyond them, the dawn-dark trees are now shades of green, an eerie moss climbing high over their bare limbs. The day is undecided. Bemused grey clouds scud eastward in ragged retreat, like an army desperate for refuge. Between their broken ranks, blue sky flashes. Sunlight reaches through to caress our creamy walls, but will not stay to be touched. Cayenne chrysanthemums leap with the wind, but the evergreen jasmine next to them clings to the wall, stubbornly still.

23:59

All is still now. With little light behind it to highlight imperfections, the glass seems clear now. Peering through it, I see a calm sky, its starless blackness softened by the urban glow that horizons our silent mews. Nightlights gently bathe the courtyard’s high cream walls and peaceful plants. Some shadows linger, but they do not dart about or threaten. That invisible city beyond our nestling house seems benevolent tonight. It has vanquished the rain. The secret people have lit some lights again. Their warm windows tell me of throbbing hearts and Christmas hearths. Tonight, I can sleep.

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et cetera