Thursday 30 September 2010

Academic Writing

There was an interesting article in the ACLS magazine recently about academic writing. Academic writers anyway seem to be paid a salary for having ideas so don’t so much need to be paid for their writing. In fact their writing is a way of spreading their ideas.
I’m a rather unusual creature, in that I research and teach in “creative writing” so much of my work has a commercial presence as well. My work is not too commercial, however, as it includes a good degree of experiment. And so it should if it’s part of the learning offered at university.
I do get a ALCS payment and a PLR payment each year. Both are mainly to do with two books and yet I have over 30 in print. We were surveyed by ALCS here at the university last year. A fascinating process. Every time we photocopied something we had to copy the title page and say how many of which pages we’d used.
A friend of mine has published her novel an e-book and is giving it away for a few weeks. It’s gong well.
I expect once the e-book-reader technology settles down it will become popular with academics. I’m personally looking forward to that.
All food for thought.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Keeping track

I have a task manager provided with my email account at work. Great, sometimes, you get invited to an event and have the option of it being put in your dairy. It’s magical watching it easily slide in. As I keep a paper diary, I have to make a copy as well but it’s actually fine. Belt and Braces.
I do use the task manager, though. I do find it stops me agonising about what I have to do next. It’s all listed there and with tasks that have a time critical element to them I put in extra reminders.
I’m working generally on my novel, Peace Child and on the post-proof reading edit of its prequel Babel. I intersperse that with academic writing and entries to competitions and interesting submissions. For the latter I keep a list, in date order, in my “academic writing” task box. I try to do two hours of this four days a week. I don’t always manage it of course.
I do find it reassuring that everything is there and I don’t have to try to hold everything in my head. I can reserve my brain for the more creative stuff.
There are plenty of task managers around. I’m using the Microsoft Office one. Lotus Notes is good too. I’ve used that in the past. I use the Microsoft one as it’s provided by my employer.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

First Creative Writing Lecture of the Semester

Yes, that’s right. We lecture on creative writing. Thirty-eight students turned out to an introductory lecture. We were expecting 41. But five did not show who were on our lists.
What does one lecture about in creative writing?
Well, this week there was a lot of housekeeping. The programme leader came and talked about the programme. I talked about some specific module details. The other two tutors were introduced. We chose student reps. Six people volunteered. Usually it’s a struggle to find one.
Then there was the real content.
Usually, only a handful of our students have a portfolio of writing. This time, most of the room put their hands up to say they had. The secondary and tertiary education systems do not normally allow much space for creative writing.
I emphasized the need to write every day. They should set themselves a goal of two minutes – that’s right – just two minutes. Chances are, they’ll get started and end up doing two hours. I also pointed out how important it was to take part every week in the workshop and how this will actually make the completion of the assignment easier. I encouraged them too to keep a writer’s journal.
I pointed out how gradually the way they read will become different. They will become quicker and more critical. They’ll find they can’t read without critiquing but it does mean that they can enjoy texts in a different way.
And then there are all those activities that are to do with writing that don’t seem like work – people-watching, reading and watching films. Absorbing story in all sorts of different ways.
The biggest shock may have been, I suspect, that I told them they should be spending 200 hours on each module they’re on. They have, of course, already done some of the work. They’ve probably been doing it all their lives.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi and Flow

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s books on creativity and flow make for fascinating reads, whether you’re an academic or not. They explain a lot about how creativity happens.
My first encounter with one of his books was most bizarre. I’d read an article in the NAWE magazine which mentioned his idea of “flow”. I was in Portsmouth University Library looking of another book – and then I suddenly saw it on the shelf. It wasn’t, I didn’t think, at that time, pertinent to my studies. I borrowed it anyway as the way I’d found it must mean something. I found it was in fact relevant to what I was studying. Some ideas from it were integrated into the critical commentary within my Critical and Creative Writing Ph D: Peace Child, Towards a Global Definition of the Young Adult Novel. When I had to reduce 80,000 words to 40,000 it disappeared again. On passing my Ph D and having to make minor amendments, I found myself revisiting Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas again. Was I in that moment as I saw the book on the shelf in a state of flow?
It’s uncanny and yet reassuring (oh is this another paradoxical trait) that I recognise myself when he describes paradoxical traits of the creative person: Physical energy / quietness, smartness / naivety, playfulness / discipline, responsibility / irresponsibility, imagination / reality, introvert / extrovert, humility / pride, rebellious / conservative, passion / objectivity, pain / enjoyment.
He defines “flow” as intense enjoyment and something we experience when fully absorbed in a task. This happens when: there are clear goals every step of the way, there is immediate feedback to one’s actions, there is a balance between challenges and skills, actions and awareness are merged, distractions are excluded form consciousness, there is no worry of failure, self-consciousness disappears, the sense of time is distorted and the activity becomes worth doing for its own sake. That is, I think, what happens to me when I am writing. I don’t really fear the failure until the rejection slip arrives.
His work is certainly interesting and certainly worth a look.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Hectic start to semester continues

It’s really a case of not remembering correctly, I guess. And it’s partly because of the contrast. There are times when we work in a totally different way - when we’re researching, attending conferences or writing for instance. Other times it’s like being back at school. The change from one mode to another is not always easy.
What is certain about now is that it is hectic.
We had the first BA Creative Writing meeting of the year today. There are some issues and the solutions are not crystal clear yet. So much to take up brain space. Much to think about.
The first years continue looking startled and perplexed. We know how thy feel.
We met with personal tutees today. They seemed very clued up. We got through the routine questionnaire really smoothly. And they seem a nice bunch too.
The year is definitely beginning to take off.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

They used to call it Fresher’s Week

It’s now called Induction Week. I’ve had a busy day today with four separate meetings and just a little time in between to get a few other things done. It’s felt a little fraught. I remember back to my own first week as an undergraduate. The programme they’d offered had seemed confusing, yet it all fitted into place quite smoothly. There was never a dull moment though there were enough quiet ones to allow you to get your breath back.
I asked my husband it he remembered his first week as a first year at university.
“Fresher’s Week?” he said. “All I can remember is signing up for lots of societies that I never attended and finding out the best places to drink.
Hmm. Has much changed?
Well we don’t offer them the sherry parties that used to be favoured at Sheffield. I always thought that they were an academic standard in the early 70s. Not so, I have learnt since: they were a Sheffield special.
We did offer them a breakfast this morning –bacon butties, veggie sausages, croissants, muffins, Danish, orange juice and coffee. The catering’s quite good here. The staff mingled, getting to know names and getting first impressions of the students we’re going to be teaching this year. Some of our other current students were also there to meet them.
They then have a series of other meetings – library induction, meeting their programme leaders, and being warned against plagiarism.
The Students Union are also offering some activities.
Registration itself is somewhat complex.
So, it’s not all that different. It’s just as busy as our Freshers’ Weeks were. Except we don’t offer them alcohol. They make their own arrangements for that.

Friday 17 September 2010

Plots out of Control?

Or is it rather that this particular plot is being more finely tuned?
I’m currently writing my third novel in my Peace Child trilogy. This is possibly the novel where for me the plot has been the least clear. I do know roughly how I want the story to go and how it should end, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to know exactly what the next step is.
I’m not sure exactly why this is happening though I suspect a few reasons. One must be that this time I am not working towards the end of just one story but towards the end of an over-arcing story that takes place through three novels. Secondly, my time and brain-space are more fragmented these days because of my job as a university lecturer. This isn’t a complaint about the latter – I love the work and it complements my work as a writer very well. However, it does dominate at times and I then require even more self-discipline than normal to keep on task. I hope I’m right about a third reason: I am a more competent and more experienced writer and know even more about plotting than I did when I wrote my last novel. There is a constant growth as we learn the craft, unless we become jaded, and I don’t actually think I have.
Yet I feel increasingly insecure about this plot. I find myself constantly poking in details and am continually struck by new ideas. Could it be, though, that I am being more open to a creative process? I know anyway that I often do my best writing when I’m feeling less secure about it. That also, I guess, is because I’m being more open to suggestion.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Finding My “Duende” in Lorca’s Country

I have just come back off holiday. I’ve been to the place that actually got me writing in the first place. I went slightly blocked but have come back with some new energy and some new resolve. The writing has to be the most important thing, the bottom line. That is the resolve. What I need to write is now also clearer.
The south of Spain, Andalucía, is the place for inspiration, whatever that may be. Lorca certainly found his “duende” there. This is a type of spiritual, almost demonic influence. The angel and the muse come together, with the devil looking on. Nietzsche is in there too. Is that what was there for me in 1988 when I first started writing Jason’s Crystal?
I think much of it has to do with the very relaxing atmosphere. The sun cheers, the heat and the good food makes one sleepy and dreams are vivid and revealing. Ideas come because they have more time to fester. There is even a touch of the devil because it is all wickedly indulgent.
We go to Nerja, not that far from Granada where Lorca lived at one time. Although it is geared up to the holiday industry and although they cope well with people of many nationalities, this is still the real Spain. It is a little strange and a little different and it takes you out of yourself – just enough to let a few creative ideas come through. Often movement seems to trigger ideas. Poincaré himself, that great recorder of his own creative process, a mathematician, recalls that he found the answer to a question with which he had been grappling for some time as he stepped on to a bus when going out on a “jolly” whilst attending an academic conference.
Perhaps linked with this, too, is the opportunity that holidays offer us to daydream. Nerja in particular and Andalucía in general provide that in heaps.
Yes, I came back raring to go. Maybe all writers need the opportunity to work with their “duende”.