I’ve been sussed. Not by the many people who, rather sweetly, email me for advice on juggling a career as a writer, mother, accountant, cleaner, salesperson and all the other daily roles of a freelancer, but by an anonymous website.

WordPress is a strange land where no-one lives but where many millions are born every day. It’s a friendly world with no-one to talk to but where creativity is the buzzword and liberation is the biggest thrill. Yet for a place that has no king or queen, no governing body, no email address, it is strangely controlling.

I was fine with my bevy of blogs representing my various interests and career paths until I set up a wordpress site and, in a click of an import button, became a single blogger. WordPress pressed me and at first I felt squeezed, out of breath and rather resentful. But as I read through my single blog, I’m rethinking myself. Ok, so I appear to be rather schizophrenic to anyone bothering to read down through the food reviews to the creative practice of a university lecturer to the loneliness of the journo at home, but there’s something in me that bows to the wisdom of this streamlining universe. Maybe too many blogs do spoil the profile, confuse the random reader as he or she cruises through cyberspace, and, more importantly, the potential commisioner. Yes, I really do write, mother, balance the books, clean and sell myself, but WordPress may well be right to bundle me up into one blog and present a united front. It is after all, who I am.

Just in from TVland…..

ITV Productions are now casting in the South East for a new series of ‘Britain’s Best Dish’, ITV1’s nationwide cooking competition to find Britain’s most mouth-watering dish.
The concept of the programme involves competent, home cooks taking on the challenge of presenting original dishes for our panel of distinguished experts; John Burton Race, Jilly Goolding and Ed Baines. Each week, a different region of the UK is represented and provides us with an opportunity to explore and champion local and seasonal food.
Now into its fifth series, the search has begun to find the next crop of talented cooks. Potential contestants would need to cook their own recipe of a starter, main course or dessert. We will be holding nationwide auditions in January and February 2011 with the overall winner of the series taking away £10,000 in prize money.
Last year saw Jonathan Davies from the North of England take the £10,000 first prize with ‘Seared Masala Spring Lamb’. In the final, he closely fought off the challenge of Sue Van Gaalen with her ‘Trio of Lancashire Treats’ and Stephen Holding’s ‘Smoked Salmon with Pea Puree’.
Regularly attracting viewing figures in excess of two million, we are expecting the fifth series to be bigger than ever, showcasing great regional produce, exciting local ingredients and plenty of taste.
If you or anyone you know would be interested in taking part, please email us with your name and contact details (please mention where you are from) at bestdish@itv.com.

A Bit of de Bono

Ken Robinson recommends this in ‘Out of Our Minds’.

Six Thinking Hats® is a simple, effective parallel thinking process that helps people be more productive, focused, and mindfully involved. And once learned, the tools can be applied immediately!

You and your team members can learn how to separate thinking into six clear functions and roles. Each thinking role is identified with a colored symbolic “thinking hat.” By mentally wearing and switching “hats,” you can easily focus or redirect thoughts, the conversation, or the meeting.

The White Hat calls for information known or needed. “The facts, just the facts.”

The Yellow Hat symbolizes brightness and optimism. Under this hat you explore the positives and probe for value and benefit.

The Black Hat is judgment – the devil’s advocate or why something may not work. Spot the difficulties and dangers; where things might go wrong. Probably the most powerful and useful of the Hats but a problem if overused.
The Red Hat signifies feelings, hunches and intuition. When using this hat you can express emotions and feelings and share fears, likes, dislikes, loves, and hates.
The Green Hat focuses on creativity; the possibilities, alternatives, and new ideas. It’s an opportunity to express new concepts and new perceptions.
The Blue Hat is used to manage the thinking process. It’s the control mechanism that ensures the Six Thinking Hats® guidelines are observed.

As you know, the difference between mediocre and highly effective teams lies not so much in their collective mental equipment, but in how well they use their abilities to think and how well they work together.

Six Thinking Hats® helps actualize the full thinking potential of teams. And when used as a meeting management tool, the Six Hats method provides the disciplined process for individuals to be focused and to the point.

But possibly most important, it requires each individual to look at all sides of an issue.

Employees like the way the Six Hats method neutralizes employee rank in a meeting where several levels of employees are present. It also puts people who are quiet and reserved on an equal playing field with those who are more talkative and might monopolize a meeting.

from http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php

Umi's writing techniques

Umi Sinha, a writer and writing facilitator, came to talk to us at the second Arts and Learning day yesterday, and passed on some invaluable exercises which I shall use with my students.  The chicken’s in the oven, so I’ll be brief….

Warm up exercises:
Walk around the room with pad and pen, finishing off any number of one liners starting with ‘I see’. Here are a few of mine:
I see tangy lime walls without any juice
I see pin boards empty of ideas
I see horizontal lines, beachless pebbles, harsh lights and sharp-faced buildings
I see empty streets, a lone cyclist with nowhere to go
I see empty spaces waiting for life

This was designed to connect us to our visual senses and then Umi asked us to turn one of those lines into a metaphor by changing the ‘I see’ into ‘I am’. Because I was in a bad mood, I chose ‘I am an empty space waiting for life’…

We then used the diamond shape to try collaborative story telling as another warm up;
I worked with Jane and we took a line each in two stories so that we each had a go at the beginning and the end of a nine word story.

Leaves (Jane)
fall softly (Gilly)
in the woods.(Jane)
Another day (Gilly)
closes (Jane)

Panic (Gilly)
takes over. (Jane)
Quickly, they realise (Gilly)
time has (Jane)
stopped (Gilly)
We studied texts by Dickens (‘Great Expectations’), Geoff Dyer (‘But Beautiful’) and Jean Rhys’ ‘Voyage in the Dark’ to look at use of senses in describing place and emotion. Lovely stuff!
Umi showed us a great writing technique that I’ll try with my students at UCH. The poet, Roger Stevens, had taught it on one of his writing courses and told her to pass it on. I do love the generosity of the creative mind.
Write down the following:
  • an emotion
  • a sport
  • something you enjoy at work/school
  • something you enjoy at home
  • a bad habit
  • a good habit

Now write down an animal you would associate with each of them.
Now write a line for each, starting with ‘There’s a (your animal) in me that….’
Et voila; you have a poem that explores the very essence of you.
Here’s mine;
There’s a dog in me that wags her tail at the sound of the key in the door
There’s a chimp in me that leaps onto your hip and buries her neck into yours
There’s a lion in me that watches you play, occasionally stretching out a paw to warn you how loud I can roar
There’s a cat in me that curls up on the deep red sofa as soon as the sun slips behind the yard arm
There’s a tiger in me that pounces on anyone who steps out of line
There’s a meercat in me, eagerly spotting the next opportunity to give away my love
We talked about working with teenagers at the end of the session. Umi asked us to try out this exercise to see how to get deep safely.  She asked us to write down a time when we felt grief. We all selected the death of a family member. My original line was ‘I felt grief when I read ‘She is Gone’ at my mother’s funeral and looked out at my father and brother and knew that, to them, she really had.’  Turning it into a definition kept the power but distanced it from the personal so, ‘Grief is looking at at my father and brother as I read ‘She is Gone’ at my mother’s funeral and knowing that for them, she had.’ 

Rejection, cyber-style

Once upon a time, journalists would pitch their ideas for articles in a nicely written letter and send it to the editor of the most appropriate organ for consideration. Most newspaper editors wouldn’t bother to write back if they didn’t want it, but some would phone, or, in the case of The Daily Telegraph, send a nicely written letter back, detailing why it didn’t fit. It was a genteel affair, far from the streets of shame and the myths of newspaper hackery.

That was about 10 years ago.

Since the internet ramped up the speed at which we all work, journos now tend to forward press releases to our super-stressed editors with a ‘fancy a feature?’ in the subject box and are then gutted with what seems like the cruelest of blows; ‘no thanks!’ How could he/she be so callous? Does he/she not realise how sensitive (read ‘paranoid’) we journos are?

‘More haste, less speed’, my mother would advise from her celestial position, and I think she may be right.

Out of Our Minds

I wonder if Ken Robinson ever did automatic writing – with or without the Aggiss stimulus.

Creative processes draw from all areas of human consciousness. They are not strictly logical nor are they wholly emotional. The reason why creativity often proceeds by intuitive leaps is precisely that it draws from areas of mind and consciousness that are not wholly regulated by rational thought.  In the creative state, we can access these different areas of our minds. This is why ideas often come to mind without our thinking about them.  

Robinson, K. (2001) Out of Our MindsLearning to be Creative. p154, Oxford: Capstone

Odd is Good

Another Arts and Learning day is just around the corner, and it can’t come soon enough. I’ve even had to resort to my own creative techniques in class, and my students are beginning to look at me from under furrowed brows.

Actually that’s not really fair; Professor Liz Aggiss was so scary, so Gothicly odd in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZNXk1JZems  that I think they saw me as cuddly, if a little batty in comparison. I’d shown them Motion Control, part of Aggiss’ Dance for Camera series, as I had with all those taking part in my ‘Write Rhythm’ research project (see http://thewriterhythm.blogspot.com/) to see if such weirdness might stimulate the kind of writing they didn’t know they had in them.  As I recorded their thoughts after five minutes of automatic scribbling,  I admit I was rather pleased. Looking down at their pages, most of them told me that they saw something they didn’t recognise as their own.

I’m sure I’ll come back from Saturday’s session armed with a bunch of new techniques to use, but for now, I might just Google ‘odd dance’ and see what happens.


Maybe I’m onto something… Not only were the students’ essays much better this week, but their reflections seem to show that they put it down to the ripping exercise (see previous post). And it’s only week 4!

I thought the whole process worked really well. It showed me that you can create a character and tv programme idea out of the simplest things. The task where we had to create characters by jotting down on a newspaper picture simple things such as the person’s name and their likes and dislikes really helped as a basis to create your own character and from this, a programme idea. I think my team worked well together to give the individual characters a personality as well as putting them all together into a watchable TV programme.”

We were a group with diverse interests but after about five minutes we found a common ground in our love of music. Although we liked different artists, it felt like it was a subject we could get really in to. When we were sent off to research, I found we worked better because we did the research as a team and not individual task.  We got a lot more done and felt more positive about the task.”

“From observing the four pictures, everyone on the team began throwing ideas. Some of the ideas were established formats like  “Have I Got News For You?, “Mr and Mrs? and “Noel’s House Party?. It was really difficult because our ideas were extremely scattered and time was against us. Eventually, we all began sewing our ideas together. I enjoyed working with the team. Everyone had ideas to discuss so it was nice to hear their opinions. I learnt that working with others benefits confidence and enthusiasm if each member is given the opportunity.”

Rip it up and start again

I’m still musing on whether my ‘paper doll’ inspired exercise was a catalyst for a show of brilliance, or whether it fell flat on its face. 
To start, it was all going so well; I’d introduced them to the idea of power with responsibility and the ethics of storytelling.  I’d even used the word ‘ideology’ by 9.20am, but when I asked the group to build a collage of words and images from their papers that resonated with who they were, they looked utterly blank. And a bit worried. I had imagined an inspired group of young people slicing through their copies of The Mail, surfacing from a sea of images of Cheryl Cole and X-Factorless faces, and ripped up headlines creating new ones about my newly aware flock. Not quite; one older student muttered that he hadn’t even read his Guardian yet. Error #1; students who have spent their last pennies on a newspaper just because I told them to are very unlikely to tear it apart for the sake of some dodgy creative writing exercise exploring their sense of self. 

Sulkily, I allowed them to write down the words instead of ripping the guts out of the opinion pages, but as their words built their pictures, so their interests spilled onto the page. Teaming up into groups of four, I asked them to see what they could find in common and to allow the seeds of a programme to emerge.

By the end of the morning class, we had four strong programme ideas siphoned from their combined words and pictures. The flamboyant Gok-wannabe had used the efficiency and good sense of his team members to create a magazine show on the history of glamour that had enough roots to grow into a good idea. The Guardian readers had pooled their disenfranchised old Labour grump into a satirical sitcom featuring characters called Nick, Dave and George who live on a housing estate in Tower Hamlets. The music fans had created a series for Radio 1 exploring musical genres from.. er Dizzie Rascal to Mica. Ok, so they’ve still got some way to go.  Only one group’s ideas refused to materialise, but with the members’ confession that they really didn’t know who they were as a group – or even as individuals – even their formlessness gave the class something to learn from.

The afternoon group is a little more lethargic at the best of times, and paper ripping was clearly not something that they were up for. So after they had written their careful lists of words, I ordered them to rip up the biggest picture they could find in their papers. Tentatively at first, and then with a gusto unseen before in this class, award winning pictures of flood victims lay on desks alongside the Rooneys and the X-Factors before being named, characterised and classified by political colour, education and survival skills – or anything else I came up with at the time. After they had passed the images to their right, writing each idea on the back and then giving it up, the programme ideas began to emerge. Cheryl Cole and the director of an international charity were soon pitching against each other in panel game show, a Panorama on home-schooling sneaked in from left field and a sequel to ‘I’m a Celebrity’ called ‘Get Me Out of Here!’ was showing signs of something rather watchable. Did they get the giving up of control that the exercise is supposed to probe at? Probably not. Did it matter? Probably not.

It’s important that these young people who think that they haven’t got a programme idea between them find out each week that they have. But if the exercise did give them a glimpse of what they are made of, it was a bit like pulling teeth at times. And I think they’re beginning to see me as a bit weird… I’ll wait to see what they write in their reflective essays on it due in tomorrow, but my feeling is that it’s back to good old deconstruction next week.

Eat, Pray, Love, Write

So I’m waiting for the kids to emerge from Saturday morning pictures, just as kids should, and I’m writing this on my iPhone and marvelling at 21st century comms. They’ll be in with Selena Gomez and chums for another two hours and there’s nothing to do other than read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and wonder how come someone else wrote my story.

From the breakdown in a relationship to the hedonistic freedom of newly single life (although in London rather than Rome) to an ashram – and spookily, that exact same roof scene – the flagellation over the monkey mind, and then to Skyros (my Bali of 1994) for the final permission to love again, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ is my (and probably 10 million other women’s) story. Mine would probably be called ‘Drink, Pray, Love’ though.  Yes, there’s a bit of envy as I read Liz Gilbert’s observations of so many of the exact same things as I went through in so many of the same places, and for the same reasons. I too met Texan Richard, although he had a different name and nationality, but Swiss Philippe did the same pushing and prodding, just as thousands of Texan Richards/Swiss Philippes have done and will do with newly single woman in search of everything. I too sat on a metaphorical beach afterwards, spending time with medicine men with no teeth and wisdom and compassion to burn. I too turned down the perfect man while he waited patiently until I ran out of reasons to make myself unhappy.

Why I didn’t push to write what I wanted to write back in 1995 instead of extracting only the tantric sex bits that the publisher was interested in is part of my story too. That brief window of opportunity, which only the very few  stop to look through, takes a long old time to clear, and I wasn’t anywhere near a new view back then. What amazes me about Liz Gilbert is that she was, armed with a few books, gurus and a hell of a lot more time that most of us will ever have. Oh, and an advance from the Gods. But hats off to her; the act of writing is often what speeds the process, and the weaving together of her story no doubt wove her together faster than any meditation could. Yes, I wish I’d done it, both for me and for my bank account, but instead I shall dream of going back to Bali one day where I too first spotted perfection.

One of the smiley Wayans who played host to me and my backpack in 1985 told me that God had taken a while to create the perfect human being. When he baked his first batch, he left it in the oven too long and the humans came out burnt. He tried again. This time, they were pale and undercooked. The third time, he got it and presented the world with the golden, smiling Balinese.