Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A single tooth

     The area of Norwich, north of Dereham Road. I spent the first few years of my life here. Learnt to walk on these streets. Picked siblings up from first and middle schools here. Played in the park opposite the dark and dingy corner shop. Went to playgroup at the Belvedere Centre, Quest Club at the Baptist Church, played in the cemetery just up the road. I remember, aged three, visiting Dr Leg at the surgery to have various inoculations, and Mum buying me a Feast ice cream as my reward for not crying when the needle was stuck in my arm. I still recall feeling queasy with chocolate overload as we walked home, Feast only half eaten, but forcing myself to finish that special treat through sheer bloodymindedness, so Mum couldn’t say ‘I told you it would be too much for you’ (I was me from a very early age). But for all of the early years I spent in this area, I never knew of the secrets in the streets.

     I’m not going to go into the stories, not really. I’m sure to get facts wrong for one thing, and if you really want to know more about Norwich during the Second World War, then you’ll find nothing better than NickStone’s writing. What I can tell you about is how a tip off led to a discovery of something that’s both pitiful and humbling.

     This part of Norwich has been the less affluent side for a while. Small, cramped streets, filled with Victorian terraces, the occasional odd gap, or 60s ugly modern housing, like a gold tooth in an otherwise straightforward smile. There are reasons for that. Anglian Water have their headquarters here, on the appropriately named Waterworks Road. And just opposite is this.

St Bartholomew. Taken out by the Luftwaffe in 1943, it had stood for centuries, offering solace, comfort, a place for celebration and contemplation, a place for a community to gather. And then gone. Almost. All the prayers and sermons, all the hopes and admonishments, all the teachings and thought, wiped out, erased, vanished. Almost.

The congregation moved on, Norwich City Council finally pulled down the walls that had survived after ten years. But the tower, considered to be of historical importance, was left. Windows blocked up, the bell tower still stands, alone, a few remaining memorials left as a reminder of those considered important enough to have their existence recorded. Nothing for those like you and I, who walked these streets, grew up, lived, died…

One wonders how the old congregation felt, in those years after the war, when what had been their church was left to moulder, left to decay, a jarring every day reminder of the brutality and pointlessness of war. The arbitrary nature that saw some houses destroyed, some people killed, some places of peace and community obliterated. I can only think of it as something that must have been a painful reminder of terror and loss. Not a place to think of as happy. But there is a little something. A small park, where children play now, ancient and modern side by side. A reminder of all the history that Norwich holds, packed so tightly together. Cheek by jowl, there’s a single tooth left in the mouth that was once where a community came together to give voice to their faith.

War is unkind to churches named after St Bartholomew, it seems. But that’s another story.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

How to Blog

     Just lately, I keep seeing blogposts about ‘how to blog’, or how to increase your blogging reach’, or ‘how to make your blog more successful’. And they irritate the shit out of me. Seriously. I really don’t like them. I’m sure they have the best of intentions, but frankly, it comes across as patronising, for one thing. But the main thing that annoys me about them is the assumption that people blog purely to get attention, or to reach a wide audience. Do they bollocks.  I can’t offer any blogging advice. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s not. My own blogging process is chaotic, contradictory, and frankly, all over the bloody place. Sometimes I write at home. More often, I have to get out of the house and force myself into a situation where I have no choice but to write.

     Sometimes I type straightaway, my fingers fused to the keyboard, hammering out thoughts I didn’t know I had until the emerged somehow, skipping the process of being articulated, considered and hovered over. More often, I write by hand, in one of the far too many notebooks I keep running, meaning that there are a ridiculous amount of blogposts I’ve scribbled down, then lost my nerve over, so they linger in the ether of half writing. Written, but not delivered. Written, but forever unread. Consigned to the recycling bin of an unopened page.

     Then there’s the ‘Ooh. Fuck. YES!’ notebook. Small enough to fit in the pocket of my bag, not suited to writing at length, it’s where I frantically scrawl the realisation of an idea a fleeting thought that occurs as I’m doing the school run, the hook of a post. Observations, moments, solutions. The small notebook is their net. I scribble six or seven words in there, to record that precious second when something suddenly makes sense. I say to myself I do it so that I won’t forget  what’s just occurred to me, but that’s bollocks. I don’t forget those moments. But when I get to the point of actually constructing something from that thought, then it’s a good place to revisit, to capture the idea I had. By recording it, I make it solid, tangible.

     God, this sounds so wankily pretentious. I’m not, honest. I’m the woman whose first real blogpost was about shagging Ed Balls. But… look. Your blog is your blog. It’s your own little corner of a room. Actually, scratch that. It is a room of one’s own. Your room. No one else is going to be responsible for it. You decorate it how you like. Stick in whatever is important to you. Some things, loads of people will like. Some things only a few people will. There will be things in there that mean nothing to anyone else but you. And that’s fine. Because although this is a room that’s open to the public, it’s also your place, your space, your refuge. You’re not doing it with anyone else in mind. So if there’s ugly stuff in there, so what?

     I’ve blogged before about what writing is for me. It’s a release. I do it because I have to, because writing it down helps me make sense of the world. I blog when the words force themselves out. I’ve blogged a few times when I’ve forced it. And it shows. Not only are they bad posts, about bugger all, but the words are wrong and it doesn’t work. But that’s me.

     I suppose what I’m leading up to is that you can’t be taught to blog. You’re not a ventriloquist. You have a voice, maybe similar to mine, maybe completely different. Your views and mine may be diametrically opposed. You may be more comfortable sticking to facts and photos, whereas I’m lazy, half-arsed, and emotionally incontinent. Doesn’t matter. If you want to blog, then, FFS, BLOG. If you want to blog, and the words aren’t there, leave it. I go through weeks where I don’t feel I can even write my own name with any confidence. I gave up on writing fiction a few months ago. It’s gone. Not just metaphorically. I threw out the notebooks, deleted the files, pretended I didn’t feel crushed by the events that made me take that decision. But the truth is, I’m not a writer, I’m a twatty blogger. And to be honest, blogging is too personal for my advice, or theirs, or any so called ‘blogging expert’ to mean anything to anyone other than our own selves.

     So blog. Blog about what matters to you, what’s important in your life, blog about your passions. But don’t blog to be read, don’t blog to grow your audience, don’t blog because you feel you ought to. You have a voice. You have a room. You have a blog.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The devil in the details

     Doing some reading for a friend lately, I realised that with each piece I read, there was a pattern developing in my responses to it. I kept thinking of an inverted pyramid, with each piece starting with a grand opening, before working its way down, by each successive paragraph, until it concluded with a single final story of one family, or one group, one community, or merely just one person. And each time, it provoked an emotional response in me (yeah, I know. Who’d have thought that, eh?). That’s what the best writing does, in my opinion. Even in a dry and distant text, the best writers use their empathy to create something evocative and moving.

     I’ve been brooding over writing advice just lately. Some of it works for me, some of it doesn’t. It’s always an individual thing in any case. But what I think is that stories need to be narrowed down for them to work, at least for me. I learn more about the writer who can write like that, and so their work is more likely to hit me harder. Hmm. Empathy. There’s a thought there that I can’t quite articulate yet.

     Narrow it down. Start broad. Start wide. Put in the background. Fill in the landscape. Add the buildings. Sketch out the trees. Apply your hand to the sky. Paint the clouds in. The ground. The light. Then the details of the larger elements. The architecture. The colours of nature. The bits that provide context. Get the broader picture in.

     Then the bits that matter. The details. The human touches. The bits that tell the story. The tiny bits, the fragile little shadows and half-hinted at secrets. The people. Their form, their posture. The way they stand, how their hands are captured at a certain moment. The interplay between them. How they react to one another. What is written on their faces. What emotion is conveyed through their eyes. Where do they look, and why do they let their gaze fall there? Tell me why. Tell me why they matter. Narrow it down, with every word you deploy. Tell me why they matter. Tell me their story, and I will know yours.

     Details, always details. Who, what, why, motivations, thoughts, feelings. The devil is in the detail. But then I must be in love with the devil because that is what I need.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Welcome guests

     I hate guest blogging. I hate it. I hate the enforced deadline that fires me into a sweaty, panicked caffeine overdose. I hate the suggested word count that hampers my thought process, alternatively hemming me in and cramping my thoughts, or filling me with dread that I will never fill enough white space. I hate the loss of control. For me, blogging gets done in the white heat of the moment, I think something, I’m consumed by it, I hammer it out, I hit ‘publish’ and that’s it. It’s gone. I may have to deal with reactions/comments/backlash, but effectively I’ve ripped the plaster off.

     Submitting a guest blog though, is different. For a start, when you send it over, it goes directly to one person. For Your Eyes Only. I never think of people individually reading my blog, ever. It just doesn’t occur to me to think of it in that way. But when you send a guest post to someone, you’re effectively marching up to them, forcing your appalling self-portrait in their face and shouting ‘HERE. LOOK AT ME AND TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK OF MY WORK. TO MY FACE.’ That just doesn’t sit well with me. I would never, ever do anything like that with anything else. But what comes next is worse.

     The Wait. The wait to hear back. Initially from the person who asked you to write the post, and… their readership. That’s the killer. Because… The Fear. The fear of not being good enough. Someone has trusted you enough to ask you to blog about something and… what if you let them down? What if they were only asking you to contribute something as a sop to your ego? What if, having read your post, everyone hates it? It always feels like a huge responsibility to me. That I’ve been entrusted with a little corner of someone else’s words, and chances are, I won’t match up to what they want from me. I won’t be able to. I can’t even hope to. I’m not a writer, not an author, not a journalist, nor an academic. I don’t have a job.  I’m not A Big Important Person who makes things happen, or someone to whom others bow down. I don’t get my ego massaged, or my thoughts considered useful or valid. All I have is a blog, full of sweary ramblings about all kinds of crap. That doesn’t elevate me to being the type of person who can really make any contribution to anything else. I mean… anyone can have a blog, that’s the whole point! And it might be a good blog, a bad blog, or somewhere in the middle, but blogging. It’s not the same as writing, or Being Someone.

     And the wait, oh god, the wait. I abhor it. I hate being reliant on someone else’s timing, I hate not being in control, I hate giving up a serving of my words, and not knowing what’s going to happen to them. I’m not being precious. I know that editing can only improve my initial scribbled ideas, but… if a blogpost on here succeeds or fails, it does so on my terms. When I guest, I’m involving others in the potential for things to be shamingly ignored. That’s the worst part. That someone else is effectively risking their a little of their reputation on your behalf. And when blogposts go tits up (as they sometimes do), it can be quite an upsetting and unpleasant experience. If I’m honest, one blogpost experience still haunts me, and since then, I’ve struggled, a fuck of a lot, with writing. That’s why there have been so many tortured handwringing self-indulgent twaddle posts of late, and not so many ‘C’mere whilst I tell you a funny story’ ones.

     And even after the posts has been and gone, even if the response was good, and people were kind, and didn’t mention the crap bits… there’s still that doubt. Still that feeling of ‘But how good was it really?’ I’m not obsessed with stats by any means, but it’s nice to look at what posts have been read, and see if something worked or not. When you don’t know if it really resonated with people, I feel in a kind of limbo. As though I’m not sure if I’ve hit the marks I needed to. It’s like practising scales,but having a tin ear for pitch, and not knowing if you’ve got it right or not. Oh, guest blogging. What you do to me.

     So, to sum up, the things I hate about guest blogging are:
i)                    Deadlines
ii)                  Word count
iii)                Waiting for feedback
iv)                Waiting to be published
v)                  The gaping pit of anxiety that opens like a fissure in the core of my being, leading to doubt every word I use, the things my eyes alight upon, and the way in which I breathe, knowing I have written the most tremendously awful post that is so boring it is actually offensive in its banality.
vi)                The potential for it all to go tits up.
vii)              Pretty much all of it.

     So why then do I agree to writing guest posts? If it’s that bad? Because it’s flattering. Because it’s a massive ego boost. Because although I will never be a writer, I can glean some idea of what it’s like to have your thoughts and words valued, respected, considered worthy of being read. That feeling of pride that only others can give you when you receive a compliment. I can live without it, but when it happens, it’s a gift. Being asked to write makes me happy. It is a genuine honour to write for someone else. Framed by their question, I get to explore something new, something different, instead of chasing my thoughts across my own blog like leaves in the wind. If you could see the look on my face when I’m asked to guest blog, you’d poke me in both eyes; such is the smug, conceited pride radiating from my massive face. And even post poke, I’d still be a puffed up bag of ridiculous wanton smuggery (with watering eyes, obviously).

     I’m not a writer, never will be, those notebooks went off in the blue recycling bin a long time ago. But, every now and then, writing a post for someone else allows me to pretend, just for as long as it takes me to write it, that my words count (and not just in a ‘suggested length of piece’ way).

(and cough cough cough.... most recent guest post's here. You can read it. If you like. Or not. S'about history, and ships, and church doors, and A Levels and staring at people. And swearing).

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Every dead end

I’ve written this before. But I kind of need to reinforce it, in my head if nowhere else.

We are born, we live, we die. We endure. That’s what life is. Endurance. Not joy, not loveliness, not great. We get by, we die. Some people, the lucky ones, get to live a life that’s relatively unhurt. Where bad things happen at a distance. For most of us though, life has a rude habit of sneaking in, and wrenching our guts out. And if that happens when you are young, it changes everything. Because that’s how you see the world. You see your rightful inheritance as pain, as punishment, as what you deserve.

And every shitty little thing that happens to you afterwards? Your fault. You made that happen. You deserved that. You don’t deserve time, attention, love. I mean, ffs, who could love a malformed creature like you? A broken winged, hopeless, pathetic little thing like you? You get praise? It’s pity. You get ignored? What you deserve. A slap down? How the fuck could you ever think you have something to say?

I’ve been told off for calling myself a twatty blogger. But that is what I am. I have no ideas above my station. On the few occasions I’ve raised my head above the parapet, I have been shot down in no uncertain terms, and my defenders have chosen instead to massage the egos of others. I get no such consideration. So, when you tell me to think that I should call myself a writer, remember that. Words are great, but actions count for more. I am not a writer, never have been. Just a twatty blogger, making her way through the maze, and confronting hurt at every dead end.