Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Too many books! (again)

November 11, 2022

I’ve written about my problem before; since then, before moving house a few months back, I sold or donated to charity several hundred volumes I knew I’d not need again, that I’d never want to re-read, or that had been sitting in boxes in the loft for years.

This time, there’s another issue to mention: I keep reading book reviews and thinking, “there’s a book I must read!’ The problem here is lack of time, as well as lack of physical space for all those potential new acquisitions. Will I actually ever get round to reading that must-read book, or will the moment pass and my attention move on, leaving another book to gather dust on the waiting-to-be-read shelf? That shelf, incidentally, is probably two metres long. I have got better over the last couple of years at resisting temptation, and reached the stage where purchases have dwindled to less than two a month on average, but the built-up mental pressure of the backlog of books I really want to read is increasing. This is then compounded by the books physically on the shelves which call to me for a re-reading; I have been tackling a reasonable number of those recently, on the grounds that once I’ve re-read them, they’re probably surplus to requirements and so can safely be disposed of. Re-reading inevitably brings new discoveries, and revives old interests…

But then there’s the thing I have about loving to be surrounded by books, having a library of old favourites and good friends, as it were, that I can’t bear to part with. This leaves me feeling guilty about the problem I leave my eventual heirs: what the hell to do with all those cubic metres of paper?

As has always happened, any interesting reading opens potential new paths to follow, that I’d really like to pursue: again, realistically there’s so little time I feel I must be brutal; mentally I make a list and occasionally joke about saving those books for my next existence…

And then, there are the books I very occasionally think about writing myself. In my student days I imagined writing science fiction, and doubtless somewhere are the pieces of paper with ideas scratched and scribbled on them in drunken and stoned moments so very long ago. There is a dissertation, and also a thesis, from a couple of my research degrees, and there are two or three study guides for A Level students penned during my retirement years, the royalties from which I count as my whisky money, but there’s nothing of great moment there. Words, words, words, as someone once said. And they are swamping me. But I love them.

On writing creatively…or not

May 23, 2018

It’s taken me a very long time to realise that I’m a writer. I spent years training students and teaching them the craft of writing, how to organise their ideas, how to choose their words carefully, how to spell and punctuate correctly to enhance communication, that I lost sight of the fact that I write too. I’ve written this blog for more than five years now and WordPress informs me I’ve written the equivalent of several novels’ worth of posts… I’ve written a couple of literature study guides and am completing a third. I used to review science fiction for an academic journal, and I used to write for the students’ union newspaper when I was at university. And I’ve written countless essays, a dissertation and a thesis… all a very long time ago.

What I’ve never done, at least not since I was at school, is write creatively, write a story or a descriptive piece. I’ve no desire to write poetry, it’s not something I aspire to, but lately I have started to wonder about trying to be creative and where I might start if I did pluck up the courage to dip my toe in the water. There are creative writing groups out there, but then I’d have to expose myself to others’ gaze, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that… How do I make a start, and how do I decide whether it’s worth it?

It strikes me that descriptive writing might possibly be an extension of some of the various travel pieces I’ve produced, and I’m aware that I’ve always liked taking photographs, often taking time and effort to get exactly the effect I want… maybe there’s a way in to writing there. But fiction? Years ago, I thought I was interested in trying to write some science fiction, having studied the genre for so long, but I never did: the ideas and the inspiration never came. Getting started on something new always seems difficult…

Reading and not writing

October 17, 2017

I’m not often brought to a halt by something I read, but this happened as I was reading Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s Reformation, and it was the question of a separation between being able to read and to write that brought me up short, and led to a length discussion with my other half, who, as a retired primary school teacher, was exactly the right person to have at hand…

I’d been familiar with the idea that, until the early Middle Ages, reading had not been a silent activity, that is that a person when reading would vocalise what s/he was reading, either silently or aloud (which of course slows the reading process down considerably), and that it had been a revelation when it was discovered that this vocalisation was not necessary – one could ‘just’ read, as it were, just as we do now… and children, of course, need to learn this, or realise this, or perhaps they just pick it up.

Anyway, to me the processes of reading and writing had always gone hand-in-hand; I’ve never separated the two, particularly as, in my experience, we learn to do them at the same time, in the early years of our schooling. I’d never thought any further about this until I came across the idea that a person might be able to read, but not be able to write, and it took me a long time to make sense of this.

It was carefully explained to me that there are various different ways of teaching children to read, some of which lend themselves to learning to write rather more easily than others. And then, there are a whole range of fine motor skills and also secretarial skills involved in the process of writing, which also have to be learnt, and might not be. And then there is the whole question of sentences.

We do not tend to speak in sentences: a transcript of any conversation will demonstrate this. So the units of meaning necessary to writing also have to be taught and learned. Not only does a child need to learn to write in sentences – something which, from my experience as a teacher, a good many never do with any great competence – they also need to work out how to articulate their ideas into sentences before they attempt to write them down. And this is pretty difficult, as primary teachers will testify.

Once I understood this, I realised how the two processes, which are clearly very different, could have been separate from each other in the past: it’s only current educational systems that have linked them together, for convenience’ sake. And then: what does a person actually need to write? If you are a person of any note or importance and cannot write, you can have someone who will do that for you. People in India still make their living as public scribes for those who cannot write, but may occasionally need something written out for them. Perhaps you only need to write lists, or figures. You may need to make a mark to authenticate a document. But do you have a need to write in sentences? And to learn all that complicated stuff?

Then I found myself thinking about the advent of technology, and the difference it may make or be making to these processes. Gone is the need for pencil control and other fine motor skills when there is a keyboard, either physical or on-screen, to produce perfect, identical letters for you. And I suppose a grammar checker – bane of my life – can help you identify when you haven’t formed a proper sentence. Spellcheckers can allegedly help with correct spelling, although I used to remind students that a spellchecker is only as intelligent as the person using one. But technology can’t frame proper sentences for you: you have to be able to structure and articulate what you want to say first…

I’ve often wondered why there hasn’t been that much progress in ‘speak-write’ technology (even Orwell had it working perfectly in the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-four), and I can see that apart from removing the need for any keyboard skills at all, it will not advance the work of a non-writer any further than we have currently progressed.

And yet, writing skills are disappearing: many students do so much of their work using keyboards that they cannot write an essay longhand any more, and universities are working out how to allow students to complete examination papers using computers. If your smartphone can contain everything that you might ever have needed pen and paper for in the past, where does that leave the future of writing? I don’t know where we will end up in the future, but I do find questions like these absolutely fascinating…

On alphabets and scripts

August 11, 2016

Stuck in our little bubble, we rarely look beyond our own Roman script. I’ve been fascinated by other ways of writing ever since I was quite small, when, very occasionally, letters would arrive from my father’s family in what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. They were addressed in Cyrillic script, and somewhere along the postal chain the address was crudely and inaccurately transcribed into ours in crayon, in the gaps between the lines on the envelope. And when he replied, my father wrote his brother’s address in Cyrillic script. I was curious. And why did the Russians need 35 letters in their alphabet, when we only had 26?

I made an ill-fated attempt to learn classical Greek at secondary school. It was horrendously difficult, not because of the script, but for its grammar, which rivalled Polish in its tortured complexity. Again, another script, and of course, related to Cyrillic.

Even among Western European languages, a variety of accents are required to produce all the different sounds each language requires. But European scripts do all resemble each other; there are overlaps, although sometimes there is confusion, as with the Cyrillic ‘CCCP’ which are actually the letters ‘SSSR’ in Russian, standing for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics… And then there are some letters that just don’t exist in English. There’s enough similarity, though, for anyone interested to begin to explore the differing scripts and to make some sense of what’s there – until you get to handwriting. I was speechless when my father explained to me that handwritten Russian used quite different letters! So, for example, our capital letter ‘T’ is also ‘T’ in Russian. But our small ‘t’ actually looks very like ‘m’ in Russian. Got a headache yet?

I came across the Arabic alphabet quite early on, too. There, we Westerners are utterly clueless: there’s nothing vaguely resembling our script to give us any clues. And, although we call our numeral system Arabic, the actual numbers in Arabic script don’t look much like ours at all. Plus everything goes from right to left, rather than left-right. Books and newspapers open from the ‘back’ and work in reverse direction to ours. I found that a copy of an Egyptian newspaper made an excellent prop whilst teaching GCSE poetry, when we had to study a token few poems that came from other cultures and traditions. I could pass it around the class; we could all agree we could make no sense of anything at all unless there were recognisable visual clues in photographs or advertisements. And yet: there were millions of people who could access that newspaper, and read it as effortlessly as we read ours. Cultural relativism in a nutshell.

There are some visually quite gorgeous scripts in the languages of South East Asia, flowing like water on the printed page. I found it very sobering being put in my place, as it were, by languages that I couldn’t even begin to approach.

And then there are the ideographs of Chinese – picture writing, perhaps not quite in the same vein as the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, but on similar lines: a whole word as a concept picture, rather than being structured of a series of sounds built up into a word as we do. How can this work? And the use of the same ‘word’ but said in a different ‘tone’ having a totally different meaning! It was later along the line that I learned that in the different varieties of Chinese, although the pictograms representing an object or concept remained unchanged, the word – as said – was different. And in former years, they wrote in lines from top to bottom of the page rather than across it like we do.

I revel in all this diversity; I find it fascinating. I collect newspapers from all over the world, and enjoy staring at the scripts. If anyone out there is off to Mongolia, there’s one language I don’t have…

Am I a writer?

January 15, 2015

I’ve realised that I have never thought of myself as a writer; a reader, obviously, and lifelong, but a writer? When students and colleagues used to ask if I’d be writing when I retired, I pooh-poohed the idea. I have always seen myself as a teacher, teaching others and enabling them to write. So what makes one a writer?

I suppose the seamlessness of the process has deceived me; I wasn’t a writer when I wrote essays at school, so that meant I wasn’t a writer when I wrote a master’s dissertation, or a master’s thesis. Because I was a student at the time, I didn’t see my student journalism as making me a writer; equally, when researching my thesis on science fiction, the fact that I was also reviewing SF for an academic journal didn’t count as writing…

There was a long gap when I had a career and helped rise a family, and I wasn’t writing anything. And now I’m retired, I’m writing the occasional study guide, and writing this blog… and it feels strange to think to myself ‘does this mean I’m a writer?’

Why all the diffidence? I realise, after further reflection, that writer has always meant creative writer to me – fiction, drama, poetry – I don’t know why! and so I’ve been pushed to a rethink. I’ve never felt able to write creatively, and, curiously perhaps, have never felt moved to take a creative writing course.

But I do write!

And, pace all my ex-students, who I taught to plan their writing, and who probably thought ‘I bet he doesn’t go though this rigmarole’, this is how I actually do write: I follow my rules. I reflect, ruminate, make notes and log ideas for a while; I plan and draft – this last now usually onscreen but not always – and then I re-read, revise, correct and polish until I’m satisfied. This method comes naturally to me because, thinking back, it’s how I’ve always written and I’ve always found it effective.

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