Making Creativity

You can’t make creativity, but you can make cake.

I have two days a week to write. Two glorious, empty, indulgent, frustrating days. Sometimes, the word count is high. My fingers are flying over the keys, I get to the end of it and bask in the glory of my beautiful sentences.

Other times, I write pretty much nothing, then hastily dash out a blog, or do some Tweedecking (like DJing, but way less cool) in a desperate attempt to have something to show for an eight-hour stretch.

The other week, things got even worse thanks to Snotgate, whereupon starting my day, I could barely breathe, had a drumming headache, and the most creative thought in my head was planning the shortest route to the supermarket to stock up on soup/decongestant/something to cheer me up.

I also had a birthday to prepare for. When I was younger, my mum would make the most delicious and elaborate cakes for us. Each year it was based on a different interest or hobby, with everything from a fairytale castle to a ski slope (it had a log cabin made out of chocolate fingers).

Lacking offspring, I’ve decided to carry this tradition on anyway, and set myself the task of creating an otter-themed lemon drizzle cake.

How I grunted and huffed at the thought of completing another chore. It was a rare evening without commitments, an opportunity to put pen to paper, to make up for Monday’s congested failure of a day.

Once I got going, all that fell away. My headache loosened its grip on my temples, the whiny little voice at the back of my head shut up, and I got completely lost in the task at hand.

Whisking, melting the drizzle, spreading the buttercream, missing together the different colours of fondant, rolling it out; basically creating a big lump of sweet food, where before there had just been a muddle of ingredients. Best of all, I fashioned two otters out of fondant. I’m not sure if it counts as a skill (can I put it on my CV?) but I seem to be a dab hand at creating cute animals out of marzipan and sugar paste. We all have our niche.

With my little creation finished off, I steeped myself (and my rattly chest) in a lovely warm bath, reading the National Geographic. Rested and with a real sense of accomplishment, I settled myself into bed.

And then something strange happened. Instead of my usual cataloguing of the day ahead, little nuggets of ideas started to germinate in my relaxed brain. I had to get up, find a pad and paper and scribble them down so they didn’t get washed away by sleep. After that, I was heading into my next writing day with a slew of ideas, notes, first steps, before I’d even begun.

So what made the difference? For one thing, apparently, being tired actually helps to boost creativity . That little filter in your brain that takes out the things you don’t need to worry about right now is switched off, so it allows all the weird and wonderful ideas out from behind your sensible fence.

While I’m sure that’s a factor, I reckon there’s something to be said for the cake (it looked pretty awesome in my opinion – see below). It was a also a physical activity. I was so focused on creating it that it blocked out all negativity. What’s more, it had a tangible outcome. All too often with writing, I might spend hours, days, even years, working on something, and not have anything that you can hold in your hands (and have even more editing to do). With a simple crafted thing (I’m sure it could work for knitting, colouring, sewing, drawing) I had something physical I could look at – a product of my efforts.

So, the next time I’m staring at the screen and the words simply won’t come, I’m going to step away from the desk. Go for a run, draw a picture, make some biscuits, anything that can allow my mind to readjust itself to a physical task with a tangible outcome.

Hopefully, it will relieve stress, boost creativity, and result in a whole lot of writing being done in 2017.

Plus, of course, there’ll also be more cake.

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Femspreading

Genderspecs logo

Genderspecs – changing gendered perspectives, one blog at a time.

It’s always a joyous moment when I receive an email telling me that the next podcast episode of ‘The Guilty Feminist’ is out. This time the theme was ‘Taking Up Space,’ and how women don’t tend to do it quite as much as men.

I’ve suffered from bad shoulders for years. Part of it is the curse of the writer/student I became in later life – carrying my laptop about on my back like a tortoise with a portable office. Running doesn’t help. WhenI get tired, I start to hunch over, my shoulders creep up and I find I’m tensing, without thinking about it. But the other culprit, which I’ve only just discovered, is the way I walk.

My ‘normal’ stance is weird – I hunch my shoulders, my head is down, and my arms tucked in. Part of this could just be crap posture, but there’s something else going on. It’s a way of carrying my body that makes the smallest physical impact on the world around me.

So today, buoyed up by the challenges on the podcast (if you’re not listening to it yet, please do!) I tried something different. I dropped my shoulders, let my arms swing and held my head up.

I felt enormous. I felt like I was taking up too much space, impeding on others. It also felt great. There’s a theory, based on the observation of chimps in the wild, that adopting powerful physical poses can have an impact on your sense of power and importance. Simply standing in a way that makes you look confident can lead to more assertive behaviour and boost your self-belief.

So why did walking like that feel uncomfortable for me? It’s no big shocker to discover that, statistically, men take up more space than women. From manspreading on the train to dominating conversation in the pub, men are far more likely to demand attention and physical space. It’s something that girls and boys are taught from a young age, especially if we look at notions of what is considered ‘ladylike’ or ‘manly.’

In relation to this, an interesting phenomenon is the way people move out of the way (or don’t) on the pavement. Next time you’re out and about, take note. As Deborah Frances-White discovered in her challenge, it doesn’t take very long to notice a pattern. More often than not, women move out of the way for each other and for men, while men are far more likely to stay their course, irrespective of whether someone is approaching from the other direction or not. And this stuff matters. As Sofie Hagen pointed out, feeling ‘invisible’ in the world impacts of feelings of self-worth, value and confidence.

So I tried it out. Along with my new, confident walking stance, I decided that I would play a bit of ‘pavement chicken,’ and see if I could stand my ground. Focusing on a point behind the person walking towards me, I kept my head up and strode purposefully, and took note about how others responded. Invariably, if I was a woman, she moved out of the way (I didn’t adopt this strategy for people with prams or who looked a bit unsteady on their feet).

However, there were some that just didn’t move. One in particular springs to mind. A large guy, tall and wide, who had clearly spent his whole life expecting others to get out of his way. I stayed strong. Keeping my path absolutely straight, I resisted the urge to move to one side, flinch or apologise. He didn’t move either. We got closer and closer together – neither altering our course. At the very last moment, he almost jumped to one side, looking rather surprised. Others smacked straight into my shoulder, a little grumble coming out for daring to intrude on their personal space. It was starting to get enjoyable.

I decided to take it to the tube, and do a bit of femspreading. After all, good ventilation is important to guard against yeast infections, so why should men get all the crotch space? I have to say, it felt pretty weird. I felt exposed, as if someone was going to sit down and tut at me. I felt unladylike, as if I was resisting every urge to be ‘neat’ and ‘modest,’ and other such terms that only get trotted out when talking about women. Perhaps if more of us took this awareness of the physical space we take up and acted upon it, we could start to make an impact on the way male and female space is perceived, along with giving ourselves a well-needed boost of confidence.

But there are other spaces we need to claim for our own. Multiple studies have shown the prevalence of men interrupting women, men dominating conversation in mixed gender groups, as well as the infamous ‘mansplaining’ phenomenon. Many’s the time when, after trying and failing to enter a conversation, I’ve slapped on my -oh-how-very-interesting face, inserted a few ‘hmms’ for good measure, and got on with thinking about a lesson plan or a plot point I’ve been working on, as I’ve admitted defeat at ever getting a word in edgeways.

There are a few techniques that can work, perhaps after I’ve been striding down the road and bashing into people, when I’ve decided that I simply won’t be left out. One is to just keep talking. Just continue the flow of your talk as if nothing has been said, and they will usually stutter and fall quiet, once they’ve got the hint. Another is to wait for the interruption to finish, and then simply pick up from where you left off, as if nothing had been said. A final possibility is to make it clear to everyone else – and him – that it’s happening. A simple, ‘actually, I haven’t finished’ might make people feel awfully uncomfortable (especially in the hyper-polite culture that is the UK) but by drawing attention to it, perhaps making eye contact with other people when you say it, hopefully they feel like enough of an idiot to shut up. Of course, there will always be some men that will not respond to any of this. Possible alternatives include changing jobs, wearing a wig and fake moustache to your meeting, or perhaps taking some sort of ‘interruption buzzer’ around with you, to be used whenever someone feels the need to cut you off.

So let’s make femspreading a thing – making our bodies and voices more prominent in society, in order to lead to a more positive future for girls everywhere.

Books to Build a Person

In the middle bedroom of my mum’s house is a treasure trove. A collection of the books that me and my two sisters read when we were growing up. Oh, the adventures to be found. In one place is What-A-Mess, the Afghan hound who always ended up in a state, despite the purity of his breeding. In another is Mildred Hubble, the Worst Witch, who was perpetually disorganised, had her hair undone, was late for lessons, had her socks round her ankles and never quite got her spells right.

Each time I stay in that middle room, I pull another book out. Perhaps a tale of Narnia, the putting on of rings in an attic that takes the wearers to a strange pool, or a girl who goes to a party and picks all the jelly sweets and cream off the top of a trifle.

Something familiar joins these stories. A girl, who isn’t quite sure of herself. Perhaps it’s her general organisation, or her desire to look outside the limitations of the world around her. A girl who is fascinated by anything and everything, even if she isn’t always organised enough to put the right sock on her feet in the morning.

Yes, that’s me. While I was reading these books, clearly I was finding characters in which I found a mirror of myself. In the mornings, my mum would despair at getting me out of the door on time. At school, my teachers would despair at my lack of pencil, pen, homework, the general paraphernalia that always ended up a bit outside my capabilities. Most of it was because I was too distracted by a book, or the TV, or an idea I had, forever in the muddle of my ideas. These books helped me to identify my place in the world, and to get a sense of worth. Arriety and Mildred always had wonderful adventures.

What it also led me to discover was the power of the books I read when I was young. The top three books were there: Paddington, The Borrowers and Narnia. Not just one book, but anthologies, three collections of books that I read over and over, absorbing myself in the worlds that took my behind the clock with Arriety, into the home of the Browns with Paddington, and into another world with Polly and Digory.

There’s something strange about reading those same words, the ones I turned to so often when I was a child. For starters, it makes me feel bloody old. All too often, I don’t really think as myself as particularly grown up, but there’s nothing like a childhood book to remind you it was over twenty-five years since you last read a book. At the same time, it’s comforting. Snuggling down under a duvet, I can pretend I’m still in that place, sheltered by a secret world, where, at least for that moment, it felt like it only existed for me.

The magic of my childhood resided in books. I was also lucky enough to grow up with books; Steven King making my teenage years even more scary than they were anyway, and the Discworld providing light relief from teenage angst. In fact, I went on to write my dissertation about Terry Pratchett, so his influence stretched beyond spots and hormones.

Now, as a (sort of) adult, I continue to drown myself in words. Sometimes it’s the classics that I really should have read by now, other times it’s new fiction that’s just been released, or just random stuff recommended to me by other people. I find that I look more and more for people different to myself, to allow me to explore through books, rather than find solace in recognising something familiar.

What I’ve also come to realise is that, while my days are often shaped around reading (on the bus, before sleep, a sneaky few chapters over lunch) I have also been shaped by the books I read. My sense of adventure, encouraged by Arriety’s desire to see what was outside the door. My desire to create, boosted by Paddington’s stubborn insistence on getting to the end of whatever he was doing, no matter the outcome. There’s politics and social codes in there too. I’ve seen the world through the eyes of wizards, witches, homosexuals, Islamic fundamentalists, young children, old people, and perhaps most importantly, people from cultures I have never visited. I will never know what it’s like to be a Korean living in the US, or a Nigerian, or a Chinese person in the UK, but all of these voices have been experienced by my little lump of grey matter. Now that’s a powerful thing.

Reading goes far beyond providing a simple way to kill a few hours. It cannot match up to a film or a game, simply because, only in reading, are you active in constructing the meaning, shaping the world in your imagination that the words suggest to you.

That’s why, sorry everyone, I will continue to buy every most people I know a book for Christmas (I do hope you’re enjoying reading them!), because I want them, too, to be able to touch the spine of a treasured item, and recall the times that paper, ink and glue took them to places they never imagined.

Taking Time Out

December is upon us. While apparently the idea that time goes quicker as you get older is a myth (it’s just because you’ve seen more actual time, apparently) it still seems that the years are stacking up at a rate that I can’t quite keep up with. Every hour, day, week, month, I get to the end and sometimes it feels like all I have is a list of things I didn’t manage to do. People I didn’t see, projects I didn’t finish, marking I didn’t do, films I didn’t see, phone calls I didn’t make. It can be more than a little overwhelming.

Last weekend, I made a bold decision. I left the city. Abandoned my beautiful newly-bought flat (6 months and a lot of DIY) and headed out to the wilds of Surrey, to hang out with my Mum and Dad. While it hasn’t exactly ticked off a huge number of things on the List of Doom, it’s certainly offered a nice bit of perspective.

For starters, writing. I’m lucky enough to have two whole days a week that are scheduled for private writing time. While the mornings tend to be pretty productive (2,000 word average, I can live with that) the afternoons end up as so much faffing about. Washing, tidying, then I have guilt that I’m at home but not exercising, so I usually end up in the gym or going for a run. But that ends up being another day that I get to the end of and think – what did I do today?

So I cashed it all in. It was the last weekend before the end of the year that I actually had nothing on (sorry, Batala) and I decided to have a self-enforced writing retreat. The results? It’s bloody lovely.

While I can’t claim to have done no house-related things at all (I’m pretty sure cooking dinner is in order considering I’m getting free room and board) there was that wonderful freedom of not actually being able to do anything. Sure, I should probably have put another coat of paint on the wardrobes, or put a wash on, but I physically couldn’t. Funnily enough, my afternoons ended up far more productive than my mornings.

There were little annoying things I’d been meaning to do for ages, like making a spreadsheet of literary magazines to send out to (yes, the creative and the nerd go surprisingly well together) as well as catching up on my social media stuff. The word count was pretty good. I managed 10,000 words in 3 days, which is certainly an improvement, and I also found myself having random ideas for new stories, which is something that rarely happens to me.

But you know what, there was something else. Over and above the loveliness of simply being able to wander upstairs and write whenever I liked, there was something I don’t give myself nearly enough of. Time. I am a terrible ‘should’ person. Constantly barraging myself with guilt about something that didn’t get done, or something that seemed like a ‘waste’ of time. It’s the times that you stop, do nothing, that you remember what makes you smile. On Sunday afternoon, me and Mum sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ while doing a few bits in the kitchen. I grew up with that musical, with singing. It’s something I almost never do anymore.

But I digress. The thing that I really discovered last weekend? The power of time. That when you take yourself away from the treadmill of your life, you feel more relaxed, more calm, more productive, more creative, than you ever thought possible. I’m not a massive fan of resolutions, as they always seem to imply goals and charts and yet another way of disappointing my own expectations, but if there’s one thing I want to give myself next year, it’s the space to feel like this in my own home.

Thanks, Mum. xx

It’s All About Perspective

One of the most powerful things in the world to experience is someone else’s perspective. It’s also one of the most frustrating. As anyone who’s encountered a view or opinion that they find utterly objectionable on social media, the TV, overheard in a bus (a broadcast of anything Donald Trump has ever said) the initial reaction is that they are wrong. Utterly, idiotically wrong. The interesting thing is, no-one thinks they’re ill-informed. No-one thinks they’re simply regurgitating biased news sources in place of an opinion. Everyone thinks they’re a nice person. Which is all the more reason we need to examine why these opinions exist, where they come from, and why the people who hold them think they’re so reasonable.

A fascinating and absorbing way to do this is though fiction. I would argue it’s the best way. In a first person narrative, even if you are infuriated with the character, you have no choice but to see the world through their eyes. You are forced, in some way, to empathise with them, even if you don’t agree with them.

Arguably, one of the most important times to be reading books like this is in your teens. All too often it seems like the world is revolving around your tiny little sphere of existence, and that no-one could possibly have it worse than you. Enter Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, a young adult novel about a transexual MTF and the problems they have. But, interestingly enough, it isn’t told from the point of view of the trans character. It’s the teenage boy who meets her and how he copes with the discovery.

It’s a story of hormones and lust, coping with growing up and dealing with your feelings. In this sense, a pretty typical young adult story. Jason is an eighteen-year-old boy who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, who refused to sleep with him. He’s reasonably clever but lives in a trailer with just his mother who works as a waitress. When Sage moves to town, he is immediately attracted to this mysterious new girl. In time, he discovers that she was born a male. Not before he’s had time to fall in love with her and kiss her. The prose is readable and the narrative interesting, it almost made me miss my stop a couple of times, which is a fair measure of the level of engagement.

I’ve read a lot of criticism of this book, based on the awful things Jason thinks and says when he finds out the truth about Sage. That the character is fundamentally shallow and unlikeable, and the addition of the new girl in his life is the only thing that makes him interesting. I would argue that this is exactly the point. By putting us in the shoes of a very narrow-minded young man from small-town Missouri (my US geography isn’t fantastic but I gather they’re not famed for being the most open-minded of states) we can experience the genuinely awful responses trans people can experience. First hand. And that’s important. We don’t like it, we certainly don’t agree with him, but it allows us to share his head, the ridiculous way he would do absolutely anything to not be considered ‘gay’ by his friends and family, and that he feels unable, emotionally, to open up to anyone around him. That in itself is just as much of an indictment of the hyper-masculinised ideals placed on lots of young men, as it is a criticism of how open-minded people are.

What this book allows then, is both the appreciation of how difficult growing up transgendered and going through a transition can be (yes the hormone therapy is a bit of a plot hole) and an appreciation of where the stigmatism and hateful attitudes come from. In order to make progress, we need to address both sides. To understand that people who are violent and cruel to trans people is based on skewed ideas of ‘manhood’ and lack of open conversation is just as important as understanding how traumatic it can be to feel you are born into the wrong body, with a family (or in this case, a father) who refuses to accept your true gender.

There was a fashion not long ago for perspectives of ‘monsters.’ Books like American Psycho that allowed us to see into the minds of truly disturbed characters. What seems to be happening now, is more books where there is less of a division. People acting hatefully but with their own stories behind it. Simplified ideas of us v them or monster v villain aren’t going to help educate and inform anyone because they oversimplify the myriad of issues and feelings behind the scenes. Books like this that lay bare all the feelings involved, both good and bad (and Jason is really a lot less of a judgmental idiot by the end) are what is necessary to move conversations forward, open up dialogue and discussion, rather than shutting them down by pretending they are too straightforward. And hey, it’s fantastic to have a trans character in mainstream young adult fiction.

There are a million quotes about why you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes, but I, as ever, tend to prefer Terry Pratchett: “They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.” Can’t say fairer than that.

What the ‘Consent’ Conversation is Missing

Recently, a man complained about being forced to go to ‘consent’ lessons at University. I can see his point. Not only is it a little bit insulting, but it’s probably a little bit late. But what else are Universities supposed to do? When one in seven women in University will experience some form of sexual assault, it’s not surprising they’ve decided to do something about it.
To me, the word ‘consent’ is, in itself, a little misleading. It likens any sexual activity to a transaction; something is offered, and either accepted or refused. If only it were that simple.
Just imagine the scenario:
Man: Would you like a biscuit?
Woman: Ooh, maybe, it does look tasty.
Man: Here you go (offering biscuit).
Woman: Actually, I’m not sure I will.
Man: EAT THE BISCUIT (shoves biscuit in her face).
Reduced to this, any discussion about consent seems pointless. But there are so many other assumptions and social narratives happening, that it isn’t quite as simple as all that.
For starters, I hate the assumption that it’s something that is ‘given’ to a woman. All the words to describe it focus on the action; the poking, if you will, rather than any other element. Even though ‘making love’ might sound a bit cheesy, at least it focuses on the idea that two people are working together, to produce something, as if they’re making biscuits, each one having a go at stirring the bowl, before something delicious comes out of the oven that they can both enjoy (ok, I may have overused the biscuit analogy).
The other massive issue is the pervasive idea that men are the ones that get sexual urges. Look at what happens at puberty; there are tangible (and, quite messy) situations that allow you to pinpoint the moment when things start looking a bit different for boys. I don’t remember anyone telling me about my clitoris, or what it was for. No wonder we’re all a bit lost when we start out. Girls are exactly the same. They get funny feelings they don’t really know what to do with (mine were directed at a teenage Johnny Depp in Cry Baby) and sudden urges to do things they don’t understand. Later in life it persists, this idea that the female who likes and *gasp* wants sex is somehow naughty and wrong (those are the nice words), or that if she does indeed want sex, she’s not going to admit it (thanks Robin Thicke, that really helped us all out).
Male stereotypes don’t help much either. Your typical ‘lad’ is supposed to have sex as his ultimate end goal. He needs to rack up his numbers in some weird ‘competition’ that places sexual knowledge of a woman alongside equalling his mates’ top score on Fifa. If we go along with the idea that only a certain type of female will ‘permit’ sex to happen, then the males are left rather lost. You might be pretending to be a good girl, but actually like it, and because I know you’ve let me kiss you/put my hand up your top/you had sex with my friend, then obviously I am going to assume that on this occasion, your ‘no’ means yes.
Put all of that into a night out, add a few shandies and some questionable ideas about how your mode of dress signals how ‘up for it’ you are, and no wonder things get tricky.
Let’s say a woman goes home with a man. At this point, she is feeling pressured – she’s exhibited the ‘expected’ behaviour for wanting someone to have sex with her. The man is feeling equally pressured – he’s got to follow through and do what he’s supposed to. It’s no use pretending that half-pissed teenagers are going to take this moment to enter into a responsible conversation about how they would like to proceed from this point. Which is where we enter into ‘grey areas.’ Perhaps she decides she doesn’t want to, but feels threatened, or nervous, and decides to shut up and wait until it’s over. The accusation afterwards would be that she didn’t say no. Simplifying it to this one-word refusal is unhelpful, and leads to upsetting accusations levelled at victims. If she freezes up and offers no form of encouragement, I would take that as a no. Let’s remove fixed roles, so women don’t have to feel like victims and men don’t have to feel like they must sexually dominate.
Or he decides that he wants sex, that it’s now unfair for her to withdraw her assumed ‘offer.’ That she’s being a prick tease. We need to get away from the idea that certain behaviours automatically lead to sex, on both sides. Until the answer; “well, we went back to mine but we were a bit drunk so we decided to kiss and have a cuddle and leave it until the morning,” is an acceptable answer to the question; “how did you get on last night?” things are not going to improve.
So yes, until that point, you might have to go to a consent class. And we might have to face up to the fact that the most sexually educated young people go on to experience far less sexual abuse, whether we like the idea of sex being discussed in the classroom or not. Abstinence doesn’t work. Assuming women don’t like sex doesn’t work. If we can’t talk about it in front of each other at school, the danger is that we might not have that conversation at all. Broader ideas about emotions, sexual urges and feeling pressured in the moment need to be included in order to leave everyone feeling as comfortable as possible when they’re faced with the real thing.
Let’s call it making sex. Or creating sexy time. Anything that makes it clear it is a verb, an action entered into enthusiastically by both parties. You bring the butter, I’ll bring the flour. We’ll make some lovely biscuits. Together.

WOW

Just, WOW.

The Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London is in its 5th year, and going strong. It lasts for an entire week, and involves hundreds of women and men from around the globe. For a mere £20, you get a full day pass on the Saturday or the Sunday. This gives you the opportunity to see bands and choirs, take self-defence classes, do yoga, laugh along to comedy, listen to inspirational women discuss current issues, take part in workshops, and listen to some brave women tell their personal tales of suffering. All of this in the lovely setting of the Southbank, with bright flags and colours everywhere, friendly staff to help you around. Even if you didn’t pay for an evening ticket for the big names (Salma Hayek, Hugh Grant) you still got to see and talk to some pretty awesome people. There were so many amazing experiences in just the day I was there, I wish I’d spent the whole week listening and talking to amazing women.

To pre-empt any backlash, no, it wasn’t in any way anti men. Or anti anything else. It concerns me that whenever something is held up as a celebration of a particular marginalised group, there are always cries of ‘what about straight people!’ ‘what about white people!’ Celebrating and empowering anyone isn’t about saying they’re in any way better than anyone else. A completely equal world (for gender, race and everything else) makes sense for all human beings. But people are marginalised. People are treated differently for who they are. And it felt pretty awesome to be in a space where being who you are was celebrated, encouraged and dissected. Through positive experiences like this, hopefully all people can appreciate how the struggle of a particular group is linked intrinsically to everyone else’s, and that the empowerment of one leads to the empowerment of the whole. There were quite a few men there, too.

We started out with a look at the news. A little depressing, to say the least. A ‘women’s day’ pullout in one newspaper had one story about a female sportsperson and some adverts for makeup. A large image emblazoned with the title ‘are men the new women?’ featured a man relaxing by a pool with some bubbly in his hand. The key words associated with women included ‘pores!’ and ‘angst!’ A case about an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal and a lawyer calling the teenage victims of gang rape ‘slags.’ So far so not surprising. After this initial look at how things currently are, the feeling was overwhelmingly one of how things are, and will, change for the better. The inspirational Leslee Udwin who made the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ was there and framed it in such a beautifully simplistic way. The rape and murder of that girl were awful. But who are we to say which of these is any worse than any other rape or torture. Her message was simple. From sex trafficking to objectification in the media, from rape to catcalling, from being denied basic human rights to being treated like a less employable or intelligent human being, they are all born of the same issue; the lack of value placed on females. In some countries this manifests itself far more shockingly and in others it is more subtle, but it still exists. The backlash from her film has led to criminal proceedings and a prisoner being stoned to death. While the average Jane wouldn’t expect something quite so extreme, the message quite clearly was that we can make a difference. What followed was a group experience where if a statement applied to us, we stood up. It was wonderful to realise how many people shared both happy and difficult life experiences, and set the tone for a sense of togetherness that lasted all day.

We heard from other people who are also having a massive impact on the world of equality and perception. The woman who devised #ThisGirlCan (if you haven’t seen it – the fantastic campaign around normal women exercising to feel great and look great, even if they wobble) and EverydaySexism (something which started out as a website and is now working to implement changes in government policy). Normal women who saw something they were unhappy about and tried to do something about it were making a difference. WOWNOW was produced by Gemma Cairney (Radio 1 DJ, I’m not cool enough to know who she is), and produced a shocking video where young teenage girls talk honestly about the way they feel about themselves, the pressures of things like exams, Instagram and ASKFM, and how porn is infiltrating their friendships and relationships (a boy was asked why he didn’t stop having sex with a girl when he saw she was crying. He thought it was normal). I was left looking at the different areas of my life and if I could in some way help to spread a more realistic and empowering image of women to the world. Watch this space!

As our day continued, we went into some smaller rooms for more specific discussions. In ‘Hollywood, Sci-fi, Computer Games and Rape,’ I discovered the term ‘fridging.’ This is when a female character is raped, murdered, or tortured, which is then used as a plot device to drive forward the protagonist’s desire for revenge. All too often, rape is depicted as an issue to do with men (look at Vietnam war films), power or control (Game of Thrones) rather than the horrific and terrifying thing it is for the victim. We also talked about the lack of male-male rape, or even female-male rape, and how the media supported the myth that false rape claims are more prevalent than they actually are. Where we go with this was left open. While using something horrific as a plot device is arguably lazy and insensitive writing, exploring the darker sides of humanity and its effects is something that art is often concerned with, so how to navigate through this is very interesting. Unless we want to return to the 18th Century idea of a novel being morally instructional, it is unclear. Obviously, each one of these sessions could have taken an entire day’s discussion!

The most harrowing was the personal sharing of victims of domestic abuse. I find it hard to write my response to this without feeling like I am trivialising these brave women’s experiences. Suffice to say that I was left with a sense of the tragedy people go through every day. We left the session talking about the need to connect more with others, to allow a greater support network so people don’t feel alone.

We finished with a talk with biographer Rachel Holmes and her work on writing books about women who changed the face of society. She talked about Eleanor Marx (I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of her) and Sylvia Pankhurst. I’m definitely buying her books! She unfolded the stories of two amazing women starting to tread the boards of a life as yet unlived by most women, and the differences they made to socialism and women’s rights are phenomenal. Once again, the message we were left with was that not just at elections but in between, the things we do every day can raise awareness and bring about real change.

So where to leave this post? At times depressing, always frustrating and often heartbreaking, the plight of women the world over is a sad thing to behold, and unfortunately still seems to be something that needs to be defended as worth investigating and supporting. Having said that, the leaps forward made in so many areas of the world cannot be underestimated. But there is so much more to be done. Young women today are under such pressures and have things to deal with that we simply can’t understand, so our thinking and ideas around how to help them need to change in line with technology and other changes in the modern world. If so many people are prepared to gather in one place, of all genders, sexuality, races and creeds, and raise their voices in affirmation of a world where everyone is respected equally, surely the world our children grow up in will look different than it does now.

Myself and I

I’m reading Margaret Atwood On Writers and Writing. It’s lovely to read an author musing on being the very thing that they are without sounding too grandiose or other wordly. Long have we been exposed to the accepted narrative that The Writer operates on some higher and more noble plane than mere mortals, and it’s pleasantly comforting to hear such a great writer talk about the insecurities her young self felt when treading out into these rather murky waters. Something that really struck a chord with me, was the notion of the writer having two distinct sides to themselves. I don’t know if people are surprised that the novel I’m writing is quite bleak and violent. Certainly I’m a cheery person, not one to dwell on the negative side of things, yet clearly someone in there is more than preoccupied with the darker side of humanity. And I’ve noticed her a lot more of late. Mostly because of all the time I’m spending on my own. As any teacher will tell you, time for quiet reflection is hardly a feature of the job. While you do feel isolated from your peers (a group of teenagers doesn’t have quite the same vibe, although they can be fun) it’s rare that you feel truly isolated, rushing as you are from one lesson, observation, plan, assessment, book marking, Parents’ Evening, data entry and so on until you are gasping for breath at the end of each half term.

What I’ve noticed since clambering off that particular roller coaster is that I spend a lot of time truly on my own, with a good stretch of hours in front of me, cleared away for the task of writing. Which is when she comes out. I find that I get delighted with altercations, minor catastrophes in the street which would usually upset me, or at least produce an empathetic reaction. I’m much more likely to be scribbling down some notes or thinking about how to perfectly capture the abject look of sorrow on the face of the girl opposite me on the tube than offer any sort of support. It’s unnerving. Not only this, but I can’t remember ever having been so silent for such long periods of time. With my money-paying exploits taking me all over London (private tutoring, to be clear) I spend an inordinate amount of time on trains, buses, walking, and even when I get there it’s a one-to-one conversation with a pupil, not a cacophony of voices heard streaming out of a Year 8 class last thing on a Friday. I like talking. A lot. In fact it might be that my writing has got more dialogue-heavy the less I’ve found real conversation happening in my life. If you happen to be the person I encounter that evening, I do apologise for the ear-bashing you’ll get for a good forty minutes, but I hope you understand.

According to quite a few people out there, I might be doing myself a favour. Apparently, spending time truly on our own is one of the things we’ve lost in the modern social networking age, and might be one of the things we need in order to simply process the amount of information we’re overloaded with on a daily basis. But also, to be happy. There’s something to be said about staring out of the window for a few minutes. Even if, as in my case, it’s in the search for an interesting way of describing something mundane. We could all do with a bit of time getting to know ourselves, however many of us there may be.

Being A Man

We all like being in a club. It gives us a sense of belonging, camaraderie, having someone on your side. It also usually helps if you have an opponent you can set yourself up against. The one ‘club’ that is often presumed to be pre-ordained, is that of your gender role. I’m not sure it’s quite so straightforward as that.

Just the other night, me and my friends got into a discussion about Gigi Gorgeous, a transgender Youtube sensation (apparently) whose boyfriend insists that he is a straight man. It’s understandable. From a sociological and anthropological point of view, the straight man is pretty much the strongest position to be in, from the perspective of the species. Unfortunately, as with any membership, it carries an inherent disavowal of belonging to any others – i.e. so I’m not gay. Which carries a value judgement.

Call me idealistic (although I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that raising a child as ‘gender-free’ is entirely necessary or desirable) but I think we’re all overcomplicating the issue in order to feel like we have a sense of belonging. Rather like the autistic spectrum, people occupy different places on the scale in terms of gendered and sexual identity. Thus many females display what are considered ‘male’ characteristics, and many gay people display what are termed ‘straight’ characteristics – and everything else in between. Ditching these gendered and sexualised polar opposites and adopting an outlook whereby we all carry a range of gender-determined behaviours would place us all in the same, while possibly occupying different sides of, the boat (at this point feel free to extend the metaphor and decide which crew member you’d like to be, port v starboard etc.)

Which is why I was intrigued to read Larry’s Party by Carol Shields. Partly because I am a woman writing a male narrative voice, but also because I was curious to see the elements she would include in order to communicate ‘maleness’ through the close third person point of view (interesting that she chose this rather than first person).

In part, we are on fairly ‘traditional’ and well-trodden ground: A straight white male, living in Canada/the USA who gets married, has a kid, gets divorced, the usual. She does give him a passion for flowers and plants, which is a nice touch. Arguably he displays more ‘male’ behaviour here as he gets obsessed with mazes and privet. It’s quite common to attribute pseudo-scientific characteristics to show maleness, as opposed to the ’emotional’ feminine side. But I digress. It does allow for an interesting inter-generational point to be made about changing attitudes towards what constitutes a man – spanning twenty years. The book takes us from 1976 to 1996, a period of enormous change in these areas. Larry has to work within completely different parameters to his father, as does his son as he begins to grow up. Each generation seems perturbed by the next.

Part of the ‘maleness’ is the topics covered. The entire chapter when he turns 40 is entitled ‘Larry’s Penis,’ and includes many musings on his use of it, the importance of sex to him, and how this has developed over his life. Over the course of the novel, these self-aware sections allow for a much wider critique and exploration of what it means to be a modern (at the time of writing) man. The fact that she allows her character more inner musings as he gets older also fits the way she develops the narrative voice over the years. The writer shifts his vocabulary and syntax subtly as the novel progresses, allowing the later chapters to be more verbose and ‘literary.’ She does insert a plot point around the middle when he suddenly gets obsessed with words and their meanings, which I think is a slightly sneaky way of allowing that to happen (note to self).

In other ways, he does very much fall into the ways we usually see maleness. He can’t express himself very well emotionally to his friends, he only cries once in twenty years, he is obsessed with the female form and he struggles with how to relate to his son. It is refreshing that he doesn’t go to college, and that he works in a flower shop for a very long period in his life. These are lives that, while on the surface might seem ‘dull,’ are worth exploring and commenting on.

Which leads, perhaps circuitously, to what literature may or may not be all about. So often we turn to forms of art or entertainment to reassure of us of the things that we want to be true (American Sniper being a good current example) because it is comforting to have the world represented as we want it to be. At other times, we want to be challenged, to have our expectations turned upside down (think The Wasp Factory or the Smack my Bitch Up video). Frankly, I’m greedy and I want them all.

Living in someone else’s head for a few hours/days/years is the privilege of book reading. Losing myself in Larry’s head taught me that not everyone is willing to crowbar gender into ‘accepted’ shapes, or that even if they do, the outcome can be far more subtle and intriguing than you might expect.

I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on gendered roles. Also how you write a post like this without using an excessive amount of inverted commas…

New Year, Same Trousers

This was the first January I’ve managed not to feel guilty in possibly my entire adult life (the exact beginning of this is debatable, but still).

Having said that, in previous years, my guilt was always tainted with annoyance. It is grossly unfair that merely days before the very same media who were shoving cake, cream and alcohol down our necks are suddenly chastising us for being fatties. Christmas and the surrounding months are such a strange time of year – maniacal enthusiasm, sparkly tinsel and the mulling of everything (of which I am most definitely a fan) followed by complete abstinence and endless adverts for gym membership. In this most schizophrenic of seasons, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and constantly lagging behind.

But not this year. At the risk of sounding smug, I actually went for a run on Boxing Day morning. Admittedly, my good deeds didn’t go as far as restricting my cheese and wine consumption that evening, but at least I started out well. What I might finally have achieved (it has only taken 34 years) is sustainability. Because ultimately, that is the issue. I read this week that over 50% of people gave up on their healthy resolutions by this week, with another 20% predicted to fall off the wagon next week. These are not encouraging statistics, particularly given the UK’s standing in terms of obesity across Europe. The most cited reason for giving up was the lack of ‘difference’ it made. For this, part of the blame has to go to Reality TV shows like the awful Channel 4 series that pits fat people against each other, or the endless weight loss foods and programmes we are bombarded with on a daily basis. It’s all quick fixes and fad diets, many of which I’ve tried over the years. I had to stop the 5:2 fast diet because I was so irrationally grumpy on fast days. Not only were they unsustainable, they also ceased to have any effect as soon as I stopped.

My other concern is that they mostly focus on diet food. I’ve long been dissatisfied with the low-fat diet products available on the market. The fact is that if you take the fat out of something like cake or yoghurt, you have to replace it with something. Usually, it’s sugar, or artificial sweeteners. But then no-one is going to tell you not to eat processed food, because they make billions in taxes each year. The world’s healthiest diet can apparently be found in Iceland. Not because of a magic ingredient or biscuits being illegal, but simply because they mess around with their food a lot less. It’s simple – from food to mouth, the less that’s done to it, the better.

That’s not to mention the fact that the main focus is more often than not, only based on diet. Of course, what you eat makes a massive difference, but the impact exercise has on your entire body and mental health just can’t be substituted. So what’s my secret? It is beautifully summed up in a conversation a friend of mine had in the gym:

“You look great. What’s your secret?”

“I don’t eat a lot of junk food and I exercise regularly.”

“Oh.”

Exactly what people don’t want to hear. Ultimately, only a change in lifestyle will lead to any lasting effect on your body.

About seven years ago, I started running. My family was never particularly sporty, so I basically gave up all forms of exercise after PE stopped being compulsory. Also, as I’m incredibly competitive but pretty unskilled, I quickly got frustrated with squash, netball, hockey, or anything where I couldn’t quickly get to a level where I at least had a vague chance of beating someone. With running, I’m only competing against myself. Which I do. Having an app that measures distance and speed, and sends me little encouraging emails, I can easily improve on goals and set targets. Interestingly enough, I haven’t lost that much actual weight. Probably less than a stone. I’m still a size 12. I am however, very differently shaped. Much more toned, leaner and stronger. Also, FYI, going for a long run on a Saturday morning is a great way to pre-emptively avoid a hangover, and makes a Sunday roast not just appealing but necessary to replace lost calories and proteins. It’s also changing the way I see my body. I’m losing the association of lighter=thinner=better. I love that I’m able to run for the bus, play netball with my nieces and nephews and have an impromptu game of badminton without getting out of breath. I finally see what my PE teacher at school was talking about! I am able to see my body as an amazing, strong tool for achieving things, not just something to look good.

For some people, the idea of taking up regular running is about as appealing as pulling out your toenails. And hey, a few did drop off when I had shoes that were too tight. But the boring news is, a healthy, fit and fabulous you will not emerge in three weeks. Or even three months. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, or that it isn’t worth striving for. It’s difficult, it takes practice, but it feels pretty amazing when you get there. If you need motivation, check out this fantastic campaign: http://www.thisgirlcan.co.uk

What are the things that help you feel strong and healthy? Post below!