See you on the Book Bus

2013 May 232

Later this week I’ll be back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe, an independent arts festival that turns every conceivable nook and cranny in this delightfully higgledy-piggledy Victorian resort into a performance space. Ventnor is possibly my favourite town in the entire country, but I have never yet managed to make it down there for the Fringe. Until now.

You may well find me in the Book Bus in St Catherine’s churchyard, where I’ll have copies of both my books on sale. (Mine are new. Everything else on there is second hand.) The bus (which is the one in the picture above) will be there all week, and is open from 10am to 6pm; I have to eat and sleep and would quite like to see some of the other events as well, so I can’t guarantee that I’ll necessarily be there when you happen to turn up. But hey, it’s a bus full of books; you don’t need me to be around to have a whale of a time there.

All this talk of independent events reminds me of an initiative I came across via Twitter this week, Just A Card. The idea is that if everybody who came into a [studio/craft shop/art gallery/bookshop] bought ‘just a [card/brooch/fridge magnet/book]’, that establishment would be able to remain in business for rather longer than it would otherwise.

Obviously I’m not advocating filling your house up with useless crap that you hate, particularly not if money’s tight; but if you find something cheap and pleasing, something that you think that a friend or family member might appreciate even if it’s not your thing, then buying it might go a little way to keeping an independent business going.

(Connoisseurs of British seaside towns may legitimately point out that this is obviously Brighton, not Ventnor. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the bus in Ventnor, although by this time next week I almost certainly will have fixed that.)

Learning, past, present and future: judging the UNISON writing competition

DSCF1320

Last month I had the very great privilege of announcing the winner of UNISON’s first-ever creative writing competition at National Delegate Conference in Brighton.

I’d never judged anything before, and this was an enjoyable, if intimidating, place to start. We’d asked entrants to work with the theme of ‘Learning: past, present, and future’. My fellow judges were Genevieve Clarke, from The Reading Agency, Andrew Jennison, UNISON learning rep at De Montfort University and mastermind of the #DMUReads scheme, and Kirsi Kekki, Policy Officer for English and maths learning at Unionlearn.

Reading through all the entries was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and rereading and deliberating over my choices occupied my mind for the next couple of weeks. Names were removed, along with other identifying information, before the entries were passed to the judges. There were also a couple of genuinely anonymous entries, which we couldn’t consider. I took a look at those, too, out of interest, and I think one of them might have made the final six if it had only been sent in with a name attached. The moral of that is: be brave!

Interestingly enough, deciding on the winner was easy. There was only one entry that all four of us had on our own personal shortlists. It was agreeing on the rest of the shortlist that was difficult. Some of us had firm favourites that didn’t appear at all on others’ lists. And I certainly looked at a couple of other lists, saw entries that I hadn’t included, and said, ‘Yeah, good point…’ Writing is such a subjective thing to judge; readers’ tastes vary so much. At least, ours did!

What made the winning entry stand out from the rest of the field? In a word, consistency. Conservative Party Conference 2050 started strongly, with an attention-grabbing burst of onomatopoeia, and it never faltered. It built on that with a rousing testament to the power of learning, and finished with a twist that had more than one of us laughing out loud. There isn’t a weak word in it.

As for the rest of the shortlist, we tended to favour pieces that took risks, or that went in a slightly different direction from the obvious. Petrichor, for example, was the only entry that had a narrator who wasn’t human.

Three personal accounts of learning made it into the final shortlist, reflecting a heavy weighting of entries with that theme. However, one of those, A Teacher Prepares, was written from a teacher’s point of view rather than a student’s, and another, Learning: a love story, drew the theme of learning into all aspects of the writer’s life with rueful, self-deprecating humour.

With all that said, There, Inside Of Me didn’t try anything fancy, just told the poet’s own learning story in a few well-chosen words. And we had a few submissions involving post-apocalyptic visions of education; of these, A Different Class stood out because of its strong worldbuilding and bleak humour.

I got to announce the shortlist and the winner. My colleague Clair got to read the winning entry out, and had far too much fun pretending to be a Tory MP.

I very much enjoyed being a judge, although it did tie up more of my work time than I’d expected. Out of curiosity, I went Googling to see how the real pros do it. This is what one of the 2014 Man Booker Prize judges said:

All six judges read 156 books submitted by 94 publishing imprints, and argued about them. That sentence makes this part sound rather breezy. For just over six months, I read a novel a day.

Whew. Reading that, I’m very glad that we imposed a 1500 word limit on our competition.

Listening to the stories: Our Witness

dsc_1218-e1523560356304.jpg

Some people have very specific ideas about what a Christian story ought to look like. You can tell by looking at the reviews of Catherine Fox’s books on Amazon. Too much swearing: one star. A story about Christians can never, ever, include the F-word. Other stories are to be ignored, overwritten, or, if the worst comes to the worst and one finds oneself reading one, given a one-star review.

Because Christians don’t swear. Except they do. We do. I do. And if you say you don’t – well, I’ll happily believe you, but it doesn’t stop the rest of us existing. Or swearing.

I really enjoyed the Lent course I attended this year. We started with something constructed by the Diocese of Ely, improvised icebreakers concerning the idiosyncrasies of our socks, ate snacks introduced with increasingly tenuous connections to the themes we were talking about (the Club biscuits – ‘set apart’ in their own wrappers, but yet together in the packet, and therefore an illustration of ‘holiness’, were my personal favourite) and tried to discern our own callings. For many of us, I think, that turned out to be something about being who we were, about not trying to force ourselves into what we thought a Christian ought to look like, about showing up, just as we were, and trusting that this was who we were meant to be.

For me, that was about being out as bisexual. It often is. From curling up in a ball the first week, muttering darkly that actually the Church isn’t necessarily a safe space to be yourself, to outing myself by telling a story of when I outed myself, to making and wearing symbolic jewellery (see picture at the top of this post) being myself as a Christian does tend to involve to ensuring that people know that I’m queer, and that I believe that that’s how God created me.

I’m always aware of a push-pull: the pull of the conviction that what other people think about me is none of my business; the push of knowing that, if I don’t say in so many words that I’m bisexual, people will assume that I’m straight. And – particularly in Christian circles – because I’m bisexual married to a man, if I don’t say that I understand a hypothetical relationship with someone who wasn’t a man to be as valid as the actual one that I have with someone who is, there’s the risk that people will assume that I chose to be with a man because he was a man. As opposed to falling for this person that I happened to live with.

In LGBT Christian jargon this is known as the ‘Side A/Side B’ question. (I have to look up which side is which every time.) Side A is LGB Christians who see no contradiction with same-sex sexual activity. Side B is LGB Christians who accept their identity but who would understand acting on same-sex sexual desires as sinful.

My problem is that I am very much Side A, but I know that in a heteronormative society I look very much Side B. And the only way to correct that assumption is to fill in the gaps, to tell the story. I am always telling stories, both fictional stories and true stories, and it’s almost always because the story that I’m hearing, or that I’m reading, isn’t the whole story. And when stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative – whether that’s Christians don’t say ‘fuck’ or A woman who’s married to a man must be straight or Christians don’t have sex with people of the same gender – are erased, it’s all the more important to keep telling them.

And so we come to Our Witness: the unheard story of LGBT Christians. The British edition came out last year; the US edition was released yesterday. Our Witness tells the stories – mine, The Amazing Invisible Bisexual Christian, and many, many more. The stories are all different, but they resonate with each other. If you’ve already bought the British edition and you only wanted to read my story, you don’t need to read it in the American edition. It’s the same, bar an ‘own goal’ metaphor which didn’t survive the voyage across the Atlantic. If, however, you’re looking for different stories, for a wider sample of all the different voices that make up this communion we call the Church, then read both. Every voice, every story, adds something to the symphony, and the more I listen, the richer the sound becomes.

 

 

A sense of perspective

DSCF2728

A few years ago I read something about a woman who wanted to go to Africa. I forget where I read it, or why the woman wanted to go to Africa in the first place, but I remember that the moral was that she had to become somebody for whom going to Africa was normal. She would never go to Africa until she got to thinking of going to Africa as No Big Deal.

I felt somewhat ambivalent about this at the time, and I still do. On the one hand, I can see the point: if I see a particular ambition, desire, or goal, as being Not For The Likes Of Us, then I’ll never manage it.

On the other, if I see it as No Big Deal, then what on earth is the point of doing it at all?

There’s an irritatingly pious part of me – think first year Hermione Granger, if first year Hermione Granger was into self-help woowoo – that wants to point out that well obviously the moral is that I should try to be more present in everything, because everything is a Big Deal! Which is of course true, every bush is alive with angels and all that, but if she could only be less obnoxious about it then I might be more inclined to pay attention…

All joking aside, it’s very easy for me to forget how far I’ve come.

It’s only in the past few years that things like ‘publish a novel!’ and ‘go InterRailing around Europe!’ have moved out of the ‘things I’d like to do, someday’ category and into ‘things I’m going to do’ – or ‘things I’ve actually done’.

The problem is, the moment they move into ‘things I’ve actually done’, they become No Big Deal. If I can do that, I tell myself, then anybody could.

And I forget. I forget how once it seemed like something that was Not For The Likes Of Us. I forget how many times other people had to tell me, ‘That sounds amazing! You should do it!’ I forget how much work it took to get where I am. I forget that I’m a massive success in the self-publishing world. (It might help if I made more than pocket money from it – but then again, I’d probably think that that was No Big Deal, too.) I forget that I’ve made literal history, that I have been the first person to do this particular something. A small something, admittedly, but still a something.

What’s the answer? Listen to Hermione Granger, I think. Remember to look around, and see what’s there, and enjoy being with it, if possible. Remember to look back, and see how far I’ve come. Remember to look forward, and identify what I want to do, and see that there probably isn’t any particular reason why I shouldn’t.

Pottering

DSC_0794

You know those Saturdays when you don’t really have anything scheduled, but you find yourself busy all the time, and can occasionally display a finished task as proof of your effort? That’s what January has been like for me so far. I’ve been pottering around, doing a thing here, a thing there, hoping that something will get finished sooner or later.

What have I been working on?

  • Well, there’s been the tedious day-to-day stuff of life: cooking, cleaning, keeping the wolf from the door. Sometimes it feels like all my brain goes on the day job and all my time is spent keeping the hamster wheel turning.
  • Speaking of the day job, I’ve been doing a little more at work with my author hat on. Watch this space.
  • A Spoke In The Wheel is out with several different readers, editors and checkers at the moment, so I’m not worrying about it too much. Which is not to say I’m not worrying about it at all. Any of us might miss something! What if I’ve made a mistake, and look stupid? (Then I’ll be no different from the rest of the world, says my partner, and he’s right. But still…)
  • Various elements of the sequel to Speak Its Name have been gathering in my head. Some come in the form of sentences or paragraphs, or even entire pages, which I write down; some are more general insights like ‘Oh! Abby has a blog! An anonymous one!’
  • That means research. I’ve been looking up things like ‘can an international student be a Cambridge choral scholar?’, ‘chemistry PhD subjects’ and ‘Church of England: vocations process’. I’m regretting a few choices I made in Speak Its Name, but I’m stuck with them now.
  • Fandom stuff. I’m very glad to have got back into fandom last year, but it doesn’t half take up a lot of time if I let it.
  • Spending my prize money on an epic European rail adventure. My plan is to book the expensive Scandinavian portion of the trip in advance, and spend the remainder of the time following my nose around central Europe, but this does rather rely on me and my rail map and my diary being in the same place at a time when I have sufficient brain power to know that I’m not going to do something stupid that I can’t cancel. And I still haven’t written up my last epic European adventure. (Which will be worth doing. The photo at the top of this post comes from that, and the tractor sculpture wasn’t even the weirdest thing we saw.)

In February I’ll get going in earnest on the launch procedure for A Spoke In The Wheel. Cover reveal? Blog tour? Who knows? We’ll find out!

Good reasons to read a book

  1. To see what the fuss is about
  2. You loved it last time around
  3. You loved that other book by the same author
  4. It’s very good
  5. The plot has got you hooked
  6. It’s so bad it’s funny

Good reasons for finishing a book you’re not enjoying

  1. It’s a requirement for your course
  2. You’ve got into it now
  3. You want to see if it gets better
  4. You want to see how bad it can possibly get

Good reasons not to read a book

  1. It sounds just like that other book you hated
  2. It sounds fine, just not very interesting
  3. Somebody on the internet said it wasn’t very good
  4. You would rather read a different book
  5. The author was rude to or about somebody like you on Twitter
  6. Life’s too short

Good reasons to abandon a book

  1. You don’t feel like finishing this book

There are many further variations. Add your own in comments!

Too many books

2013 September 022-002

There are far more books in the world than anyone could possibly read in their lifetime. There are far more films than anyone could possibly watch, far more songs than anyone could possibly listen to.

I don’t know how old I was when I understood that. I feel that it might have been university, when all my horizons expanded in all directions at once, and I realised that:

  1. I didn’t know everything
  2. I was never going to know everything
  3. I didn’t have to know everything

Before that, the books I knew about were at home, or in the school library, or in the local library. And yes, that was a lot of books, but I always felt that if I really applied myself I could work my way through the whole lot in a logical fashion.

Maybe it was seeing the university library that did it. Who knows? I wish I had one neat moment of epiphany to trot out, but I don’t.

Anyway, once you’ve had that epiphany, what do you do with it?

There are a variety of approaches.

You can read/watch/listen to as many of the books/films/songs as you humanly can. Read every book that your hand touches. My godmother told me once that John Cage said that one should only ever listen to each piece of music once, because there simply isn’t time to do more.

But I know that if I only listen to a piece of music once, I can do little more than nod and smile. In order to really appreciate it, I need to listen to it over and over again, to get right into it. If possible, to perform it, even.

(Probably if I were a better musician, this would be a quicker process for me. A degree in English Literature and a decade plus of creative writing trial and error have enabled me to see how a text is put together without having to think much about it.)

So that suggests an opposite approach: consume very few pieces of art, but really get into them. Re-read, listen over and over, watch again and see what you didn’t pick up the first time, or the second time, or the third time.

The temptation then is to ensure that the art that one does examine is somehow worthy of all these hours that one’s putting into it – but, without putting the hours in, how does one know what’s worthy? One ends up deferring to others’ judgement. Let us watch the films that won the Oscars, or read the books that are on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, or whatever it might be.

(Personally, I find that any attempt to tell me that I must read anything results in instant resentment and a resolution not to read the thing if humanly possible. As it happens, I’ve read a decent number of those books, but not because they’re on that list, and I feel no compunction to read all of them.)

There are two main dangers that I can see to concentrating on the good stuff.

Firstly, you might miss things. But that’s inevitable, however you go about this. That’s the whole point of this post. You will miss things.

Secondly, you might never read anything because you actually want to read it. You might end up trapped in a book you hate, never finishing it, and never starting anything else, either.

In fact, that’s the main drawback to both of those approaches, and I’ve tried them both. ‘Read everything, no matter what it is’ – and you’ll end up slogging through a whole load of ill-written drivel, pompous litfic, formulaic genre and spectacularly biased unclassifiable screeds, and hating all of it. ‘Concentrate on what is known to be good’ – and it’ll be like having to get  through plateful after plateful of worthy vegetables before you’re allowed pudding. Pudding might never come. You might never get round to reading anything fun.

And if reading isn’t fun, then why on earth are you doing it? (Well, actually… to be discussed in a subsequent post.) These days, you know, I mostly read what I feel like reading, and I stop if I’m not enjoying it. And that’s good enough for me.