York Festival of Ideas

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been very busy!  It’s been the Festival of Ideas which is an amazing array of talks, lectures and workshops, the majority of which are free and accessible.  It’s my idea of heaven and came with a book stall…  What more could you want?!?!

There were many interesting topics and I thought an intriguing way to share my experience would be to share titbits from each lecture.

The Magic of Numbers
Children learn number words before they learn the concept and they learn the concept of numbers before the digital representations.  The step after that is comparing numbers but you can see that even just the initial process is quite complicated and I find it amazing that such young children are able to acquire the knowledge as quickly as they do.

Disposing of mass murderers
What happens when mass murderers die?  Should they be entitled to a funeral like everyone else?  Should their wishes be respected even if they violate the wishes of the victims families?  Are the remains of mass murderers toxic, and if so why, and who is toxic and who is not?

Whilst this talk did look at some specifics, the wider questions it raised were very interesting.

The Science of Sin
Why do we do the things we know we shouldn’t?  An interesting kick off example was that we don’t touch ovens because we get instantly burnt, we how many of us go without suncream and later pay the price?

On a smaller scale, each of the 7 sins aren’t that bad and can even be helpful, but anything taken to the extreme seems to turn out awfully… Take pride, it can be a healthy dose of self confidence, or it can be narcassism.  Envy can motivate you to raise yourself up, but can also lead you to tear someone else down.

Write what you wonder
Tackling the idea that you should write what you know, this workshop asked us to look at the world through a lens of wonder, of curiosity and of childlikeness.  Look at what is under the surface.  Be an explorer.  Be open.  Be uncertain.

Love Factually: The science of who, how and why we love
Laura Mucha turned to science in a quest to understand love it all it’s many forms, be it lust, romantic love or companionate love.  She unpicked the idea of love as an object – “the one” – and turned it into a skill that requires us to work at it.

The Gendered Brain?
The myth that there is a female brain was tossed out in this talk, in fact all brains are different and because they are plastic, they are always changing.  Our environment shapes our brains and our brains shape our environment.

Whilst there is no female brain, there are brains that have been moulded by society’s ideas of gender and what women are and aren’t good at.  If you give a girl a test and tell her that it’s ok if she doesn’t do well because girls are bad at the topic, then she will perform worse than if you hadn’t said anything.

This is important because society has scripts for gender and children seek to understand and perform these (on the whole).  They become aware of gender from birth to 2 years old, they detect gender and align themselves with their gender between 2 and 5 and from 5 to 15 they start to or continue to comply with this gender script.  With this in mind, it is so important that we start to unpick and break down the scripts and stereotypes and roles that permeate our society.

Nine Pints: The mysterious, miraculous world of blood
Blood is fascinating.  It is priceless.  And yet it is also disgusting.  Especially if it’s menstrual blood… If it’s blood being donated then it’s the gift of life.  If it comes from a vagina, then at best it tends to be considered dirty, at worst, toxic and contaminated.

Unseen, blood keeps you alive.  Seen, it signals a problem.

The Wonder of Trees
Trees teach us that everything is connected.  They teach us respect and cooperation.  They give and give and we take and take.  Not just the wood that makes their trunks, but the oxygen they give out, the food they provide, the medicines that they create.  And we take and we take.

We plant rows of trees, uniform, in plantations.  But these are not wild trees.  They will not talk to each other, care for each other and nurture each other like a wild forest.

In a naturally grown wood, the trees communicate, they share resources and they share warnings.  They give each other space to grow, they cross species boundaries and they sacrifice themselves for others.

Trees literally make us healthier.  The air around a tree is cleaner, as the tree absorbs pollutants.  Studies have shown that time around trees improves our attention span, our memory and makes us heal more quickly.

When you can, take the time to say hello to a tree, get to know it, and thank it.

Historic Objects of Conflict and Desire

Today I went on a one day course with the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the Yorkshire Museum.  It was a writing course but the title was Historic Objects of Conflict and Desire.  I wasn’t really sure what to expect at all but it was a really good day.

We were given a short tour of the museum which focused on particular objects and a bit about the history of them as well as the people associated with them.  For example, we looked at a tombstone which was commissioned by an ex soldier in memory of his wife and two children, a betrothal pendent made from Whitby jet, the York Helmet etc.

One of the exhibits we looked at was made up from things found in the Roman baths that were used by the legions (townspeople used a different set of baths).  There was pieces of jewellery, a jet ring, grooming instruments, buttons and beads.  There were also gemstones which fell out of rings because the steam, and contrasting high and low temperatures, caused the glue to fail.

Once we’d looked at the artifacts and handled some of them we started to write.  After a quick warm up we were asked to choose one of the objects that we’d seen that morning.  I went for the gem that had come loose from a ring in the baths.  The tutor then guided us through some questions to develop a piece of writing from the perspective of the object.  I found the questions really helpful and will try and use them again as a prompt:

  1. What are you?
  2. What are you feeling?
  3. Where would you rather be?
  4. What relationships do you have?
  5. What do you dream of doing?
  6. What worries you?
  7. What would you like others to think of you?
  8. What is the best thing you’ve ever done?
  9. What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?
  10. What makes you feel guilty?
  11. What is your favourite time of night or day?
  12. What is the point of your life?
  13. How would you like to be remembered?

A gemstone in the sewer

I am a beautiful gemstone.  I am feeling lost, cool, dirty.  I would rather be surrounded by silver, not filthy sewage.  I am surrounded by others, also parted from their owner.  We are all discarded.  I dream of sparkling in daylight, shining in the sun.  I worry that I shall be stuck here forever, never be found, never reunited with my soldier.  I hope he misses me. I want others to see me, admire my smooth edges, the hues within me.  The best thing I ever did was bring luck to my master in the fight of his life.  I saw him glance at me, fiddle with me and his face grew braver.  The worst thing I ever did was relax.  I didn’t hold on tight enough and now I’m being punished.  I feel guilty, without me, how will he survive the next battle.  Without me, he has no luck.  My favourite time of day was the golden hour before dusk.  I would shimmer and glow and I know that makes my master proud.  He flashed me around, showing off his status.  The point of my life is beauty and luck.  I hope he remembers he.  I hope he remembers me with regret, with grief.

We then carried on to other exercises which started to bring in conflict.  It turns out I avoid conflict in my writing as much as I avoid it in my life…!

 

Writing Workshop: Top Five Tips

I  went to a writing workshop on Saturday.  It was interesting and is a monthly thing so I’ll probably go back.  It was just a few group exercises and discussions but it meant that there was time in my life carved out for writing.

The main exercise we did was writing a sentence then passing it on for the next person to write the next sentence and so on.  At various points we were given prompts like add a twist, incorporate a building and then finish the story in one sentence.  It was really good for starting to get you writing and as a reminder that you can write sentence by sentence, you don’t sit down and write an entire epic novel at once.  Also, at one point poor handwriting meant that stories transformed into stones and completely turned the plot on it’s head!  After the exercise we came up with our top five tips for writing:

  1. Embrace mistakes and unforseen directions
  2. Maintain conflict
  3. Details matter, use them to create an atmosphere
  4. Go with the flow, be creative rather than logical – one day you’re the writer, one day you’re the editor, you can’t be both at once
  5. Take it one sentence at a time

I think it’d be interesting to try the sentence by sentence collaboration online if anyone’s interested?

Writing Recklessly

“The way to find your true self is by recklessness and freedom”

Brenda Ueland

I’ve attended a few of the York Festival of Idea events and will be trying to get together some poetry from each of them. The first, and easiest to post about, was Writing Recklessly:

The very idea of ‘craft’ seems to assume that all writing should be working towards order, or some form of writerly control over the creative forces within and around us. This big, messy workshop with lecturers in Creative Writing from York St John University will question that assumption, and flip the idea of bringing order to chaos on its head.

We’ll celebrate the disorder underlying even the best laid plans, using exercises and alternative practices to help bring the energy of an unpredictable world into your work.

Recklessness isn’t something that really comes naturally to me so this was always going to be a challenge.

The workshop was a nice mix of poems being read, ideas being talked about and writing exercises.  The first exercise was to write about an experience without imposing order or claiming to have come to understand something or learnt something through it.  I’ve left these pretty much as they came in an attempt not to impose any more order on them:

Caught up in a nebulous

Boundaryless, messy, big bang

Cloud of gas.

Chaotic flashes of rainbow

And star birth engulf.

I stand at the centre

With ruler and notebook

Calculating rapidly

Clutching at changes

Desperate to control

And order that which

Surrounds me.

 ~~~

She has sentenced me to time

In a bleak, black cell

Period unknown.

She oversees every move

Controls every thought

Restricts my life

Holds me in my prison.

In the dark, dank jail,

I see no light.

 The second part of the workshop was looking at describing a reckless action in a reckless way.  As I said above, I’m not an especially reckless person so have very few experiences of my own to draw on.  Perhaps you could share yours in the comments?

Part of writing recklessly is about not following the rules.  One of these rules being write what you know.  To help us with this, we read a few pieces written from the perspectives of animals before writing our own piece.  The examples we looked at were an extract from The Bees by Laline Paull, Honey Cycle by Les Murray and Hive by Carol Ann Duffy.  The animal I chose for my own writing was a dinosaur!  I’ve since fine tuned this to a diplodocus and am still working on it.  I have ideas but I’m struggling to turn them into words.  This seems to be a bit of a general theme for me at the moment.  I’m hoping as my health improves that my brain will return and I will be able to think intelligently and creatively again.

Finally  we looked at ectoplasm.  After a brief discussion we were shown a few photos of ectoplasm and asked to write our response.  I have never really considered ectoplasm and will possibly never do so again:

The figure is headless

Or the photograph is.

Who am I to presume

The body has a head?

Normal circumstances would

Let me take this liberty.

But rules of certainty

Have been broken.

The image displays

The impossible –

Evidencing ectoplasm.

My eyes see clearly

This falsehood.

To engage with one deception

Requires the possibility

That all other truths

Are lies.

The figure is headless.

I really like the idea of writing responses to photographs and art and it’s one I’d like to do again, although probably with less ectoplasm!