Keeping up to date

It’s hard not to get bogged down in recent history in contemporary fiction

How do you write in the contemporary space? I have been struggling of late. The huge seismic shift of all-consuming Brexit, the Olympics which unexpectedly filled Brits with optimism, the knock on effects of years of recession and austerity. The impossible thought of presidencies and premierships that could never happen…but did. These things swirl round in the back of the world I write in. And then there is now. Pandemic times

In my mind there are now clear before times. I thought I felt this about the Brexit vote but now I know that was nothing. There is a before. Maybe there will be an after. Landscapes are shifting and changing around us. And I feel there is also great movements in politics which are shaping our world. Too much to write about.

So if you write in the contemporary space you have to take great leaps of faith. Get specific enough about setting and know it well enough that it rings true to that backdrop of the world’s rapidly changing climate. (And climate change too, how can that not be in our narratives).

In 2018 I was lucky enough to listen to Salman Rushdie’s talk “From Midnight’s Children to Trump’s America” at the Southbank Centre. This article reminds me of what he said about writing in the near present,

‘The thing that is weirdest about this book is that, when I started writing it, no one was thinking about Trump. […] When the phenomenon on Trump started, I realised that I had a character who was a corrupt billionaire, […] who liked to have his name very big on buildings and had a much younger Eastern European trophy wife. I thought – what? It’s as if the thing had jumped off the pages from my book into the real world.’

Salman Rushdie

I have been reading Rushdie’s The Golden House this week and thinking about the rifts in America that it addresses, and over here, and everywhere of course. It is a hard novel for me to read, a character with Aspergers is explored but through quite a negative lens which jars with my outlook on neurodiversity. But then, as we become entwined in the Golden family, no-one is particularly likeable. An unreliable narrator on the fringes of their life, it is hardly surprising that Rene, the auteur, does not paint any of the family in a positive light. So far, it is a fascinating depiction of money and power. And yes prescient too.

N-W by Zadie Smith

Alongside this, I have been reading N-W by Zadie Smith , circling around the lives of various people in Northwest London. It is a challenging read, much like I wrote about Girl, Woman, Other it seems almost like a series of vignettes, where you snap away from characters you have invested in to see others around them and many voices and styles of narrative are used. The intention seems to be to offer a “polyphonic” world that reflects the nature of urban life.

The novels tell the series of stories of very different people. (As I found White Teeth when I was studying Rushdie I have always paired these novelists in my head! ) I feel these two urban sagas, though very different, have been playing through my mind that there is a choice to lean in to the politics of the place. The writing then that seems to “jump off the page” into real life, in fact gives us a place to explore and appreciate the fault lines in the worlds they write about.

It’s been fascinating to spend a few months within the space of urban and contemporary fiction although on my reading list now are some fantasy and historical works to balance it all out. After all my current work-in-progress is about escaping to the countryside.

While I ponder which era I best like to read in, I wonder most how this year will end up being written?

It starts with an image…

There are bored people, hanging out in parks and it reminded me so strongly of childhood I started to write…

It is strange to reflect on where inspiration can strike, I wrote last year that prompts are everywhere. But the people doing nothing, freed from lockdown, perhaps still not able to work, stood out to me as I sat and watched. It’s noticeable that more people are in the parks. In this area they have become the saviour of our lockdown lives. Many people with little or no garden rely on this space to see some green. Whether because there are fewer places to go, even now, or because we have remembered the great resource of green space, there always seems to be people just hanging around.

Well, I was hanging around on purpose this week as I was completing the Bored and Brilliant Project. I have been taking the challenges suggested in Manoush Zomorodi in her book in order to unleash my creativity. This has included less time online and taking fewer photos. This week I had to take a holiday from my phone so I deleted the addictive game that had been my go-to distraction. It was a wrench, I certainly notice that the phone is where I go to escape a bit from overcrowded living and work stress.

I had no choice then to take myself out to try some time doing nothing, noticing more around me. First I tried sitting by the river, a treat because I have not been so far afield until this week. I counted forty swans parading under the Thames bridge. But I also had to combat the fear and anxiety of being outside and on a pedestrian thoroughfare which still seems riskier right now that I am comfortable with.

From Seligr on Flickr, not taken by me

Plagued with the anxiety and trying to keep my tears to myself, I decided I needed a quieter spot to try and people-watch. So off to small, local park, where people of all ages lounged in small groups or exercised. Sat on a bench watching others, I had a brainwave and broke the rules. My phone is often where I put snippets of words that come to me and a nostalgia for my home town struck me.

I can still see them sat on the green electricity box, legs swinging, swigging from a bottle.

I don’t know that all the little sentences and phrases and collect have to go anywhere, but it was interesting to see that the bored brain did come up with the germ of an idea.

As far as the challenge goes, I would recommend it as a way of considering the impact of our fast-paced, online lives. The caveat I would make is that this book may not be for you if your anxiety often overwhelms you. I think there is a place for the way that we distract ourselves, particularly if you find your mind doesn’t wander to brilliance but spends time in rumination.

You can read more about my project here, have you tried being bored and brilliant?

On Photography

This week as part of my Bored and Brilliant project I tried to take few photos to mixed results

Last week I attempted with some success to reduce my phone addiction and become Brilliant and Bored using the advice from Manoush Zomodori’s book Bored and Brilliant:How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything. The challenges I faced this week were to not only put my phone to one side but also stop trying to capture every moment with photos.

You would have thought that having studied Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I would have found it easy to understand why taking fewer photos forms part of the Bored and Brilliant project. Photography is about trying to hold on to a particular moment, but Sontag argues at the same time not really live it. This ultimately chimes with the idea of our distracted lives which Zomodori is showing impacts on our creativity and concentration.

“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

― Susan Sontag, On Photography

The fact that the image is captured on camera seems to play into Sontag’s claim that a photograph is “imprisoning reality.” Her book was a series of essays from the 1970s but her ideas have become more prescient in the way we live our lives now. Instagram (which I do use) and Snapchat and TikTok, (which I don’t) rely on us communicating via image more than anything.

I do have a MumWriteNow insta but I am not very good at keeping it up and I didn’t think I was too bad at taking photos, only sharing on there and my personal account from time-to-time. That was until the first day I tried to live, not just capture reality. My son had been grumpy all morning, it was hot, so I decided to set up some tubs and toys for water-play in the garden. Without thinking, I took out my phone to take a photo of him playing. Part of me knows I wanted to show off that I had engaged him outside (not on a screen!) but worse still, he has grown to expect photos and often wants my to take short videos.

This was a wake-up call that even I am not immune to needing to capture everything, whether or not I needed to share my Mum humble-brag with friends online, or just because I felt I needed to have a record of our lockdown life, it was still quite mindless. I started instead to try and watch him, asking him questions and he ended up making up a story. This may well have happened even if I took photos, but it was interesting to see the change. I wonder also if the play lasted longer as I was definitely more present.

clouds hang on a blue background
Be. Here. Now

I know of course I idly scroll through my feeds which includes photos of friends, but also people I don’t know like celebrities, housewives and book-lovers of course. Quite often I think of Instagram as a replacement for magazines, a way to keep up with style, gossip, for example. But in watching my stats and admitting my addiction was greater than I assumed, I put my phone away again and stayed away from social media too. It was only then that I felt I was being more mindful.

By the end of the day, perhaps in a stroke of brilliance, I was watching out of the window, knowing sunset must be soon. I had a book in my hand, not quite able to give up all my crutches as yet, and my son who was supposed to be in bed disturbed me. Irritably, I hurried him back to bed worried I would miss it like it was a TV show back in the old days. Then as I came back into my room, my heart-lifted in triumph, the curved cumulus clouds were surrounded by the deep orange-red of sunset. I had just made it back in time. I watched it until the sun went down, and felt lifted by it. I had actually experienced that moment, on that one day.

If only I could show you what simple beauty there was in the evening sky, but I didn’t get a photo, sorry.

Brilliant and Bored

Inspired by Manoush Zomorodi’s book Bored and Brilliant I have set myself the challenge of reducing my tech use and expanding my creativity

My phone usage stats have crept up in the last few weeks. Although this isn’t the first time I attempted to track them, taking time to detox before, I have been meaning to read Manoush Zomorodi’s book and apply it to my life. As well as tracking how and why you use your technology she provides really in depth research about why our minds need time to be bored. Turns out if you yearn for a more creative life, spending time letting your mind wander might be the way forward.

The first challenge she sets is to track how much you use your phone. The idea is you keep your usage the same to get a true picture but also stay mindful to the moments you reach for your phone. The stats are collected on my phones “digital wellbeing” section though in the past I subscribed to the Moment app. I like the fact there are built features to restrict the time you are on an app. Halfway through the week, horrified by the figures, I have set an hour or less limit on most things. The apps time you out if you are done for the day and its become a game to go on without going grey for the day.

Even by tracking my stats I confirm what I thought, I reach for my phone as soon as work is over to decompress, zone out. I watch TV in the evening while also scrolling through social and playing games. (And we have watched some stuff with complicated plots during lockdown.) The first few weeks of lockdown I clung to my phone for work messages, home school ideas, listening to podcasts during exercise and staying in touch. We all doing our best to find ways to cope. We have called my Mum for Grandma-time a lot and so really it has been essential. But the hours and hours online have crept up.

Zomorodi is not anti-tech at all, working in the field. But she explains that even the presence of our phones, designed to chirp for our attention like a needy toddler, is distracting. A bit like that child I have had at my elbow everytime I make a work call in recent months. The advice is to just put your phone to oneside but away. Out of sight completely. Only this way can you really let your mind wander when it wants to.

Challenge two I completed this week was to commute without the distraction of my phone. She made it clear that even a nursing stay-at-home Mum who she interviewed had to count her moves from the couch to the kitchen as a commute so no excuses for me. I have been trying to leave my phone upstairs and away but have found that there is always someone trying to reach me. I did manage instead a couple of walks without my phone, doing as she suggests, I tried to notice things I usually miss.

Instead of quietly contemplating my surroundings on my walk, I got bored so stood outside a friends window, to say hello. Fine until a neighbour’s kid threw an insult at me for no reason. Not only do I enjoy the company when my earphones are in, I also get to ignore the not-so-nice elements in the world.

Frustrated today as well, I finally had some time to myself but tried not to use my headphones as a crutch. I was lying down, annoyed that I could use an app to meditate because my phone was elsewhere, and I realised I can meditate without the app. Who knew? I probably only lasted ten minutes and moved on to clean the bathroom. But the point was I can see how I have become reliant in many ways to the point where I don’t like being without my phone and rely on it to absorb me and relax me in equal measures.

It has been a revealing week trying the first few challenges, although I know there are harder days to come: taking no photos and deleting the app that distracts me the most. Though I don’t feel I have been struck with brilliance as yet, I admit I have been more productive so maybe creative inspiration is around the corner?

Have you tried a Bored and Brilliant challenge?

Podcast to Keep Your Cheerful

Last month I wrote about some of the best storytelling podcasts around. But really what I have needed are things that have kept me cheerful and accompanied me on my essential exercise in the last ten weeks. When it comes down to it, anything that has buoyed you up has to be a good thing in tough times.

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

Top 5 Cheering Podcasts


1. Happier Podcast

I love Gretchen Ruben’s books and she and her sister Elizabeth remind me of me and mine – they chat about ways you might improve your life and address real world problems. There’s always something to raise your spirits and make you think.

2. By the Book

This podcast is two funny ladies, Kristen and Jolenta, reading self-help books each week and trying to live by their rules. Some go deeper but if you want lighter episodes I like The Curated Closet, The Magic of Tidying Up. Recently they read older self help books which seems like a sociological study of bygone eras. They’re never afraid to call out the authors if their story lacks diversity or from a place of privilege. They’ve introduced me to so many great self-help authors and shown me many to avoid.

3. Phoebe Reads a Mystery

Phoebe Judge is the creator of Criminal, my favourite true crime podcast but all through the pandemic she’s read a different mystery story like Agatha Christie. She’s really kept me going with. I wrote before about the benefits of Murder Mysteries and why they can soothe us. It seems to have worked.

4. Every Little Thing

I love trivia shows like There’s no Such thing as a Fish but I love Flora’s style. She solves a different mystery each week about stuff you didn’t know you needed to know – like the history of forks and nail polish names..!

5. Disorganised Crime

This seems an odd choice but a story about hippy drug smuggling in the California was somehow uplifting, I think the great music helps and the fact her parents (the smugglers!) come across as kind of adorable.

I’d love to hear any podcasts that have kept you going?