Sunday, 27 December 2015

Don't forget to make some art

So, as the final days of 2015 melt away into the South African summer, I thought I'd just pop in to leave you with these thoughts from Neil Gaiman:
"May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art - write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself!"

Monday, 21 December 2015


Summer is here. The air is so moist you can almost wear it on your skin like a tangible, physical thing. The house is thrown open to any passing breeze, the veranda becomes its heart. The kid reports daily on the approach of Christmas according to her advents calendar; the little one steals baubles off the tree, their sparkles too irresistible for her little reaching fingers as she toddles about. We bake on a mercifully cooler day, with friends, stars and moons and hearts with floury hands. A few days are spent in a rustic beach cottage on the South Coast overlooking the ocean. Salt, sand mingling, our constant companions. Rock pools are explored. The Indian ocean dragging at our feet, leaving sea life treasures in the coarse sand as it recedes momentarily. Time for reflection, for appreciating the year gone by, for a pause before casting eyes forward.  Words wind down lazily. Thoughts slowly disintegrate into the now.

Friday, 11 December 2015

The art of browsing

Image from here

There's something special about the act of aimlessly browsing bookshelves. That act of letting the eye glide over the bumps and ridges of book spines like they're some new and undiscovered landscape. That easy, inquisitive searching for something you're not sure of yet. The way you allow yourself detours and unexpected pauses and forgiving seductions in unfamiliar directions. There's a satisfying and restorative absorption that goes with it. Time folds in on itself, a creased moment sheltered from the rest of the day.

I thought about this the other day when I discovered The Reader's Corner, a new, independent bookshop in Durban, and allowed myself that pause to just browse a bit and think about nothing but reading; what I had read and what I still wanted to. The experience reminded me of how the significance of browsing a bookshelf often goes unnoticed and yet it represents one of the first steps of the journey into books. It entices fingertips to reach for spines and pull out unexplored treasures. Of course, there's an art to the act of selection that might overwhelm an inexperienced reader, but the thrill of the new and unexpected is still there. It's powerful. To see. To touch. To page through the possibilities.

It doesn't matter how extensive the bookshelf is, or where it is; if it's at home or in a library or in a bookshop. As long as it's there and provides the opportunity for reader and book to meet. It made me wonder if more people wouldn't become readers then...

Image from here

The Readers Corner is a charming, really well-curated bookshop and well worth a visit if you're in Durban!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Pen and paper

Where has the time gone? Why are there Christmas decorations up when I go grocery shopping? All of a sudden I feel like I'm peering at the bottom of a cup, examining the dregs of the year, feeling a bit cheated, like there wasn't much tea to start with.

And in all of this, I'm trying to capture moments of stillness. They're so rare and precious these days. To just sit and think without being compelled to do something. To fight off the electronic distractions.

For some reason I don't consider a pen and notebook a distraction. They're tools of thought, the paper quiet and blank, the pen single-minded and present. Among our many electronic tools, we often forget the inalienable link between thought, hand, pen and page. They become one process. The page blankly reflects my own thoughts without offering up other distractions. The pen can take me nowhere else.

And so, by committing pen to paper, there are still moments of stillness to be found.

Saturday, 24 October 2015


Image from Daily Maverick

What a week of turmoil! I've been glued to my twitter news feed, following the tide of student unrest sweeping across tertiary institutions around the country. Processing the shock of watching the police's brutal response to unarmed protesting students. Thinking how protest has such an uncomfortable history in South Africa and the response is a quick, often fatal, knee-jerk violence. Facing the inadequacy of the political response - at first the "this isn't a crisis" denial by Blade Nzimande (our minister of higher education), then his tired reflex to Struggle-rhetoric (an "Amandla" booed by the students) to scrambling opportunism by a range of parties (also rejected by the largely nonpartisan nature of the FeesMustFall movement). Having to acknowledge the reality that education does not liberate people from poverty if access is denied for financial reasons - that it just wedges them further into the crevice between no hope and a handful of faded "rainbow nation" dreams.

The state of higher education in South Africa is a puzzle with too many pieces and anyone who proclaims they can put it together in the aftermath of this week is misleading us. Each piece carries much weight and as one picks it up and considers it, that particular one seems to grow in proportion until one eventually puts it down again and considers another. Will no tertiary tuition fees mean equitable access? What about the disadvantages and inequalities bequeathed to tertiary institutions by a sick school system? What about the language mess? What about the reality that many first-generation students are grossly underprepared for university study? Unarguably, schooling is a universal right, but is access to university a right or a privilege? And who make up the privileged population who manage to exit with a degree? Will no fees bring about equity and stability to a system that is wracked by strikes and disruptions annually? Or will it simply usher in the sort of slow, crumbling decline that we see all too often in the postcolonial context? Will it polarize our education system further where the wealthy opt-out and flee to private institutions (a feature we have come to see as normal in our schools)?  Will it bring in the sort of educated, free-thinking electorate that we need in a one-party democracy like ours?

By the end of the week students had won the victory of no increases in tuition fees for next year. Many breathed a sigh of relief, but for many more the same day-to-day struggles to survive still exist. The protests, I think, also whisper of a wider restlessness, a growing dissatisfaction with the complacency and corruption of the ANC. Too many pieces to hastily solve in one week, but at least the long-overdue debate has started.

Image from Faces of FeesMustFall

Monday, 19 October 2015

Dear Monday: on the border of day and night, we become their novelist

I feel like the day has crumpled up around me, lost its structure like a tent with its poles removed. A softly collapsed mess devoid of its former shape. Me still stuck somewhere in it.

I think I may have underestimated the demands of two little ones and working motherhood. Certainly of managing two sets of needs: there are after school swimming lessons AND nappies, lunchboxes AND bottles to prepare, soothing and rocking AND bedtime stories. The end of the day does seem to collapse in on itself at times, the automatic routine of feeding and bathing and unpacking and repacking and washing and sorting and playing and fixing and listening, gaining the sort of momentum that eventually undoes itself.

And then just as suddenly, the frenzy is over, and it's bedtime. The little one popped into her cot with her bottle first, then the bigger one tucked into bed, snuggled up close for a story. The day seems to somehow regain its structure. I can recognise myself again. A full stop at the end of the sentence. All makes sense once more.

There's never a night without story time, no matter where we are, no matter how tiring the day was or how late it is. There's a magic in it that can't be skipped. It made me think of a section in Daniel Pennac's charming The Rights of the Reader. I thought I'd share his reflections on parents and that magical reading that takes place on the border of day and night, here:

We were in a state of grace during those early years. Our total sense of wonder in the face of a new life transformed us into geniuses. For them, we became storytellers. As soon as they emerged, blinking, into the world of language, we told them stories. It was a talent we didn't know we had. Their enjoyment inspired us. Their happiness gave us voice. We created character after character, adventure after adventure, ratcheting up the plots. We invented a whole world for them, much as the aging Tolkien did for his grandchildren. On the border of day and night, we became their novelist.
Not that it would have mattered if we'd had no talent for storytelling. If we'd told them other people's stories - badly, groping for words, mispronouncing names, mixing up adventures, muddling the beginning of one with the ending of another... Even if we hadn't made up stories at all, if we'd just read aloud, we'd still have been their personal novelists, their special storytellers helping them slip into their dreamy pajamas every evening before dissolving under the sheets of night. More than that, we were the book.
Remember that intimacy. There's nothing like it.
How we loved scaring just for the thrill of consoling! And how desperately they wanted to be scared! They weren't fooled, even then, but they trembled all the same. They were real readers, in other words. What a playful partnership we formed: they the cunning readers, we the book!

So beautiful!

(recent travel pictures: Slovakia)

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The importance of libraries

In his lecture for the Reading Agency, Neil Gaiman made an impassioned argument for the place and value of libraries in fostering reading for pleasure, a literate and critical citizenry and our collective imagination. This just confirmed it for me: libraries are not an add-on or a lucky extra, but essential. Without libraries as places of thought, of escape, of knowledge, our society would be that much poorer and we can't afford that in a country like South Africa.

Gaiman also reiterated the function libraries have in opening the world of reading to children, a subject that is very close to my heart. He stated, "We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy." I really like this way of describing that incredible and amazing climb into the literary world. So many don't make it all the way up, to that breath-taking place where you find yourself savouring a vantage point that will forever change you in some way. And that is sad.

He also spoke about how fiction builds empathy. Watching TV doesn't come close to the raw intimacy of reading, of being in someone else's head where you reach that indeterminable point somewhere in the midst of a narrative and notions of "I" and "you" break down.  He stated, "When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed."

Empathy and knowledge, and the freedom to delve into them, are what stops history repeating itself. What could be more essential than that? Gaiman's argument builds strong links between the existence of libraries and an informed and active citizenry because it is ultimately through reading and imagining alternatives that we can bring about social change. Within a world that is becoming more and more digital, Gaiman hews out an important and unassailable place for public libraries. He puts it: "Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood. Libraries really are the gates to the future."

South Africa may not have grand libraries, spaces that sweep and impress, but the books are there with whole worlds contained between thousands and thousands of covers. Of course things could be better, more money could be spent, upgraded, grown, improved. That shouldn't be disputed, but my point is more that I know of few people who regularly attend the libraries we do have. I hear complaints stacked like a pile of reasons against the doors. Those more fortunate buy their own books, those not interested don't know where the local library is, and those somewhere on the edges drift between "not enough new books" or "I'm too busy" or "it's just not that inviting" and never quite make it through the doors.

And so libraries as open, public spaces as Gaiman describes them, are undermined.

Why don't more people go to the library? Because precisely by not going, we are active in justifying the lower budgets, the growing shabbiness and even worse, contradicting the very message of books, namely that reading publicly is important and that books are our escape and our solution.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

On dinosaurs

She's enamored with dinosaurs at the moment; by their size, their odd shapes and their ferociousness. We talk about concepts like "extinction" and "millions of years ago" and she nods eagerly, not quite sure, but left with a lingering sense of awe.

She pours over books and spends ages deep in her dinosaur activity book full of stickers and fact files on the T-Rex and Pterodactyls and Brontosauruses. She clutches her pens in concentration as she draws them, filling page after page of spiky monsters with long necks and teeth.

And sadly, below that, there's also the awareness that girls aren't supposed to like dinosaurs. It's there in little hints and snippets of conversations she lets me in on. Like the world has somehow decreed it's either Elsa and Ana OR dinosaurs; that there is not room for both.

Thursday, 3 September 2015


Days that feel like a hundred things all grabbed together; a cup of coffee, my bag and theirs, keys, notes, last minute-thinking, a mind of scattered thoughts, the day's intentions. Days of rushing, hands full, always heavy. Always on the way to somewhere else; another task, another goal, another item on a list. From a Monday to a Friday, a morning to an evening. I have to remind myself to not be impatient with every moment, to not hasten all of them along. Not to think 'enough of this, now on to that'. So when a pause comes, glittering, shimmering in the quiet afternoon light, I force myself to appreciate how time hangs suspended in its brilliance.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Power of Reading

Stephen Krashen's book The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research is one of those books that has ended up with scribbles crawling all over its pages and sections that have been so heavily underlined that they leave a little dent on the next couple of pages. I often find myself reading it while nodding furiously and/or mumbling agreement. In other words, this is a book I very strongly agree with.

Simply put, Krashen makes the case for Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) and how this is the key to language education. Allowing children the freedom to choose what they want to read and allowing them the space to simply enjoy the act (i.e. no book reviews, no questions, no stress) is the best way to grow intrinsically motivated readers. Being a reader, as the research shows, brings with it a whole host of benefits such as improved reading comprehension, spelling, control of grammar and writing style. Krashen writes,
"FVR is one of the most powerful tools we have in language education, and... is the missing ingredient in first language "language arts" as well as intermediate second and foreign language instruction. It will not, by itself, produce the highest levels of competence; rather, it provides a foundation so that higher levels of proficiency may be reached. When FVR is missing, these advanced levels are extremely difficult to attain."
It saddens me how often I hear "I don't read, I never have" or "I don't have time to read" because the benefits are so vast. I feel desperate to try and change these statements because the world of reading is so wonderful and the benefits so far reaching. But it goes further; not only is it good for us,it is pleasurable, it is how we make sense of the world around us, how we survive and ultimately it is our attraction to stories that makes us fully human.

Krashen goes as far as to say that reading is the only way that we become "good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammatical competence, and the only way we become good spellers." In an educational context then, reading for pleasure, that all-consuming moment of being fully drenched by a story, should be elevated not to a convenient add-on "when there is time", but to its central place at the heart of the curriculum.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Book quotes

A long weekend. An overcast morning. Coffee. The perfect time for a bit of reading... Here are some of my favourite book quotes to inspire you too!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The sad story of the teacher who doesn't read


Teacher X arrives in her classroom on Monday morning in a breathless huff (she'd just spilled some of her take-away cappuccino on her pants while navigating her way out of the crowded forecourt of the BP garage). "Never mind," she thinks as she turns, smiling, to face the neat rows of desks and expectant little faces. Her huff dissipates at the sight of the children in various states of alertness, awaiting her lesson.

Teacher X gathers them all on the carpet. She can't wait to get them going on the project of turning waste materials into zoo animals which she'd proudly devised over the weekend. But first, it's reading time. She settles herself on the chair (still aware of that pesky stain and angles her legs towards the blackboard somewhat self-consciously) and begins reading. Her new nail extensions fumble a little with the dog-eared pages of the library book and point distastefully at the grubby pages so that the children read a few words aloud. The bunch of little wriggly legs and hands in front of her give off a restless, irritable energy. "I can't really blame them," she thinks somewhat cynically, "the book isn't exactly riveting." After all, she could well remember being forced to read all kinds of boring things at school and suddenly their behaviour prickles more at her sympathies than her sense of irritation. Then she sighs to herself and admonishes them a bit too sharply, "Children, stop it! Reading is important." 

Finally, with a sense of relief she tries not to betray in the lightness of her intonation skipping over the final words, she concludes, "The End. Was't that wonderful, children? Did you enjoy it?" She gazes at the up-turned faces, pleased with herself and thinking how rewarding the art activity would seem now. 
"It was boring!" The comment catches her by surprise. "There's always one," she thinks as she sweetens her voice to respond, "But why, my dear? It was a lovely story!"
"I don't like reading. It's boring."
That sets off a chorus of agreement from around her feet.
"Well, Miss X, do you like reading?"

The point of that little story is that there is unfortunately too often a gaping contradiction between what teachers say and what they actually do. Reading for pleasure falls into that gap. While almost all teachers (and student teachers) would agree that reading is important and that children should be encouraged to read, few are true reading role models themselves. This may be due to a lack of time or simply that they do not enjoy reading, which then raises the question, can you teach others a love of reading when it is something you don't have yourself?

I'm not the only one who has wondered this. In their study of student teachers' reading habits and attitudes, Applegate and Applegate ask, "But what if a significant number of the teachers of the future had no love of reading themselves? As teacher educators specialising in the teaching of reading and literacy, we were stunned to find that so many of our students had no use for reading other than as an academic obligation." Almost half of their sample were found to be unenthusiastic readers (i.e. readers who weren't intrinsically motivated to read).

This is worrying as we then are in danger of entering a recursive reading relationship, where teachers who don't read (and are, as a result, unable to recommend relevant and interesting books to children) create children who aren't interested in books and reading either. In Jo Bower and Susan Davis' article on Why teachers should read more children's books, they remind us how magical it is when a teacher can inspire a love of reading in children. As a result they impress that, "Creating a culture of reading should be on all schools' list of priorities and to do this, teachers should have access to new and varied children's literature. Sitting down with a good book is a pleasure, with gains to be made in all aspects of literacy alongside teacher and pupil wellbeing."

While I'm sure that many people who don't like reading are able to carry out the requirement s of their jobs perfectly well, I have always believed that teachers and reading go hand-in-hand. A bit like tea and biscuits. Or peanuts and raisins. Knowledge and books and, well, teachers, so in order to be a really good teacher you have to read. Ann Powell-Brown, reflecting on her first year of teaching and her experiences of teachers who could, but didn't read books, recalls, "The thing that bothered me was that we had all chosen to be teachers, and I couldn't figure out how anyone could expect children to love reading and writing when they had no teacher who was a role model in their classroom."

It's that which bothers me too. It's one thing to, like Teacher X, tell children that books are fun and enjoyable, but what is a lot more effective and meaningful is to be in a position to show them this.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Back to normal

Things are quiet; there's much to do. We're finding our feet again. There's the click-clack of the typewriter as the kid indulges her imagination and finds fun in the world of alphabets. There's the fresh smell of coffee as I write the usual lists of things to-do. There's a little backpack packed and ready, small and cheerful, but somehow heavy with the weight of first separations. She laughs and smiles her usual squishy baby-smiles; little fat fingers reaching and exploring the world. I don't want to let her go, but work and life and the way of things must be.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Flux and stasis

Returning home to familiar things in stasis, hung still in time, as if I'd never been away... their familiarity offers a quiet welcome back. Travel-tired, little ones napping, I sip at a cup of tea before I start unpacking, before I start undoing weeks of flux, of almost constant change, of daily adventures. I contemplate returning to a state of rest, of everyday normality, regular bedtimes and routines, returning to work, being fixed once again. And in the back of my mind the flux of night trains, and solitary stations, and echoing museums and little, accidentally-discovered cafes and walks through old towns and fairy-tale forests, and the bitter-sweet hellos and goodbyes of family and friends recede slowly into memory.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Bon Voyage


Plans have been plotted, family and dear friends notified, favours called in, last minute arrangements made, patience brewed, suitcases carefully packed, a strong sense of adventure summoned... and so, with two little ones in tow, the adventure begins.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Writing and motherhood 2

So how have writers who are mothers done it? How have they so successfully combined the solitary act of writing with the all-consuming role of mothering? During my thinking about the topic of writing and motherhood (read the first part here), I came across some interesting articles online about mothers as writers (or writers as mothers, perhaps?).

Back in 2013, Lauren Sandler caused quite a stir by suggesting that the answer to that question was to only have one child. This was based on research she had been doing on a book about only children, which resulted in her noticing that many famous female writers had only one child (Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker to name a few). Sandler began her article with an anecdote about Susan Sontag:
"'She was not a mom,' writes Sigrid Nunez of Susan Sontag in Sempre Susan. 'Every once in a while, noticing how dirty [her son] David's glasses were, she'd pluck them from his face and wash them at the kitchen sink. I remember thinking it was the only momish thing I ever saw her do.' Did Sontag need to be more 'momish'? And if she had been - or if she had more children to drop off with the in-laws or the babysitters - would she have been the same writer? Would we have the legacy of her provocative ideas, in criticism and fiction? The grey-streaked eminence of Sontag aside, how do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?"
That sparked the online furor, because, of course there are many successful writers who have more than one child. Zadie Smith hit back (she has two children) by pointing out the obvious, namely that it is an issue of time and available child care. Author and mother of four, Kate Baldwin, entered the debate and stated,
"What I discovered as I had more children was that writing and motherhood are at odds with one another. Not because writers are inherently bad parents, but because writing and mothering require many of the same critical resources." 
Besides the obvious one of time, these resources she refers to include the idea that writing and motherhood are equally possessive. She says that writers become possessed by their subject matter, leading to their being mentally "elsewhere". Intensity and obsession are therefore such a shared resource. She writes, "As mothers, we may have children but our children possess us. If you have multiple children you will be possessed by each and every one of them, in different ways at different times. When your children cast their spells over you with their chubby wrists and their dimpled smiles, it's not your creativity but your writing that will take a hit. Not because you are a bad writer, but because being possessed is one of the deepest pleasures of motherhood."

And yes, there is something all-consuming about the endless cycle that goes along with caring for babies and little children. Feed. Clean-up. Nap. Change. Wash. Play. Repeat. The intensity of it can make one feel possessed. This also means it's understandable that for some mothers creative pursuits come second - not everyone can afford child care or has a partner who is able to take enough of the load off to give the time needed. Mothering is the more immediate need and if it isn't, then the implication is that one is a bad mother. (As if there is only one way to be a mother, but I guess that's another story.)

Perhaps this all represents a somewhat pointless debate - it is impossible to say that there is a "solution", that one child or no child or many children allow a writer to do their best work. But in the tricky limitations of the everyday, these abstract debates do matter, they become real obstacles that need creativity and drive to tackle. The ideas that go with this debate may not be what we want them to be or how we might like to imagine the world, but they force us into a difficult negotiation between the abstract and the concrete. Would I have more time for my job, would I write more if I didn't have children? Yes, I would. Would I go back and choose not to have children if I could? No, never. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Writing and motherhood 1

Famous writers and their daily routines conjure up frosty mornings at desks, the gleam of fresh ink on notebooks, the smell of coffee, the rhythmic, steady click of a keyboard, planned, brisk walks through nature that clear the mind and settle words back into their places,  armchairs and stacks of books with pieces of paper stuffed into them, lonely nights of writing, an admirable, torturous self-discipline. I like exploring the "how" of writing, those intricate, personal details of how words end up as stories. It seems to me an incredibly intimate process, those early drafts and struggles with the page and to glimpse them feels a little voyeuristic.

But of course, I can't look away. I am compelled to watch how it is done, my concentration simmering with an unspoken hope of finding that magic formula. E.B. White famously described his writing habits:
"I never listen to music when I'm working. I haven't that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn't like it at all. On the other hand, I'm able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There's a lot of traffic. But it's a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.
In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man - they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."
Haruki Murakami wakes at 4am and works for 5 or 6 hours and spends the afternoon going for a run and reading and is in bed by 9pm. Ernest Hemingway writes in the morning too, "as soon after first light as possible". Jodi Piccoult says, "Writer's block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page." For Khaled Housseni writing everyday is important, whether one feels like it or not. He points out, "I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and colour." Henry Miller suggests writing to program and not to mood and to focus on only one work at a time.

All good advice. All relevant. Inspirational. Based on this I invent my own working routines. Things I'd like to stick to, or try to stick to. I nod as a read. I work best in the mornings too, but that's where reality sets in. Mornings don't belong to me anymore. The little one stirs around 5 am. I could at best swap scraps of sleep for a half hour stretch before the day begins and drags me with it. Day time naps are unpredictable - I find it unsettling to not know whether I have 10 minutes or an hour to work with. I'm left to consider the meager offerings of the heavy-lidded fuzz of evening writing , all that's left after a day shredded up by more immediate demands. I do get snatches of work done here and there, a blog post, some notes, a bit of editing, but nothing that really requires stamina. It seems that this is what I lack. 

I re-read the beautifully worded descriptions of their daily practices; confident, resolute, measured and controlled. They are recipes and habits that help produce something. That gives me a flutter of excitement. I picture Joan Didion, resolutely alone at her desk, as I read about her routine: 
"I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I've done that day. I can't do it late in the afternoon because I'm too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I'm really working I don't like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don't have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I'm in low spirits."
An hour alone. I know it will come eventually, but right now it seems as far as the stars. 

It seems that writing, like other creative pursuits (or a career for that matter), needs space. It requires time out of which these writing rituals can then be carved. Time and motherhood are two concepts at constant loggerheads, which gets me wondering whether there might be some truth to Cyril Connolly's oft quoted statement: "There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall."

That might be overly pessimistic (and quite frankly false). There is something about the tectonic shift that motherhood brings that moves you, changes you, and in a way, makes more of you. Experiences are heightened, emotions deepened, the human experience amplified and a new way of looking at the world made possible. Therefore it's not so much a question of whether motherhood dulls creativity (I'd have to argue that it doesn't), but rather a question of diverted time and attention. There, unfortunately, Connolly may have a point.

I know very well how traitorous time behaves around small children and babies to the point where time management becomes a meaningless concept. (You plan on working during nap time, but for whatever reason nap time has now disintegrated into a disastrous series of catnaps, for example). For anyone engrossed in their work, these unpredictable and constant interruptions are a problem. And as much as I would like to think otherwise, I sometimes secretly wonder whether it isn't a choice after all: work or motherhood. Is there really enough of you to be both?

(I will be following up these thoughts with a look at some writers who are also mothers in my next post.)

Sources: herehere and here

Wednesday, 15 April 2015



I totally needed a word for that (I'm guilty of having piles of books that I keep adding to but haven't gotten around to reading yet!) Some words just can't really be translated because there just isn't a word for it in English. I love that about the diversity of languages. Here are some more fantastic examples found via Buzzfeed.







Friday, 3 April 2015

A dose of book club

An evening of chatting to my favourite ladies, indulging in a glass of wine, perusing a lovely selection of books and having a good excuse to cook up something delicious was just what was needed after this last week. The kid helped me get ready (I'm proud to say we have a very enthusiastic junior member in the making here). She picked the flowers, set the table and got to stay up a bit late, eating chocolate mousse and listening to the conversation.

Afterwards, in the quiet of guests gone home, sleeping little ones and the twinkling harbour lights watched from the couch on the veranda, I took a moment to consider this idea, put so well by E.B. White:
"A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people - people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book."

Sunday, 29 March 2015

A black week

"Extra Yarn" by Marc Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

It's been a week of ear infections, visits to the doctor, sleepless nights, crying little ones, all happening under the cloud of the unfair dismissal of a dear friend and colleague. A week left hollowed-out and pale with dark rings under its eyes.  Fingers curling around mugs of coffee and tea, trying to stay awake, trying to think my way into the disturbing notion that "it is reckless of lecturers to challenge thoughts about religion." It's a phrase that still haunts me. Is it reckless in the same way that it would have been to challenge thoughts about racial inequality during apartheid? Or reckless to challenge sexist thinking around issues of culture? What about challenging religious beliefs that are hurtful towards others? Where is the line with what we're comfortable with and what we're not and who decides on it?

It's been a week where cereal has been poured into bowls, little ones bathed and dressed and even stories read with the monotonous, halting motions of an automaton. My mind has been elsewhere, clouded with disgust and anger and disillusionment.

Teaching and learning is about the open exchange of ideas. It's an arena that allows ideas to be kicked around a bit and it's an arena where ideas shouldn't be protected from becoming a little bruised. If there is no such space where our personal ideas and beliefs can be met with a fair round of knocks and dents, then how do we ever get the opportunity to know who we really are? How do we ever see beyond our own ways of thinking, our limited, immediate world?

In her very apt article, In college and hiding from scary ideas, Judith Schulewitz writes, "People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they'll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They'll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they've learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?"

The same sentiment that carves out universities as separate spaces from the everyday, is echoed by Prof Jonathan Jansen, whom I greatly admire, "In this state of being open and ready to listen to new ideas, students and professors come to university because they believe that in a democracy based on decency and respect, reason is our prime currency. A university is not a place where you throw tantrums in public, or storm out of lectures on topics you do not like, or hurl insults at ideas that clash with your own.

This means, therefore, that a university must be different from its community when what happens outside a campus is often marked by dangerous conflicts in which libraries are burnt down, tyres set alight in the streets, foreign nationals robbed and killed, racial and tribal bonds formed, and brutal acts of mob justice meted out.

To the extent that a university produces future leaders in a democracy, students must learn to be counter-cultural - forming habits of the mind and learning acts of duty that run in the opposite direction to what happens in the broader society.

A university does not bear allegiance to any external authority. It is not a church, even though many of the inhabitants of this place of higher learning might come from church communities. Nor does a university owe any allegiance to a political party or a government."

And just like that a wonderful teacher disappears. Years of stimulating discussions, open debate, of finding pathways into knowledge and experience, of first steps navigating the maze of tricky, uncomfortable topics present in our world, have all been sacrificed for the safe, the mundane, the watered-down, the non-offensive.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Crucible

I want to open myself!... I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him, I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!    (Abigail, end of Act 1)
Arthur Miller's The Crucible so powerfully captures the religious fervor and mindless persecution that drove the Salem witch-hunt of 1692. I remember studying this play, sitting with it in my lap and reading of the unfolding madness and religious hysteria. I remember thinking how can any rational person with a mind of their own get so consumed that they become blind to logic and reason and turn on each other? It engrossed me to the point that I spent quite a bit of time reading about the historical context.

In a note on historical accuracy, Arthur Miller writes, "I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history. The fate of each character is exactly that of his historical model, and there is no one in the drama who did not play a similar - and in some cases exactly the same - role in history." It is chilling to re-live, through this play, the "crying-out" by Abigail and the other girls which unleashes the hysteria that engulfs the town of Salem and ends in executions. "We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!" says John Proctor in Act 2 after the girls accuse his wife of witchcraft. Reason is replaced by superstition, empathy by revenge, openness of mind by fear.  

It's been a while since I read this play, but I picked it up again this week, wrapped in thoughts about how ideas frighten people, how their foreign shapes stick uncomfortably in the sides of people's minds like thorns. Part of that reaction is natural; we don't want to be uncomfortable, we don't want to be scared, we want to remain where it's safe. The problem begins when anything that pricks or prods us is resisted and viewed with suspicion. That troubles me. We enter that dangerous, monochromatic landscape of antipodean concepts: black/white, right/wrong, good/evil. In reality, ideas are more nuanced; more often than not they sit somewhere in between clearly defined places. Ideas are a journey and if we are afraid to take that journey we can't learn, we can't grow, we deny ourselves the opportunity of understanding a complex, colourful world.

If we don't take that journey, we risk much. We stagnate, our views narrow and wither, we find ourselves stuck. What is out there is encountered as a threat, as either right or wrong and finally condemned. So what separates us from Abigail's actions, from her hysterical "crying-out", from the madness that engulfed a community?

I'd like to think that it is reading and education. But these are useless unless we are open to them. This was highlighted by a recent article by Jonathan Jansen on tertiary education in South Africa. I read it with a renewed sense of hope that we have indeed come a long way from the darker, more hysterical events of our history. He writes,
"A university is a place in which you are supposed to feel uncomfortable as your views are tested and challenged by other views. If a university simply exists to confirm your culture, your language, your faith and your habits, then it will decidedly not prepare you for the kind of world you will enter on graduation. In other words, you will be a social and cultural misfit in a changing, complex and globalised world."
Warning or guideline, if we take heed of these words, then it seems that we are ready for the journey into new ideas.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The raw material out of which literature is crafted...

Recently, I've had my nose in The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker and so far I've found it to be a sensible, entertaining and practical writing guide, but then I'm a fan. It's a reminder (for me anyway) to trim back on adjectives and adverbs but not so much as to prevent anything interesting from growing. I think one of my favourite parts has to be Pinker's advice on using a thesaurus, "I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers:'Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool'."  That made me giggle.

I love the way style guides try to capture that elusive quality of language, that something, almost like a taste that the reader can savour and return to for more. It's such a difficult thing to put your finger on. In the seminal The Elements of Style, Strunk and White in 1959 remind us of the intangible yet very present nature of writing style, “here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?... There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course.”

This has also made me reflect on writing as a craft, as something that can be shaped and influenced to take on a particular form or tone. Where does that come from? Does it come from hours of rearranging words on a page until it matches some internal echo of what we've read before? Writers are readers first of all, absorbing the language of others, internalising ideas and words like avid, obsessive collectors and creating inventories to draw on in the future. Surely writing has to be built on that and cannot just materialise out of nothing?

And where do style guides fit into this? Books and advice on writing? They prod and poke at prose, nudging it into a particular form. But can good writing really be taught? I have no consistent answer to that question (it often depends on the day). Sometimes yes, it seems that writing is a process like any other that needs to be trained and mastered, that it becomes more refined with practice and with reading. But on other days, it feels like the opposite, that it's either there or not, black or white, like some sudden, romantic gift.

While thinking about all this, I came across Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose via an article on Brainpickings, which affirms that intimate link between reading and writing. Francine Prose's advice to readers is to slow down and pay attention to the craft of writing by examining "the long and magnificent sentences of Philip Roth and the breathtaking paragraphs of Isaac Babel...the brilliant characterisation in Geore Eliot's Middlemarch...and to look to John Le Carre for a lesson in how to advance plot through dialogue."

Francine Prose writes beautifully,
"With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices."
Whether it can be learned or not, I don't completely know, but good writing does just what Prose deems necessary: it encourages slowing down and savouring the language out of which it is built.


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