Tag Archives: writing

Review of 2018

2018, overall, has been a good year for me. It started in my new flat, which (although it still needs some work – doesn’t everything?) suits me very well. It included meeting great people (new collaborators, new students, new partner!), and maintaining connections with old friends. I took the Eurostar to Cologne and the ferry to Belfast for the first time. I caught up with, and worked with, people all over the world, without leaving my living room. I think that epitomises my response to the wider political situation: to try, using Skype, Zoom, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other amazing tools the internet affords us, to create stronger international links without adding unnecessarily to my carbon footprint.

It’s been a good year for writing. I had a book come out (the expensive university library one), a book accepted for publication (Telling the Truth about God will be out next year at a much more reasonable price), and I have almost completed a draft novel manuscript. I haven’t blogged as much in 2018; this is only post number 20, although I’ve had almost the same number of views (almost 4000) as in 2017 and 2016. I set out to see how many poems I could get rejected from magazines, and managed 30 (and got a few published, in A New Ulster and Poethead). I had some academic journal articles appear, including one on afterwords and one on multiple religious belonging.

Other opportunities have opened up. I’ve been enjoying editing a special edition of Religions on interdisciplinary Quaker Studies (5 articles published and some more to come), and in 2019 I’m looking forward to working on The Quaker World with Wess Daniels. (Chapter proposals are open! Tell us what you’d like to write about!)

I read a lot of books (as those who follow me on Goodreads will know). That many books always includes a few duds or things which just weren’t to my taste, but it also includes so many excellent books it’s hard to pick out just a few. Some people I know personally published great books this year, so naturally I’m biased towards those (examples include: Quaker Studies: an Overview, Our Child of the Stars, Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night). Of the other fiction I read this year, I really liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (and the other two books in the series), and was passed Hag-Seed by a friend who was right that it’s a fascinating read. I also enjoyed Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, No Man of Woman Born, The Tea Master and the Detective, and Unfit to Print. In non-fiction (well, excluding work stuff… I’ll probably be writing more about that next year), favourites included Balancing on the Mechitza, Doughnut Economics, The Prodigal Tongue, Saving Alex, and So You Want To Talk About Race.

Besides writing and reading – although, frankly, those are my favourite activities – I’ve also done some other things. I co-taught a course on Friends with Dual Religious Identities which led to some really productive conversations, and ran a small course at Swarthmoor Hall on Afterwords which also went well. I enjoyed a family holiday on Orkney (which inspired some aspects of the draft novel…) and a course on Writing Our Roots (which lead to some good poem drafts)… okay, correction, I don’t really do anything which isn’t about reading or writing in some way. 😀 Even Britain Yearly Meeting was this year much concerned with books – deciding whether to revise our book of discipline. It was a big event for me personally, too, because of my service on the Revision Preparation Group, a committee who became real friends during our work.

In 2019 I’m planning new challenges – new courses to teach, conferences to attend, books to write, study leave to take (and use as well as possible!), and of course lots to read. And my first book launch. Watch this space for details!

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Three books at three stages

(Llfyr, book. Long before any of these stages comes learning a language!)

When I was young, I was once asked – so my mother tells the story – by a teacher: what do you want to do when you grow up? I told her that I wanted to be a bookmaker. Cue much adult laughter, especially in our anti-gambling Quaker household.

Later, an English teacher who for whatever reason had us in a computer lab for a class once set us an exercise: for this whole hour’s lesson, just type. Start a story and simply write as many words as you can. At the end of the lesson, he said to the class: there, wasn’t that difficult? Aren’t you glad you’re not a writer who has to do that all day, every day?

No, I said. Sounds like a good way to live to me.

Now, I haven’t quite achieved that goal. (And I suspect the picture he painted of a writer’s life wasn’t 100% accurate anyway!) But I have arranged my life so that I can spend a considerable proportion of it working on books in one form or another, and at the moment I have book projects in three stages. To pick three different metaphors, I’ll call them the seed, larva, and hibernation stages.

Hibernation is a process some mammals use to get through the winter. I have a book which is a real book, but waiting to come out, and it’s sleeping like that: it takes nine months for information to propagate through the arcane reaches of the publishing and distribution industries, so although there are copies of “Telling the Truth about God” in existence, and you can pre-order it from your favourite more or less reputable bookseller,  it will be five more months before it is officially ‘published’.

A larva is an active but immature form, like a caterpillar. At the moment I have a novel manuscript which is at this stage. A few months ago I had an egg, which hatched and turned out not to be exactly what I thought it would be – but similar – and now the caterpillar is growing and growing, like Cecil. (You know that song, right?) Every day, it needs to be fed cabbage leaves – I’m aim to give it about a thousand words of cabbage a day, whenever I can – and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think I know what it might grow up to be – but it’s hard to be sure. At one time I thought it was going to be about university lecturers and researchers who were also witches, but now it’s about neolithic traders and farmers who are also sort-of Quakers. On the other hand, it’s still a romance novel about two women who meet under slightly unlikely circumstances and have to work out whether it’s possible to build a life together.

I also have a book which is just a seed. I’ve got the seed – a very solid form of seed by my usual standards, in that I have a contract for this book – and now I’m preparing all the ground and the space and the things it will need to grow. It will be a book about liberal Quaker theology, so I’m doing lots of reading of Quaker theology, old and new, British and international, things which are mentioned by things I read, to get the material ready. I’ve made some space (in particular, Woodbrooke have agreed to give me study leave for twelve weeks next year, which will help a lot). I’m also planning to blog about the process as I think through the issues involved, so watch this space.

W is for… Writing

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I write quite a lot. Besides this blog, I also write academic work, poetry, fiction, and a host of more minor things like notes and tweets and emails. For a group generally in favour of silence, Quakers have not extended this to the written word, and we publish plenty (British Quakers have published enough in the last fifty odd years for it to form one of the cornerstones of my PhD, so I should know). Gil has posted often about the authors of older Quaker literature, too – there’s a grand tradition of spiritual autobiography among Friends which has formed the foundation of plenty of other research projects.

What is the significance of writing? It can be a spiritual practice, as in journalling, and to write regularly requires a self-discipline which is also demanded by other Quaker practices. It takes something which is basically public – our shared stock of words – and allows someone to record them privately, edit them, shape them, and then make them available for others to consider at leisure. It permits a long, slow conversation to develop down the ages; we see some of this in Quaker Faith and Practice, much of which is an anthology of Quaker writing. (Of course, from a historian’s point of view the things which get left out of anthologies are of equal interest, and no one anthology can represent the whole conversation… just the bits which interest us now.)

Writing can be outreach, inreach, informative, entertaining, vulnerable, abstract, inspired, or prosaic. (Sometimes all at once.) I acknowledge that writing is not for everyone, but for me it’s often the best way of sharing. Writing is also an important part of some Quaker processes, and in particular minute-writing is a skill unto itself.

Someone asked me once what the secret is to writing good minutes, and how I did it so well. I didn’t really have an answer, and I still don’t – I’ve been a Quaker a long term and heard a lot of minutes; I’ve served on committees and seen a lot of minutes, good and bad; I’ve tried to explain minutes to non-Quakers and seen their bafflement and frustration. One part of it, though, is probably that I spend so much time writing and practising writing. I’ve been writing poetry of my own since I was nine or ten; in my teens I spent a long time writing fanfic, stories set in other people’s worlds, and – this part is vital – having friends beta read it, and comment on it, and making my own edits as a result. There’s nothing quite a like an internet friend who knows you only through the written word going through your story and critiquing it in love. I’ve got more to learn and I still need readers and editors and commenters, but I learnt a lot from that process. Learning when to be detailed and when to cut to the chase is an important part of a good minute and of a good story. Being confident with the basics of writing helps. (That, and don’t worry about spelling in the handwritten draft, that’s for the typing up/dots and commas bit!) Also, a fanfic story is as much as community product as it is yours – the canon and the conversations and the commenters all feed into it, and in a similar way the Spirit and the gathered meeting own the minute, so it’s important to be open to that and accept help from all sides.

Practice makes perfect, they say. I don’t know if you can be a perfect writer – it’s conventional to say that essays are only marked up to 75 or 80 out of 100 because they could always be better – but I do know that writing a lot, in lots of different styles and contexts, makes me a better writer.