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Educating Rachel

In 1999, I had just turned 30, and was walking through the sitting room with a wet, be-towelled toddler from the bathroom one evening, when I caught the end of Watchdog on TV. They closed the programme with a mention of ‘double u, double u, double u, dot something,’ and ‘email us at something dot com.’ It sounded like gibberish. I didn’t understand. All I knew was that it was something to do with computers. I didn’t like not knowing what they were talking about. I’ve always hated that feeling and still look word meanings up in dictionaries when no one is looking.

When I was at secondary school in the eighties, if you were any good at French you did German. If you didn’t seem to be a natural linguist, you did computer studies. I did German, ensuring that I got to the grand old age of thirty not being computer-literate.

I’m not quite sure how it happened but I managed to get online and find The Open University site. I applied for a technology course called You, Your Computer and The Net. It began in February 2000. I surprised myself by absolutely loving it, passing it, and finding that computers were actually quite fabulous, bloody handy to know how to use and that learning stuff was fun too. Not to mention all the fun people I met in cyberspace – many of whom I’m still in touch with now. I’d got the OU bug and at the end of it, I signed up for another course: An Introduction to the Social Sciences: Understanding social change. I absolutely loved that one too! I started going around saying things like, ‘Oh, you mustn’t judge people. You don’t know why they said or did that. You should be more open-minded. There are different ways of looking at things, you know.’

Then things went a bit belly up. One of the Social Science lecturers asked me what I was going to study next and I said I had no idea. She said she thought I should do one of the English or Lit courses. I said I didn’t think I wanted to (I was still having nightmares about A level English) and tried maths, then e-business, web design and web applications instead. What a disaster! I dropped out of all of them (which would cost thousands of pounds today, now that course fees have gone up).

In 2004, two years after thinking I’d given up studying and it wasn’t for me after all, I enrolled in a little Arts introductory course called Living Arts. I missed the way learning stuff made me feel: as if I was constantly moving forward, evolving and looking at things in a more profound way. Every part of life is more interesting and exciting when you know more about it. I even discovered that poetry isn’t that scary! We also found out that year that we were expecting our third child. I wrote and submitted my final assignment, while in labour with baby number three, in January 2005, and she was born at home later that night. Thanks to the OU online social areas, I came across lots of wise mums and mums-to-be and learned a lot more about pregnancy, birth, and new babies than I ever had with the first two children. I had the best easiest birth ever and coped with feeding and the knackering first few weeks so much better because of the wonders of sharing information online. And thanks to the whole experience of learning communities generally, I had matured into a new way of thinking that included the realisation that there is no right or wrong way of doing things and ‘we should always be very cautious about social norms.’ *does a little curtsey in case any social science professors are reading this*

I completely committed myself to being a mum, family person, cleaner, washerwoman and supporter of my husband’s business from then on, and may have continued to do so if my father hadn’t become seriously ill three years later. The next eight to nine months were completely about him and when he died in January 2009, I was a wreck. I tried to carry on as normal but within two months I knew I would never be the same again. All the things I had taken for granted centred around family and now it was in pieces. I’d lost my oomph, my pzazz, my sparkle, I lost the freedom to be lighthearted and whimsical. Life seemed suddenly short and meaningless. My sense of humour seemed to become more childish and slightly crazy. It’s a very cloudy time for me memory-wise and I don’t know how it happened but I found myself signed up to study not one, not two, not three, not four, but five courses in 2009! (Admittedly some were only short courses). You see I’d been really busy and pushed myself constantly when Dad was ill and then it all ended so suddenly that I felt I was floating pointlessly back into a life of housework, repetitiveness, and just doing things for other people so they could mess them up again. I didn’t want it anymore and yet I needed to do something challenging.

I began to wonder when the next person would die. Would it be me? What if I never did anything with my life other than housework and then I found out I was dying? It wouldn’t be so bad if I enjoyed it or found it satisfying but I was miserable doing it and had always hated the repetitive thanklessness of it. So without giving myself time to think I signed up for arts and social sciences courses – subjects that had been a success in the past. And – mainly because I could do it at home without any tutorial or exams, I also signed up for Creative Writing. I found that I was able to write without much effort – which was nice. And I could finally talk about what had happened and how I felt through writing words. Together the creative writing course and the social science course – Family Meanings taught me to carry on opening my eyes and looking closely at things. I didn’t realise it at this stage but I was doing exactly what suited me and had amassed quite a few points towards a degree. I now also had a Certificate in Social Sciences and a Certificate of Higher Education, which helped me to stop having so many nightmares about my terrible A levels.

It slowly dawned on me where I had been going wrong all those years: Although very shy and socially awkward I was in fact a social person. A people person. Learning about society and people and where we might be missing the point became more and more interesting to me.
I decided to squeeze a psychology course in alongside Advanced Creative Writing in 2010 (Wow – psychology is so interesting and gives you great story ideas!), and I overlapped a Health and Social Care course with the second half of my writing course (2011). Advanced Creative Writing finished in May and I received my Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing a couple of weeks ago. The Health and Social Care course officially ends on 14 Sept, but I have just submitted my final assignment now. Yes, just now. If I pass that final assignment, I have done enough work to get a degree! It was a tough tough course that final one: Death and Dying – it brought back so many sad memories of my father’s and my father-in-law’s deaths. I’m sure people working in palliative care must be saints, as I have struggled to keep going when reading a lot of the material in the coursebooks. So now it is over and I shall reward myself with something light.

It’s taken eleven years, lots of money, lots of stopping and starting, lots of self-discovery, masses of fun and friendship. The most supportive people have been ones I have met online and recently have made all the difference to my life (whoever tells you that online friends are not real, simply does not know what they are talking about).
I have not been to one single tutorial. Nope, not a one. I have not sat one single exam. Nope, not a one. Due to my social fears, organisational problems, debilitating writer’s cramp from a wrist injury, and general weirdness, I have chosen courses with no exams. All of the courses have ended with examinable assessments submitted from home. I have literally studied for a degree completely from home.

Providing I find out in three months (ish) that the last course was a success I can claim a BA or a BSc. I’ve already decided it will be a BA because I’ve signed up for 20th Century Literature, starting soon, so that I can go on and get a BA Honours!

Talk about doing things the hard way.

So thank you to the OU, for the opportunity to do it my way. But what about continuing to support people like me by keeping courses affordable?! I’m really saddened to think it may no longer be that lifeline that so many people have relied on for years.

And thank you to Miss Sarah Fullard, who I met online on that first course in 2000 and who eventually became not only an OU tutor but Mrs. Sarah Horrigan – after meeting her future husband online on that same course. Sarah, you are fabulously encouraging and I will never forget how one day you said something that changed my view of myself: you said one of the only things I didn’t know was how clever I was. (Getting a bit emotional now). Little things like that that adjust our faith in ourself make a big difference.
And massive thanks to the people who have encouraged me in my writing this year and said amazingly supportive things that have given me an enormous boost. I really didn’t know I had it in me.

* T171 You, your computer and the net (2000)
* DD100 An introduction to the social sciences: understanding social change (2001)
* Y152 Living arts (2004)
* D270 Family meanings (2009)
* A172 Start writing essays (2009)
* A177 Shakespeare: an introduction (2009)
* AA100 The arts past and present (2009)
* A215 Creative writing (2009)
* DSE232 Applying psychology (2010)
* A363 Advanced creative writing (2010)
* K260 Death and dying (2011)

In progress
* A300 20th century literature: texts and debates (2011)

Ps. And thank you to my husband who hasn’t come storming in, asking me why, if i submitted my assignment 2 hours ago, am I still hiding away in here xxx

Not-worthy Procrastination Excuses

Did you know that for the last few weeks I have remained just one assignment away from having done enough work to complete a BA degree with the Open University? (or a BSc, come to think of it.) Weeks of knowing that I am just one last push short of the summit but not actually getting there; of putting off and going and doing something else that seems more worthy. I probably could have finished the final assignment four times over by now and be relaxing and celebrating (perhaps not relaxing), and looking at the reading for next year’s literature course but there’s something invisible that’s stopping me.

Why am I not doing it?

There’s always something that stops me from taking a big, healthy bite of life – as if I feel I don’t quite deserve it. I seem to punish myself and be unforgiving – as if I should never be putting my needs or self-improvement or even enjoyment anywhere near the top of what’s important, and I should never get proud or smug about anything. But also there’s a feeling that’s it’s never enough; I should be pushing myself harder and achieving more. Confused? Me too.

You see, however hard I work, however much I do, I never really feel that sense of what-ever-it-is that I realise must be quite a healthy and necessary feeling in order to keep going and feel as if you are getting somewhere but also to feel that you can enjoy something nice.

Today is the first day since the summer holidays started that the children are all out of the house and my husband is off work, helping to lay a patio– which means there is someone to keep an eye on the 5-month-old house-eating dog. So today is the day to get the assignment, if not finished, at least well-and-truly nailed, yes?

We’ll see…
I’m already thinking, ‘washing, tidying, bills, emails, one of the shop’s accounts needs looking at, it’s about time I changed the sheets and where’s the 16-yr-old’s bus pass application form?… oh – and how about I write a blog post… ’

Why I Write

There’s never just one picture.

We are all different. Some people deal with difference better than others. I deal with it partly because I have to. I feel like one of The Different. But I’m not really. I’m just one of those whose differences are social and therefore make me feel noticeably different. Other people have differences they can hide better (even if they shouldn’t). Other than being ridiculously lacking in confidence and having a vivid imagination and habit for wordplay, though, I expect I am probably boringly normal.

I write because it is how I communicate. If I didn’t write I would be taken at face value and for an unconfident person that face is always a lie. Apart from being an occasional slave to the imaginary characters and dilemmas playing in my head, I write to say things about what I see going on around me. I have always been an observer and a thinker. My mother tells me, for instance, how many years ago, at the age of three, I watched famine victims on television and asked why they couldn’t share our food and water. I still think like that now. I think quiet people can take a really good look at things because they are using less time talking – but I would say that, wouldn’t I?

I am quiet and I hide away but I am OBSESSED with people! Sometimes I feel a responsibility to speak out. I get involved by imagining myself in people’s situations, absorbing myself in their dilemmas as if I am no longer me but I am someone else, somewhere else. I may be wrong but I think I am good at this. I learnt to think about others’ feelings at a very young age – I would like to explain why, but for some reason it doesn’t seem appropriate here and now…
I also studied social science courses that forced me to turn my view of the world upside-down, give it a good shake and reassess it – without any judgement or preconceptions. The lessons of acceptance of diversity and – if not trying to see the bigger picture, then at least accepting that there is one, are incredibly worthwhile and valuable. And in the last ten years I have read and seen and felt a lot of what I can only describe as very “real” stuff and am now distressed more than ever by limited viewpoints or dogma.
As I think about things I blend in and out from being an observer to being the subject. I don’t feel like I see things from the privileged viewpoint of an outsider, instead I feel that I know how it is to suffer, to struggle. For that reason I am always very careful not to judge, not to blame and not to assume things. I prefer to avoid knee-jerk reactions and/or stand-off or polarised viewpoints. Instead I like to talk things through, introduce the ideas that are playing inside my head, air my instincts to repair and protect, and reluctantly allow viewpoints that clash with my own to be introduced.
It’s my way of talking.

Talk is cheap, some say?
Well I disagree. Strongly, in fact. Here the difference thing comes into play again. There are those who act and don’t have enough time to think, those who discuss, argue and suggest courses of action, and then there are many, many, many variations in between. These differences are what make things work. Conversing, arguing, and changing course leads to policy changes and societal changes. Take away the talkers and the writers and we are left with those who merely act. All acts must be challenged regularly, if only – at times, to reassure us that we are doing the right thing. Much as we might hate it, we must have our views challenged and we must take on new information. The whole picture, the bigger picture, the various viewpoints must be heard. And talking – outside a situation – is a good way of recording an overall impression and bringing together ideas.
I think a lot of writers don’t feel that they have all the answers, they are simply saying, ‘Please, just take a look, have a think and imagine yourself in these shoes before you judge.’ Far from being removed, writers try to empathise, and, without necessarily condoning behaviour, try to challenge preconceptions.
I heard that Roald Dahl, for example, had a writer’s hut, a fair walk away from the family home, with no telephone and strict instructions that he was only to be interrupted in an emergency, so that he could write for days in peace and not be bothered by life, normality, or social interaction. Yet he wrote so astutely, observedly (oh, apparently observedly is not a word. Can I have it anyway?) and warmly about the human condition that you can tell he was only physically removed from humanity – never emotionally removed. He liked to show the reader that things were not always as they seemed. Isn’t it the best thing ever – to make people think?!?

Writers do care. They care enormously and while they do not have all the answers, their minds are a great holding place for a myriad of observations. And a creative mind can make connections and observations that other people miss. People in the centre of the action often miss what is going on around them and only see things through one viewpoint. Writing can help us to see how, where and when things might have gone wrong. We are not trying to change the world (okay, maybe sometimes…) but we want people to see every viewpoint and I think the very nature of writing has a special knack for achieving that. When we look at a photo of a group of people, we think we know what we are seeing, but each person in that photo will have a different story – as will the person behind the camera. When people explain what is really happening you can be surprised not only by how differently you saw things, but also how there is conflicting information in the stories.
Writing is a good way of taking an argument through to its conclusion. A verbal argument is full of interruptions, twists and turns and can be dominated by a loud or aggressive participant. Someone with their own agenda can often shout down other participants and distort another person’s words in order to say what they want to say. It’s frustrating to be stopped in your tracks and to be told you’ve said something you haven’t or made to shut up because another person thinks you are clearly wrong, misguided or uninformed. People can assume they know what you are going to say and never really hear what you are saying. In writing you get a better chance to make your point, even if there are still those immensely frustrating times when people with preconceptions will misread you.
In writing you can also see the chaos theory at work; how easy it could be for any of us to have had a completely different life but for one action. I don’t know about others but it makes me want to unstitch things and see where they went wrong. It makes you realise that despite some rather hideous behaviours, we are all very similar but victims of circumstance to a greater or lesser degree.

So, I write because my circumstances made me a nervous wreck, a quiet thinker, and regularly dogged by minor health niggles. I’m sick of trying to be something I’m not, of being afraid of being judged for being a thinker and an observer. This is how I do things. How I can be active. If it’s not good enough for some people then it is they who have the problem of not appreciating the beautiful, complicated differences that make up a society, not me.

Quiet writers rock… Quietly…


Because You Want It

This thing: you know you should have it?
You want it don’t you? You need it.
Take it, have it, get one, you need it. Take it, have it, get one, you need it.

You know that most other people have one? (Anyone who’s anyone, anyway.)
You’ll get left behind. You’ll look different. Incomplete.
You see how having this thing has made other people’s lives better?
Take it, have it, get one, you need it. Take it, have it, get one, you need it.

You want it, don’t you? You need it.
You should have it. Go on. Have one.
You deserve it.
Take it have it get one you need it take it have it get one you need it.

Listen to my rhyme:
Have this thing; then you’ll fit it.
Have this thing; make your heart sing
You want this thing; all the joy it will bring
This thing this thing; it’s for you and those around you.
I’ll sing it to you. And sing it again. You’ll go to sleep singing it. You wake up singing it. You’ll dream of this thing and how you’ll know the joys that others feel to have this thing.

Who do you want to look like? Most want to be like? They have this thing. They love this thing. See how happy they are with this thing? They were just like you once, and now they are rich and famous and have this thing. See how easy it is?
Take it have it get one you need it take it have it get one you need it take it have it get one you need it take it have it get one you need it. TAKE IT HAVE IT GET ONE YOU NEED IT TAKE IT HAVE IT GET ONE YOU NEED IT!

Welcome to your new Thing. Congratulations on planning to save twice as much as you earn in a year in order to afford to pay off the loan for This Thing. Please choose a category.
I’m sorry – that function is only available on This Thing 2. Update to This Thing 2 for a limited period only at our special price of four hundred and ninety-nine pounds and ninety-nine pence.

This Thing 2: you know you should have it?
You want it don’t you. You need it.
Take it, have it, get one, you need it. Take it, have it, get one, you need it.

It’s more beautiful than Thing 1. It’s more important than love. In fact, it is love.
It is love and the beauty of nature all rolled into one. You won’t want for anything again with This Thing 2. It will love you. Everyone will love you.
Take it, have it, get one, you need it. Take it, have it, get one, you need it.

We don’t care what you have to do to get one.
Just get one.

Welcome to the This Thing 47 helpline. As an existing customer your call is in a queue and is important to us. But not as important as those new customers we are still trying to get addicted to having Things. We hope you are enjoying your something else to dust.

All the cool people have This Thing 48, now.

This, and also that

When my page is blank, you don’t know that earlier I was full of ideas.

When my house is a tip, you don’t know that yesterday I cleaned all day and that it looked nice for ten minutes.

When I say something stupid, you don’t know that the last time I opened my mouth I spoke insightful wisdom.

When I am quiet all day, you don’t know how I love and long to sing.

When I cry, you don’t know that this morning I smiled.

When I write badly, you don’t know that last week I wrote brilliantly.

When I burn the dinner, you don’t know that yesterday’s meal was delicious perfection.

When I am tipsy, you don’t know that I have hardly drunk any alcohol for three months.

When I listen to ABBA, you don’t know that yesterday I listened to Vivaldi and tomorrow I will listen to The Libertines.

When I seem weak and easily controlled, you don’t know that I have had a long fight and am tired.

When I am shallow, you don’t know that I am really deep.

When I am grumpy, you don’t know how patient I have been for so long.

When I ask stupid questions, you don’t know that tomorrow I will have all the clever answers.

And when I create rubbish little blog posts, you don’t know about the good ones.

Unless you follow me on Twitter, of course.

Kill Or Cure? the feedback dilemma

It’s difficult to hear someone say they don’t understand the particular part of your writing that, in fact, was the bit you loved most – and what you based the whole piece on – and to know whether it is their failing or yours. It’s difficult to take on suggestions that come from someone else’s head when all the original writing comes from your head. Will their suggestions mix successfully with what’s there already? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. To me it’s like being invaded. Or being spoken to in a foreign language. It’s difficult, above all, to know whom to trust to suit your particular style and voice. If we all received and acted upon feedback from the same critic, wouldn’t the literary world be a dull place?

Sometimes (or maybe often!) I write something and it’s not good. I get so wrapped up in keeping going and producing words I don’t see until I come back later that it’s not working. When I read it again I see that it’s collapsing under the sheer floppiness of its weak characters and lack of structure. It needs to be ditched, begun again or completely re-renovated. But, amazingly, if I show it to someone else they can see what I have lost: a good twist, an interesting starting point or a thought-provoking dilemma. Maybe the skeleton is broken but there are some good bones worth putting back together. Are they right, though? Should I work through it using something that someone else has recommended? Or should I stick with my gut instinct and drop it? Someone else’s “promising” might be my waste of time, after all.

Or sometimes I write something that tumbles out of me. Strong characters play in my head and soar through my fingertips, and interact in ways that make me feel as if I am merely a tool to record their story. Conflicts, dilemmas, actions, conversations, resolutions, all layer up and slide into the laptop, and “afterwords” (do you like my typo?) I sit back and smile, knowing I’ve enjoyed the ride – which surely means that someone will really enjoy the read…? It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written and it will be one of the best things my reader has read for a while, yes? Well no. Unfortunately it doesn’t always happen like that. The very first person who reads it may not get that ride, that enjoyment that I thought I was sharing. Are they right? How many more people should read it, then, until I decide whether it’s as good as I first thought it was? Do I keep looking and waiting for my ideal reader? Do I take advice and change it? But whose advice do I take? Who do I trust? What if everyone who has read it has said something different? Oh maybe I shouldn’t have shown it to anyone! Maybe I should have just submitted it to a magazine or a competition or self-published it or just shared it on my blog!

What about the times you submit something for publication, a competition, an anthology, etc and you simply get no reply? Or after a while you merely get a “No thanks.” Isn’t that worse? Don’t we want to know why?

If you’re writing for the sheer love of it, though, should you be constantly putting yourself in situations where you get knocked back and you’re not sure who’s right or wrong?

I don’t think there is an answer to this. It depends who you are, why you are writing, what your intended outcome for each piece of writing is and what you hope to achieve personally from not just writing but from every individual piece you write. And your favourite person to give feedback may not be the best person to give feedback and vice versa.

I guess I have a kind of conclusion though: Messages can get lost in our writing, mistakes do get made, and clunking great errors do absolutely need sorting out because there’s very little point writing to be read if something isn’t working.
So, in my opinion, it’s important to find out what it is we are writing and find a few people who we would consider our ideal reader and don’t bother with those who have no interest in reading something of our genre – and that includes loved ones.
And learn to take the knocks.
Which ones are deserved, though, and which are not will still always need filtering and I, for one, will never get that right.

N.B. Although feedback and the reader’s experience is something that is always on my mind and this post is a common theme among writers, it has been inspired today by a disappointing grade from my final writing course result. The disappointment has been heightened by simply not knowing why?
I have no feedback to go on other than a percentage, which is at least 15% less than I was expecting. I’m usually pretty self-critical but I felt that the story I wrote was one of the best things I’d ever written and yet it got the lowest mark of all my work this year. However tough to take, if something doesn’t work for someone, I absolutely need to know why.

Sixteen At Last

In August 1986, the last year of O level/CSE exams in the UK, I was one of the 16-year-olds expecting results. We were supposed to either give a self-addressed envelope to the school or go in to collect our results. I did neither. I went to Cornwall to stay with a friend. I had hated school and the final year in particular. My vision had deteriorated and I had become short-sighted over a year – but I refused to start wearing glasses at 16, so I walked around in a blur. My best friend (the one in Cornwall) had left the year before, and I suffered bullying from other girls and what I can only describe as misunderstanding from teachers. I spent every day in a constant state of worry. It had not been cool to study or do well in our year so I tried to be unimpressive and simply waited for it to be over. To confuse all that, I came from a household where studying and doing well were assumed. At one point, I sat in front of a bottle of paracetamol and a sixth-form college application form, and considered taking an overdose. In fact I took 8 pills, gave up, and went to sleep for 2 hours. I never told my parents.

I knew I hadn’t done well and – in a sense, ran away. That feeling of apathy and being unconnected to my own destiny continued throughout my disastrous A levels.

Twenty-five years on, our eldest daughter is waiting for results at the end of this month. We know she has a better idea of who she is and has more confidence in her talents than I ever did, and I hope she is looking forward to her results day as much as we are. Whatever her results, though, she is a success.
I am also waiting for results. At 41, I’m waiting to pick up (online) the grade for a diploma in Literature & Creative Writing. After many years, I finally felt brave enough to attempt education again. Right now, I’m sat on the floor, half-dressed checking again and again and again like a little kid.

I have literally just found the result as I’m writing this: A Grade 2 pass. I now have my diploma. I’m still waiting for the actual mark for my final assignment, but I know it’s at least 70% now.

Please excuse me while I act like the excited 16-year-old and 18-year-old I never got to be all those years ago!

YAY!!! WOOT!!!! and stuff like that… 🙂

Now to finish my degree so I can act like a 21-year-old! 😉

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