Writing retreat

Last weekend I went to a cottage in Somerset with two friends in my writing group. We met two years ago, when we all took a non-fiction writing short course at City University (it’s taught by Peter Forbes and is excellent), and one of us who is much more organised than I am took the initiative to start monthly meetings. All of us have time-eating things going on in our real lives – combinations of work, grad school, a toddler – and the idea of the weekend was to clear some space and let ourselves think fully about our writing projects.

It went GREAT! At the end everyone said they were pleased at how productive we were, despite also getting a fair bit of walking and sight-seeing (and board games, and drinking…) in on the sides. Here are the things I think helped, and which I’m going to try to do in real life as well as idyllic rural weekend life:

Goals: We took a small amount of time on Saturday morning to think about what we wanted to do over the weekend. My goal was to look at my chapter ideas from fresh: the structure of the book has changed a lot since I first talked about the proposal with Lydia, my agent, and I wanted to set aside the accumulated version and “tell myself the story” from the beginning. I also wanted to think about what research exactly was needed for each chapter, and where I would go to do it. Read more...

Lessons from grad school: primary sources!!

I think a lot about this post by Mary Beard, about how important it is to go back to primary sources, and a good thing as my first piece of proper graduate work turned up a solid first-hand example!

I was writing a paper looking at 15th-century versions of Judith, the biblical-apocryphal heroine who saved Israel by duping the enemy general Holofernes and cutting off his head. In France, Judith became connected with Joan of Arc, in the theme of sword-wielding female national liberators, and I wanted to look at whether that carried over to versions of Judith’s story in England.

A 2010 book on “Judith studies”, The Sword of Judith, pointed me to The Story of Judith in German and English Literature, a 1927 book-length bibliography of Judith adaptations. (In the olden days you had to do that sort of thing by hand…) That bibliography lists a lost play called Holophernes that was supposedly performed in 1556 for Princess Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I) when she was under house arrest during her sister Mary I’s reign. The source quoted is a c. 1560s manuscript that describes Elizabeth’s guardian, the minor Catholic nobleman Sir Thomas Pope, paying for the play to be performed for her. Read more...

GRAD SCHOOL – week four

Being a university student at 31 is extremely different from being a university student at 21, and by “different” I mean “much, much better”. For one thing, I occasionally have money. For another, I have friends who aren’t uni friends (the people on my course are great, which is lucky as there are only four of us, but having a Life outside School is very helpful in terms of perspective/mental health/not getting sucked into UNI IS EVERYTHING, THERE IS NO LIFE BUT UNI). I do not have to live in student accommodation, I can generally manage getting around London/libraries/awkward conversations/deadlines, and am still excited about gleefully waving my student discount card at anyone in proximity of a cash register.

The most unusual and bizarrely charming part so far has been how all the university student workers talk down to me. On registration day, I had a few seconds of trouble swiping into the library with my student ID card. A weedy child with a lanyard came over to explain to me, in kindly supercilious tones, how to hold it against the light. It was baffling, until I realised he was just used to dealing with 17-year-olds who have probably never lived on their own before and don’t generally understand how things work. It made me realise how much I generally take it for granted that people I meet will treat me like an adult who e.g. knows which side up to hold a coffee cup.

The coursework is a lot of fun, although I have an unfair feeling that I’m playing catch-up. In my non-university life, sometimes when I tell people what I’m was studying (early modern English/European literature), they will say things like “Ah, yes, like Montaigne, right? I read him at A-levels – Des Cannibales, right? It’s so interesting where…” Now I don’t know enough about the British education and class system to tell whether this is usual, or I just happen to be surrounded by a bunch of poshos (probably that one?), but it is a bit unsettling to have more than one person spontaneously go “ah yes, I fondly remember doing what you’re doing, when I was a literal child”. (Of course it’s not the same approach and it’s very different reading, say, Othello in high school and Othello in a grad program, but I still have a little niggle of insecurity that I am only now getting up to speed with where most of the country has been since they were teenagers. Better late than never!, I cheerfully tell myself, while the guy at the coffee counter screws my lid on extra tight and hands it to me with a look of concerned trepidation.) That said, I do appreciate that grad school is to personal insecurity like a damp warm room is to mold, and if the worst I’ve come down with so far is “argh, humans exist who have read books that I have not yet read”, that is probably Fine. Read more...

Much Ado About Nothing @ Shakespeare’s Globe, seen August 27 2017

Thanks to Twitter conversation with Hailey Bachrach and this post by Holger Syme for helping me clarify thinking about CONCEPT

The best production I’ve ever seen of The Two Gentlemen of Verona was set in Amish country (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2006, dir. Bill Rauch). Verona was a Mennonite community, Milan was a swish Stepford-in-Brooks-Brothers villa, and in Act 5 a rave full of Goths popped up. It was the most ludicrous thing. It sounds like what happens when a director loses a bet with a sadistic dramaturg. But it really did work, and it made the play work.

Two Gents is not a great play, okay. It’s about a love quadrangle among Proteus and Valentine (best friends from Verona), and Julia and Sylvia (women from Verona and Milan respectively). Proteus starts out interested in Julia, then he and Valentine travel to Milan and both fall in love with Sylvia, who has fallen in love with Valentine. Julia disguises herself as a boy (drink!) and travels to Milan to be near Proteus, there’s a bit with a dog, at the end everyone runs off to the woods and Proteus tries to rape Sylvia, and everyone who has lines afterwards seems basically okay with that (nb who doesn’t have lines: Sylvia). It is, as they say, problematic. What the Amish setting did was suggest how Julia – who otherwise seems clever, sensible and observant – could have reasonably fallen in love with Proteus – who takes all of five seconds after leaving home to betray his friend, his fiancée and do a bunch of stupid, malicious things – without Julia just being a giant gooey idiot. Maybe Proteus is a sheltered guy newly out in a world he’s been told is dangerous and immoral, and he doesn’t have the toolbox to participate in it ethically. (It doesn’t at all excuse Proteus from behaving horribly – but it explains why Julia missed the signs.) Now if I remember correctly my 2006 play programme, the idea behind the CONCEPT was that the director was having trouble differentiating between “Verona” and “Milan” in the play. He decided to make them as radically different as possible: Verona insular and superficially strange, but deeply supportive and loving; and Milan welcoming and attractive, but with underlying danger if strangers don’t conform. In the woods, a bunch of “outlaws” terrify Valentine, then befriend and help him; these became the Goths, who seem terrifying to upper-middle-class dads but are actually laid-back and benevolent. It made so many of the characters’ odd reactions and quick turnarounds plausible. Read more...

Ten years in London, gosh

I turned 31 last Monday, and the next day it was the tenth anniversary of my moving to London, which I didn’t realise until that night, when I was at the pub, and immediately announced it loudly and demanded everyone buy me drinks for the next four hours. This did not end well (see end of post).

When I was 14 or 15, some school friends and I were talking about what age was “the best” to be. We agreed 18 and 21 were up there, because they were adulthood but not too adult: you weren’t supposed to have things figured out yet, i.e. you would have all of the freedom of being a grown-up but not too much responsibility. And of course, although I don’t think this was explicitly acknowledged, you would still be young enough to be “cute” and therefore lovable. (We understood and agreed with feminism in theory, even if we may not have called it that, but 14-15 is a hard age to live it fully!)

I can’t remember if I voiced this at the time, but I very specifically remember thinking that 35 was the best possible age to be. At 35 (I thought) you would be experienced enough that people would listen to you, and you could make decisions about not just your own life but Projects and Things That Mattered. But also, at 35 you wouldn’t be at the “top” yet – there would still be so many more exciting things to discover and learn and work towards. Read more...

Creative Histories conference, Bristol (July 19-21, 2017)

Last month I went to a three-day conference organised by the University of Bristol, on “Creative Histories”. I signed up basically as soon as registrations were open, and it was exciting to go hang out with people for three days and talk about history-stories.

Sometimes public history can feel like a corrective, like: here is a thing people commonly think, but actually, here is how that is WRONG WRONG WRONG! Often that corrective is needed – like evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain, or of 17th-century women knowing what swears were – but it’s also the sad thing that happens when a tour guide tells a lively story and adds, “of course, the real history is a little bit different [more dull].” There’s the fun history which is light and un-rigorous, and then there’s the proper factual history which is a super buzzkill, and they are different and you can’t be both.

What was pleasing about the Creative History conference is that it is about, as it says, creating – understanding and communicating history by generating something. Presenters and attendees were novelists, artists, a theatre group, a storyteller-dramaturg (I know!), and even the people who have ‘traditional’ historian jobs were doing creative work: making films, commissioning theatre, making comics as part of their PhDs on history-in-comics (I know!). Making something is more fun than cutting off or corralling something, and people who make things are generally pretty great people to spend time with. Read more...