“They don’t know how smart they are. You can tell them.”

Who encouraged them to keep writing? (Photo: Unclaimed exhibition, Barbican 2019)

Much of my work involves moulding and tweaking other people’s writing into shape. But with R and C, I never fix spelling mistakes or question confusing sentence structures. I never wince when they go off topic, never strike through nonsensical ideas.

R and C are writers – nine and ten-year-old ones – who I’ve been working with at the Ministry of Stories, an east London charity. It’s quite a contrast to my day job, which generally doesn’t involve learning about a monster’s detachable limbs or the newly-discovered land of Japina. Nor does my day job often allow the luxury of focusing entirely on one person and one task. 

Continue reading ““They don’t know how smart they are. You can tell them.””

“Success is not guaranteed”: writing as exploration

Unpredictable outcomes

Years of formal education have drummed into us the idea of essay as formula, a rigid structure to follow. That structure may have helped to organise your thinking, but essay-writing also sparks less positive memories: of set titles that fail to inspire, non-negotiable deadlines, struggles to meet a particular word count. 

Go back to the original meaning of the term, though – from the French essayer, ‘to try’ – and the essay becomes a whole lot more interesting. 

I was reminded of this in a recent Vox podcast about the work of Albert Camus, which also explores why he chose the essay form. 

“An essai is a trial, it’s an attempt. And… success is not guaranteed,” says Robert Zaretsky, a philosopher and historian, interviewed on the podcast.

Continue reading ““Success is not guaranteed”: writing as exploration”

Protest the future, redeem the present

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Collage, 6 July

In ‘Midlife: A philosophical guide’ MIT professor Kieran Setiya seeks answers to the doubts and fears of his own mid-30s from philosophy. He teases apart the reasons that so many people struggle with this stage of life, and how to start shifting your thinking so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.

When I read it a couple of months ago – presumably buying books about midlife crises is among its symptoms – I found plenty to think about. Including the mindblower about facing up to death: why is imagining a world after your death so much more painful than imagining a world before you were born? Continue reading “Protest the future, redeem the present”

Note to self

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Collage, 30 May

I’ve been writing diaries on and off since I was about seven years old. Lately, it’s been more ‘on’ than ever. 

Not just because, under lockdown, there’s fewer distractions of people to meet or places to be, but also because recording stuff feels important right now.

Countless photographers, writers, artists agree – and so do social historians. I feel somehow happier knowing that they’re gathering people’s experiences of living through Covid-19 – for example in this project from the Young Foundation, or this one from London’s Museum of the Home. Universities, archives and historical societies around the world are doing the same, inviting details of the “deeply personal, political, or mundane“, as the US-based ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ project puts it. Ordinary lives in extraordinary times. Continue reading “Note to self”

New rhythms, new hope

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“The revolution was sustained because of the arts. The graffiti needed no words to be explained… people who have no political background, no idea about the issues in Sudan – they were educated by the songs of the revolution.” – Anda, pictured at Mellow Arts Gallery, which she co-manages. 

Flights to and from Khartoum had been cancelled all day, we heard.

Not because of Covid-19, which was yet to stifle travel in most parts of the world – but because of a sandstorm.

It was a Thursday in early March, and my colleague Julie and I were due to fly back to Europe the following day. Back to Europe meant returning to what felt like the eye of another storm: Italy was by now the tragic centre of the coronavirus outbreak, and the rest of the continent wasn’t far behind. Continue reading “New rhythms, new hope”

Hold on

Agony of Waiting - collage by Anna PattonFour years ago today I had a nerve-wracking morning in a Brussels hotel room, as news emerged of a first, then a second explosion in the city. It was a relief to be able to instantly contact family and friends back home, but the hours of uncertainty were frightening, and unclear information and people’s conflicting advice paralysed me. Stay in my room? Try to leave the city before they shut down transport? Wait in case something else happens? Continue reading “Hold on”

Like therapy

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Listen carefully

I recently did a phone interview with a fairly big cheese at a multinational firm. When I thanked him at the end for his time, he returned the sentiment, saying it had been ‘a bit like therapy’.

Not that he’d divulged anything particularly personal or difficult (I’m not that good). We’d been talking about how others see his role, what motivated him, his thoughts about the wider sustainability movement. All work-related topics but, I suppose, ones closely connected to his personal identity.

I think/hope the comment was meant positively. Either way, it suggested that the experience of talking about himself for 40 minutes wasn’t an everyday one. Continue reading “Like therapy”

Sticking their necks out

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Please watch out for headbutts: The Giraffe Centre

Attending a work conference in Nairobi is much like attending one in Europe: the same topics thrashed out, the same terminology overused, the same intense mix of excitement and deadlines and trying to be everywhere at once.

Except that in Nairobi you can also feed giraffes the day before – and find out that Daisy doesn’t like kids, that Kelly only likes to be fed from the front, and that Lily is shy. You can overhear other tourists asking the guides: Why are some of them more friendly? Continue reading “Sticking their necks out”

Speaking up

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The first speaker’s voice barely carries above the hum of the crowd. Even with a microphone, it takes a while for the 200 or so people gathered to notice she’s addressing them. 

When she’s done, others climb onto the fountain steps alone or in pairs, reading aloud from notes on their phones. Not understanding the words, I watch the body language: a few hold themselves confidently, most less so. One, clutching a diamanté-embellished phone, tries hard to control a visibly shaking hand. Continue reading “Speaking up”

Try this

‘Imperfect triers welcome’ – that’s the philosophy behind CoGo, an app that helps consumers find ethical businesses. Their website quotes a ‘zero waste chef’ who says, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”. CoGo echoes this in its message to customers – perhaps trying to show that it’s not preachy and judgmental about our decisions, but rather encouraging-yet-realistic – and therefore open to a much wider consumer base. “You don’t need to be committed to going zero-waste or vegan to join CoGo,” they write, “you just need to be looking to switch some of your purchases over to more sustainable and ethical businesses and in time, hopefully, we can help you increase the % of your spending that goes to businesses that match your values.”

The concept feels apt, partly because I’ve been working on a long feature about how social enterprises can/should respond to climate change, and a key question is whether doing the best one can given limited resources is enough – or whether doing small things just lets us off the hook making radical change. (I don’t have the answer.) Continue reading “Try this”