Cartagena, community, and sixty-minute Sundays

Three things I learned or loved this month

Saturday stroll among the colours of Cartagena

Everything feels different or disjointed: the air oppressively warm; my knowledge of Spanish buried too many years ago to find the words I need; and it should be afternoon, but I’m the first to order breakfast. Eggs with tomatoes and onion, fruit, black coffee to shake off a six-hour time difference. 

Last week an overnight flight took me to Cartagena de Indias, a city of around 1 million on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where men push carts piled high with mangoes through busy streets, where horse-drawn carts join traffic jams, where friends pose for selfies amid flags or pink umbrellas or street art. A dark history – a one-time slave trade hub, and one of three seats of the Catholic Inquisition in the Americas — but the city has since become a UNESCO heritage site, and tourists come nowadays for the colour, the nightlife, the nearby islands, the easy stroll along thick fortress walls.

Continue reading “Cartagena, community, and sixty-minute Sundays”

Feeling unalone, facing fears, and the questions of 7-year-olds

Three things I learned or loved this month

Lisa Taddeo’s 2019 book Three Women is widely described as a “bestselling phenomenon”. Columnist Caitlin Moran is quoted saying she would “probably re-read it every year of my life”. Now that I’ve read it, her praise doesn’t seem too far-fetched. 

As much as I was swept up in the real lives that Taddeo portrays – lives of complicated desire, sadness, sexuality, rejection, power, loyalty – I am fascinated by her process as a writer. She spent eight years on research (during which time she also had a baby). Twice, she moved to the town where the women lived to spend time with them; her husband moved with her. She was present at some of the events described in the book; she would meet one of the women immediately after her encounters with a secret lover to hear her recount the experience. Taddeo describes her role, in an interview on the Happy Place podcast, as a sort of “non-judgmental ghost”, present as lives unfolded. Each of the three women finds her decisions judged harshly by those around them; in giving them the full range to tell their stories, the author aims to challenge the quickfire dismissal most of us unleash on people we barely know. “I wanted people to feel unalone,” Taddeo says.

Continue reading “Feeling unalone, facing fears, and the questions of 7-year-olds”

Microseasons, mentoring, and a marriage mix-up

Three things I learned or loved this month

February: not so springy

We think of the natural world as following a four-part rhythm, but spring, summer, autumn, winter don’t always quite fit. A freezing cold March doesn’t feel like spring, and November can be “all wrong for autumn”, as the American writer Kurt Vonnegut observed. Instead, he suggested, there are six seasons in the year, including a ‘locking’ season in November and December to lead us into winter, and an ‘unlocking’, in March and April, before spring unfolds.

I came across Vonnegut’s six seasons last week, as part of a writing workshop inspired by Japanese microseasons – an ancient tradition in which the year is divided into 24 periods, and sub-divided into 72 even shorter ones.

Continue reading “Microseasons, mentoring, and a marriage mix-up”

“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”

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”

Cats and volcanologists

gilles-desjardins-684652-unsplashOne of the social media groups I use is for freelance women journalists. For all Facebook’s flaws, the group is brilliant: like an open-plan office with none of the irritations and all the companionship of 4000+ colleagues who’ll always deliver on requests for advice, feedback, sympathy, or last-minute contacts. Those shout-outs for contacts appear every day. “Looking for local post offices that still have a resident cat”, writes one. “Does anyone know a media-friendly volcanologist?” “I’m looking for a woman aged 30+ who showers at least twice a day. The more the better.” (These were all real requests. They all got multiple responses.) Continue reading “Cats and volcanologists”

Blogger’s guilt

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Everyone loves a list

If it’s easy to start blogging these days, it’s even easier to stop. Or at least to pause.

So many reasons: not enough time (I’ll do it when that deadline is over); other priorities (I need to focus my attention/writing brain on something else right now); perfectionism (there’s no point in posting something mediocre); lack of fresh ideas (there’s nothing exciting me to write at the moment); unconvinced of the payback (it won’t make any difference if I wait a bit longer). Continue reading “Blogger’s guilt”

A tried and tested format for group media projects

Last week we wrapped up a short project at the Compton School in Barnet, north London, just in time for International Women’s Day. Our group was smaller than usual, but super organised and very capable. Their final piece explored political representation, the pay gap, reproductive rights and period poverty.

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Exposure has been producing these type of group projects (known as Exposure Asks) for several years, working with dozens of young people and covering anything from exam stress to modern slavery.

So what makes this format work so well? Continue reading “A tried and tested format for group media projects”

The new nonprofit library

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Lots of info, but is it up to date?

I’ve been working since last year with MissionBox, a website that provides a huge range of how-to guides, advice, case studies, feature articles and templates for nonprofits. As a startup, there’ve been a few shifts of direction along the way, but the site has just relaunched and it’s great to see it taking shape.

MissionBox is based in the US and one of the challenges has been making sure the content written by our American colleagues is relevant and accurate here in the UK. In some cases that has meant drafting separate/equivalent pieces — that goes for any legal or tax topics, but also some less obvious ones like the expectations of a nonprofit board, or working with foundations. Continue reading “The new nonprofit library”