Friday, 17 January 2014

Essential Writing Aids

Well, November has come and gone and I managed to reach my target of writing 20k words in a month. Then December happened and the inevitable Christmas/New Year productivity slump. I've been getting back into the swing of things this week and in honour of that, and in the spirit of looking forward into what is officially The Final Year of thesis writing for me, I thought that a post on those things that I cannot write without. Not so much the books and the plans, the citation guides and the academic blogs that support and shape the content of the thesis. I mean the aids in the actual writing process that make it a little more enjoyable and that, from time to time, stave of the fears and insecurities that will plague any long-term writing project like a thesis.
  1. Sounds
While some people can only work in complete silence, I need sounds to be able to write. Paradoxically, I tend to tune them out once I really get going. This means that I have a fairly specific set of requirements when it comes to what goes on when I'm working. I cycle between a few different options:
  • Music that I' know all the words too - any music that I could sing along with the majority of the lyrics to, for when I'm in deep writing mode and can easily loose my train of thought. This allows me to tune out when I'm focused on writing and tune back in when I'm taking a momentary pause. I usually play albums on CD or from my iPod in my hi-fi speaker dock.
  • News  - a television news loop, like BBC News, is good because we are already accustomed to tuning out the voices of other people when we need to; loud people on phones, discussion groups in the library, people's conversations when we're walking down the street. It also gives you a little "wake up" call periodically when they repeat the headlines on the hour. Which leads nicely into the next option...
  • Classic FM - no lyrics to worry about as well as the handy "wake up"  all of the news on the hour. The downside to this is that, being a commercial radio station, you get interrupted by adverts on occasion. For some reason I find these much harder to tune out.
  • BlinkBox - I initially used we7, but this was bought over by the Tesco owned BlinkBox Music. Despite Tesco's involvement, it has remained a very good on demand online streaming service. An alternative to DAB and online radio stations, it works a bit like Pandora in the US. You can either choose and artist or genre and BlinkBox will play a station of similar artists/styles or you can choose from their pre-programme stations by things like mood or activity. I'm writing this post to their 'Energy Boost' station, but there are loads to choose from. Only the occasional add to listen through, and because they don't mess around with volume suppression it doesn't get louder during the adverts.
  • Fire App for Apple TV - we were very lucky to get Apple TV as a wedding present, and I sometimes use the Fire App streamed through this when music is too much. There are also plenty of videos on YouTube that do exactly the same thing for when I'm not in the house.
Temporary writing cave set up at my parents'
Temporary writing cave set up at my parents'
2. Tea - not always the caffeinated kind, but I like it strong and often. Iced only in the height of summer, but hot the rest of the year. This is related to...
Macbeth mug from the gift shop at Shakespeare's Globe
3. Mug du jour - alter depending on mood. A good variety of styles is essential, as is a variation in size and shape.
4. Glasses - switching from contacts to glasses can sometimes be a Godsend. Not only does this stop my eyes from getting tired staring at the computer screen thanks to the anti-glare coating, it also helps my concentration. Odd as it is having my glasses on = serious business. Contacts are for play, glasses are for work. (Just me? Ok...)
5. Writing cape - also known as my black, witchy looking poncho. Just as cosy as a hoddie, but I don't have to worry about sleaves getting in the way. Warning: do not leave the house wearing it. It is for writing only. No-one else needs to see that.
November image for last year's calendar. © Edward Monkton
6. Leaving the house - remember to get out on occasion. Go see friends, walk around the park, return books to the library and get new ones, even just go to the supermarket rather than booking a delivery. Reminding yourself that there is a world outside your thesis and that it is waiting on you does two things. It gives your brain some breathing space and it motivates you to keep going so that you can finish your PhD and get back out there.
So, over to you. Do you have an essential writing aids that you can't work without?

Wednesday, 8 January 2014


I'm not a poetry kind of girl. That's odd to say as someone who studied Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature, but it's true. I have a few collections of poems - Burns, Frost, Heaney - on top of the ones I had to get for Uni. I might have ten poetry collections at the very most. Compare this to three overflowing bookcases and a dozen boxes of books, most of which are novels, and the imbalance becomes pretty clear.

Every now and then, however, a poem forces itself into my field of vision and demands that I read it. These are almost always poems touch me in some deep emotional way, and in a way that novels rarely do. Seamus Heaney's 'Digging' is one. His voice is one that I return to again and again, for its almost hypnotic rhythm. Another is Liz Lockhead, whose experience as a young girl growing up in Scotland speaks to me in a way other poets often fail. Recently this one forced its way in, so I thought I'd share it here.

What about you? Have you come across any poems/poets recently  that jumped out at you and demanded to be read?

"The Choosing," by Liz Lochhead
From Memo for Spring, 1972:
"The Choosing"

We were first equal Mary and I
with the same coloured ribbons in mouse-coloured hair
and with equal shyness
we curtseyed to the lady councillor
for copies of Collins’s Children Classics.
First equal, equally proud.

Best friends too Mary and I
a common bond in being cleverest (equal)
in our small school’s small class.
I remember
the competition for top desk
or to read aloud the lesson
at school service.
And my terrible fear
of her superiority at sums.

I remember the housing scheme
Where we both stayed.
The same house, different homes,
where the choices were made.

I don’t know exactly why they moved,
but anyway they went.
Something about a three-apartment
and a cheaper rent.
But from the top deck of the high school bus
I’d glimpse among the others on the corner
Mary’s father, mufflered, contrasting strangely
with the elegant greyhounds by his side.
He didn’t believe in high school education,
especially for girls,
or in forking out for uniforms.

Ten years later on a Saturday —
I am coming home from the library —
sitting near me on the bus,
with a husband who is tall,
curly haired, has eyes
for no one else but Mary.
Her arms are round the full-shaped vase
that is her body.
Oh, you can see where the attraction lies
in Mary’s life —
not that I envy her, really.

And I am coming from the library
with my arms full of books.
I think of the prizes that were ours for the taking
and wonder when the choices got made
we don’t remember making.