Archive | March, 2013

Writers’ meetup

25 Mar

As I realised that we are already a third of our way into 2013, I was struck by those old familiar thoughts such as ‘What have I actually done in the last 3 months?!’  Cue a semi-frenzied attempt to ‘do’ things that I could look back on and satisfy myself with the thought that I did actually do something other than merely exist during that time.  I am aware that this retrospective way of doing things is probably slightly dysfunctional but it’s all part of my fear that time is slipping away with very little to show for it.  I often have to remind myself to be mindful and that keeping oneself busy does not equate to having a full and enriched life. 

Anyway, last Thursday, I went to a writers’ meetup at a pub, which I had researched previously on the old interweb.  I did this because: i) I thought it would give me a good kick up the backside in terms of disciplining myself with writing as essentially, I am a stubborn, competitive fool; ii) I like to force myself into awkward situations – I’m of the ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ (thanks Kanye) belief, although I know this isn’t necessarily always true and at times, can be destructive; and iii) my friend and I, after a spate of recent rubbish nights out, have decided to initiate a Project NANO (Not Another Night Out) where we try to experiment with doing different things during the evening other than the typical seedy bar or noisy club. 

The experience was enjoyable, if somewhat surreal.  There was a crowd of fifteen to twenty people there and I came a little later than the advertised time so I didn’t have to endure that ‘sitting in the corner like a lemon’ which was a bonus.  However, as with these things, I found myself talking to only a small fraction of the writers there due to where I was sitting.  I met a variety of characters though, including a friendly astrophysicist who writes sci-fi in his spare time and a woman who is working on two novels at the same time but losing motivation to complete either.  I spent most of my time chatting to a published children’s author who discussed the loneliness of being a writer and the need for human interaction when you are pursuing such a solitary occupation.  I found it really useful chatting to people and getting an idea of other peoples’ projects.  I really liked the hodgepodge of people there and that was rather encouraging that most still had a full time day job to pay their bills and wrote on the side as a passion.  Most of the people were older than me so it was a really good opportunity to just learn about how people got into writing and what their aims for the future were. 

The informal nature of the chat was nice as you could engage with whom you pleased, and it felt more like a chat with some friends down the pub.  I did find that despite the fact that we all had a love of writing in common, people were all very different and in some cases, rather eccentric.  But that’s what made it all the more enjoyable.

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What I Hated about School/ University/ (please insert any educational institution here).

21 Mar

I’m just in a rambling sort of mood which has inspired me to write a rambling sort of piece on my experiences at school and university in England.

Apart from the standard and perfectly valid argument that textbooks can only teach you so much, I think the educational system can actually be damaging in the long term.  At primary school (so for those of you from the US, this is when you are 4 to 11 years old), I’d like to think I was a pretty good student, apart from random things you do as a child that seem inexplicable to the adult mind.  (Example: I used to hide bits of fruit my mum used to give me around the classroom and when my teacher tried to confront me with this, I would take some perverse pleasure in pretending to be offended at the mere accusation).  But the rigidities of the education system inevitably bind you down and for me, this was especially apparent during secondary school.  Box-ticking, ‘academic progress’ folders and mentors were the norm and this was when I really started to find myself hating – yes, hating – many teachers that didn’t seem to want to be there, lacked passion and empathy and basically just couldn’t give a toss.  At a time when you’re entering puberty and your hormones are flying around like crazy anyway, I remember being utterly disillusioned by school.  In particular, my disillusionment peaked at secondary school as this was the time I had that eye-opening realisation that just because someone is technically a ‘grown up’, this in no way means they know better than you or know what’s best for you.  From my experience, working in various schools around the world, I doubt you will ever come across as many sullen, broken and downright bitter teachers than at a UK secondary school.  Cue numerous incidents where I was chucked out of school and requests from teachers to speak with my mum about my behaviour.

In sixth form, unsure of what I wanted to do, school seems to tell you that the only way to succeed is to get into a ‘good’ university and pursue a ‘professional’ career.  This pressure was most likely compounded by the fact that I’m Asian and I’m sure you’re aware of all those annoying stereotypes out there about the Asian ideal of success.  So – there I was, generally confused but apparently certain that I wanted to get into Cambridge or some other prestigious university.  I remember asking my English teacher if she could look over my personal statement and she laughed at me, saying that that would be the last thing she would do.  I physically recoiled at her response and sarcastically answered back through gritted teeth, seething with anger.  This was the general attitude among teachers at my school.  Do what’s expected of you, begrudgingly and for God’s sake, NOTHING MORE. I noticed the most ‘powerful’ teachers in the school were largely the most inept.  Nothing but bureaucratic paper-pushers.  One friend told me how in her sixth form A Level Maths class, her teacher, who was quite high up in the ranks, came in and tried to teach this bunch of 17 year olds how to add and subtract.  I know there is a case that when you reach a certain age, you need to embrace independent learning but there’s still a need for helpful guidance.  A lot of my friends and I had to use our initiative and keep ourselves motivated to work.  I was lucky in that my family have always valued education highly but if I had been less inclined, I am certain I would have come out of school with very few qualifications to speak of.

This lack of passion among teachers was also prevalent when I went to the LSE to complete my studies.  You are paying a ridiculous amount of money for a ‘name’, a status (which in retrospect, means nothing compared with your wellbeing) and those who are struggling are often left to fall by the wayside.  I understand that talents of bright students need to be nurtured but the general attitude at the university was to focus solely on this at the expense of everyone else.  Even my undergraduate tutor lacked any real passion to help the students.  On one occasion, I was called in to see her as I had been suffering bouts of depression and had missed a substantial number of classes.  In our meeting, I must have learnt more about her and how she had cheated on her ex husband in the past than she did about my mental well-being.  Only at the end of our speech, did she chuck me over a paper on ‘The Economics of Suicide’ which she said I would probably identify with.  It is this complete lack of empathy and genuine interpersonal skills that can make such institutions breeding grounds for mental health problems.

Regardless of, or perhaps because of, all of this, I believe it is of the utmost importance to educate yourself in life.  Although I hated most of my time in these places, there were positives, for example, I made some lifelong friends.  I can also honestly say that the most useful things I have learnt in life derived from the painful experiences in these places.  I reached some of my lowest points during my time at school and university and often felt very little support there when I needed it the most.  A lot of institutions view ‘learning’ very narrowly and do not realise the ill-informed and destructive beliefs they can instil in impressionable young people.  I spent most of my life thinking that academic achievement was all I could aspire to and being unable to match other people’s high test results was a testament to my weakness and failings.  The disillusionment I and many others experience when a teacher refuses to ‘go that extra mile’ made me resentful and bitter and I find it difficult to look back on my experiences with anything other than a sense of relief that it is all over.  This should not be what learning is all about.  It impedes the creative process and doesn’t engender a sense of self-acceptance and understanding within oneself.

As Einstein said, ‘Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned at school’ and I wholeheartedly agree.

Literary Influences (2)

20 Mar

Anything and everything about John Merrick, The Elephant Man

Since first hearing about him, I have always been fascinated by the life of the severely deformed John (mistakenly called Joseph) Merrick, also known as The Elephant Man.  Victorian London is often portrayed as a sinister, cruel place in which to live but Merrick’s tale of struggle is probably one of the stories that affected me the most.  I remember our history teacher at school making us watch David Lynch’s brilliant film to encourage us to be more ’empathetic’.  I don’t know if it worked with some of my fellow classmates, most of whom were too busy throwing objects around the room or discussing the upcoming gig at the boys’ school over the road but it definitely made an impression on me.  I remember literally bawling my eyes out by the end of the film and my teacher, concerned that it had had such an impact on me, quickly threw me over a box of tissues.

The film is great but in order to learn more about Merrick and more generally, Victorian attitudes to deformity, I would recommend reading ‘The True History of the Elephant Man’ by Michael Howell and Peter Ford.  I’m not normally a non-fiction reader but this provided me with such a compelling account of Merrick’s life, I was hooked from the beginning.  It also contains some amazing black and white photographs of Merrick, his family and some of the people he encountered along the way.  Howell and Ford are keen to present an objective and impartial view of Dr Treves, who is often portrayed as the saviour to Merrick.  While his determination and talents were integral to Merrick’s comparative peaceful later life, he was an interesting multi-layered character in his own right and I will probably read his account of his time with Merrick in the future.

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Some people have celebrities as role models but mine has been, and will continue to be, John Merrick 🙂

Literary Influences (1)

14 Mar

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath has long been the poster woman for the angsty, troubled poet.  And she was probably the poet that spoke to me the loudest when I was an angsty, troubled teenager.   It was her book of poems, Ariel, that resonated the most with me and I can still recite most lines from Plath’s powerful poem ‘Daddy’ to this day.  On Youtube, there’s a wonderful reading of ‘Daddy’ by Plath herself and I was surprised at how deep and strong her voice was – if possible, it made me love her even more.  This sparked a fascination where I tried desperately to find out everything I possibly could about Plath, reading ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath’ among others.  The latter, in particular, was the most revealing and I found myself identifying with her desperate need to feel and experience more in the world.  The way she describes her love for Ted Hughes and their subsequent stormy relationship is riveting and she beautifully depicts the emotional rollercoaster of their subsequent turbulent relationship.  I think I read her journals non-stop in about two days, completely immersing myself in her thoughts and her anxieties.  Plath is one of those poets who will continue to speak on to so many and she has definitely been a huge literary influence in my life.

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Recently there was some controversy regarding the front (as pictured) of the 50th edition of ‘The Bell Jar’ which some criticised as looking too much like a chick-lit cover.  While, I’m usually the first to try to avoid judging a book by its cover, I’m definitely not a fan.  I know that the publishers say that such a cover could expand Plath’s readership base but I’m not convinced.  I think that the topics explored in the novel, predominantly depression and feelings of isolation, are too important to be painted frivolously and a simplistic cover would be far more fitting.  Nevertheless, it’s the inside that counts, eh? And the ‘inside’ of ‘The Bell Jar’ is pretty amazing. However, for those who have never read any of Plath before, I would suggest reading some of her poetry first as the imagery she uses in her later poems, especially,  is unbelievably powerful and hard-hitting whereas her fiction tends to be more of a slow-burner.

The self-help phenomenon

12 Mar

I’ll admit it: I’m a recovering self-help junkie.  Give me any article, book or video that claims to possess the tools and know-how to transform your life into a shinier, sparklier version and I’ll be hooked.  My love of everything within the self-help/ personal development arena has led me into some slightly surreal situations including taking part in a three-day course at a hotel next to Gatwick, where I was made to massage the strangers sitting next to me and karate chop a piece of MDF with ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blaring in the background.

And it’s not just me who seems to have been sucked into this self-help phenomenon.  With the economy pretty much having been rubbish for the last few years, sales of self-help books have soared even when other genres have suffered significantly.  That’s not exactly surprising – people generally feel lower during times of recession so are more likely to turn to books that help to inspire and motivate them.   If the industry is profiting by making people feel more inspired and hopeful about their lives, surely that can only be a good thing?

Many argue that the self-help industry has a dark side – the side that exploits vulnerable people and convinces them with false promises that they will be able to attain whatever they want.   Critics of Rhonda Byrne’s international bestseller, ‘The Secret’, state that this can lead readers to believe that everything is attainable if one merely wishes for it, which can steer them away from effective solutions to their promise.   Indeed, much of the advice in self-help books has not been scientifically tested despite the authoritative authorial tone that is often adopted, with some advice being downright dubious – just look at Byrne’s potentially damaging view that ‘Illness cannot exist in a body that has harmonious thoughts.’

I guess my penchant for the self-help genre is slightly strange considering I’m an innate cynic; experience has taught me that great expectations often lead to great disappointments.  Life rarely goes to plan and it’s important to realise that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Perhaps, then, this is what attracted me to the shiny world of self-help; it’s the opposite of everything I am.  At one point, I used self-help books as a sort of comfort blanket, something to cling onto when I was feeling vulnerable as I believed they would be the tool to allow me to become this amazing, new and exciting person.  However, these are categorically wrong reasons to read self-help books.  In fact, obsessively reading self-help books can actually be viewed as a manifestation of my own self-hatred.  I didn’t like myself and I turned to these to try to find ways to change who I was and become the person I thought I should be.  Constantly looking for a quick fix or solution to my unhappiness has shown me that a self-help book can never offer this – it requires internal reflection and maintaining a sense of purpose, among other things.

Despite all of this, I definitely feel that self-help books still have their place.  It’s a testament to people’s desire to improve themselves and keep developing to be the best they can be and that’s not to be frowned at.  Instead, I think that a lot of advice should be taken with a pinch of salt and without blindly assuming the  author is an expert – after all, how does one become an ‘expert’ in personal development?  As in any genre, there will be good and bad books and you should appeal to your commonsense principle to decide which book best suits you.  Self-help books and articles can be an amazing tool to help give you a lift and point you in the right direction but they do not provide a magic cure for everything.  They should inspire you to make positive changes in your life rather than make you feel bad at having done things a certain way thus far.

This is why I am proud to say I am a big fan of personal development and any tools, whether they be books or articles, that help me in this journey.

Tiny Buddha article (2)

8 Mar

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I am so happy and grateful to have my second article, ‘Getting to know yourself, what you like and what you want in life’  featured on the Tiny Buddha website (available to read at http://tinybuddha.com/blog/getting-to-know-yourself-what-you-like-and-what-you-want-in-life/).  I actually sat down at the end of last year at my desk after thinking about things (mainly what I had learnt, as you do at the end of the year) and I just felt the sudden urge to write about my experiences.  They weren’t initially meant as articles -at first, they took the form of a sort of internal monologue but I gradually realised that they provided a good basis for articles.  Turning them into articles was actually a really positive experience because it required me to think of advice and tips I could give to combat the feelings I experienced.  As a result, I became a lot more aware of my actions and what I could do differently to make myself feel better.  I hope these articles are in some tiny way inspiring or helpful to others 🙂

Novel update

7 Mar

I have been pretty lax with writing my novel.  Not something I’m proud of.  I have, however, been working on a series of short stories, some of which I’ve sent off to various competitions so hopefully something positive can come of these although I find out quite a bit later on in the year.  I think it’s easier to keep motivated when writing short stories – probably something to do with the shorter time span involved in creating them which allows you to see the fruits of your labours sooner rather than later.

To try and get back into the swing of things, my predominant focus this weekend will be my writing.  I have even taken Monday off to spend a whole day in the library.  No distractions at all – I shall disable the internet – and let’s see what happens…