The Scribbler

25 May 2015

Changing beliefs

I was in Dublin at the beginning of last week, doing a couple of writing workshops. The fact that people there were about to vote on the issue of gay marriage was inescapable. It seemed there were posters on every lamp post as I travelled into the city, reflecting both sides of the campaign. Even though it wasn’t my vote, just being there felt like being somewhere on the verge of change. It was exciting, and that sense of exhilaration continued as I heard the results of the vote back in the UK.

Rainbow flag

Rainbow flag

There are a lot of changes happening in the company I work for at the moment too. Change is happening quickly, and that’s both exciting and a little unnerving. Because I’m seeing and hearing ideas expressed in language that doesn’t quite sound the same as it did before, and at the moment I don’t know the reasons behind that.

It means that in one of those recent training sessions, I didn’t have an answer for a very pertinent question, and had to admit, I didn’t know. Now, I’m not afraid of saying “I don’t know”. But I hope I say it with confidence that I will in time find out.

As I’ve also been working on ideas for a leadership event, it got me thinking about all the times that people have done amazing, wonderful and inspirational things that no one knew they could do until they did them.

Take the events of 6 May 1945 for example, when Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.  At the time, four minutes was such a barrier that people even questioned whether it was humanly possible to break it. But at Iffley Road sports ground in Oxford, paced by Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, Roger Bannister was the first. And since then the record has been broken many times.

Like so many groundbreaking events, the four minute mile was partly a matter of building on what had gone before, learning from successful training techniques and seeking to make the best use of the technology available. Bannister’s track spikes were lighter than those of his contemporaries. Did they give him the advantage that broke the barrier? Hard to say, but those historic shoes are now themselves up for auction.

But as much as the technology of marginal gains and the discipline of training and testing for a challenge, I think there’s also an important element of belief involved in achieving success too. I know from my own running that sometimes the biggest barrier is a mental one. That if you think something is too difficult, then you’re more than half way to talking yourself out of being able to achieve it.

Sometimes you just have to believe in something bigger, to strive to make it happen. That’s what I sense when I think about massive achievements like the Moon landings and John F Kennedy famously saying “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

All that’s before my personal history, but I still have a sense of the huge risks involved in mankind’s giant leap. But I remain hopeful and optimistic that we, as human beings, can achieve many more leaps forward, in science, technology, sport and understanding. And as a massive science-fiction geek, I really hope I’ll be around long enough to see that first Mars landing.

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24 May 2015

Clive Cookson 10k 2015

Filed under: run — The Scribbler @ 14:20
Tags: , ,

It’s fair to say I wasn’t best prepared for this race. But sometimes they’re the best ones.

I’d spent the early part of the week working in Dublin, a city I always enjoy visiting and where I’m always made to feel welcome. I flew in and did a couple of writing workshops, then flew back the following day, feeling rather tired, having not slept well in an overly warm hotel room.

But my legs were well rested, having done nothing much more than a few decent walks and a bit of a swim, and it was a pleasantly warm summer’s evening, so I headed off to Monkseaton High School for the start of the race.

This is one of those great local club runs, well organised by North Shields Poly. Not a big corporate or charity fundraiser, just a good chance for a decent fast race. I picked up my number and timing chip in the school and headed out to do a bit of a warm up.

Me running the Clive Cookson 10k

On the trail section on the second lap. Picture by David Johnson

There’s a good sampling of club runners at this race, with Saltwell, Tyne Bridge, Wallsend, Derwentside and Elvet Striders‘ vests in evidence. It’s a two lap route, mainly on tarmac and pavements, but with a small section on a hard gravelly trail, to form a big circle around the school.

As usual I bounced off way too fast, realising as I ran alongside Alister from Elvet Striders that I was in danger of making things difficult for myself. He gave me a pace check and I dropped back as I caught my breath and settled into a more realistic rhythm.

I really didn’t have a plan for this race. I wasn’t consciously pacing or looking at my watch. I just ran to feel and my legs felt strong and my stride firm as we ran out up Rake Lane toward North Tyneside hospital. It’s a bit of a gradual uphill, but barely noticeable, and I didn’t notice it on the first lap.

Smiley and encouraging marshals kept us on track all the way round. Special mention goes to the chap who stood in front of the bench holding up arrows to make sure no one went clattering into it. I found a nice bit of space and just settled into my own race, passing people and being passed throughout the run.

Last time I ran this course, it was in the other direction and I thought there was more off road, on trail surface. As I turned away from the main road, the sweet thick buttery smell of the fields full of yellow rape flowers and local farms hit my nostrils and I spotted a clump of blue harebells tucked into a grassy verge.

There were a few km markers and as we came round for the end of the first lap, I stole a look at my watch, to see how I was faring at the half way point. I was surprised to see a time not too much slower than this year’s fastest 5k, and to feel that I was still running strong.

Although runners were never out of sight in this race, I was out on my own for good sections, concentrating on reeling in a group in front and hoping those behind didn’t catch up to me. Whenever anyone approached to pass, I tried to stick with them to push my pace on as hard as possible.

I slowed unconsciously the second time up Rake Lane, still not really aware of the slight incline until another runner came past and said, “I’ll be glad when this hill is over.” Turning the corner away from the main road, I found another burst of pace as the path levelled out again.

At the 7km marker, I was still feeling strong and comfortable. A quick check through my form, making sure I wasn’t hitting the ground too hard, picking up my feet and keeping my shoulders down and I started to work out the minutes left to run. I could feel a slight tightening through my left hip and quads, but nothing to worry about.

I played catch up with a couple of other runners through this last section, passing and then being passed by them in turn. At 9km, I made sure I picked up the effort a little, trying not to leave everything to a last desperate sprint finish.

A shout out from the sidelines as I turned the final corner and I picked up into a sprint for the last couple of hundred metres. Over the line, stop the watch and boom! I was pleasantly surprised to see 54:27 – my fastest time over this distance since 2013.

Although not a keenly anticipated and targeted race, I felt like I’d had a really good run. Time to focus on cycling and swimming for the next couple of weeks in preparation for my big race of the season, the Northumberland Standard triathlon on 7 June.

Clive Cookson 10k race results

18 May 2015

A sense of community

Writing is often perceived as a solitary occupation, and there are times when all I need is my notebook and a pen. Having worked as a journalist in radio and TV newsrooms, writing copy for the next bulletin against the background of on air broadcasts, telephones ringing and a dozen conversations going on at once, for me, even peace and quiet is optional. Although I do prefer it if I have thinking to do.

But recently I’ve been reflecting on communities and how the different ones I belong to all inspire my writing.

Running

I’m part of the running and triathlon community in the North East of England and beyond. Through doing parkrun, races and by being a member of a very friendly online running site, I can pretty much guarantee that if I turn up at a local race, I’ll see someone I know.

I started to write about local races as a way of recording my own progress, or to remember a particular feature of a race, such as leg-sapping sand or a steep hill, for the next time. So it’s lovely when I get comments from other runners who read my race reports and say they’ve helped them.

Running also brought me back to personal writing after a long break away from it.  I believe my professional writing is richer for it.

Fiona Thompson reading on a train at the luanch of 26 Under A Northern Sky

Fiona Thompson reading on a train at the luanch of 26 Under A Northern Sky

Writing

I’ve felt more part of a writing community since joining 26. The regular newsletters, articles and suggestions for books to read or things to see are a great source of inspiration. As too are the opportunities to get involved in 26 creative writing projects.

I jumped in first as a writer, contributing a piece for 26 Characters as part of a magical exhibition at the Story Museum in Oxford. Then more recently, I co-edited 26 Under A Northern Sky with Sandy Wilkie and got the opportunity to work with other amazing writers to launch a collection of creative writing inspired by a train journey from Newcastle to Glasgow and the music of Nick Drake.

I’m delighted that this project is currently taking on a life of its own, beyond my editorial influence, as writers are recording their pieces and adding them to an online soundscape.

Reading

cover of Leaves by John Simmons

Leaves by John Simmons – my current read

Community is also a theme in John Simmons’ beautiful debut novel, ‘Leaves’ – my current reading material. It’s set on one street in London in the 1970s. The characters observed and imagined by the narrator looking back at events in his life.

I have only just started reading, and admit, I’m trying to ration my time among the pages, as I have a flight and airport time coming up and I know the inhabitants of Ophelia Street will be welcome company.

John has been posting a daily extract from the book on Twitter, which is a delightful tease. Each sentence seems to offer a short story in itself, but has left me wanting to read more. It merits a slow, careful reading to savour every word.

Here’s a taster from the first chapter:

“In January, we used to say, you saw Ophelia Street in its natural colours. Wintergrey hung like a fog; window boxes lay dormant.”

If you want to read on, you can follow John on Twitter @JNSim #Leaves

Living

Finally there’s my real community. The place where I live. Within five minutes walk from my front door, I can be among a range of small businesses, from coffee and gift shops, to restaurants, guest houses, food outlets, and an art gallery.

I enjoy a browse and a chance to talk to the people behind these largely independent and local businesses. They provide great resources, for me, not just in the goods that I buy and the contribution they make to the local economy, but also as inspiration for my business writing.

In seeking to de-bunk the jargon of business software, I often think to myself, ‘How would I explain this to the lady that runs the deli?’  Or ‘How would this help in the chocolate shop?’

I may not know the detailed ins and outs of their businesses, but keeping the people of my local business community in mind grounds what I write in reality. And that helps what I write about business sound authentic and human.

11 May 2015

Training as a writer

Filed under: copy writing — The Scribbler @ 10:45
Tags: , , , ,

I’m training quite hard at the moment, running, cycling and swimming in preparation for a triathlon in a few weeks’ time. It’s tricky sometimes fitting it all in around my working hours and all the other things I need to do, cooking, cleaning, general chores. But I enjoy it, and so I make time for it.

Cyclist on Newcastle's Quayside

Cycling along Newcastle’s quayside

I’m making more time for my writing too. Time to explore more than just work commitments. Time to try new things and to just enjoy writing for what it is – an important part of me.

I believe writing’s a form of exercise too. You get better as you practice, learn new skills, gain confidence, or just a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Most writers start out mimicking their heroes. I know I did. Somewhere there’s an exercise book filled with adventure stories in the style of C.S Lewis and tales of knights on horseback, battling dragons.

Reading was how I first learnt the elements of stories, about heroes and conflicts, quests and returns. Writing my own taught me about structure – beginnings, middles and endings.

As I got older, I’d learn techniques, hints and tips in my English lessons, such as using all the senses, and the power of metaphor and simile. And more about structure, rhythm and making words dance through poetry.

At University one of my tutors used to set tasks to write essays in the style of the works we were studying – Philip Sidney, John Milton, Alexander Pope… You may think that was a cruel and unusual form of undergraduate torture. But in mimicking the rhetoric, or manipulating my thoughts into rhyming couplets, I became even more conscious of the skill and technique of the writers, and I understood their work at a deeper, more personal level. Of the hundreds of essays I wrote in my University terms, those are the only ones I remember.

As a copywriter, the ability to adopt another’s style is a very useful skill. It helps me sound like the brand or company I’m writing for. But to make it sound authentic, it’s not really enough just to mimic. I believe you have to be able to add something of yourself. And in analysing the work of literary writers, I’ve learned to spot styles and forms that I can adopt and adapt in more commercial and contemporary writing.

Running, cycling and swimming all take some discipline and commitment if you want to improve. The same is true of writing. But just as you don’t know how far or fast you can go until you really try, you’ll never realise your writing potential on a blank page – sometimes you just have to fill it.

4 May 2015

The mind seeks meaning

Filed under: copy writing,writing — The Scribbler @ 10:45
Tags: , , , ,

Meaning. It’s something our minds instinctively reach out for. I was reminded of this whilst listening to some music as I worked on a piece of writing last week. The lyrics of a familiar song took on a new resonance, because of what I was writing about, and I discovered a meaning in them that I hadn’t noticed before.

As human beings we are supremely adept at recognising patterns and seeking out connections. I once took part in a writing exercise that demonstrates this beautifully.

Basho's house, Japan

The home of Japanese haiku writer, Basho

As a group, we were each asked to write a haiku – a Japanese verse form of three lines, made up of five, seven and five syllables. We wrote the last line separately from the first two, then mixed them up and paired them at random to form a new haiku.

You might think the results would be meaningless. But it was amazing how often the last line, although written by someone thinking of an entirely different subject, fitted perfectly and how it drew out new themes from the ones that preceeded it. That was a result of our minds creating connections, seeking out meaning.

Of course, in business writing, you don’t want to make a customer have to work as hard as we did with our haiku to discover the message you’re trying to convey.

Straight, clear, simple and direct is the best way to ensure attention from busy eyes surrounded by thousands of messages every day. Yet there still needs to be space for the reader to get involved and create meaning for themselves.

I use an example in my writing workshops of a message that, in trying to tell you what a complex product does, actually blurs any kind of understanding, because it bombards you with a paragraph of over 40 words. It ends up being empty verbage, and so difficult to read that people get stuck half way through and have to go back to the beginning to try and make any sense of it.

In its over exuberance, trying to tell you everything you ever needed to know in one go, it loses connection with its audience. It’s not helped by the fact that it’s a single sentence full of meaningful sounding, but intangible words like flexibility, stability and strategic.

Connecting with an audience, is often about helping them make the mental leap to think ‘that applies to me’. Using tangible terms really helps. So, for example, showing how something could “help you work just as well in the office as out of it”, rather than using an intangible word like ‘flexibility’, can really help your readers understand what it would be like to use the product or service.

If, as a writer, I can make someone think ‘yes, that’s just like me…’  or ‘I’d like that…’, then I’ve caught their attention and they’re more likely to carry on reading to discover more.

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