CreativeMornings Sheffield

CreativeMornings is a monthly event that tales place in cities all over the world. Creative folk get up early and gather at a lovely venue to drink coffee, eat too much pastry and hear a talk by someone marvellous.

CreativeMornings comes to Sheffield

Sheffield, my home city, now has its own CreativeMornings. Set up by the ace Penny Lee, it’s only been going for a few months and already folks snaffle tickets up sharpish.

You can look out for a CreativeMornings Sheffield podcast that I’m working on and plan to launch later this month. For now, check out the video above, which I hastily put together following a last-minute decision to take some footage on my phone at the last event.

It’s rough around the edges, but was good fun to do. Lesson for next time: take more footage!

Printed By Us

To give you a little more information about the talk, the speaker was Mark Musgrave, who with the help of my old pals at Yoomee, has created a great project called Printed By Us.

Here’s what it’s all about:

We run screen printing workshops for people in Sheffield who may have experienced homelessness and other complex issues. We collaborate with local artists to create unique artwork, then: We hand screen print artwork. We sell the prints. We run more workshops.

It’s a smashing idea and so far, it seems to be working.

It was amazing to hear from James, who has previously been homeless and said that his life had improved significantly because of Printed By Us. James even did a live screen print on the day – everyone got to take home a ‘Just Take The Next Step’ print, designed by Rich Wells.

Take a look at the Printed By Us website and consider buying a print, if you can afford it.

Fact or fiction: autobiographical novels with Édouard Louis

This episode of the Guardian Books podcast featuring Édouard Louis had me absolutely hooked.

I hadn’t heard anything about Édouard Louis before, but two things struck me about his interview. First, the eloquence and clarity with which he talks about his childhood and the impact it had. Second, the way he was able to separate his own story from the writing. Such a difficult thing to do.

Here’s more information about Louis and the context of the interview:

Édouard Louis received huge acclaim in France at the age of 21 for his debut book, The End of Eddy, an autobiographical novel about a gay child who grows up surrounded by poverty and homophobia in a post-industrial French town. Despite France’s long history of autofiction, Louis’s book sparked a hunt for the truth, with French media descending on his home town in Picardy to talk with locals and try to determine what was real.

I highly recommend you give the episode a listen. It’s not often I hear an author talk about their work and feel compelled to go and buy it. This morning, I bought The End of Eddy and can’t wait to get stuck in.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders

George Saunders is one of those authors I’ve heard other people rave about for years but never read myself. After rewatching his brilliant advice on storytelling, I decided to give him a go.

Drawn in by the amazing cover and title, I chose a single short story aimed at both young readers and adults: The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.

I loved this book. It’s a kind of fable or morality story about a three-house village besieged by gappers – ball-like creatures that have a serious thing for goats.

This is the opening. It’s a brilliant opening.

Ever had a burr in your sock? A gapper’s like that, only bigger, about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like the eyes on a potato. and gappers love goats. When a gapper gets near a goat it gives off a continual high-pitched happy shriek of pleasure that makes it impossible for the goat to sleep, and the goats get skinny and stop giving milk. And in towns that survive by selling goat milk, if there’s no goat milk, there’s no money, and if there’s no money, there’s no food or housing or clothing, and so, in gapper-infested towns, since nobody likes the idea of starving naked outdoors, it is necessary at all costs to keep the gappers off the goats. Such a town was Frip.

What a set up, right?

The story revolves around the three families of Frip who need to get rid of the gappers. That job falls to their respective children, who must brush the goats each night then throw the gappers into the sea. The gappers just come back though, which makes the children’s lives a misery.

It’s weird and haunting and also sort of beautiful.

When the gappers decide it’s more efficient to visit just one of the houses, the other two families rejoice and refuse to help. What results is a tale of kindness and community, but also a look at how humans treat each other in times of need. Which is, quite often, rather badly.

I should say that The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is brilliantly illustrated by Lane Smith, who also worked with Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss. The illustrations really work well and bring the story to life.

I read it through in about half an hour and can’t recommend it enough. I’m looking forward to a little more George Saunders later in the year.

Art is theft

This is a gorgeous short film by Daniel Cordero. It outlines the idea that creativity comes from the artists and art that inspire us – that we ‘steal’ it to make something new.

Creation is not inspired by one man, woman or one thing. We are influenced by our daily fair, diverse artists etc. I have admired various influential artists in my life, such as Picasso, Dali and Warhol. With this film, I attempted to convey an approach to the creative process and express how all artists, at any level, “steal” the art and the very soul of other artists, while forming their “original” pieces.

Of course, this is the key theme in Austin Kleon’s ace book, Steal Like an Artist, which I generally reread every few months and dip into more often than that.

The $100 Startup

I’m trying to make sure I read more in 2017. One way of doing that is to share some short thoughts about the books I get through here on the site. Let’s get cracking.

The $100 Startup is both a book and the kind of thing that sounds really rather appealing. Lots of people want to start their own business and the internet has given us a way of doing it on the cheap. All you need is a product that people want and the ability to sell it to them.

That’s the theory, anyway. The $100 Startup is full of case studies to prove it. Too many case studies, in fact. Every chapter is packed with real examples that describe (in detail, lots of detail) how other people have turned a good idea into a full-time business.

After a while, the case studies become a pain. I found myself wanting the book to cut to the chase and offer some practical advice. Because when it does, The $100 Startup is really quite interesting and useful. The section on launching a product was particularly handy, as was the bits on finance.

So yes, there is useful stuff in here, but like most of these ‘anyone can do it’ books, most of it could be said in a handful of blog posts. In fact, if you’ve already read around the subject of setting up a business around a simple idea that costs very little, I’m not sure there is much new for you.

And as it turns out, the best bits are free on The $100 Startup’s very own website too.

Virginia Woolf on why writing isn’t a craft

This is the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf. She’s reciting the opening of an essay on how to read literature, but there’s some incredible stuff on writing too. It’s a fascinating insight.

I quite liked this pointed section:

“Think what it would mean if you could teach, or if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper you pick up would tell the truth, or would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words. For though at this moment at least a hundred professors are lecturing the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in English literature with the utmost credit. Still, do we write better, do we read better, than 400 years ago, when we were unlectured, uncriticised, untaught?”

With all the fuss over the merits (or otherwise) of post-graduate writing courses, this could have been written and spoken today. Zing!

How to build a fictional world

This is a great TED-Ed video by Kate Messner. And this is the important bit:

“Just like real life, fictional worlds operate consistently within a spectrum of physical and societal rules. That’s what makes these worlds believable, comprehensible and worth exploring.”

It doesn’t really matter what you write, whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, erotica or good old literary fiction. The world you create can be anywhere. It can feature whoever and whatever you want, but it must be consistent. It must have its own logic. It must be true to itself.

How Ricky Gervais learned to write

There are two things I like about this clip of Ricky Gervais talking about the writing advice he received at school.

First, the larking about at the start and suggestion that no one writer’s process is any more interesting or important than any other’s. Second, that there is truth in the everyday – the boring:

“Being honest is what counts. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary. It’s your job as a creator or director to make an audience as excited and fascinated about a subject as you are. And real life does that.”

You might also want to take a look at Gervais talking about his approach to comedy.

George Saunders on the mystery of storytelling

So if I’m going to start sharing the good stuff with you here on the site, it’s going to have to be the good stuff. And it doesn’t get much better than this video of George Saunders talking about storytelling and the writing process.

This resonates with me:

“My experience is to have some idea of what the story is, and sometimes it’s just the tiniest kernel of something you enjoyed writing. Then, once you put it on the page and rewrite it and rewrite it, it’s actually your own discontent with that in some slow, mysterious way, urges it to higher ground. And often it’ll do so in ways that surprise you.”

Discontent is the word. Perfect.

As a writer, you edit and work at something until you reach a point where you are… content. Not delighted or cock-a-hoop, necessarily. But content that the words are in order. That you’ve done what you can for the story.

If you watch the video on Vimeo, you’ll find links to some extra clips that are also worth your time. Saunders talks about writing tricks and having a quality ‘needle’ and again, it rings completely true to me.

Some goals for 2017

I do tend to give myself goals at the start of each year, but I don’t often write them down and I’ve never shared then publicly before. But then this year does feel different, somehow. I don’t know why.

Work

I’ve spent the last year doing content strategy and managing some ace projects at Yoomee, a Sheffield digital agency. I’ve produced websites and apps, ran all manner of workshops and learnt an awful lot about project management along the way.

However, my contract with Yoomee is to cover maternity leave and that ends pretty soon. I’m currently on the hunt for new opportunities and have started ramping up my freelance work again, which I do via my own budding content agency, Very Meta.

It’s a strange thing to not know exactly what I’ll be doing work-wise over the coming months, but it’s exciting too.

If you or someone you know needs an experienced copywriter or content professional, feel free to send them my way. Or if you have a super interesting project you’re working on that might use my help, just email iain@verymeta.com and tell me about it.

Writing

I’m a novelist too, remember? Remember!

If you’ve followed me for any time, you probably know that having three children in four years (plus a full-time job – see above) has somewhat affected my ability to quickly pen a second novel. I’ve come to accept it and I try to reflect on this excellent quote from Jessica Hische on a daily basis. Sometimes hourly.

“I think I’d be able to forgive myself for a few years of not being the most productive designer, but I couldn’t forgive myself for a few years of not being the best parent.”

But at some point the work must be done. There has been a lot of thought and planning gone into this second novel already. Words have been written, of course. But most of all, I now have a real sense of what I want the novel to say and do. I understand its tone. I just need to write.

So what’s the goal? I will try and be realistic and say I aim to have a first draft complete, as a minimum, by December.

Internetting

We recorded the last episode of the Write for Your Life podcast at the start of 2016. Soon after, I redesigned, renamed and relaunched my newsletter: Shelflife. It was the only thing I consistently published throughout the year.

Shelflife gets consistently excellent open rates and the response to the new format has been overwhelmingly positive. That said, I do very little to try and get new people to subscribe. I plan to do something about that in 2017.

Primarily, that means I’m going to start sharing here on my website. I don’t currently have time for 2000-word think-pieces, but there is no reason why I can’t share more of what I read and watch online with you. My plan is to post regularly for the next three months and see how it goes.

So much – like, everything – depends on what I’ll be doing for a living, but a new podcast with Donna Sørensen is also on the cards. We have the idea. We have the will. We just need to create the time and make a pilot.

I know what you’re thinking. If I am to write a novel, how will I do all this other stuff too? Truth is, I’ve tried giving up the other stuff and it hasn’t worked. In fact, my slow retreat from the internet has made me feel more and more disconnected from the whole idea of being an author.

It’s up to me to work better.

Reading

Finally, I thought I should talk about my reading. I’ve always been a slow and slightly picky reader, but the last couple of years have been particularly bad for me in terms of the number of books read. Can I blame having children again?

The good news is, I have already started dealing with this. In November, I started tracking my reading. I decided to read at least 25 pages a day and I’m using an app called Momentum for extra motivation.

25 pages may not seem like many, I know. But I’m finding it a very doable number. I’ve missed just a handful of days, mainly over Christmas, and that daily progress has helped me fly through a few books. As a technique, it’s working and that’s what matters.

Again, being realistic, I’d like to read around 30 books in 2017.

Anything else?

Yes, just one more thing and I touched on it when I wrote about the US election results. This year, I aim to change how much I use technology to read the news. 2016 was brutal, but it was also addictive.

I’m not going to live in a hut somewhere, but I do want to significantly reduce how much noise I let into my brain. It’s not good for me and it’s not good for you, either. So let’s switch off and make stuff instead.