An Accidental Writing Retreat

My name is Alison, and I have a problem with doing things just for me.

Not doing things by myself, you understand; just doing things and spending money on things that only benefit me.

So it’s not surprising that although I’ve been tempted to book myself on the writer’s holidays that Della Galton praises so highly, or the writers’ retreats that Nicola Morgan and Laura Wilkinson have both enjoyed recently, I never have – because it seems self-indulgent; a holiday for one, albeit a working one, that would use money I could put towards a week in a cottage for the whole family. Perhaps if I was a mega-bestselling author, then…

Before anyone suggests that I Have Issues and Need Psychoanalysis, there’s no need. I know where the roots of the problem lie, and as my husband will attest, I’ve got a lot better over the years at allowing myself to buy things that aren’t a) the cheapest option available or b) life and death necessities. I now, for instance, own more than one bag. It took me a while.

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So. The writing retreat thing. Brief background:

  • Techie Husband often has to work abroad for a few days, and once when asked to do so at short notice, was told he could take me for free as a sweetener
  • I couldn’t go due to work, although it planted the seed of me/all of us going some other time
  • It was no real loss because his hotel was, as is so often the case, miles away from any pretty/interesting areas.

But recently he was asked to go to Bamberg and I made the mistake of looking at some images online and checking the hotel location, which for once is central, and not far from the river that flows through the city – a city that, if Google is anything to go by, is beautiful.

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I was seized by Crazy. Could we all go and make up for our disaster-prone, illness-filled, wind-and-rain besieged holiday in Wales? There were even vegetarian restaurants for Constructo Boy, who is a pescaterian – something we’d presumed would be hard to cater for in Germany or Austria. I sent a jokey email to Techie Husband about it and shortly after the phone rang. “Were you serious? Because I need to book in the next two hours.”87px-Bamberg-Schlenkerla1-Asio

I dithered. He looked up prices. Booking a twin room for the kids would be pricey at the same hotel; Arty Daughter offered to stay at a cheaper hotel but Constructo Boy wasn’t keen on that – or on having fun while his Dad would be stuck at work for hours, possibly including evenings (often, he’s overseeing the installation of IT and comms systems best started when other staff aren’t in the office).

So I said no, but felt  sad. I’d been quite carried away. But it wasn’t fair to go without the kids – was it? I’d barely see my husband and it would only be fun for me… wandering the beautiful streets of Bamberg when I wasn’t writing… completely undisturbed… using the desk and free WiFi…. in the hotel room room that, unlike the kids’ one, was already paid for…

BW Bamberg room

A writing retreat had landed in my lap and I’d said no. What an idiot.

My children started on the psychoanalysis, telling me that I deserved to sometimes do something just for me and that I should go (see – told you I didn’t need your psychoanalysis offers). So I texted my poor husband who got the booking changed (saving his company the sole occupancy fee), and booked myself on the same flights.

So what will I do when I’m there?

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Wander.
Take in some sights and smells.
Learn something about Bamberg.
Be completely without responsibility to do anything other than write what I want for a few days.
What is  that like?

 

writing snipProbably work on the new novel that’s brewing and two short stories I’ve outlined this week, and if they don’t gel then go back to this novella >
that’s been sitting neglected for the last few years, with a few gaps that together only need around 7000 words to fill them…

… I might even blog about it! 😉

The Write Space, or Where I Write Now

If you don’t remember me telling you about moving my working space into the corner of the master bedroom, I don’t blame you. I’ve just looked back to the relevant blog post and found, to my amazement, that it happened back in 2012. I hadn’t had my desk assembled anywhere for a long time so it was great to have it back up, and to be able to use all the handy storage space it provides. In my post, I optimistically stated: “Hopefully my new ‘writing home’ will produce good results.”

But it didn’t – at least, not for very long. Because despite the way it looks here, with the benefit of flash and sunlight streaming in (only possible because I’d pulled the curtain right back, which meant moving all the books, as the desk obscured a good portion of the window)…

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… it’s a dark dingy corner. There’s no view, no light, and behind me there’s a bed and the inevitable junk that always seems to be cleared from other parts of the house and end up, even if only temporarily, in our bedroom. Coupled with the fact that you can’t move the curtain properly… it just didn’t work, and being able to see my work desk when I was trying to chill and get ready for bed wasn’t exactly relaxing.

Gradually the desk was abandoned and I found myself sometimes working on a lap-tray sitting on the settee, but mostly working at the dining room table, which has a great view of the garden and oodles of light thanks to a huge window and patio doors.

But a while ago I decided that for the sake of my back, intermittent hernia, concentration, sanity and need for easily accessible, compact storage, I needed to go back to having an office – and I needed it before we could afford the garage conversion. So I excavated the spare room and my lovely husband reassembled my desk.
Ta-da!

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A far brighter room (no flash required!) with a view over the houses and the green space opposite, so that I can have a stare out the window if I want. It’s given me a work space that I can shut the door on if I want, and there’s a laptop dock so that I can use a keyboard and monitor at the right height. The bed-settee below squeezes in beside the desk, providing a thinking chair and somewhere for the kids and him indoors to sit when they arrive home and want to chat about their day – and if we have guests, there is just room to move it and open it out in the space in front.

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This is a good thing as the bed settee was called upon not soon after, when my friend was taken into hospital and her boys had to stay for a while. But I’m back in now and it has made the world of difference. All my bits and pieces are just where I need them…

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…including essential books.

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And any that don’t fit on the desk are on a dedicated bookcase. Hooray!

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As a finishing touch, there’s room for my lovely magnetic calendar with all my deadlines clearly marked, so that it’s easy to see where I can fit in other work.

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The room has a lovely feel to it and when I’m there, I’m productive and focussed – and not tempted to answer the phone in the middle of a work session because it’s too far away, so it saves me from the curse of the cold-callers too.

Although I can write anywhere when I have to – I do this as a job, so there’s no time for waiting for inspiration in a garret – this really is the Write (pun completely intended) Space.
Where’s yours? 🙂

Random Fact Friday: What links Terry Pratchett with Saturn?

I don’t need to tell you Terry Pratchett was a comic genius and a campaigner for many things that matter. I’ve got a feeling you know that already.

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Terry Pratchett (Photo: Robin Zebrowski)
I also don’t need to tell you that he created Discworld, a flat planet carried through space by four elephants who themselves stand on the back of a giant turtle; a turtle who is swimming through space towards, it’s widely believed, a rendezvous with another turtle of romantic inclination.

But perhaps I do need to tell you that we have our very own Discworld in our solar system!

Okay, to be fair, Saturn isn’t as flat as the Discworld is portrayed to be. If Saturn did have water, it wouldn’t be flowing off the edge of the planet as it does on Discworld.

But Discworld is the flattest planet (that we know of) in Terry’s imaginary universe, and while Saturn may not be the flattest planet in our universe, it is the flattest planet in our solar system. Its polar diameter is just 90% of its equatorial diameter, due to its low density and fast rotation (it turns on its axis once every 10 hours and 34 minutes. That’s pretty fast). So it’s not so much flat as… squashed.

Saturn is also the most distant planet that can be seen with the naked eye and it has the most extensive rings of any planet in our system too. It isn’t full of wizards, dwarves, reformed vampires and cantankerous witches – in fact, it’s not capable of supporting life (or not as we know it, Jim).  But its largest moon, Titan, is the only moon in the Solar System to have a substantial atmosphere – and could potentially support life.

Random Fact Friday: First Chocolate in Space

Chocolate in space? I hear you cry. What WAS the first chocolate in space? 

M&Ms became the first solid chocolate products to go into space in 1981 when they went on a mission with the first space shuttle astronauts.

M&Ms were launched in 1941 by the Mars company but didn’t get the little printed M trademark until 9 years later. This was introduced to ensure customers were buying ‘the real thing,’ inspiring the slogan:  ‘Look for the M on every piece.’

In 1981, the astronauts chose to take M&Ms (or ‘candy coated chocolates’, as NASA diplomatically refers to them!) into space on the first shuttle mission. Yet ironically in 1982, Mars rejected the idea of a tie in to the E.T franchise and inclusion in the film – while Hershey agreed to the inclusion of their Reese’s Pieces (similar to M&Ms), and saw a dramatic increase in sales.

M&Ms have since gone into space on 130 missions – including the final Atlantis shuttle mission in July 2011. Members of the team were presented with special blue, red and silver M&Ms. They had the usual “m” on one side but on the reverse was either an image of the shuttle orbiter, “3… 2… 1… Lift Off!” or “July 8, 2011”. These special M&Ms remained on the ground, but the astronauts had the almond version on board to snack on. 

Special M&Ms for final shuttle mission
Photo credit: http://collectspace.com/

But M&M fame and glory doesn’t stop there. In 1984 M&Ms were one of the official Olympic snacks along with Snickers, and in 1990 they were a sponsorship snack for the Soccer World Cup in Italy along with Mars Bars. When blue M&Ms were introduced In 1995, the top of the Empire State Building was bathed in blue light to mark the occasion, and in 2000 M&Ms became the official ‘candy of the new millennium’… because MM represents 2000 in Roman numerals!

Today, M&Ms are available in Milk Chocolate, Peanut, Dark Chocolate, Dark Chocolate Peanut, Almond, Peanut Butter, Pretzel and Coconut, and M&Ms World Stores in New York, Orlando, Las Vegas, London and Shanghai are visited by millions of people every year.

 

 

A Fair Hearing in February

Apologies. The title of this post is a terrible joke based on two of my articles published this month. At least I presume they’ve both been published, because I can’t find one of them in any digital versions of magazines that usually publish me, but where they go is up to my Ed, so who knows :).

My health column this month was on tinnitus, because tinnitus awareness week was this month (2nd to 8th February). It’s a common misconception that tinnitus is ‘just’ an occasional ringing in your ears. Not so – it’s a lot more complicated and varied than that, and I wrote about it for three reasons. Firstly, Techie Husband suffered from it quite badly (not so much any more – I’ll explain why in a bit), as does Arty Daughter on and off; secondly, it’s a poorly understood problem that needs a higher public profile; and thirdly, I’d also recently gained a greater knowledge of tinnitus by pitching for (but narrowly missing out on) a contract to write three leaflets for the British Tinnitus Association aimed at children from different age groups.

Tinnitus pdf snip

Even though it’s still not fully understood, tinnitus appears to occur when our brain, used to filtering out superfluous signals (e.g. noise from humming refrigerators), finds itself not getting enough noise. It demands more information from our ears, and this is what triggers tinnitus. This phenomenon in itself can have other root causes, such as certain medications or illnesses. Of course, if your ears already don;t work as well as they should, your brain is aware that it’s not getting enough signals – and this is why people like Techie Husband, who have poor hearing, are more prone to tinnitus (particularly if, like him, they are missing specific frequencies or narrow frequency bands). Techie Husband has now had hearing aids for several months and it’s really made a difference. That’s great news because his tinnitus had been getting steadily worse, growing from a minor and occasional irritation into a major nuisance that made it difficult to relax.

So there’s the hearing reference. As for the ‘fair’… Fairtrade Fortnight is coming up soon. From 23rd Feb to 8th March there will be a host of events and promotions to spread the Fairtrade message, and to draw attention to this year’s specific theme – as I explain in this paragraph (from the short version of my article’.

This year, Fairtrade Fortnight’s nationwide ‘I See’ Campaign aims to ‘reinforce personal and emotional connections with Fairtrade’, making us more aware of how our shopping choices can have positive and profound effects on the lives of others, and helping us understand how Fairtrade benefits producers.
Claire Salundi, Project Manager for Fairtrade Fortnight, hopes the celebrity-fronted campaign will help consumers “understand more about what lies behind their everyday shopping and to make the connection between brewing a cuppa and someone’s son learning to read as a result.”

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So I’ll leave you with this thought from my article:

The Power to Change the World Every Day’
By swapping your tea, chocolate or even your skirt for a Fairtrade alternative, you support farmers and producers in developing countries and Fairtrade’s campaign for a fairer, more sustainable food system.

“When you buy Fairtrade tea, I notice,” says Mario Mantagna, a Sri Lankan tea farmer. “Thanks to the premium price I get, we’ve been able to build a school in my village.” Proof enough that we really do – as Fairtrade says – have ‘the power to change the world every day’.

Not-So-New Year Resolutions

Making resolutions for a whole year is not to be undertaken lightly (and some would say, best not undertaken at all). It’s true that resolutions are often too ambitious, too vague and too unrealistic to do much except falter miserably before January is out – and sometimes, shock horror, they’re not even SMART (if you’re not familiar with this acronym, commiserations/congratulations – delete as appropriate. Where have you been?).

I’ll explain SMART to the (happily? unfortunately?) uninitiated in a moment. But you’ll notice I’ve already cleverly avoided the ‘faltering before January is out’ trap by making my resolutions in February. I’ve also limited myself to five – enough to cover more than one ‘life area’, but not so many that I don’t have a hope of remembering the bloomin’ things, let alone sticking to them.

So… SMART. What are SMART goals?

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People are taught slightly different versions of what this acronym means, but I’ve usually been told it stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely. According to www.projectsmart.co.uk, these are some of the other meanings attributed to the letters:

S – specific, significant, stretching

M – measurable, meaningful, motivational

A – agreed upon, attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented

R – realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented

T – time-based, time-bound, timely, tangible, trackable

Here are my five Not-So-New Year Resolutions, which I’ve done my best to ensure are Specific, Measurable and Meaningful, Achievable and Action-Oriented, Realistic and Rewarding, and Timely.

  1. To walk for at least an hour and a half a week. Every week.
    I used to do this and more, but it’s fallen by the wayside. I know the reasons why, so I need to do something about it. Some weeks all I do is walk to work, which only takes me up to around an hour a week.
  2. To submit at least one short story every month, whether that be to an anthology, competition or magazine.
  3. To fit in a 15 minute session of yoga or WiFit exercises every week, hiatus hernia allowing.
    Again, I’ve got out of the habit and once I’m out, I find it hard to get back in!
  4. By my birthday in May, to have lost and kept off 4lb, meaning that I can have a blip without returning to the Number of Doom (I make no apologies for using pounds and stones; as far as people’s weights are concerned, I never went metric, okay?).
  5. To have a plan for fun and practical stuff and review it regularly with Techie Husband (and kids where appropriate), so that a) as a family and a couple we go out more this year, and b) we carry on making progress towards the garage conversion and D.I.Y projects. Keeping on top of the small steps will hopefully help us (metaphorically) build the staircase! So far we’ve chosen a shed, I’ve ordered it, and Techie Husband has constructed it with help from all of us (not the best pics, as they were taken on my phone).

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I also advertised the hundreds of plastic sacks taking over the garage to FB friends, free to any takers, and got rid of quite a few. Next we need a snow and rain free day to start moving items out of the garage and into the shed! You can barely move in the garage at the moment, let alone convert it.

It was tempting to put in an extra writing resolution or two, but I’m sticking to one for now. I really would like to get back into fiction, so it’s best to focus on that. Any other strides I make with my writing will be a bonus.

Oh no! I just thought of a number 6 that’s really important.

6. Set aside half an hour a week to write a blog post and keep my website up to date.
At the moment, details of my published articles are months behind and I’ve now got some PDFs to use on the site too.

I’ll revisit my resolutions on here now and then to see keep myself accountable.

So did you make any New Year Resolutions? Or did you decide not to this year? If you made them, have you stuck to them? Perhaps you make monthly or quarterly resolutions instead. I’m interested to know what works – or doesn’t – for you, so let me know. 🙂