Sunday, 28 September 2014

Read Something Wonderful

How do you boost your writing powers when a week at work, with busy, tired evenings and a weekend packed with chores has left your creativity squeezed to an arid husk? Read something wonderful!
This Sunday, I came down before my alarm for an early morning dose of Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas. The man loved a booze-up, but what an extraordinary way with words.
Courtesy of

I loved his work at school – enjoying his vivid, lyrical writing and taking pride in his Welsh splendidness  (my Dad is Welsh, and that counts, OK?) But other than knowing some gorgeous, evocative lines by heart*, I hadn’t paid him much attention since.

Then this summer, on our family pilgrimage to the land of my Fathers, my parents suggested that one evening as we gathered in the cottage, three generations together, Dad was going to read to us from his favourite Thomas piece, The Outing.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure. I thought it might be awkward. In this day and age, people don’t read aloud to each other. In fact, people don’t spend much time listening to each other at all. But Dad went ahead, and do you know what? It wasn’t awkward. The story, of a Chapel outing that turns into a well-dressed bout of after-hours binge drinking, was funny, fresh, sharp and beautifully observed; the wording was bizarre and yet spot-on apt, and it all rolled out in my Dad’s recovered-for-the-occasion soft Welsh accent, warmed by his own appreciation for the work. Three generations laughed, and were spellbound.

It reminded me that it is my Dad who passed on to me his love of literature, that in my teenage years I raided his Penguin classics; that it is thanks to him that I now cherish a collection of my own.

A book shelf panorama from my home

As a writer who struggles to find words that surprise, strike oddly and yet hit home, evoking a startled but precise response, I could see that I needed Dylan Thomas in my head. When Jon asked what he could buy me for my (enormous) birthday this month, I asked for a Complete Works. It lay for a while, adding to the pile of things I feel guilty about because I don’t have time for them. Then this morning, I made time.

The poem, Prologue, was at first strange and mysterious. Then I began to find my way in it. I picked up the poet in his bay, surrounded by the thronging Welsh landscape, writing of a flood. When, some time later, I turned to my own writing, an ongoing (on and on-going) revision of my novel, the power of Thomas remained with me. Ordinary words were suddenly not enough; I deleted them. Fresher, wilder and more sharply aimed, better words took their place.

* Time held me, golden and dying/ Though I sang in my chains, like the sea.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Why is Facebook so Addictive?

Courtesy of

I had a Facebook holiday recently – no, I didn’t have a break from social media, I mean I went on holiday and posted updates about all the fun I was having in real time. It felt like a harmless way of keeping it touch, but it got me thinking, as every golden morning, family joke and appetising meal had me reaching for my phone to share it.
Krka waterfalls in Croatia, as posted on Facebook.

Human beings are profoundly social animals. We thrive on being connected to others, and use exclusion from society as a severe form of punishment. Isolation threatens our mental and physical health, and it is in relationship that we find safety, wellbeing and success.

Social media tap into this fundamental human need. I am using Facebook as an example, but other platforms are as deeply involved. Most of us sign up thinking we are just dabbling, but those onscreen communications soon begin to take on more and more significance. If someone likes something I have said, I feel popular. If I have lots of friends, I feel loved. If someone comments on my post, I am in conversation. When I check the latest newsfeed, I am connected to the wider world, and if I’m the first to pass on some news, I hold the power of knowledge. I feel I get more out of programmes I am watching if I can tap out a comment on them, and scroll through what others have said. On holiday, the moment that I upload as a photograph with a witty caption becomes more than itself: it is out there, immortalised, for others to see and comment on. It matters more; I matter more.

Facebook’s appeal is a heady mix of the stuff we rely on both physically, from the time we are defenceless babies, and psychologically ever afterwards: those feelings of relationship, connectedness and importance. It is powerfully addictive, and all the more so when it is carried around in a hand-held device that rarely leaves our side. Being the bearer of such seductive advantages, our mobile phone becomes more than just a method of communication; it takes on the role of a talisman representing friendship, success and even love.
Courtesy of
Is there anything really wrong with this? It is a great benefit to keep in touch with people we no longer see regularly; we can still feel involved in the lives of friends and family who live far away. Unfortunately though, we reach for those seductive few inches of screen even when we are physically with other people, and so real, face-to-face interaction is fractured by bowed heads, downcast eyes and permanent distraction. As we become more compellingly connected, we also become more isolated, and so we cling more tightly to our communicator, our comforter, our pocket charm.

It is not only our real, in-the-flesh relationships that can be distorted by this phenomenon. It also affects two skills that I believe are vital to wellbeing and growth: our ability to live in the moment, and to spend time inside our own heads. If everything is instantly recorded, shared and expressed, the sheer noisy overload of information risks drowning out our own lived experience and our ability to process and learn from it.

The irony won’t be lost on you that I am using the very platform that causes me these misgivings. You might want to turn off your computer, put your phone away and go and think about all this. Don’t forget to click ‘like’ and leave a comment before you do; it’ll make me feel better about myself.