Click here to read all about what I found when I met Becky John, founder and MD of Southampton’s ethical lingerie company Who Made Your…?
Click here to read all about what I found when I met Becky John, founder and MD of Southampton’s ethical lingerie company Who Made Your…?
Last week I walked up to a total stranger and stood in front of her. When instructed to do so, she gave me a card in which she had written the following message:
“Remain open to life, with its constant adventures and opportunities for growth that help you to reach your full potential”
This year has been full of surprises. Having spent an entire adult life building and preserving an identity – one of means, prosperity and well executed plans – I found myself in quite the opposite circumstances, having to start over. It was truly a case of stepping into the unknown and I took an uninformed, instinctive decision to follow paths that felt right, without regard for where they might lead or what might be in it for me.
I have met, in this time, some of the most extraordinary people. Materially, I’ve had nothing to give but I’ve never before felt more appreciated, nor more loved. Doors have opened that I never even knew were mine to walk through. Every day has brought a new connection, a chance encounter, an opportunity to collaborate.
Then, three weeks ago, I attended an event aimed at people who work in my field. Towards the end of the evening, a guy came over and introduced himself, expressing regret that he hadn’t done so previously. I’d seen him earlier, bathed in a glow of serenity. Without pre-amble he suggested I visit his organisation and watch the way they work. He gave me a card and that was that.
One week later, I found myself at their door where, it seemed, they help graduates to improve their chances of finding work. So far, so so, I thought. Then, as I watched, something extraordinary happened. I could quite clearly see little seeds get planted in these people and start to germinate. The participants began to approach their conversations and dialogues in completely new ways. They seemed to grow and stretch in front of my eyes.
This day was not about skills or techniques or practising interviews.
This was how to be you.
Spontaneously, the facilitators started to involve the visitors, me among them. We began to engage with participants and offer what we could in terms of experience and perspective. There was no time to think; just to be.
Afterwards, the guys who run the organisation – including the one I’d met a week before – gathered the visitors together and we talked. Core to what they teach and how they work, we learned, is the concept of giving without expectation; of thinking only about what it’s possible to bring to a situation or interaction, rather than what’s there to be taken. I remember the hairs standing up on my neck. I ventured a contribution. Courage, I said. Courage and authenticity. Isn’t that what it’s about?
In and at the end, everything fell into place.
The participants were asked to spread out in the room. Visitors were to go and stand in front of the participant to whom they were drawn at that moment. I had no hesitation. It didn’t even feel like a decision.
Each participant had in his or her hand a card, containing a handwritten message prepared earlier in the day, long before the visitors arrived. At the precise moment of instruction, the cards were given and we, in silence, received.
For months I have longed for a pair of shoes. Sleek, black suede, they have a high, wedge heel with a peep toe and an ankle strap. Elegant, retro, 1950’s chic. I’ve gazed at them online. I’ve stood at the shop window and stared. I’ve checked on eBay – and checked again – for unexpected bargains.
Then, today, I had my head turned, faithless as I am. In the sale they were: 1/3 off! Nestled discreetly on the shelf, they sat amongst the dull and the gaudy, the flat and the trashy, the frankly mundane.
I tried them on. A perfect fit! They are beautiful, pink and meant for me.
I nearly missed the bluebells this year, such has been my preoccupation with apparently more pressing matters.
Midweek brought a mini crisis, which with the benefit of a little distance and perspective I was able to understand as being another milestone on this journey. I owe it to a friend who covered my commitments and spared me the train ride to the city.
“I’m in a bad mood!” you grumped, as you sat on the edge of my bed, trying to de-tangle your hair.
“Is it clinging together again?” I asked, sympathetically.
You looked at me and stuck out your lower lip in lieu of response.
“I’m a bit sad” you mumbled “because of Thundercat not coming home last night”
“He’s done it before” I soothed. “I am sure he’ll be back soon, when he’s ready”
“I know” you said. “I know.”
“I’m so pleased!” you exclaim, as we walk from the salon, into the cold winter air. “I love it!”
“It looks great” I agree. “No more tangles and VERY grown up.”
“Very” you say, contented, and thread your arm through mine.
It’s been raining for weeks. Pouring. Tipping it down. Barely a break in the endless grey that threatens to simply wash us away. The rhododendrons are late.
As is true for so many, it’s all I can do not to be dragged down. We open our eyes each morning to another blanket of gloom and wobble unsteadily, right on the edge of getting back into bed and giving up before the day has begun.
When I arrived home yesterday after three whole days away, my garden had become a jungle; unsurprising, perhaps, but somehow shocking. Today its still there; shocking and wonderful, shimmering and verdant, lush with life.
Ogunte, the company that supports and develops social ventures led by women, has recently announced the finalists in the 2012 Women’s Social Leadership Awards. Now in their 6th year, the awards continue to highlight the achievements of women world-wide whose truly innovative campaigns and enterprises not only benefit but also, crucially, engage and empower the people they serve.
This year, there are 9 finalists in three categories: Social Business Leader 2012 for women who have founded or are leading Social Businesses; Leader in the Workplace 2012 for women in intermediary roles providing activities that reach other social businesses and Leader in NFP/Networks/Campaigns for Change 2012 for women whose activities with no commercial purpose have changed peoples’ lives for the better.
It could be argued that the success or viability of a social venture is the ability of the concept, product or service to reach a mainstream audience and be replicable in a wider context. This is interesting. Social ventures are not main-stream. Not yet, anyway, hence the distinct definition. Perhaps, rather like the ‘alternative’ comedy of the early 1980’s that evolved quite literally as an alternative to the male dominated saucy-seaside-postcard comedy culture of the age, this approach will in time become the norm. However, at present they seek not only to deliver aims and outcomes that are seen as different, but also to do so in ways that are different. There is a strong sense that clear values and principles are much more tightly bound up in the activities and aims of social organisations than one might be used to seeing elsewhere.
There is, perhaps, something here that more socially-conscious corporates might want to think about in terms of what they can learn from social entrepreneurs – and indeed one of this year’s finalists is all about doing just that. Volans, led by Charmian Love, is an intermediary organisation where the core aim is to help businesses embed social and environmental value into their fundamental operating principles. They help clients rethink their business model and social aims, typified by moving one particular organisation’s philanthropic activity from ‘social investment’ to ‘social innovation’. By encouraging wider thinking and bringing together corporate players and social entrepreneurs, Volans enables a different approach to work that delivers the joint aims of both social and economic progress in a way that is environmentally positive and sustainable.
There is something very holistic and almost knitted about the way in which social organisations seamlessly combine the way they work, what they are doing and the outcomes they deliver. Susan Aktemel is a finalist in the Social Business Leader category and is the Director of Impact Arts, a Scotland-based national social enterprise established in 1994. Today, the organisation works with over 4000 children and vulnerable adults, changing lives through innovative, community based arts projects. Clear concepts, adhesion to core values and high quality delivery have been central to their success and growth. Projects include ‘Craft Cafes’ – where people over 50 can learn new skills, take part in creative activities and meet others – and ‘Fab Pad’, an interior design programme for vulnerable younger people to work with professional designers to make their home their own, leading to fewer cases of homelessness and disaffection.
It seems almost impossible to talk about social business and social innovation and not discuss the central role of women in this. Perhaps controversially, Ogunte proudly displays on its website the strapline ‘A better world, Powered by Women’. The implication is very clear that bringing women to the forefront of what makes the world work will make it better. This is in fact at the heart of the Ogunte manifesto and what informs all their work in supporting women with businesses, projects and networks that have both economic (directly or indirectly) and social impact as success criteria. It seems to be a way of saying that the culture, behaviours and values which typify the corporate world are not the only definition of strength and leadership and that these women, described by Ogunte as Social Innovators, present an alternative.
Of course, being different is not without its pitfalls. One of the judging criteria for these awards was the entrants’ ‘capacity to overcome obstacles and gain assurance’. Clearly this was in recognition of the level of swimming upstream needed to operate differently in an established environment. Bratindi Jena, a finalist in the Not-For-Profit Category, works on Actionaid India’s Niyamgiri Protection Campaign, started in 2003 in response to an attempt by a corporate organisation to mine natural resources from Niyamgiri – thus exploiting an area of vital ecological importance. Despite significant opposition and almost daily occurrences of personal threat, Bratindi took the campaign through the law courts and brought it to the attention of high profile national and international environmental bodies. This resulted in no mining licence being granted to date, and the on-going survival of the Niyamgiri and its indigenous people.
One of the social issues that has found its way a bit further into the collective consciousness is that of the expanding global population and the impact on the world’s finite resources. In response to this, Benita Matofska, finalist in the Social Business Leader Category, founded UK-based business The People Who Share, where she holds the enviable title of Chief Sharer. At the heart of Benita’s organisation lies the vision of transforming – through the art of trust and sharing – the ‘need to own’ into the ‘desire to access’, a shift she believes can have far-reaching benefits in areas including well-being, environmental preservation and community cohesion.
Though this kind of thing is theoretically highly scalable and replicable, there is room for doubt (or pessimism) as to how quickly, if at all, the mainstream psyche can move away from the desire to own and acquire. Yes – we are doing it in small ways (think lovefilm.com for DVDs and games or corporations that donate employees’ time and skills to good causes), but it remains to be seen whether widespread sharing will expand beyond the enlightened enthusiasts. Of course, in the fullness of time there may be absolutely no choice, so it’s down to us to decide whether or not to try and reverse the decline. The same applies, really, to the future of all social enterprise. Perhaps at the very heart of it all is whether there is the critical mass of enough people to whom altruism and social aims are of primary importance, in a world where consumerism, acquisition and ownership have for so long reigned supreme. Dare to be different.
Link to Guardian here: http://t.co/36uyxtXY
A couple of weekends ago, Katie and I travelled up to Northumberland on our second visit to the very wonderful Fiona McGee – star of the previous Alchemy story, ‘Arrival’.
It was Palm Sunday. We’d just had a delightful lunch in a country pub called The Rat, which, in case you ever find yourself in the Hexham environs, I can highly recommend. Admittedly, the name is not all that promising, but the reality is a proper treat. Food, service, atmosphere, garden – the lot.
After lunch, we decided to pay a visit to nearby Corbridge – once the epicentre of much battle and drama involving not least some feisty Romans, but now a picturesque, highly desirable market town, population about 3500. It was a gorgeous day: brilliant blue sky; warm sunshine; lovely surroundings. As Katie and Fiona basked on a bench, I stalked around the churchyard taking slightly pretentious architectural photographs of interesting angles and bits of stone. Whilst doing so I came across a truly magnificent clump of tulips, a fiery blaze of brilliant reds and yellows amid the tombstones.
When I returned to Katie and Fiona, they were deep in conversation with an older couple who were amongst many now arriving at and making their way into the church. We were, it transpired, welcome to join the assembled crowds who were there to listen to the church choir perform a piece called, appropriately enough, the Crucifixion. Why not? we thought, and went inside.
I’ll say now that it all started rather well. Save the odd bum note from the organist (which reminded me of my wedding day when I had to walk up the aisle in fits of giggles thanks to the utter chaos being made of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at the Exhibition) the choir did a pretty good job, particularly the two soloists.
Unfortunately the equilibrium was not to last.
Somehow, Katie’s iPhone managed to find its way out of her bag and onto the floor, right in the midst of a quiet and serious bit, clattering loudly as it landed. I looked to my right to give her a grown-up admonishing look, at which point she said, sotto voce, “I try to be good!”
It was the look on her face that did it for me. Before I knew it I was doubled over, tears running down my cheeks as I battled to regain control. I was transported back to my childhood; to the funerals of numerous great aunts, when someone, somewhere, would start the inappropriate giggling, sending a silent, shaking, infectious wave throughout the rest of the congregation. When I dared to look up, Katie and Fiona were at it too and I knew it was game over.
Our saving grace was that we’d had the good sense to sit at the back. During the next noisy part, we slunk out like naughty schoolgirls then burst into further spluttering fits of hysterics as the door closed behind us. We passed the tulips on our way out, standing tall, proud and loud; ashamed of nothing.
Greetings all. This is my second attempt at this posting as I inexplicably managed to delete the first one about a minute after I’d uploaded. Don’t ask me how as I have no idea, but in the interests of being positive, I am (after several minutes of swearing and teeth-gnashing) banking on Take 2 being an improvement. This is in fact what happened when I inadvertently managed to delete half my English Lit ‘A’ Level dissertation the night before it was due in. I had written it in WordPerfect 5.1 on my mum’s 386 laptop (this was millions of years ago you understand) and when it asked me whether I wanted to save changes, I said ‘no’. The perfect logic being applied was that I wanted to save ALL of it, not just the changes.
Anyway, I digress. The purpose of this posting was to share with you my thoughts on writing dialogue, as indeed the title suggests. In doing so I am aware that the writing on this here blog has all been short stories with in most cases little or no dialogue. However, this is not all. No indeed not. Whilst the shorts provide instant gratification (to me if not to anyone else) in the background I am toiling away on a longer piece. It’s actually my second novel-length effort though I confess the first has not yet seen the light of day. That little, ahem, gem remains languishing on an external hard drive in all its chick-lit glory waiting for my loving ministrations once more. Why? Well, I got to within a chapter of the end and decided I didn’t like the second half. However, neither was I enthused about the prospect of a re-write of 40,000 words, so there it remains. Oh, and I know I said chick-lit, but really it’s a Suffolk Borders Aga Saga with a dash of Formula 1 and a Love Rat ™. I can see it now, emblazoned on the nice shiny dust jacket enticing in the weary masses as they trudge through Terminal 5….
So, to dialogue. The point of telling you about the unfinished not-chick-lit thingy is that probably the best bits of the first 40,000 words – and indeed the passable bits of the aforementioned second 40,000 – take the form of meaningful conversations between characters. Even after all these years, they’re still really real in my head. In general terms, it’s great dialogue that really introduces the reader to the complexities of the characters, creating empathy and bringing them to life. This in turn is what makes people truly fall in love with a story, even physically missing the protagonists when the book is ended.
It is for this reason that building great characters is the most important part of the writer’s work. Why do I think this when we’re talking here about dialogue? Well, the better your characters are, the more likely they are to do the work for you and deliver something truly authentic. Developing great characters is all about really knowing them in all their mundanity and all their flawed human excellence. You know their height, weight and hair colour; what they had for breakfast; their favourite colour, record, TV show; what they do of an evening; which side of the bed they prefer; their parents’ names; their views on Marmite and so on. Even if this information doesn’t make it into the book (and I sincerely hope that some of it doesn’t) you nonetheless know it. It’s a critical part of the set-up.
OK, so how does the dialogue actually happen? For me it’s like this:
1. Know your characters inside and out. Know them so well that you could almost reach out and touch them. Make sure they’re that clear for you, even if you hate them. You are giving them life.
2. Set your scene. Where are your talkers? Are they indoors or outside? What’s the space like? Are they sitting or standing? Is there a table? What’s it made of? What colour are the walls? Are there windows?
3. Unless you’re feeling very brave or experimental, or alternatively are stuck for plot detail, make sure you Know Your Outcome. What does the dialogue need to deliver? What purpose will it serve?
4. Once you have set everything up, step back a little, shrink down to about the size of a housefly, find a discreet place to park up and….listen.
That’s it. Really. If you’ve followed all the other steps, your characters will pretty much just start to talk. The best part is that you can pause them, slow them, speed them up and even rewind them. They won’t notice. All you need to do is listen carefully and take dictation. You probably won’t even need to interrupt.
Once you have the hang of this, it should be quite easy and you may even get bits of dialogue pop up when you’re not actively engaged in writing. When this happens I jot down the key bits in my ever-present notebook or sometimes take an audio recording on the phone, just reading out what’s in my head. Now and again I’ll get snippets of dialogue from known characters that have nothing whatsoever to do with the book. An example of this is in the short story ‘Sacrifice’ which together with its twin forms an earlier post on here. The comments I’ve had are about the emotional impact that just a few lines of text can have. Though little detail is revealed about the nature of the protagonists, I know them – and this is what makes their words authentic.
I think that’s just about it for now. If you’re a writer, I hope it’s useful. If you’re not, I hope it’s interesting. If you have another approach, I’d love to hear about it.
You’re cold and unresponsive. You don’t even turn over when I try, gently, to coax some life into you. I don’t blame you – the past months must feel like neglect.
I smooth the smudges of dirt from your body; there isn’t much but its a small thing I can do for now, to show I care.
I reach for the resuscitation machine: plug it in; hook you up. I am hoping to wake the dead.
An hour later, I press the button that lets the sunlight in. The first really beautiful day of the year is there to greet us. With care, I separate you from your energy and tidy you up. Fingers crossed tightly behind my back, we try again and, in one flick that send my spirits skyward, you ROAR into life!
I had forgotten the depth of that vibration as it resonates in my chest, suffusing my body with a deep sense of calm. I swing onto your neat little back and we take off, blowing the winter cobwebs from us both. We take in all our favourite countryside routes, getting to know the curves and contours ready for another year. You’re silent again, just for a moment, when we stop to appreciate the brand new signs of spring.
You always did attract the admiring looks, Electra. Quite the centre of attention.