Wednesday, 28 December 2011

THE LAST WORD by Linda Gillard

Durham Cathedral door handle
As 2011 comes to an end, it’s time to wind up this blog, thank all my guest bloggers and take stock of my CELEBRATE SCIENCE residency.

It was full of surprises. I had no idea Durham was so small or so beautiful. I would never have guessed that being commissioned to write for money wasn’t the authorial Holy Grail I’d imagined. As an agnostic, I couldn’t have foreseen that interaction with scientists would set me thinking – and writing – about religious faith. When Dr Pete Edwards tried to explain to me the significance of the Higgs Boson, I didn’t know that just a few months later, there would be rumours (unconfirmed as I write) that scientists at Cern in Switzerland were about to make an announcement that the 40-year search for the predicted sub-atomic particle was finally over. 

Dr Pete Edwards
It's an interesting time to be celebrating science. As Prof. Brian Greene wrote in an article in the New York Times, “…even the tentative announcement has rightly fuelled much excitement. Finding the Higgs particle would complete an essential chapter in our quest to understand the basic constituents of the universe.”

My own quest to understand the basic constituents of the universe was possibly doomed from the outset, thanks to my ageing brain and lack of scientific education (which I wrote about here.) In fact I’ve ended my residency feeling more ignorant than when I began, but I suppose it’s a wise woman who knows just how ignorant she is. Fortunately, exposing that ignorance has done nothing to lessen my interest in science or dull my enthusiasm. As the year turns, my writing agenda for 2012 includes research for a novel about a physicist who’s also a musician. I console myself that writing from the point of view of a scientist can’t be any more difficult than writing from the point of view of someone who’s congenitally blind (which is what I did in my novel STAR GAZING) and it will be much easier to research. 
Weardale hay meadow
If 2011 was a year of writing and travel (back and forth between home on the Isle of Arran and Durham) then 2012 will, I hope, be a year of sitting down and reading – some of it about science and scientists. 

I saw a lot of the landscape of the north-east which was more beautiful than I was expecting. But most of it was seen en route to and from Durham and I wish I’d been able to spend more time in the area rather than passing through. Another time, I’d think harder about the practicalities of long distance travel to and from a residency, how tiring it would be and how long it would take.

The Word Factory on Arran
So… the writing residency. How was it for me? The benefits to me as a writer were many. For a start I got off my backside, away from my study on Arran, with its tranquil view of Brodick Bay and Goat Fell and out into the real world. Walking through the portals of the Department of Fundamental Physics took me out of my comfort zone in several ways, but that was all to the good.

I met some exceptionally helpful and enthusiastic scientists. Their patient answers to my questions (“What will the end of the world be like?” "Do any scientists believe in God?”) stimulated yet more questions and I began to see a link between writing fiction and scientific enquiry: asking questions. So it seemed obvious that a unifying theme for our workshops and the writing they produced should be the title, “What if?...” 

Financial remuneration was another benefit of the residency. It was a luxury, but also something of a two-edged sword. Normally I write for myself, without regard for potential publishers. (This year I e-published two new novels independently on Kindle. I wrote about how and why here.) However when I was writing the commission piece SIX DAYS, I found I was all too aware of my potential audience. I was conscious of the obligation to produce something that both celebrated science and was inspired by my visits to Durham and the surrounding area. 

LG reading at the 2011 Durham Book Festival
That wasn’t a difficult goal in itself, but it felt like an artistic constraint. That feeling increased when I discovered I was expected to read some of the piece at the Durham Book Festival. Consideration of an audience began to dominate the writing until Dr. Paula Martin and I agreed we should abandon the idea of an incomplete public reading as it was proving counter-creative. (I felt a bit of a diva, but was hugely relieved.)

The experience of being commissioned to write is one I’m glad to have had, but I’d approach another such commission with caution. Despite working as a freelance journalist for 12 years (or perhaps because I did?), I was ill at ease writing to a specific word length for a particular audience. I prefer my imagination to be completely untrammelled, otherwise I become preoccupied with outcomes when I should be engaged in process.

Durham Cathedral's Millennium window
Free to develop in its own way, SIX DAYS became an exploration of science, faith and art and it furnished me with yet another surprise. Paula had originally asked me to write a short story but I requested a vaguer brief as the short story was not my natural medium. She agreed, so I was then free to say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it (my personal definition of good writing) but the end product, though actually intended to be an excerpt from a novel, emerged as a short story. So I’d actually stepped outside my comfort zone again, which I saw as another benefit to me as a writer.

My mind was certainly stretched writing and reading this blog, not to mention grappling with the vagaries of Blogger (which encouraged me to explore colourful new avenues of invective.) I'm particularly grateful for the mind-stretching contributions of Prof. Tom McLeish and Emma-Kate Prout, both of whom have what I referred to in my novel EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY as a “wide-angle mind”.

Reading the blog entries has been a source of surprise and entertainment over many months. There haven’t been many comments posted which was a little disappointing, but I hope anyone who found the blog was as impressed as I was by its enthusiasm, humour and eclecticism. It was very much a group effort and I’d like to thank all contributors, especially Paula (like me a Blogger novice) who put a lot of work into administering the blog with me.

Paula has written about the writing workshops in her three blogs, Where do good ideas come from? and you’ve now had a chance to read some of the work they produced. Interesting and wide-ranging as those written contributions are, what pleased me most was the way some participants immediately adopted a method I’d taught them and applied it elsewhere. It’s been gratifying to see the “Timed Writing” process spread like a virus.

There were many benefits to me as a writer and, in a way, I think it’s still too soon to assess their impact. I think I'll feel “aftershocks” for years. It was certainly a privilege to be invited to participate in the 2011 Durham Book Festival and to be offered a platform alongside the brilliant poet, Valerie Laws who has written so movingly about the decaying brain in her anthology, ALL THAT LIVES.

But there was also a downside to the residency and in the spirit of scientific enquiry, I’d like to record what that was.

My other work suffered. I discovered I’m not good at concentrating on more than one project at a time, especially if one of them is a novel. Once I’m halfway through a novel, I prefer to immerse myself in the world of the book until it’s finished, so I decided to set my novel aside to concentrate on the residency. The book I’d expected to finish in the summer dragged on and wasn’t finished until December. It was difficult to resume work on it once I’d done my last trip to Durham and I had a tough period fearing the novel had died of neglect. I managed to resuscitate it, but I’m not sure if it’s the novel it should have been. (Memo to self: don’t accept another writing residency when half-way through a novel!)

Paula and I had too many good ideas and we planned too much, some of which never came to fruition, despite a lot of thought and email discussion. Sadly, I didn’t get to work with primary pupils in rural schools, nor did I see Paula teach a writing workshop, which was disappointing. A planned open forum session on mental health issues, led by me, was shelved because we simply ran out of time.

But what I struggled with most was my own lack of confidence and expertise. I’m a worrier and I worried – constantly! – about being the “wrong” person for the job. I thoroughly enjoyed the stimulating company of scientists, but frequently felt out of my depth - not because I lack scientific knowledge and qualifications. (Heaven knows I do, but I’m always happy to ask questions and learn something new.) No, the source of my insecurity lay elsewhere. Normally when teaching a writing workshop, I’m besieged by questions about the writing and publishing processes. It’s not difficult to tailor answers and activities to suit participants’ needs because it’s usually clear where my students are coming from. (Writers aren’t always a loquacious breed, but writers in workshops usually are, possibly because they've scraped the funds together to attend and are determined to get every last scrap of useful information out of the tutor!)

LG teaching a writing workshop
My writer-scientists were much less forthcoming – often silent – so I found it difficult to identify their writing needs. I was aware that I was sometimes taking them outside their comfort zone, but it’s difficult in a workshop situation to know whether glazed expressions signify boredom or an attempt to grapple with a new idea.

So even though a good scientist apparently has a lot in common with a good writer (see Tom McLeish’s post here and my response), I worried that my workshops might not be appropriate for such a motley group – one that included geology undergraduates, science communicators and professors of physics. (Intimidated - moi?) I didn’t tailor the workshops for scientists. (How could I? I’m not a scientist and haven’t studied science since I was at school.) I decided instead to focus on process, exercises to stimulate creativity and build confidence, because in my view, writers at all levels of experience can use this kind of input.

But I sensed my student writers were expecting something more structured (or perhaps I mean directed). Certainly some participants seemed ill at ease with Timed Writing, where you produce writing that is of no particular significance in itself, but which shows you how you write, or rather could write, if it weren't for all the inhibitions and preconceptions that get in the way.

Dr Paula Martin
So I have mixed feelings about what I achieved with the residency, but positive feelings about its benefits to me as a writer. I’m happy to have lobbed a few stones into the Durham writing pond and I suspect the ripples are still travelling outwards. As for me, I plunged – terrified – into the Durham science pool and floundered around. But I came away less afraid of the water and determined to do more than dog-paddle in future.

I think I speak for all of us involved in the CELEBRATE SCIENCE blog and the writing residency when I say we achieved our main goal, which was to celebrate science in all its diversity. I wish to thank Durham University (especially Dr Paula Martin) for inviting me to take part in the celebration. It’s been demanding, exciting, frustrating and at times joyous. But at every turn the experience has affirmed what we all believed: that science really is worth celebrating.

LG pictured with poet Valerie Laws at the 2011 Durham Book Festival


  1. Many thanks for this Linda. I think one of the strengths of this blog, and the project as a whole, has been everyone's willingness to openly share their own experiences and ideas (good and bad) and the things they have learnt along the way.

    I can confirm that the ripples are still spreading through Durham and beyond, and that I too expect that I will be experiencing "aftershocks" for many years to come. In the shorter term, I am enjoying reading On Writing by Stephen King, which appeared on my Christmas wishlist thanks to your recommendation.

  2. It is true, it takes time for the people to recover from after shocks

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