Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Where Do Good Ideas Come From? Part 2: Taking a Leap into the Unknown

by Paula Martin

Back in May this year, I invited Linda Gillard to become Durham University’s “Celebrate Science Author in Residence” for 2011. What was the experience like for me?

Part 2: Taking a Leap into the Unknown

Having secured support from Beacon NE for my idea to invite Linda Gillard to become the Celebrate Science Author in Residence 2011, I had to take the plunge and actually invite her. This was my first leap into the unknown world of commissioning an author. It was a surprisingly scary step to take.

I had worked out with my colleagues in the North East of England a clear proposal to put to Linda, including running a series of writing workshops as well as writing her own commissioned piece of work. I was very happy with the range of ideas in the proposal and thought we had the basic framework for a great project. I was thoroughly excited, like a child with a new toy. Nonetheless, it was extremely nerve-wracking for me, composing an initial email to send to Linda, checking it twice (at least!) and finally hitting send. What if Linda didn’t like my idea? What if my colleagues and I were all suffering from some kind of collective insanity and this wasn’t a good idea after all? What if Linda wasn’t interested in working with scientists, or visiting the gloriously beautiful North East of England, or both/neither?

Thankfully I only had to suffer through an hour or so of jangling nerves and self-doubt before I received a very enthusiastic reply from Linda. What a relief!

Linda’s reply was full of comments and questions that kick-started a wide ranging discussion that has continued throughout the project. Linda really has asked A LOT of questions throughout the project, which have been exhausting and time-consuming to answer. Many of my other projects were put aside while I figured out appropriate answers. At times my head really did hurt from trying to see our discussions from Linda’s perspective. But this is not a bad thing; I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was difficult for me at times, but I was hooked on the challenge of explaining myself in new ways, and exploring new ideas with my new friend. We have been sharing flurries of emails over the past few months, and these have been a real source of great pleasure, self-reflection and deep learning for me.

For example, when making the initial proposal, I asked Linda to produce a short story (3,000 words) based on her experiences as the Celebrate Science Author in Residence 2011. I wanted to have something tangible at the end of the project to illustrate Linda’s unique contribution. I knew Linda as a writer of novels with an interest in poetry, but a novel would obviously be way too much to ask and a poem seemed way too small. What should I ask her to produce? In my naivety, the obvious thing for me to suggest was a short story.

Had I realised what a large creative barrier this would be, or how much unnecessary anxiety this would cause Linda, I would certainly have chosen my words more carefully (I now know that a request for a short piece of creative writing is much less daunting for a writer than a request for a short story, even if the total word count is exactly the same). I’m so pleased that Linda raised her concerns with me and I was able to encourage her to write freely and produce whatever seemed most appropriate to her.

Similarly, I can also now see that the offer of presenting the commissioned work at the Durham Book Festival raised a creative barrier for Linda that I certainly hadn’t intended to be there. I thought it would be a good thing to offer Linda the opportunity to showcase her work. As soon as we realised that Linda was feeling trapped by this offer, we removed this barrier too without question. We discussed alternative ways of “presenting” SIX DAYS, and decided that presenting it right here on the Celebrating Science blog was the best thing to do, in no small part because the blog has also been one of the unexpected great successes of the project.

Through our discussions I have learnt a huge amount about writing techniques, Linda’s personal approach to writing, and how easy it is to create something that other people will see as barriers. I would love to have total financial and creative freedom, so that when starting new projects in future I might approach people and say simply this: “Let’s have some fun and see what we end up with! Would you like to come and play?”

Paula Martin is Science Outreach Co-ordinator for Durham University


  1. As you know, I shall be blogging in response to these last 2 posts, Paula, but I just thought I'd drop in to say that when I read the first email inviting me to Durham, quite honestly, I thought it was a joke! I thought a friend was winding me up, or that it must be some elaborate scam to fleece gullible writers by offering them bogus writing residencies related to subjects about which they knew absolutely nothing.

    Then I read it all through again and thought that quite possibly this was a serious (not to mention flattering) offer...

    To be continued!

  2. Thanks, Linda! Given your comment, I'm relieved that the invitation from me didn't just get filtered out as random spam! It can be surprising where simple, crazy ideas can take you, don't you think? Looking forward to reading more...