It’s been a while – in fact, a month to the day – since I used this blog properly, and I can feel it. My posts on Facebook are getting somewhat erratic (and lengthy, as I feel the urge to dissert on various topics); emails and messages to friends are not at their most coherent; I feel tired and thoughts are swimming around unstructured. These are all telltale symptoms of not writing enough.

It’s odd that, even having written that first paragraph things seem to start to coalesce in my head. And writing a short anecdote about choir just now has had the effect of depositing that topic out of ‘processing’ mode, too. That’s it; it’s down on (virtual) paper; filed away. I definitely believe in keeping a tidy mental ‘inbox’.

A friend on Facebook pointed out very insightfully and kindly (because I very much love and value honest and constructive advice and people who are not afraid to criticise) that rather than spending time on Facebook talking at people, tilting at windmills and producing faintly ranty waffles, I should focus. Write a book, instead of talking about how much I’d like to write one. Use the time I have, rather than moaning about how quickly it passes.

It made me determined to keep the word ‘focus’ in my mind. It’s true that I often feel I’m overflowing with ideas and projects (which means that all too frequently my friends on Facebook are the recipient of some of my new pet topics or momentary flashes of opinion or – occasionally untested and possibly questionable – insight…) but if I can make sure they are usefully challenged then that is the best use of both my actual, practical time, and my energy.

I have always known that I am at my best if I have a project. Unfortunately, sometimes they are not of my choosing (my very unpleasant divorce which began over a year ago occasionally rears its head, and is a project I could definitely live without having to deal with). But mostly I have been fortunate in that I have several different professional tasks that are good positive projects to tackle, and which I can care about and believe in. If I make sure I focus on ‘focus’, and keep my friend’s remark in my mind, I hope I will be able to channel my energy usefully.

That applies to writing in general, and the voluntary and paid projects I am involved with in my work, but also ideas, thoughts and opinions. Not too long ago, I worked on a PhD for five years with the aim of exploring and testing ideas and concepts about visual culture and gender which I had developed. I still think in these sorts of ways, and develop mini-theories about things in society which it would be interesting to test. Rather than disseminating them randomly into the ether of social media to be lost, I should curate them, value them, collate them and investigate their usefulness to see if there are bigger projects hidden behind their possibilities. If there are, then I don’t want to waste them.

Choirs old and new

Sadly I’ve decided to stop singing with the Clerkes in York, an excellent and fun chamber choir which I have been a member of for six months. While I’ve enjoyed the time I have spent, and I’ve tried various things to make it work, it’s just too much; and I think there’s a skill in identifying when something is no longer good for you (even something, paradoxically, which is fun and fulfilling). It’s all about balance, and identifying the moment when the scales tip. Continue reading “Choirs old and new”

Ethically dubious, intellectually satisfying…?

When I used to live in France, I worked freelance for a while as an academic researcher, writer and editor for a number of private research companies. In theory, these companies provided model essays or primary research to students or lecturers, but in practice, I strongly suspect much of the work I and the other freelancers produced was handed in by students. Indeed companies like the ones I worked for got a lot of negative press in the UK at one time because of the rise in plagiarism from people abusing their services. I spent a certain amount of time writing primary research pieces for these companies but the dubious ethical situation increased (we would be asked to edit an essay, including content, in response to tutor comments, for instance) and there came a point beyond which I decided to only take on editorial, bibliographic or translation work from them. With one company, I stopped writing for them altogether after I was briefed to completely paraphrase an entire essay so that it was unrecognisable from the original (in other words, I was being openly asked to aid and abet plagiarism).

Whenever I look back on this time, though, I rather miss some aspects of it. And thinking about working on my writing portfolio reminded me of one of my favourite projects, which I did just before Lucy was born in the summer of 2009. And it really was just before she was born (I could hardly reach the keyboard, and I had to warn them I might not finish it if she arrived a week or two early). It was a one week deadline to research and write from scratch an 8000 word undergraduate dissertation on Gainsborough. I knew nothing whatsoever about Gainsborough; I had access to no UK research libraries; but it was a fantastic, fun and interesting project and, as the last piece of primary research writing I did for this company, it became symbolic of what that work had given me: I had inadvertently arrived at the weird situation where I had quite a useful set of skills to research pretty much anything at all from scratch (I had written university essays on everything from social work, Libyan politics, genital excision, bilingualism, album covers, the French Revolution, drug culture, Messenger skin design, childhood immunisation in Pakistan, as well as several other full-length art history dissertations.) I think I’ve held on to a certain research speed from that period. My PhD research had obviously given me the solid grounding in primary research and academic writing which makes this stuff come naturally after having done it for so long, but the surreal freelancing cranked those skills up to supernatural speeds. I still skim websites and journals very quickly and seem to be quite good at finding, and moulding into a recognisable written form, disparate source material and information and resources about any topic under the sun.

I hope I can put these skills to use again some day. More than anything else, it’s fun.