Learning to be a Learner

Two of my friends, Matthew Boyle and Anne Glennie are involved in the Each and Every Dog website. It’s dedicated to exploring what it means to learn, to be educated and to use learning and education to help create a socially just society. Continually learning together should be an opportunity to make the world a better place in which to live.  The site is a forum and magazine to explore practices, ideas and the people that they believe are doing this. Click here to find out more.

Following their recent podcast, they invited listeners to submit a post about something they have found hard about learning, or have struggled with.  I took up the challenge and submitted this post.

After 25 years working in education and training I was comfortable in my role. I knew what I was doing and that I was good at it. This meant a hassle free work life and it would’ve been an easy option to continue spinning round on the hamster wheel. But my job wasn’t fulfilling and as far as expressing my creativity, I was in serious danger of ‘use it or lose it’.  I had two options. I could accept that my job didn’t stimulate me and suck it up or I could pursue my aspirations to be a published (in the traditional sense) writer and go back to uni to study for an MLitt in Creative Writing. I was lucky to have the support of my hubby so I took a deep breath and plunged into life as a mature student.

Being back on campus surrounded by bright young things the same age as my sons was weird. I didn’t know where I was going or how to get tokens to operate the printer or how to upload an assignment digitally. It was all new. It was daunting. It was scary.

IMG (2)Having spent my career training teachers and assessing schools, it felt odd to be the pupil and to concede that I wasn’t the expert in the room. This role reversal was a difficult transition for a control freak like me. I was used to dishing out the feedback and enjoyed the balance of power being in my favour.

A major element of the course was to have my writing ‘workshopped’ by the tutor and others in the class. This was the hardest part of all.  Offering up my words to be ripped apart made me feel very insecure. Was I wasting time and money on the course? Was my writing good enough? I had to learn to take harsh criticism and to decide whether to accept it or reject it. Ultimately, the challenge was to find my writing ‘voice’. I played around with different styles and tone until I found a voice that matched what I wanted to say. 

In my writing, I want to explore issues such as social class and identity and it became apparent that the best way for me to create authenticity was to use Scots dialect. It’s taken me ten years of writing to work out that I want my writing to reflect my working class upbringing in a credible way. My third novel, Talk of the Toun, is due to be published by ThunderPoint in October and will be my debut.  The journey to publication has been a long one with many disappointments and frustrations along the way. But it’s also been fun, exciting and the climax of a lifelong ambition. And however hard it might be, I’ve still got a lot to learn…


9bcc24c7145293007f43a3daab1a63dfThe scary bit of being any type of artist is having the balls to put you and your work out there leaving it open for criticism. This is an issue I have struggled with in the past (and still do). I’ve been accused and found guilty of “holding back” for fear of exposing thoughts and feelings that might make certain readers feel uncomfortable and alter their view of me. But as my confidence has grown (a work in progress, quite possibly a lifelong challenge) I’m getting braver and dare to use strong language and adult themes in my writing. It’s not easy to share writing which some readers might find offensive and this leaves me feeling exposed and open to judgment. I’m not alone in feeling apprehensive about pushing artistic boundaries and when I met photographer, Matthew Boyle, we shared our thoughts on feeling ‘Naked’, in an artistic sense!

Here’s Matthew’s blog post on how he feels about exposing more of himself in his art.

_MG_2803I had such a great conversation last weekend with Helen MacKinven! What with Helen being a writer, I confessed that I (along with only every second person) would love to write something fictional. I have never done such a thing, and although I would really enjoy it, I just don’t think I would be brave enough. Before I go on I think it is worth saying that I really enjoy the process of writing. I like  choosing my words, and I like editing a roughly written piece to make it read sensibly, so why am I not a natural prospective writer? the truth is, I’m afraid of the nakedness! Not literally you understand, it’s the cold openness of people seeing you as the writer differently or anew. Imagine I wrote a love story or a romance of some kind, what would people think about what was in my head? Would people think I was a closet romantic, would they guess I was about to “come out of the closet”?, would they think my writing was un-serious and trivial? Possibly my favourite novel ever might be Anna Karenina, or Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, or come to think of it, maybe Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day; are you getting the pattern here, I like romantic novels, but I would never be brave enough to try to write one even if I had the writing-chops to pull it off! (Just for the record, I love lots of genres of writing, from sci-fi to crime, the former being a disappointing piece of information for my new friend Helen)!

So what is the photo-link here? I found myself thinking a lot about art in terms of how “naked” it leaves us. There is a long-standing question about how much photography is an art form rather than a technical or even trivial exercise? I subscribe to the view that it exists on a wide spectrum that can include both aspects very comfortably, but for most serious photographers their work will contain some artistic merits at least. I then wondered whether all art left you exposed or “naked” to some degree, and indeed whether it was a defining quality of all art that it does this to you? For me in photography this is certainly true, and it is something that I probably haven’t sufficiently acknowledged. The truth is that my photography is constrained by my sense of vulnerability in terms of what I imagine the viewers of my photographs attribute to me when they look at my pictures. This is not the same for all of my pictures. I mainly find landscapes, (when I do them), to score low on my nakedness scale. I don’t feel that they are hugely personal, and indeed they virtually seem to have evolved into a canonical form that allows you to contribute without people thinking “what the hell was in his head when he took that”? They are in fact fairly impersonal. Flower photography, which I have enjoyed a lot of is similar. There are trends in the look and feel of these that mean any picture I post will tend to simply contribute to the body of current flower photos, and again, no vulnerability. The problem is that my favourite photographic form is portraiture. Some portraiture can be fairly anodyne, for example business portraiture. Other portraiture can be incredibly challenging and deeply personal. (E.g. Mapplethorpe) I like a particular kind of portraiture, natural portraits which attempt to capture people in a relaxed and at least partially realistic way. I like that because I like people in general, and I like to try to capture what it is I like about them. This is the relatively safe ground I stand on; I try to make pictures of people in a slightly interesting, but not too challenging way. I hope that people will look at the pictures and feel the same sense of curiosity and pleasure in the people, that I did when I was taking the pictures. Critically though, I don’t want people to think that I thought anything inappropriate, or that they would gain any insight into my feelings about the subject beyond what I am happy to give away freely. This may well be limiting my photography, as my fear of being artistically naked, (that means I would struggle to write creatively), may also mean that I am becoming a technical portraitist who is afraid of pushing the artistic side further.

e490b1e7d539d44799209871c44a7befI think there are in general, two sides to this artistic “nakedness”. One is the general degree of “provocation” in the creative sense. Does the image shock, challenge, surprise, make you question, reframe assumptions etc. The second is that we as individuals have a personality and a comfort zone associated with who we are. We can feel a little “stripped” when our own espoused values are challenged. If you only ever take landscapes, and someone asks you to photograph them for a personal portfolio, you may feel that viewers of these pictures will wonder what personal relationship that sudden shift reveals? The same images from a regular portraitist will not even give  second thoughts if they are just normal people-pics!

The truth is that while I think of myself as a fairly self-confident and brave individual, in matters of expressive art, I may well be a bit safe and comfortable. Oddly, as an occasional musician, I used to write songs when I was in my teens and early twenties. Whenever I try now, I just cringe at what I am coming up with and imagine what people would think when listening to it. The songs never get off the ground.

What art could we be making if we weren’t afraid?

The picture is one of mine from a 2010 stroll. It is a nice simple, and above all safe landscape.


The Female Muse

I’m always on the lookout for interesting events and if they’re free then that’s even better so this weekend (after a lovely lunch – food is an essential element of a day out) I returned to Stirling University where I did my MLitt Creative Writing course with my best pal, to attend The Female Muse Artist Talk by David Fagan.


A stunning portrait by Suzanne Enterkin-Grogan of her mother.

The talk was related to the Female Muse Exhibition (12th Jan – 14th Feb at the MacRobert – well worth a visit!) of portraiture by local artists based at Marcelle House in Alloa. Many of the exhibiting artists were present at the talk and were able to add to David’s commentary on their work. To be honest, we’d no idea what to expect from the afternoon but we were blown away by the talent on display.

We’ve been to lots of artist talks and sometimes the artist has struggled to articulate their thoughts on their work. But David’s talk was easily one of the best events we’ve attended as there was no pretentious arty farty jargon and his down-to-earth approach meant we were comfortable asking questions.

The artists had used a diverse range of styles and techniques to capture the essence of their female muse and we left so inspired that we practically ran across campus to the MacRobert (okay, I admit we drove the short distance despite the beautiful campus setting) to see the original art on show.

download (12)I came home desperate to draw and paint again (a hobby I’ve put on hold since concentrating on my writing) and felt motivated by being surrounded by creative people. The following day, I was lucky enough to get another injection of artistic energy when I met up with photographer, Matthew Boyle. And this time I was the female muse!

I was introduced to Matthew by Anne Glennie, our mutual friend, who knew I was keen to have new photos taken that my publisher, ThunderPoint could use to market my book. I’m not photogenic and my default facial expression is crabbit (if I had £1 for every time someone’s said, “Cheer up hen, it might never happen”, I’d be rich by now). I’m also very aware that I’m not the shape and size I’d like to be so I feel quite self-conscious about posing for photos.

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Atmospheric Auchinstarry Quarry


The benefit of makeup, good lighting and a professional photographer!

But I needn’t have worried, after getting to know each other a bit better over a cappuccino and fruit scone (food sneaks into every social scenario which might explain my weight problem!), Matthew made me feel so at ease that I relaxed and he managed to capture a natural expression where I genuinely look happy rather than tense.

I also felt comfortable with the location of the photo shoot as Matthew suggested meeting at Auchinstarry Quarry (an old climbing haunt from his youth) and this is an area where my dad played as a child. When Matthew encouraged me to smile, I imagined my dad’s chest bursting with pride that his daughter needed professional photos to promote herself as a writer, I think that memories of him helped  make the photo session (thanks to Matthew’s skill of course!) work so well.

Do you find that meeting artistic folk fires up your own creativity?