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The Butterfly - a reading-writing diary

The first one – Philip Pullman, Stephen King, Colm Toibin, conflict avoidance and May Day

· reading,writing,inspiration,author,teaching

Here is the butterfly diary. Having not blogged for over a year, I’m going to try a new approach, a vague record of recent reading (with recommendations) and writing, as well as occasional helpful (I hope) thoughts about teaching reading and writing. I’m hoping it will flutter prettily about a bit and land momentarily in a few places of interest on the way.

The title is inspired by Phillip Pullman, and Muhammed Ali. ‘You remember what Muhammed Ali said,’ says Pullman, in his Daemon Voices. ‘His method was to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. My variation is that I read like a butterfly, and write like a bee.’ And since it’s difficult to imagine a more inspirational reading and writing role-model than Mr Pullman, I’m going to borrow the metaphor. It seems to sum up perfectly what the reading-writing bits of the brain do, hovering and darting from idea to idea, making connections both predictable and random, occasionally pausing to make a beautiful display or gather up some good stuff to turn into something sweet and new. Daemon Voices, a collection of essays and speeches about storytelling, is a fantastic read for anyone interested in the power and importance of narrative, as well as Pullman’s work. He’s brilliant at describing the business of being an author (‘making it up and writing it down’) and has great advice for those of us who aspire in that general direction: ‘…think of some interesting events, put them in the right order to make clear the connections between them, and recount them as clearly as you can.’ There. Simple eh?

Stephen King has been my other inspiration lately. In his half-memoir-half-how-to-guide On Writing he says that, to be a writer, the most important thing is to read, read and read. I do that, I thought, feeling happy, and a little smug. Then Mr King went on to say he reads at least 70 books a year, which is a good 20-30 more than my average. So I followed another piece of his advice and subscribed to an audiobook app. It's been life-changing. No more news. No more inane pop or random radio chatter. In the car, emptying the dishwasher, walking to meetings and at the gym, my favourite inanimate things now keep me company: words, words, words. (More on what I've been listening to next time.)

This week I’ve also read Colm Toibin’s retelling of The Oresteia, House of Names, and have just started My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. Good grief! I’m only a few stunning pages in and if they are indicative of the whole, I’m going to need some sort of safety net and harness contraption to get to the end. With another of my hats on (school governor trainer), I’ve also been reading some material about conflict management for a new course I'm delivering, and I’m at draft stage of a little story about a crow. I am also trying to write the last chapter of the first draft of the book that I've been working on for two-and-a-half years. Serendipitously, the final scene takes place on May Day, so this week’s hours spent gazing out of the window might actually prove inspirational.

Inspiration seems to have been my theme, and this reminds me of my 10-year-old son. ‘We did something really fun in English today,’ he said the other day. My heart poked up its ears. Oh yes? ‘We pretended to write informally for a letter to an agony aunt, and the thing I liked was using words we’re not usually allowed to use.’ Ooh, yes, good work Miss M. And this is my teaching and learning thought for the week…

Free them up and let them fly. Apply to children and words.

Jane Branson is an independent education consultant and teacher trainer with a passion for getting children and young people to enjoy and excel in reading and writing. She’s also a mum, an aspiring author, a school governor and a cat-lover.

The books mentioned in this blog:

Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman, David Fickling Books

On Writing, Stephen King, Hodder

House of Names, Colm Toibin, Viking

My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent, Fourth Estate