Sunday, 27 November 2011

Pencil or pills?

It’s nice to hear that now there’s validation from the health professionals for an exercise we’ve used since we first started Dark Angels; an exercise that’s also used by teachers of creative writing the world over.
Faye Sharpe, who came on the recent Dark Angels course, sent us a link to a blog by Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi Worldwide, who had picked up on an article in the Sydney Morning Herald – such is the way that information whizzes round the globe these days – which, in turn, reported on 20 years’ research into the therapeutic power of writing regularly about what we think and feel.
‘Expressive writing’ the psychologists call it and 15 minutes a day, they say, is enough to make you feel better about yourself. Not only that, it can also be good for blood pressure, the immune system and memory. Over a more prolonged period it can even tackle physical ailments, for example, helping to control cancer-related pain, reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis and increase lung function amongst the asthmatic.
The trick is to write down whatever is in your head, and keep writing without stopping for a set amount of time. A recipe for gibberish one might think. But no. You may not believe you know the story you want to tell yourself, but at some sub-conscious level you usually do, and the results tend to make more sense than you might think they would.
We don’t use the exercise for therapeutic purposes with Dark Angels, more to stimulate creative expression. It encourages people to write more freely, unfettered by the remembrance of rules or the anticipation of readers. But the researchers suggest that the therapeutic value lies in the fact that writing this way allows us to externalise our preoccupations, so that we can see and examine them, almost as if they belonged to someone else.
An American, Julia Cameron, wrote a famous book called The Artist’s Way about leading the creative life. In its slightly less famous companion, The Right to Write, she advocates what she calls ‘daily pages’. This is precisely the kind of expressive writing described by the research: half an hour a day of letting it all out onto paper, best done first thing in the morning, before the working day kicks in properly.
In half an hour you can write three sides of A4 in longhand, if you do as much physical writing and as little stopping and thinking as possible. I know. I did it for six months, a few years ago, and the results were really quite dramatic. I couldn’t speak for the health benefits because I wasn’t alert to that possibility then, but I know it enabled me to resolve a number of preoccupations that had been rumbling away, unaddressed, for a good long time.
Over time, the daily rhythm took hold and put me in contact with a deeper part of myself, helping change the way I saw a variety of things that were going on in my life. It also occasionally rewarded me with a moment of penetrating insight, as on the occasion when I found myself seeing and describing a spring of pure, clear water, bubbling up in a pool of light at the bottom of a deep, dark cave. This I took to be my own creative source, my life force.
Writing this now makes me think I should start doing it again. In fact, we all should. Who needs pills when we’ve got pencils and paper?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Bring on the clowns

Here's a terrific story that surfaced in The Guardian this week in the context of the Pakistan match-fixing convictions, and the fact that corruption and gambling in Asian cricket is seen as a cultural problem.
In 1995 a new mayor took office in Bogota. Among the many seemingly intractable problems he faced was the Colombian dislike of traffic regulations, and the propensity of drivers and pedestrians to flaunt them as a matter almost of civic duty. The resulting chaos on Bogota’s roads was chronic and indescribable.
The mayor, an eccentric mathematician and former rector of the National University, who had been sacked for dropping his trousers in front of a lecture theatre full of noisy students, recognised that a conventional approach would cut no ice with Bogota’s testosterone-fuelled motorists and lawless pedestrians. This called for cultural change. Eccentric though he was, the mayor was smart enough to know that no culture has ever, in the history of the world, been changed by laying on extra policemen.
He duly hired 420 clowns and mime artists to wait at strategic road junctions and traffic lights. When they spotted jay-walkers, they walked after them, imitating their movements. Reckless drivers were also subjected to mocking treatment. It worked beautifully. No one, no matter how macho, was going to be seen thumping a Marcel Marceau lookalike. Within a short time, three-quarters of Bogota’s pedestrians were meekly obeying the traffic signals.
Reading this reminded me that so often when I go into an organisation to run a writing or storytelling workshop, the underlying requirement, even though it’s seldom acknowledged as such, is one of cultural change. The alien language, the inability to talk in an interesting way about practically anything, is symptomatic of something far deeper than a failure of vocabulary or a paucity of imagination. It’s about the way that people who are perfectly bold and assertive as individuals, when thrown together in large groups, develop a collective aversion to risk – so they seek refuge in the banalities and convolutions of business speak.
I can’t help thinking that this is an area in which the mayor’s tactics would work a treat. Imagine a board meeting or sales conference with roving clowns who tooted on a hooter or turned a somersault or pulled a sad face at every cliché, absurd neologism or meaningless abstraction. People would soon start to speak like ordinary human beings again. Laughing at wrong behaviour seems so much better than trying to punish or correct it. After all, by any normal standards, business speak is wrong behaviour.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The rabble

There was a time when I imagined that in my sixties life would have started to become a pleasant, carefree stroll through the sunlit uplands. Ah well …
This is what has been competing for space in my head this week. Why collagen makes better sausage skins than animal gut. Why you should leave your money to a famous university. How to teach a group of administrators in Zurich to write better reports. What to call a new bottling of a famous whisky. How to be interesting and witty about a firm of stockbrokers. Why you should send your children to a certain well-known school. How to encourage groups of chief executives to tell stories. How to market a Dark Angels course in Sweden (not difficult). How to teach 3,000 Indian managers to make better contact with their customers and colleagues (more difficult). What to do about my elderly mother who is losing the plot five hundred miles away in Kent (very difficult). How to finish the almost finished novel I haven’t been finishing for the last eighteen months (impossible). What to do about an epileptic iPhone. And what to write about in this blog.
These are no vague musings, rather a platoon of small but highly trained attention-seekers armed with megaphones. They shout at me first thing in the morning. They whisper and nag me last thing at night. And they know nothing about collaboration. It’s each one for himself and may the loudest, the most insistent win. I was wrong. They’re a rabble, not a platoon.
Earlier this week I sent through the first draft of an interview to its subject, one of the people whose stories feature in the school recruitment brochure. He rang me a couple of days later. It made him anxious, he said. He had talked about certain family issues. It was very personal. 
I replied that the interest for the reader, and the value to the school, lay precisely in the personal aspect of his story; that without it, it might end up reading simply like a CV. He agreed, but still felt that some of what I had written was too close to the bone. We duly toned it down – without, I hope, losing any of the warmth and candour he had transmitted during the interview. The story still makes the point that the school had equipped him well to deal with the challenges of adult life.
On which subject, I spent last night with my son in Newcastle. He’s in his second year of a business studies course. We went out to dinner and he talked about his preoccupations, all entirely real and deserving of serious consideration. I listened to him and thought of my rabble. What a good thing it is, I thought, that we only really acknowledge the things we know we can deal with.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A small rebellion

The ripples from our last Dark Angels course continue to spread. Two weeks after leaving Inverness-shire, the glue that binds the group together seems to be setting firmer rather than weakening, as is more often the case. Our inboxes bulge daily with new banter, ruminations and aperçus.
This wonderful exchange came in today from Neil Baker, the one full-time professional business writer on the course, also an accomplished writer of short stories (click here to read his latest). ‘Thought I'd report this small act of successful Dark Angels rebellion,’ Neil said.
Client (in a galaxy far, far way - aka New York): "Neil, there's good news and not so good news. I love some of this enormously big thing you've written for me, but it's not working. The case studies are excellent, but the body copy just has too much information."
Me (exasperated): "That is what you asked for. You wanted all that data."
Client: "I know. I was wrong."
Me (at least he's admitted it): "Let me point something out: in the case studies, which you like, I'm telling a story. In the rest, which you don't like, I'm reporting data. People like stories, they don't like data."
Client (after a long, worrying pause, the sound of a penny dropping): "Yes, you're right."
Me: "So why don't I write the whole thing like that? A bit of data where we need it, but let me tell stories. People will like it. They'll want to read it."
Client: "Sure. That's great. That's what I want!"
Me (pushing my luck): "While I'm at it, can I cut out all the business jargon?"
Client: "Can you do that?! You'd make me so happy."
Me: "Yes.”
Quod erat, Tenebris Angelis, demonstrandum.
In another part of the forest … I visited my acupuncturist friend Wenbo Xu for a treatment earlier on this week. I’ve written about him in previous posts. One of these found its way into Room 121, whose title, as well as being a pun on one-to-one, is a nod to 1984, where society is controlled by the language of Big Brother and opponents of the regime are tortured by being confronted with their worst fears in the dreaded Room 101.
I was touched to find that Wenbo had bought a copy of Room 121, which he asked me to sign. As he opened the book a small piece of paper fluttered out. It was the head and shoulders of a man, painstakingly cut out in silhouette from an article Wenbo had read and which he was now using as a bookmark.
The man was George Orwell.
My Chinese friend had no idea of the connection.
Such are life’s delights.