#100women100books launches online

Inspired by our Spreadsheets & Moxie residency in the Compton Verney 19th Century Women’s Library back in January, we wanted to know what books were dear to the hearts and minds of contemporary women. So we asked 100 women in our lives – from toddlers to eighty year olds – what one book they’d like to see on our library’s virtual shelves and why they’d recommend it. 

In the middle of the sweltering heat this week, Sarah Salway and I launched #100women100books: a virtual women’s Library for the 21st Century.

Inspired by our Spreadsheets & Moxie residency in the Compton Verney 19th Century Women’s Library back in January, we wanted to know what books were dear to the hearts and minds of contemporary women. So we asked 100 women in our lives – from toddlers to eighty year olds – what one book they’d like to see on our library’s virtual shelves and why they’d recommend it.

Between now and July 19th we’ll be posting a daily selection of their responses on the #100women100books Facebook Page. There’s a delicious mixture of bonkbusters, cookery books, poetry, plays, essential essays and riveting short stories. As well as old childhood favourites we have cutting edge literary fiction, obscure titles I’d never heard of and a cornucopia of non-fiction. It’s just glorious.

Then on July 19th we go analogue: Sarah returns to Compton Verney in Warwickshire for the second half of our residency (I’ll be cheering her on long distance from the Maternity Ward), taking a bound pamphlet of the full list to donate to their library. If you’re in the area then high-tail it along on the 19/20/21st to write/chat with her in the Women’s Library.

We’ll also be making a PDF of the pamphlet available to download from the 19th, for all you lovely people who can’t make it down in person. At the time of writing this, we have over 250 of you in the virtual Women’s Library with us, which is a joy to behold and we’re not even close to running out of imaginary seating space.

I bet you’re thinking of a book by a woman that you think we should have in our library… so tell us about it! We have a nifty little web form on the Spreadsheets & Moxie website for you to help us grow our virtual library.

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You said it (Moxie survey highlights)

Being professional can be summarised as a combination of ‘being well prepared’ and ‘being a decent human’.

When is a survey not a survey? Perhaps when it’s designed by two creative writers and asks you questions such as ‘What’s your professional superpower?’ rather than ‘which of these two brands do you prefer?’.

Our terrifyingly long online survey on creative professionalism (21 questions, yet still answerable in 15 mins) gathered responses from 71 individuals worldwide. We asked you for help and you delivered- thank you people of the internet.

A majority of you said in your feedback that you’d be curious to know what our results are. It’s a complex thing to share as this was feeding into a year of different R&D activities and in itself was a test of format as much as a way of gathering responses. We can’t simply publish the full data set as it in some cases it would compromise the anonymity of the lovely people who took the time and effort to share their experiences with us. However, here are some of our highlights:

Age vs Experience scatter graph
I was particularly interested to discover there was little correlation between age and level of experience (defined as number of years working at a professional level in your creative field). Hurrah for portfolio careers!

Across the different questions there was a general agreement that, in the creative arts, the important thing is to focus on finding one’s own expression of professionalism, rather than doing things in order to look a certain way for other people. 

Two big take-away questions from your responses were:

  1. How do I work out what depletes/restores me?
  2. How do I work out if a project challenges, excites or inspires me?

We also all had slightly different notions of what professionalism constituted. There was a sense of ambiguity about the word ‘professional’ linked to it being a commercial framework. For other people, it was about personal attitude to things such as plagiarism, punctuality, quality of process.

Survey job titles fun in colour
By what job title do you usually refer to yourself in a professional capacity?
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What other roles do you play as a creative practitioner?

Unsurprisingly, the question of fair pay stalked throughout the answers. On top of that, the importance of being valued for the work we produce in a way that goes beyond (but also includes) money. How do we value our time? How do we take our responsibilities seriously? How do we sustain ourselves, balancing personal and professional lives? How do we maintain the integrity of our work and our sense of identity alongside paying the bills this month?

Intersections of professional creative practice
Nope, not the world’s oddest wedding seating plan: this demonstrates the cross-over between areas of professional practice. We were perhaps unsurprised to learn how multi-faceted our respondents’ creative practices are; creative talents don’t need to be cramped in one area, and most of you also engage in regular collaborations on top of this.

As a writer, I found myself hugely jealous of the training some of the people in other disciplines engaged in, from certificates in oxy-acetalene welding to clown school, formal training as a fine bookbinder to horticultural degrees. I also loved how so many people had a formal background in science that they now applied to their professional creative practice, proving that the traditionally separate areas are in fact linked by a love of observation and attention to detail.

Your informal training highlighted the importance of keeping an open mind and continuing to enjoy learning new approaches. It turns out we’re all massively vulnerable and there’s no such thing as a quick fix: you have lost your resilience at multiple points during your careers so far, and found support networks – formal and informal- invaluable for keeping going. Also other activities such as cooking, walking, dancing (when these aren’t a part of your regular practice).

My favourite question-we-should-have-asked-you-but-didn’t was ‘What project are you not yet courageous enough to attempt?’. I also love every person unconditionally who thanked us for the questions (either in the survey responses themselves or in a separate email) and told us that they’d found the process of answering them to be helpful.

Our year of R&D is starting to draw to a close. If you are one of the survey respondents, watched one of our online broadcasts, came to our talks in person or have been quietly following our progress on Twitter/Instagram, this blog, our Spreadsheets & Moxie website or Sarah’s blog, and want to tell us what impact our project has had for you (big or small! Great or terrible!) then we’d love to include that in our evaluation: get in touch before June 15th.

Talking about professionalism in the creative arts #spreadsheetsandmoxie

We think we’re great as we are.

We don’t need to be fixed.

But we do need to find new ways of using the strengths we have to support ourselves and our creative communities.

Thanks to everyone who came to last week’s talk about Spreadsheets & Moxie as part of the NCLA First Thursday series – either in person or watching the live broadcast.

A video of the hour-long talk (inc. Q&A) is available to watch online, and gives a whistle-stop overview of Sarah and my process over the past 6 months in approaching professionalism in the creative arts, how we’ve worked with our (audacious, daring, lively) Associate Artists in the North East and South East of England, some of the advice we’ve picked up along the way, Sarah walking round a labyrinth and a sneak preview at the early results of our online survey. We’re aiming to be a positive, honest voice for sustaining and developing a career in the creative arts and are always happy to answer any further questions people care to throw our way.

Sarah will be talking at a similar event in Kent in May, dates TBC.

Next steps for the project? We’re knee deep in our mid-way evaluation (I’m an analysis geek so this is seventh heaven for me), working on creative pieces from the Compton Verney residency (fast-forward to the end of the talk to hear me read the opening of a draft of mine), and beginning to think more solidly about what shape a follow-on might be when our R&D finishes in the summer. All this alongside our ongoing skill-sharing and letting our questioning minds range broadly across the wider issues.

First Thursday event in Newcastle

Tomorrow lunchtime (2 March) I’ll be chatting about the Spreadsheets & Moxie project and what Sarah Salway and I reckon it takes to develop and sustain a career from your creative practice.

Part of the NCLA’s First Thursday series, the event is designed to fit into your lunch hour and starts at 1pm in room 1.75 of the Bedson Building, Newcastle University. It’s free, no ticket booking required, and you’re welcome to bring your sandwiches.

The gift of space: Compton Verney Women’s Library residency

One of the loudest things in my mind still from the residency a couple of weeks ago at the Compton Verney Women’s Library is the lack of real books in the room. Fortunately that’s something the staff there are in the process of changing as part of the Unsilencing The Library launch in June. Still, I felt oddly sympathetic to the blank bookshelves during the residency: they mirrored by own blank mind over the past couple of months. A library without books to read and a writer who isn’t writing. The fake books spines round the doorway were beautiful but unreadable.

The chief joy of a site-specific residency is space to create and to respond, preferably without the weight of having to do so in an immediate sense. You never know what deep triggers are being truck by spending time in a place or researching a particular topic, and they can come out in odd ways much further down the track.  Our deadline for finished work is a kind amount of time still to go (late June): kind because it’s not so far away that the work will get shifted to one side or moved too far from the original inspiration during the editing, but not so close that there’s no time to reconsider ideas, formats, readership or – even worse – proofread intently.

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Our elegant writing home at Compton Verney

As I had a day in the library by myself before Sarah joined me, I settled myself into the space by setting myself short writing exercises. Even if I didn’t feel creative (I told myself), I could still write. It didn’t matter if it was pants, it mattered that I made an effort. Mainly so that when Sarah arrived and asked what I’d been up to, I’d have something more to reply than to shrug and say I’d read for a while and then secretly napped. Plus the events staff were showing people round – architects engaged in the restoration work, couples looking for a wedding venue – and I wanted to look busy and important whenever someone came into the room, despite wearing fluffy slippers.

 

I wrote about my impressions of the room, then I wrote about libraries in general. I wrote about what the space made me want to do, then I tried writing a letter to the woman who probably decorated the library, Lady Willoughby de Broke. I wrote about the things that can happen in libraries, and the things I could see, hear, smell, taste and touch. I wrote about what a writer is supposed to bring into a space when they work there and who the readers might be that would come into that space after them. Then something clicked in my head and I started writing a piece that I like and I am developing, a sort of essay to the future.

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A carpet of winter aconites during a stroll through the Capability Brown grounds

When Sarah joined me, she’d cunningly discovered a diary written and published by the son of Lady W de B, and brought photocopies of passages where he talked about his female relatives. One rather gorgeous description of Lady Geraldine W de B  (née Smith Barry) was that ‘She was blessed with a keen sense of humour as well as a keen sense of the ridiculous, so that she seldom got very far away from the laugh’). Having Sarah there with me made me realise what I’d been searching for in my writing the day before- someone to have a conversation with about the things I saw and felt and to help me unpick them with different eyes. The pair of us schlepped round the empty galleries in our slippers (the historic house is shut to visitors until March, so we had it to ourselves), enjoyed the frozen dew hanging off the branches of the trees, and also spent time in different places by ourselves. It’s different being alone in a space when you have someone to call out to. It was an interesting and creative change to be putting some of our Spreadsheets & Moxie research into practise.

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Me & Sarah in front of the doorway, surrounded by the fake book spines

The staff were brilliant- they left us alone to get on with what we wanted, but were always available if we had questions. I particularly enjoyed the communal lunch hour in the staff canteen, trying to complete the day’s photocopied crossword without giving away answers to people working on a different sheet. As the public weren’t there, we tried to open up our residency through social media. We Tweeted, Instagrammed, and had a lot of fun experimenting with Facebook Live broadcasts. I was particularly surprised at the number of views for the broadcasts- as I type this, my 4 minute walk through the galleries to the library has been viewed over a thousand times, which is a lovely and unexpected thing.

In my final broadcast, I read out one of the lists I’d written in my first few hours in the library, when I was thinking about other libraries I’d spent time in and felt attached to. This one had more books in, but was much less beautiful than the Women’s Library.

Lines on a library I have not been to for over a decade

I lost my shoes there once

I sat with pens in my hair

I never crossed eyes over a shelf-stack

I never abused the silent corners

I liked it to be known I spent time there

I preferred the long-term loans

I went beyond the obvious

I missed the obvious, frequently

I had my favourite areas

There were floors I never visited

I cannot decide if I liked swipe-cards

Twenty-four hour access felt like a right, not a privilege

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Sarah brought me Moxie-infused socks for the residency

Incessant typing

A residency at Compton Verney this week, a video recap of #NaNoWriMo2016 and a train journey full of typing.

As I write this, I’m on a train heading for a residency at Compton Verney with Sarah Salway as part of our Spreadsheets & Moxie R&D. We’ll be hanging out in their rather unusual and special Victorian Women’s Library while Compton Verney is closed to the public, exploring and responding to the space ahead of sharing some of our work at the end of June as part of their Unsilencing the Library.

The cover image for this post is of the painted book spines decorating part of the library, so you can see why i’m so excited about the rest of this week. I’ll be blogging and broadcasting about the experience over the next few days; keep an eye out on my usual social media channels if you’re interested in seeing behind the scenes of a unique space, as well as some of the bones of a fledgling writing project.

Most of this train journey i’ve been typing up the seemingly never-ending supply of cramped, handwritten pages from my #NaNoWriMo writing challenge 2016: writing a new short story every day for the month of November. Still only a small way towards getting the (terrifyingly full) notebook transferred onto Scrivener; it’s been interesting for me to see how the stories match up to what I remember writing. I’ve compiled a nostalgic journey through the month in the form of a video, now available to enjoy on my Facebook Page.

Finally, the survey on professionalism for creatives (writers, dancers, painters, actors, etc.) is open until the 31st January 2017 – it takes 15 mins and is anonymous – please fill it in if you haven’t already, or send the link on to an interested acquaintance. Thanks for helping me out!

Have you done our survey yet? #spreadsheetsandmoxie

Closing date of 31/01/2017 set for our survey on creative professionalism: take 15 mins to fill it out now as your Christmas good deed!

As Sarah and I make our final preparations for the Spreadsheets & Moxie Christmas Party (to be conducted via Skype, with crackers & pre-posted Secret Santa), we’ve agreed on a closing date for our R&D survey on Creative Professionalism.

For those of you who’ve missed out on previous posts, I’m working with fellow writer Sarah Salway on a year-long R&D project funded by Arts Council England. We’re taking a rounded approach to professionalism for creative practitioners – e.g. artists, dancers, photographers, actors – with a particular focus on women writers.

One element of our work this year is to reach out to fellow creatives to find out more about their experiences and views on professionalism within our industry. The people we’re targeting are self-identified professionals within one or more artistic areas. You might work part-time, you might just be getting started, you might already be an international superstar. We want the views of all ages, backgrounds and levels of experience. The survey is anonymous and takes about 15 minutes to complete. You can find it here.

We’ll be closing the survey on 31st January 2017.Please do pass on the link to anyone you think might be interested- we’re keen to have as wide a pool of experiences represented as possible, preferably extending far beyond our own existing networks.

 

A moment of writing zen by a babbling brook #trythisathome

For anyone needing a moment of writing zen, here’s a bit of nature to get you in the mood.

Having recently discovered Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books, I’ve been ignoring the world in airport departure lounges in favour of battling demons and teen angst. I’m a massive fan of YA books and I think they’re one of the best ways for any fiction writer to think about the importance of a strong plot as well as a strong story. Due to travelling up and down the country to see friends & family for early autumn weddings, I’ve also been thinking a lot this week about finding quiet moments to write, think and read.

For anyone else trying to channel a moment of calm to focus on their writing, here’s a recording of a babbling brook taken in the grounds of The Hurst during a recent writing retreat. Perhaps imbued with the memory of John Osbourne tramping around with his dog, or simply the clarity that time in nature brings, stick it on a loop and block out everyday life while you lose yourself in writing (or reading) a book.

*It’s a low quality recording taken on an iPhone so if you’re listening in a loud environment, stick a pair of headphones on.

Our Associate Artists & the questions they raised #spreadsheetsandmoxie

Introducing the Associate Artists for Spreadsheets and Moxie, alongside an exercise for you to try at home.

For those of you who haven’t come across it yet, Spreadsheets & Moxie is one of my current projects: a year of R&D (funded by Arts Council England- thanks guys!) working alongside the inspirational and talented writer Sarah Salway to take a rounded approach to professionalism for women in the creative arts. More details here. Skip to the end of this post for an exercise to try at home.

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Viccy & Sarah in the middle of a silent walking (& silent selfies) exercise in the grounds of The Hurst, Shropshire

Over the coming months I’ll be blogging some of the exercises and approaches we’re taking, and soliciting views and experiences from the wider creative communities (FYI men: your thoughts are very welcome) via an online survey. Today I wanted to introduce a layer of the structure we’re working within. As you’ll already have gathered, the project is led, jointly, by Sarah and myself and feeds off the coaching sessions we’ve been swapping with each other since we met four years ago on an Accredited Coaching Skills for Writers course run by the National Association of Writers in Education and Arvon. The next layer we’re working within is an invited network of five women creative arts professionals based in the North East of England and five based in the South East of England: our Associate Artists.

The Associate Artists are a sounding board for Sarah and I to challenge our ideas, get directed feedback on our work in progress, build a wider picture and think things through differently. We’ve hand-picked women who approach the world in interesting ways, are generous to others and who produce high quality artistic work. They are (in alphabetical order): Clare Best, Vanessa Gebbie, Kris Johnson, Helen Limon, Lisa Matthews, Juliana Mensah, Ellen Montelius, Susannah Pickering-Ronnie, Catherine Smith and Kay Syrad.

 

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Tackling some of our Associate Artists’ questions in a glorious, outdoors setting

While Sarah and I were at the Arvon Clockhouse last week setting out the backbones of Spreadsheets & Moxie (it’s lovely there BTW, I highly recommend it as a writing retreat option), our Associate Artists each gave us a short activity, prompt or discussion point to consider over the six days. These ranged from keeping appropriate boundaries in collaborations to taking decisions on when to stop working on a piece and start a new one, from standing up for ourselves in public situations to considering alternatives to commercialisation. What I want to share with you today is the blanket approach Sarah and I developed as a way of making sense of the different questions in the context of the project.

With so much to cover in the six days we had working together, rather than trying to set ourselves up as Agony Aunts or the definitive last word on what’s ‘best’ and ‘right’, we did a 6 minute freewriting exercise to get down on paper different ways in which we might approach answering the question. After the 6 minutes were up, Sarah and I would explain to the other what we’d thought up and discuss ways of expanding or refining them. It was fascinating how many varied pathways this offered us, and even more surprising how little overlap there was in the techniques suggested. It made a great starting point for thematic discussions. It also helped us keep our responses to the questions/prompts/discussion points linked firmly back to the project. I found that my responses normally started by unpacking the language of the question or re-phrasing, for which I blame my background in research academia, but which became my route into understanding the question better before trying to work out how it might be answered.

DO TRY THIS AT HOME:

Take a blank sheet of paper & write your question/prompt/discussion point at the top. This might be set by someone else, it might be something you’ve been stuck on with your writing, it might be an area you want to know more about.

Set a timer for 6 minutes.

Freewrite as many possibilities as come to mind how you MIGHT approach answering it.

When the timer goes off, if working as a pair/group then share your approaches. If working solo, set the timer for 3 mins and freewrite on ‘when I read this back I notice…’

* If you work professionally as (or with) a writer or creative arts practitioner & want to help us out by filling in an online survey about your experiences later this year, sign up to the Spreadsheets & Moxie mailing list*

 

 

Spreadsheets & Moxie: the project begins

I’m writing this post on a train, heading for a week at the Arvon Clockhouse with fellow writer Sarah Salway. We’re launching ourselves with enthusiasm into a year of R&D, funded by Arts Council England, on what leadership looks like to women in the creative arts. My bags are packed with paper, crayons, literary card games and temporary book tattoos: all important working tools alongside the yoga mat and notebooks.

The full name for our project is ‘Spreadsheets & Moxie: a rounded approach to professionalism for women in the creative arts’. Sarah has blogged a beautiful introduction explaining what ‘moxie’ is in the context of our work together (I also love the definition suggested to me by @elyzah via Twitter that it means ‘a kind of charismatic bravery‘). We’re spending the next week in retreat together and will be broadcasting snippets of our activities and discussions on Periscope so keep an eye on our Twitter feeds – @Viccyiswriting & @SarahSalway – if you want to learn more.

Do you have a strong opinion about leadership development for creative writers? Is there an amazing person or organisation you think we should have a conversation with as part of this project? Leave me a comment or email spreadsheetsandmoxie@gmail.com