Writing in a Winter Wonderland

Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but writing is so delightful… in good company, that is. This time last year, I facilitated my first in-person retreat and since then, a lot has changed. We had no idea then that if we wanted to meet to write, we would have to do so online. But now we’ve realised that our collective energy makes it work.

A small group of writers has been meeting online every Wednesday morning since the beginning of March. We wrote through the first lockdown together. In the summer and autumn, others joined us to write together all day. Some writers came for just one day, others wrote a four-day marathon over two weeks. This year, writers in the group have performed plays, given conference presentations, edited books and defended PhDs they wrote with us – and much more.

Writers who came to my all-day retreats this autumn said:

This works really well for me. Knowing that other people are writing “with” me, and disciplining myself to sit and write. Kate you are an excellent facilitator – just the right mix of chatty and firm. Anyone who writes should join your retreats!

It was really good, I’m glad I didn’t get that “zoom fatigue” that I do in lessons and things. I was quite exhausted at the end of the day but it felt like I had got a lot done.

The facilitation was great. The material that was shared with us was fantastic. I really love the list of writing tips we all came up with during the retreat that was emailed to the participants at the end. It’s so great I am thinking about printing it out and keep it on my desk for emergencies!

A wonderful experience where I can truly say I got something done! Having others there to share your goals with really helps you to achieve them.

We will be writing together again on Thursday and Friday 26&27 November and 3&4 December. All-day writing retreats run from 10 am to 530 pm EET.

A facilitated day retreat includes four hours of writing with plenty of breaks to talk to other writers, share strategies, and take time away from the screen to exercise and re-energise. Writers who come to an all-day retreat can join our online community Facebook group and Wednesday writing sessions. And I’ll send you a resource pack to support your writing.

Numbers are limited to 12 writers. Not sure yet? Sign up here to find out more. Looking forward to writing with you!

Pitch perfect

Writing is a long, hard process; but even if you craft the perfect manuscript, you still need to persuade people to read it! That’s a very different skill, and the opportunities come and go suddenly: in a hallway, over tea or coffee, even in an elevator.

Can you sum up months or years of work in a moment? To do so, you need a pitch. It has to sound natural; these situations are conversations, not speeches. Take some time to write what you want to say, test it on someone to see how it works, and tweak your message as needed. Finding the time and space to do all that isn’t easy.

A few weeks ago in the co-working space at Crazy Town Jyväskylä, we got pitch perfect. In collaboration with Dave Sayers, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Jyväskylä, we are developing an independent training service to help organizations refine their communication skills. Our launch event was a short training session on persuasion in practice, called “Pitch Perfect: 30 seconds in 30 minutes.” Dave started by showing everyone how to use voice, pace, and gesture to deliver a message effectively. Then I got people to write, practice, and hone their elevator pitch.

It was constructive, productive, and fun as you can see.

How did everyone write and deliver a 30-second elevator pitch in just 30 minutes?

We did snack writing. This is Professor Rowena Murray’s term for writing in short sharp bursts. In this case, everyone “snack wrote” in two slots of just five minutes: first to brainstorm ideas; then to home in on the key message. I set the alarm on my phone, and when it rang, the time was up! You can do this for yourself at home, but it might work better in a group of people racing against the clock.

Once everyone had honed what they wanted to say, they tested it in pairs or threes. After just half an hour, everyone had a crafted, tried-and-tested message to deliver.

Participants said:

“This clarified my thoughts about pitching, that it’s not just about you but what the other person needs and why they would be interested in you. Very enjoyable short course.”

“We had a short time but it was very effective.”

“I think the session was really informative and engaging, and gave one the opportunity to use the language and to learn performing.”

“It was good to get out of my comfort zone and try to create an interesting elevator pitch in a short time. For me it worked and gave confidence. Useful training! I’m now more aware of my speech tempo and I’ve learned to make an interesting pitch in a reeeeally short time. Thank you!”

One group got into the actual elevator to practice. But you might need to seize the moment in any situation, including online meetings. A Zoom breakout room is actually quite similar to a lift – close quarters, limited time. And probably for some time to come, many of us will be meeting more new people online than off. So, right now Dave and I are working on ways to deliver this training both in person and through the internet. If you’d like to try either one, let us know.

Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Check your privilege is easy to say, but are you doing it?

When you’re a queer immigrant woman like me you can get complacent, until you – I – remember that you’re a white, middle class “native speaker” of the language everyone feels they have to communicate in, which gives you power. To put it another way, if history is written by the winners, the “winner” at any meeting is the minute-taker, and believe me, I’ve taken a lot of minutes.

It’s time to think hard about how to use the power you have, including in your writing.

You could look for a style guide. Many groups have their own, like the US Trans Journalists Association. Following the killing of George Floyd, the big US style guides (APA, then Chicago, then AMA) woke up to Black Lives Matter, but the wordsmiths are still wrangling about the rights and wrongs of capitalizing not only Black, but White. Or about how to say People of Colour in Finnish without an English acronym (“poc-ihmiset” won’t make sense to most). The UK equivalents, like the Oxford Style Guide, change much more slowly, but will get there.

You could get some training. Sarah Grey has been offering inclusive editing courses for years but seen a surge of interest. She frames the case for inclusive language impeccably, in terms of ethics, etiquette, and customer service: who could possibly object? Her ACES webinar series, while US-focused, pointed me to some great resources. The one I’ve used most often is the Conscious Style Guide. And I took her advice in writing about her here; if you aren’t sure how to describe someone, ask them.

You could read a book. Because it’s the English I write in, I make a point of looking for British resources like Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. You can see why half a million people want to make it a set text (sign their petition). Reading it, I learned from Reni Eddo-Lodge that there was a bus boycott in Bristol, UK, as well as Montgomery, USA, and from Darren Chetty that the catch-all Black Asian and Minority Ethnic could be replaced by better terms like racially minoritized or – my favourite – global majority.

There’s an awful lot of books to choose from, but if you read one, read this. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragaya Agarwal. What I loved about this book is that it breaks down big biases around gender, race, and sexuality but doesn’t stop there.

Using her expertise as a behavioural and data scientist, Pragaya Agarwal attacks the algorithms and calls their programmers to account. Did you know that when YouTube started letting users upload videos, a tenth of them were upside down? It took them a while to realize that left-handed people were holding their devices the “other” way round. Did you know that in 2017, when iPhone introduced facial recognition, it couldn’t tell Chinese faces apart? In the country with the world’s largest population, everyone could unlock everyone else’s phones. You can see why using this technology in policing could cause problems, and it does.

You might think that ageism, colourism, dialectism, or heightism are less important, but are they? “Paradoxically, people who value their objectivity and fairness are particularly likely to fall prey to biases, mostly because they are not on guard against subtle bias” (Sway, p. 239). Pragaya Agarwal tackles this from all angles.

Take names. When I, a Wilson, married a Vuorinen, we both had highly ethnonormative names for our contexts, but wanted to take our mothers’ maiden names. Our maternal grandfathers gave us Szczepanik-Sotejeff. Try saying that without sneezing. Try spelling that on the phone. So we compromised, and Sotejeff-Wilson it is. None of it is easy for everyone, but bits of it are easy for some. And part of me hopes that the social and health care reform deal in Finland (sote-uudistus) never gets sealed, because it’s a lot easier to say “Sotejeff as in sote reform” in Finnish. It usually raises a smile, at least. It shows the person you’re spelling for that you’re one of them, you know what’s going on, you can speak the language. And it makes it easier for people. They have to do less work.

I don’t have to do this sort of thing much, but too many people do, every day.

So unravel some biases – you could go to Harvard first and test your unconscious biases in an online implicit association test. Your results might surprise you. As Pragaya Agarwal says (Sway, p. 349), “there are biases that we can control once we are aware of the way they influence our decisions.” With that awareness, we’ll all write better.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

Steering the Craft

Lockdown is the time to write your first novel, they say, but I missed the boat. I spent the beginning of it finishing the CIEP Medical Editing Course – and then needed cheering up because I missed the crew I did it with, and though we weren’t locked down anymore, by that point EVERYTHING was cancelled. So I did the CIEP Fiction Editing Course, just for fun.

What fun it was. Tinkering with texts to see how they work and how you could make them work better is like being a ship’s engineer. After decades of working with academic style guides, it was terrifying and liberating to be out on the sea of story with the maps ripped up. A bit like starting out as a freelancer. Until I discovered a whole new set of conventions that not everyone agreed on, but were certainly entrenched in a lot of places (a bit like… you get the point).

I’d absolutely recommend CIEP courses if editing is your thing, and this one gave me the tools to become a ship’s engineer for fiction. But what I needed next was a treasure map.

Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula le Guin was that map. It is very short, beautifully written and reinforced a lot (but not all!) of the fiction editing course material. The advice is very clear and backed up with solid evidence, part of which you create yourself.

Each chapter ends with exercises. You launch by writing one paragraph and navigate towards drafting a whole story. Then you go back into ship’s engineer mode to block leaks, to correct list and trim.

Le Guin gives examples from her own work and that of a host of other greats from Neale Hurston to Woolf, via Twain and Tolkien. She shows you how to work through this book in a writers’ group (you could write together online or offline) but stresses that if you’d rather go it alone, that’s fine. Even if you’re sailing through it in splendid isolation, her clear voice accompanies you throughout, asking difficult questions, reassuring, giving glimpses of how you could approach things from a completely different angle if you ran aground or got caught up in a storm.

I set out to work through this book to get a new feel for storytelling from the inside, to help me in my own work with writers. I ended up with a dozen story stubs that, if I kept at it, could expand into a whole novel.

If you normally do a very different kind of writing (copywriting, technical translation, academic research?) this book would be an investment. Not just because narrative nonfiction is becoming such a big thing, but because it will get you right down to the nuts and bolts of how you write, and how you could write.

If you’re starting to write fiction, or work with fiction authors, get hold of a copy. I found Steering the Craft difficult to put down because I wanted to find out what happened next – in the new stories I was starting to write.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

The collective energy makes it work

“The collective energy makes it work”

“You are responsible to the others during that time – even if you don’t feel like writing, you will”

“It gave me the needed spark to get back into the writing mode after a long break”

“An excellent way to actually get myself to sit down and write, something I keep pushing further and further ahead in my diary because of ‘real’ work”

(feedback from writers on our online retreat, 4 and 5 June 2020)

Times are [insert hyperbolic adjective of your choice], and that’s changing how we write

In the last three months, some people have more time to write than ever, but some have a lot less, especially women (see Nature), and early career researchers (see Vitae). How can we help each other through this? We can make time and space to write together online. And we did.

As soon as lockdown started in Finland (16 March) all teaching, from primary to postgraduate, moved online. That week I moved my weekly writing meeting from the library to Zoom. Gradually, a few more people joined us. Later, it was clear the writing retreat I wanted to run in June would have to go online. I don’t like to call this “virtual” because in the process, real things happen.

Online, every writer has to create the retreat in the space where they are. The lovely setting and uninterrupted quiet of an offline retreat are not a given. It might mean ordering food in or preparing meals in advance. It might mean writing out the programme for people you live with and putting it on your kitchen table. It might mean working harder not to “just go and check” on other things which are most definitely NOT writing but are within much easier reach. The boundary between dedicated time and working as normal is blurred.

You won’t get “Zoom fatigue” if you structure things carefully

Despite the challenges of being online, I wanted other writers to see what they could achieve on a good day. This meant starting punctually, together, to respect other people’s time. We wrote in four hour-long slots, two before and two after a 90-minute lunch break, with two half-hour coffee breaks morning and afternoon, and two half-hours at the beginning and end of the day to discuss our plans and progress. I do weekly drop-in writing sessions on Wednesday mornings which are more flexible; the schedule depends on who’s there that day. And we have a closed Facebook group to stay connected. But this retreat group wanted two whole days to get their teeth into big projects (a novel, a PhD, a new blog). It was tiring, but with a sense of achievement, like after long or intensive exercise.

If the group is small enough, online is still in person: you can have a conversation on one screen. The smaller the group, the more likely everyone is to speak. At the beginning of breaks, everyone has to get up and move, but we can come back to talk about anything and everything. When it’s time to home in on what to write next, we do.

Think hard about when you need to use video, audio, and chat

This group decided to write with our audio and video switched off. We only turned our cameras and mikes on when we were speaking to each other. The chat was open if people wanted to message the facilitator privately at any time, but not for group conversations while we were writing. We created a quiet and focused space with very clear boundaries. Respecting each other’s energy levels is important. This way, when it was time to, we were ready to see and hear each other, to talk and listen.

Writing online can make goal setting easier

We put our goals for each session in the chat, so everyone could see – ourselves included. At the end, we wrote an assessment to “close off” that block of writing. Formulating what you want to write for the next hour – or what you wrote in the last one – in one sentence is challenging, but focuses the mind wonderfully.

Does it work? Yes

You can create a retreat atmosphere, even on a platform famed for fatigue, if you set it up well and respect people’s time, space, and energy.

In the last few months, I’ve found that you can get to know people you’ve never met on video link; it’s not the same, but it’s possible, if you’re engaged in a common endeavour. You can create an online writing community. We’re still working out how to do that best, but putting writing first together works online.

Ask people how they write, and you’ll have a goldmine of writing strategies

Here are our top ten from our June retreat:

  1. If you have to cut, but can’t bear to throw your words away, put them in a “cut file”: you might never use it, but it hurts less than deleting.
  2. Or move what you have to cut into comments, so they are connected to the relevant part of your writing.
  3. Or use an ideas file – even ten years later you can combine ideas you didn’t use then, to write something new.
  4. Use prompts and plan carefully, so you don’t generate text you will need to cut later.
  5. If you’re stuck, step back and think – how much do you want to write, can you break it down into mini goals, subsections, or questions to answer?
  6. Try the comment technique in reverse – if you add something but aren’t sure how to fit it in or don’t have the reference to hand, put a comment where you think it should go.
  7. Try having one session (e.g. the last-but-one) when you do something other than your main project, so you can finally return to it fresh.
  8. Stay offline during breaks and your brain will rest – you might have an idea you wouldn’t otherwise have had headspace for.
  9. Think about who you are writing for – who is going to read it?
  10. Aim for the sky and you might hit the top of a tree!

If you want to join us next time we’re doing a writing retreat online, sign up here. I can’t promise rainbows every time, but this was the view from my office window in the evening after our June retreat. Who knows what we’ll discover next time we meet to write…

Write No Matter What

Now seemed like a good time to read this book, which a colleague recommended. And it was. It’s a very easy read. The style is anecdotal, the argument clear, and the evidence is there, but worn lightly – just as well, as the author says this is how academics should write nonfiction for a wider audience.

So Joli Jensen practises what she preaches. This makes Write No Matter What different from many self-help books, and I confess that I felt I was reading in that genre at first, which I didn’t much like. This is a key reason why academics are so reluctant to seek help with their writing – we’re supposed to know how to do it, we’ve done so well, come so far, jumped through all the hoops with apparent ease. What do you mean, we can’t write? Who on earth can we ask about it, without losing face?

Peers. I found Jensen’s chapter on peer review one of the most useful. She emphasized that peer reviewers are “an increasingly rare remnant of the gift economy” – reading your writing for free, and responding to it in detail. They are not attacking you personally: they are people too. Editors struggle to find them, and can overrule their choices. Knowing this, it’s easier to respond to their feedback, and Jensen makes concrete suggestions about how to. She stresses the need for a community of peers, not to critique your content, but to support your writing process. I was very lucky to have this from the first, starting my PhD in a house share with other doctoral students from different disciplines. Jensen didn’t have a peer community then, so she created it when she reached the tenured faculty stage of her career. Now she is helping her entire university – and her readers – to do the same.

One thing is clear: you will never suddenly have time, space, and energy to write. The demands are always there, always heavy, and won’t go away. So you have to fit writing into your life as it is now.

This means writing for 15 minutes a day, every workday. You can do that. Once you do, other things start falling into place. The first half of Jensen’s book covered familiar ground for me about focusing on your writing: techniques she calls brief daily contact (the 15 minutes), a project box, and a ventilation file. In the second half, Jensen outlines recovery strategies for when writing goes wrong. This means looking critically at the stories we tell ourselves about how we should be writing and why we aren’t – she calls it inviting our demons in for tea.

It also means using your energy efficiently. ABC energy isn’t a new idea – A is when you do your best thinking (like working out concepts); B is when you can focus, but not brilliantly (like preparing for a session you’ve taught before) and C is when routine is all you can manage (like whittling down your inbox). My A time is first thing in the morning, and my C time is after lunch if I haven’t had a proper break. To rephrase “translate drunk but edit sober,” I can translate in B if I must, but I have to revise the translation in A.

A reverse calendar imposes order when things are feeling out of control. This means writing down what you actually do all day for at least a week, so you know what can change. I’ve used this, but hadn’t thought of doing it at intervals throughout a long project or sabbatical to keep on track.

A buddy log is the smaller log that keeps the main log on a fire going. It fuels it and sparks energy, but it’s not the heart of the blaze. When you get very excited about a new project that is not related to your key task (which happens to me almost daily) you can do it, but it’s the buddy log. You can use B or C time for it, but keep your A time for the main event. When you have multiple projects on the go, they can move between the A, B, and C slots, depending on what stage they – and you – are at.

Sometimes you try absolutely everything, and the project – even a book you’ve got an advance for – is still not worth writing, or you shouldn’t be writing it, at least not now. This can be the “cracks of doom” moment when Gollum had to bite Frodo’s finger off for him to let go of the Ring. Hopefully it won’t go that far, and letting go of what Jensen calls a “toxic” project will make space for something better. But what? And how do you find it?

Find the lilt. For this you need someone to listen to your voice. I hope I do this as an editor and facilitator; we all need it. When you’re not sure why your writing isn’t working, or where you want to take it, another person can hear when your voice rises and warms because you’re interested in what you’re talking about. This is what you want to work on. This is worth finding out about. This is what you should be doing.

Jensen is realistic to the end, but not pessimistic: “There will always be too many demands, not enough resources, unfair practices, and distressing departmental politics. There will always be reasons to feel that our academic ideals have been betrayed. But whenever we work with each other to recognize writing obstacles and celebrate writing progress, we enact a version of the academic utopia I sought for so long. The suggestions in this book are designed to help you write, but they can also help you embody the most honourable elements of academic life, no matter what.”

Bad English?

Whose English is right?

It’s rather more than just you say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to…

Who decides? The native speakers? Native of where (not just the US or UK, what about Canada, or Kerala?) What happens when the native speakers go native? (Language attrition is real.) Just as everyone is a foreigner almost everywhere, if everyone is a native speaker of something, somewhere, perhaps native speaker is not the most useful classification?

Elizabeth Peterson prefers to talk about mother-tongue speakers (which she defines very carefully) and multilinguals. In her new book, Making Sense of “Bad English” she does a fantastic job of unpicking the assumptions and power dynamics behind the decisions to call someone’s English good or bad. This is a matter of gender, class, and race, of course, as well as geography. To put it another way:

Since a language is a dialect with an army, if you say my English is bad, that’s you and whose army?

In separate chapters, Peterson looks at the grammar and structures of African American English, Singlish and Delhi English, giving them context and dignity, not least by comparing them to more “established” languages such as Swedish and Welsh. She launches her argument from Braj Kachru’s model of three concentric circles of English speakers: an inner core of about 380 million people in English-speaking countries, like New Zealand; an outer ring of up to 300 million people in countries where English has official status, like Nigeria; and an expanding circle of up to 1 billion people in countries where people speak English as a “foreign” language (EFL), like Norway. As Peterson makes clear, these circles and groups obviously overlap; on one street in a big city, you might find all three. But it’s a useful way of thinking about who English belongs to.

Twenty years of teaching and researching the social aspects of linguistics, or the science of language, as she calls it, fuel Peterson’s case. Her book is based on her course for undergraduate English students and each chapter ends with discussion questions. These are a useful way of digesting the new information and, if you have not formally studied linguistics, establishing some big concepts.

My favourite of these, and most relevant to my editing and translation work, is not EFL, but ELF: English as a Lingua Franca. This means English used to communicate between people with different mother tongues. The University of Helsinki, where Peterson teaches, is a centre for this growing field. Researchers such as Jennifer Jenkins have been arguing for a while that often-monolingual mother-tongue speakers of English have to adapt to the ELF reality. This does not just mean accepting pronunciation and expressions you would not view as standard. It also means learning more about the grammar and structure of some of those other Englishes out there.

Making sense of the “bad” English means realising that maybe your particular English isn’t as “good” as you thought it was. Or at least, how very particular it is. And that is a very good thing.

Here comes the science bit – concentrate!

Even if the content of your work hasn’t changed that much lately, everything else has, so your concentration might be less than perfect. These ideas aren’t rocket science, but recently they helped me focus on writing (and editing and translating), so I hope they help you concentrate on your work too. And if you don’t recognise that headline, or even if you do, here’s the story behind it.

Stop before you start

Try doing something creative and nonverbal before starting to write – thank you Kalpana Shankar for this idea. Play music, exercise, stretch or sketch, get a different part of your brain working. Whatever suits you.

Snack first

How much of your time is really spent working when you’re “working”? Some people use time trackers to measure this and split their day into chunks – the Pomodoro method. If you find getting offline and into your work very hard, try it. Writing in short bursts of as little as five minutes is called “snack writing”. It’s a good place to start.

If you can’t write it, write about it

You can approach writing in three ways: 1) write it (the project), 2) write about it, or 3) write how you feel about it. So you are always writing something relevant to your work – thank you Jo Garrick for this approach. It can help to a separate document for writing about your project, or a diary to record and reflect on your whole situation. Some people keep a distraction diary. Notice what’s stopping you getting started and you’ll find ways of dealing with it. If you speak Finnish, try these suggestions from Finnish authors.

Protect your ears

If possible, get yourself some decent headphones for talking online and to muffle the noise of other people nearby. Thanks to Thomas Nyberg for this advice:

If more people put on headphones, it might reduce the feedback on conference calls.

Any headphones without a microphone make things better for you, without making things worse for others, though they might hurt after hours of wear. You might need to turn down the volume – in your Windows sound settings you might even have an audio equalizer or tone control. On a Mac, you can buy tools for this, like SoundSource.

Smartphone earbuds may be safest and cheapest. Apple’s EarPods (the ones with cords that came out before the wireless AirPods) are comfortable for long periods for some people, depending on your ear shape. If your laptop has a TTRS connector, you could pick up the microphone on the earbud cord and it can be surprisingly good.

The best way to get decent audio is a made-for-teleconferencing headset, like the Jabra Evolve 40 Ms. USB headsets for gaming are often better value for money, show up as a standalone audio device on your computer, and usually have mute buttons.

Top-range noise-cancelling headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 35s are wireless and comfortable for long periods, but don’t often have mute buttons, so you have to mute them in your software. Even cheap Bluetooth headsets like the JBL Tune 500BT can work with microphones, but are not as comfortable for several hours.

Choose your sounds

Some people like to listen to brain.fm and others like YouTube channels like Study Music Alpha Waves. I like classical music e.g. BBC Radio 3; I will pick a concert to listen to and write until it’s over (my favourite is the Early Music Show but that’s quite niche). Try the BBC’s special culture in quarantine programming, including Max Richter’s Sleep. (Thank you Susannah Goss for recommending writing to Max Richter!) Unlike the TV, you should be able to get BBC radio online wherever you are.

Lots of editors and translators love MyNoise; it is a fantastic app which allows you to enter a soundscape anywhere from an Amazon rainforest to the Irish sea coast. I have a few favourite channels and if I really can’t settle, I use this.

Enjoy the sound of silence

Increase silence offline when it’s noisy online: walk or open the window and listen to the birds and the wind. If you can’t get out of the house, take a break and go birdwatching in Scotland or Finland. Some people like to use meditation apps like Headspace.

Get moving

Make sure you move every hour. Don’t sit still for longer than that.

If you find yourself drifting online and into social media, it’s probably time to get up and move. I’ve noticed since lockdown that I need to move more and for longer during breaks, so I’m more likely to work for five one-hour slots than three to four 90-minute slots. In editor speak, “stet” means “leave it as it stands” and so a “StetWalk” is a walk when you get away from your text and leave it be. If you can’t get out for a StetWalk or want to save yours for the end of the day, try a StetDance. One song might be enough – or make a whole playlist, or go to your favourite radio station for a break. I use a mini trampoline and a hula hoop, too. Or go and do some housework for a bit and suddenly work looks more attractive again…

Stop in time

You can’t do more than about five hours of really concentrated work like writing in one day. If you do more, you’ll end up having to do less the next day, or the quality you’re producing will plummet pretty fast. Most importantly, now is not the time to push yourself too far, too soon, as Aisha Ahmad so brilliantly explains. If you quit while you’re ahead, you’ll be ready to start again tomorrow. Go easy on yourself.

Find your community

Thank you to the members of the Rowena Murray Writing Group, Wendy Baldwin and the MET Humanities and Social Sciences virtual co-writers, and the Ridge Writers Group, especially Chloe Wells, for your ideas and your friendship during my working day, and beyond. If you don’t want to write alone, why not set a time to talk about it with someone and write together?

Too far, too close? Write.

“To protect their own lives and health, people have to reduce personal contact to a minimum. Finland has been preparing for this moment throughout its entire history” tweet by Jari Tervo, Finnish author

This may be partly why I have found the last two weeks just fine at first, and then suddenly overwhelming – after eight years in this country and more than two as a citizen, am I simply too Finnish? As the social distancing intensifies, so does the social closeness. For an introvert, indeed a nation of introverts, it can all be rather too much.

One of our neighbours said that she has never seen the lakeside path by our house so busy. People are going for a walk or a run because they aren’t used to being cooped up together all day with a lot less to do. To be fair, it’s still perfectly possible to stay metres away from each other at all times – busy in this context means you can see a lot of other people, not that you’d have to, like, touch them or anything. It’s not the London park my mum described as “like Piccadilly Circus.” But in a context where the nation’s dream is a house by a lake in the woods where you can’t even see your nearest neighbour, where there are the same number of people as in Scotland in a surface area the size of Germany, it feels like a lot.

One of the comments on that tweet seemed tinged with horror: “a work skill for our times: small talk in online meetings.” (To which the author responded: “it’s called ‘very small talk’”.) And, good Lord, there have been far too many online meetings. All the teachers, from grade 1 of primary school right up to university, have switched to distance learning and classes online. My wife is having choir rehearsals online in the room next door to my office. I had my first piano lesson by video link yesterday, I’ve moved my book club online, I taught my choir board how to do a video conference call for our meeting last week… luckily I’m more used to it than most as I’ve been having yoga lessons on Skype ever since I moved here, and I meet other translators and editors like this all the time. But with more than one person doing this in earshot, you need headphones, and after using them for an hour or so you start raising your voice as if you’re going slightly deaf and it all feels so… noisy. The entire world shouting in your living room.

So I went to the forest, or, if you’re Finnish, to the happy place, the safe place, the oasis of calm. I was worried it would be busy too, but I picked my moment and it wasn’t. From friends and family in Italy and Spain I know we soon might not be able to even do that. And then being in a small flat, even with the person you love the most, will feel very close indeed.

But the closeness keeps us going.

The last state of emergency I just about remember began in 1981. My great-grandmother was in Warsaw then and we were in Wales. When she died, we didn’t know for a long time. Finland has been in a state of emergency since Monday, but a very different one, initiated by a government led by five women, four younger than I am, who I helped vote in, and I trust to do a good job. The other big difference between then and now is those video calls. Being able to see each other’s faces and talk is precious. This week, I’ve spoken to people I’ve not talked to in many months, even years. We’ve remembered what we really need, that closeness.

Finnish closeness might look different. We want to hear each other’s stories, and we will listen, we just don’t want to do it by very small talk, we want to sit by ourselves and write it down, and give it to the Finnish Literature Society to collect, and then they’ll all be stored digitally for us and we can read them later, when we’ve had the space and time to think and feel. We’re giving each other space and time to think and feel by asking for those stories in the first place.

So that’s what I’m doing. As soon as I heard about this project, I wrote and asked, do you accept stories in other languages apart from the national ones (Finnish, Swedish, Sami, Roma…)? Yes, they said, write in English if you like. By all means.

If you are in Finland and want to do it too, here’s the link to the KoronaKevät (“Corona Spring”) project. If you’d like the instructions translated into English, let me know.

And if you’re not in Finland, why not do it anyway? You can choose whether and how to share what you write.

As soon as I started to, I felt much, much better.

Retreat into Summer

Summer still seems a long way away, but it will be here before we know it, and you might be looking to carve out some more writing time when other commitments such as classes end. Kick-start your summer writing with Ridge Writing Retreats at our two-day writing retreats on Thursday and Friday 7&8 May and 4&5 June. I will be writing on those dates and hope you can join me.

Numbers are limited to 12 writers. Not sure yet? Read more about how writing retreats work in English or in Finnish and find out what people thought of our last retreat.

We are based in the Writers’ House, Kirjailijatalo in Jyväskylä and this summer we have planned a new catering partner: lovely local cafe and restaurant, Toivolan Vanha Piha, who now do home delivery. Since we cannot meet in person right now, we will meet online using Zoom.

Join us as and when you are able for just one or all four days. The cost of the facilitated online writing retreat is €30 per day +VAT and includes a resource pack to support your writing alone and with others in online community. Let me know if a whole day is difficult for you and we will work something out, whether it is a matter of time scheduling or cost: some student scholarships are available. When I receive your confirmation, I will invite you to join the community Facebook group and meet the other writers.

In-person retreats will resume as soon as we have the health advice that it is safe to do so.

Hope you can join us!

Sign up now to reserve a place or contact Kate, the facilitator, to find out more.