The Dream Class

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It’s all about learning, but don’t let that distract you from the story. 

The Starless Square, Book 3 of The Storyteller’s Quest opens with a policeman challenging An, who, unbeknown to him, hails from another world, “Shouldn’t you be in school, Miss?” An laughs, thinking that ‘school’ is the last place she’d go to learn. Later, teasing the policewoman who is interrogating her, she asks why they keep harping on about school, to which the woman replies, “Because school is compulsory.” With all the naivety she can muster, An asks, “Why go to a place to learn when you can learn everywhere?” knowing full well that the woman, along with most of the inhabitants of this world, would be stumped by such a question. So saying, she expresses one of the unwritten tenets of the group she belongs to, The Dream Class. Learning can and does takes place everywhere and not just in a privileged building with privileged teachers.

The term ‘The Dream Class’, was first coined by Professor Rafter at the end of The Reaches, Book 1 of The Storyteller’s Quest when Sally suggested teaching her friends the ground-breaking skills she had learnt in her travels to another world. Here then is a second tenet of the Dream Class. Learning is best propagated by sharing what you have experienced with your peers and others.

When describing The Dream Class to another girl in the heat of action in Forget Me Not, Book 5 of The Storyteller’s Quest (currently being written), Sarah says succinctly, “We learn to do weird and wonderful things thanks to our adventures.” That adventures are potentially an ideal context in which to develop outstanding new skills and abilities in difficult situations is another of the tenets of the Dream Class.

As Sally puts it, talking to new students at the beginning of Forget Me Not, “Unlike the university with its set curricula and predetermined ways of working, we adopt a more experimental approach. Our experience has been that the best way to learn is by adventure.” Of course, the original members didn’t create adventures but stumbled into them. The challenge in extending the Dream Class to outside participants is to create the conditions in which an adventure might take place even if there is no guarantee anything will be learnt. Gauging risk is important.

Later in Forget Me Not, confronted with the enthusiasm of new students gathered on a deserted island off the coast of Scotland, Jenny tells them that they should “learn one thing at a time”, adding as an afterthought “if possible”. Learning through adventures means that learning cannot be served up in convenient, pre-digested packages. It’s messy, sometimes chaotic, often dangerous. Circumstances invariably require mastering several new things at once and the skills to be learnt can’t be decided in advance.

Although writing The Storyteller’s Quest has been an adventure in itself, the outcomes of which were not predetermined and often surprised me, certain ideas expressed here find an echo in my earlier writings about education on Connected Magazine, in particular an article entitled, Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is.  Note that much of what I wrote at that time on Connected was constrained by the need to work from within the school system. Of course, that limit no longer applies in the world of the Storyteller’s Quest.

Further reading

The Reaches – The Storytellers Quest Book 1

The Keeper’s Daughter – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 2

The Starless Square – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 3

The World o’Tales – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 4

Forget Me Not – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 5

Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is, Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, August 2007.

Healing from within – learning from writing

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It seems so strange to our eyes, but at the time they couldn’t see things otherwise (…) They came at the body from the outside. It wasn’t simply that they didn’t have our techniques to enter the body with their minds. All their knowledge was buried in books, in scientific papers and in data gathered by machines. They kept new healers away from people in need of healing. They would have been horrified if anyone had tried to heal others without all that knowledge, whereas, in reality, it blocked access to what they really needed to know. Inside out, Alan McCluskey, April 2012.

One of the greatest difficulties with improving long-established systems, like the one we call Health Care, is being able to step outside the system and, from that unaccustomed vantage point, explore new possibilities that go beyond what is currently thinkable. Freeing ourselves from familiar logic is hard to achieve, rather like stepping through the mirror for Alice. It can be liberating, but more often than not, it is a frightening and disorienting experience.

What’s more, the moment you venture out, a chorus of expert voices intones from the safety of comfy armchairs, You can’t do that. It doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t, in their logic. If we listened to them there would never be any major breakthroughs. Transgressing social norms and the fixed mind-sets of our institutions can be explored in inspiring ways through fiction, especially Sci-Fi and Fantasy. All that is demanded of the author is plausibility, a quality that can be built up over time as a novel moves forward.

In writing Boy & Girl, speaking mind-to-mind was a first step in creating a bridge between two worlds, between two people, Peter and Kaitlin. Travelling mind-to-mind followed on quite logically, making it possible for my young protagonists to lodge in each other’s minds and to see and feel the world through their eyes and their senses. What I did not anticipate, as I began writing, was that being able to travel to the body and mind of another had deep-seated implications for health care. That healing could better be assured from within than without, that the body knew exactly what it needed to be healthy, that healing could use this knowledge to counter illness and accident. All this became apparent as my characters affronted challenging situations.

These perspectives struck me as so important, I wrote a separate short story called Inside out that explored, under the guise of fiction, what might be possible in health care from such a standpoint.

Further reading

Inside out

Boy & Girl

In Search of Lost Girls

Dressed in girls’ clothes

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Alexander, Aonyan, Aubrey, Bell, Boris, Cameron, Camila, Charlie, Daniella, Ella, Elle, Ellery, Jenny, Kim, Lawrence, Lily, Mishel, Nong Poy, Saphire, Stav, Vincent, Yue Yue, Yuki, and many more.

Had Peter, the main character in Boy & Girl, been a girl, wearing a dress or a skirt and top, with those new-fangled tights that were all the rage at the beginning of the 60’s, would not have been such a big deal, either for her or for those around her. Doing so might have made her feel pretty or attractive or happy, but no more than the girl she was. That he was born in a boy’s body made all the difference. For dressing up in girls’ clothes had an allure he couldn’t resist, yet, despite the hold it had over him, he did not understand the driving force behind it. One thing was clear, it wasn’t that he wanted to be a girl. As he explained to his best friend Fi, he would never give up that part of him that singled him out as a boy rather than a girl. Yet in dressing like a girl, he relished the feeling of girlishness, the curves and colours that only girls could wear and the acute sense of his own legs, his chest, his shoulders, his whole body that he’d never been aware of before. Not to mention the fact that the cut of girls’ clothes, like the way blouses pulled in tight around his waist, flattered his body in ways that boys’ clothes never did.

Peter could be forgiven for thinking that girls’ clothes were somehow bewitching in that they had a power over him that he could not resist. Just the thought of them sent his pulse racing. His whole body became alive as he dressed up in clothes filtched from Sis. Concealed in her room, surrounded by drawers and drawers of her clothes, enveloped in her perfume,  the world around him was daubed with vibrant colours. In comparison, his grey shorts and school uniform jacket abandoned on his bed were dull and lifeless, offering not the slightest promise of magic.

Peter was at that age when some boys could be mistaken for girls and some girls for boys, the ambiguous age of androgyny, suspended in a moment of grace before hormones drive them out of paradise. It was that angel-like, undecided state which many older boys, those who stood uncertain on the threshold of manhood, derided if not feared. The thugs of the rugby team were the worst, making a sport of bating Peter and Fi for refusing to take sides between boys and girls. They were the rowdy flag-bearers of a society that violently opposed what Peter was try to express, condemning those that did not fit binary norms and heterosexual behaviour, with a fanaticism and a bloodthirstiness akin to earlier witch hunts. Such a society, in 1960, felt it had every right to respond to difference and non-conformity with punishments like chemical castration.

Like his namesake, Peter Pan, Peter escaped an ugly,  hostile world, by mentally flying off to a Nevernever Land in which no one aged. Could that be why he found his way to Kaitlin’s world so easily and took comfort in her company? She never judged him, but accepted him as he was. Meanwhile, back at home, alone, then encouraged by Fi, the right clothes, a little of Sis’s lipstick and a dash of powder to conceal his freckles, were enough to make him believe he was a girl. In a few years, however, it would take much more than makeup to hide the emerging angles of a masculin form. The thought revolted him. For even if he did not want to physically become a girl, he didn’t want to be a boy either, even less a man. If only he could stay eternally  in between.

Well before Andrew stumbled across his path in In Search of Lost Girls – the sequel to Boy & Girl – it did cross Peter’s mind that he might enjoy dressing as a girl because deep down he was attracted to boys. But he wasn’t. He found them uninteresting, if not repulsive, especially that hoard from the school rugby team who gave him and Fi so much trouble. All his interest centred on the delicious Fi with her brightly coloured clothes and her vivacity and then, later, on Kaitlin who was like a part of himself. True. Andrew was a fellow soul. He too dressed up as a girl, but for completely different reasons. Yes despite this affinity, Peter felt no attraction for Andrew, much to the boy’s chagrin.

Peter, who relished being a girl amongst girls, was delighted to find the Lost Girls and to be able to live and sing with them. They accepted him as he was and were happy to embrace him as a fellow girl. But, even had it been surgically possible in the early 1960s, he had no wish to become a girl for real. All he wanted was to put off the inevitable choice, delighting in a girlish ambiguity as long as possible.

Further reading

Boy & Girl

In Search of Lost Girls

New ebook covers

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Both Boy & Girl and its sequel, In Search of Lost Girls, have snappy new ebook covers. You can order copies from Smashwords, Apple’s iBooks and Kindle amongst others. For links and further information as well as free extracts, click on the cover of the book.

Giving birth to a novel

Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries – J.B. Priestley, quoted by Donnalane Nelson.

Difficult births seem to be the hallmark of a certain breed of author for whom creation is akin to intense suffering and writing is a pain they relish but constantly complain of. Then there are those authors for whom writing is a joy and creativeness a pleasure, akin to beholding the starlit sky at night, uplifting and inspiring. For them words just flow. Not that they don’t need to labour over their drafts to ready them for print, but the underlying feeling is delight. Neither group has the monopoly on good writing, although the first look with much suspicion and doubt on the second whereas the second gaze on the first with incomprehension if not sadness at their suffering.

The photo: JB Priestley in 1931. MI5 called him ‘an independent leftwing liberal whose conscience seems to be answerable not to any political party’. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty. Source: The Guardian.

New colours

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See a new series of photos in the Colours gallery on Secret Paths Artworks.

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Einstein’s Dreams

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Read my thoughts about Alan Lightman’s book Einstein’s Dream. Here is an extract from that review:

(…) Much of the novel is about people rather than a person, it is about places rather than a given context, it is about multiple times rather than a time in particular. However, there are fragments of the singular, as opposed to the general, many of which are situated in Bern, Switzerland in the early nineteen hundreds, but none of them string together to make the story move forward. Instead they appear like bursts of life that flash into existence then blink out, leaving the reader delighted but perplexed about what binds them together. It is these rapid changes that give pace and rhythm to the narrative. (…) Read on.

Books…

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Here are my five published books and some of those that have inspired me over the years. Recently I have been listening to a lot of audiobooks none of which figure here. To give some idea of authors I have been listening to here is a short list: David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Maggie Stiefvater, Tamora Pierce, Anne Bishop, Neil Gaiman, Trudi Canavan

Click on the picture to get a closer look.

Reading of The Starless Square Prologue

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Here is my reading of the Prologue of The Starless Square, book 3 of The Storyteller’s Quest. It is this extract that I read on the boat travelling to Morges during the GWG Summer Cruise.

If you want to read the prologue yourself, here is the link. To find out more about The Starless Square including where to buy a copy, click here. And for details of all Alan Mccluskey’s books, see here.

The GWG Summer Cruise 2016

The Summer Cruise organised by the Geneva Writers Group took place during the Livres sur les Quais with a boat trip on the Lausanne from Geneva to Morges. Click on each photo to see a larger picture.

Participants wait in Geneva for the Lausanne to arrive
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Susan Tiberghien opens the session

The first part of the cruise involved readings by GWG authors from their latest publication, each author being presented by Elizabeth Coleman. The only reader not present in these photos is myself (hidden behind my iPad taking the pictures).

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Emily Bilman reads her poetry.
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Elizabeth Coleman presents Jo Christiane Ledakis
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Anita Lehmann reads for Joy Manne.
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Carol Masciola
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Carla Drysdale
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Theresa Nash

The second part of the cruise, from Nyon to Morges, was given over to a discussion between Helen Simpson and Petina Gappah about short stories animated by Jenny Bew Orr.

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Jenny Bew Orr presents Helen Simpson and Petina Gappah
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Helen Simpson talks with Petina Gappah
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Helen Simpson.