The Bookworm that Turned into a Starfish!

Writers are often introverts, happy in our own company and communing with imaginary characters. You can find us sitting at our computers, engrossed in a book, making notes, lost in thought. These introverted activities often go hand-in-hand with a hunched-over, low-power pose as we forget our physicality.

quote

But then, because we also exist in the real world, horror of horrors, comes the moment when we have to talk about our work; perhaps at a reading, pitching to an agent or networking at a conference or festival.

Fake it till you make it
Amy Cuddy, author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, had a glittering academic career ahead of her, until a car crash caused brain damage which meant a significant drop in her IQ level. She was told that she should choose another career path, one that didn’t involve an Ivy League University. But Amy was not a quitter, she persevered and worked hard until she overcame her disadvantages and became a Harvard Professor. On the road to recovery she became interested in body language and how it affects us. We probably all know that body language affects how others perceive us, but Cuddy discovered that the body poses we adopt strongly affect how we feel about ourselves.

this-power-pose-called-pride-is-innate-congenitally-blind-people-do-it-when-theyre-victorious-in-events-even-when-theyve-never-seen-it-or-been-taught-to-do-it

This victory starfish pose is so innate that even congenitally blind people do it when winning an event.

body-language-power-poses-amy-cuddy-harvard

Laboratory studies showed that adopting an expansive and open high-power pose, for as little as two minutes, raises testosterone and lowers cortisol levels.
Testosterone boosts confidence and cortisol makes us feel stressed and anxious. Unsurprisingly, in the experiment, people who adopted the high-power poses beforehand did significantly better when faced with stressful situations. When Cuddy published her findings the media were all over it, and of course misinterpreted the message. Those power poses need to be adopted somewhere in private, before the important meeting, interview or in our case the performance, reading or workshop.

The Proof of the Pudding…
I have been using this technique now since the end of 2014 for myself and for my students and it works. In my business English groups, if we have an afternoon of presentations then we all adopt a power pose for two minutes beforehand. It’s amazing to see the effect, particularly on female students. Because if you were wondering, yes, women do more often make themselves small and are less likely to adopt a power pose; so this message is especially pertinent for women.

amyorang

Online Personas
Cuddy also states that adopting a tall avatar, and/or using emoticons skilfully, can help you do better in an online negotiation. I tried this out on a Futurelearn course I was doing at the time. Hitherto, my avatar was a cute but small dog and I got very few replies to my comments. I changed my avatar to Lady Mary (from Downton Abbey) riding side-saddle on a very high horse. The course was about English literature in country houses so the avatar was also apposite. The effect was immediate and I started to get multiple replies to my posts and quite a few from course mentors, which had never happened before.

Even though it may feel silly, this expansive and open body language that equates with power is hard-wired in our primate past. Standing like a starfish for just two minutes could significantly help the success of your next performance. Why not find a private space and give it a go before your next pitch, conference, or any other public appearance. I’d love to hear how you get on.

No starfish were harmed during the writing of this blog.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Oh, to be in England now that Spring is here;

Well, I was in England and Wales too; for over three weeks. Horse and house-sitting in the beautiful county of N. Shropshire, near Oswestry, which is very near the border into north Wales. It was our privilege and pleasure to look after two lovely Welsh Cobs and three Welsh Mountain ponies, oh and one elderly ram as well, in exchange for our holiday accommodation! We are old hands at home-exchanging but house and pet-sitting was new for us. It involved more duties than we were used to during home exchanges. E.g: lawn mowing, mucking-out stables, mending and cleaning rugs, daily stabling, feeding and grooming of horses etc. Enjoyable, but quite a challenge to take on. While I grew up with horses and am comfortable with them, it was all quite new to Frank. But he took to the Good Life like a duck to water.

Leading horses through a swelling river
I love England (and Wales) in the spring. Birdsong, bluebells, balmy days, the trees coming into leaf, blossom falling and clear nights… But did we get that? Not on your nelly! A cold snap with hail and light snow at the beginning of our sojourn meant the horses had to come in at nights. Torrential rain meant the tranquil and pretty River Morda (which we had to cross in order to lead the horses through to their field) turned into a raging torrent coming up over our knees.

Gambolling lambs and blossom
But finally spring did live up the its poetic hyperbole. The last few days of our stay did give us beautiful weather. Let’s be honest, anyone going to England in the spring expecting only sunshine would be seriously misguided. Even though the weather went through its full gamut of changes which meant extra mucking out, feeding and stabling for the horses, we still had plenty of enjoyable days out. North Shropshire was relatively unknown for us, while we know Hereford and south Wales/south Shropshire pretty well, there were lots of cultural and natural beauties still waiting to be discovered in A. E. Housman’s  Land of Lost Content.

Sightseeing highlights were:

  • Pistyll Rhaedr Waterfall At 80m the highest single drop waterfall in the UK. Go on a weekday if you can and avoid the crowds.
  • Seeing bluebells again after five years of missing them
  • Hearing skylarks (extinct in NL) on a hack in the picturesque and undiscovered Ceiriog Valley

‘A little bit of heaven on Earth’ was how Lloyd George described the Ceiriog Valley.

  • Erddig House. A stately home in Wales where the ‘master’ wrote poetry for each member of the downstairs staff. Picnicking in the Arcadian grounds next to the cup and saucer fountain with the bleating of lambs in the background. Heavenly.
  • Visiting Chester, Chester Cathedral and ambling along the wonderful black and white timbered shopping ‘rows’
  • Horse-drawn canal ride in Maesbury Marsh. He’s a Cracker! That’s the name of the strawberry roan horse who pulls the canal barge along the Montgomery Canal. We now follow each other on Twitter…
  • Chirk Castle Magnificent medieval fortress of the Welsh Marches with lovely grounds to explore.
  • Visiting the picturesque village of Knockin which of course has a shop named, well, can you guess? For non-Brits, a knocking shop is slang for brothel.
  • Walking across Pontcysyllte aqueduct; admiring the dizzying views from the highest and longest aqueduct in Britain, and marvelling at the fact that the mortar holding the bricks together contains oxen blood.
  • Leading the horses through the River Morda – see short film below.
Quote | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Writers Abroad Magazine 4th Issue Published Today

Very proud to be a contributor to our wonderful free magazine. I have a poem about the sculptor, Barbara Hepworth’s garden and also an interview with author Bev Jackson in this issue. Put your feet up and read some fabulous fiction, poetry and about the experiences of expats!

Vanessa Couchman, author

WA Mag 05-16

The latest issue of Writers Abroad Magazine: The Third Space is published today. You can read it online or download a PDF copy directly to read at your leisure. 

View original post 192 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Horses and Hermès. A marriage made in Amsterdam

Exclusive French fashion label, Hermès don’t advertise very much. Well, it’s all rather vulgar isn’t it, dahlings? Hermès create aspirational fashion and equestrian items that most people can only dream of owning. So when I heard that their travelling artisan studio was coming to the Hollandsche Manege in Amsterdam, well how could a girl resist?

History
Hermes is a French manufacturer established in 1837, today specializing in leather, lifestyle accessories, perfumery and luxury goods. Its logo, since the 1950s, is of a Duc carriage with horse. Thierry Hermès (1801–1878) was born in Germany to a French father and a German mother. The family moved to France in 1828.In 1837, Thierry Hermès first established Hermès as a harness workshop in the Grands Boulevards quarter of Paris, dedicated to serving European noblemen. He created high-quality wrought harnesses and bridles for the carriage trade.

Gee Gees
Hermès’ association with the equestrian world is still strong today; their saddles are much sought-after, so the Hollandsche manege as a venue was a logical and very stylish one.  Visitors get a chance to speak to the artisans and designers that create the luxury products. Let’s face it, it’s the nearest most of us will get to a Hermès bag, scarf or diamond bracelet!

Scarves
The silk scarves were my favourite pieces and because of my background in textiles, it was especially interesting to watch the silk screen demonstration. I know how difficult this process is and the degree of accuracy and skill it requires. No wonder those beauties cost a fortune!  It’s all done by hand on a small scale at their headquarters in Lyon. One 36 inch scarf requires 250 silk cocoons to make. Hermès scarves have been worn by the world’s most elegant (and rich) women; Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth II. My favourite contemporary scarf (unfortunately it didn’t find its way into my handbag) was the winged Pegasus zebra designed by Central St Martin’s alumna, Alice Shirley.

So hurry dahlings. You only have until Sunday evening to experience a whiff of luxury in usually very down to earth Amsterdam!
1 thru 10 april 2016
11.00 uur tot 19.00 uur

Hollandsche Manege – Overtoom next to. 179
Free entry

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Peter Pan Publishing

I confess to being a bit sniffy about the whole colouring book phenomenon. Probably it can be traced back to a childhood experience when a school ‘friend’ decided my carefully drawn kangaroo would look very much better with a nice containing black line around the edges. Ever since then my spirit has rebelled against limiting lines of any description.

colouringin2

Don’t get me wrong, I used to love drawing and colouring my own creations during art college days. I regret that I don’t make more time for these activities in my life now. Oxytocin is released when we draw and colour in. Oxytocin is the happiness hormone which is produced when we stroke an animal, or hug someone. Colouring is shown to reduce stress, encourage mindfulness and generally help people switch off from from our overly technological world. A drawing class with a teacher is expensive and would perhaps involve a difficult commute, whereas a colouring book and a set of felt pens are easily accessible and within most folks’ budget.

Johanna Basford started the colouring trend in 2011, with her wildly successful, ‘The Secret Garden.’ Basford creates intricate, sophisticated designs which are extremely popular amongst colourists. So much so that demand for her books often outweighs supply. Five colouring books (two were Basford’s) were in the top fifteen best-sellers on Amazon in 2015; so although physical books sales are generally declining, the colouring book’s popularity is making many a publisher rub their hands together in glee. Ironically, given that drawing takes us away from our devices, the trend has been fuelled to a certain degree by social media. Fans post their creations on FB, Pinterest, Instagram and also exchange tips regarding the best pens or swap ideas about colouring techniques.

But this phenomenon is also part of a greater trend amongst adults for childhood experiences. The ‘Peter Pan market’ started in publishing, before colouring books. The growth in sales of children’s and Young Adult books to older readers has been well documented. I guess J K Rowling and Harry Potter got that particular ball rolling. So what do you think? Would you be happy to give colouring a go or do you think it’s all a bit puerile? Are you a closet YA reader; perhaps you have ambitions to write YA, or have you put away all childhood things?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Month with Starfish: Volunteering with refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos

At York Festival of Writing last year, I was fortunate enough to meet inspiring writers from all over the world and one of them, Bev Jackson also lives in Amsterdam! We stayed in touch and I’m delighted to share the news that she has recently published her non-fiction book, A Month with Starfish. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions for my blog:

-------------Bev

Bev, welcome to my blog! You too are a writer abroad. Why and when did you decide to leave the UK and settle in the Netherlands?
Thank you! I left the UK when I was 19. I had never felt entirely at home in the UK, and when I discovered how open people were here in Amsterdam, I decided to stay.

You’re a translator, aren’t you? Did moving abroad influence your career choice?I’ve always loved languages. I taught English for a while, but translation was easier to combine with raising my children.

We met at the York Festival of Writing in 2015 and this year you published your book. Did attending the festival inspire you? If so, how?
I loved meeting other authors, with whom I have kept in contact.

Your new non-fiction book, ‘A Month with Starfish’ is based on your experiences working as a volunteer with refugees on Lesbos. Why did you go to Greece and what made you decide to write about your experiences?
Greece is my “third country” in a way. I speak Greek and love the country. I am disgusted by the EU’s treatment of Greece. Greece was encouraged to join the EU for geopolitical reasons, to serve as a buffer zone. Its messed-up finances were well known but studiously ignored. After the financial crisis, the EU finance ministers suddenly “discovered” that Greece’s finances urgently needed reform. I was furious at the hypocrisy. And then, when refugees started arriving on the Greek islands, European ministers blamed Greece for allowing people in, even though 90% are refugees from war zones. I am outraged at the callousness and racism around Europe. It was this anger that made me decide to go and help. I felt I had to do something. I knew it was an important moment in time, and that I needed to bear witness.

It sounds like it might be a very sad and distressing book to read and to write, was it?
Not at all. I had a wonderful time, and the book is quite light-hearted, funny in places. The other volunteers were inspiring, and the experience made me realise how materialistic my life had become. It was refreshing to get away from that. And my encounters with the refugees also gave me hope for the future: their warmth and gratitude. When our eyes met, it was a meeting of worlds. Still, I was very lucky that I did not see any people drown. If I had held a dead child in my arms, as some volunteers have sadly experienced, I don’t know if I could have written the book.

How did you decide on things such as; the length of chapters, sequence of events, who/what to include, the structure of the book as a whole?
I kept a blog. But a blog-based book can easily seem episodic. So I structured each chapter around a specific theme. I removed dates to “unbloggify” it, and added context and reflections. I mailed every passage mentioning someone to the person concerned to get their consent for publication. That was a lot of work!

Tell us about your writing routine.
Preferably I write in the morning. Then I take the dogs out, and after that I do my translation work.

How did you come up with the cover for your book? It’s wonderful by the way.
My daughter Tessa Rose Jackson (TRJ Illustration) designed it. The luminous life jacket represents a refugee as well as a volunteer, the little Corinthian curls in the waves evoke Greece, and the outline of the waves vaguely evokes the Lesbos coastline. Amazing!

Starfish_BevJackson_XS

You chose the self-publishing route. Was it difficult? Do you have any tips for aspiring writers wanting to be published?
I self-published because the issue is so urgent; it’s quicker. Also, I wanted to learn how to do it. The paperback edition was easier to format. I was incredibly lucky in my team: my daughter as designer, a wonderful editor (essential, even though I’m an editor myself), three critical beta readers, and a neighbour who did the HTML for the e-book. Normally the designer and editor would be paid, but because this is a book for charity, none of us is getting paid. All that help was vital. I’d advise anyone who wants to publish an e-book to either use zero formatting or to convert the entire text into HTML. And to read David Gaughran’s book, Let’s Get Digital! My neighbour kindly converted the text to HTML.

Most writers don’t enjoy the self-promotion aspect of their job. How about you?
In this case, the book is serving a more important cause. Promoting my memoir or a novel would feel more uncomfortable.

All the profits of your book go to Starfish, the voluntary organisation you worked for. Where can we download/buy the book?
It is on sale from Amazon, and on Saturday 19 March at 4pm I will be giving a presentation about my book at ABC Treehouse, 11 Voetboogstraat in Amsterdam. Copies will be on sale and I would love to see you there! More information about the venue here.

What is your next project?
There are several! First I will probably return to the memoir I haven’t published yet (one publisher told me I had to get more narrative drive into it) and try to … get more narrative drive into it!

If you could invite any famous people to a dinner party, who would you invite?
I would invite the Greek ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, the American writer Joyce Carol Oates, the Indian writer Neel Mukherjee, and the Nigerian writer Sefi Atta.

Find out more about the voluntary organisation and how you can help by clicking on this link Starfish

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Taste of Home at the #MercatorMarkt #geefomdejaneef

Geef om de Jan Eef is a unique organisation which unites residents and local shopkeepers in a bid to improve the safety and prosperity of the Jan Evertsenstraat. The Jan Evertsenstraat crosses Amsterdam neighbourhoods, West and Nieuw West. In the early 2000s, parts of the street were plagued by criminality and in 2010, Fred Hund was murdered in his jewellery shop along the Jan Evertsenstraat. After this terrible event, in 2011 the organisation Geef om de Jan Eef (care about the Jan Eef) came into being and has since then organised many social events which improve the liveability of the neighbourhood.

You can take the girl out of Ross-on-Wye,….
With this community spirit in mind I went to the Mercator Souk Market on Sat 28 Feb. The market is an eclectic mix of artisan foods, second hand goods and quirky upcycled items. The first thing I saw for sale was cider and perry from my old stomping ground, Ross-on-Wye! Ross-on-Wye is the town where I went to school. I also spent my first ten- bob note on an outfit for Sindy at Tilley’s toy shop in Ross.

Cider is becoming more and more popular in the Netherlands but it sometimes amazes me that I can get products from Herefordshire so close by. Café Zurich on het Mercatorplein also occasionally serves Herefordshire beef. It’s all part of the gentrification process I guess, but you won’t catch me complaining. I loves a bit of cideeer, I do! Visit Het Ciderhuis website for more info on where to order/buy English and Welsh cider.

Quirky lamps
I also loved the stall selling upcycled lamps from Kesbeke jars. I blogged about one of the few remaining factories in Amsterdam, Kesbeke pickles here. Pickle n Glow put model animals inside the used pickle jars and transform them into atmospheric lights. I particularly like Shere Khan! These would make great gifts for kids from 8 to 80.

sherekhanI bought Mandarin and Honey chutney at Kitty’s Jam. Kitty also gives chutney making workshops in Utrecht. Chutneys are also becoming more popular here too. I guess it’s all the English cooks on telly that must have convinced the Dutch that English food and drink aren’t as bad as they thought, after all!

The Mercator Souk is held on het Mercatorplein on a Saturday. You can also hire your own stall if you’re planning a spring clear out. Upcoming dates for 2016: 26 March, 23 April, 28 May, 25 June, 24 September, 22 October, 17 December.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Winner of #Mslexia Flash Fiction!

I am very chuffed to let you know that I won the Little Ms competition for a story of hundred words or fewer, prompted by a picture.

Mslexia is a quarterly magazine aimed at women writers, and included in the subscription package is the monthly newsletter, Little Ms. Both are packed full of useful information about the craft of writing and how to get published. I highly recommend Mslexia if you are looking to improve your writing skills and seeking publishing opportunities. It has some great competitions open right now so why not click on the link and take a look.

mslexia

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Olympic Flame Burned First in Amsterdam

1200px-OS-Amsterdam

OS-Amsterdam” by ArchOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Eighty Eight Years Ago
This year the Olympics will be in Rio, but it was 1928 when the Netherlands had the pleasure of hosting the Olympic Games. The purpose built Olympisch Stadion designed by Jan Wils is the epitome of the Amsterdams School building style. In 1987 the city government announced plans to demolish the stadium. The stadium was saved, however, when it was listed as a national monument. Renovation started in 1996, and the stadium was refurbished into the original construction of 1928. The original bicycle track was also removed to enable the use of the space beneath the seats for offices. The stadium was reopened by the Prince of Orange on 13 May 2000.

New Traditions and Foreign Habits
1928 was the first year that women were permitted to take part in the Olympic Games and the tradition of burning the Olympic Flame also started in our lovely city! Amsterdam in 1928 was a far cry from the cosmopolitan place it is now and unused to foreigners and their exotic habits. The Japanese team stayed in a hotel in Zaandam and the Dutch cuisine wasn’t quite to their liking. The proprietor was surprised to see them sprinkling their chicken and rump steak with sugar! If you read Dutch the book, De Olympische Spelen Amsterdam 1928 by Paul Arnoldussen strikes me as an informative and amusing read. Below some photos of the opening ceremony and a trial run with the Olympic Flame, which was lit on the Marathontoren (tower) that pierces the sky above the Stadium.

Gin and Tonic
What were the Brits doing? Taking over the Lloyd Hotel of course and knocking back the hard stuff which included Dutch gin. Some things never change. The Americans went one step further and had a huge boat specially furbished to house their team. It accommodated 300 competitors and had its own mini cycle track, a fencing arena and a treadmill for the show-jumping horses. Talk about show offs! Of course the Americans won the Games with Germany coming in second.

Sunny morning in January
I was in the Stadionplein neighbourhood the other morning and was struck by the Stadium’s beauty. It now houses small businesses and is used occasionally for track events. It is not generally open to the public but it’s possible to book a guided tour (minimum of 5) for 10 euros per person. The stadium was open so I took a few surreptitious photos. Definitely want to book the tour now! Perhaps I will see you there.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Get Ready for a New Year’s Bash!

We all want to create or experience characters that come off the page, don’t we. Portability is the phenomenon by which fictional characters manage to exist outside the text of their original literary setting. Freed and animated by public imagination they no longer need their authors to create stories and settings. They walk amongst us and are especially popular on the telly around Christmas and New Year. Dickens was the master at creating portable characters; his most famous examples being Scrooge, Fagin, Miss Havisham, Mr Micawber and Bill Sikes to name but a few.

Deerstalkers and all that
Sherlock Holmes has had so many spin-offs and incumbents it’s hard to remember them all. When I worked at an Art Supplies shop on Baker Street in the eighties, tourists would wander into the shop daily asking for Sherlock Holmes’ address. It seemed churlish to say he was just a fictional character and hadn’t actually lived anywhere, so I always directed them over the road to 221B which is now a museum dedicated to the world-famous detective!

Sherlock Holmes Museum 221B Baker St

Sherlock Holmes Museum 221B Baker St

Fan Fiction
Recently ITV breathed new life into ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ He (or they) has been made considerably sexier in order to appeal to the YA audience who have been weaned on the Twilight series. Fan-fiction is another way of expressing our love of portable characters. One of my favourite examples of fan-fiction is ‘Wide Sargasso Sea‘ by Jean Rhys. This prequel of Jane Eyre shows us how the mad woman trapped in the attic at Thornfield Hall came to be mad in the first place. At a recent production of Jane Eyre, live-streamed from the Old Vic, Berthe Mason was re-imagined yet again, this time as an opera Diva who appeared in a flame-red dress and sang the musical score for the key scenes on stage. This didn’t work for me; I think the character of Berthe Mason has to represent danger of violence and fear of madness otherwise the novel loses much of its tension.

The Considerably Sexier Dr Jekyll

The Considerably Sexier Dr Jekyll

Shrek

Shrek burps and farts but we love him all the same!

Imperfections Create Sticky Characters
So how do we create portable characters in our writing? I guess if I had the answer to that I would be signing a six-figure book deal but closer observation tells me they can be basically good or evil but we identify with them because of their flawed humanity. Would we have remembered Scrooge so well if he hadn’t been mean? Would Holmes be so appealing if he was polite and nice to everyone? Inspector Morse was a troubled loner. Wouldn’t we have warmed to him much less if he had been happily married and secure? We can identify with animals/fantasy beings too. Think of fun-loving but incompetent Baloo in ‘Jungle Book,’ mad but affable Toad in ‘Wind in the Willows’ or oafish but loveable Shrek in his eponymous book.

Who are you coming as?
So let’s imagine we are having a New Year’s bash and you are going to dress up as your favourite portable character. Remember that animals and fantasy beings can also exist outside the pages of a novel and as we are having a virtual party you are not bound by the practicality of finding a good costume! I’ve decided to come as Eliza Doolittle so excuse me while I pretend to be posh and practise pronouncing my haitches. Who are you going to come as? See you near the booze and grub, I mean champagne and canapés…

Eliza Doolittle transformed into a Society Lady

Eliza Doolittle transformed into a Society Lady

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment