Saturday, February 25, 2006


This formula is, apparently, the secret of happiness, according to the theory discussed in this article in The New Yorker by John Lanchester, which makes for very interesting reading.

Lanchester follows the arguments of two scholars who “explore the fragility of contentment” and his explanation of the formula for happiness above (as designed by positive psychology), is:

H = your level of happiness
S = your set point
C = the conditions of your life
V = the voluntary activities you do

Seems very straightforward as an explanation, but doesn’t seem to help one increase one's level of happiness!

I’ve always thought of myself as a naturally happy person. Although I can get as sad, annoyed, irritated and disillusioned as the next person, I’m seldom down for long and never ‘moody’. What was particularly intriguing about the article was what happened to people when the part of the brain that is most sensitive to pleasure was damaged in some way. The damage means that the emotions are effectively shut down and all choices are made with cold logic but, rather than producing a cool Spock type, this produces a lacklustre zombie type. See, now, I always knew that Spock character was flawed.

I like the comment from the closing paragraph that: “A person in good health in a Western liberal democracy is, in terms of his objective circumstances, one of the most fortunate human beings ever to have walked the surface of the earth”. Couldn't agree more and will remind myself of that the next time I'm feeling unhappy about having to do something dreary.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


As threatened, here’s my review of the Open University’s short course, A175 Start Writing Poetry.

The course lasts for 12 weeks, has 5 blocks, 2 tutor marked assignments, and is an online course, which means that the main materials are made available on a dedicated web site accessed from the OU Student Home page (all OU students get one of these when they enrol on a course). They do also make most of the materials available in paper or as PDF downloads (the Anthology is sent in printed form along with various other booklets), although the downloads are slightly abridged when it comes to the block material.

To give you a good overview of the course, it’s probably best to quote directly from the Course Guide:

“This course is designed to introduce you to some techniques and approaches to poetry writing. You will be looking at such technical aspects as rhyme, metre, stanza size and the use of metaphor. Through activities, short readings and longer assignments you will have an opportunity to practise, improve and reflect on a range of skills. The course proceeds from the premise that writing poetry is a craft that can be learned, but a craft that also presents obvious imaginative and creative challenges. The course will help you build confidence through diagnosis of your writing strengths and weaknesses. It is ideal for anyone embarking on other Open University Arts courses, for those studying literature, for instance, and those interested in reading poetry. This course is suitable for those who are completely new to writing, for those who have written some poetry before, or those who may have written in other genres.”

The other thing you get is access to dedicated online conferences – one is a ‘cafĂ©’ where any and all OU creative writing students (they do other courses – have a look here), can go for general chat (most of which is of the “hello, where are you from?” variety) but the main one is your tutor conference. Here your own tutor can set up a variety of conference rooms – for work-shopping, for posting the activities that you do throughout the course, for chatting about writing generally, for tutorials, whatever.

The course material is very good for what it is – an introduction to poetry. If you are already writing, self-learning and active in a decent workshop, the materials themselves will be a waste of your money – a good ‘how to’ and a decent anthology will be much better value. Where the real value lies is in the tutorial experience and what you get here, as you might expect, it is a complete lottery. If your tutor is active and skilled at running online collaborations, and at least some of your fellow students in your group are at the same level of learning as you (whether you’re a rank beginner or a more advanced beginner), you might have a very good time and be happy to have spent £125. If, however, your tutor does the bare minimum, your group is dominated by one or two users who post rhyming journal junk and the feedback is of the “I can really feel your pain” variety, you might feel like you was robbed.

So, on balance, I would recommend this course to anyone who wants a steady paced introduction to writing poetry, a first experience of online work-shopping that is ‘supportive’, and has plenty of cash to spend on their whims. Otherwise, stick with the self-learning path and find yourself an online workshop where you feel comfortable.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Well, this week has been rather mixed. A good work week with lots achieved and a whopping big pay rise to boot, but the writing has been very thin. I’m still trying to settle down to write something I have in mind for the Guardian workshop, but I’m getting nowhere with it so far.

Today, I also received back my second and last assignment from my tutor on the short poetry course. When I saw the 75% mark he’d given ‘Mrs Slingsby’s Surreptitious Occupation’, I realised that I really didn’t like anyone marking my creative writing. I’m still trying to work out why. It isn’t any element of criticism inferred by the mark (I can take the harshest criticism and learn from it), I suspect it might be because it feels like a kind of price tag – “this poem is worth 75 out of 100” – I don’t like that. And I suspect I wouldn’t like it whatever the mark was from 0 to 100. Sadly, what I really needed was pretty much absent – feedback. My tutor commented about:
  • My strong observations
  • The nature of the poem being “darkly comic”
  • One line break he liked and one he didn’t (some of my breaks are “clumsy” – like L4 of S4)
  • The last line, which he liked and felt it made the poem
Apart from that one line break, he hasn’t given me a single thing that helps me improve the poem. But maybe I totally misunderstood the point of the course – maybe that wasn’t what it was all about? Either way, it was a fine waste of £125. Nuts.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Well, the Guardian Poetry Workshop looks really interesting this month and I've already got a couple of ideas for poems. Of course, they may not yet materialise but, they’re swirling about.

Now that my short poetry writing course is over, I need what help I can get to keep me writing. My day job is still making hefty demands on my energy – I’m just grateful that I’m not studying this year – if I were, I wouldn’t have time to write at all.

So, this was the piece I ended up submitting for my last short course assignment. I’m not sure if it has any future yet. If so, it is probably the only one from the pieces I wrote for the course that does:

Mrs Slingsby’s Surreptitious Occupation

Deleted for revision