Tag Archives: writing

Hey You! Yes you! What’s going on? Depression Bit Me

Hi everyone,

I thought I would just spend a few minutes explaining what on earth is going on in my life at present.  I kicked off a post-a-day photography challenge at the turn of the year and I am pleased to say that I have managed to keep up to date with that.  Other than that meaningful blog posts have been few and far between and I thought I would just explain where I have been.

Firstly the bad news.  I think many of my regular readers know that I suffer from depression.  I regret to say that this month has seen me have a bit of a crash, this after a fairly lengthy period of feeling very well.  I won’t go into any depth about why I crashed, suffice to say that a couple of things happened over Xmas and early in the new year that were indirectly responsible for my crash.

The fact that these things happened at this time of year is very significant because they coincide with the darkest time of year and I,, like many others who suffer from depressive disorders, tend to feel low at this time of year anyway.  Trust me when I say that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is very real.  Being really busy over Xmas and New year and then my wife being away for a week visiting her mother lead to me being exhausted as we reached the middle of the month.  Part of this was as the result of me not finding time to practice my mindful meditation.  Thankfully I recognised what was happening and got on top of things quickly and I have now stabilised and am feeling better again.

Now for the good news!  I am now writing professionally and getting paid for it. 🙂  I am writing for Inquisitr, a U.S. based news aggregation service.  The service runs on WordPress so I was (thankfully) already familiar with the format.

After retiring as a result of my depression at this time last year working for Inquisitr is perfect for me.  I can do as much or as little as I wish and there are no deadlines to meet.  I can also select what i want to write about so generally I can select music based news stories and other things that interest me.  In essence I get paid for blogging.  It is amazing to think that starting a blog on WordPress has lead indirectly to my getting paid for doing something I truly enjoy.

If and when I post pieces of my Inquisitr stories on this blog I would truly appreciate it if you could click through and check out the story.  Inquisitr pay scales are very fair but my pay is boosted when I get a high number of clicks so clicking through costs you nothing but boosts my stats. 🙂

The only downside of my paid work is that I have less time for blogging here but I really want to keep this site going as I have met so many great people through WordPress.

As we head into February I am pleased to say that I will shortly be getting out to gigs again so look out for reviews and photographs in the coming weeks.

Thanks for reading my blog, stay well and be kind to yourselves.

Alan

Daily Prompt – Pens and pencils

Todays Daily Prompt asks when us to describe when we last wrote something substantial by hand.

Wow, what a question!  In truth I have absolutely no idea.  It has certainly been over a decade since I last wrote a letter by hand.  When I travel to gigs and do not take my laptop then any notes I want to write are recorded on my iPad which I clip into a bluetooth keyboard.

Before I retired I would write down the notes of meetings in a book, but as a result that would probably amount to no more than a list of bullet points.  I have never kept a journal or diary so nothing to draw on there.

In truth I do not miss long hand writing things.  I can type more quickly that I can write, my computer auto corrects any spelling errors and helps with any grammatical errors.  The digital world means that you do not have to keep folders full of hard copies and storage is so much easier.  There is another reason that I don’t miss hand writing things and it is my deep dark secret!  My handwriting is appalling, akin to the wanderings of a drunken spider dipped in ink crawling across the page.

So, no thanks, you can keep your pens and pencils.  I will keep my keyboards 🙂

Iceland Geysers,

Weekly Writing Challenge – Ice, Water Steam

This weeks writing challenge is to consider what it mean to be the same thing, in different forms?  To explore different facets of ourselves.

This challenge through up a host of ideas, past, present & future perhaps.  Maybe, school, work & retirement or single, married & divorced or child, youth & adult.  So many choices, so many ideas.  I eventually settled on three aspects of my love of music. the three facets of which are musician, listener and critic.

I love to play music, as a child I played flute and tin whistle to a reasonable standard.  I was self taught and learned mostly by ear.  I enjoyed playing, mostly for my own pleasure.  When I joined the Navy I stopped playing, the lack of somewhere to practice in the confines of Her Majesties war ships was a major factor and whilst I never lost my love of music I did stop making my own.  Many years later I decided to learn to play guitar.  Initially I took some lessons but in all honesty I found lessons too restrictive.  I wanted to play and sing songs I knew, I had no intention of going for grading exams, I just wanted to have fun.  Once again I developed a passion for playing and over the past 18 months I have taught myself to play a long lust of songs.  I play most days and really enjoy it.

My major passion in life has always been music (after my family and dogs of course).  I have built up a huge collection of CD’s and Vinyl though the Vinyl has been packed away for many years.  These days I love the simplicity and the accessibility of streaming and downloads.  My iPod is a constant companion and with a 160Gb drive it has  over 16000 songs on it with plenty of room for more 🙂  The only downside with digital is it is far too easy to spend a fortune on music every month 🙂  Any regular reader of this blog will know how much time and effort goes into my music.  In 2014 my festival programmes and ticket stubs revealed that I have seen at least 270 bands and artists this year, quite a haul in anybodies book.  I am looking forward to having an attempt to surpass that record in 2015.

The final facet of my musical self is as a music critic.  The primary reason for the existence of this blog is that I wanted to share my thoughts, feelings and experiences of my music listening with anyone who cared to listen (or read).  Creating this blog has been a massively uplifting experience.  I have gained over 1200 followers, have written almost 500 pieces and reignited my love of photography.  My career as a reviewer is still very much in its infancy but it has lead to me writing for an online music magazine (echoesanddust.com) and even to paid writing work with U.S. based online magazine Inquisitr.com.  All this in six short months.  I find the WordPress community incredibly helpful, sharing and caring but above all they inspirational.  That inspiration has driven me on to use my creativity as a means of coping with my depression and it has even lead to me earning some cash to supplement my pension.

They say that if you can earn some money from doing something you love then you are really in a good place.  So thanks to my music and thanks to the WordPress community the three facets of my musical personality have come together in a hugely positive way.  Happy days.

Conversation Management – Writing 201

I was fascinated to see todays Writing 201 Topic which talks about the use of an interview as a means to provide both information and inspiration for your blogging.  Of course this writing 201 class is specifically for a particular type of writing – Longform writing.

Now I know a thing or two about conducting interviews so I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences with my classmates.  To provide a little context, I recently retired from a UK Police Force and whilst I was serving I developed an expertise in interview skills, in fact I spent many years teaching interview skills to Police Officers.  Over the course of my career I conducted thousands of interviews with witnesses, criminals and victims of crime.  Many of those victims were subject of horrific crimes and needed support whilst it was imperative to get accurate and in depth information from them.  Hopefully you won’t have to interview anyone in traumatic circumstances.

Now Mark Armstrong is totally correct when he points out that the best interviews are conversations. I would take that principle just one stage further and say that the best interviews are a ‘managed conversation’, with you as the manager.  For the sake of this article I am assuming that you are going to be interviewing someone who is willing to be interviewed.  If you are looking for blogging information it is unlikely that you will be dealing with a hostile interviewee.  Many of the principles I am going to outline for you can be used in a variety of situations, (e-mail interviews etc) but I will outline the principles based on the assumption that you are conducting your interview face to face.

To help you to conduct an effective managed conversation I am going to introduce you to a model devised by Professor Eric Shepherd in 1983.  The model is designed to offer the best chance of spontaneous information disclosure.  Conversation Management is a tool that is applicable to any investigative interviewing context. It combines empirical research findings in cognitive and social psychology and sociolinguistics, with research into reflective practice, skilled practitioner performance, counselling psychology and psychotherapy practice (see http://www.forensicsolutions.co.uk/CM.htm) for a more in depth explanation.  The overriding principle is that the method is used ethically as an information gathering tool.  In order to help you to use the model effectively I will explain the stages of the model.

Before I explain how the model works a word about questioning.  How you use questions will have a huge effect on how smoothly the interview goes.  If you remember nothing else from this post then remember this!  Open questions are your friend.  Put simply open questions are those that encourage an interviewee to talk and disclose information.   By contrast ‘closed questions’ are those that lead the interviewee to a one word answer, typically ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.  To help you to remember what open questions look like I will refer you to some lines from Rudyard Kipling who said “I KEEP six honest serving-men, (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.  Questions that are ‘closed are typically things like ‘Did you…’, ‘Could you’, ‘Would you’ etc.  As a rule of thumb the interviewee should be doing 80% of the talking during the interview.  Your job is to listen and you must listen actively.

Planning and Preparation 

I cannot over emphasise the importance of this stage.  If you go into an interview without a plan it is a near certainty that it will fail.  Even if you manage to muddle through the interview without making a total fool of your self you will definitely miss important information and you will probably not manage to get all of the information you need.  You most definitely do not want to have to go back to an interviewee because you forgot to ask an important question.

Start by conducting some research, find out as much as you can before you go to the interview, you don’t want to waste time exploring information that is freely available elsewhere.  Use the background information to outline a number of topics you want to discuss.  These do not have to be framed as questions but should be identified in advance and written down.  As an example if I were interviewing a musician I would always have some topics preplanned.  These might be: Influences, instruments, latest recording, latest tour, future plans, band mates, family, how do you relax and so on.   These topics would provide what I call ‘my agenda’.  You should remember that the interviewee will also have their own agenda and you need to give them the opportunity to cover it during the interview, it will contain information that is important to them.

Write your plan down and take it to the interview with you.  I typically need no more than a list of bullet points identifying the topics on my agenda.  You should ensure that you have everything you need before you sit down, pens, paper, a tape recorder, spare tapes, spare batteries, perhaps a drink if it is likely to be a long interview.   It may sound silly but use the bathroom before you start.

If you remember nothing else from this section remember this!  Know what you first question is going to be!

Opening Exchanges

Introduce yourself, be relaxed and encourage the interviewee to relax.   If you are going to record the interview ensure the interviewee is happy with that and explain that you will take notes as the interview progresses.

Once you are both settled you can begin the interview.  Your opening question should aim to get the interviewee talking freely.  To achieve this I often use what I term an instruction.  Using my musician example again I might say something like, “Tell me about your new album”.  This should encourage a volunteering of information.  Whilst the interviewee is talking I would be jotting down key words or topics that I want to explore in more depth.  You should look to see where the topics identified are the same as your own.  Where they match you are onto a winner, these are the topics that you should start with.  As the interviewee is talking encourage them to continue by making eye contact, nodding making encouraging noises or saying ‘Go on’ or ‘tell me more about that’.

When the interviewee has finished talking summarise what they said and finish your summary by linking to the next topic.

Topics

We now move into the main part of the interview by selecting a topic to discuss in more detail.  Start by asking an open question about the topic and let the subject talk.  When they have finished ask some more probing questions, clear up any ambiguities and clarify your understanding.  When the topic is exhausted, summarise and move to the next topic.

A little word of warning, if a subject provides information that you know or believe to be untrue do not challenge it, just make a note and let it go for now.  If you challenge their account they may feel threatened and clam up.

Work your way through all of the topics you have identified in this way until they are all exhausted.

Summing Up

When all of the topics are exhausted wrap the interview up by summarising and agreeing what you have discussed.  Now is the time to challenge any inconsistencies, falsehoods or misunderstandings.  At this stage it won’t matter too much if the interviewee clams up and you can always just point out the inconsistencies in your article.

Review

Having completed the interview and before you write up your article you need to review the interview.  Ask yourself if you covered everything you needed to.  If you didn’t is the commission important enough to need another interview or a follow up question.  In many cases omissions will be minor and can either be left or dealt with by a follow up e-mail.

You should also reflect on how the interview worked, what went well, what didn’t go so well, what can you improve on next time.  When you are listening to the tape (if you made one), check out how your questions worked, was your linking between topics smooth, did you bluster, what questions worked and which didn’t?

Writing

You are now ready to write your article.  Make sure you accurately reflect what the interviewee said even if you don’t agree with them.  By all means offer an opinion but ensure that you identify the opinion as your own, don’t twist the interviewee’s words to suit your own purposes.

I accept that taking this approach may seem very structured and perhaps time consuming.  To be honest it really isn’t.  Once you get your head around how it works it doesn’t have to take long, it becomes an automatic process and with the exception of a few minutes spent planning it need not take any longer than any other interview.  If you can gain a bit of proficiency with this approach it will save you a huge amount of time in the longer term.

If you are confused by any of the information provided or have any questions then please leave a comment and I will try to clear up any ambiguity.  Take care and happy blogging.

This weeks writing Challenge; Digging for Roots

100 years ago J B Woodburn said of the ‘Ulsterman’:  “He is determined to the verge of stubbornness and will accept no compromise; stern, dogged, and strong of purpose; independent, self-contained, and self-reliant, able to stand up on his own feet, and intensely proud of the fact. He has the passion, alertness and quickness of the Celt in addition to the adventurous spirit of the Norseman. He is steadfast and industrious beyond most races. In his uncultivated state he is blunt of speech and intolerant of shams, and lacks the attractiveness of manner of the Southerner”.

I think that this describes the Ulsterman and indeed myself perfectly, I would add a few observations of my own.  The Ulsterman is sometimes scathing, dryly humorous and rarely suffers fools at all (never mind gladly).  Again I would include these traits in my own ‘pen picture’.  Sadly there are a couple of other common traits that I (thankfully) do not share.  The Ulsterman has a view of gender roles that borders on Misogamy and all too often carries an overt religious and racial prejudice that borders on sectarianism and frequently spills over into violence and murder.

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s was challenging, sectarianism had spilt over into terrorism and the Army was on the street.  In some ways life continued as normal but security checkpoints, being body searched going into shops and seeing armed soldiers on the street was a part of daily life.  As terrorism took hold both sides of the community retreated deeper into their Loyalist or Republican enclaves and distrust grew creating a king of religious apartheid.  I come from a large family, my father was one of eleven, my mother one of six.  When we were all together the atmosphere was raucous and making fun of each other was the norm.  If you showed any weakness you would be pulled to pieces, it sounds brutal and it often was.  It was rarely malicious, it was meant in fun, but being the butt of other peoples ‘fun’ can still hurt and be damaging.  Over time you learn to hide your emotions, to build walls.  I believe that developing this trait is directly responsible for my being a depressive later in life.  I learned to bury my emotions, to keep them in until the dam burst at the expense of my mental health.

At around the age of 9 my family moved from Belfast to a small seaside village some 20 miles away. it was a pretty idillic environment, beautiful beaches, open countryside and the freedom to roam.  We  were often outdoors from early morning to late evening and we spent our time outdoors, swimming, climbing trees, building dens and hanging out with our friends.  I have no doubt that this environment led directly to my love of nature and the outdoors, I am never so happy as when I am out walking and enjoying the countryside.

At 16 I left home and travelled to the South of England to join the Navy.  It separated me from my family and friends, and in the days before air travel, mobile phones and e-mail it was very difficult  to maintain contact with those back home.  Joining the services exposed me to a whole new way of life and to people from different backgrounds.  It was immediately apparent to me that I did not care what religion or social background people came from, if they were open and friendly that was good enough for me.  These changes undoubtably led to my abhorrence of prejudice, discrimination and inequality in all its forms.

Growing up I detested school, I had always been a bright kid but looking back in hindsight I can now see how bad the teaching was at my school.  In the late 1980’s I decided that I wanted to improve my education and took a degree course with the Open University.  I was hooked. I immediately developed a love of independent learning, I developed a more questioning mind and learned never to take things at face value.  I learned a lot more about politics and economics and how the less well off in society are often demonised by the law, the media and the ruling classes.  This, without doubt, deepened my understanding of social issues and my belief that it must be possible to improve social mobility through education and welfare support.   It strengthened my beliefs that a fairer and more equal society is not just desirable, it is imperative.

Obviously as I matured, married, had children and faced all of the challenges that life sends our way, I have had many more experiences that have changed my life, my thinking and my health, but I think those are stories for another day.

The WordPress community – A depressive gives thanks

I must say I am feeling very humbled today.  Do you want to know why?  Well if you have five minutes, grab a coffee, put your feet up and have a read.  It may turn out to be a little bit of a long read, but it might be worth it, I hope so anyway.

Back in February of this year I was retired from the Police service in Dorset (UK) as a result of my ill health.  I have never been out of work for a single day in my life though I have had a couple of lengthy periods of sickness due to my depression.  Work related depression has been my companion for some time but after a lengthy bout in 2002 I managed to get back on top of it, returned to work and had some promotions and very responsible positions.

In 2011 I reached rock bottom again as a result of stress related depression.  I have so much to be grateful to my family for.  My wife and my son were stalwarts throughout the bad times, offering unwavering support even at times when I was  insufferable.  My son has just turned 16 and, to be frank, he shouldn’t have had to put up with what he did but he was an absolute star.  I did manage to get myself back to work in 2012 but I just couldn’t cope and was soon on sick leave again.  I was surprised but relieved when the decision was made to medically retire me.  Whilst I was relieved and knew deep down that I couldn’t cope with work I couldn’t escape the feeling that, there I was, on the scrapheap aged just 52.

Despite a good education, 8 years in the Navy and 29 years in the Police, a wealth of transferable skills and numerous years of experience as a trainer I did feel washed out and apprehensive about the future.  Now I have never been afraid to talk about my mental illness but I am all too aware that there is a general lack of understanding and a great deal of prejudice where mental illness is concerned.  I was concerned about how my family would cope and to how I would adapt to life without a job.

I have always considered myself lucky, I have a lovely family, a nice home, I live in a beautiful area and I have my dogs to keep me occupied when I am at home alone.  As those of you who read my blog regularly will know I have had a really busy summer immersing myself in one of my great loves. Music!  Family, friends, my dogs, Freemasonry and my music.  The five things that have helped me through all of the bad times and made my life bearable and worthwhile.  Since May though a sixth dimension has entered my life and I am really grateful for it.

Whilst I was still receiving counselling my counsellor advised that I should take up some creative pastimes.  Some 18 months ago I started to teach myself to play guitar.  I spend a little time most days playing guitar and learning new songs.  I do love to play and whilst I am by no means great I have reached a reasonable standard and I do love to sing.  Music has always been a huge part of my life and it always will be.  I love to immerse myself in music, I love music that makes you think, that is outside the mainstream and that has something to say.  I love music that challenges the establishment and that has a political message.  I wanted to channel my creative energies and I have always loved writing.  I have also had a passing interest in Photography.  What better way to channel my energy than to write about music and better still to illustrate my work with my own photographs.

In recent years I have become very cynical about politics, all of the corruption in the UK political system, politicians abusing the system, lining their own pockets at tax payers expense has brought me to believe the system is rotten to the core.  As an armed services veteran I am scandalised that our politicians continue to send our young men and women to war in places were we have no right to be, where there is no end game in sight and based on false premises.  I find it unbelievable that western governments cannot see that interference in middle eastern politics only builds Islamophobia in the west and radicalises young people in those regions.  Ultimately our policies in the regions will serve to create more terrorists not fewer.

So, as you can tell there is a lot going on in my world.  I really needed a medium to allow me to pull everything together.  As I started to explore options I came across WordPress.  After having an explore and setting up a trial site I slowly began to gain followers.  As I began to understand better how WordPress works I began to discover the WordPress community.  I was amazed that there is so many things going on, that there are huge numbers of people out there who share my views, who have similar interests and who want to talk about it.  I found people who love music, who are living with mental illness, who take photographs and who are willing to engage with others will similar interests.  I also found people who have interests so diverse I had no idea they would want to talk about them in a similar way to myself.  It must be said some of the interests I find bizarre, crazy even.

I was totally amazed to find that WordPress even runs classes to help us newbies to make the most of their sites, to network with others, to uncover hidden assets and to optimise their sites.  Whats more it is available to any WordPress user free of charge.  Amazing.

I have signed up for, and completed, Blogging 101, Blogging 201, Writing 101 and am now doing Photography 101.  These courses are all great fun, I have learned a huge amount and more importantly I have built up a great network of like minded people.  I would really recommend doing these courses, especially if you are early in your blogging career.

I am fortunate in that I have the time and enthusiasm to write most days and it seems that some people at least have an interest in what I have to say.  I won’t say that I haven’t had my dark moments.  There have been times where I have thought “Why Bother” but you know what if I stopped I would miss it.  As time has gone on I have seen a regular group of people making comments on my blog. My readership has started to expand and I now have nearly 850 followers.  In less than five months I have had almost 20 thousand hits on my blog and earlier today I had my 1000th ‘like’.  I have been nominated for several blogging awards and I now get 150 or more hits on my blog virtually every day.

I am stunned that so many people from all walks of life are interested in my little corner of the internet.  I find it so gratifying when someone makes a comment on my blog, when people like my photographs or share my love of a music album or an interest in a band.  I like it when people take the time to discuss a point of view even, or perhaps especially, when they disagree with my own views.  In the five months I have been blogging I have only had one negative experience, that was when I challenged a persons views on a difficult and contentious issue.  To be fair I should have realised from the tone of that persons site that an opposing view would not be discussed rationally.

Last but by no means least I have been totally amazed by the wonderful people who have reached out when I have written about my mental illness.  Some of these people have some experience of living with mental illness, either themselves or in a loved one.  Others have little or no experience but what they have all shared is a sense of empathy.  The willingness to just reach out and say hello or “Thanks for sharing, stay well”.

So many people write so powerfully about their own experiences, whether this is to discuss their experience of being a survivor of mental illness, of domestic abuse, of rape or of any of the myriad challenges that we humans face.  People write with courage, with fortitude and sometimes even with humour about the dark times. You find everything here on WordPress, everything from the born comedian who writes a few lines that make you smile.  The poets who artfully turn their thoughts into prose to surprise and delight us, the artist or photographer who shares a little beauty with us in the shape of a photograph.  There are those, like me, who just write on whatever captures our imagination on any given day, who write just as an outlet, sometimes emotional, sometimes dull, sometimes nonsensical, just giving their thoughts a voice. Some, again like me, jump onto the often fascinating daily or weekly prompts and some just throw random, sometimes irreverent thoughts around.

There is one thing that binds WordPress writers together though.  You are all amazing.  I offer heartfelt thanks to every single person who has visited my blog, left a comment, hit the like button, nominated me for an award or just dropped in, found nothing of interest to them and moved on.  Each and every one of you give me another reason to carry on writing and that helps to make my days a little better and helps me to cope with my depression 🙂