The power of the spoken word

First, to pick up on the last blog post, how has it been the past week to be back in a place where I used to do so much work? Actually, despite my fears, it’s been great. There are enough people here who still remember me and our time together, and it’s been lovely to see them, even if only for a few minutes. But if I’d left it much longer to return, it would have been too late, so the timing was about right and can’t be repeated.

Secondly, I’ve realised that what people remember, about me or anyone else in the public arena, is not the written word, but the spoken. The events of the past week have reinforced that too: we long to hear words at time of tragedy or uncertainty, not just read them. The human voice has immense emotional power and subtlety. Used well it can move, to tears, to anger, to inspiration. It can also reveal discomfort and insincerity, the tone and timing sometimes belying the actual content.

Can we learn to speak effectively, or is it a gift? For me, relying on my voice over decades in my education work, what seems to matter most is to clear my mind of everything that would come between the words in my head and their expression. Only then will the connection between me and my ‘listeners’ be as close as it needs to be. The words in my head come from careful thought, over an extended period of time, and maybe a few notes which may be discarded or used only as an occasional prompt. Never read, never look down for more than a second, look at people, connect with them, speak freely, let your mind elaborate and make connections.

Don’t rush, hold a silence if you want to, make the words count. Speaking freely and without notes has a cost: sometimes things don’t come out exactly as they should. A story or a joke may bubble up and can’t be contained, even though some might find it inappropriate. If that happens, apologise, but not too much.

It’s been interesting to discover that what people heard me say is what they remember most, and gratifying to realise that most of it is positive. I’m pleased that some remember my words as both thought-provoking and funny. In a few weeks I’m heading into the first draft of a new novel, which will mean a intense focus on the written word, not the spoken. What I will need also is the chance to speak about what I’m writing and learning, and to savour those precious opportunities.

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The perils of going back

I’m in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at present, visiting for a few days. Over the past two decades I’ve been here dozens of times, three times a year for several years, in the fall, the deep winter and the very early spring, working with teachers and school leaders in various parts of the city and around southern Manitoba.Winnipeg skyline.@1x

This will probably be the last visit, and I was in two minds about it. Part of me wanted to see again people I’ve worked with closely, seen in their schools, shared evenings with and many glasses of wine. It’s a couple of years since I was last here, and as the plane touched down yesterday I hoped it wasn’t a bad idea to return.

Going back can be difficult. Times change, people move on, the work we thought at the time was so significant may by now have blurred and faded, or been forgotten all together. New people are in the schools, new ideas in the air. Would they remember me? Would some say, ‘Ruth Sutton? Who’s that? What did she do?’ All that may be true, but I’m still glad I came. The city I’d seen so often in monotones of white and grey,  snow on the ground, nothing growing, deeply cold and crackling dry, is now clothed in full leafed trees, stretching out towards the plains beyond. Balconies and porches smell of flowers, children play by the river and in the parks, the air is soft.

There’s a party tonight, a retirement and farewell party for me – the only one I’ve ever had – and I’m touched by the thought of it even before it’s taken place. So maybe coming back wasn’t such a bad idea. I used to be a teacher and an educator. Now I’m a writer, with five books already out and another ‘Burning Secret’ taking shape in my head. But I’m still the same person, and happy to see however many of my old friends and colleagues will come and say hello.

By the way, to hear more about the writing, here’s a link to a  conversation I had recently, about all the writing and publishing I’ve been doing since my ‘retirement’.  It’s quite long, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

Talking about the 2001 catastrophe in Cumbria

Does it help to talk about a catastrophe years later?

The 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria Burning Secret Flyerwas undoubtedly a catastrophe, and mention of it can still stir a wide range of emotions – sadness, anger, and fear are commonplace among my neighbours and farmers across the county. We could deal with all that by saying nothing, or by remembering and sharing memories and giving ourselves permission to move on. It’s not mawkish or self-indulgent or false to talk about bad times. They happened, people and animals suffered, children were traumatised, businesses were lost, lives were changed.

My novel ‘Burning Secret’ is not based on Foot and Mouth, but the outbreak serves as a backdrop and a catalyst to the story. Here I am talking recently about that to Paul Teague, a Cumbria writer who recalls the events of 2001 as vividly as I do. Click the link to hear our conversation, part of a longer interview that will air later this month.

Here’s another link, to the ‘Unbound’ site where you’ll find all the details about ‘Burning Secret’ and how to pledge your support for its publication, for which I will be very grateful. Thanks.