Monday, 12 December 2011

Where Do Good Ideas Come From? Part 3: Sharing Experiences

by Paula Martin

Back in May this year, I invited Linda Gillard to become Durham University’s “Celebrate Science Author in Residence” for 2011. What have I gained from the experience?

Part 3: Sharing Experiences

Looking back over the past year, for me, the Celebrate Science Author in Residence project has been all about sharing experiences. I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to bring together diverse groups of people and giving them space, time and a common interest to explore. The project has brought people together in relatively formal ways (such as the many detailed discussions that Linda and I have had about the project as a whole, as discussed in Part 2: Taking a Leap into the Unknown), as well as relatively informally through this blog, and through the science and writing workshops that formed part of the residency. I have been truly inspired by the experiences I have had during this project and the people that have shared them. And as a fantastic added bonus, I have been inspired to spend even more time in the glorious North Pennines, whatever the weather!

One of the guilty pleasures of producing this blog is that I often get to see the things that people would like to contribute before they are published, as I am the person uploading them to be shared with the rest of the world. This means that I have some time to consider the ideas and images presented all by myself, before I become overwhelmed by the deluge of ideas that come from other people’s comments and responses. For example, following this post I will be uploading the final entry from Emma-Kate Prout, in which she includes an illustration of the way that she approaches writing.

I was inspired by Emma-Kate to include an illustration of the way that I approach writing: proposals, presentations and reports (and even blog entries) rarely get produced in my office without first appearing as a swarm of post-it notes that are subsequently shuffled into some sort of order, before the ideas captured on them finally come together in an electronic document of some sort.

During the science and writing workshops Linda introduced participants to “timed writing” exercises, in which each participant choose a word or an image that appealed to them, from a varied selection provided by Linda, and then had to write for 10 minutes solid; no stopping to think, no correcting of spelling mistakes no editing at all. I really surprised myself with the stuff that came flowing out of my pen during these exercises (unexpected objects, detailed descriptions, raw emotions), and with how much I enjoyed the experience. It was frightening to see words out there in the real world that must have been lurking in the back of my brain, but also exhilarating to think that I was finding things out in such a relatively quick and painless way, and might be able to grasp a strong hold on whatever had been eluding me. I found the experience to be so powerful that I introduced the “timed writing” concept to others at the first available opportunity, and I will certainly be making use of these exercises again in the future!

I have also had the unusual pleasure of experiencing a rather detailed imaginary discussion with a fictional character. After reading Linda’s commissioned work, SIX DAYS, I found myself thinking about one of Linda’s other characters: Marianne, the congenitally blind heroine of Linda’s award-winning novel Star Gazing.

What would Marianne think of Durham Cathedral? I think she would enjoy the open, yet enclosed, space of both the Nave and the Cloisters. I think she would absolutely love the cylindrical columns of Frosterley Marble in the Chapel of the Nine Alters; cold to the touch, their outward faces are highly polished and wonderfully smooth, but if you run your hand around the back of any of the columns you can feel the true texture of the rock, composed of myriad pale fossils encased in dark mud with solitary corals standing proud. Giving Marianne an imaginary tour is a whole new way of exploring the Cathedral, and the rocks that were used to build it, which brings a smile to my face whenever I think about it.

Bringing people together to share their ideas and experiences has been a great pleasure, and I’m looking forward to continuing these conversations into the future. Some of the participants in the science and writing workshops have generously volunteered to share the “writing experiments” that they have produced, Celebrating Science. Emma-Kate’s final musings on approaches to science and writing will set the scene, and then the “writing experiments” will appear over the next week or so, in the hope that they will not only entertain, but also inspire you!

Paula Martin is Science Outreach Co-ordinator for Durham University


  1. This was fascinating, Paula.

    I too use post-its to plot novels very roughly. I like to use different colours to represent different characters or plot threads.

    I was thrilled to read about you giving Marianne a tour of Durham Cathedral. ;-) I don't know how well you remember STAR GAZING, but she does actually talk about the difficulty of appreciating buildings if you're blind and, as usual, Keir helps her out with a bit of appropriate music...

    "... As they set off again, Marianne resumes.

    ‘It’s how someone once described architecture to me. As frozen music. I found that quite helpful. Buildings are things I can never grasp, especially big ones. I can feel the texture of stone in a cathedral, but I can’t get much of a sense of the building itself: light passing through stained glass windows, flying buttresses, the sheer scale of the thing. The grandeur.’

    He doesn’t reply for a moment, then stops walking and stands still. As she approaches, he reaches for her arm. ‘I’ve stopped.’

    ‘Is something wrong? I don’t need a rest yet.’

    ‘OK, this is a long shot but d’you know Poulenc’s organ concerto?’

    ‘Yes, I do. Not very well. I find it an intimidating piece - a bit overwhelming to be honest. Oh...’ Her voice fades. ‘Is that-?’

    ‘Aye, it’s pretty close I reckon. It’ll do for now anyway. I’ll give it more thought. What’s the matter?’ She is standing with her head bowed, her body tense, as he remembers she stood once before in the Botanic Gardens before she told him about her dead husband. ‘Marianne? Have I upset you?’

    She turns up her eyes and he sees they are brimming with tears. ‘No, I was just... so touched. That you always try to translate things for me. And you do it so well. I’m really grateful, you know.’ "

  2. Thanks, Linda. I use different coloured post-it notes too if I am writing a big document (e.g. background info, case study or case for support, conclusions, budget, etc), but I find a single colour is fine for producing blog entries.

    I did re-read Star Gazing a couple of months ago. I reckon Marianne would enjoy Durham Cathedral most in the summer, when she would actually be able to feel the change in temperature as she walked from shadow into light as she passed beneath the various windows. I think there is something primevally joyful/stimulating about the feeling of sunlight on your skin, particularly after an extended time in cool darkness.