Friday, 25 May 2018

On goldfish, writing addiction and Ignatius of Loyola - by Eileen Padmore

Hallo blog readers.  I felt bashful about volunteering for this vacancy, mindful of the skilled professional posts that pop up with scary regularity.  I could stretch the truth by claiming to be an award winning writer - for at the age of eight I was given first prize in a church story writing competition.  Hand written in faded pencil on scraps of lined exercise paper  (sewn together with cotton) - it was a true account of a deceased goldfish who jumped out of his bowl to be discovered on the kitchen floor next day.

My default position still seems to be writing about real events, despite an imagination that constantly plays host to a rich variety of flamboyant characters who get up to all sorts.  Somehow they resist capture onto the page.  Perhaps this is because a former life in health care required me to churn out evidence based stuff for various publications - where any urge to use words creatively had to be suppressed.

More recently, I have been drawn towards the 'new monasticism' - unlikely in view of an evangelical background with leanings towards the charismatic.  But then, we're the ones who use labels, put things into neat boxes and try to control where they fit - not God.  He is all seeing, all knowing and loves to surprise.

Now in the final term of a two year course at St Bede's Pastoral Centre (in association with the Community of Jesus at the Bar Convent in York),  Ignatian prayer exercises have prompted greater spiritual freedom and increased my awareness of the presence of God in everyday life.  They have also influenced my writing.

On silent retreat last month, I found myself at a window overlooking the harbour of Whitby.  Raindrops assaulted the glass.  Some sat like jewelled blobs whilst others joined to trace crooked lines in an untidy race to reach the window sill.  Through the distorted view, huge waves crashed roar upon roar onto the shore below.  The faint ruins of St Hilda's Abbey could be seen on the distant cliff.

The moment was mine.  I was not hurrying to do anything or get anywhere - nor avoiding tasks.  Doing 'nothing' was legitimate.  There was no need to measure time.  The 'here and now' was brim full of possibilities - suffused with praise, joy, love, demands ........

Last February, encouraged by a writer friend, I had launched into a spell of uninhibited writing with unexpected result.  To be exact, 65,000 words in two months!  Ignatius suggests we note what energises us and what saps our strength.  Ha, a clue?  Friends commented on the new dynamic in me and asked for some of whatever I was on!

The main reason for the retreat was to stand back and look for direction.  There was no loud voice from heaven or handwriting on the wall.  Not even any dreams.  Instead, a sense of presence and purpose that has encouraged me to continue.  Thanks you so much for reading.  I'll do my best to keep up.

Eileen Padmore has retired from a life spent in health care and academia, having worked in Sierra Leone, Zambia, Eire and Northern Ireland (in the troubles) as well as inner city Birmingham and Leeds.  She has had articles published in 'Woman Alive' and recently contributed to the popular ACW Lent Book.  Married for forty years to a professional musician, the family includes a feisty springer spaniel and a large African tortoise.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Separated by a common language?

Are you an Americanophile? Are you interested in the way language works? And are you prepared to have some ingrained prejudices challenged?

My guess is that, as a writer and a Christian, your answers will be yes to all three questions! As Christians we are not prone to harbour prejudices against other nations, and many of us welcome the spiritual leaders and movements that come to us from the United States. Plus we are readier than many unbelievers are for our ideas to be challenged. And, of course, language is the medium in which we work.

That’s why I’d like to recommend a new book on the relationship between British and American English: The Prodigal Tongue (now there’s a Biblical echo!) by Lynne Murphy (published by Oneworld). Unlike many commentators on the state of English and the role of America within it, Lynne knows what she’s talking about. She’s a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex, and she’s done the empirical research to establish every statement she makes: there’s no wild theorizing or opinion-mongering in the book. She’s perfectly placed to write such a book, as an American with dual citizenship married to an Englishman with a daughter who (as she puts it in her dedication) ‘says tomato both ways’.

Publicity on the Web describes it thus:

The English language is a beautiful thing, but it suffers under relentless assault from Americans who want nothing more than to corrupt the mother tongue. Well, that’s what we’re told. But what’s the truth? And whose language is it anyway? Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in England, dives into the war of words being waged over the Atlantic. In a laugh-out-loud report, she separates reality from myth in this special relationship and delves into the social and political forces that have seen British and American English part ways. From the origins of ‘the bee’s knees’ to why so many of Hollywood’s evil geniuses sound as though they were educated at Oxford, The Prodigal Tongue reveals how our language really works and tells us where it’s going.

I suppose one of the ideas that the book refutes is: ‘British English is being engulfed by a flood of Americanisms which are debasing our language’. It does this with factual evidence drawn from large databases of language use. But much more interestingly, it shows how aspects of American and British English reflect areas of the culture and customs of the two nations, whether in the realm of politeness, social structure, or food. The food-related parts of this book are especially fascinating and show the hand of a writer who’s at home in the kitchen as much as in the academic office.

Lynne has a particular forte of tracing very subtle nuances of difference between the two kinds of English, many of which have gone entirely unnoticed for decades. For example, did you know that frown has a second meaning for many Americans—a phenomenon affecting the mouth rather than the brow?

I hope I have whetted your appetite.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

All the colours combined - by Helen Murray

A while ago I went 'prayer weaving'.

No, I hadn't heard of it before, either. There's a little loom which consists of a series of removable prongs in a wooden base (five, in our case - just weaving something small). You take a ball of wool, or strips of fabric, ribbons - whatever you can make into strands - and weave it in and out of the prongs across the loom and back again. Knot two pieces together to change wool or texture, and then when the loom becomes almost full, pull the prongs out, threading the attached piece of wool through your creation. You can do this several times in order to make a piece that's as long as you want.

By the end, my piece of woven fabric was about eight inches long and about four wide. After removing it from the loom for the last time, you cut the warp threads (the vertical ones) and tie them off, and there you have it.

It's supposed to be a prayer.

The idea is that you have a conversation with God as you weave. You choose your colours instinctively and without too much deliberation in order to allow God to speak to you in whatever way He sees fit; through colour, through texture, through metaphor, through ideas or thoughts or words in your head.

I went along to the session feeling quite down; a prevailing mood for a while now. If I hadn't committed myself to begin there I suspect I might not have gone at all, and to be honest, I wasn't particularly up for having a conversation with God. I wasn't in the mood for more pep talks about persevering, or about counting my blessings. I was making up the numbers and, if nothing else, I'd decided that an hour spent doing something crafty might be a bit of relaxation time, and since my creativity isn't doing so well at the moment, I'd give it a go.

God started work a little bit before I did. I was feeling a bit frazzled as I climbed into the car with twenty minutes left to do a half hour journey. For the first time in a few weeks I turned the music up as I drove off; it was a Phil Wickham track called 'Just Hold On'.

'There is a battle in the distance
I see it flashing in the sky
It's gonna be a long, long night
All that was holding you together
Is crumbling apart
And left you with an aching heart
Take my hand, here I am'

The first thing that came to mind was that it feels as if I've been in a battle. This year has started with so many things to cope with coming at me from every angle. Things that I thought I'd dealt with (and written triumphant blog posts about) years ago are back to hassle me, joining forces with new stuff in the form of bad news, overwhelming life stuff and health issues. And then there's that old chestnut that when I need God most, I have no energy or desire to find Him.

Yes, there's a battle. Always a battle, but I've been struggling in the middle of it.

'Take my hand, here I am...

Love is gonna make it right
Just hold on, just hold on
There's mercy in the morning light
When you're weak love is strong
Hold on'

I don't really know what happened as I listened to that song, but a little glimmer of something seemed to penetrate the darkness. A ray of morning light. A little glint of something shining in the black. I turned the music up loud, and made it there, almost on time.

So, prayer weaving.

Each seat had a loom set up and ready for a participant. The vertical threads were already attached to the loom, and my seat had black threads already on it. Good, I thought.

I knew what I was going to do. The room was set out with multiple baskets and tubs of different fabrics, wools, yarns and ribbons in every colour, pattern and texture that you can imagine. I chose the darkest colours I could find in shades of black and purple and began weaving. 

It was quite therapeutic, the in-out-in-out of the thread between the pegs, a rhythmic thing that I found wasn't conducive to thinking at all, really - more just switching off. My piece of work grew longer with each row of ins and outs and I changed material every few rows.

Fluffy black thread, chunky purple wool, tweedy fabric in dark colours, purple ribbon. I wanted there to be different textures, but little colour. Dark, drab, plain.

And then... a little glimmer of gold. A shaft of morning light in the gloom.

My mind was full of the symbolism of what I was doing. In-and-out, in-and-out. A rhythmic plodding on, sometimes fast and sometimes slow.

Sometimes tightly, weaving with tension, sometimes more relaxed, loosely.

Some threads were easier to use than others, some slipping through the fingers smoothly, and others lumpy and bumpy and hard to work with.

Some strands of fabric weren't really long enough - particularly the shreds of gold that I found; I wished there were more of those, but they were quickly woven in and then I was back to my dark threads.

Some of them rough to my fingers, some silky, some fluffy and soft, some thin and almost wiry.

In-and-out, in-and-out. Like days and weeks and months and years. Life (in my negative frame of mind) dull and monotonous. Too much dark and not enough light. Too dark to see what was ahead; not enough colour to inspire. And yet, bright threads woven through adding glimmers of beauty, changing the mood of the whole piece.

At the end when my piece of weaving was free from the loom, I found scraps of red and gold ribbon and tied off the ends - my little dark-night prayer gilded at the beginning and end with little pieces of sunrise.

'There's mercy in the morning light...'

I was quite surprised at my piece, when it was finished.

I was surprised at how dark it was, in comparison with other people's. Bright colours everywhere, yellows and greens and reds and oranges... and then mine, by far the most miserable looking piece of work in the room. Still, to me it spoke of hope, the assurance that there is gold to be found even in the darkest hours, that after night comes morning, with its rays of brilliance. That God is there in the blackness.

'Take My hand, here I am...'

Afterwards, I took my bit of weaving home with me and laid it on the arm of a chair in the sitting room. As I sat, I was smoothing it out, fingering the different textures and gently shaping it in my hands.

As I looked closely, I noticed something that I hadn't intended when I'd selected the component parts.  I'd been looking for the darkest, drabbest colours that I could find, and yet... here was a dark-looking rectangle of wool and fabric, but examined closely it was full of hidden colour and pattern.

Much more beautiful than I'd anticipated.

I took photographs and took the lens as close as I could to the weave and I found that the camera found a depth of colour in close up that wasn't immediately obvious unless you held the fabric up to the light and examined it in detail. Through the lens, it looked different.

A browny-purple wool turned out to be made up of a myriad of different colours ranging from grey to beige to blue and green. A black thread had specks of vivid blue, and a dull tweed hid strands of yellow and teal.

More than meets the eye.

So perhaps when life is at its drabbest, most monotonous, then its beauty can only be seen through a special lens. Maybe I need eyes to see, and ears to hear. Perhaps there are hidden treasures that can only be found in close up, with concentration; only when I am enabled to see. Maybe even the darkest fabrics are made of tinier threads that bring their own colour to contribute to the whole - but from a distance seem invisible.

So my woven prayer was more of an offering to the God of the morning light, who invites me to take His hand when I am stumbling in the darkness. When there's a battle and the night feels long, He whispers that He is there, and morning is coming. He took my grudging offering and gave me something in return. He showed me that even in the darkness there is beauty - that black is not a colour on its own but all the colours combined. Sometimes even if we can't see them, the colours are still there, undiminished.

Maybe God's got plans for that darkness. He is a God who wastes nothing, remember; all the scraps of fabric that I knotted together go to create something with depth and texture. A combination of odds and ends, of scraps and strands. If anyone can bring good things out of bad, He can. If anyone can find beauty where all seems ugly, He can.

Beauty in darkness.

Colour in the shadows.

'Love is gonna make it right.
Just hold on, just hold on'. 

Phil Wickham, 'Heaven and Earth' 2009 INO Records

Helen Murray lives in Derbyshire, England, with her husband, two daughters and her mum.

As well as writing and reading, she drinks coffee, takes photographs, swims, breeds Aloe Vera plants and collects ceramic penguins.

Helen has a blog: Are We Nearly There Yet? where she writes about life and faith.

You can also find her here:

Pinterest: @HelenMMurray
Twitter: @helenmurray01

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

A Word of Enjoyment

One morning last week, I received an email from my editor.
The evening before, she’d sent back her latest edit of my book, and that morning I’d responded with; ‘Thank you for this, I’ll get on with it shortly’.
She immediately replied: ‘great - enjoy your day’.

A simple reply, but a reply that surprised me. 
She knew I’d be looking at my own work that day.
And she’d said enjoy.
Which is why I was surprised.
Enjoy?  My own work?
Isn’t that a bit, well, not quite the done thing?
I found myself recoiling from the idea.

Then a realisation of great irony hit me.
The book we're editing includes a section on creation.
God’s own work.
Work which He looked at and said, ‘this is good.’
In other words, He enjoyed it.
He took pleasure in what He’d done.

As I settled down at my computer, I determined to not only follow my editor’s advice on the manuscript (question an editor? Me? Never!) but to follow her ‘enjoy’ advice, too. 
I often let criticism over-ride enjoyment when reading my work.  Reading my work feels a bit like looking in a mirror, and I’m not a huge fan of mirrors.
But ‘enjoy your day’ said the email. 
I’d enjoyed writing the book, why shouldn’t I enjoy looking over it as well?

I wonder if I’m not the only one who needs reminding to enjoy their writing. Or to enjoy what they have written. Sometimes we can get so bogged down in life, or deadlines, or negativity, or pressures that maybe we forget that writing is such a wonderful thing – and we get to do it!  What a privilege. Whatever form our writing takes.

My favourite thing – or one of them - about writing is words.  I love to feel words and experiment with them.  I juggle them to see if they fly in unison or fall from the page like uncaught balls dropping to the floor.  If they fall, that’s ok.  I pick them up and try again.  Perhaps introducing a different ball this time. If they are destined never to fly well, that’s ok, too.  Because words don’t have to fly to be fun.

Even as I write about words – trying not to be too wordy - I am reminded of how much I enjoy writing. It’s the reading of my writing I find more difficult.  But perhaps my editor is right. No, my editor is definitely right. 

‘Enjoy your day…’ was, essentially, saying ‘Enjoy your writing’.

Later that day, I saw a post from a writer saying, ‘Yippee! My book has been shortlisted for an award.’

Enjoy your day…

I also discovered that my nearly three-year-old nephew has learned to write his own name. 'Look! I can write my name', as he proudly shows the mostly-decipherable squiggles.

Enjoy your day…

Whatever you write or read today….don’t forget to enjoy your day.

Monday, 21 May 2018

500 Words!

Delight yourself in the Lord
and He will give you the 
desires of your heart
Psalm 37:4

*Each month as I write on this blog I rarely struggle with the content but do struggle with keeping to the recommended five hundred words.  Recently I’ve been watching a TV series entitled ‘800 words’ where George, a columnist, after the unexpected death of his wife decides to start a new life and moves his family to a small town in New Zealand.   It’s moral values are unfortunately questionable, but these days much on TV has that problem. 

As the title infers George has decided the column he writes should always finish at exactly 800 words, and through each episode he reads part of it, and you see him finish precisely on target.  It appears, unlike me, he doesn’t keep  re-reading what he has written to get to that magic number. 

Over the years in writing this blog each month it has become a source of opportunity, learning and practice to use one word instead of several, but it takes me several hours to accomplish that.  Although I’ve probably improved my honing skills, I wish I could write concisely first time.

I’ve just finished my fourth novel, and have found the plots are becoming more complicated, keeping to 400 pages more difficult, and despite changing the page layout, making the print size smaller, last time I had to add an extra sixteen pages.  And in writing a saga, it’s not just keeping the characters in character, but birthday, anniversaries and previous scenarios have to be remembered!

Right now, I face a far bigger problem than honing down to 500 words!  In each book my aim and upper limit should be 160,000.  I write in blocks of five chapters and so each word count should come in around 30,000.  With twenty five chapters that gives me a leeway for a few thousand extra ones in each chapter, which I’d been using.  At Chapter 20 I had an extraordinary download of a scenario I’ve not read in a story before, which lead wonderfully to the final chapter.  But now written, five chapters have turned into seven, and the count is a whopping 52,000 words! 

If it takes me at least two hours to hone this blog to 500 words how long could it take years to  lose between 20,000 and 30,000 words?.  With a series I may be able to move a part of the plot into book five, but as each title (so far) portrays the character who will take the reader through the next two years with a defined plot outline that could prove difficult.

Over four months I’ve been editing, the sentences maybe tighter in the first twenty chapters I’ve trawled, and the story has improved, but I’ve only lost a 1,000 words!  I need divine inspiration to bring all needed together so my readers are held in a thrall to the final page, and their cry of “Oh no, it can’t be…” will keep them waiting and watching for the next book.  

Ruth Johnson..................................This is 500 words*!  

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Inspiration Abounds by Annmarie Miles

What a joy to be joining the blog team today; and on such a momentous weekend. Yesterday some of us will have marvelled at the splendour of the Royal Wedding, today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost. I can’t imagine much trouble with writer’s block this weekend.

Although there are times I struggle to put words on paper (or screen), it’s usually more to do with how I’m feeling inside. On the outside there’s always plenty of inspiration if I take the time to look for it.

I went to a writing workshop a few years ago and the leader challenged us to write a story based on an incidental piece of writing; like a benign text message or a note to the milkman. I remembered I had a shopping list in my bag and used it as a basis for a story about someone struggling with money who had a secret benefactor buy them some groceries. It’s one of the tales I am most proud of, in my first collection. The exercise helped me to see the storyful potential of the smallest ideas.

This weekend is easy; plenty going on to give us a hook into a creative piece or some non-fiction musings. Sadly, most weekends don’t have Princess Brides and Flames of Fire to fuel our stories. I do believe however, we can find great inspiration in simple things. And isn’t that a biblical principal? The day of small things, the mustard seed, the meagre lunch; they all have amazing potential.

Is that a story in there?
I’m a big fan of free-writing. Where you just tumble out a lot of words, non-stop, for a set period of time. Most of what I come up with is nonsense, but there’s always a nugget in there somewhere. A phrase, a setting, a train of thought; raw material for something better. If I have nothing to start with then I look out the window, I read the last text message I got, I open the fridge, I rummage in a coat pocket, I think of what might have been in an empty envelope. I find an item or an idea and I write.

Inspiration can be found in anything. Look around, look up, look down, look behind you. There are stories everywhere. Go write them!

Annmarie Miles is from Dublin, Ireland. 
She lives with her husband Richard who is a pastor in the Eastern Valley of Gwent, in South Wales. She writes short stories, magazine articles, devotional pieces for Christian radio, and blogs about her faith at Her first collection of short stories published in 2013, is called 'The Long & The Short of it' She is working on a second collection due for publication in 2018, and a non-fiction book about being an overweight Christian called, 'Have mercy on me O Lord, a slimmer.'

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Know your Words' Worth, by Veronica Zundel

Image: St Albans Review
When her husband Robert became Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Rosalind Runcie was quoted as saying, 'Too much religion makes me go off pop'. Leaving aside what Pop felt (groan!), at the time I thought rather disapprovingly, 'Oh dear, the Archbishop's wife isn't a Christian'. Nowadays I know exactly what she meant.

It's true, we disciples of The Word, especially those of us at the low (shallow?) end of the church pool, seem particularly enamoured of putting our faith into words... and more words...  As Ecclesiastes said, centuries before Christ, 'Of the making of books there is no end.' Were it not so, publishers couldn't  to make a living, let alone writers ,most of whom come nowhere near making one.

'I owe it all to God..'
I'm finding these days, as I recover from a crisis in my life, that I can't take very much God talk any more. I don't mean theology (which literally means 'God talk') - I'm always happy to discuss that. I mean pious chatter, the kind that people indulge in to show how much better a Christian they are than you. In particular I get a bit sick when I hear successful actors, sportspeople or others who win awards, stating that they give all the credit to God. This so-called humility strikes me as a disguised form of pride: 'See how modest I am, I don't take any responsibility for my achievements'. And it's not even  truthful: great success only comes with vision, dedication and a great deal of sweat - qualities which are given by God, but which  have to be exercised by the person themselves.

The thing is, I'm no longer sure (if I ever was) that talking about God equates to following God. The greatest mysteries are wrapped in silence: when God finally appeared to Job, Job was dumbstruck and too ashamed of his former ignorance to speak. The divine presence had much the same effect on Isaiah, on Hagar, and on Zechariah; if these visionaries spoke at all after encountering God, their words were few and to the point.

Which is of course a problem for us Christian writers, for whom words are our business if not actually our living. Is there a time for us just to shut up? Or is there another way: to write words that are so true, so clear, so piercing, that our readers or hearers are reduced to mute awe by them? Only the greatest can do this (and some of them wrote the Bible), but it is a worthy aspiration. In the meantime, let's weigh every word carefully,  scrutinize it for value,  ask ourselves whether it's really necessary. And the same applies in worship; in the High Anglican church I now attend, sometimes the silences between parts of the liturgy speak most powerfully.
Image: Londonist

As for Rosalind Runcie, she dedicated herself to transforming the Lambeth Palace gardens, an
activity which needed no words but which no doubt spoke more to her of God than many services did. And she left them for the wordless enjoyment of all.

Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for BRF's New Daylight. Veronica used to belong to what was, before it closed, the only non-conservative, English speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and is currently playing at being a high Anglican. She also blogs (rather occasionally!) at