The Right Write Stuff: Blog Action Happening In a Cyberspace that is Not Here…

Alrighty! Write on! I’ve decided that I’d like to do something that’s a bit like blogging. I’ve also decided that this website isn’t the best place to do it and I though that the flowing, more fluid nature of Tumblr would be a better fit for my meanderings. Thusly, I’m going to put my blog updates and general musings on my freshly-spruced up Tumblr site alongside my doodles. Please feel free to head over in that direction where I’ll be sharing my experiences, ideas, opinions and avant-garde oddities of various shades and flavours (gluten-free options available)…

The first blogpost has cuttlefish disco lights and A Touch of Zen. I hope you enjoy it and thanks for reading…

Four Things I Learned on a Four Week Course to Become a Better English Teacher…

Remember when Antarctic explorer Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates said “I am just going outside and may be some time” and didn’t come back? Well, I said similar things around a month-and-a-half ago but, hey! I came back!

(Note: I’ve got doubts about Titus Oates’ death. They never found his body. Personally, I like to believe that Oates encountered Shoggoths outside and that they took him to the resting vaults of the Elder Things. There he discovered incredible extraterrestrial technology which he used to increase his longevity and radically alter his physical form. Neo-Oates is now 135-years-young and reigns over a subterranean krill kingdom beneath the South Pole. He will eventually come back – supported by his devout crustacean subjects – and you will know him by the whistling of his gills. Yes. Absolutely.)

Way back just a shade over a month-and-a-half ago I shut everything down and stepped outside because I had a mission. That mission: go through an intensive course to gain a CELTA qualification. Progress through and successfully pass a CELTA course and you acquire special skills and fresh status as an especially qualified, quite-excellent Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. I can break that down into an appealing, easy-to-understand 16-bit format: CELTA is like the power-up Super Leaf that transforms you from regular Mario to Tanooki-Suit Super Mario. Then you have a funky weaponised tail and the power to fly and with that ability you can reach the secret bonus areas hidden in the clouds and the roofs of the haunted castles of the Mushroom Kingdom.

In total, it was an intense month of giddily bouncing about on a quest to become a better teacher and sometimes it felt like Super Mario Bros. 3. (It was nothing like Super Mario Bros. 3. but I wanted to drag out the crap analogy for cohesion. Yeah, that wasn’t great. One thing I’m better at thanks to the course is necessary self-evaluation and I acknowledge that crap analogies are a weakness and I will strive to improve in this area.) I learned a lot about teaching English and mastered double-sided photocopying but I’m not going to regurgitate it all here. Instead, I’m putting down four particularly significant things I (re)learned over the four weeks for posterity. 1-2-3-4! Let’s go…

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox... *awestruck smile...*

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox… *awestruck smile…*

#1. Teaching is brilliant

I love teaching. Getting back to teaching action and returning to the classroom re-affirmed this and reminded me that I’m pretty good at it and have a lot of fun doing it. Give me a chance to craft lesson plans, create extra materials and assault a whiteboard and I will go all out and be a happy guy. What’s more, the other people in the room will have an engaging, stimulating experience and may even learn something. (I’ve failed if they don’t.)

To be involved in learning, to share knowledge and to actively play a role in other human beings’ developments is a beautiful thing and a privilege. Teaching is hard work, but it’s enjoyable and rewarding. Teaching a language is even more rewarding because you’re helping people to communicate, enhance a whole set of practical skills and potentially bridging cultural gaps (among many other things). I had a good time with the international ensemble of students during my teaching practice sessions and I’m psyched to get back teaching real students again as soon as possible. (Self-promo-moment: “I can help you with your English, whatever your needs are! For personalised assistance and tuition from a qualified and experienced mother tongue speaker, call now!” *thumbs up, cheesy smile*.)

I'm all about pizza and grammar lessons...

I’m all about pizza and grammar lessons…

#2. The English language is brilliant

The English language is rich, beautiful and endlessly fascinating. It is vast, dynamic and it can be played with and creatively handled to infinite ends. I knew that, but over the past few months I’ve been getting down to the nitty gritty and focusing on the fundamental mechanics of the language – not the fancy stuff I can do with all these words, words, words. I’m talking grammar, guys, and grammar is groovy. (*struts and clicks fingers at the beat of the drop of that full stop*)

I’ve been expanding my language awareness and will continue to study this stuff because it’s important and actually really interesting. It may be that I’m a bit affected after a lot of hardcore study. I mean, it’s been an intense period and there were moments where – deep in the cut-and-thrust of lesson planning – I started getting very (too) excited about pure modals, collocations and the Second Conditional. I realised that things were getting serious during a ‘conversation’ with a relative in which my contribution to the dialogue was nothing more than “Y’know, it’s interesting that you’re using the First and Second Conditional a lot.” And then there was another time – once upon a daydream – where I was musing on word classes and became aware that the word ‘adjective’ is in fact a noun. That must be a terrible identity crisis, poor thing. Imagine if your entire existence was built around the purpose of defining something that you are not and could never be. Only verbal nouns can be happy and free in this Universe, ordered as it is.

Yeah. Absolutely. But seriously, English is brilliant. I get high off studying it and have high times fighting with online dictionaries when they don’t agree with my Northern pronunciation.

It's the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow...

It’s the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow…

#3. Manchester is brilliant

By ‘eck, I love Manchester, I do. This one I didn’t really, truly know, and it sort of blindsided me. Being in Manchester city centre every day and being in a open and reflective state of mind I had a ‘seeing what was under my nose all along’ epiphany. Manchester is the best city in Britain (yes it is) and I’m happy that it’s my hood.

It’s also easier to appreciate how excellent your hometown is when you’re meeting outsiders from all corners of the globe telling you just how happy they are to be here. (Especially true of asylum seekers freshly arrived from Sudan after a month in transit.) All the foreign students I engaged with liked Manchester and it was only the weather that was a downer. In truth, it’s only bad weather and an increasingly unacceptable homeless crisis that bring Manchester down. Otherwise, Manchester is wonderful and it’s even more wonderful in the build-up to Christmas. Yay for Manchester’s Christmas markets!

I’m now resolved that, whenever the opportunity arises, I will harp on about how great Manchester is where once I was a bit indifferent and ambivalent. In brief, this place has got pretty much everything – Manchester’s an idiosyncratic mix of tradition and modernism, gothic industrialism married to shiny 21st century style. It’s gloriously cosmopolitan, is full of distinctive character and has a youthful spirit. It’s always moving forward but it knows its roots. Plus, the population are friendly, good-humoured people and the sound of the city is Northern accents. In total, eeyy-aaaah, Manchester’s aaaalriiiiight.

#4. Disconnecting from social media is brilliant

Titus Oates was never on Twitter, but when it came to starting the course I realised that it would be best to channel his spirit with regard to social media. I needed to concentrate. I needed to cut out distractions. I needed to focus on what was really important, get on with the work and devote all my energies and attention to the mission. Thus, I uninstalled all the social media apps on my phone and abstained from Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr for over a month. (I also didn’t go to the cinema and watch TV. I basically just did the course and in downtime spoke to my family and watched the news. I told you: give me something to do and I will go all-out and method actor-ish on the task.)

What did I miss? Aside from keeping in touch with distant friends and being in the loop with some news, nothing really. I also – in spite of the heavy workload and all-consuming rush of the course – felt more relaxed when I wasn’t hooked up to social media. My mind wasn’t as cluttered with trivial stuff, irritations and constant noise. I also found that I was, actually, more aware of the wider world because I was reading the news rather than reading reactions to the news (or just reading unfiltered, self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness ramblings or memes).

I had such a pleasant time being offline that I turned it into a lesson for my teaching pratice on the CELTA course (inspired by this article on a Danish study of people taking a break from Facebook). Now, having finished the course, I’m back connected and it’s good to be in touch with lovely people again but I feel a change. I intend to be less attached to these cyberspaces so I can reap the rediscovered benefits.

Those then, are things I learned and relearned on an excellent course that levelled me up as an educator, galvanished me and made me a happy Mancunian. On to the next quest… (possibly trying to find the Lost Kingdom of Neo-Oates, Lord of the Krill.)

(The Ultimate) Pictonaut Short Story Challenge: ‘Flowing, Flowing, Flowing…’

Pronto! Okay, the Cosmos has decided that it’s storytelling time and it’s storytelling time even though I’m currently moving through minor mountains of bureaucracy, lesson plans and the all-round busy-ness of being an English teacher in a foreign country with little time to spare. Circumstances aren’t ideal but, hey, circumstances tend to come up to me and mumble “Erm, circumstances?” and then I laugh at them, ignore them or walk through. I do this because I am delusional, in denial, a Conqueror of the Impossible or all three.

I don’t know, but what I do know is that circumstances won’t prevent me marking something a little bit important, and that something that’s a little bit important is the Pictonaut Challenge. The Pictonaut Short Story Challenge is (soon to be ‘was’) the brainchild of Sir John Steele. Every month for so many months (to be precise, 42) the Venerable Meister Steele has been sticking an image up on the interwebs and saying “Alright, write a story inspired by that and try and make it around a thousand words long and have it done before this month is out“.

This is and was an excellent idea and I’ve gamely joined in and taken up the challenge every month for a while now (and when I lagged behind due to last summer’s travels I managed to catch up). I don’t know whether my efforts are good or bad and I’m aware that few people read them but ultimately it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the Pictonaut Challenge gave me an excuse to write something and it gave me an opportunity to experiment a bit with writing (and, in some cases, not writing) while trying to meet (or just haphazardly grope at) a specific target. As a time-dependent creative exercise it was a fantastic activity to get frequently excited about and devote myself to for a fleeting moment.

Altogether, I realise that I never really cared much about the end results and that I never dwelled too much on what I was putting down on cyberpaper – the main thing was simply the process of creating. For me, Pictonaut was a means of practical way of channelling energy and imagination and it was a constant impetus to create for the sake of creating and then share just because. Sometimes we need those kind of stimuli to keep us sharp and keep us growing.

Now, the Pictonaut High Chief has decreed that he’s calling time on this thing and, thus, February 2015 is The End. As I say, I don’t have time to conjure up something expansive and elaborate but I’ve got to do something as a one-last blast. This month’s inspiral image is the picture below – a picture by the Russian artist Andrei Pervukhin

Concept art by Andrei Pervukhin inspires this month’s Pictonaut effort…

It’s a nice picture. I’ve decided to use it as the basis for a handwritten story image-type thing. It’s not a thousand-word piece but, then again, my approach to this has always been a bit maverick and off-beat. What follows then is a free-flow spontaneous Zen thread scribbled out on paper without excessive thinking or pausing. I’d like to dedicate this to and express my thankyous to John Steele, Alan Watts, water, you the reader and everyone else flowing through life and existence in this Universe. That’s sorta-kinda what this piece of work is about if you want to absorb it that way. I’ll call it ‘Flowing, Flowing, Flowing’ and it’s the last Pictonaut creation from me. Thank you, and flow on…

Pictonaut Challenge: 'Flowing, Flowing, Flowing'…

A post shared by James Clayton (@jamazingclayton) on

Birthday Reflections and Being Happy About Being Alive…

Pa-zow! Yesterday it was birthday. It was a really good birthday, and I celebrated by reading comics and going for a curry with my Blood-Clan (erm, family). They got me an electric razor and my daily-mutilated face thanks them so, so much. I’m now 27 years old and this website advertising an upcoming Nick Cave film tallies that up to 9,862 days on Earth. I’m really happy to be alive on Earth right now. (Though, of course, I’d like to leave Earth eventually, but now I’ll comfortably settle for this planet. There’s still a lot I’d like to see and do here…)

Times past – especially birthdays past – I didn’t want to be alive or, at least, alive as me (James Clayton). I woke up on my birthday to find that, the night before, a pretty significant figure from my childhood had decided that he didn’t want to be alive anymore. I was – and still am – devastated that a great man, the kind of man I’ve always aspired to one day be in so many ways, decided that his life wasn’t worth it. A considerable number of my heroes and inspirations throughout history have made the same decision and some of them didn’t come out of it alive. It’s shocking and sad, and I felt that even more so as I woke feeling certain that, yes, I am 27 years old today and I’m so happy to be here.

As I say, that hasn’t always been the case so to actually consciously realise – I mean, really realise and acknowledge – that I love being alive is quite surprising. Recently, I’ve had a lot of life-affirming moments – some subtle and some explicit – that have really rubbed that realisation in and made me re-appreciate myself, my life, life in general and the wider Universe. Birthdays are milestone occasions that hammer it home hard and that makes sense when you consider that it’s the anniversary celebrating the fact that you’re a living being who was, at a precise point in time, pulled from a womb (or some special magic clay) to join the party. Woohoo! I was born and I’m still here and that’s brilliant! Let’s have music, dancing and curry!

Birthday whoop, 27-years' XP achievement and level-up mini-celebration moment…

A post shared by James Clayton (@jamazingclayton) on

Compare that with me of ages gone and it’s a stark juxtaposition. I remember being utterly miserable. I remember (barely) existing in a world of depression, despair, fear, frustration, hopelessness, self-hatred, anguish, anger and, yeah, all kinds of epic moop. All kinds of overwhelming negativity and self-destructive unpleasantness, where life isn’t enjoyable or even desired at all. Birthdays were especially bad times: sharp reminders that I was born as me when I probably wished I’d never been born. Furthermore, time was passing by and from there you can really go to town on worry that you’re wasting your life and that you’re a waste of life anyway and, aye, you can see the vicious runaway crazy train of thought here that drives you deeper down the dark tunnels…

But here I am, the day after my birthday, laughing and casually poo-pooing that boo-hoo backstory, feeling very sure that I don’t want to join the 27 Club. There is no magic wand/burning bush moment, wonder drug (no drugs at all), superhero mutation shock or anything like that. Mainly, I think it’s just living and maturing that instils gradual change, and life is constant gradual change. Experiences and encounters shape you and I can reel off things I’ve done, things I’ve been through, things I’ve read and watched and people I’ve engaged with that have had small-yet-significant impacts on what I feel is a seismic shift. I’m grateful to all of those people, whether I know them personally or not and whether they know it or not. (If you don’t know it yet, wait for me to finish writing this and I’ll come over there and King Kong-hug you into a coma) The same is true for all the ‘things’ and experiences, even if the ordeals have been hell to go through at the time. Things pass, you learn, you absorb something, you grow and life goes on…

(more…)

Pictonaut Short Story Challenge: ‘Blissful Existence Beneath the Meru Mountain Complex, Brought to You By Moksha-Co. International’…

Say, I think it’s time I shared some science fiction visions. Yes, I shall, because I have sci-fi visions but I’ll come to those in a second. First, let me break down some details and set up the framework on which I will stick some ideas and sticky creative writing bits…

Here’s what happens: every month, the most excellent Generalissimo John Steele sets a short story writing challenge. This is the Pictonaut challenge and the gist is “See this image? Write something inspired by it, around a thousand words in length, okay?” It is okay and I do this every month because I like a challenge and it’s a nice creative exercise that sometimes yields interesting results. April’s Pictonaut image was particular interesting and really stimulated my mind. The chosen inspiral picture was a piece titled Relay by the artist Steve Renn

A high-priest of hi-tech by Steve Renn…

I like this picture and it speaks to me (and it speaks in an eerie hushed whisper). It has science fiction and it has a figure meditating and thus it combines technology with spirituality and grooves with a lot of topics I’m fascinated by and that I debate with myself. Occasionally, I try and write about these topics to articulate all those inner philosophical dialogues – like in last week’s Den of Geek column on Transcendence and the notional uploading of human consciousness into the non-organic state of an artificial intelligence.

Coming back to the challenge at hand, though, this month’s Pictonaut challenge gave me a chance to ruminate on these things that concern me and attempt to distill ’em into a blast of flash fiction. I have difficult dilemmas. Conundrums like: ‘Can technology improve our wellbeing and elevate us to a more enlightened, advanced state, mind, body and soul?‘; ‘Can I harmoniously follow Zen Buddhist philosophies and function in the modern materialist world?‘; ‘Do technological self-help and wellbeing solutions commodify the human soul?‘; ‘Will there ever come a time when transcending mundane existence and the suffering of this world and the past and so on becomes more imminently achievable for regular folk?‘ There are more but I’ll spare you and save ’em up for face to face convserations because spending all this time staring at a computer screen and asking the indifferent artificial face of the internet all these techsistential questions is turning into a dehumanising downer…

So then, sci-fi and some thoughts around technology and spirituality. In the end, my Pictonaut effort for April 2014 is more of an exploration of an idea – a speculative utopian/dystopian vision – than an actual story. Feel free to read it and see what you think. I hope it stimulates you in some way and I’ll leave it to you to appreciate as you see fit – here is the short creation that I’ve titled Blissful Existence Beneath the Meru Mountain Complex, Brought to You By Moksha-Co. International