One Big Story … Part I

This month, I have the joy of working with 300 year five and six pupils from Durham City schools  to turn their ideas into One Big Story: an epic and imaginative tale that will be published in paperback in October.

Scary? No, this is just my storytelling face (Photo: Robyn Trainer 2012)

This one of the most exciting things I have done for a while; it ticks about a hundred boxes for the things I love doing: creative writing, stimulating other people’s imaginations and helping them to realise their creative ideas, being able to say the magical word “story” about 50 times a day and share my passion for the written word.

I’m working as part of a team alongside Christina Maiden (Off The Page Drama) and Robyn Trainer (Floral Footsteps), running whole day workshops in primary schools, getting children to invent and develop ideas for stories and working collaboratively to forge them into a coherent narrative.

Remarkably, it turns out to be quite possible to take the ideas of 30-40 children at a time and guide them into creating a story together as long as you think on your feet and prepare yourself for almost anything to happen. Not to give too much away, but we are half way through the project already and have five out of ten chapters mapped out. The children have taken us beyond our own imaginations into their own world where there are a lot of fights involving food and an awful lot of ghoulish characters in which the malevolent and comedic are theatrically blended.

It has been very encouraging to see that literacy is alive and kicking in every school we have visited so far; I’m the one getting educated.

In less than a month, we will be holding the book in our hands and you, too, will be able to read what happens when children create the sort of story that they would like to read … watch this space …

Creative Entrepreneur of the Month: Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps

Confucius say, “Make a living from what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and although this sounds lovely and has become something of a mantra for our times, anyone who has succeeded in making a living from something they love will be able to tell you there is a lot of hard work involved.

One of the effects of the instability of our economic system seems to have been to loosen the concept of career and employment as many people seek to meet their circumstances creatively, develop alternative streams of income, and question why they do what they do and how much it matters anyway. There is a new breed of creative entrepreneurs who have stopped waiting for someone to employ them and given themselves a job instead. They have said, “The future is so uncertain I might as well take things into my own hands and do something I love instead of waiting for the next round of redundancies.”

These are really exciting times and, once a month, over the next year, I will be profiling some of the creative entrepreneurs who have inspired me and continue to offer the companionable reassurance that we are not alone on the hard road to doing what we love for a living.

I have had the pleasure of working with Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps (she provides the artwork for Stories from the Borders of Sleep) and being part of her journey over the last year. She kindly agreed to be my first interviewee for the Creative Entrepreneur of the Month series.

Robyn is a mathematics graduate from Durham who got in the habit of sidestepping the geek label by telling people that she wanted to be a florist one day. She is married to Phil and exercised by a mischievous but adorable spaniel called Samuel. In April 2011, Robyn left her full time job at the Ethical Superstore to give herself fully to her floristry, illustration and photography business, Floral Footsteps. To fully understand how these three strands link together into her unique brand, you really need to see examples of her work and style as displayed on the Floral Footsteps Website.

Robyn says that the combination of three creative practices bounce off one another and although she has a distinctive style that is somehow recognizable in all her work she gets special satisfaction out of creating exactly what a customer wants.

“My work is entirely personal in that each order I create, either a floral arrangement or a bespoke illustration, is unique and designed according to the individual.”

Of course, there is a fourth strand to Robyn’s work, the all-essential business side of things. As anyone who has watched “Dragon’s Den” will know, being outstandingly creative and having business acumen is a very rare combination. Robyn certainly has both, and I dare say the maths comes in handy here, too.

I asked Robyn to give us an insight into her business and offer some thoughts and advice on creative entrepreneurship.

What are you working on at the moment? What’s on the “to do list” this week?

There are plenty of things going on! I’m hoping that my brand new website will be launched either today or tomorrow, which is rather exciting. Samuel the Spaniel (my naughty/adventurous dog) has his very own blog, which started this week. I’m working on a “Celebrations!” Greetings Cards range and a Christmas card range and I’ve wedding flowers to do next week, amongst other things!

So you are thinking about Christmas already! And you have involved the dog in the enterprise!

Samuel the Spaniel is too inspiring to not involve him in the business, and yes, sadly I’m thinking about Christmas already. Where I used to work, Christmas tunes began playing in the beginning of July… I’m not kidding!

How does a typical day look for you as a self-employed person? Do you have any routines you depend on?

I think the only routine I have is: start early, finish late! As I haven’t been trading for long, my work really varies, from building websites, through planning financial forecasts, to actually doing the work of illustrating, designing, working with flowers and meeting with clients. In a year’s time, I’m sure my answer will be different, but for now, each day is very varied.

How many hours a week would you say you are working at the moment?

Probably about 40 – 45?

Do you ever wish for a steady office job?

Not at the moment. Having had one of those, it’s great for stability and regular income, but I found myself longing to do something else. That longing has gone now because I’m actually doing it.

Do you think that you’ll need to have another strand of income while the business grows or is it a case of succeed or bust?

I initially thought that I would, but decided to do the summer season full time. I’m really glad I made this decision. I am considering taking on another strand of income in the autumn, but I’m seeing how that goes. Setting up business is quite hard; it does take quite a lot of investment to begin with.

What made you decide to start Floral Footsteps? Was it a slow burning idea or did you have a moment of epiphany?

I studied Maths at University, but always said “I’m going to become a Florist”. When I finished University, I thought I should really study it and become qualified, to see if I like it and want to take it further. I loved it, and was asked to do a friend’s wedding at the end of the year, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. So from there, working as a florist became something I definitely wanted to do. With regards to the other strands, illustration and photography – these are things I’ve always done and have slowly improved over the years, so it seemed natural to me to incorporate them into a business as a florist. So I’d say it was a slow burning idea.

How did friends and family respond to your decision to go for it?

My parents have been very supportive, but not without their “warnings” about “financial safety”. My husband has been really encouraging along every step of the way and helps me in making some of the bigger decisions and logistics (although he keeps well clear of any actual floristry or illustration! the wiring scares him…) and my friends have been wonderfully supportive by finding ways to involve me, and being my advertisers, giving me cause to start Floral Footsteps officially.

Some people would say you are crazy to try a venture like this in today’s economic climate. What would you say to them?

I’d say that I think one of the main ways in which we can improve our economy is through local business, by supporting one another in their employment. Yes, it is a difficult time to start a business, but I do believe that working with local trades instead of outsourcing to larger companies is the way forward.

So would you say that Floral Footsteps has a socially conscious edge to it?

Yes I would. I’m keen to work more closely with local growers of flowers, foliage and herbs (although that’s not easy in the North East!) and to recycle, reuse and reduce my waste as a business. I’m also keen to support other businesses that are local and eco-friendly in what I do and what stock I buy. I was shocked when I did my floristry course that some florists throw away leftover cellophane, ribbon and non-compostable rubbish with organic waste (loads of it!) in the same bin bag and put it out for collection. Some don’t recycle or compost anything! It’s madness!

How important is blogging to your business?

Very important for me personally, and I think for those closest to me, and for those just dipping their toe in. It provides a pretty unique insight into the person behind the business, as well as the business itself. It also shows you are interested in more than just “making money”…

I guess in these days of social media, people are not so comfortable dealing with “faceless corporations”; they want to know the people they are dealing with and what the story is.

I agree. It’s funny how just communicating over a computer can change the way we feel about someone and give a sense of ownership in what they’re up to and your relationship with them (however virtual or real that may be!)

What is your most important source of referrals?

I think most referrals come from word of mouth. From people telling one another about Floral Footsteps and what I do, and passing on that information. If someone chooses to contact me, I will reply as soon as I can to find out how I can help and be of service

Are there any websites that have been useful to you in your work either for networking or information, or support or anything else?

Well, I keep an eye on lots of different blogs and websites to see what others are up to and support them. I have a profile on lots of different networking platforms and websites including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Pinterest, Google+ and more to build up an online profile and I also have a shop on Etsy, which I link people to. In terms of specific websites, there are a few wedding blogs which are good to read to check out trends, and twitter is always fantastic for keeping up with the latest news in your business sector.

What are your thoughts about using online markets, like Etsy, versus setting up your own website?

Hmm I’m not sure yet. I have my own website and I have a shop on Etsy, but have chosen to sell goods through Etsy because of the community already established there. It’s easier for people to find you through Etsy than it is through a standalone website.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to strike out as a creative entrepreneur?

I think they need to assess 1) Is there a need for your business? I.e. – is there a market for it? Will people buy your service or product? And try to think objectively. Will your business make money or is it better as a hobby? 2) Is now the right time for you to financially go for a creative business? It takes time to earn money in setting up a business and the business takes investment, do you need to wait a while until you can afford to set up? 3) Ask your family and friends for advice and support. They know you best. Ask them to be truthful and guiding, as I can say this has been one of the most influential things for me.

Three quite hard things, but you have to ask yourself the difficult questions!

So now another hard question for you: What was the lowest point in the last few months?

Oh, that is a hard question! So often my lowest points are to do with my own confidence, rather than specific events. If I lose confidence in my ability to run a business or in my work, I can fall quite low. It’s then that the support of others really lifts me – in having people who I am accountable to with the business.

On a happier note: Can you put your finger on your favourite project or your highest moment so far?

There have been lots of great moments! Every time I make a bridal bouquet I get a little quiver of excitement and say to myself, “this is actually a bouquet for the bride!” (Yep, geek!) When you see your completed work being appreciated by others, that’s a fantastic moment. I can’t name one in particular really, as each event feels very different! Perhaps handing in my resignation at my old job was a highlight…

Could you describe to me where you hope to be in a year’s time?

In a year’s time, I hope to have full weeks of hands-on floral designs, illustrations and more, keeping busy with clients, fulfilling regular and special orders. Perhaps I’ll be in a slightly more comfortable workspace, too!

That sounds achievable.

I hope so!

And so do I. To find out more about Robyn’s work, check out her website: http://www.floralfootsteps.com or her Etsy shop at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/FloralFootsteps
I am sure she would be happy to answer any more questions. All images in this post are the property of Robyn Trainer.

Foraging Friday: Chicken … of the Woods!

Pic of Chicken of the Woods
You might have to climb for these!

One of the most exciting things to find and eat at this time of year is Laetiporus sulphureus, commonly and aptly named “Chicken of the Woods”. Appearing from April and sticking around into November, this bracket fungus grows mainly on dead and dying Oaks in the UK. It is nice and easy to recognise but may be inaccessibly high for foragers without crampons. Look for the distinctive clusters of overlapping fans that are bright yellow, turning more orangey as the specimen matures. It takes a good while to establish itself before the fruit actually appears, but once you have located one of these, you will generally be able to revisit it for several years.

Eating

This is a great eater and it really does behave and taste a little like chicken when you cook it. It is important, though, if it is your first time, to try a small quantity as it has been known to cause stomach upsets in some people – and it must ALWAYS be cooked. When gathering it, make sure you pick the younger yellow fans as older parts of the fruit are more bitter and tough.

A lot like chicken

When you get them home, clean them up and chop into slices. The mushroom will keep well in the freezer for later use. I generally blanch them before cooking them, to be sure that they are well cooked and to take any bitterness off. My favourite way to eat these is to make up a fairly heavy batter to dip them in and then fry up some “chicken nuggets” using oil that has been sitting for a week or so with some lemon rind in it to give it a citrussy edge. You can use it as you would use chicken in any recipe but make sure that it is always well cooked.

Disclaimer

Please don’t use my Foraging Friday posts for identification purposes, get a couple of decent books to double check your identification. You are responsible for what you eat. Follow the guidance in my article on “Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms“. I won’t be held responsible for people falling out of trees, either (ahem).

"Chicken (of the woods) Nuggets"

Nailing Fantasy to the Real World

A storyteller’s imagination draws down the silk of another world and nails it to certain real places and objects such that every experience, awake or asleep, real or imagined begins to resonate with the echo of one another and boil with significance. (Me)

During his time in Durham, C.S. Lewis is said to have been enormously inspired by the landscape, the Cathedral, the geography of the place and wove it into many of his writings. In fact “That Hideous Strength” is said to be set around Durham University where Lewis delivered a series of lectures in 1943.

Narnia Lantern in Durham
The Narnia Lamp in Durham

In fact, a bit of local apocrypha attributes one of the lamps by Prebends Bridge to be the very one that inspired the lantern standing at the entrance to Narnia. Today seemed like a good day to go and look at it. There are several street lanterns in the immediate area and many have been replaced with more modern ones but I fancy this old one is near enough.

As I wrote in an earlier post, “The Monstrous Awakening of Imagination“, the geography of the real world becomes resonant with the hinterland of dreams and fantasy if we just let our imagination loose.

For instance, I have been quite fixated on a pair of trees that stand in a field near my house. To my surprise, they cropped up in a story (excerpted below):

… Coming to a pair of oaks by the side of the road, the only shade for several miles of track, Malachi turned the horse aside and we dismounted to rest. I had another opportunity to study my companion, as he had very few words, and I hoped to find something more from his face. We sat opposite each other with our backs against each of the trunks. He had tilted his head back and let the shadows of the leaves play on his closed eyelids. I got little more than a sense that he was a man who was capable of being completely absorbed in whatever the present moment had to give – right now that was some shade and a natural wooden seat among the roots of an oak.

“What do you see?” he asked me dreamily, dropping the question like a key into the well of my thoughts.

“I see two trees.”

“Go on …”

Two Trees
Two Trees

I looked carefully at the two oaks. The one at my back was shorter and slightly stunted. One half of it had been torn away by a storm at some point, leaving what seemed like a mortal wound from which the tree had never quite recovered. The other was much healthier with a good spread of branches and an upright trunk, but not without it’s own wounds, too.

“I see two trees that have grown together in the same ground and yet they are unlike each other in the shape they have taken. The one has thrived better than the other. One is twisted, the other straight. One provides a good shade and the other is living half the life it could.”

“And what do you see?” he asked again, the simple question that unlocks the secrets of every present moment.

I see a choice of two ways that I could grow. Both trees have their wounds, nobody escapes that, but here is one that has become stunted and weak and failed to become what it could have been – a great shade for travellers and a home for the birds. After their own fashion both ways of growing have achieved something; but your tree over there has the better part. I was growing this way, but I think I have the choice to grow the other way.”

“And so you shall.” he said pleasantly, opening his eyes again …

Foraging Friday: The Field Blewit

I have been delighted to find some of these in the field edges and verges this season as I have not seen them for several years. However, a word of caution: these mushrooms must always be cooked, never eaten raw, and some people do have an allergic reaction to it so try a small quantity if it is your first time. Nevertheless it is a popular mushroom and relatively easy to find and identify.

Field Blewit
Field Blewit by Girl Interrupted Eating on Flickr

You need to get out early to pick the Blue Leg or Field Blewit (Lepista saeva) because it is equally popular with grubs of various kinds. You are likely to encounter it growing alongside footpaths, on the edge of woodland, fields or roadsides as well as on waste ground – basically anywhere a bit “marginal” and a bit grassy. They will tend to appear repeatedly in the same place so you can go back for more if they suit you.

They are distinctive, large mushrooms, with a lilac, streaked tinge to the stem, which itself can be fairly bulbous, and a grey to brown pale cap. The gills are fairly dense and white. I need to stress again that these details alone are not enough to get a positive identification and it is imperative that a good field guide and preferably two guides are consulted if you have not picked these before. See my article on Picking and Identifying Edible Fungi for some more general guidance of staying safe. Blue Leg can be muddled with the poisonous Livid Agaric (Entoloma sinuatum) which has a much paler cap and a reddish/brown spore print and which will cause sickness.

Don’t be put off trying for this mushroom if you are prepared to take the right precautions, though, as the taste is exceptionally good and well loved by foragers. There is a good chance you will be able to find a local person who can show you these as they are so popular. You will notice a slightly perfumed and somewhat un-mushroomy aroma when you cut the fruit bodies and a nice nutty taste when cooked. Cleaning well, chopping and frying in butter with some onions is a good way to bring out the best of the flavour.

I’m indebted to Girl Interrupted Eating for the photograph, check out her Girl Interrupted Eating blog for some great Blewit recipes and other fabulous wild food resources.

You could also try cooking them The Traditional Nottinghamshire Way.