Sensitivity and the Writer

 

sensitivityI’m a delicate little flower. People tend to laugh when I say this. But it’s true. I am a very sensitive person. 

I think people laugh because sensitivity is all-too-often confused with weakness. And I am most definitely NOT a weak person. I am a person who feels deeply. Sometimes I might struggle with expressing those feelings in a way that others can understand. Sometimes deep empathy is mistaken for aloofness. Other times I express anger and frustration with tears. A lot of the time I simply don’t react externally, I contain the depth of my emotion and process it internally, requiring time and space to do so. But I DO feel it. Very much so.

However, sensitivity is not looked upon as a positive. I remember in one job I had (in a particularly toxic workplace environment) a friend said to me “if only you didn’t cry,” as though my crying, instead of the personality inadequacies of a dysfunctional bully, was the reason that he targeted people (me, as well as others at different times). 

I’d been told to “toughen up” and “get a thicker skin” so often in my life that for a very long time, I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. I was compared to a turtle without a shell; an oyster without its protection. I tried to ‘toughen’ up, I tried not to take things personally. I tried the ‘water-off-a-duck’s-back’ philosophy. None of it worked for me. 

And I realised that I didn’t want it to. I didn’t want to shut down completely. I didn’t want to switch off from pain –– my own or anyone else’s. I didn’t want to be one of those people who could walk past an old homeless man in the street and not recognise the inadequacies of a society who has failed him. I didn’t want to look into the eyes of crying child and not see the pain. I didn’t want to close myself off to the acquaintance locked in an abusive relationship, or the colleague caring for an elderly parent and a sick child who sometimes gets grumpy. I didn’t want to get a thick skin if it meant that I walked around in a narcissistic bubble.

I’m okay being a very sensitive person. And whilst others may not cope with, or understand, my sensitivity, it lends itself very well to my writing. After all, how can a writer write with authenticity unless they have some degree of insight into their character’s emotions? The short answer is they can’t. It’s why writers tend to be such a sensitive bunch. 

A writer writing without an understanding of the human psyche, can only skim the surface of the human experience. Human connection and interaction is what drives story. Regardless of genre, a reader must be able to connect with a character, they must be able to relate to a character, either positively or negatively, whether that character is human or not. A reader needs to see some of themselves in the characters they read, consciously or subconsciously, in fantasy or reality. Strong narrative elicits some kind of reaction or response from a reader. And reaction comes from emotion. And emotion comes from sensitivity. 

To really get inside a character and create that relate-ability, a writer needs to be aware of, and sensitive to, the full gamut of human emotion. 

I’m a very sensitive person. And I’m okay with that. Because I’m a writer.

 

PUBLISHED!

 

celebrate6Regular visitors to this blog might notice that my young adult novel Fake Profile has disappeared from the site. I have removed it from all channels, including Amazon, Smashwords, Writers’ Web and Goodreads (at least I’ve attempted to remove it from Goodreads, it seems a little more problematic to do that).

It’s not because I’ve given up on it. And it’s not because it wasn’t going anywhere. It’s because finally, three and a half years after writing it, it is being published traditionally!

Am I pleased about it? Um… YES! 

Regular readers might remember my post a few years ago, about losing a publishing contract and my resolve not to approach traditional publishers again, at least until the dust settled in what was quite a turbulent time for publishers and authors.

With book sellers collapsing all over the place, eReaders beginning to take off, and tablet computers just hitting the market, publishers were—understandably—scared. They weren’t quite sure whether or not they would survive. Any many didn’t.

In the three years since 2011, much has changed in the writing and publishing industry, and while we are still not quite sure where it will all end up, the doom predictors of a few years ago have mellowed somewhat.

champagneI’m a great believer in universal synchronicity (stop that eye-rolling, please) and I never gave up on my book. I trusted that I would eventually find the right publisher. And I’d learned enough about the industry to recognise the importance of an author finding a publisher with whom they could work well to get their books out there. I was prepared to wait. And I found it in Satalyte Publishing, an independent Publisher based in Victoria.

I am very excited about being picked up by Satalyte. The company is growing. The contract is sound. The people are awesome. And above all, they are as enthusiastic about my book as I am. 

Fake Profile will be released by Satalyte Publishing later this year. Stay tuned for more news. Then celebrate with me!

NOTE TO TEACHERS WHO HAVE REGISTERED INTEREST IN THE TEACHING PROGRAM

The program will continue its development and will also be available for purchase when he book is released.

 

Write Change

writeI’m about to change everything about the way I run my writers’ groups. Everything!

I’ve written a lot about writing on this blog. But I keep coming back to my observations about how writing develops in young people. As a writer who teaches writing I am acutely aware of how kids learn to write, what they write as well as when and how they write. And I am very familiar with their attitude to writing.

Kids, in general, are very enthusiastic about writing when they are young. But something happens along the way that changes this. They become more reluctant to write and less willing to take risks with their writing. And because of this, they can’t always develop their full potential as writers.

I’ve seen it both in the classrooms of the schools in which I teach, and in the teen writers’ groups I run. There is a negativity attached to writing. And the idea of writing for fun seems as attractive to these kids as the thought of eating a Brussels-sprout pie.

So what happens between the ages of six and sixteen that dramatically changes a student’s attitude to writing? I’m not entirely sure. It’s a complex question with a network of cause and effect reasons. But based on what I see, I’m going to narrow it down to one thing: pressure. 

There is enormous  pressure placed on young people to achieve academically. By the system. As the curriculum narrows and teaching becomes more prescriptive, there is less time for teachers to allow students to write just for the sake of writing. 

I’m not blaming teachers. Standardised testing dictates what teachers teach and what students must learn to achieve ‘success’. Teachers are under just as much pressure as students. And it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for creative development. 

And then there are parents. Of course parents want their kids to succeed. They take advice from those who purport to know more than they do: teachers! Who are under pressure from schools to lift their NAPLAN results. Schools are under pressure from their state governments who are under pressure from federal government who continue to under-fund education systems… and so it goes.

But how does this impact on kids?

It leaves them reluctant to write. Kids feel the pressure. They are scared to write. They won’t take risks. They don’t want to be told told their writing isn’t good enough. They don’t want to disappoint anyone. They don’t want to make mistakes. But if they don’t mistakes, if they don’t write for the sake of writing, they don’t develop as writers.

I give all my writers’ group participants, and their parents, a questionnaire to fill out when they first enrol in the groups. It gives me an idea of where to place each kid. One of the questions asks what aspect of writing they want to work on. Unanimously, the parents say: ‘Essay Writing.’ But last term, of the ten kids in each group, at least seven of them ticked the option that said: ‘I wish I didn’t have to write.’

I felt so sad. I’d structured my groups to cover all development aspects of writing, including essay writing, because I knew that was what would attract participants, because this locale (Northern suburbs of Sydney) has a strong culture of tutoring. And because I need to support myself so that I can write.

But it got to me. These kids came to group, not because they wanted to or because they loved writing, but because their parents made them. One little boy in Year 7 (12 yrs) would come to group each week red-eyed and teary because he’d fought with his mother every single week about not wanting to do writers’ group. He was a bright kid who was where he needed to be at his age, but his Mum wanted him to be better. Then there were the Year 11 (16yrs) boys who wanted me to teach them to write essays. Not to develop their essay-writing skills, but to actually rote-teach them to write an exact essay in response to exact questions. 

It was soul-destroying for me. Writing creatively is my lifeblood. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. It makes me feel alive. It heightens my senses and makes my heart sing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. Creative Writing is my bliss! And I felt like I was selling out by ‘playing the game’ and contributing to the demise of writing for fun! 

So I stopped. I canned the groups this term. 

And while I finished the novel I’d been working on, I thought a lot about it. Of all the Writers’ Groups I’ve run over the past four years, I’ve had two favourites. One was the group for disengaged young men because, though the boys could barely construct a sentence, they had nothing to lose by taking risks with writing and they achieved the most relative success. It was the most challenging group I’ve ever run, but those young men finished six months in the group recognising and enjoying the power writing gave them. It was fabulous to be a part of that!  

The other group was a group of Year 8 girls in the selective stream of the school at which I did a writer-in-residence gig. They took risks with their writing, learned the art of critiquing and produced some fabulous narratives. Unfortunately for this group, one of their teachers complained to the Principal that creative writing was detracting from academic achievement (the girls were withdrawn from other classes to attend writers’ group) and the group was stopped.

The thing that these 16-year-old boofy boys and 12-year-old very bright girls had in common was learning to love writing. And recognising the power it gave them.

What the ‘system’ fails to recognise, is that if kids learn to love writing, they’ll write for fun. And if kids write for fun, just because, and without fear of failure, they become willing writers. And if they become willing writers, they are more likely to engage with the writing process in all its genres.   And if they engage with the writing process in all its genres, they will become better, stronger and more capable writers, creatively AND academically. It’s really not rocket science!Write!wordle

So… I am no longer going to ‘tutor’ kids to write academically. 

I want to share my passion for writing. I want to inspire kids to want to write. Of course, the technical aspects of writing are important and they’ll be worked on in the context of the writers’ group setting. But the new and improved Writers’ Group Program will be CREATIVE WRITING  groups. I want to teach kids to love writing as much I love writing. I want them to know what it can do for them, how powerful it can be. I want kids to value writing (and necessarily) reading as a pastime that has the potential to provide great joy as well as power and freedom in their lives! 

And if they can feel that, even just a little bit, then not only do we have better writers, we have happier, more resilient kids, with better self-esteem who are more likely to take risks and reach higher.

I love writing. And I want everyone to experience the magic of creating story. 

For more information on the ‘New and Improved’ Writers’ Group program, click here!

 

 

Writing and Risk Taking

riskI’ve just completed the first draft of my third novel. You’d think it would be cause for celebration, wouldn’t you? After all, I’ve been working on the manuscript for just over a year. Actually, about fourteen months. Fourteen months, one week and three days, precisely. That’s fourteen months, one week and three days with tangential voices in my head. And they didn’t always wait patiently for me to sit at my computer and arouse them. Rather, these voices woke me up at night, nagged me while I was swimming laps, bugged me while I was trying to watch television, or listen to someone who was talking to me. They interrupted my teaching, distracted me from my research, entertained me while I waited for the bus. In short – they were always there. And now they’re gone.

Anyone but another writer may think it strange. But I know these voices really well. They belong to individual characters with their own personalities. They have good points and not so good points. They have their personal likes and dislikes, talents and weaknesses. Like the rest of us, they are fabulous and they are flawed. But they are mine. I created them, nurtured them, grew them to the point where they surpassed my creative development and began to dictate and narrate the plot and subplots themselves. They let me know who was capable of what, what was or was not consistent with their psyche. They told me where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do and with who.

Sometimes we battled it out on the page. I would write what I wanted to happened, they would refuse to comply, and that particular chapter or scene would sound clunky, or wouldn’t flow properly, or had some often unidentifiable factor subverting the plot. Other times, if I allowed them free reign, their interpretation of my narrative view resulted in a flow of words as smooth and providential as red wine and dark chocolate on a cool Autumn evening in front of a crackling log fire… and all was right in my literary world!

And now it’s over.

The next step, of course, is to submit it for feedback. But there is something holding me back. This manuscript is deeply personal. Not in a ‘my characters reflect me as a person’ type of way, nor in a ‘there are biographical plot lines contained herein’ sort of way. Neither is true (well, no more true than any author creating any work of fiction).

risk taking

Perhaps it’s because this novel, more-so than the first two, has so much more riding on its viability. It is, after all, an experimental work (and I’ll say no more about that this time). Or perhaps it is because in submitting their work, writers, as with any creative artists, open themselves up for public scrutiny and critique with no possibility of rebuttal. In any other profession, an employee has only to seek approval from the person above them in their supervisory line, and feedback is provided one-to-one. If the feedback is unfair or unwarranted, there are other avenues the employee may pursue. But creative artists have no such alternatives. It’s a very public climb, or fall.

In the development stages of a book’s production, an author has to send their work out with the express intention of seeking critique. First drafts always look very different to finish works. Redrafting, refining, and rewriting are necessary processes in the development of a book. Any book. A writer does not publish a book that has not undergone a rigorous editorial process. And sometimes this process can take many months, even years. We all know this.

It’s what needs to happen to my manuscript now. But for some reason this time, the risk feels too great. It’s a lot scarier than it was for my first two books. Perhaps it’s because the novel is for a different age group (16+ rather than 12-16), or perhaps because it was with a different hierarchy (interactive), maybe it’s because it will be a new editor who has a much greater power to influence me…

I’m not sure what it is, or why this time is so different. But I do know I can’t back down or back away. I have to submit. I have to know. It’s one of the most nerve-wracking, scariest, and simultaneously exciting moments as an author to date.

Okay… here goes….

A Writer’s Despair

angeldespairI can’t think straight. My mind is in turmoil. I don’t know what to do. Who to talk to. How to move forward. Nothing is working. Feel like I’m suffocating under the weight that’s bearing down on me. It’s relentless. Can’t shift it. Can’t see through it. Can’t call for help cause I can’t trust anyone. I think it might be… all over.

Luckily, these sentiments do not belong to me. Well, not exactly. They’re inside my head, and driving me crazy. But they belong to someone else.

I’m in writing mode. At least, I’m supposed to be. But the main character in the novel I’m currently writing is doing my head in. He is stuck. And I have a deadline of the end of February––11 days––to get this manuscript finished.

My writing process is complex. Sometimes the word flow is prolific. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. My characters are usually good at letting me know where they need to go. And often this is different to where the original plot suggested they should go. And mostly, that’s okay. I’m happy to follow their direction because they don’t often steer me wrong.

But this character is confused. Very confused. He is confronting some very challenging issues and he’s hurting. He is fighting for his survival, and his sanity. I just wish he’d figure it out quicker. Because really, he needs to get out of my head now.

To anyone other than another writer, it may sound like I am losing the plot. But the plot has already been subverted by this character. A few times now. I’m ready to tear this manuscript to shreds. Or plot my protagonists death. A long and painful one. Or maybe I should begin a whole new novel. A nice adventure story about unicorns or something.

I usually have a bit more patience with my characters, and once they’ve established their voice strongly enough, I allow them to direct the narrative arc themselves. But, I’ve been working on this manuscript for a year now; I’m almost at the end. Though it still fits into the YA genre, it’s a bit darker than my previous two manuscripts. My protagonist, Ben, has decided to have a complete meltdown. And a character in tantrum mode is enough to drive any writer mad.

Writing the last few chapters of a novel is hard at the best of times. Really hard. You have to do justice to your characters while maintaining the integrity of the narrative arc, all the while tying up any loose ends around your minor plot points, and resolving unanswered questions––satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily.  You have to be satisfied that the end of the book is worthy of the all the work you’ve put into it. That your characters have been challenged and grown through it and changed in some way. And that they’re ready to say goodbye.

Ben is not ready to say goodbye. That’s the problem. He is holding too tight to something I’m yet to identify. A wall he can’t let down, a barrier that’s still invisible to me. Once he lets me in just a little further, I’ll be able to finish. But the more I push, the further he retreats. He is fighting me all the way. And I am running out of time.

Only another writer would get it. The rest of the world may be concerned for my sanity.

Teaching, writing, fear, and children.

ipad n booksI love teaching writing to children and young adults. There is something incredibly powerful about encouraging a young person to enhance their communication skills.

There is a lot of concern among teachers at the moment about the future of writing. These kinds of discussions seem to come up at the beginning at every school year, and as our school year (here in Australia) has just begun, so too have the conversations. Teachers worry that children are losing the art of written communication, that social media is diluting, if not destroying, the written word. They lament the loss of kids’ handwriting. They see that handwriting lessons at school are often the only time a student actually uses a pencil or pen. They know that kids don’t get the opportunity to practice their handwriting because most other things are done using computer technology – be it tablets or laptops, game consoles or ipods. Teachers (rightly) recognise that typing is becoming a more important skill than handwriting in enabling kids to communicate effectively online. And online is where the majority of all written communication is occurring.

Personally I don’t see too much of a problem with it. It’s just another morphing of reading and writing in the contemporary context. Fear is what usually drives concern. There is a fear that if children can’t use a pen to write, they will lose the ability to meaningfully engage with society. But writing is no longer about just using a pen or pencil. And to engage meaningfully with society in the 21st century, it is imperative that children are able to communicate effectively online, both formally and informally.

Throughout the ages fear has always accompanied change. Way back in 370BC, Plato recorded a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus where Socrates, a great thinker and philosopher of the time, lamented the loss of intelligence among the masses if the populace was taught to read. He thought that “learning to read would result in the “appearance of wisdom, but not true wisdom.” Just over a thousand years later, the invention of the printing press brought the similar fear of a “dilution of the intellectual capital of the time.” Another thousand years and television was the culprit. People called it the ‘idiot box’ and feared that too much viewing would lead to the simplification of the mind. Luckily, none of these fears have been realised.

In fact, each metamorphosis that reading and writing has undergone has resulted in a greater, more stimulating, encompassing literacy with which to educate, including teaching children to write. It’s exciting to see look back over the bigger picture and see the changes. And see how we, as a society, have survived those changes. And thrived.

I love teaching writing to children and young adults. There is something incredibly powerful about encouraging a young person to enhance their communication skills.

Literacy and democracy – A repost

digitalwordcloudEffective communication is the cornerstone of a democratic and literate society. And everyone has the right to engage freely. There are few people in the western world who would disagree with this. But the reality is that there are groups of people who have a much more limited capacity to communicate, than perhaps, a generation ago.

To understand why this is, we must first understand the nature of a ‘literate society’. The boundaries of literacy are changing. Where once, literacy meant being able to read and write, these days literacy necessarily incorporates use of the various technologies and platforms utilised to interact meaningfully in society.

So much of our interaction occurs online, that limited access to the hardware (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc) means limited engagement. Shopping, watching television, booking accommodation and travel, or movie and concert tickets, paying bills, banking, and importantly – socialising, is increasing conducted in cyberspace. True, these are all first-world activities, but our reality is that if we cannot (or do not or will not) engage at this level, we cannot effectively consume or contribute to the society in which we live.

To all but the digital natives, these things do not come naturally. They need to be taught. And while once teaching our kids to read and write meant arming them with literacy for life, now teaching literacy means so much more than reading and writing. Literacy has become much more about being able to consume and create a range of multimedia in multimodal formats. Teaching kids to become life-long contributing literate members of society means providing them with the skills to decode a range technologies not yet invented, for purposes not yet defined, to engage in occupations not yet created or identified.

But what happens when subsections of the community are not able to access the tools required to become literate entities in this new and emerging technological environment? Are they relegated to a further position of disadvantage because of it? And who might these people be? The answers to these questions may surprise you. It’s not only socio-economic disadvantage that precludes people from engaging meaningfully.
Even if people do have access to the necessary hardware, if we don’t have the knowledge or skills to teach kids effective literacy, how do we teach them appropriate social and economic engagement?

And it’s not just kids who are in danger of becoming less-than-literate in a 21st century sense. There is a generation of older people who have not had access to digital instruction, and their children and grandchildren (gen x-ers and y-s) who may have adopted the technology but are self-taught and not necessarily offay with the ins and outs of effective engagement. It’s these generations who tend to leave themselves wide open and are overrepresented as victims of hackers, identity theft or trolls. And it’s these same generations who are teachers and parents. Therein lay the issue.

Kids are starting school with the knowledge and expectation that they can and will engage and perform technologically at a level that, more often than not, surpasses that of the adults in their lives. Parents and teachers want to do the best by their kids, but working in schools, I get to see both ends of the stick. I hear about kids as young as five accessing the internet on their ipods and DSs, in their bedrooms unsupervised, and scrolling through youtube videos looking for something to watch, and inadvertently accessing a Barbie video – a pornographic parody of a Barbie video. At five years old. At the other end of the scale is the 11-year-old who is not allowed access to social media of any kind, which means she is ostracised from her peer group socially and unable to engage effectively in digital citizenship lessons at school. Both sets of parents want the best for their kids, but both are damaging their kids in irreversible ways by not having a full understanding of what it is to be literate in a digital world.

21st century literacy is about ‘reading’ danger, communicating effectively, differentiating between a ‘selfie’ and sexting. 21st century literacy is about creating meaningful content, engaging in appropriate texting, understanding cyber etiquette, and locking down your profile. 21st century literacy is about understanding copyright and plagiarism, and recognising reliable research. And most importantly 21st century literacy is about knowing how to communicate via soundbite, image, video, and text — appropriately, positively, comfortably and meaningfully. How literate are you in the 21st century?

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