Monday, 8 December 2014

What the Student Teaches the Writer


In my teaching life, I encounter a diverse spectrum of young people. Mostly they are bright, open, engaging beings, willing to learn and give this writing thing a go. Sometimes they're not. Sometimes they are moody, sad, withdrawn or shy. Just like the rest of us, out here, in the real world. Mostly, they are compassionate, caring and polite, but not always, although rudeness is a rarity. In other words, the students I encounter provide a snapshot of a wider humanity. From that snapshot, it heartens me to know that we're mostly okay and heading in a better direction.


Every now and then, though, I hear or read things from the students that make me pause and ponder and, sometimes, despair for our advancement. On occasion, this feeling is stirred by a piece of writing where, for example, racism is casually glossed over, or where outdated gender roles are perpetuated without thought, or where rape culture and blaming the female for her violation is accepted as the norm. When I come across such works, I attempt to broaden the writer's thinking by pointing out these issues and representations, then suggesting that there are other ways to consider them and that we, as writers, can challenge rather than perpetuate such notions.

It is my sense that the stereotypes found in the student's work are not usually intentional, nor malicious. Rather, they are drawing on and unconsciously perpetuating deeply entrenched ideas within our society; ideas that are 'in our faces' every day but that we choose not to see. This was brought home to me when a student wanted to share two of his favourite music videos with me. As he spoke of them, I felt wisps of alarm rising through my mind but, as he was genuinely enthusiastic about the songs ("I think I can see myself in the lyrics”), I agreed to watch and share my opinion.

What I saw left me angry.

I have no wish to encourage the viewing of these music videos so I won't refer to them by title, but the first showed a young boy being enticed into a warehouse by a Faginesque figure, who offered him a coin to 'buy' his choice of scantily-clad, gyrating woman trapped inside a vending machine. As the song progressed, the women pressed themselves suggestively against the glass while the camera – predictably – focused on mouths, eyes, breasts and backsides, as though this was the sum value of each woman. More disturbing, each woman apparently represented a 'demon' (drug/sex/alcohol) overcome by members of the all-male band. So, the message of the video is – *sigh* – women are the site of sin and temptation; women are the corruptors of (male) innocence; women are only valuable as sexualised objects; women can be bought and sold. Oh, and lets not forget the scene where money starts falling from the ceiling, exciting the women to smash out of their glass cages as they 'go after the cash'. Yeah, coz that's what us girls are all about, right?!

The second video opened with a young man – the singer, all outrage and heartbreak, whose personality has split into a 'good/ evil' guy dictomy – shoving a bound woman into a chair in the middle of an abandoned warehouse. No prizes for guessing where this is going – yes, filled with indignation because the woman rejected him, the 'evil' singer screams into her face as he forces her to look at him. When the woman attempts to escape this lunatic, he promptly strangles her to death – but it's okay because his 'good' self feels so remorseful that he kills his 'evil' self, which – of course – was him all along. So everyone ends up dead; great. And all because a woman – if you believe the lyrics – made a choice about who she loved. The nerve!

Troubling as these videos were, what disturbed me more was that the student who had asked me to watch them had not seen the way women were constructed and objectified in these clips. Instead, while immersed in the music and lyrics, he had not even thought to challenge the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to kidnap and strangle a woman who rejects you, or that women are objects to be bought. It was only when I asked him to replace the women in the vending machines with men and to really consider the messages in the 'it's okay to strangle your ex' clip that the light suddenly came on.

I guess this is one of the bonuses of my work with student-writers. When I encounter such blatant and barbarous stereotypes, I can bring them to the student's attention and, hopefully, they can make the choice to reject and/or challenge these constructions and perhaps be more aware when such notions try to sneak (like low-bred scoundrels) into their writing and their lives. And, maybe, from their awareness will grow a world where people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or creed, are valued for their unique humanity.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Writer as Teacher – The Joy of Immersion

A Writing Reality

During my first year of university, one of my lecturers told us eager novice writers that if we wanted to survive in the writing game [we held our collective breath in anticipation], we had to have a second job that pays the bills. You know, something like teaching, or events management, or bus driving.

Okay, he didn't advocate for driving a bus (we were uni students, after all), although I do think this would be a great job for observing humanity in all its nuances, which is easy for me to say when I don’t have to put up with said humanity – except in small groups, under controlled conditions.

What the lecturer was advocating for was an alternative or parallel career path that earns regular cash because, as he explained, breaking into the writing game is tough, and making a living from it can be even tougher (first-time author with miraculously lucrative contracts excluded). There was a moment of contemplative silence as our dreams were re-aligned with reality, and then we went on with learning about our chosen craft.

This sage advice, while contradicting my romantic notions of the writer as suffering artist, was good counsel, especially as I’m the kind of person who likes her creature comforts such as having a roof over my head, a car to get around in, and chocolate on demand. Of course, our lecturer wasn't only drawing from his own experiences as a writer, but was dipping into a long tradition of writers who had/have ‘second jobs’. Not so strangely, many of these writers choose to be teachers.

One of my all-time favourite short stories, We Are Nighttime Travelers, was written by Ethan Canin, a writer-turned-medical doctor-turned-writer and teacher. There is an interesting insight into Canin’s development as a writer and his thoughts on teaching creative writing workshops hereWhat struck me when I first read We Are Nighttime Travelers, beyond the elegant prose that so beautifully captured the characters, was the idea of a doctor, weary from a day of assisting the sick, sitting down to write, and thereby create, a different sort of balm; one for the soul of a reader. 

Ah, there goes the romantic in me again. Yet it is interesting, this compulsion to write: the infatuation with words, the obsession with story. Writers can have other jobs – pressing, time-devouring ‘legitimate’ work – but they are secondary to the creative imperative, even if it doesn't pay the bills… at this point in time.

And, truthfully – as a writer friend told me – if a writer is to be successful, their creative work must come first, and the bill-paying job must always be second, even if that means dedicating just one hour of every day to getting words on a page, and building from there.

When I read, sometime later, that Canin had given away medicine to return to writing and had taken on a teaching role, it wasn't a surprise. There is something to be said for the immersion that comes with teaching creative writing in conjunction with producing your own work. It’s like living inside a snow globe where every tiny, white flake is a story falling around you, landing in your eyes, in your ears, on the tips of your fingers. Some of those stories are beautiful; some are mediocre, some are dreadful, but all of them are valuable as each one has something to impart or something to teach, which can then be passed on to other writers to assist them on their creative journey.

About that Second Job...

Teaching was something I tiptoed into after completing my first degree, with the encouragement of that same lecturer who had added a dash of reality to my writer’s dream, and I remember being terrified the first (20!) time I took a class. Since then, I have stood in front of hundreds of students to deliver lectures and lead tutorials, or worked one to one with student-writers, while over the last few years, I've taken a creative writing program on the road to engage with high schools students in regional areas. During all of this teaching, three things have remained constant:
  • Some writers, like elite athletes, are born to their craft – but they still need guidance.
  • Dedication, hard work, practice/practice/practice, and meticulous editing elevates every writer.
  • Writers need constructive, objective and honest feedback, even if it stings a little (or a lot). 

And there is one other thing that has been consistent for me throughout each encounter with students: they are my teachers as much as I am theirs. Perhaps this is what draws writers into the workshop or classroom. Not only are these spaces for introducing ideas and practicing skills, but they are spaces where we – teacher and student – learn compassion, sensitivity, grace and audacity. For the writer/teacher, our students keep us fresh and remind us that the old is always new, the first time we meet it, as my conversation with a Grade Seven student this week reveals:

            Student:  ‘Can we use mythology in our story? Coz I’m totally in love with Medusa.’
            Teacher: ‘Sure, as long as you put an original spin on the story. Maybe you could
                             make it contemporary.’
            Student:  ‘Contemporary?’
            Teacher:  ‘Set in the present.’
            Student:  ‘Oh right, yeah. I’m gonna write about Medusa— in a nightclub!’

Will this be a great story? Maybe, or not, but it doesn't really matter. What’s important is that this student loves ideas and words and story – they make her shine – and that she has a supportive environment where she can express them. At the same time, I have the chance to encourage her, to reassure her, and to share in her enthusiasm, which I take with me when I approach my own writing. My ‘second job’, then,  keeps me grounded, keeps me motivated and, of course, pays the bills. More importantly,  it allows me to be fully immersed in my craft while encouraging aspiring writers to embrace and explore their own creative practice.

Like to share a story about your second job, or your experiences as a CW teacher? Cool, please leave a comment below.

Happy writing, teaching and/or working!


Friday, 18 July 2014

To Publish or To Self-Publish - Is that the Question?

To Publish:
Let me say upfront: the greatest moment I've experienced as an author was holding my novel, Mira Falling in my hands for the first time. There was something astonishing - like a brilliant magic trick - about seeing the book and feeling it as a tangible object. After two years of work, labouring over a dream, here was the evidence: I had made it. I was a real writer!  But what does that mean – a ‘real’ writer?

For me, being a real writer meant someone who had a novel published by a publishing company which, by extension, meant a ‘real’ book was one that was on a bookshop or library shelf. There is a simple explanation for this perception: history. For as long as there has been ‘the novel’, there has been a publisher, who took the raw work of the writer and transformed it into an accepted form (the book), which was then delivered to the reader. This is how all of the great novels were brought into the world and how writers like Dickens, Shelley and Hemingway, for example, became household names — and who can argue with such a prodigious history? So, when it came to having my own work published, I understood implicitly that I had to have a publisher, who would provide my works with three things:
  • Credibility
  • Validity
  • Market Access

Needless to say, I didn't even consider self-publishing with the ‘vanity press’, nor did I look to smaller boutique publishing companies because that wasn't where ‘real’ writers were published. 

Was my understanding wrong? No. Books published by long-established publishing houses do have the ring of authenticity about them, and writers who are accepted by these companies do carry the aura of being ‘real’ authors. At the same time, and in the digital age, it’s a limited view.

To Self-publish:

What, then, would make a dye-in-the-wool traditionalist self-publish a novel?Simply put, the encouragement of a friend who has self-published her work, having a publication-ready novel gathering dust on my laptop, and the ease of the process.

Hearing success stories is always motivating because they create a sense of ‘I can too.’ After finishing our long chat over coffee – where I grilled my friend mercilessly! – I went home and began my own research. This was pretty daunting as there was so much information, but after a couple of days of reading through articles, blogs, forums and how-to guides, I had enough knowledge to get the process underway. These are some of the pages I found helpful:

The second motivation to self-publish was having a novel that had been edited (repeatedly by myself and others) and polished, but which was inevitably returned to me by traditional publishers with a note that said something like:

‘…While we thought the story was extremely well written, with engaging characters and a narrative that cleverly builds suspense, I'm afraid that in the end we felt this wasn't quite right for our children's list.’

Was it the evil nuns in Sisterhood? :D Maybe, but the end result was the same: I had a novel that publishers couldn’t find a home for and a story that, if I accepted their position, would never find a reader – unless I took control.

Now, like most people, I lead a busy life and taking on anything new and onerous always makes me pause. Happily, the self-publishing path has been smoothed by those who have gone before me. Yes, it took time and required effort but not an unreasonable amount, and the companies I chose to publish through provided plenty of support and guidance. (The only aspect that was truly horrible was reading through the IRS instruction booklets *grrr*). For me, there was also a financial outlay as I chose to have the text of my novel formatted and the cover designed by Ebook Launch. I made this decision because, in the time=money equation, it was cheaper to have someone else do this work for me. For others, who have the time and extra skills in design, these costs may not be a factor. Okay, so from the initial conversation with my friend to the day Sisterhood was published as an ebook was a little under a month, which is not too bad considering it took upwards of seven months for Mira Falling to hit the bookshelf after I signed my contract with the publisher. I'm sure future work will go up more quickly now that I know the process. 

I have to say I’m very happy that Sisterhood is out there for readers to find but, to be honest, I’m also not over my craving for traditional publishing. I will always send new work to a publishing company first, mostly because I am a child of the era when 'real’ books were tangible artefacts that were kept on a ‘real’ bookshelf. However, if a publishing company declines to publish my work, then I will go directly to the reader, and I don’t see any reason why the two avenues can’t be pursued, or why one should make me more of a ‘real’ writer than the other. 

Your thoughts?


Saturday, 5 July 2014

Launch of New Website

Welcome to my new website and blog. 

To celebrate the publication of my first ebook - Sisterhood - I've put together a new website. Go to to find information about my work and keep up with when new works will be available. 

You'll find Sisterhood available on the following websites, where you can read the first three chapters for free and purchase a copy:



Google Play

Happy Reading!