Wednesday, 6 April 2016

A rant

Today I feel angry.

For some time, I have felt unable to write. I’ve read articles and had thoughts, half-written tweets or considered joining in conversations but whenever I go to do so, my mind has become like lead and I can’t bring myself to bother. In the last few weeks I have put this down to simply not caring. I have wondered when I stopped caring, and why, and reflected on whether I ever really used to care. This is followed by confusion on what it is I do or don’t or did or didn’t care about. Essentially, what has changed? Why can’t I write?

I suppose creatives call it ‘writers block’.

I call it ‘society is one big depressing joke’ block.

It is the circus of society and the suffocating entrapment of it that are wrapping themselves around me like weeds, reminding me that we grow where we’re planted; if you are not planted in the area with good light, spacing, water and maybe a scarecrow to keep the predators at bay, then your growth is on a timer. There’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.  

We live in a society where ‘the poor’ are becoming more and more mentioned. We live in a society where likenesses to the Victorian era are being drawn. UK poverty has been mentioned more and more frequently in the last few years. Yet when ‘the rich’ (we can even refer to sectors of people with such contrasting divides again now) are found to have off-shore accounts, avoid taxes and generally exercise the reach of their thriving plant in comparison to the feeble, malnourished, struggling plant in the darkness, there is no outcry. There is no outcry, I fear, because like me, people have stopped caring - truly caring. Like me, every irritation and droplet of anger within is extinguished by the spectre of ‘this is how it is’ or ‘there’s nothing I can do’. It is those phrases that simultaneously silence me and vex; they are the phrases that uphold the situations we find ourselves in. They are the phrases that ensure the socially disadvantaged do not stray too far from their row. These phrases are so ingrained on public psyche that they ensure there will be no revolution, no moral uprising, no reclamation of (or even reflection on) life; no passion. They ensure a change won’t come. That’s depressing, isn’t it?

We live in a society that can see global events mirroring Hitler’s rise in 20/30’s Germany. I know I’m not the only one to draw the parallel. We watch the news of Trump and his comments (even the name sounds satirical, yet the joke is this is reality!) from armchairs and handhelds and discuss his strategy. We joke about America’s intelligence resting on this, as if using humour to detract from the point that the fact he has votes denotes a real conflict in Western society at large. I say Western because racial tension has been developing steadily over the last few years particularly across Europe and America - discrimination has always been there, on a continuum, but if history is cyclical we are approaching the extremes of that continuum again. But nobody is scared, or cares, because nobody really believes it will happen, or is that nobody cares? Are we that passive? I have seen social media memes and graphics mock Trump - I’m sure his ego will feel very bruised should he make it to the Whitehouse. If that happens, I wonder if we, as a society, will look back and think ‘there was nothing I could do’. Sometimes I think media comments and graphics are the way society clears its collective conscience, making it seem engaged in real life issues but only from a safe, non-threatening distance. Nobody wants to risk losing the light, spacing and water that they’ve got.

When I manage to find some order to the things which annoy me I don’t feel surprised that I would rather be writing fiction currently. What’s the point in writing about society anymore? My pen is bored of weeping.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

5 things writing has taught me

1. Time matters.

When I first began writing the book, I thought I'd do 1000 words a day, maybe more, and that once a routine was established this would come easily. It hasn't. I've found I write educational related things best between 11am-3pm but much of the fiction book is being written either in the late afternoon or in spurts between 10pm-1am. I spend many days thinking about the writing I'm going to do and feeling angst the build up to it - part of that angst has been down to the a stress at feeling I *should* be writing at certain times or be able to just sit and write yet this mentality is counter productive as it stops me from feeling 'flow'.

In classrooms, I have loved teaching writing. The (crafted) works the children come up with have sometimes been ideas or standards that I admire, making use of techniques in ways which I enjoy reading not as their proud teacher but as a reader. In some lessons, children have barely written whereas others are away; I wish it was acceptable in education to allow the 'slow days' and the 'produced less than expected amount' days without judgement on them as students or us as teachers - as a professional writer, sometimes I produce 1000 words, sometimes I struggle for hours to find 400. The last few days have been the latter, today is the former. The time and mindset for good writing needs more understanding and allowance in classrooms.

2. The plan is a springboard not a tightrope

I do have a plan for this book. Before I did anything, I made 3 bullet points for what I think good writing has and that is my gospel for whether I shall feel proud of what I produce - if I manage to meet those three things, my time hasn't been wasted in my view. I sat down one night (1st Feb I think..) and designed the skeleton of the plot. My plan is a detailed free flow diagram across an A4 page that snakes up and down - I've never planned like that before, that's just how it came to me as I got lost designing a story I wanted to write. Next to it, I made a list of things that were extras I wanted to include, which is coming in useful now as I can refer to that quickly and remind myself of why I wanted them in there and see if I'd used them.
 As far as that original plan is concerned, I am 'off piste'. There are things I've added and directions I've taken that I couldn't have thought of at the time of planning - I didn't know my characters then - so now the plan's purpose is to bounce back to as an inspiration and loose tracker for where I am plot wise and how it may progress. The current story overlays the plan to create a direction for me. Sometimes I think about directing the story back to the plan but this wouldn't be good because the plan lacks the charisma of settings and characters - a story starts as a seed and has to grow. To stick to the plan like a tightrope would limit the potential it could offer.

Planning is considered not only part of what makes good writing but also what makes good teaching. In both cases, I think the best offerings come from an awareness that the plan is there but not a constant thought for it (maybe this is a fine balance?) I know where my story will end up, in fact I cannot wait to write the ending - with that at the forefront of my mind, the rest of the story is sort of taking care of itself. It's also very motivating. Next time I teach writing to year 6, I will endeavor to focus more on whether they can explain their choices as writers for 'going off piste' rather than asking why they've seemingly ignored the plan (bookwise, making it look like we've wasted time on plans they don't use...) It is more important they feel a connection to their writing and can see how the plan supports this rather than sticking to a plan at all costs. I think it's the same for teaching all round really.

3. Characterisation affects you

Some aspects and themes within my novel are quite dark. In order to write it, I am having to become the characters mindsets - particularly that of the narrator - which although an enjoyable challenge is also mentally draining, possibly because it is a form of concentrated empathy. I love the characters I'm working with because they are complex and interesting. However, understanding who they are, what they do and why, their thought patterns and nuances means that I as the writer almost have to become that person in a way - their 'Inner Story' (as Dr Tim O'Brien's book calls it) is simultaneously being created by me and me living through them. When focused on writing, it can be difficult to instantly switch between who I am and who the characters are - we become interwoven in a space beyond reality where to an extent, the characters become 'real' people who I psychoanalyse before using that to help me portray their behaviour, speech, mannerisms in the text. The above sounds mad but this is the writing process for me.

To be able to write in character is an expectation of some year sixes (at least). However, the process of my own writing and the effects I experience has made me reflect on how students are affected by this process and whether there needs to be more understanding of it. In particular, it leads to interesting points such as why they choose to create the characters they do, what supports their empathy with said characters and how they are coping with the interrelationship between themselves and their fiction - are they aware of the relationship? As a writer, the best I can say is that during the process of writing a story, the characters become your shadow - Emily and Adam, my two leads, are people I'm getting to know in my head. They are there waiting for the next time I'll write about them until the story is done - could be said this is madness setting in, but I would argue it's a natural part of a creative process.

4. Test readers offer insights you'll miss as the writer

It's easy to get carried away when writing. I've always had 'another' read through my pieces before sending them for publishing in education but have rarely done so with any creative writing. For this book, some close friends have read it as readers, initially to help me gain a feel for how the characters and plot would be received. However, their feedback has brought to my attention minute things that affected their perception of the characters or a sentence or two that didn't quite make sense to them. This helps me see little touches that would enhance their reading experience and has led to some interesting dialogue when reflecting on the way the plot has progressed and interpretation of Emily and Adam...

In classrooms, I think the best feedback I've given has not been when thinking of the curriculum ideas of 'what makes good writing' but as a reader being honest about how it felt for me to read, always given with a caveat that mine is only one interpretation and we all have different tastes.

5. Tick-lists must be flexible

The only 'non-negotiable' in this whole project are the 3 bullet points I've made for what I feel I want this writing to have. There are lists for the characters traits and a list of objects or events that I'd like to weave into the plot but if these are seen as essential they will limit the story. The tick-lists are useful to refer to and use as an inspiration, but that's all.

One of the things that has always been a sticking point curriculum wise for me is the perceived tick-list of 'things to include' for a piece of work to be of a certain standard;writing is essentially about communicating. It is an expression that others will then interpret. I agree it is good for children to know of writers techniques but feel perhaps the measure should shift from grammatical or technical measures to a perception of what they want their reader to get from reading their creation - what's the point of it? I am not saying they shouldn't aspire to incorporate technical elements and demonstrate strong grammar understanding - I think we should expect this aspiration without it being said.

Finally, words on a page are a way to connect without being there. They last. What is it you want to leave with your reader?

Monday, 15 February 2016

A review of Inner Story by Dr Tim O'Brien

Much has been said recently about the role of psychology in education, particularly in relation to cognition and learning, with discussions focusing on what teachers can learn from some of the psychological principles of this. Inner Story, by Dr Tim O’Brien (@Doctob) is not a book about psychology per se. It is also not a book about education. It is a book about people, how people experience the world and how people experience themselves. Although closest to the self-help style genre, it is well worth educators taking the time to read because it focuses on engaging with internal narratives and understanding how they interrelate and influence an individual. As Tim puts it “there are two stories inside your head. One is about your life, the other is controlling your life” and it is his view that the latter is your inner story. In our institutions, we interact with a variety of inner stories every day whilst simultaneously our own chugs like a cross country train in the background; with greater understanding of what our learners Inner Stories are we will be better placed to support, facilitate and teach. 

With a robust professional background in the field, Dr O’Brien is well placed to be writing books about people. Given his strong CV, I was expecting a weightier, wordier style which would make reviewing his book more like studying rather than general reading but I was taught a lesson in stereotyping when Inner Story arrived. The style is easy reading. Shorter sentences offer time to think making it a text that can be picked up and dipped in and out of which I found especially helpful because I wanted to come back to certain themes and re-read. Despite the simpler sentence styles (which create a comfortable reader/writer relationship) the content is deceptively engaging and you’ll find yourself being drawn in to think deeper, partly due to the conversational tone; I found myself internally discussing various education issues, children and situations with ‘Dr Tim’ as I went through, in addition to putting my own inner story under a lens.  This is a main reason I am recommending the book to teachers despite it being from outside the ‘Edu genre’. The process of wider thinking about how and why we - people in the here and now - interact with the world the way we do leads you to mentally dust all sorts of avenues that you might be aware of as a Teacher but have never really unpicked. The chapters have been written to standalone as well as gel well together to allow this flexibility and are generally titles beginning with ‘understanding’ or ‘being’. Simple yet complex. For me, this wasn’t a book to read intensely even though you could go through it pretty quickly if you’re an avid reader.

  I found that I was thinking of children I’d worked with as I read and feel this is something other education readers will experience. It’s also helped by the numerous anecdotes (some from children) that Dr Tim offers. By understanding inner stories we are taking time to understand relationships and people; personalness. Small personal activities and reflective questions are scattered throughout, some encouraging a written response and others requiring a thought or action. Not liking marking books, I used post-its for my responses which were quite interesting to remove at the end. 
The book hasn’t taken a ‘one size fits all’ approach for a mass market and isn’t putting itself forward as a ‘cure all’ which is something I was wary of.  My personal bias is that I don’t usually like the sort of self-help styled books for that reason, but this one had me thinking as I went through. It could be argued that perhaps I enjoyed it because my own mindset was open to trying the activities and considering the points, but I think it’s more that there is a lot of content within the book that a reader ends up soaking up. Depending which mindset you approach with, the content can apply to yourself or help you consider how to better support and understand learners within the classroom. Certainly, I feel some of the reflective activities would be useful for learners, and for staff. With all the recent talk of well-being, I think a good staff meeting could be planned around various points within this book, not least a reflection on ‘what type of person’ people are. That activity was very simple but potent and could be adapted to what kind of teacher/leader they are.

The thing I like most about Dr Tim’s book is that it is holistic. This book isn’t specifically aimed at an educational audience which I think is a positive thing and broadens its reach; you don’t have to be interested in using psychology in the classroom to be able to enjoy, learn or engage with the contents of Inner Story for yourself. It is a book about people. In my opinion, it has united the threads of applying complex psychological principles that could (should?) underpin practice and the need to recognise that any classroom is made up of individuals, each with an Inner Story; an Inner Story that will affect the essence of their education - behaviour, ability and the relationship with perception of self, sense of place, ‘readiness’ to learn, regulation of stress or emotion - the list goes on… 

Each of the above elements could be expanded upon in further detail, especially behaviour, but this review is at 950 words and I’ll leave it to you, readers, to see if you took the same things from the book that I have :)