Monthly Archives: December 2015

Teachers

I was going to write another very cliched topic today and do something about the New Year but then last night I got to thinking about teachers I have had instead, and teaching I have done. I’m gonna do that one instead. I’m not entirely sure what brought the topic to mind, other than perhaps thinking about all the learning I have done over the past year.

I really did need to learn a lot, especially as the publication of The King in Darkness got closer, and then happened. I had to learn about how to work with editors, and my publisher. I had to learn how to start using social media to try to market myself, and how to interact with ‘the public’ at events and book signings. That is still very much a work in progress, but it’s been a lot of fun learning as much as I have.

I have been blessed by having some excellent teachers in my life. I had an English literature teacher in high school who knew I wanted to write and wrote ‘You are a writer’ on some probably-not-very-good thing I had done for her class. Even though it took me quite a long time to prove her right I guess, I never forgot seeing those words and the encouragement they gave me that I really was ok at putting words together. She obviously didn’t need to do that but she took the time to give a not-very-confident kid a pat on the head and it helped a lot.

Teachers can have a lot of power that way. I had a student a few years back in one of my classes who would almost literally light up if you told her she had done something well. I’m not sure what had happened in her life to get her to the point where a little praise would mean so much, but I hope it helped a little to hear it a few times. I still feel that some of my problems in math trace back to a grade school teacher who told me I was really bad at it; that made Young Me want to avoid math like the plague and led to the subject not getting the attention it probably needed from me. A bad teacher can do a lot of damage. The right teacher at the right time can give you the push you need to achieve something you might not have ever done, otherwise. Sometimes they’ll change the whole direction of your life.

I was an English major at university and took a medieval history course as an elective. The professor invited me to take an advanced seminar the next semester, and after that suggested I think about changing my major. I ended up doing a double major and going on to do postgraduate history degrees. That’s a lot of influence from the person at the front of the classroom. (If it isn’t clear, I’m very glad I happened to take that elective)

Because of that, I’m very cautious about what I feel comfortable saying I can teach people. Partly, I sort of like the idea that teachers should wait for students to come to them; if you’re constantly trying to push things you’ve learned on people who don’t particularly want to learn it you’re just being annoying. On the other hand, if someone asks you a question, you share what you know. I guess obviously that model doesn’t work very well for institutional education (we think there are certain things that should be compulsory to learn. Maybe there should be? That’s probably a whole other blog entry) but I like it for my personal approach. (Before you ask, I feel all right about the blog because everyone chooses to come read the thing, or not)

I also wouldn’t want to claim to be able to teach anything that I don’t feel that I have a reasonable level of competence at and about which I can communicate that understanding well. I like to do archery. I’m nowhere near competent enough to teach it to anyone. I could probably teach something about writing, and I know I can teach history. Someone on LinkedIn claims I know about social media. I’m not entirely convinced I have anything I can teach you about that, really.

I really believe that a good teacher can make just about any subject compelling and engaging for a student, just as a bad teacher can make just about anything boring or impossible to learn. Some of it is enthusiasm for the subject, some of it depth of knowledge, and some of it is the ability to communicate that understanding in easily grasped concepts. It’s unfortunate in a lot of contexts that having a skill (say, writing) and the ability to teach that skill are not precisely the same thing. Frustratingly, sometimes people who are really good at things aren’t very good at teaching them. I know I’m not very good at teaching English grammar – I understand it in a very intuitive way (I know when a sentence looks or feels correct, and I’m usually right) but I can’t always clearly articulate why it is right or wrong, which is not very useful for teaching purposes. This was a problem trying to help fellow students work on their essays, and I know I’m still not great at giving feedback on grammar when I grade papers now. I ran into the opposite side of that trying to learn math a lot of times. My friends would intuitively know how to solve a particular problem and it would just seem like sorcery to me.

That issue taught me, quite early on, that ‘easy’ and ‘obvious’ are very fluid concepts. It’s good to keep in mind that what is dead simple for me may be really difficult for someone else to unpick. That’s important in my writing, I think – things that are to me glaringly obvious may not be that way for every reader. This is where my Eager Volunteers and Lovely Editors are absolutely invaluable, and why having extra pairs of eyes on anything we write is so important. I think it’s really very cool that people have such different perceptions of things; in my more fanciful imaginings I wonder if this is part of how human society kind of works – each different task has different people who find them easy, which allows everything to get done in the end.

Of course, they keep trying to teach people like me algebra anyway. Although there is something to be said for the experience of trying to learn something you’re not very good at, maybe especially if you’re going to be a teacher.

Teaching and learning are processes that feed into each other. Being a student helps you figure out how to teach, and vice versa. I think I learned a lot about teaching from my trainer at the gym, who is an extremely patient dude and taught me a great deal, and not just about fitness. Watching him work really hard at trying to help me learn how to deadlift gave me a whole new insight into what it is like to be a student who is not very good at what they are trying to learn (that would be me, in this example) and how the teacher can try to find ways to help them. I think I’ll be better at helping students who struggle with standard deviations (or whatever) whenever I’m back in a classroom because of this. My deadlift is better than it was, too.

All right. That’s a big blorp of words and probably everyone is still tired from the holidays. We’ll call it here for the week. I have a lot to learn as the New Year rolls up on us. I still need to work on this whole self-marketing deal.  I like to think that we’re not ever done learning, which means we also constantly need new teachers.  With luck, I’ll be both learning and teaching right up until my last day on the planet. I hope you will as well.

Good luck in the year ahead. Thanks for reading.

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Gifts for Writers

Christmas fast approaches and the malls are doubtless packed with people desperately trying to find the perfect gifts for everyone on their list. For once I am not there, for which I am grateful. I am here to help you, should you have any writers on your list that you don’t know what to get. I’m pretty sure I know what they might like. (This advice is probably reasonably portable to artists in general) Perhaps even better, you won’t have to go to the mall!

1) If you’ve read something by a writer whose work you’d like to support, write a review for it on Amazon or Goodreads or wherever else you’re comfortable with. New writers in particular may be finding it hard to get attention on their work, and reviews will help. Amazon in particular has algorithms that are based on the number of reviews a book has received, but reviews anywhere will help boost the visibility of a book, for which any author will be very grateful. People really do read these things, as well, and your good opinion can carry a lot of weight.

2) Along those lines (and maybe even simpler), if you’ve read a book and liked it, tell a friend. No-one would expect you to push it on everyone you know, but if you’ve read something and know someone who you think might enjoy it, just let them know about the book you read and why you thought it was good. There are few greater compliments you can pay a writer than to suggest their work to someone else.

3) Finally, if you’ve read a book and liked it, tell the writer! Writing is often a very solitary pursuit and although some writers are invincibly confident, many are not. It can be hard to know if what you’ve been working on is worthwhile at times, and so hearing from someone that they read your stuff and liked it can be such a valuable boost. In my own case, I had entirely abandoned The King in Darkness until someone read the manuscript and told me they really enjoyed it. That gave me enough of a boost to get it ready for publication and eventually bring the work to print. Since then, hearing from readers who liked it and tell me they’re looking forward to another story about Adam Godwinson has been really important, some days, for keeping me inspired to keep working on the sequel. (It’s going ok) I think everyone likes a pat on the head sometimes, and if you tell a writer that you liked something they wrote, I promise you’ll make their day.

Those may all seem like very simple ideas, but I promise any writer will be grateful if you do some or all of them, probably more than they might be for a chocolate orange or pair of socks. For myself, I have already received a wonderful gift this year of having my writing in print, and I’m immensely grateful for that, and all the exciting stuff that came as a result of it.

Writing is a tremendous gift to have in my life, all on its own, and I’m as grateful as I could be to have it as part of my life.

I’m also grateful for everyone who has taken some time out of their lives to read this blog. It’s great having you all. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, however you’re spending it.

Go read something!

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Christmas Fiction(s)

After last week’s brief (I swear) foray into politics, this week we’ll do Cliched Blog Topic #286 and I’ll give a few thoughts about the (extremely) fast-approaching Christmas holiday. It is a time when lots of us will get together with friends and family to celebrate (not necessarily, or even usually, anything religious), to exchange gifts that are really (I think) tokens of our affection and appreciation for each other, and eat some special meals. For many people, it’s their favourite time of the year, and a stretch of days that is so focused on people being (in theory!) great to each other is not really that difficult to appreciate.

On the other hand, it’s well-known that a lot of people end up feeling disappointed by the holidays, and sometimes more sad and lonely than they did before. It’s not immediately easy to see how a time of year focused around celebration and joy can do that, but I can certainly attest that it can. It’s not hard to find lots of thoughtful explanations from psychologists as to why this may be. I guess I have a few thoughts of my own.

As I often do, I think about the difference between fiction and reality. Christmas (and really most holidays) are a fiction that is both created for us and created by us. We get lots (and lots, and LOTS) of representations of what Christmas is supposed to be like in books and TV shows and movies, and I think it’s nearly impossible to avoid internalizing at least some of that. Christmas, our fiction tells us, is supposed to be a time when problems get suddenly fixed. Old disputes are resolved. Separated people and communities get reunited. People find the partner they’re ‘meant’ to be with. Even problems of money or employment or places to live get abruptly solved.

It makes for lovely stories with heartwarming, hopeful endings, and I do think (as I’ve said in previous entries) that positive endings often make for good stories. Of course the tricky part is that if you’re expecting that Christmas is going to resolve all your problems, and then it doesn’t, it’s very easy to feel disappointed, and for your problems to seem all the more insurmountable. I don’t think most people honestly expect ‘Christmas magic’, but on a subconscious level we expect that Christmas (or any holiday, really) are going to be these lovely special times when everything goes well and then if things are less than perfect, we wonder what the heck went wrong.

For what it’s worth I think this sometimes happens with our fictions in general; our fictional worlds often provide portrayals of reality where things work out as we’d like them to and characters live the sorts of lives we think we’d enjoy and (often) other characters who aren’t very nice face the sorts of consequences we think they deserve. It’s easy to look at the difference between that and the real world and think that it doesn’t measure up. But, of course, it can’t – we like fiction precisely because we can arrange it (as writers) just how we want it and have things fall just how we’d like. That’s immensely satisfying (both for writers and readers) but obviously the real world isn’t under direction in that way at all, at Christmas or at any other time of the year.

Fortunately there’s lots of good advice out there about how to manage expectations as the holidays approach. My own thinking here is that it’s worth remembering that if the holidays are largely a fiction, we’re not characters in a story subject to the whims of an author. We get to decide (obviously in collaboration with all the other authors we know) how things are going to work out. We don’t have to wait and hope that a resolution is provided; we’re the ones writing our own stories and a great many things are, therefore, ours to control, at least to some extent. It’s a little more difficult to think of how to find solutions to our problems (a solution that may, sometimes, involve asking for help, as scary as that is to do) than it is to wait for a resolution to be provided, but it’s also much more likely. There’s always power in being the author, and we are all the authors of our own holiday story.

I think, also, reaching back to another earlier blog entry, it does help to recall how immensely fortunate most of us are. Sure, there are things we’d change, there are issues we’ve got to deal with, and things about our lives we’d change if we could (and perhaps we will!). However, I know that as I sit here fretting a little about Christmas, I am also living a life that huge numbers of people would jump on in an instant. Every day we live in these tremendously affluent, extraordinarily free and exceptionally safe societies is a huge gift. That’s not to minimize the problems we have (they’re real, they often really suck) but it’s something to put in the balance.

Anyway, thanks for reading another very rambly entry. Hopefully there was something that worked in there for you. Whatever holiday traditions you may or may not observe at this time of year, I hope you all enjoy yourselves and have some wonderful times with people who are important to you. Be kind to each other. Reach out for help if you need it; there are people who want to give it to you. If you happen to see or talk to someone who seems to be having a rough time at the holidays, give them whatever warmth you can. I can attest, again, that even a little thing can help a lot. Overall, things probably won’t be perfect, but I hope you’ll find plenty of good things to take pleasure in. Go write yourselves a good story for the end of this year.

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Fascism

One of the things about being a writer, perhaps obviously, is that I spend a lot of time working with words. I’ve always enjoyed it, and I’ve always enjoyed learning new ones and all their different shades of meaning and how you can use them to express exactly the right thing if you put them together right. I think that’s probably why I tend to find it slightly annoying when words get used incorrectly or imprecisely – words mean things, they convey specific meanings and communication can quickly become incomprehensible if we start using them wrong.

If you get me in the right (wrong?) mood I can go on about how the meaning of ‘tragedy’ – as deployed especially by the media – has strayed quite far from what the word used to mean (I think we have to accept this as a lost battle though). I am frequently dismayed at how almost no-one who uses the term ‘deus ex machina’ seems to have any idea what that actually means. Do not ever get me started on the uses of the word ‘medieval’.

Most of the time this is, in the grand scheme of things, not very important (and arguably just me being a grumpy old pedant) and people get by just fine even if they’re not using the word ‘literally’ completely wrong. Sometimes it really does matter, though. I was reminded of this yesterday when a friend sent me a video put together by Neil Gaiman about the current refugee crisis, about the difference between a ‘refugee’ and a ‘migrant’, and why it is important. The argument is itself an important one, and probably the best thing is just if you go watch the video yourself, if you haven’t.

Of course the more important thing is that we then all try to be kind in our responses and reactions to the plight of these people as they seek somewhere safe to live. I’m pleased that Canada is trying to help.

I guess maybe it also primed me to think about another word that often gets used, shall we say imprecisely, in conversation and in the media – that word is ‘fascism’. I guess we tend to throw that on anything vaguely authoritarian that we don’t like, and certainly any use of force by authority tends (with varying degrees of justification) to attract the fascist label. It’s a word that is much in the media as I write this this morning, but this time (perhaps deliberately, and perhaps not) it is being used correctly.

I am referring of course to Donald Trump. He’s being called a fascist, and for whatever it may be worth I want to add my voice to those pointing out that this isn’t sophistry or hyperbole. His policies really, truly are fascist. It’s important, I think, to say this, to shine that light on what he’s doing, and make it clear that this is what he’s offering to his followers. It’s frightening to watch unfold.

How is Trump fascist? I suspect there’s a very long analysis that could be done. But briefly, if you go through the speeches he’s making, he ticks all the basic checkboxes of the fascist message. ‘Make America Great Again’ is the classic appeal to the golden past of a chosen people who have fallen on hard times in the present. For Mussolini it was the Roman Empire, for Trump I suspect it’s the 1950s. Of course their decline is not their fault – these chosen people have been undermined and sabotaged by enemies; for Trump, these are immigrants and now especially Muslims. But he can fix it, and part of fixing it means excluding those who are not in the chosen few, by closing the borders, by marking out who does and doesn’t belong and restricting the rights of those who are ‘other’. To begin with.

Last night Trump’s campaign manager made a favorable comparison between his candidate’s policies and the decision to put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, a decision (I had thought) was universally decried as unfair, unjust, and racist, and for which the American (and indeed the Canadian) governments have since apologised. But it shows where Trump’s thinking is apparently going. This morning I see he is also ridiculing the idea of ‘free speech’ as something important as he calls for ‘closing up the internet’ (as goofy an idea as that sounds) to control what people can read and say. If it wasn’t for the clumsy way he says some of these things (a clumsiness that I now suspect is probably calculated), this would be chilling. According to Trump, if you value freedom of speech, you are ‘foolish’. Again, right from elementary fascism – individual rights mean nothing, the interests of the state mean everything.

Fascism is probably the most destructive ideology human society has yet created. It led to probably the most enormous crime against humanity we have ever seen, in the Holocaust. This was the ideology that the world united against in the Second World War. The ‘Greatest Generation’ that contemporary society currently praises went off to fight precisely against that evil. The threat of fascism was seen as sufficiently awful that Churchill and Roosevelt were prepared to ally with Stalin (himself a terrible figure) so that it might be defeated. The fight against fascism is one that we (rightly, to at least some extent) lionize in the stories we tell to this day, and that we honour on Remembrance Day.

When I have taught about fascism in my history classes, my students typically have trouble understanding how it took hold, and how people (very many of them) could line up behind its ideas of division and hate and endless conflict. And yet here it is again, and if the poll numbers from the United States are to be believed (and I think at this stage we have to give them at least some credence) it is working once again. That’s the most frightening part. I think the Marxist-Leninist candidate in my riding got about 14 votes in the last election, but in one of the countries that led the fight against fascism the last time around, a very nearly explicitly fascist candidate is not only far from marginal, but seems to be thriving.

I think it’s time that everyone who can, speaks out and makes it clear that this is not okay and that the societies we have build won’t tolerate this. We can’t. The cost is simply too high. I’m glad to see many Republican candidates directly and unequivocally rejecting Trump and his ideas, although it would also be good if they would say that they won’t support him should he win the nomination. It’s alarming that some have not.

There’s already a lot of damage that has probably been done; it’s been pointed out that the Trump candidacy has done a lot to normalize the use of racist arguments as ‘tough talk’ or ‘straight talk’ that would probably have been political suicide just a few months ago. There’s much worse that can come if these ideas are allowed to continue to grow. I’m not sure how much I can really do, but I’m going to do what I can. I’m not an American, but I’m a human being, and I can’t stay silent on this.

I know you don’t come here for my political ideas and I promise this is not going to become a political blog. In most cases, there are people who write on politics and social issues much more eloquently and effectively than I will ever do. I think, though, that this particular issue is important on a scale that goes beyond most political issues, and thus today’s blog. I’ll be back to writing about books and things next week.

Thanks for reading. Don’t let this go unchallenged, please.

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Author Moment

I’m going to have a bit of a Moment this week, so if you were expecting whatever it is I usually do on the blog, I apologize in advance.

The thing is that after what I know was a lot of hard work, my publishers at Renaissance have gotten our books on the shelves of some local bookstores here in Ottawa: Octopus Books and Books on Beechwood. This, of course, led to me dashing over to one of the stores in question like a goof and taking the following picture:

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I think the people at the store now believe they are stocking a book written by a certifiable loon, but never mind. For a long time, when I thought about writing and Things I Would Like to Happen, one of the big ones was walking into a bookstore and seeing my book there on the shelf. That happened yesterday and so I’m very very pleased.

I’m not entirely sure why that moment or that image were quite so important to me. Having the book in some physical stores is significant in a practical sense; although lots of people now buy their books online, places like Amazon are not easily browseable in the way a shelf of books is, and some of their content gets filtered by various algorithms that tends to keep stuff by small presses from showing up. Getting on the shelf of actual stores is a big deal because you’re getting in front of the eyes of people who are not specifically looking for your book, but are looking for something to read, and now they might decide that thing is the thing you wrote. So, this is a good deal for me and for Renaissance and so it’s a good reason to get excited.

I know that’s not why I was excited though. I mean, I hadn’t even really thought about those kinds of issues until fairly recently, and I have wanted to see a book I wrote on a bookstore shelf for a very long time. I think it’s more that having one’s book on a bookstore shelf is one of the indicators that one is an Author; and that’s really what I have wanted to be since I was the kid skipping doing my math problems to write more stories about Earth Defence Command. Even with the book published and all, I still seem to keep looking to reassure myself that this really has happened, and yesterday did that very well.

I remember reading an article not long ago about people in my other field of academia, talking about the prevalence of a thing called Impostor Syndrome where people feel as though they, and they alone, are unqualified frauds just waiting to be exposed and expelled by all their colleagues. Having suffered through that as well, I wonder (first of all) if there isn’t a similar thing going on with writing that is (at least temporarily) counteracted by things like seeing your book on a shelf or having someone buy something you wrote at a convention. I also wonder if it might be the case that people in many walks of life suffer from their own versions of Imposter Syndrome and need these little reassurances as well.

No doubt there are plenty of hyper-confident, self-assured folks who never doubt themselves or their own position in life even a little bit. For the rest of us, I guess look for those reassurances when you can find them, enjoy them when they’re there, and then try not to kick yourself too hard the rest of the time. You’re probably much more clever and talented than you give yourself credit for, and you’re probably surrounded by a bunch of other self-described Impostors as well. (Oooh, there’s a story idea in this somewhere now)

I think that’s about all I’ve got for this week. I know it’s a little short. I’ll try to have something more substantial for you next week.

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I should of course thank my publishers at Renaissance for their hard work in getting the books into the stores, and thank Octopus and Books on Beechwood for their support of local artists and small press publishing. They are great independent bookstores that have served their neighbourhoods for a long time and deserve your support if you can give it to them. Obviously there’s only so many copies of The King in Darkness that anyone needs to own but they have lots of other great books to sell you; check them out if you’re in the area.

I should also say that Renaissance is having an immense holiday sale on all the products in their webstore (including The King in Darkness if by some vanishingly small chance you haven’t bought it yet) so if you have some spots to fill on your Christmas list (or just, you know, need to feed your book addiction) you should check it out.

Still plugging away on the sequel project. It keeps growing new scenes! I’m going to have to put a stop to this process eventually. 🙂

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