Rehearsing Writing

Over the past few months I have been working hard on a novel that has been trying to free itself from me in a host of ways over many years. I finally feel like I have the right vehicle to tell the story and I’ve worked every day to progress it. Whether it’s been ten minutes between bouts of remote learning, or online teaching, or glorious three hour stretches when I only have myself to worry about. I have shown up and written, something, every single day this year.

Just the fact that it is now a habit for me to write everyday is something I celebrate.

Me. 2020

One thing I’ve always known as a teacher but have rarely put into practice as a writer is verbally rehearsing my words. I’ve read things out loud to myself to see how they sound but what has been truly illuminating this year has been reading to someone else.

Every Saturday evening I pour myself a large glass of red wine, patter downstairs to the front room where the modem is located (because the NBN is the actual worst and wifi barely works in certain parts of our house) and set myself up for a FaceTime call with my friend and fellow writer, Kate. Each week we read a part of our work to one another and it is remarkable how insightful this simple process is. Knowing someone you trust is listening, somehow highlights the areas that you stumble over in a way that reading to yourself doesn’t seem to do.

Yes we give each other feedback; what we loved, what perhaps didn’t hit the mark as well, but it’s more of a discussion. And what it often does is make clear where our writing hasn’t detailed our thoughts enough. You don’t get this discussion when you read to yourself because, as the author, you have ALL of the background knowledge on your characters, their needs and desires, tucked inside your mind. Our audience does not. So when Kate says to me, ‘would he really say that?’ and I respond, ‘yeah he would because A, B and C’, it’s apparent then, that I’ve not written those reasons clearly enough into my character.

In classrooms we readily offer opportunities for our students to read their work to a partner and hear important questions from an audience member, but we’re less inclined to do this for ourselves. Perhaps it stems from the fear that is so common among creative people, that putting our work out there for discussion will result in us being rejected, laughed at or ridiculed. But if you have someone you trust, perhaps someone who is on a similar writing journey to yourself, as Kate and I are, then cultivating a trusting, productive and beneficial environment is easy. And so worthwhile. In this strange, strange year that I chose to focus on my growth as a writer, I have found reading my work to Kate, possibly the most worthwhile venture of all.

It’s been a short and sweet post today my writing friends but a handy tip I wanted to share with you all. Until next time, enjoy your tea and your writing xx

Image Courtesy of Sam Manns via Unsplash.com

How to make the perfect sandwich

Well, here we are, back in lockdown, and I have to say that it feels harder this time around. I think it’s because we felt tantalisingly close to being able to get back out into the world; walking along the beach, eating at a cafe, visiting friends. And then it all just disappeared again. Not for all of us though, and that may be the other bit that’s harder. Last time it felt like we were all in this together. Now, in Melbourne anyway, it feels like we’re even more isolated, while the rest of the country, and the world, goes on without us.

For any readers with kids, you’ll know that remote learning is a really tricky beast. Teachers are absolutely doing their best, but for those of us with ‘spirited’ children, you’ll also know that without the ‘good’ peer pressure that comes with seeing other kids in the classroom following instructions and getting work done, it can be a HUGE struggle to get your kids to do the work that’s being set. I think it’s also fair to say that sometimes the work being set misses the mark, which makes absolute sense, because in a face to face environment you can pick up when a kid is struggling or needs clarification, where as in pre recorded lessons or through instructions with linked materials,** that isn’t possible. It’s left to the parents to do all the helping, clarifying, encouraging, printing etcetera. And if parents are trying to work from home simultaneously, well it can all just be way too much. (**I know some schools are doing live lessons which alleviates most of this, but it is not our remote learning experience.)

The messages coming through are ‘just do what you can’, and ‘wellbeing comes first’, and I wholeheartedly agree with this. But it’s hard to keep that at the forefront of your mind when you have to scroll through ALL OF THE WORK that hasn’t been completed in order to get to the new tasks. You can’t help but feel like a bit of a failure as a parent, and I only hope the kids don’t feel the same way.

All this leads me to my epiphany of today. My eldest child, a super sensitive and creative soul, was tasked with completing a ‘cold write procedural text’. For those not in education, that simply means he had one hour to plan, write, and edit a procedural piece of writing (most of us automatically think about recipes or ‘how to’ guides). The point of the cold write is for teachers to understand what students already know about the genre, which then informs what they need to teach them going forward. Because most schools still teach through genre, cold writes are a pretty common pre assessment task. I’m not into prompts because, as a writer, I know that I’m only ever passionate about ideas of my own, (although I do believe prompts can come in handy when you’re feeling stuck with your own work), but standardised tests like Naplan are all run with prompts, so schools often use them too.

The prompt for my grade 4 son was: ‘Write a procedural text about how to make a sandwich’. I wanted to cry because it was so boring but there was nothing I could do. My son set himself up in my office and wrote and revised for the expected 60 minutes. He came to find me when he’d finished and asked me to read it which is when I had my ‘a-ha’ moment. I read it and my first thought was – there’s no procedure in here. At no point has he told anyone how to make a sandwich. Then I thought, well, it doesn’t matter, that is the purpose of this task after all, to see what the kids don’t know and teach them.

I read his work again and what I saw, the second time around, was the most beautiful example of my son’s personality; his deep reservoirs of empathy, and his desire for the world to be a better place and I cried. I cried for having almost missed the exquisite innocence of his words because I just wanted him to get it done and ‘get it done right’.

Here is his procedural piece called, How to make the perfect sandwich

Ingredients: salami, lettuce, cheese and your choice of special ingredient. Mine is love or hard work.

It might be bad, it might be good. But i know if you believe in it it’ll taste like paradise.

It might have different ingredients but it has to always have a special ingredient! (But it can’t be trash.)

I hope you like your sandwich. Your special ingredient can help you smile and you’ll be happy forever.

Never give up or you’ll never succeed.

Have fun making your sandwich. It’ll be delicious. (I wish I was you)

And never forget to do your best!

Thank you

My kid 2020

When we were trying to take a photo to send it through to his teacher I asked if he was going to add a note to his document upload. ‘Yep’, he said and wrote in the comment box, ‘I am really proud of my work.’

With everything that’s going on in our important adults lives it is too easy to miss moments like these. I have no doubt that his pride in himself would’ve disappeared had I acted on my first impulse and said, ‘Buddy, you haven’t told anyone how to actually make a sandwich.’

And let’s face it – everyone knows how to make a sandwich, but very few people know the importance of the special ingredient.

I wish you all the very best right now, with whatever you may be dealing with. Go easy on yourself and your kiddos (if you have them). Definitely time for tea now xx

The simple things

It is safe to say that I’ve been doing a lot of noticing and a lot of tea drinking lately, which, as luck would have it, are the reasons I created this blog in the first place.

I wanted a space where I could write, just for me, to improve my daily writing habit and discipline. It’s been working so well that my major project has taken over and my blog has been somewhat neglected.

I wanted to share with you a little something I wrote from the simple act of noticing my surroundings. Recently I’ve been spending most of my writing time tucked away in a little room that looks more like a study each day. All of my picture story books that used to fill my classroom library now surround me. The light streams in the window and bounces off the countless objects on my desk.

It was noticing the sunlight on these objects that prompted me to conduct an audit of ‘things’ on my desk in my writer’s notebook. There were A LOT. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said:

If a messy desk is the sign of a messy mind

I hate to think what an empty desk is the sign of.’

A. Einstein

I refer to this quote endlessly. Particularly to myself when I start to procrasti-clean as my friend Catherine Deveny would say.

So I completed the audit of my desk and then I composed this rough little poem.

My desk

My isolation island

Sanctuary from the noise

Candles: Six. Two lit;

Imagine the Nature in passionfruit

and Rose Quartz Crystal Candle.

I can’t smell them

Until I extinguish them.

I find this odd.

Framed photos

both alike in dignity,

smiles from behind sleeping cats

and serious eyes from a sun drenched lawn.

One polaroid: the class of 2018

missing the joy of year 6 now.

A canvas – beach boys. Curious and studious,

then joyfully escaping the sea’s clutches.

Books and books and books

Piled high for research

for learning

for pleasure.

How Finding Your Passion Can Changes Everything

Does it?

I think it might

I get to write everyday

And that has indeed changed everything

My desk

My isolation island

Has opened up the world.

K Portier 2020

I wonder what small, incidental things you have been noticing? Please feel free to share them here. I hope you are all keeping safe and well. A cup of tea is an excellent tonic for most things. xx

On isolation…

What a world we’re living in. I don’t need to describe it. You are all seeing it, feeling it and living it. Each of us experiencing things in a different way to the next person.

At times, I’ve caught myself starting to slide into bleak places. Depressing places. Exhausting places. And hauled myself out using a range of strategies – like getting fresh air, exercising, messaging a friend, and writing. I will continue to do these things, not just whenever I feel that familiar, dark cocoon beginning to envelope me, but as often as I can, to prevent it’s arrival in the first place.

My friend Catherine Deveny, a wonderful writer, is uploading a writing tutorial every day on FB so we can have some guidance in our creative outlet. If you don’t know her she’s a fabulous woman who is as generous as she is knowledgable. Here’s the link. I did lesson one today and it was a lovely way to get started. It’s free but if you can spare a dollar please do…

This was a little poem I wrote during Dev’s online class:

The world feels heavy

The weight of it all

pulls on my face

drags my eyelids down

like anchors

My cheeks hurt

My jaw aches

from the grinding,

asleep and awake,

it has breached my flesh

and left a gaping wound

where I breathe in fear and sadness

Breathe out exhaustion and exclusion

Is this my contribution to our heavy world?

Where has hope gone?

It’s crawled, desperate and dying,

covered in guilt

through the hole, and out

Into the snaking, receding sunlight.

My house is closed tight

Shut, like my eyes

Pulled down by the weight of the world

Heavy on our faces.

K Portier 24/03/20

What a miserable poem that is! But it’s what fell out of me and so it is. Perhaps my writing tomorrow will be more upbeat and uplifting, which is honestly how I prefer it.

My plan is just to keep writing and keep collecting all the thoughts and feelings and then, when I’m strong enough, sift through the debris for some treasure.

Recently I’ve run a couple of Professional Development sessions for teachers and I’ve posed the following two writing prompts that I think are applicable and worthwhile to do whether you’re a teacher or not. Plus it’s something to stimulate the senses while you’re in isolation.

  1. Spend 5-10 minutes writing about your relationship with writing. Has it changed over the years? Do you have a relationship with writing? Is it all emails and work docs?
  2. Spend 5-10 minutes writing about how your relationship with writing may’ve impacted your students (or if you’re not a teacher) how has it impacted your own self?

There are no right or wrong, good or bad answers to these questions. The prompts are merely an opportunity for you to reflect on something you may not have turned your mind to before.

I’ve been amazed by many of the responses teachers have shared to these two prompts. I’ve heard several times that the joy of creating writing was snuffed out as they moved through the education system, into university and then into the work force. And now, mostly anything of substance they write is for academic purposes, while the notion of creative writing no longer exists in their lives.

I’ve also heard people explain that they didn’t really enjoy writing at school and so it was never probable they would develop a relationship with writing beyond school. Others admitted that they were so disappointed seeing all the red marks on their work that they lost confidence and eventually gave up. How sad and unnecessary.

Please feel free to have a go responding to those 2 little prompts and if you fancy sharing your thoughts I’d love to hear from you. Take care in these tricky times my friends. I hope you have enough tea on hand to see you through xx

Writing in a time of crisis

It’s safe to say that we are living in a time that most of us have never experienced anything like. The fear, the confusion, the information overload are all things we may’ve read about in history class but never lived through. Is it any wonder many of us feel overwhelmed and helpless? Not to mention scared about what’s to come and where it might end.

I’ve always made an effort to remember that every person experiences the same situation in a unique way. For example, the actions of a colleague may rub some people up the wrong way, others may be fine with it, and still others completely oblivious. It’s these differences that make the world go around. And it’s worth remembering now.

As we try to buy our weekly shop and face unprecedented crowds and shortages, it’s important to remember that we’re all feeling unfamiliar things, and trying to deal with them. Just like children, some adults are better at managing strong emotions than others. For some people these feelings may manifest as a ‘killer instinct’ – ‘I need this and everyone else be damned.’ For others it may be indifference – ‘The world’s gone mad. This is just a flu, everyone needs to calm down.’ Some people automatically think only of others – ‘I’ve got extra loo roll that I can share with anyone who needs it.’

The science seems compelling that we need to self-isolate in order to stop the spread of the virus. This is the only way to give the hospitals and medical staff a fighting chance of dealing with the pressure. I’ve heard people say, and seen posts online, that this is an over reaction and for most of us, if infected, we’ll be fine. But really, I don’t think it’s about ‘us’. Not ‘us’ reasonably healthy, under 70 year olds anyway. It’s about the vulnerable people in our society; the elderly, the newborns, those already ill. And, on top of that, it’s about what our hospital system can cope with. It certainly cannot cope with thousands of critically ill people at the same time.

I found this proverb on the weekend and it seems apt here:

Good advice is often annoying,

Bad advice never is.

French proverb

So yes. While all the cancellations, uncertainty, and self-isolating is incredibly annoying, it’s because it makes sense. Without these measures things could end up a whole lot worse.

So, since we’re all (or soon to be) stuck inside, now is the perfect time to reconnect with our creative passions. If, like me, your passion is writing, then I have the perfect place for you to start. I did this with my grade 6 kids today at school as well as their teachers.

Take your writer’s notebook, and if you don’t yet have one grab any spare notebook you can, and write how you feel right now. Write about the state of the world, the behaviours of people. Write about the little details. Bumping elbows with students instead of high fives. Write it all down. Not just so you can look back on it in your twilight years, but so we have many accounts of what is certainly a very unusual time across world.

One of the grade 6 teachers came to me after this exercise and said, ‘This was such an important activity. It was so cathartic I cried.’

Here’s a snippet of what I wrote with the kids this morning:

Sitting on the asphalt of the basketball court, failing to find a comfortable position as tiny stones imprint my palm, I watch as over 90 students sit 1.5 metres apart and write about this bizarre and frightening time.

The sun is blazing in a bright blue sky and warms up one side of my body. It’s hard to believe we are in the middle of worldwide panic with weather this perfect.

But we are.

Students bow their heads and write quietly. There’s no joking now about hand sanitizer or the apocalypse. Just their quiet thoughts. I wonder what details they’ve noticed about the pandemic? Certainly the fighting over toilet paper has captured their attention. They think it’s crazy, as do many adults. I think it shows how scared people are.

Do they see any fear in the teachers? We are all doing our best to show none at all. Just run of the mill hygiene reminders and some extra powerpoints about personal space. But do they see us covertly checking the news to see if our school will be shut tomorrow?

I wonder…

I hope you take a moment to record how you’re feeling at the moment. It’s not only an excellent way of documenting this unprecedented time, but also useful for your mental health. Better out than in, as they say.

Stay safe and well my friends, and have a cup of tea xx

Mentor texts for school (and life).

Don’t you just read a book sometimes, even just a passage of a book, or a sentence, and think – by jinogoes that is well crafted…I wish I’d written that? I am regularly writing other author’s words in my writer’s notebook to help spark my own creativity, or think about things in a different way, or pay tribute to the beauty of words when they are carefully combined.

This is one of the reasons we read after all, to be transported, by an author’s words, to a different time, space or feeling. When you really stop and think about it – writing is magical. I don’t mean it happens magically. We all know it happens only through the persistence of an author to slog through drafts and re-writes to capture exactly the vision in their mind. But I do mean that it has a magical impact on the reader.

It’s often said that writers must first be readers. They need to be exposed to a host of different styles of writing, genres and perspectives. Writers, like any other profession, need to be around those who already excel in the field. You wouldn’t send teachers into classrooms until they’d completed placements to observe professionals teach. You wouldn’t send a trainee doctor into surgery until they’d completed medical rounds and watched and assisted established surgeons first. Equally it is difficult to conceive of a writer crafting a work capable of transformative effects on a reader unless they’d spent substantial time in the company of such books by such authors.

This is why mentor texts are so important. Mentor texts are the gateway for students to spend meaningful time with authors. Listening to, discussing and recreating aspects of other author’s works is critical for students to see what the craft of writing is truly about and, when done well, what it is capable of.

Today I visited a Year 6 class. Their classroom teacher asked me to read a picture story book to them called The Island and allow them time to write an authentic response to the story. Before we began we talked about what an ‘authentic response’ was and what questions we could ask ourselves in order to develop our response. Everyone was set to go. I invited students to sit on the floor, closer to the book if they wanted to, and about half the students took up this offer.

I began to read. If you haven’t read or used The Island in class I highly recommend it, only for upper school students as the themes are mature. It is deeply thought-provoking.

The Island by Armin Greder is one of John Marsden’s top 10 picture books of all time. What a recommendation!

The combination of haunting pictures and a cruelly familiar storyline ensured that our discussion was robust and impacted the student’s first thinking. The story revolves around a stranger who arrives on an island, naked, on a raft. The island’s villagers are very wary of him and disagree on how best to ‘handle’ the visitor. Rumours start to fly about the stranger who they’ve caged in an empty goat’s pen.

‘He will come and eat you if you don’t finish your soup,’ a mother warned her child.

‘The children are scared of him,’ lamented the school teacher that night at the inn.

‘I am sure he would murder us all if he could,’ said the policeman.

‘Foreigner Spreads Fear in Town’ said the newspaper in big, black letters.

The authenticity of the dialogue and the clear text to world connections allowed the students to access a host of prior knowledge before creating and debating their own response to the book. While some students initially felt that the villagers had been ‘nice’ to let the stranger stay, other students disagreed, citing the language of hate and fear they employed in their discussion about the stranger. It was so interesting to observe students re-evaluate their initial thoughts as more points and further evidence was laid out by their peers. Many students originally thought that the villagers final, cruel reaction was ‘overkill’ and an unrealistic interpretation of humanity. Until other students pointed out the parallels between the story and real world examples like Nauru, and Trump’s border wall.

Using a picture story book like this to discuss how author’s strive to select and arrange their words in just the right manner to elicit deep thinking and encourage a shift of mindset, is more effective than 50 lessons of just talking about the craft of writing. We have to expose ourselves and our students to texts like this every day, or as often as possible, to show them what excellent writing looks like, sounds like, and what it does to the reader.

I hope you’ve all had a beautiful day full of meaningful words, organised just so. Time now for a cup of tea and another flick through Armin Greder’s incredible book. xx

A Time for Change

Years ago I started working for a typical large-ish company. One with enough people that you could regularly go into the kitchen or ‘break out room’ and know only a fraction of the people in there. It was a reasonably sad interior, as the inside of offices usually are. Lots of grey carpet and artificial light.

My boss was a tool. I know lots of people think their bosses are tools but this guy really was. He had no actual idea what he was doing and thought he’d been ‘head-hunted’ because the company asked him to move from one branch of the business to another. Sigh. His inflated sense of self infiltrated every interaction he had; he referred to his company credit card more times than I’ve had hot dinners. You get the picture.

One day he was talking to our small team about our previous work histories. I said I used to work in corporate banking. This intrigued him. ‘How much did you earn, if you don’t mind me asking?’ He asked.

‘Just over a hundred grand,’ I told him, knowing that he knew my current salary which was almost half of that.

‘Oh my God. Why would you leave that job?’ He asked. I couldn’t tell whether he was more horrified by my walking away from the money, or the fact that I used to earn more than he currently did.

‘Because I didn’t like my job and I want to be a writer.’ His incomprehension at my response was comical. He stared at me, brow furrowed, like I was some strange and foreign creature that needed an autopsy to be more fully understood.

You should have seen his face when he told us flippantly about a company initiative where you could donate a portion of your pay to the charity of your choice and I opted for the Cancer Council, 50 dollars per pay. He came to see me and said ‘Did you mean to put 5 dollars here? It says $50.’

My boss was a tool.

I only lasted 4 months in that role before I was fired for writing a poem. It was a damn good poem and took the mickey out of the business (no names of course!) But let’s be honest. I wasn’t fired for a poem. He just didn’t like me. But you can’t fire someone for that. Instead he took great joy in pulling me into his office, explaining to me that he’d been monitoring staff emails, saw the email, it wasn’t appropriate and I was to be frog marched out lest I take any sensitive materials with me. Ha! Before I left he said, ‘It was a really well written poem though.’ High praise indeed.

That same tool would no doubt be agog to hear that ten years later I’ve decided to once again step away from a reasonably well paying job to follow my heart. I understand that money is important and there would be more than just my old tool of a boss who might think I’m crazy from walking away from a good income for a year.

Well, I’m here to say it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made. The improvement in my mental health – by not having the same level of responsibility – is worth more than I can explain. I still have ways to make the money I need – Arbonne, consulting and relief teaching all enable me to pay the rent and put food on the table. But the extra money I was receiving last year cost me so much in other ways.

I was tired. All the time. I felt irritable, particularly after a long day and the I had to rush to pick up the kids from after school care, make dinner, run the ‘shower, teeth, pyjamas’ routine and read before bed. I hated feeling annoyed with doing these things when I hadn’t spent any time with my own kiddos all day. But I did. I was just longing for that moment when everyone was asleep in bed and I could finally sit down with a cup of tea and have no one talking at me, or asking questions, or wanting something. That’s a pretty miserable feeling – wishing the day away so I could sit quietly at 9pm.

Not only did I feel like I had no ‘quality’ time with my kids, I felt like I had no time whatsoever for myself. Or for my partner. Actual work, or thinking about work, was all consuming. If I managed to fall asleep quickly I would wake with a start at some point in the night having dreamt about work. More often though the day’s events would swirl in my head as I tried to get to sleep. I used the Calm App almost every night so I could concentrate on something other than my recirculating thoughts.

I knew I needed a break. A few years ago when I was talking to my psychologist about a particularly difficult aspect of work, she said, ‘You cannot go on like this. You need to go part time.’ I looked at her incredulously, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that,’ I told her. I needed the money. But really, I think the reason I dismissed the idea so quickly back then was because I didn’t want to miss out. I didn’t want to miss out on a promotion that I thought was coming (which did). So I stayed. Full time. And continued to try to work like I didn’t have children and tried to parent like I didn’t have a job. Regretfully, I think it was my kids that came out on the losing side of that ridiculously impossible endeavour.

So towards the end of last year I made the decision. The money, the possible promotions, the FOMO – it just wasn’t worth the toll it was taking on my health and my family. I decided to take a year off and hit the reset button. Spend more time on myself and spend more time with my kids and apologise to no one for the decision.

And let me tell you – It really has been the best decision I’ve ever made. I laugh like I used to, heartily and frequently. I actually see my kids. I mean, I ‘see’ them for the incredible small people that they are, and I love them more every single day and I really don’t know how that’s possible. I work when I want and I make enough money to keep the wolf from the door. I swim, write, dance and read, and I see my friends as often as I can.

I fully understand that everyone is on their own journey and for some people life changes like this are not desirable or simply not possible and I get that. But for me, this was the right time and the right decision.

For the first time in the longest time I can honestly say that I love my life. What a feeling.

Time for tea and writing in my gratitude journal I think xx

Oh before I go, here’s a sneak peak at the poem that got me fired. Feel free to use it if you need to be released from your current employment. xx

An Ode to the Grind

A day at work is hard to take

When brain doth melt and back doth break

And all you want is to escape

But jails old walls are sound

Managers lurk with absent stealth

Doing naught but growing wealth

It’s very trying for your health

The noose is tightly wound

Though sun still shines and rain still falls

You’re wedged between the closing walls

Forever fielding thankless calls

Ahead is rocky ground

In the kitchen, cupboard’s bare

No plate to use, no fork to share

The bosses say the budget’s fair

While laughing, bank-ward bound

Your fishbowl isn’t made of glass

It’s not just people slouching past

but coming in with further tasks

Respite cannot be found

And when you think you’re nearly done

A fishy boss will spoil your fun

There’s errands only you can run

Sore temples start to pound

In the background, endless chatter

On topics that can hardly matter

At your desk just getting fatter

No normalcy around

The end is nigh, there’s no debate

You sneak off early, arrive late

And tell the boss to kiss your date

The freedom is profound.

Ageing creatively

When I was a kid I liked to write. My writing was never very ‘literary’, I wouldn’t have set the world on fire with deep and original musings. But I did have a deep passion for entertaining people, both on paper and in real life. I quickly learned that the kind of writing that I found interesting and amusing, was not very interesting or amusing to my teachers. Aside from the two I mentioned on my home page, a lot of teachers seemed to consider my work a bit ‘lowest common denominator’, or at least not very academic.

In History class in year 11 we had to write about an important time in history. Now, it’s a long time since I was in year 11 so it’s stretching my fragile memory to recall the exact details of the assignment. But while my buddies all chose events like wars and revolutions, or people like Stalin and Lenin, I decided to write about the 1960s because I thought that was a pretty fucking cool time. The spread of pacifism, the civil rights movement, the embracing of previously taboo social topics like sex (ooh la la!), all set to a backdrop of awesome music. Who wouldn’t want to research and write about that?

Not only could I read and listen and watch to learn more, but I could actually ask people who lived through it! Brilliant. And I did. I thought my assignment was a masterpiece.

My teacher did not. I don’t remember exactly why she didn’t like it. I just remember I got a C+. I mean. Fuck off. On effort alone it was worth an A. But that’s not the point. The point is that what I took away from school was an idea that my writing wasn’t meaningful or clever. And that idea thwarted my confidence for an unforgiving 23 years.

But last year I turned 40. And something a bit interesting happened. You know how you only ever hear about mid-life crises (usually in relation to men), well I think I had a mid-life breakthrough. I acknowledged what it is that really fills me up (writing), and I began making time for it. Not just that though – the old voices that plagued me for years whispering ‘you’re not good enough, idiot’, quietened. Rather I shut them the hell up. Because now I was doing this for me. Not for anyone else. Not for a teacher, a parent, a ‘follow’ or ‘like’, I was doing exactly what I liked. Damn what anyone else thought of it.

So this was new. And liberating. Writing for my own pleasure. My own growth and development. I liked it. A friend of mine has a theory – she said that when we hit 40, society tends to reduce women to invisible status. Which is completely offeensive and quite confronting but it feels accurate. What comes with this though is an awakening of our true purpose and a care factor of less than zero about what people think of us. Excellent. So this unwarranted invisibility unlocks a devil-may-care attitude. A superb super power of sorts, where we start to live as we always should have, with purpose and without apology. Of course there are women who feel their purpose and live it much sooner than 40 and these women are fucking awesome. I have aspired to be like them for so long and now, at 40, I am.

When ruminating on this topic I didn’t love the idea that kids are still being hurled out of the education system with this notion that they’re not clever enough or unique enough to write meaningful work. If that’s happening then I’ve no doubt many a creative soul is being squashed and exiled in the deepest part of these kids. Why should they, as many of us have, wait until they reach some moment in midlife when they finally scream ‘enough’ and unleash what’s always been inside them?

How can we ensure that we are not sending kiddos into the world with this toxic idea that their writing isn’t ‘special’ enough? I believe much of this comes down to feedback. I read in some text somewhere (not great with details) that if a kid is given a letter grade on an assignment, regardless of whether any further explanation is given, the mark is the only feedback they will take from it. And I agree. I clearly remember getting a C+ for my Sixties assignment but I have no idea what, or even if, there was any accompanying feedback about why a C+ was appropriate.

What we say to students leaves a deep impression. Yes they need feedback about the technical development of their writing and construction of a piece, but the way in which this is given is so important. I teach primary school so fortunately I don’t have to give letter grades on any work. I spend all my time in conferences with students having conversations about their writing and their habits as writers. The aim is to improve the strategies of the writer, rather than ‘fix a piece’.

I would love to know if you’ve managed to overcome issues of confidence that may’ve plagued you since school. Are you now creating whatever your heart needs to create? I hope so. And I hope we can all work together to ensure that kids no longer feel that not making art is preferable to receiving feedback.

It’s late! Tea time now. Until next time xx

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

What is the point of writing something without feeling? Honestly, I’d say there’s no point at all. The feeling itself doesn’t matter. Happiness, fear, loathing, desire. You, the writer, have to have a feeling to share. No matter what. In a previous post I shared my favourite quote with you but here it is again:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

Robert Frost

So how do we connect with a feeling? Well I think keeping a writer’s notebook is a really great start. In the process of noticing the world, you can also notice those feelings that pop up in you as and when they appear.

For example – if you saw someone throw their rubbish in the street and walk away (once you’d chased them down and belted them around the head with it), how would you feel?

What if you were really looking forward to a night out and your friend cancelled at the last second. How would you feel?

Or you picked your kids up from school and they ran towards you and threw their little arms around you and said ‘I love you’. How would you feel?

If you had your writer’s notebook handy you could capture all these feelings as they occur. What a fabulous opportunity.

Today I was driving towards my first day at a new job and I purposely made myself sit with the feeling of nervousness to really notice what it did to me physically and mentally. It made my stomach churn, I felt hungry but simultaneously nauseous at the thought of eating. I ran through endless scenarios – what if I couldn’t find a car park and was late? What if I couldn’t even find my destination? I made myself do some breathing exercises to try to balance myself. I talked to myself in an effort to calm down. As soon as I parked my car (because of course I found my destination) I wrote it all down.

Humans are constant balls of feelings which, happily, means we are constant balls of ideas. But we have to be alive to these moments and feelings and record them.

Here’s something I wrote a while ago when I felt that delicious pang of a new crush.

When you’re near

I’m not.

I’m away

where it’s just us

And that smile of yours

Is wrapped around mine

And those arms of yours

Wrapped around me

And these legs of mine

Wrapped around you

And we’re

so

close

now.

But far away

from all the noise.

My hand traces the curve of your arm

While your fingers slip down my cheek

to my neck

Tilt my head and

your smile wraps around mine.

When you’re near.

Perhaps you’ve felt something similar? That all consuming desire for someone. Write it down. It’s interesting to see where the feelings take your writing. Have a cup of tea if you need to simmer down 🙂 Until next time – keep feeling xx

Show, don’t tell

Every student in every class I’ve taught could tell you what ‘show, don’t tell‘ means. This is because it is one of the most fundamental lessons in writing. In order for your audience to feel something, they have to believe what you’ve written, be able to create a mental image of it and connect with it.

Consider any great fiction book you’ve ever read. I’m going to use J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as an example. The author’s of these books do not simply tell you that a character was pretty or angry. They show you how the character looks, what they are doing, and what they are saying, and the you, the reader, decide that they are pretty or angry or excited.

Have a read of this passage from the beginning of The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf asks Bilbo to leave the ring for Frodo:

“… Now it comes to it, I don’t like parting with it at all, I may say. And I don’t really see why I should. Why do you want me to?” he asked, and a curious change came over his voice. It was sharp with suspicion and annoyance. “You are always badgering me about my ring; but you have never bothered me about the other things that I got on my journey”…Bilbo flushed, and there was an angry light in his eyes. His kindly face grew hard… “And what business is it of yours, anyway, to know what I do with my own things? It is my own. I found it. It came to me.”

J.R.Tolkein

In the passage above you can feel Bilbo becoming more and more unsettled. The dialogue between Bilbo and Gandalf becomes more fraught, and by the end Bilbo is beside himself at the notion of parting with the ring. From this short paragraph we begin to suspect that there is more to the ring than simply being a piece of jewellery (providing you’ve not read The Hobbit!) The sudden change in Bilbo’s demeanour with Gandalf, and his words, show us there is a deeper mystery here.

Practising ‘show, don’t tell’ yourself, and modelling it for your students, is a critical element in order for you, and them, to connect authentically to the audience. If we only ‘tell‘ our audience what is happening our story becomes boring and our audience will pop our book down and move on to something else.

Imagine what Tolkien’s writing had been like without the ‘show’.

Gandalf asked Bilbo to place the ring on the mantlepiece. Bilbo didn’t want to because he really liked the ring. He got cross at Gandalf for asking him to give it up and told him to stop meddling in his business.

The same basic information is provided to the reader, but the original allows us to see the characters and feel them, where as the other, well, it’s just boring and one dimensional.

It’s not that we need to get rid of the ‘tell’ altogether. It’s very necessary to tell our readers some things, of course. Even in the above example Tolkien tells us that Bilbo’s voice had become ‘sharp with suspicion and annoyance.’ What we are trying to do is make sure we are ‘showing’ enough to the reader to allow for that mental image to form. To allow them to connect with the emotions of your characters, or the importance of a setting.

In the writing course I am participating in at the moment we had an exercise to write for 8 minutes using the prompt ‘Standing in the rain…’ We were to focus specifically on developing details of our character in order to evoke emotion in the reader. We needed to try to use all of our senses. Here’s what I wrote:

Where had all these people appeared from? Robert glanced around the tram stop to find himself completely hemmed in. He could see the tram coming, and he’d been here first. Longest! He was getting on this tram by hook or by crook.

‘Urgh,’ Robert said out loud as a man pushed past him inhaling a tuna sandwich. The smell was so strong, and there were so many people around, he felt like he was trapped with the sandwich rammed up his nose. He tried breathing through his mouth but that just made him notice how fuzzy his tongue felt. He’d had way too many coffees today.

The tram clattered to a halt and the wave of Johnny-come-lately’s pushed forward. No matter how much he wanted to, Robert could not bring himself to stick his elbows out and force his way on as others were doing. Instead he watched as all but three travellers squished themselves in. Most avoided his gaze as the doors closed, which he thought was prudent.

As the tram pulled away the first raindrop fell. Robert looked up just as the sky opened. He stood, shoulders slumped, allowing the chill of the rain to penetrate his Target business shirt. It rolled right off his Target pants. Whatever they were made of they did not absorb water. Finally he shuffled backwards to shelter undercover with some poor woman and fucking tuna guy.

K. Portier

In this piece I was trying to convey a sense of injustice as well as defeat. But at no point did I use either of those words. I wanted Robert’s actions and thoughts to tell that story.

‘Show, don’t tell’, like everything else about writing, needs practise. By noticing little details in the world and recording them in your writer’s notebook, you will find you have an endless supply of interesting details that will help bring your stories to life. You can also try little prompts like this one, and practise showing your characters feelings through their actions and interactions.

I hope you have a wonderful day and plenty of tea to keep your creative juices flowing! See you soon xx