I managed to grab half an hour today to purge my teaching folders. Who knew teachers can accumulate paper copies of activity sheets faster than teenagers empty a fridge at 3 pm. You might think we are single-handedly responsible for the destruction of Earth's forests but actually most information is now stored on an equally rabbit warren-like array of electronic folders on our laptops. Yet fear keeps telling us not to waste our carefully curated hard copy resources and keeps us clipped to our rows and rows of oversized lever arch ring binders.
The decluttering, now begun, feels glorious. I feel like I've reinvented the wheel. Probably veteran teachers everywhere are laughing at me for taking so long to click on to this genius trick. You see, I have been storing everything according to all the Year levels I have ever taught and buying more folders every year. But from today I am deciding to store my information according to category. Now I have folders labelled Poetry, Persuasive, Analytical, Film, Narrative and Grammar to adapt to each Year level instead titles such as Year-8-random-shit-I-will-never-use-again-because-its-all-rammed-in-there-in-no-particular-order. Have I bored you to tears yet?
Actually, what I really want to tell you about is an article out of a precious little magazine I recently tore my home cupboards apart to find. I'd given up in defeat and sadly categorised it as lost. Well, well, well. Turns out it has been stuck at school between the folders Year-11-English-Communications-a-subject-that-no-longer-exists and Year-9-Novel-Outfall-that-was-culled-from-the-school-library-back-in -2017.
To commemorate Remembrance Day coming up next month I'd like to now share an article inside the magazine. It is one of my first published pieces, written way back in 2004 for New Zealand Memories Issue 50, about an amazing fighter pilot who survived two and a half years in a German P.O.W camp before plotting a daring escape. He just so happens to have been one of my gorgeous grandads. (And yes I know the title says soldier, which is incorrect. That one is all my fault.)
Perhaps you have a hero hidden in your family too?
My family and I took a quick day trip up to Noosa yesterday to catch up with some of our holidaying Kiwi friends. The place was packed but we had a great time checking out the beach, the surf club and the farmers’ market with them.
At the farmer’s market I happened to spy a French boulangerie and ambled over to buy a pain au chocolat and an apricot pastry thingy. I apologised to the Frenchman behind the display case for having such limited French. The exchange ended with a ‘merci’ and off I went to tuck into my treats. The youngest had been watching from a distance and sidled up to me to say ‘Mum, why do you always do that?’
‘Try and talk to people in their own language? It makes you look…racist.’ He whispered that last word.
Sorry, what? I hope not!
The youngest is about to turn thirteen, which means we will soon be eaten out of house and home. Here I was thinking he was coming over to make me share my pastry. He’s going through that stage where his parents do things in public that highly embarrass him. I feel his pain. When I was the same age I tried to refuse to walk down the same side of the street as my dad. He took great delight in chasing me down the footpath as I sped into a run. He was faster than me. I couldn’t outrun him. Oh the shame! Now I love walking down the street with my dad and feel sad I can’t do it more often because we don’t live in the same country any more. I hope my son will get over this phase sooner rather than later for both our sake.
It's true I really do love greeting people in their own language. After travelling to a few different countries, I have found the quickest way to break the ice with someone is to attempt to say a few words in greeting, at least. It's my way of showing I’m interested in learning about them and their culture. It can get mentally tiring and I sometimes feel like an idiot, using more gesture than language, but I’d rather try and be open to interesting conversations and new experiences.
I reasoned with my boy that if he was in a foreign speaking country and someone went out of their way to say ‘hello’ to him in English, wouldn’t he think that was nice of them? He remained sceptical. I guess I should be glad he remembered the rule about not talking to strangers…
This brings me to my next point. I was saying to my husband the other day that to become a successful writer it seems like I must spend 80% of my time networking and making connections and only 20% writing. I may never truly get there but I’m sticking to my original promise to focus on being consistent. Consistently - but not obsessively! - writing and enjoying the connections and networks that grow from there. I’m viewing the practice as a marathon instead of a sprint. That’s not to say that my need for instant gratification has been switched off. I have to give myself a regular reminder to keep my hopes at realistic levels because publishing is a slow moving machine. This year has been quite tough as I’ve fielded many rejections for many different pieces of writing. Yet, just when I thought no one cared I received four acceptances in quick succession and someone in the field told me they thought I had talent. Perhaps I’m getting better at targeting the right places for publication. Maybe the regular writing discipline is helping me to hone my craft. Could it be my website does an adequate job of showcasing what I’m all about? It’s hard to know.
Another element that further complicates things for me is the question of self-promotion on social media. Editors sometimes ask about possible channels for marketing. I feel like I’m learning another language or three. Facebook has always been my go-to but Instagram seems to be more popular, and Twitter is the land of fast-paced quips that land in hard and soft places. While I do have a friendly and outgoing personality, I am a happy introvert and nasty comments sting. Spending time alone is invigorating and none more so than when I get to dig around for a few hours inside my own imagination. For the purposes of meeting more writers and publishing professionals – or at least hopefully entertain some of my friends and family – I’d like to unveil my new and improved social media sites. If I expect my students to challenge themselves then I should lead by example, right? As if my teenage children don’t find me embarrassing enough, in no particular order you will virtually find me at https://twitter.com/TheEnglishNut1, https://www.instagram.com/theenglishnut1/ and https://www.facebook.com/theenglishnut/. Feel free to follow and engage or not! There will be no bikini pics or supersize lips I'm pleased to say. I'm sharing to let other writers out there feel less alone in their endeavours! It would be great to hear about your own creative highs and lows as well.
A cold virus descended mid-week, plaguing me with both a high temperature and a feeling of dread. There was no way in hell I was missing the Brisbane Writers Festival on Saturday! To make absolutely sure nothing was going to stand in my way, and to safe guard colleagues from the worst of my germs, of course, I tucked myself into bed for a day of complete rest on Thursday and again after my half-day at work on Friday. By Saturday morning, the danger of coughing up an actual lung had subsided and I armed myself with paracetamol, swathes of tissues and a large bottle of water. My friend, Louise, who is just as excited about books and hanging out in libraries also came along to listen to authors discuss the creative processes behind their words.
Back in April, I wrote about throwing literary seeds to the wind in the hope a few might germinate into something fruitful. This month I am excited to share that Quadrant Magazine, Australia’s ‘longest running literary journal’ (since 1956), has published my 3000 word story ‘Indicate, Mate’. While the magazine is available to over 6000 annual print subscribers, the website also receives around 1 million hits a year. I am absolutely thrilled to receive this opportunity to be so widely distributed. Quadrant also has an app and in the last week of each month readers can download single copies of current and past issues for about the same price as a cup of coffee.
This year I have set myself a challenge to write in whichever genre I am teaching at the time. If the class is studying the elements of narrative then I create short stories (my favourite). This term has been particularly challenging though because… well… it’s all about poetry. From experience this seems to be the hardest topic to sell, even more so than analytical expositions!
Because a tantalising hook is important, I begin this unit by sharing an anecdote about the time I signed up to a course at university titled ‘Romantic and Victorian Literature’. Arriving at the first lecture, I found to my dismay Frankenstein and Dracula were not going to be making an appearance. Instead, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ were the guests of honour. Talk about hanging an albatross around my neck! Meanwhile, William Wordsworth waxed lyrical about daffodils and ambling around Tintern Abbey.
I continue to explain to my class that it did not long before my disappointment turned to intrigue because my lecturer revealed the all-important context that drove two famous English gentlemen to put ink to paper. For example, by nature Coleridge was prone to reoccurring bouts of melancholy. In today’s terms he might be diagnosed with depression and treated accordingly with some anti-depressants and talk therapy. Instead, Coleridge remedied his affliction with regular doses of addictive opium. Perhaps his low mood was due in part to a deep envy of his friend, the well-adjusted Wordsworth, who was not only happily married but also had a warm relationship with his sister, Dorothy. So warm, in fact, William took to rifling through her diary pages to find inspiration for his poems. Here is one case in point that took place back in the early 1800s:
I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Earlier, Dorothy had written:
I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.
Personally, I’m torn between amusement and annoyance Wordsworth had the gall to rip off his sister’s work as his own, but then again it was the 19th century…
Teenagers, through trial or vicarious experience, know about the pitfalls of drug taking as well as the pendulous swing of deep feelings. It becomes easier to make parallels about an ancient mariner's miserable experience at sea and a poet’s tortured state of mind. Just as I did back in that university auditorium, my class start to realise perhaps there is more to this poetry business than first thought.
With the new Queensland senior syllabus implemented for the first time in 2019, I am personally enjoying bringing students’ awareness to the ‘symbolic bravery of Australian poets.’
Certain themes of life, identity, health and challenges erupt from Aboriginal poets such as Oodgeroo Noonucal, Samuel Wagan-Watson and Ali Cobby Eckermann, who eloquently draw our attention to the terrible experiences inflicted and endured throughout colonial history. They also honour custodian connections to and the inherent beauty of the Australian landscape. Never before has our groaning planet been in such need of this sacred Indigenous wisdom.
Another voice also emerges, lending itself to the current social commentary surrounding Australian identity in an increasingly multi-cultural climate. Omar Musa and Ali Alizadeh are transporting the experiences of minority migrant groups to the mainstream, providing a strong voice for those who are so busy working as they assimilate into an unfamiliar environment.
Bruce Dawe and Les Murray espouse our collective experiences of suburban life and gratitude for our fallen war heroes, while David Stavanger, the self-described 'lapsed psychologist', reminds mental health issues continue to afflict many of us, just like Coleridge.
In order to encourage fledgling writers to be brave enough to share their own voice, I, too, enjoy taking time to write alongside them; imperfectly and hurriedly at times, slow and considerate at others. Together we form a collaborative platform of ideas. These young people never fail to amaze me with their unique insights and ways of constructing thoughtful imagery. As they tentatively begin to write their own poems and conduct peer reviews they become aware of the contexts, cultural assumptions and underlying issues driving their words. Realisation dawns that these may be unique and yet relatable for another reader. From this creative experience they learn it takes real skill to select the right vocabulary and structure it to make the biggest, bravest impact. Most importantly, they begin to understand that poetry can offer meaningful insights about our collective experience of this world and, just maybe, it is worth studying after all.
We took a breather from the intensity of the First Lego League Asia Pacific Invitationals where our daughter was competing to take in some of the Sydney sights this week. Having travelled the eleven-hour trip south from our usual balmy Brisbane for the event, the bare branches and chilly air felt novel. The city arguably does have one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.
I’ve been throwing a lot of literary seeds to the wind lately in the hope that a few will germinate into something fruitful. In a happy coincidence, it appears that many national short story competitions have a May deadline and these have given me a much needed push to get cultivating. When I find checking my emails and Submittable account becoming a five-times-a-day compulsion – much like watching grass grow – it has been helpful to instead turn my attention to growing and pruning my entries. Remember, I don’t drink coffee so the small entry fees are my happy little vice.
When I was a child I used to cringe whenever adults asked me that question because I was embarrassed about the answer I really wanted to give, one that still stands true today; live in a cottage beside the sea and write fiction all day long. When I turned fifteen and fell in love with my art classroom this answer expanded to ‘and paint pictures as well!’
This past week at school the staff have been dropping like flies. The Ekka winds are blowing and everyone in South East Queensland know this heralds not only the arrival of fairy floss, carnival rides and agricultural awards but also a huge dose of winter ailments. In my staffroom six of us lost our voices. I’m starting to suspect some sort of biological warfare: If you want to plot a successful takedown at a school what better way to do it than silencing the teachers?
The symptoms of laryngitis are more of an irritant than a miserable I-can’t-function type of illness. Despite the complete absence of sound I was optimistically foolish enough on Tuesday to think I could keep calm and carry on teaching. A well-modulated voice is our most important teaching tool but it is certainly not the only one. I saw this vocal setback as an opportunity to bring the others out and sharpen them up. Tools like pausing, using facial expressions, monitoring, using the board and making gestures.