Category Archives: Creativity

My Cultural Standards for Fiction

Two weeks ago, the Canadian literary scene got quite the shaking-up. (If you somehow missed this, start here and just keep clicking on links.) My students are wondering about it, talking about it, trying to solve this problem so it doesn’t inhibit creativity and multiculturalism but still considers people’s feelings when it comes to theft.

I have also been reading about this. As a fiction writer, I don’t want to inadvertently stomp on someone’s cultural heart. It’s not in anyone’s interest that I remain ignorant. I also believe it’s my personal responsibility–not an editor’s–to make sure that I don’t cross the line.

I think I’ve come up with an idea. It came to me while reading Robert Jago‘s On Cultural Appropriate, Canadian’s Are Hypocrites. He uses Harry and the Hendersons as an example of how cultural stories get taken out of context and badly used. I’ve never seen Harry and the Hendersons. Even when my kids we small and we were watching some rather terrible movies, we didn’t sink that low. Why not? Because it’s clearly crap. I don’t want to waste hours of my life deliberately partaking of total crap. There’s enough of that I can’t avoid.

So, how do I avoid total crap? There are certain filters or lenses one might use to determine crap levels. Part of it’s personal perspective; another part is something I picked up during my brief foray into academia. When writing non-fiction, there are certain standards for fact-checking and attribution to which one must adhere. One will not be taken seriously if one writes an academic paper that has no citations or uses “I once heard” as a resource. Primary sources are required; lack of citation is plagiarism.

I think I’ll apply the same criteria to my fiction.

  • If I haven’t used primary sources wherever possible, I can’t publish that story. (I, myself, count as a primary source, but I have to be ready to back that up with some sort of evidence.)
  • If I haven’t been able to come up with a minimum of three primary sources, I can’t publish that story.
  • If I’ve used something without permission, I can’t publish that story.
  • Anything that I’ve “made up” is to be clearly made up, not thieved. (I’m thinking about monsters and space aliens here.)
  • If I use someone else’s idea/tradition/culture and make money off it, a good chunk of that money (50%?) should go to a charity that supports said someone. My primary sources will be able to guide me to appropriate charities.

Fiction writers are still working with the making-up-stories-by-the-fire approach. Whatever one heard was fair game for pre-radio-era entertainment. Sometimes it was possible to trace the origin of the story; other times, it would be beyond the story-teller’s means/ability to do such a thing. Back then, there was some reason to just “borrowing” a story.

That’s not the state of things now. I have several libraries at my disposal, Google on all my electronic devices, and access to every country/culture on Earth through social media. I have no excuse for not getting a) the accurate story and b) permission from the appropriate people.

Not, of course, that this will save me from crap writing. What it might do is save my (few) readers from crap writing, and then the only thing they have to worry about is their personal opinion of my writing–including semi-colons.

Thieves are so annoying….

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A John Steinbeck Quote

From author John Steinbeck to editor Pascal Covici, Monday, March 26, 1951.

I wonder why, on such a day as this, when the story is particularly clear in my head, I have a kind of virginal reluctance to get to it. I seem to want to think about it and moon about it for a very long time before I actually get down to it. Today, I think I know one of the main reasons. Today’s work is so important that I am afraid of it.

Workshops in Mississauga

Activity Being Avoided: feeding the cats. Feel free to send them sympathy, but they’d prefer food. The torture will continue for another half hour.
Music (Not) In My Head: listening to this
Tea Being Drunk: just hot water. I’ve been sick, and I’m sloshing with liquids.
Books Being ReadMartin John — Anakana Schofield; An Unfortunate Woman — Richard Brautigan

Ask, and ye shall receive.

At the last Mississauga Writers Group meeting, some of the members were noting the group’s emphasis on the business aspects of writing–the post-writing stuff–and they expressed an interest in the practical aspects of writing. In response, Michelle Hillyard and I have designed a series of workshops for the beginning writer. These will focus on the pre-publication period.

You can keep track of these on my Upcoming Events page.

Depending on how these go, we’ll consider doing more or doing repeats.

(Yes, I know the Queer Literature workshop is in July: that’s when Peel holds its Pride Week. June is for Toronto’s Pride Week, and we are trying to be… not Toronto.)  Never mind. This was deemed “very specific” and they wanted me to water it down with other topics.

John McAllister, editor

For a literary snob, finding an editor is a stressful activity–very stressful, indeed.  The sheer quantity of freelance editors makes it difficult to slog through the pile, even when instantly rejecting those with sloppy grammar, pink websites and/or a penchant for Ar Hermann font.  I wanted someone with a literary voice, and someone who didn’t show anxiety in the presence of adverbs and the passive voice.  I also needed an editor who would follow the rules until it was necessary to break them.

I found one.  His name is John McAllister.

He is well-educated, well-trained and experienced.  He has a nice writing style.  (It’s been suggested I chose him because his writing style is similar to mine.  That’s the point.)

For those of you who need confirmation: he did excellent work, he did it on schedule, and he answered my extra questions for free.  Yes, I’ll be using his services again.

For those of you who are looking for the cloud around the silver lining, he likes serial commas.  (He is, however, able to bite his tongue and allow me my old-fashioned British tendencies.)

My father’s blessing on this enterprise was that I might find my Covici.  I think that more than one book will be required to assess that accurately, but the bigger problem is that I would then have to be a “rarest experience”.  That’s a lot of responsibility, and I think I’ll leave that to the literary deity who deserved it.

rarest experience

What My Students Are Writing

Tutors are not teachers; we are mentors.  Mentors work with whatever the mentored have to offer.  Unlike the poor sots who have to teach the same topic year after year and read thirty-five versions of the same essay year after year, I never have to suffer the same essay twice.  Here are some of the topics of the week:

1) Astatine.  (“Why?” I asked.  “Because I really, really like it when things blow up,” he giggled.)

2)  A weird animal.  One that he made up ’cause he can be even weirder than God, he thinks.

3) Feminist porn

4) Monarchs, supreme leaders, and other despots

5) Creativity and self-confidence

6) Orange boobs (It was supposed to be about a food fight, but the dyslexic mind says “bomb” and “boob” are the same word.  After we discussed the difference, she decided that orange boobs were better than orange bombs.)

7) M Butterfly

And, because I make all my students partake of Sherlock, they understand that their writing style must also entertain me–or else I’ll be yelling “BORED!” in the library.

The Rarity of Out-of-the-Box Thinkers

This photo has been going around the internet for a while:
alphabeticalThe story goes that the author of this brilliance is autistic.  If someone in my family had done this (one sister, in particular, leaps to mind: she often entertains herself by following rules to the letter), my parents would have given them brownie points for creativity… and then made them write an articulate letter of apology to the teacher because none of us is autistic so this would have been done just to piss off the teacher.
A couple of acquaintances–former homeschoolers–were discussing it on Facebook.  I quote with their permission:
Mother #1:  This reminds me of when [my son] was being homeschooled. I would wonder what the heck he was doing and then realize it was me who was not keeping up to him.
Mother #2: I know what you mean. I often wondered if I’d done [my son] a disservice by home schooling because I worried he hadn’t learned enough. Those worries were put to rest after his first semester at college. I now know we did exactly the right thing for him. He’s such an out-of-the-box thinker and I couldn’t be happier about that.
What’s inspired me to write a blog about this is the fact that this photo has become such an issue that people are discussing it on Facebook, and that it’s worthy of newspaper articles, etc.  Out-of-the-box thinkers (to quote again) seem to be special.  In our society, school is so regimented that a student who doesn’t follow the rules is newsworthy.
But, as you can see from the Facebook conversation, there are at least two out-of-the-box thinkers in my city; if you include their parents, that makes six.  Plus my son.  And one of my sisters.  Two ESL teachers I hired specifically because they challenge rules.  A good friend of mine who is always in trouble for thinking.  Several people who write blogs that I read whenever I get a chance.  There seem to be a lot of them in my life, so I doubt they’re all that rare in other people’s lives.
Occasionally, I get the pleasure of having a student who needs a little unschooling (untutoring?)  We walk around the library, pulling books off the shelf because the student likes the topic–or perhaps likes the cover.  We talk about some stuff.  We play a game or two.  We draw.  We do some math problems (god help me).  I’m not “handing down knowledge” or showing the student how to “practice required skills”.  I’m not better or more knowledgeable; the student is not receiving information that they couldn’t get from anywhere else.  We’re just checking some stuff out.  Sometimes they teach me a thing or two (like math) and sometimes a book teaches them.  More often, they discover something that interests them and I just sit back and sip my tea while they draw more circles until they get what looks like a rocket ship made of bubbles.  Then they want to know more about rocket ships or bubbles or circles or drawing or how hot water turns dead leaves into tea.
All this time, I haven’t told them to do anything.  And they’ve learned.  They learn without my help: I’m just there to carry books and spell a few hard words.
These are the kids who don’t think outside the box.  Imagine how little effort we have to put in for the kids that do.
I think it’s time to let all the out-of-the-box thinkers out of the closet.  Come on out, people.  Flood the internet until you’re not special anymore.  Make Chicken Soul Soup irrelevant.  Please.  For the sake of the world.

Book Snobbery

In a moment of good parenting, I was watching What Not to Wear with my daughter.  For those of you who don’t subject yourselves to such things, it’s a television programme where two clothes horses toss away your scummy, unflattering rags and dress you “appropriately”.  In theory, this show is a good idea: I like it when my daughter puts together an outfit for me so that I don’t have to think about it myself.  It’s not that I’m against looking socially acceptable, I just don’t have the self-control to put the effort into it.  (I’d rather read a book, thanks.)  In practice, though, it seems to me that they turn out women with the same look each time.  In the seemingly-millions of episodes these people have produced, no one is ever sent to buy 40 different salwar kameezes; no one is told that they look best in long flannel nightgowns.

I know a few people who look awesome in a long flannel nightgown.

After I was finished being a good parent, I came up with a cunning plan: I am going to put in a proposal to TLC for a show called What Not to Read.  I’ll travel to the victim’s house (none of this polluting the air with unnecessary air travel), toss out all the garbage on their bookshelves, and give them $5000 to go buy good books.

Not everyone bought into my wit.  Apparently, this cunning plan of mine has exposed a nasty side of me: book snobbery.  A cousin of mine subtly posted Matt Haig’s 30 Things to Tell a Book Snob on Facebook.  I was slightly put out that an inferior form of writing (aren’t you also  frustrated by these lists that are popping up as “news”?) was being used to criticise me, but then I read the article.  I have to agree with just about everything the man says–especially number 6.  We can agree to disagree about whether Shakespeare is to be defined as “good”.

So then I had this dilemma.  All week, I’ve flipped back and forth.  Am I a book snob?  If so, is that good or bad?

A few days ago, I was reading chicklit because my brain was not up to anything more demanding than the most basic sociology.  Daniel Deronda is on my Kobo (yes, it’s chicklit; it’s just old chicklit) and Something Borrowed (borrowed from my daughter) was beside my bed.  I got a swat across the face from Something Borrowed, in a scene where the narrator is imagining a couple splitting up:

Next scene: Darcy amid cardboard boxes packing her CDs… At least Dex would get all the Springsteen albums, even Greetings From Asbury Park, which someone had given Darcy as a gift.  Most of the books would stay, too, as Darcy brought few books into the union.  Just a few glossy coffee table numbers (Giffin, 139).

Ooooh, I’m a book snob.  Why would you get into a relationship with someone who only had a few coffee table books? …Not that I’m adverse to coffee table books.  I just don’t see what you’d talk about with a person like that.

If I’m to take Mr. Haig’s authority on the matter, though, I’m not a book snob.  I don’t demand that books be long or serious or realistic.  I believe illustrations make books better.  I have my preferred genres, but I don’t think other genres are beneath me.  The only snobbery that I admit to, and am proud of, is my insistence that the writing be good.

I’m a writing style snob.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m expecting perfect grammar.  As long as the author is deliberately messing with the grammar, I’m amused.  I love it when someone makes up  words, gets exceedingly creative with punctuation, or copies a verbal style perfectly.  A writer should have such command of their language as to leave me in no doubt that they intended to write the things they wrote.

There should also be a story in the book, or information that has some effect on the reader’s life.  The books that Chapters-Indigo is currently displaying have no story, no relevant information, and no good writing style.  Many of the books that Scholastic is selling through the schools come with trinkets and other forms of bribery: a sure sign that the book isn’t being purchased for its contents.  My proposed What Not to Read show would work off two premises:

  1. garbage in; garbage out
  2. there’s true pleasure in reading if what’s being read is truly pleasurable

Just as “a few glossy coffee table numbers” people are boring, so are people who only read one kind of book–regardless of the genre.  I think bookstores, educators and parents are the ones that are responsible for making sure that everyone has a variety of reading material available to them, and making sure that the contents of that material uphold some standard or other.

Sadly, another outcome of my What Not to Read proclamation is that it has come to light that I still haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey.  It’s not something that interests me, but the world is so divided (you’re a snob if you don’t read it; you’re a traitor to the world of writing and sexual freedom if you do read it) that I clearly have no option but to read the thing and decide for myself.

I’m pretty sure it won’t kill me.