Saturday, December 29, 2012

Writing quote XIII

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (Roman philosopher, statesman and orator – b. 3 January, 106BCE)*

So, it seems that even two thousand years ago parents despaired that their kids’ generation would be the downfall of society, that everything that they’d worked for would be swept aside by the narcissism and self-importance of the ‘modern youth’.

What does this tell us? Simply, that people are the same now as they’ve ever been. The same things drive them to behave the way they do now as they ever did – lust, greed, power, fear, love.

But there’s more. Look at the last part of the quote: ‘…everyone is writing a book.’ Really? More than two thousand years ago, people were reading books, laying them down when they’d finished and saying to themselves – and each other – ‘Huh! I could do that!’

Of course, the publishing mechanisms were very different then. The printing press was still more than 1,500 years away, e-readers more than five hundred beyond that. Even so, it would seem that there were people in Ancient Rome who believed that they had something worth saying. That their words were worthy of preservation. That their views deserved to be heard just as much as those of anyone else. And of course, there would have certainly been those who felt that they were absolutely entitled to any success that came their way.

It’s probably safe to assume that there were people being ‘published’ back then who were hacks. Perhaps they got their big break because of family connections, or because they just managed to jump on the crest of a zeitgeist. Perhaps they slept with the editor. And by that same token, we can be confident that there were some remarkable writers mooching around Rome who never quite got that break, no matter how undeniable their talent.

And now we're all writing books. Not everyone should, perhaps, but if we want to, we can. One of the freedoms we hold most dear is the ability – the liberty – to express ourselves. The truth is, no one has the right to tell you that your creative dream is frivolous or worthless or silly or unattainable. But at the same time, no one is entitled to success. 

So go ahead and write that book, but keep in mind that you’re not the only one doing so. Which means all you can do is work hard to make your writing better than everyone else’s, and hope for the best.

* This quote is somewhat apocryphal. It’s usually attributed to Cicero; however, unlike most of his other quotes, no one seems to be able to name the work from which is taken. The other possible sources include an Egyptian priest, an Assyrian clay tablet, and a stone inscription from Turkey. But since these supposed sources are much older (2,000 to 5,000 years older, in fact) than Cicero’s relatively recent observation, that simply reinforces the point I’m making. For more, go here:

I love this.

“Do you think now and then, now or then, in the whirl
Of the city, while London is new,
Of the hut in the Bush, and the freckled-faced girl
Who is eating her heart out for you?”
― Henry Lawson

Monday, December 24, 2012

Breaking the Santa spell... and should we?

A couple of months ago I spent a week at a very conservative Christian boys’ school as their Writer in Residence. I’ve done this gig many, many times a year for a decade and a half, so I reckon I’ve seen most of the curveballs that a roomful of school kids can serve up. Some have been troubling, some infuriating and some just… well, weird. I’ve seen kids throw up partway through a talk (probably not my fault), I’ve seen a child have a seizure mid-workshop (almost certainly not my fault), I’ve even witnessed a full-on physical confrontation between two young women that might, indirectly, have been more or less attributable to something I might have said, thereby (in a very loose sense) making it my fault.

But this, what I’m about to describe to you, was a complete surprise. Was it troubling, infuriating, or weird? No, it was in fact all of those, all at once.

So. Imagine a library containing one author, one teacher-librarian, and fifty 5th Grade boys. Imagine that author explaining to those 5th Graders about how writers use misdirection, much as stage magicians do. That is to say, while we’re telling a story about one thing, we might also be addressing some theme that is ‘bigger’ than the simple story within which it is couched. 

‘Because we know that when a magician does a trick, they’re not really being “magic”, don’t we?’ I asked, rhetorically. ‘Because we know that magic isn’t real, don’t we?’

Let me pause to briefly explain something. In that moment, I thought very hard about what I would say next. I really did. That’s because I have a more or less fully developed frontal lobe – the part of one’s brain that projects forward and assesses potential risk. Which is why I didn’t go where you probably thought I was going next – describing the founder of the Christian faith as ‘Magic Sky-Jesus’. Because that’s not what I do. I’m terribly careful to avoid offending people, since I like being invited back to places. I’m there to talk about stories and writing and books, not to make fun of Jesus, Mohammed or anyone else considered sacred by anyone. 

So while I didn’t plan to offend anyone, I did think – I actually thought – that I’d be safe to remind this room full of ten- and eleven-year-old boys that magic isn’t real. ‘We know that the Easter Bunny isn’t real,’ I said. ‘Neither is the Tooth Fairy. And as for Santa Claus…’

I know. I know. But come on – these boys were in 5th Grade! 5th Grade! My own kids were still putting out carrots and milk on Christmas Eve right up until their eighth birthdays, and I found it endearing and cute and the stuff of a whimsical childhood. But 5th Grade? Really?

To be fair, none of the boys batted an eyelid. Not that I noticed, anyway. Neither did the teacher-librarian. Until the following morning, that is, when she received five irate parent emails complaining that ‘some guest speaker’ had come to the school and told their boys that ‘Santa doesn’t exist’. It was their prerogative to expose that little bit of dishonesty at a time of their choosing, they claimed, and I guess they’re probably right.

The teacher-librarian thought the whole thing was pretty funny. So did I, to be honest. What I found slightly less amusing was the fact that one of the class teachers (who hadn’t even been in the room at the time) had sent a group letter to all 5th Grade parents more or less apologising on my behalf. 

But here’s the thing. Imagine your own ten-year-old coming to you in tears, complaining that some mean man had come to school that day and claimed that Santa was a lie. The way I see it, you’ve two possible courses of action. The first is to quietly utter a prayer of thanks that, as unpleasant as it is to see your child weep, you can now have that conversation. You can now say to your child, ‘Honey, the truth is that we’ve been meaning to talk with you about this for some time. And this seems like a good time to do it. Fortuitous, even.’

The second course of action is to actively promote the lie and, once the tears are largely dried and belief restored, open up the laptop and fire off an angry missive. (To anyone considering Option 2, think on this: how much greater will that feeling of betrayal be when the truth is finally allowed to come out – at, say, twelve or thirteen – and you have to admit to your child that yes, you did lie for a long time, before grasping the opportunity to lie some more.)

All right, so mea culpa. Lesson learned. I still relate my craft to magic versus misdirection, but Saint Nicholas of Myra no longer scores a mention. It’s not that I’m shying away from the truth; it’s more that I understand that it’s not my job to decide when other people let their kids grow up. 

That said, let me make one final note on what I now call 'The Great Santa Contretemps of 2012'. I briefly considered sending out my own email of apology to the parents of those 5th Graders, saying the following: I wish to apologise for any misunderstanding over my recent comments to your boys. I suffer from dyslexia*, and actually meant to say that Satan doesn’t exist. 

How might that have played out, I wonder?

* NB: I am aware that it is a common misconception that dyslexic people get their letters jumbled up, but to be honest, Anticipatory Coarticulation is simply too much of a mouthful. Happy Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sorry, Felicity Ward, but I think you got it wrong.

So, it seems a few people are getting bent all out of shape over this billboard ad for Who Exclusive, an online shopping site. 

On the face of it, the tagline is hugely offensive to anyone who thinks that women are… you know … equal to men. Without meaning to labour the obvious, it would seem to be suggesting that a woman needs a man to earn the cash required to be kept in the manner to which she is accustomed. Very pre-Cora Downton Abbey, very Betty Draper before she discovers the washing machine's spin cycle. That a woman without her man is nothing.

In response to this ad, comedian Felicity Ward wrote an impassioned and beautifully crafted open letter on her website, later reproduced on Mamamia, titled 'An open letter to the most sexist ad of the year'. I thought the letter's tenor, its craft, its icy fury was first rate. Stand and applaud. It was angry but dignified, much like Julia Gillard hunting Abbotts. 

Except I think Ms Ward got it completely wrong. 180 degrees wrong. As wrong as you can get it.

Putting aside the fact that the people at Who Exclusive will, at this very moment, be doing  a happy-fun-time dance around the boardroom at all this unexpected publicity, I’d like to look at the actual words in the ad. Or more specifically, the punctuation.

Anyone who grew up before texting was the preferred method of conversation knows that punctuation is important. Very important. “Let’s eat Dad!” becomes much less sinister with a simple comma: “Let’s eat, Dad!” Likewise “I love her period”, which should (one hopes) feature a comma betwen the last two words.

Or this: “A woman without her man is nothing.” With the odd comma here and there it becomes: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” That’s really no better at all. This, however, will probably draw the Mamamia office to its collective feet: “A woman: without her, man is nothing.” To be honest, neither version flies, since equality means… well, being equal. But you see my point.

Returning to the ad in question, those words certainly carry the potential to be offensive. As some Mamamia commenters have pointed out, it’s meant to be ironic, cheeky, provocative. Sure, but “Spend his money wisely” still comes across as hamfisted.

Except that’s not how the tagline is written. The choice of colour for the text is unfortunate, not just because it’s terribly hard to read, but because the first apostrophe is somewhat lost in the colour of the model’s leg. But the second apostrophe is very clear, and changes the entire tone of the sentence. Spins it that full 180 degrees I mentioned earlier. 

“Spend ‘his’ money wisely.” 

In other words, play your cocky partner for the arrogant fool he is and spend the money that he thinks is his. The money that he thinks you need his permission to spend. The money that he’s earning while you, the ever dutiful wife or girlfriend, are at home, watching daytime TV, making pot-roasts, flirting with air-conditioner salesmen, and leaning up against the washing machine. Or worse, playing at having a proper job.

This ad isn’t an attack on feminism. Quite the opposite – this is a huge middle finger to anyone who thinks that a woman needs permission from a man to do anything. And for that we should stand and applaud.