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Monthly Archives: June 2015

Teaching the Unteachable

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An article on the Guardian website yesterday claimed that, in the United Kingdom, children are being taught creative writing skills in a detrimental manner. Classrooms up and down the country echo the mantra, “Don’t say said!”, and helpful posters list “banned words” like badgoodbig and and.

The net result, argue critics, is that students are being rewarded for producing flowery, unreadable wordvomit, and penalised for actually writing in a reasonable fashion.

From the ages of four to fourteen, pupils are discouraged from using short words where a longer one would do the job, and this is actively reflected in the grades their teachers are constrained into giving them. Mark schemes are absolute; if a piece isn’t riddled with synonyms, it won’t make the grade.

Most worryingly of all, from my perspective, is that the system was already very much in place when I was in school. Which means we have an entire generation of people who were conditioned into favouring purple prose.

Purple prose, for those who have not come across the term before, is the catch-all for writing which is so obtrusively ornate that it effectively hinders reading. Therefore, we have on our hands a generation of writers who will, by habit, be unreadable.

A targets-based educational system has ushered in a Dark Age in British literature.

Personally, I fear for my own writing. I have always thought of myself as “good”, but now I see that I was looking at myself through the lens of a system which valued the atrocious. I could be atrocious.

Then again, from a young age, I despised the “said is bad” dogma, because I knew flat out that it just wasn’t true. Plenty of the books I read used the word “said” in spades, and it never once got dull. The word “got” was also exiled from the classroom for no good reason, and it riled me beyond belief. I would spend minutes trying to replace this bit of fluff, this insignificant filler word. It destroyed the flow of my writing. And for what?

It never once became dull. It never once grew dull. It never once developed the property of being dull.

That’s what happens. Very quickly, one runs out of synonyms for these perfectly adequate words and has to resort to a feat of violent contortion. The word “got”, like “said” is essentially invisible to a reader. It very deliberately adds nothing at all to a sentence, because quite often there is nothing more to be said. In real life, people do not whisper or bellow or mumble or exclaim half as much as they say, say, say and say.

To really put all this hideousness into perspective, I’m going to include an excerpt from My Immortal, a piece of Harry Potter fanfiction widely touted as the worst thing ever written:

‘”Why did you do such a thing, you mediocre dunces?” asked Professor McGonagall.

“How dare you?” demanded Professor Snape.

And then Draco shrieked. “BECAUSE I LOVE HER!”‘

Apart from everything else, what is utterly jarring about these lines is the way the writer has inflicted significance on the manner in which every line is said.

Yet, according to the syllabus, this is not obnoxious, cloying, violently unreadable tripe, but 10 out of 10, full marks, top of the class.

So- what’s the solution? I think the trouble with trying to grade creative writing is that reading is personal. Charles Dickens is widely regarded to be one of the greatest writers ever to have lived, and yet I would rather spend four hours proofreading My Immortal-calibre fanfiction than endure Great Expectations again. If I was a primary school teacher, and Dickens was in my charge, I’d have him writing lines every break and lunchtime: “I will not use twenty words where one would suffice.”

The mark scheme, then, is a necessary evil. But I challenge you to tell me what should be on it.

I have another solution. Why did I, as a child, know that “said” was good, and “good” was fine, and “and” could actually be quite a pleasant device if I used it properly? It’s because I read.

I didn’t read, as the curriculum instructs, to derive meaning about the intentions of characters. I didn’t read in a way that was assessable or useful to my teachers. I read for the sheer pleasure of it.

Reward children for reading. Give them a wide selection of books (and audiobooks!) to choose from. Encourage them to share what they enjoyed about books. Make them write less. And when they do, don’t grade them. Show them to their peers. Ask what they liked about them.

I don’t know if it would work. But surely it’s better?

What are your thoughts? How should we teach children to write?

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First Glimpse of a Whole New World

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First Glimpse of a Whole New World

Been working on a fantasy setting which I hope will form the basis of a string of short stories. I know this is a bit of a departure from my previous work, but I needed it.

I kept finding that I was too close to my characters, to their adversity, and it brought me a great deal of distress. I think, as different as fantasy and literary fiction are as genres, the same person can need them both at very different times in their life.

The Universe and Human Stupidity is still in the works. Make no mistake about that. But something else is coming; I’ll just let you know when it has a name.

The Politics of Unhappiness

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Yesterday, somebody on a nonbinary Facebook group that I am a part of asked a question:

“If you had the chance, would you have chosen not to be queer/nonbinary?”

Beneath that were a barrage of “no” answers.

There’s this little thing called respectability politics, where minorities have to live up to certain anti-stereotypical traits in order to be acceptable to the mainstream. Gay men cannot be too camp. Black women must not be sassy. And so on.

The cardinal sin for any queer person, of course, is not to have pride. We are not supposed to resent our lack of basic rights, our reduced access to vital services, our role as social pariahs. Because we’re supposed to be proud. In Queer As Folk (UK), Rosalie hurls homophobic abuse at Vince. She later condones her actions- Vince is not “proud”, so how can he complain?

I don’t really want to go into the reasons why queer people must be visibly happy in order to be acceptable. I haven’t researched it. So, although I have a theory that it might be necessary to assuage the guilt of privileged but sympathetic allies, I cannot say for certain.

So, what then for those who are unhappy with their lot? What then for those who are long-term unemployed, lonely, estranged from their family? What then for those to whom a pride parade is nothing more than shrouding their genuine, justified pain in all the colours of the rainbow?

Being unhappy in a culture of “pride” is agony. Not everyone has the same journey- some people’s parents are supportive, some people have a strong network of friends, some people have a stable job with an accommodating company. And others don’t. The latter are the ones that need support the most, and yet, because they don’t fit with the respectable model of what a queer person is supposed to be, they’re sidelined.

Why do we think suicide rates are so high for queer and especially trans people? Could it be that never getting to say, “I am unhappy,” might take its toll on someone?

When asked if I would have chosen to be born straight and cis, I said yes. Because although I know I am a better person because of it (more open-minded, for example), I am tired. I’m tired of fighting the good fight, of writing to my MP and MEPs, to various governing bodies, to banks, supermarkets… and for what reward? An Mx on my railcard? It’s just not enough.

Not enough when I’m so tired of slowly martyring myself so that the next generation of nonbinary people can grow up with all the privileges I grew old too quickly to enjoy.

And you know what surprised me? That my reply, the only admission of weakness in a string of proud, happy messages, got the most likes. From people who hadn’t replied on the thread themselves.

These people were watching this thread, this tirade of unending, unrelenting pride. Thinking, “what the fuck is wrong with me? Why can’t I just be happy?” So the second someone stood up and said, “I am unhappy. And I have a right to be unhappy,” that broke the levee. Their pain was valid.

So, think about that this pride season. How not being proud is seen as a failing not of a society that refuses to grant gender recognition to many trans people, but of those people themselves. Respect shame.

Crow on Deansgate

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A moment was exchanged in the street, and I found it odd. Two women, travelling in opposite directions, had expressed mutual sadness, then continued on their way.

I walked up to the place where they had met, and there, in a sunlit corner, stood the petrified corpse of a crow. Still standing upright, eyes open, beak wide in the ghost of a caw, it might have been alive- were it not for the telltale stillness.

Because I am a writer, I want to find meaning in this gory statuette, but because this is real life, I do not get that consolation. The bird died, mid-cry, as creatures in pain tend to do. In the heat of the sun, its meat will not last long, and later this afternoon, the most underpaid employee at the shop it happened to die in front of will be sent out with a bin liner to dispose of it before it frightens customers away.

That strange bird who chose to die loudly and publicly rather than quietly out of sight will be thrown out with the rubbish.

And it won’t mean anything at all.