Friday, 24 February 2012

Just Another Frustrated Actress

There’s a celebrity interview feature in the Saturday Guardian that always ends with this question:

At heart, I’m just a frustrated…

The famous athletes, singers, artists or politicians usually want to be dancers, as it  turns out. But not me. 

(All right, I did want to be a dancer —I longed to be one of those lithe and leggy, spangly-clad sylphs who featured in the TV variety shows of my youth. Unfortunately, I liked eating snack treats and sitting on my butt watching TV more than I actually wanted to do any training—see previous blog posts)

What I really, really wanted to be was an actress. At least that was the ambition I pursued--I acted in school and community theatre plays, I studied drama at university, and when I was young I’d lie awake at night and imagine…

…all sorts of things. Crazy scenarios for films that would star the amazing 10- or 14- or 16-year old moi. What adventures I had—in my mind, late at night, listening to  a rock and roll soundtrack that was broadcast to my bedroom from some far-distant FM radtio station. I’d imagine tense scenes in which I’d have to fight or flirt (there was always a hot guy—of course) my way out of some jam. These stories were always set in a teeming city—a far more glamorous locale than the tiny village where I lived, at any rate. And I’d be the heroine—always defeating the baddie, always getting the hot guy to fall for me. During the end credits that would flash before my tightly-closed eyes, I’d walk down a Manhattan street as the camera pulled away and the heaving crowds eventually swallowed me up.

God, it was great. As deluded fantasists go, I totally rocked. 

Thinking back now (with some embarrassment) I wonder—did I really want to be an actress?  Or was I actually practicing at being a writer? 

I also wonder (with some more embarrassment) if I wanted to be an actress, simply because it was fun and exciting and a way for me to “express myself.” Was I like so many like-minded people I met when I was young—propping up a bar and talking about being an artist, rather than actually doing any work? 

I don’t know, but I do know that dreaming of being an actress has helped me write. The techniques that even a lazy actress like me worked on—using emotional memory, making acute observation—are a writer’s tools as well. Stanislavski famously wrote about “building a character” and “creating a role.” Isn’t that exactly what writers do? Build words. Create many roles, many characters.

My early acting experience taught me other things that have been important to me as a writer. The first is that rejection is an unavoidable part of the game, and that rejection is never easy. The second is that to be successful you need more than just the urge to be an artist and have a bit of  talent—you need to have the determination to work in spite of  so many obstacles--time constraints, family and job commitments, the ever-present miasma of rejection and self-doubt. 

So, all in all, maybe my dreamer years weren’t totally wasted! And, of course, propping up those bars was an awful lot of fun…

Friday, 17 February 2012

Vampires and Zombies and Homeless Teens

This week I've watched a documentary on the homeless and hungry kids in the US, and this morning I've been reading an article about the way the new housing benefit caps are forcing young British kids (primarily those who live inner London) out of the neighbourhoods where they've grown up and into areas where housing is cheaper.

Desperation. Dislocation. Despair. Perfect fodder for a YA novelist who fancies herself a bit "gritty", right?
You'd think so. Then why is my heart sinking, not soaring?

Because I'm a writer of fiction, and these stories are all too real. That's one thing. This week's episode of Panorama highlighted an American family who lived in a cheap roadside motel. No feckless sponging workshy types in this story--when Dad lost the good job that kept the family in a comfortable house, he wasn't eligible for unemployment so he took another job. That, unfortunately,  paid too little for them to pay rent for anywhere larger than a motel room, so that's where the family now lives. The accommodation is cramped, the area is crime-ridden, the kids are stressed and have worries that are blighting their childhoods.

In the UK, the situation is slightly different, of course. There is something called housing benefit, which helps support needy individuals and families to pay their rent. The problems is, according to the Government, that too may families are living in high priced housing areas and it is "unfair" that that should be the case. If you can't afford to live in Westminster, you should live somewhere cheaper. Not a motel, necessarily, but a cheaper London borough, or another part of the country altogether, where your capped benefit will be enough to keep a roof over your head.  And, I suppose, there is a point of "fairness." When housing is so expensive for everyone, many people, even those with relatively steady and secure incomes, struggle to find an affordable house or flat, and have to compromise on location.

I get that.

But, as I said, as a writer there are certain elements that I'm forced to consider. The first thing, of course, is some sort of "agency" for a main character, some way for this boy or girl to find a solution, defeat the bad guys, slay the monster, get out of the mess they've found themselves in. How's the girl who lives in Marylebone and is about to be moved to another school, another borough to do her GCSEs going to find a solution for herself? The answer is, of course, that she isn't. So, the story would have to be about how she copes at her new school, how, with the help of some new friends, she succeeds against the odds, raising the hopes of her family in the bargain. OK. I can do that. And the boy living in the American motel? He, too, can find a way to rise above his circumstances, stand up to the drug-dealing monsters.

So that's encouraging. In fiction, as in reality, many young people are required to rise above the circumstances they find themselves in. Every day,  ordinary kids cope with serious issues such as bullying, bereavement, family breakup, crime. As I said before, poverty and homelessness are real--and have been treated sensitively and bravely by many writers for children and young adults.

But there's another story element that any writer has to consider--the villain. A good villain or nemesis is essential for any novel, regardless of genre. There must be a wicked witch or a big bad wolf or a troll under the bridge or, at the very least, an evil stepmother.

So, in the story of the homeless children in America or the young people whose education and stability is being disregarded and disturbed in the UK, who's the monster? Who do those kids need to slay in order to succeed in their real-life narrative? Is it their parents, who at some point might have made a wrong decision or run into a patch of bad luck--such as needing to flee from a war, perhaps?  Is it the government? A decent liberal is the President of the USA, and a seemingly benign coalition is in charge in the UK. Cameron and Clegg present themselves as "fair" and reasonable--hey we're all in this together, right?

As villains go, neither Barack Obama nor the Cameron/Clegg clones seem meaty enough. Where's the venom? Where's the mwah-hah-ha cackle? In short, where's Thatcher when you bloody need her? A proper villain--big bad wolf, wicked witch and evil stepmother all rolled into one?

So, the most demoralising thing about these stories is that there aren't any real bad guys here--there's only us.  There's only the society that we've willingly created, one that accepts that it's "fair" that the poor get dislocated or demonised while the rich can avoid or escape taxation.

Finally, the other thing a good story needs is a sense of hope. A sense that things will get better, or that people will find away to thrive--or at last survive-- in spite of terrible obstacles. As people, we have the responsibility to raise our voices against government actions that we find unjust or unfair. We may not agree on politics or on what constitutes "fairness", but if we have both a voice and the right to speak, we should use them both to put our points of views across.

 And as writers, we have a responsibility to stay aware of the demons and dragons that are out there for young people. It's not all doom and gloom, of course, and the best writers, in my opinion, are the funny ones. But let's never forget that some vampires and werewolves and ghosts and zombies have human faces and look an awful lot like us.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Undiscovered Voices: A Valentine for SCBWI

Last night I went to the launch of the fabulous new anthology of Undiscovered Voices, published by SCBWI and Working Partners. The anthology itself is full of brilliant work by new writers and illustrators, and the launch was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with writing friends and colleagues, old and new.

I feel very honoured to have been included in the 2010 anthology. Not only did it lift those of us who were "winners" off the slushpile forever, and place me on the road to publication, it introduced me to some kind, supportive, funny, talented and all-around amazing people, many who have become, or are becoming, good friends.

My writing life was lived in isolation for almost 20 years. By joining SCBWI, and then being featured in the 2010 anthology, that all changed. I was party of a "cohort", part of a team, part of a community. Obviously, the brave new world of social media and networking has also made the writer's life a less solitary one, but there's something rather special about SCBWI British Isles and its members. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I do think that if Martin Amis had, in fact, become a children's writer, he would be a lot less grumpy, Come on, Martin--it's not too late and SCBWI membership is only $70! Join the party!

Long live Undiscovered Voices, the editorial team behind it, the brilliant work of the tireless SCBWI staff and vounteers. We members are very lucky to be part of such an inspirational organisation.

Friday, 3 February 2012

OFSTED Ate My Blog Post

Today I was going to write about being a teacher.

In the past few weeks I've had many conversations with my friends who teach. These chats have been about the stresses and strains of teaching--the crippling workload, the pressure of league tables and exam results, the intense scrutiny of teachers' work (especially at primary level), the burgeoning culture of fear and anxiety in some schools, the rise of stress-related illnesses among members of the profession.

Oddly enough, these somewhat depressing conversations have all ended on the same up-beat note--"But I'm happy once I close the door to my classroom and start teaching the kids!"

I was going to delve on the whys and wherefores of this situation--asking questions about how we got to this place, about what good this amount of teacher exhaustion and stress could possibly do our children, about why it seems suddenly to have got worse. I was going to talk about how heartbreaking it is to see hardworking professionals (and they're all hardworking!) who value young people and their education, be  vilified and belittled by government goons.

I was intending to mention Michael Gove's divisive policies (with the possible inclusion of an unflattering picture--no shortage of those!) and the bizarre trend by school inspectors toward viewing low morale in schools as a good thing.

But then...along came OFSTED this week, and my plans were kicked into the long grass, or wherever it is scuppered plans go to die.
Instead, I pimped this week's lesson plans, ensuring that my lessons allowed students to think for themselves, while challenging them to widen their understanding and take their learning further. I re-scrutinised folders and exercise books to demonstrate that students knew exactly what level they were working at, what level they were working towards, and what the hell they needed to do to improve their work. I checked the SEN register twice, three times, memorising data that I already knew and used every day.

At this point, I should say that I teach three days a week. I'm part-time. And, luckily enough, one of the inspection dates (the first, and most stressful) happened on my day off. So, if I'm exhausted with the work I did as a part-timer, how must my full-time colleagues be feeling? How late did they stay awake the night before the inspection?

So, OFSTED came and went, leaving behind an exhausted, and somewhat demoralised staff of very, very dedicated and effective teachers, who plan and mark and deliver a quality education every day of the school year.

Seems the criteria for OFSTED inspection has changed--last year's good is this year's satisfactory, etc. A nice touch, I think, and one that fits the government's whole ethos. Last year's disabled person is this year's job-seeker. Last year's cancer patient is this year's dole scrounger. Last year's university student is this year's unemployment statistic.Last year's soldier is this year's rough sleeper. Last year's health service is this year's business opportunity. See? It's all coming together. 

But still, there's a happy ending, at least for me. The inspectors had pretty much finished their slashing and burning by the time I arrived on the second day, and my lessons weren't "visited." So, despite the stress, despite the extra hours of work, the lost nights' sleep, this is what I got to do:

  • Talk about Johnson Beharry, VC to my year 7 students, during a lesson on heroes. (They had a lively and insightful discussion about who was more heroic, Helen Skelton or Lance Corporal Beharry. Somebody came up with the brilliant--I thought--idea of having fund-raising stunts carried out in actual battlefield conditions, setting the matter once and for all!)
  •  Help my year 8s visualise a setting for an imaginative writing piece, and enthusiastically share their creative ideas with each other.
  • Hear confident class participation from two previously shy, anxious students. 
  • And lots, lots more.

In short, I got to do what all teachers want to do--teach. I got to enjoy watching young people blossom and develop into writers, readers, thinkers.

So, yes, there are advantages to inspection, just as there are some benefits to being observed by peers and having our work scrutinised to some extent. But by micro-analysing the minutiae of education, we overlook the broad cultural value of education and schools. By valourising "attainment" above everything else, we ignore the way schools can foster larger social values of inclusion, respect, and cooperation.

In other words, I wish they'd just let teachers teach, and focus more closely on the way schools can become healthier, happier, safer places for everyone. I wish they just let us get on with it--let us close the door and teach.

Oh, and here's that picture I was going to use: 

Those pictures, rather....