31 March 2007

How much help is enough?

Last night, Sherryl and Margaret (two Western Women Writers) and I attended the FAW awards night. FAW, for anyone who doesn't know it, is the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Sherryl and Margaret were both judges in this years awards (and have been for the last several years). The FAW awards cover a broad range of categories from unpublished manuscripts, to manuscripts by a writers' group to short stories and poems and screenplays. They also include a number of children's awards.

I'm always amazed at the poise and confidence of some of the children who win awards at these kinds of things. I suppose I remember my own adolescent awkwardness, the shyness that made me dread public speaking. But a lot of these children look as though they were born in front of a crowd.

Speeches are optional at the FAW awards, so some people make them and some don't. And this is true of the child as well as the adult recipients. Last night was interesting because one of the children who got up to speak thanked her mother and father for helping her to write the story. I started musing about this, wondering exactly what this meant. Did it mean they offered editorial advice -- looked at commas, spelling etc? Did it mean they offered structural advice? Or did they help shape the piece in some more substantive way?

My son recently entered a competition and asked me to look over his work. I was loath to do this because I worried that that might give him an unfair advantage over those who don't have parents for writers. But what about those whose teachers help them with their stories? What about workshopping that those of us in writing groups do?

Over summer, I do shortlisting for a children's writing competition, and there are invariably entries that don't feel like they've been written by children -- they show a sophistication not just of language but of ideas far beyond the child's age in years. Sometimes I've raised concerns with Margaret, who organises the competition, and who runs several children's writing groups. Sometimes she'll look over a story and say that, yes, she's seen kids do amazing things. So, ultimately, we have to take these stories on trust, but I'm still sometimes left wondering whether one particular child hasn't had a whole lot more help than the other children have had.

Perhaps I'm super sensitive because when my daughter was in Year 7 I got a rap over the knuckles from her English teacher for helping too much with a poetry assignment. My daughter had no idea how to do the assignment, how to write a poem. I spent more than twenty hours instructing her, going through all the different forms. In the end I did help shape the poems by leading her with questions. For example, she wrote a poem about anger, and I said things like: "If anger were an animal, what sort of animal would it be?" She gave an answer, and I told her to write it down. The actual ideas and words were her own. It wasn't about cheating, or getting a better mark, it was about my trying to teach her something. I told this to the teacher, and said I didn't care if she only got a D for the assignment, as long as she'd learnt something. The teacher marked her down because I'd helped her, and I thought that was fair enough. I'm still uncomfortable with what I did, but it was the educator in me stepping in. I don't know if I was right or wrong, but I've backed off from giving that kind of help ever since, and especially wouldn't do it in a competition where there is a monetary prize at stake.

So how much should parents help with writing for competitions or assignments? I guess we all have to find our own line here, and it will be different for each of us. I've had teachers suggest I help my kids with their work. I've been horrified at times to hear friends confess they do their children's assignments for them. What do their children learn from this approach? And as any kind of judge for a writing competition for children, I have to hope that I really am judging that child's work and not the work of their older brother or sister, or mother or father, or teacher or tutor.

29 March 2007

Fiction versus nonfiction

What I'm reading: entries for the Ada Cambridge award, submissions for Poetrix, The secret river by Kate Grenville

This last few weeks my writing group Western Women Writers has been shortlisting entries for the Ada Cambridge award, which is part of the Williamstown Writers' Festival. This has been particularly interesting for me because the Ada Cambridge is for biographical or autobiographical writing, which is not what I usually do. I'm a fiction writer. A speculative fiction writer most of the time. My passion is my fantasy novel/trilogy. But I write short stories as well, and have been known to dabble in poetry. Very occasionally I'll write a bit of nonfiction -- usually for a particular purpose, rather than because I have any great drive pushing me that way. I suppose I've even written a bit of autobiography, but it's not really my "thing".

What I've found interesting in reading the entries is how many people think that good autobiography is just a recitation of events, a retelling of their life, if in a somewhat abridged form. Only a few craft a story out of events, dramatise a situation so that it really comes to life with a blend of narrative and dialogue. These stories leap out from the rest and really catch your eye. And they make me think about the lines between fiction and nonfiction and how these lines are drawn on unstable ground. I remember a friend who wrote an autobiographical piece, sent it off to a literary magazine with no explanation as to what it was and was amused to find it published as a short story. Some award-winning stories I've read in prestigious competitions I think aren't stories at all, but read much more like real-life vignettes.

It must be seredipity that I'm doing this shortlisting while reading Grenville's book. I love The secret river. It's the story of William Thornhill, a convict from London who is transported to Australia for stealing some lumber. Grenville's world is so compellingly real, so beautifully detailed that I've lived the convict experience in a way I never have before. Perhaps that was part of the appeal -- because last year I did a stint teaching a subject called Text and Culture: Imagining Australia in the Diploma of Liberal Arts. I have a science background, not an arts background, so for me it was a mad (but enjoyable) scramble to stay ahead of the students. Part of what we focused on was the whole invasion versus settlement thing. So Grenville's book was always going to appeal on a thematic level, but the setting just transported me back in time. I had wondered about the type of poverty that people must have experienced, but I don't think I'd ever truly imagined the full desperation of their situations. This book made me not only do this, but feel their desperation as well. However, The secret river has been dogged by controversy because of liberties Grenville took about dates and events. In her companion book about writing the novel, she makes no bones about the book being a work of fiction. We've talked about it at work: historical fiction versus historical fiction. It's all in the emphasis.

For me, the most important thing is telling a good story. Getting your readers in and holding them there. Compelling them to sit in their comfy chair or their bed or on their floor or wherever even though their bladder is bursting and they're fading away from hunger. Grenville, to me, has told a great story. It's not a fast read -- it's rich and dense and spectacular and well worth the read. To me, as a writer, it's a resounding success -- as are those stories in the competition whose writers took the time to really think about how best to show their stories rather than just telling them.