Welcome to the 49th Teachers COVID–19 Teacher Diary, a blog series that takes a look at how teachers are coping with the pandemic.
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This is the second pair in a series of interviews with a host of Forest of Reading authors interviewed by Erika MacNeil, Teacher-Librarian at Rogers PS in Newmarket, ON (York Region District School board). Catch up with the first pair, featuring Vicki Grant and Kevin Sylvester.
I met Deborah Ellis back in 1998 when she had just returned from one of many trips to Afghanistan where she was doing research for The Breadwinner. She came to share her experiences and I was struck with her fierce determination to carve a story that was both authentic and readable to as many readers as she could reach. Deborah’s extraordinary novels such as Looking For X and I Am A Taxi take a hard look at a variety of social justice issues, and the human condition is always at the heart of her storytelling.
I met Richard Scrimger when he came to my school for an author visit. Richard’s books have been nominated many times over for various awards (Zomboy, The Nose from Jupiter) and he has worked collaboratively with several authors. Richard always lends extraordinary perspectives to ordinary occurrences, and his quirky sense of humour is most memorable during public appearances.
1. How does your writing process contribute to your mental well-being?
Deborah Ellis: Writing has always been the way I try to understand the world, and that hasn't changed with the pandemic. Writing, especially with a pen and paper, allows your brain to slow down and organize your thoughts so that you can better get to the heart of what you are thinking and feeling. It helps you examine whether what you are thinking is true, or if it is coming out of fear or another difficult emotion.
Richard Scrimger: For me, writing is sort of existential. If you are what you do, one of the things I am is a writer. If I did not write—if I did not write fiction—I would be a different person, in the same way that I would be a different person if I were not a father or a friend or a reader. Whereas if I were not, say, a coffee drinker or cyclist, a lover of baseball, crossword puzzles and classical music—other things I do—I would still be pretty much who I am now.
Fiction writers and philosophers are both after truth, but the philosopher wants to know what things are. The fictioneer (yes I made it up) wants to know what things are like. There are an infinite number of things that writing is like. It is like a game, or a meal, or a suit of clothes, or a car. It is a walk in the park, a trial by jury, a haircut.
Let me take one analogy. For me writing is like exercise. I don’t do it to live, but I am happier when I do it. I don't like it all the time I am doing it, but I like the end product. My favourite moments are the ones where my unconscious and conscious selves merge, when technique ceases to matter and I find myself absorbed in my own story world.
I do not write to contribute to my mental well-being so much as my mental being.
2. How has our current state of affairs impacted your writing?
DE: The current situation has not impacted my writing life much, other than not being able to use the library. It can be a time for the world to be filled with sorrow and fear, with great hardship for many, and also a time that can bring out tremendous kindness.
RS: The last month has been different from any other I can remember. But for all that I have travelled less, seen fewer people, exchanged no hugs or high fives, I have noticed that my writing day is not that much different than usual. I stare at the screen, type, revise, pace, take a few moments to pour another coffee or attempt a crossword puzzle, then go back to staring at the screen. Some of the writing seems really good. Some of it not so much. Same as it ever was.
On a practical level, closed schools and festivals and shuttered publishing windows mean fewer opportunities to share my writing and lower income (bad) but more time to sit and ponder, and no excuse for not getting the work done (good).
3. What advice would you give young readers who aspire to become writers, in terms of making use of the time we’ve now been given?
DE: If you don't already know how to write cursive, use this time to learn. It will help the flow of words from your brain onto the paper. Read difficult things, and write for the joy of writing. Write for yourself, and prepare to be astonished at what comes out of your mind.
RS: Writers should read a lot and imitate what they read. Art is imitation. So, find a story you like and write one just like it, the same way a garage band finds a song they like and writes their own just like it. Look inside yourself and outside at the world. The artist must do both. Knowing yourself is vital—what do YOU care about? What do you want? What do you fear? What makes you mad? Sad? Scared? What do you care about? If you don't care about your story—your problems and characters—no one else will. But don't make the story just about you. The ‘other’ in your story—the stranger, the invader, or the friend—makes for more conflict and says a lot about you.
You might say that this pandemic offers the world a chance to deal with an emergency when the stakes are relatively low. Covid–19 is not the crisis that wipes out humanity. But that crisis could well be coming, and this time offers us a chance to try some solutions out, to grow and learn as a species.
Days without formal school offer the same opportunity for your writing. It’s a chance to try something new when it doesn’t really matter. No marks are involved here. No scholarships or opportunities for college or university acceptance. This is you learning how to do it on your own time. Every single artist spends time in the woodshed. Talent matters, but no matter how talented you are, you have to practice. Mozart did not just sit down and compose. He spent hours, days, years practicing his scales and triads and arpeggios. You have to write a lot of garbage before you write anything that’s any good. This is the world’s time, and yours!
Erika MacNeil is a dancer by training and a teacher by trade. Mother of two teens and owner of two mutts, she is also the Librarian at Rogers PS in Newmarket, where she lives with her husband and children. She writes primarily flash fiction and poetry and has been published in a variety of media. She offers editing and content services, and is very happy to have been given the opportunity to contribute to 49th Teachers with a collection of interviews with some of her favourite Forest of Reading authors.