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 third 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, and the second pair, featuring Deborah Ellis and Richard Scrimger.
During this time of self-isolation and social distancing, books can sometimes be our only companions as the days stretch before us, looping in a Groundhog Day cycle of repetition. Take comfort knowing that creative endeavours such as reading are the brain’s brilliant means of maintaining its elasticity and responsiveness, because imagination accesses both the linear and emotional landscape of experience.
I decided to combine Shari Green and Caroline Pignat’s interview responses because I love how they are both in caregiving professions, Caroline being an English teacher of Irish descent residing in our capital of Ottawa, and Shari being a nurse currently working on the front lines in Campbell River, British Columbia. I find Caroline’s sensibility toward young adult narrative informs a unique voice that readers feel is both accessible and engaging, while Shari’s books examine character relationships and choices, and how they impact others. Caroline’s books have all won awards, including the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature in 2009 (Greener Grass) and 2015 (The Gospel Truth), a poetic prose narrative. Shari has just recently been named a 2020 Willow Award finalist and is best known for her Silver Birch Honour Book, Missing Mike, also written in a lyrical format.
How does your writing process contribute to your mental well-being?
Shari Green: Some people need to talk through their feelings, opinions, and ideas, but I’ve never been much of a talker. There’s a saying that rings true for me: How can I know what I think till I see what I say? Writing helps me work out my thoughts. Whether I’m freewriting, brainstorming, escaping into a story, or pouring out my heart in poems, writing helps me understand myself and my world a little better, putting things in perspective and helping me cope. In a similar way, music—playing the piano—helps me work out my feelings. Together, music and writing play a huge role in my mental well-being.
Caroline Pignat: Writing is a huge part of my mental health. Even as a kid I always wrote in my journal, I wrote poems, and I always wrote letters to my granny in Ireland. Writing was always a way I felt connected to myself and to others. These days, I write almost every morning in my journal but it is never something anyone else reads. I write freely about whatever is on my mind and heart. Sometimes I don’t even realize what I’m thinking or feeling about something until I write it down. I’ve had many epiphanies from just getting it all out and when I go back and read past journals, I gain wisdom from remembering what I had learned. It’s so easy to forget our progress, inner strengths and past wins, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed by current circumstances. Looking back empowers me to move forward.
I find inspiration by jotting random things and playing around with ideas. Sometimes, I’ll make a mind map for a story, a project, or my own life goals. I think that’s why I enjoy bullet journalling. It helps me have a plan. Writing it down helps me to stick to it. There are lots of great apps and software for that but there is something about writing by hand that slows me down. It gives me space and time to imagine. I draft my novels on a computer, but it all begins in my journals. It’s where I imagine, play, brainstorm and wonder ‘what if…’ for my stories and for my life.
How has our current state of affairs impacted your writing?
SG: My writing has really slowed down during the current public-health crisis. I’m a nurse, so I’m still working, and I’m finding I have less time and energy than usual for my writing. When I do sit down to write, I’m easily distracted. To help me focus, I’ll set manageable mini-goals for myself, such as focus for thirty minutes, or write to the end of this page. It helps, too, to remember that books are written one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time, so even if I only write a tiny bit, every step forward is a step closer to my goal of a finished book.
With the stress from work adding up, I was also finding it tough to focus on reading, even though reading is usually one of my favourite things to do. Reading, like writing and music, is important for my mental health, sometimes acting as a refuge or a temporary escape, other times expanding my worldview and helping me see myself or others more clearly. Fortunately, audiobooks and verse novels served as a portal back to reading for me, allowing me to more easily engage with story. I expect graphic novels would’ve worked well for this, too.
CP: Honestly, I didn’t write much in my journal those first few weeks of social distancing protocol. I felt overwhelmed by the ‘what ifs’. But once I started to get it all down, I felt much more empowered and less fearful.
Whether I’m writing textbooks, poems, short stories, articles, or working on my novel, once I commit and get going with my writing, I get ‘in the zone’. I lose myself in the work and time just flies. On those days, I will write for seven hours straight. I find longer stretches of writing are where I get to my best stuff. But I have to balance those days with days off in between.
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?
SG: The poet Mary Oliver taught me much about how I believe I need to live as a writer. She said, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Being a writer is about noticing. We may not be able to be out in the wider world right now, but there’s plenty to notice in our homes and yards, too—smells and sounds, interesting designs or patterns, new feelings, unusual phrases or images in books and movies, silly jokes and snippets of news stories. If it stands out for us in some way, it’s saying, notice me!
Go ahead and proclaim how cool these things are. Be extravagant in your love for a new favourite thing or your amazement of a newly-noticed weird detail. And for goodness’ sake, write it down. Keeping a notebook is a big part of the process for me, because all these seemingly insignificant and unconnected things are actually story seeds. With time, daydreaming, and brainstorming, some of them will grow, some developing into one of many tidbits in a story and others becoming whole books.
Not all my story seeds end up in a story—most of them don’t, actually—but paying attention and being astonished keeps me awake to the wonder in the world. If you have extra time right now because of our current situation, I hope you’ll spend some of that time paying attention, being astonished, and telling about it.
CP: Keep reading. Reading is a great escape and adventure. It helps to develop our vocabulary and gives us an innate sense of story. We know what works and what doesn’t. All of those things will naturally begin to appear in your own writing because of what you read.
Analyze what you read. What did you love? What didn’t work? Why? I have another journal to analyze what I loved or didn’t love about the book I’m reading. It might be the way they structured the plot, how the character evolves, or what made the dialogue so believable. I think about the parts of the book that really grabbed me. What about that scene made it so compelling and how can I use that in my own writing style? For example, I loved how John Green used a countdown as chapter headings in Looking for Alaska and used the same device in my novel, Unspeakable. I loved the multiple points of view in Wendelin Van Draanen’s book Flipped, and it inspired Egghead.
Be creative. They say Shakespeare wrote his play King Lear during the plague. All those memes and posts about it—and how others are being so productive—can make you feel like you’re wasting time. If you have a great idea that you’re excited to write about—go for it! But if you feel like you “should be” writing but all you are feeling is frustrated, be gentle with yourself. Everything has been turned upside down and while some people find this window of time energizing, others are completely drained. Our circumstances and our personalities all differ.
My advice is to do whatever makes you feel inspired because whatever you do in one creative area inspires all creative areas. Trust me. It works. I call it ‘Creative Cross Training’. Bake banana bread. Paint a picture. Doodle. Or maybe dress up like the Backstreet Boys and make your own video to ‘Everybody’. (Yes. I did all of these last week. Don’t ask.)
And if nothing else, get a pen and paper and just start writing. Find a quiet place, still yourself, and ask: How am I feeling? What’s on my mind? What do I wish? I’ll bet you’ve got lots to say.
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.