Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Writing for Social Justice



You don't write because you want to say something; you write because you've got something to say.


The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is- it’s to imagine what is possible.


How can one not speak about war, poverty, and inequality when people who suffer from these afflictions don't have a voice to speak?

One of the most powerful types of persuasive writing, in my opinion, is writing for social change. As with personal journaling, it is likely one of the most common types of writing, because as the eminent American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out, “you write because you have something to say.”
  
And who doesn’t have something to say?  The average person doesn’t translate their thoughts and opinions on social issues into fiction or lengthy nonfiction narratives. But they do write letters to the editor or respond to editorials and features in periodicals and online journals, or to television newscasts and op-ed shows with telephone calls and social media. This illuminates the importance of literacy in society. Writing to foster and encourage improvement in the world affirms our individual humanity and our place in the circle of life.

And writing for change is a good way to hook young students on persuasive writing. Years ago, I did a long-term sub as an English teacher in a charter school whose students were mostly unsuccessful in larger public schools and were taking a go at computer-based education in smaller classrooms. Whether they held liberal or conservative opinions, they loved the English Comp unit in which they chose a recipient for a letter about any social justice issue large or small that they then had to write, edit, sign, and mail. There wasn’t a single student who fluffed off on the assignment.

There are a variety of issues that affect most people, if not everyone on our small planet:  ongoing problems with the world’s petroleum-based economy, terrorism, domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, and environmental degradation. These issues merit perennial attention, comment, and action. And sometimes these diverse issues are inextricably linked in amazing ways!

In the US, we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in civil rights as neo-conservative and a few neo-liberal politicians, especially in the Republican-controlled Congress or Republican-controlled states, attempt to roll back the clock on hard-fought and already settled policies affecting women minorities, especially in regard to abortion and birth control. Other hot-button issues of the day are voter registration and voting ID issues, self-defense / firearm laws that sometimes lead to the questionable deaths of young people people of color, poverty and minimum wage reform; police brutality and community policing issues, and Middle Eastern politics, especially relating to the recent declaration of war on the West by the Islamic State.

An issue that surfaces periodically in American affairs but is coming to a head due to its inextricable connections with civil rights, racism, and questionable self-defense laws, is police overuse of force, as well as citizen abuse of U.S. self-defense laws. We’re seeing many cases popping up like bad dreams across the USA, as tensions mount due in response to shooting deaths by police or citizens of young people of color. One of the most controversial cases in recent weeks is the shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a case that brought thousands of people and the mainstream media to the streets of this small community. The spotlight remains bright there as a grand jury decides whether or not to charge Officer Wilson with responsbility in the homicide. As I write and edit this essay, a jury in Jacksonville, FL is hearing the final arguments in the retrial of against Michael Dunn, the infamous white shooter of a black teen. Self-defense or irresponsible action with underlying racism and anger?

Certainly the police use of force issue isn’t just restricted to minority communities, for there are high- profile cases across the country that involve women and children and white victims. One case that brought a flurry of writing and activism in my neck of the woods is the police beating of white, homeless, thirty-eight-year-old Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, California in 2011. The killing, completely captured on video, stimulated my writing ire because of the particularly brutal actions by two officers and the negligence of four others. It was difficult to accept that it took a full year to arrest the officers and terminate their employment and even harder to accept the not guilty verdict in January 2014.

There are a host of other issues that capture my attention, but I’m particularly vocal, or should I say prone to set my opinions to writing, in response to social justice and civil rights cases. I’ve written many a letter to the editor of newspapers, as well as letters to police chiefs, presidents and prime ministers of nations, heads of corporations,  and to my city, state, and local representatives.

My writing process is simple: experience concern or outrage in response to an issue or the news of the day, sit down at the computer or with pen and paper and mentally work it out into a coherent letter or essay. I could say more specific things about this genre, but writing for social justice is as natural as thinking or speaking, and it’s easy to find your voice for this purpose. All it takes is a lotta heart, a commitment to create the highest and best circumstances for all, and some attention to writing organization and detail.

Here are some resources and sites of interest for emerging and expert writers, and for writing teachers and students:











Photos February 2014, 5000 Angelenos for Kelly




Friday, 29 August 2014

Sundry Digressions and a Publication Dance!



“The irony of human life is that our very desire results in suffering.”
::: Judith Simner-Brown
Dakini's Warm Breath
 

I know, I know! Where have I been? As my blog title suggests, I was absent and juggling all those jellyfish, sundogs, and the sundry digressions of the writing life. Yes, for months on end. 

My failure to write monthly blog posts wasn't so much a conscious decision as it was the side of effect of focus on practical projects that drained energy from  more fun and creative ones.

It all started during the winter holidays, when life slows down and is more  focused upon family and friends. In January, I began revamping my PhD thesis proposal and investigating more international programs after 2013 was a bust in that department because I hadn't located a matching supervisor. So that saga continues. This year I'm fortunate that two programs have offered me a place, one that hasn't offered a scholarship and the other whose scholarship award decisions won't be made until later this fall. And there are more apps in progress, and one in particular is truly exciting. Fingers crossed!

Because a non-proft website I worked for shut down last fall, I took on more editing, proofreading, and indy book publishing work, which keeps me on a tight, deadline-chasing schedule with little room for my own projects. That is, until this spring when I decided to self-publish my first novel, nearly lost and forgotten in the mysterious binary depths of my computer.

The novel began as a flash story after a particularly poignant dream in 1999 that eventually became a scene in the last chapter. I joined a novel critique group a few years later, and after running some of my short stories by the group members - you know who you are - I decided the story needed to be told as a novel. Actually, I read the story at an open mic at the Hassayampa Writers Institute at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona  in August 1999, and writers who liked it told me the story was too big for its britches. So the critique group became my writing laboratory and I proceeded to make every newbie writer's mistake in the book. It took about four years to write and present all 33 chapters and the epilogue and prologue to the group twice as I also revised and polished, until some of my colleagues finally confided that they were tired of reading it. I switched back to sharing short stories and essays and children's stories and let the novel languish in my computer until the winter holidays in 2009, while I was working on my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales. 

The long, dark UK winter nights were perfect for deep thought and revision, and so I converted the novel from its original rotating 1st person POV to a 3rd person POV. Afterward, it went back into mothballs because I felt there were still too many problems to make it publishable even though the story stood out with greater clarity.

To make a long story short, the novel still has its drawbacks. I became tired of the story, unable or unwilling to  care about fixing every little flaw, but when I next read through it in 2013 and chatted with a cover artist, mulling over the possibility of self-publishing, I figured it might just work. I started another round of editing but other work took over and back went the manuscript to lurk in the dark corners of My Documents. 

Something niggled at me in 2014. I suppose the fact that as an editor, I've worked on dozens of books for both conventionally published and indy authors and this  spurred me to think, why not? It was time to take the plunge. And so, armed with renewed energy and some trepidation, I began the long process of the final editing and formatting for self-publication. 

Most of us writers aren't our own best editors and I'm no exception. I don't always spot my own errors and idiosyncrasies, especially in a long novel-length format. It's rather like writing a collection of 35 short stories that must flow, one into another, like clockwork. Or if not clockwork, in some seamless puzzle piece fashion that reveals scenes and keeps readers turning pages. 

I hoped to find lots of beta readers, but alas, most of my friends are artists and writers who push tokeep up with their own work.  And so some helped me here and there with bits and pieces and I'm grateful for those, because pointing out flaws in one area can apply to many. Armed with my years of experience editing for others, a text on editing for fiction writers, and several helpful blog pages about self-editing, I combed through the manuscript one more time. So I thought. But ended up reading again and again and again, until I could almost recite the entire novel from memory. 

I had a false start with the first unfinished book cover, which I loved but didn't feel quite right, and the interior formatting tailored to it had to be changed to match my second and  final cover. There were all the usual headbanging glitches with computers, with the tiny little imperfections that you strain to see but miss, and even with the weird stuff that happens to the manuscript during revisions because of general book fatigue. (I'll tell you a secret - I know of at least one little formatting error in the front matter of my print book after weeks of perfecting the final manuscript, but I challenge you to find it!)  

I removed reams of words - about 15k, all told, and many hundreds more words and phrases changed and rearranged. I feel exhausted now just writing about it. The times that I've written something that flows from the pen or keyboard to the page in nearly perfect form have been very few, and I treasure that  free-flying, channeled prose experience.

So, after fifteen years of fooling around with this project and many rejections from agents and publishers (no surprise, a typical initiation for any novelist - and a disclaimer that I haven't tried to submit to any agent or publisher since about 2008), I proudly - and with a some trepidation! - announce the publication of Heart of Desire: 11.11.11 Redux.

Back when the dream morphed into a story idea and the idea began to morph into a short story and then into the novel, I had ideas for a sequel and a prequel. But I became so exhausted with the main production and the time it swallowed that I never started these. Oh, those sundry digressions of the writing life again! I moved on, writing many essays, stories, and my MA novella that is yearning for an addition to make it a full novel. And helped to birth dozens of novels, essays, short stories and even some textbooks and academic books as either the copy editor or proofreader on publishing house projects.

 Anyway, if there's enough interest in Heart of Desire, I'll do my best to write the sequel, which I've given the working title of The Fifth Revolution.  And I'm crossing my fingers that it doesn't take me fifteen years this time! 

Heart of Desire is available in print and Kindle e-book at Amazon US in all e-formats at Smashwords, and at iTunes  for Mac and iOS device. You can read the prologue at my Web site, or a longer sample  the prologue and five chapters - at Smashwords or my Goodreads page.



Interviews

Interview: Kate Robinson -  Pekoe Blaze 

Presenting Kate Robinson, Dreamer of Dreams - Kev's Blog
  
Kate Robinson, Author of Heart of Desire - The Thursday Interview

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters: Interview with Richard Kipling

Rich and a Shearwater chick
It’s my pleasure to introduce guest blogger Richard Kipling, one of my fellow grad students (who now holds a PhD) and a fellow member of the Mature Students Union at Aberystwyth University (Wales) during my sojourn there in 2009-10.

Rich is the author of two recent books, his brand-new Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters: A Skomer Island Journal, as well as El Caminante: On the Road to Field-of-the-Stars, a travel journal published in summer 2012, co-written with another writer-scientist, Damon Hammond. Damon was president of MSU and illustrator Michael Roberts was also a member of MSU while I studied at Aberystwyth University.


Rich’s scientific work naturally led to his writing about nature – coincidentally, one of my favorite types of creative writing:

For two years I was lucky enough to spend spring and summer on the island of Skomer, an internationally important nature reserve off the west coast of Wales (UK). I worked surveying the spectacular seabird colonies, watching the seasons change and experiencing the strange mixture of communal spirit and separateness that comes with island life. Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters is the story of my first season on the island; a journal of work and life on this amazing reserve, a record of my reflections and experiences, and a taste of island history, from the mystery of the prehistoric Harold Stone to stories of more recent times.

The charismatic, inquisitive puffins which woo so many visitors are the instantly recognisable face of Skomer, but the island holds a richness of nature and history of which they are just one part. Skomer is a place where the elements retain a power to shape and challenge, and where the cycles of nature are uniquely close to the human community living in their midst. This cannot help but bring a new perspective on modern life and our relationship with the natural world; a perspective I try to describe and explore. I hope that my book captures some of the feel of the island, and a little of the beauty and atmosphere of a place that is special to so many people.

KR: I haven’t yet read Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters  - I discovered that El Caminante is on Amazon US and just bought a copy! I hope SI will also be available here soon.

There are so many beautiful nooks and crannies in the UK that are fascinating both from an aesthetic as well as a scientific viewpoint. Please tell us a little more about your studies and your work.

RK: Here is a slightly adapted version of the preface to the book, with some info on Skomer and my work there:

I first visited the island of Skomer in the September of 2004, as part of a team undertaking a survey of the unique Skomer Vole. During that week of late summer sunshine I began to get a feel for what a special place the island is. It occupies a position that appears romantically distant even on the map, lying as it does off the southern tip of St Brides Bay, isolated by the turbulent waters of Jack Sound in one of the most far flung and beautiful parts of Wales. In 2011, an opportunity arose for me to return to the island as a Field Assistant with the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales; I jumped at the chance. ‘Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters’ is an account of my time working on Skomer, of life in the small, transient community that occupies the island through the summer months, and of the natural events that mark the passage from spring to late summer in that part of the world.

Skomer Island is famed for its population of Puffins, but there is far more to the island. It has been an Iron Age settlement, a medieval rabbit warren, a farm and, latterly, an nternationally-important nature reserve. My role in 2011 was to carry out surveys of seabird breeding success, visiting colonies of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars each day, identifying territories, following each pair of birds in a survey plot from egg laying to the fledging of chicks, and recording successes and failures. I hope the following pages will show some of the natural and historical diversity of Skomer, a diversity which continues to make the island a source of fascination for naturalists, historians, archaeologists, and day trippers alike. This diary is also a personal reflection, tracing my own journey through the seasons on this remote and beautiful rock. I hope it passes on a little of the magic of this hidden treasure of the Welsh coast.'



And here's an abstract from the book; a reflection written at the Garland Stone in August:

‘Stepping out into the courtyard this morning, the softness of the air has a new edge, a coolness that is not yet a chill but betrays the changing season. For the first time the shifting colours of the island mark senescence rather than the appearance of new flowers. Crisp brown is gently spreading from leaf tips of Bracken and Bramble, darkening the yellow blooms of the Ragwort. Along the path through North Valley, the volunteers have been scything back the vegetation, and the scatter  of cut Bracken over the path is like a harvest.

At the stream, the Water Dropwort stems are brittle and dead, the carpet of Creeping Forget-me-not reduced to a few pale-flowered plants under the Willow leaves, themselves tarnished and fading. In the rabbit exclosures. the purple haze of heather flowers alone defies the coming autumn, and bees twist and turn between the inflorescences. The air is still, and there is a quietness; the island is peaceful after the frantic race to breed and fledge young, to protect new life.

Here on the north coast, a gentle breeze ruffles the pages of my notepad, the lobster-pot men work below me off the Garland Stone and the sounds of the boat’s engine and various clatters and mechanical noises drift up to me. From half a mile away, the hum of generators on the stationary tankers percolates the silence. Although it is eleven in the morning, the light has the quality of a late afternoon; the warmth of the sun is lessened by high cloud, and in the clear air, the fissures and colours of the rocks are picked out precisely. There is an air of waiting. Even the sea is tranquil, though in the tidal race the smoothness is an illusion that hides turmoil beneath.

Waves lap at the foot of the Garland Stone – hard now to imagine those spring storms, when spray crested its rocky peak. Glancing up, I can see the Irish ferry, my old friend, white against the grey of sea and sky, drifting through the stillness.’

KR: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Rich! I wish you many more natural adventures.


***
Sheer Cliffs and Shearwaters (Brambleby, 2013) is available [in eleven languages!] to order online from a number of outlets in addition to the publisher, including Amazon UK, and includes illustrations by Michael Roberts, like the illustration of a gannet in flight, below, and the Shearwater on the book cover.

Gannet in flight by Michael Roberts