Archive for November, 2010

I don’t want to have a “brand.”  The Internet is full of articles and pointers and guides to building one’s “author brand.” Use social media to build your author brand! Build your author platform before publishing! Ack! I. Don’t. Want. A. Brand. I want the door always to be open for me to write what I want. I just finished a re-write of a short story with which I’m rather pleased. My writing group seems to like it as well. It is in all ways different from my novel. For one thing, it’s short. It takes place in 2010, not the 1550s. It takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not medieval India. The main character is a desperate teenage girl. (Ok, one could argue there’s a desperate teenage girl in my novel, as well, but to draw any link would be a mighty stretch.) And you know what? I really liked writing my historical novel, and I really liked writing this short story, which, if my plan goes my way, will be one of a series of linked stories. But all the information out there directed at new authors is implying that one cannot be successful if one is versatile like this, because publishers want an author with a brand, so that if their first book is a success, they can assure readers that the next one will be very much like it so you should put it on your wish list right away.

I’ve never been able to limit myself to one subject. This is why my “career” includes positions in urban planning, economic development, communications, public health, project management, freelance writing, non-profit administration, teaching, and I’m sure I’m missing a couple. I find all these things of interest, and although I periodically whine to my husband that I’m not an expert at any one thing, I am truly happy with each toe in a different pot. (To mix metaphors a bit.) One of my writing group members is struggling even more than I am with this: she wrote a very good novel which could be categorized as “chick lit” because that’s just what came out of her at a certain point in her life, but now she is involved in (and thoroughly enjoying) writing a much more literary work. Thing is, she did build a platform around her first book, which her agent is trying to sell, and people like it, and now she’s wondering if this “brand” is going to stick to her like an annoying piece of Scotch tape one can’t shake off.

So, are we doomed as writers? Are there any contemporary writers out there who have successfully maintained their versatility? Barbara Kingsolver comes to mind. I mentioned her to my writing group, but the other members argued that she got her break before the publishing industry started harping on “author brand.” They have a point. (Side note: I just Googled “versatile author.” The first two hits were obituaries for writers. Maybe I don’t want to be versatile after all. The third was a bio of Christina Schwartz, author of Drowning Ruth, All is Vanity and So Long at the Fair. I’m glad I happed upon this—I did not know of her before.) So who else is out there writing and publishing in different genres, in different voices, on different topics?

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A friend of mine posted on her Facebook page a link to a fascinating talk by Sir Ken Robinson about education and creativity. Fascinating, but, especially for a parent, worrisome, for it makes me feel that, with my daughters in regular, public schools, there is little hope of them retaining the creativity with which they were born. (Although my friend, who works in the field of education in a non-profit focused on improving schools, says that it is not depressing, as there are movements out there to reform the educational system. I pray that these movements make a difference in the next 15 years.)

The talk, which you may view here, and which is accompanied by expertly drawn and artistic animation which causes one really to pay attention to the presentation, is about changing education paradigms. Sir Ken Robinson, a professor of education and, according to his site, a leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources, argues that the current education system in most of the world was designed in, and created for, another time: the age of enlightenment, and the industrial revolution. It was based on an intellectual model of the mind that valued deductive reasoning, and a knowledge of the classics. What we refer to as “academic” ability. Today, there is still a production line mentality, he argues, in which students are educated in batches (by age), with a separation of subjects (math, literature, etc.) and a focus on standardized testing, on there being one right answer.

But we are now in a different time. Children are bombarded with stimuli. It is become clearer and clearer that children do not all learn in the same way at the same age. Some might benefit from group learning, others might learn best on their own. Some in the morning, some in the afternoon. And yet, we (at least in the United States) are moving more and more toward standardization.

Ken Robinson advocates moving away from standardization, and toward individualism and creativity. He points to studies that show that 98% of kindergarteners score at a “genius” level when it comes to divergent thinking, or the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question and lots of ways to interpret a question, the capacity for creativity. Five years later, the number is down to 50%.  And it continuse downward with time.

Oy. I look at 6 year old K, and I can’t help but feel a twinge of panic about the future. Right now she is super creative, with her ideas, with her words, with her drawings. She comes up with possible answers that I’d never think of, with original ideas. Even the way she dresses, the combinations of clothes she chooses, is creative. Then I imagine her five years from now, conforming to the standard outfits that are “in” for sixth graders, spouting values and opinions that she’s assimilated from the collective.

Perhaps this is too bleak a view to take. I like to think of myself as reasonably creative, as fairly adept in divergent thinking, and of course I followed the trends in school. (One could argue that I did so rather poorly, but that’s a whole other story.) But all this makes me want to think of ways to nurture and preserve that capacity in my daughters. How to do this? Do we as parents have any control over this? K wants to be an art teacher, which sounds fabulous to me. She knows that I write, that in this family we value creative writing. She’s learning to play guitar, and is aware that her father knows a lot about music. But… today in the car she commented on a route I took, saying “Mom, you took the long cut.” And before I could even think about it, I corrected her: “One doesn’t say long cut. One can say short cut, but there’s no such thing as a long cut.” Gah! What possessed me to say that? Why can’t there be a “long cut” just because it’s not a commonly accepted expression? So much for my divergent thinking. Sigh.

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