We should use ‘I’ more in academic writing – there is benefit to first-person perspective



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Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

The use of the word “I” in academic writing, that is writing in the first person, has a troublesome history. Some say it makes writing too subjective, others that it’s essential for accuracy.

This is reflected in how students, particularly in secondary schools, are trained to write. Teachers I work with are often surprised that I advocate, at times, invoking the first person in essays or other assessment in their subject areas.

In academic writing the role of the author is to explain their argument dispassionately and objectively. The author’s personal opinion in such endeavours is neither here nor there.

As noted in Strunk and White’s highly influential Elements of Style – (first published in 1959) the writer is encouraged to place themselves in the background.

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.

This all seems very reasonable and scholarly. The move towards including the first person perspective, however, is becoming more acceptable in academia.

There are times when invoking the first person is more meaningful and even rigorous than not. I will give three categories in which first person academic writing is more effective than using the third person.

1. Where an academic is offering their personal view or argument

Above, I could have said “there are three categories” rather than “I will give three categories”. The former makes a claim of discovering some objective fact. The latter, a more intellectually honest and accountable approach, is me offering my interpretation.

I could also say “three categories are apparent”, but that is ignoring the fact it is apparent to me. It would be an attempt to grant too much objectivity to a position than it deserves.

In a similar vein, statements such as “it can be argued” or “it was decided”, using the passive voice, avoid responsibility. It is much better to say “I will argue that” or “we decided that” and then go on to prosecute the argument or justify the decision.

Taking responsibility for our stances and reasoning is important culturally as well as academically. In a participatory democracy, we are expected to be accountable for our ideas and choices. It is also a stand against the kinds of anonymous assertions that easily proliferate via fake and unnamed social media accounts.




Read more:
Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth


It’s worth noting that Nature – arguably one of the world’s best science journals – prefers authors to selectively avoid the passive voice. Its writing guidelines note:

Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (“we performed the experiment…”) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.

2. Where the author’s perspective is part of the analysis

Some disciplines, such as anthropology, recognise that who is doing the research and why they are doing it ought to be overtly present in their presentation of it.

There’s more to Descartes’ famous phrase than a claim to existence.
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Removing the author’s presence can allow important cultural or other perspectives held by the author to remain unexamined. This can lead to the so-called crisis of representation, in which the interpretation of texts and other cultural artefacts is removed from any interpretive stance of the author.

This gives a false impression of objectivity. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel notes, there is no “view from nowhere”.

Philosophy commonly invokes the first person position, too. Rene Descartes famously inferred “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). But his use of the first person in Meditations on First Philosophy was not simply an account of his own introspection. It was also an invitation to the reader to think for themselves.

3. Where the author wants to show their reasoning

The third case is especially interesting in education.

I tell students of science, critical thinking and philosophy that a phrase guaranteed to raise my hackles is “I strongly believe …”. In terms of being rationally persuasive, this is not relevant unless they then go on tell me why they believe it. I want to know what and how they are thinking.

To make their thinking most clearly an object of my study, I need them to make themselves the subjects of their writing.

I prefer students to write something like “I am not convinced by Dawson’s argument because…” rather than “Dawson’s argument is opposed by DeVries, who says …”. I want to understand their thinking not just use the argument of DeVries.




Read more:
Thinking about thinking helps kids learn. How can we teach critical thinking?


Of course I would hope they do engage with DeVries, but then I’d want them to say which argument they find more convincing and what their own reasons were for being convinced.

Just stating Devries’ objection is good analysis, but we also need students to evaluate and justify, and it is here that the first person position is most useful.

It is not always accurate to say a piece is written in the first or third person. There are reasons to invoke the first person position at times and reasons not to. An essay in which it is used once should not mean we think of the whole essay as from the first person perspective.

We need to be more nuanced about how we approach this issue and appreciate when authors should “place themselves in the background” and when their voice matters.The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking; Curriculum Director, UQ Critical Thinking Project, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Residential school literature can teach the colonial present and imagine better futures



A detail of the book cover for ‘Seven Fallen Feathers’ by Tanya Talaga.
(House of Anansi Press/’Seven Fallen Feathers,’ book cover art by Christian Morrisseau)

Michelle Coupal, University of Regina

There is a growing body of literature — novels, memoirs, poetry, graphic novels, picture books — through which Indigenous writers are giving voice and agency to the experiences and histories of Indian residential schooling in Canada.

The ethical teaching of residential school narratives can be thought of as a relational process that requires consultation and accountability.

Rather than view residential school literature as primarily concerned with past history, I want to advocate for the importance of teaching these narratives as stories that probe our colonial present and the possibility of a more just future.

Cindy Blackstock speaks at Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 15, 2016.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Former prime minister Stephen Harper, in his 2008 apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian residential schools system, put residential schooling firmly in the past by calling it a “sad chapter in our history.” This narrative of pastness allowed Harper to swagger to the aspirational conclusion that “there is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever again prevail.”

The policies of assimilation that governed the schools in the past, however, remain in operation today, although in different forms. Gitksan professor Cindy Blackstock, for example, asks of residential schools: “Did they really close or just morph into child welfare?




Read more:
Canada guilty of forging crisis in Indigenous foster care


And Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor Pam Palmater suggests that “the abuse did not end with the closing of the last residential school in 1996. Today, there are more Indigenous children forcibly removed from their parents and placed into foster care than at the height of the residential school era.”

Responding through story

Following the release in 2015 of 94 Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, educators across the country — most of whom are not Indigenous — were tasked with the urgent imperative to bring the history and legacies of residential schooling into the classroom. Many teachers chose to respond through story by teaching residential school literature.




Read more:
Teaching truth and reconciliation in Canada: The perfect place to begin is right where a teacher stands


To teach residential school literature (fiction or memoir) is to bring deeply felt, personal stories of capture, imprisonment and cultural erasure into largely non-Indigenous classrooms.

In this context, it’s important to ask:

How can we teach residential school literature in culturally responsive ways?

What do we owe the survivors of residential schooling who have gifted their stories to us?

How do we bring our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits into dialogue with genocide?

Relationships

In a nutshell, it’s all about relationships: between the reader and the story being told, and between the reader and the Indigenous writers and communities to which we are all accountable.

Building accountability into the practice of reading and teaching these often intensely personal and traumatic stories can be fostered through consultation and engagement with Indigenous communities.


Click here for more articles in our ongoing series about the TRC Calls to Action.

Accountability also requires that we immerse ourselves fully in the material on its own sovereign terms and in all of its depth and complexity. We need to be ethical witnesses, and we need to ask what the stories teach us about our present.

My students created and contributed to a Facebook page, Indian Residential Schools in Canada: Literature, Art, Media over the past years. This page is an example of how to engage students in the material in meaningful ways that promote an ongoing dialogue about truth, reconciliation and colonialism in Canada.

This dialogue is critical, and key to it is that we keep thinking and reading about residential schools in the present day and for the future. These are in many ways stories of our time. It’s the guise that has changed. And without radical decolonization in this country, these are stories of our future.

‘The Marrow Thieves’

Last February, one day after the acquittal of Gerald Stanley for the murder of Colten Boushie, Métis writer and author of The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline, tweeted:

“I wrote a book about Indigenous people being considered not human, being considered ‘things’ at the hands of a colonial Canada. I thought I was writing about a potential future. #justiceforcolten #themarrowthieves @canadareads.”

‘The Marrow Thieves,’ by Cherie Dimaline.
(DCB Books/Cormorant Books)

The Marrow Thieves is a young-adult novel set forty years into the future. In the wake of environmental disaster, Indigenous peoples are being captured and sent to residential schools. They are being hunted and killed for their bone marrow, which allows non-Indigenous people, who have all lost their ability to dream, to dream again and, thus, to imagine again.

Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt asks, “What is an NDN if not the ceiling of a country’s political imagination?” In The Marrow Thieves, the political ceiling is high.

The limit of the colonial imagination is the cannibalistic harvesting of Indigenous bodies to support non-Indigenous nation-state survival.

There is an inevitability to the narrative arc of the novel that suggests that it is as realistic to imagine a future of ecological devastation as it is to imagine a future of residential schools — a future where Indigenous peoples continue to be hunted down, like Colten Boushie, because they are considered somehow less than human by colonial Canada.

‘Seven Fallen Feathers’

Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers focuses on seven Indigenous young people who went missing and ultimately died in Thunder Bay, Ont.

An inquest into the seven youths’ deaths found that First Nations people in Thunder Bay “are often treated as less than worthy victims” and exposed systemic problems surrounding supports for the youth and responses to their deaths.

‘Seven Fallen Feathers’ by Tanya Talaga.
(House of Anansi Press)

A civilian police review body found in December 2018 that police failed to adequately investigate the deaths of nine Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, including four youths discussed in Talaga’s book, at least in part because of racist attitudes and stereotyping.

The seven fallen feathers were all from communities in northern Ontario. Because of the refusal of the government to adequately fund on-reserve education, Indigenous young people are frequently unable to complete a high-school education in their communities. They must go south, far from their homes, to what is often a hostile and culturally unfamiliar place.

Remember that Thunder Bay is where a young white man, Brayden Bushby, stands accused of second degree murder for allegedly throwing a metal trailer hitch from a moving vehicle at an Indigenous woman, Barbara Kentner, who was simply walking by. She was hospitalized and died from her injuries about six months after being attacked.

The violent deaths of Barbara Kentner and Colten Boushie remind us that in present-day Canada, it’s threatening and even perilous for Indigenous people to walk around.

Talaga’s book reveals the many comparisons between students from remote Northern reserves boarding and attending school in Thunder Bay — far from their communities, far from their families, far from their languages and far from their cultural traditions — and the Indian residential school system.

Talaga thus draws important connections to the assimilative system that stole generations of children to obliterate any traces of their identities as self-determining and self-sustaining peoples with a wealth of languages, knowledge systems and cultural traditions.

Into the future

Dimaline’s and Talaga’s books teach us that versions of residential schooling exist not only in the present, but also in the future if Canada does not take seriously and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Memoirs and fictions about residential school experiences and legacies are thus necessary readings in neo-colonial Canada. Teaching and reading residential school literature foster richer understandings of present and future colonialisms.

To understand the colonial past is to open the door to understanding the colonial present and future. This understanding is a crucial part of the pathway to real change.The Conversation

Michelle Coupal, Canada Research Chair in Truth, Reconciliation and Indigenous Literatures and Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Regina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Life sentences – what creative writing by prisoners tells us about the inside



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Dr Michael X. Savvas, Flinders University

A recent project to encourage South Australian prisoners to write provides insights into how prisoners may benefit from written expression.

The project, Life Sentences, gave more than 70 contributors professional feedback, certificates of merit and publication in a booklet produced annually from 2017 to 2019.

The submissions revealed a surprising diversity of topics, considerable talent and self-awareness.

The back story

Life Sentences began as an offshoot of Art by Prisoners, a visual arts competition organised by Jeremy Ryder, who wanted to showcase art from prisoners across South Australia.

We wondered if prisoners may also want to express themselves through writing. Department for Correctional Services officers promoted Life Sentences and prisoners responded with interest. After the program, Life Sentences booklets were available to the public at the Art by Prisoners exhibitions.

Prisoners also provided cover designs for the project.
Life Sentences, Author provided

Firsthand writing from and about prisons isn’t new. Prison literature has a rich tradition, with writers such as Jack London, O. Henry and Oscar Wilde writing about their experiences in jail. The nine years Dostoyevsky spent in Siberian imprisonment and exile gave him the focus and depth of understanding to become one of the greats.

Conversely, illiteracy in Australian prisons is prevalent. A recent government report found around one in three Australian prisoners had only completed Year 9 (or under) at secondary school. One aim of Life Sentences was to provide encouraging feedback for prisoners of varying literacy levels. Although not all of the writing submitted was grammatically perfect, feedback focused on what the prisoners did well in their writing. This was seen as a first step in getting prisoners to enjoy writing and begin the adventure of literacy.

Stories of pain and humour

What Life Sentences contributors wrote about was telling. Most entries directly related to what American criminologist Greshem Sykes called the “pains of imprisonment” in 1958. This wasn’t surprising, and it is hoped writing about such pains was healing for the writers. What was more surprising was the number of entries not directly about imprisonment.

Of 77 contributors over three years, 26 expressed pain, fear and depression from imprisonment (even suicidal thoughts), and often how much they missed their children or loved ones. The heartbreaking lines from a 26-year-old woman’s poem called Little Treasure illustrate this:

But I will never forget

His sweet little smile

My darling little boy

Is now their child.

Although male and female prisoners both expressed tender feelings towards their lost partners, the male writers would at times also express sexual longing for their loved ones or for imagined partners. In Prisoner’s Lament, a 61-year-old male wrote:

I can but lament the way my life went,

Before I ended up here,

Instead of a gun and a greed-driven bent,

I’d be armed with a babe and a beer.

Eight of the poems – both fictional and autobiographical pieces – describe prison life using humour. In Lean Cuisine, a man, 45, wrote of the food, gloryless food he got over the course of a week:

Friday’s no surprise with some sort of sloppy pasta

Nothing is as bad as that tomato disaster.

Saturday is early lockup: chicken wings and rice

Some blokes sprint for seconds, yelling ‘This shit’s so fucking nice!‘

Although some contributors wrote about their abusive childhoods, others wrote with nostalgia about their upbringings. A 51-year-old man’s poem, Edge of the World, tells of spending a day on a jetty with his father and siblings:

Like well-practised commandos

we inched along the side rail

dodging gut stains

jagged notches and salty scales.

One prisoner wrote a nostalgic poem about his childhood.
Shutterstock

Eight entries philosophised about life, and two honoured religious deities. Two contributors wrote about their lives, with the goal of inspiring others to stay out of jail and lead happier, more productive lives.

Five entries pondered the personal meanings of art or writing. Other themes explored drugs and alcohol, futuristic societies, rock band membership, friendship, political statements (Fuck the System), dreams and the supernatural (The Love of a Lycan was a song about a werewolf). Three entries were hip hop raps.

Being recognised

The Western Australian literary journal Westerly included several of the 2017 entries in a special edition about South Australian writing.

Hidden talents emerged. A 22-year-old male rapper demonstrated advanced verbal skills in his Laggin Rap:

I want my chance to climb but I’m firmly underground

proud to get his lips clappin louder than a thunder cloud.

Man, Hip Hop’s beautiful — totally therapeutical —

better health benefits than pharmaceuticals.

Another contributor submitted two novels in 2017 and two more in the following competitions. Although already an accomplished writer, he incorporated the feedback he received in the first year. His manuscript was an exciting adventure set in 18th century France. The novel begins:

The battlefields were torn by heavy hooves and ran red with blood. Pieces of meat that used to be men lay tossed about and were scattered in windrows. Mud made it difficult to distinguish between uniforms, yet they found uniformity in a death that made a mockery of it all. It was not yet lunchtime.

The same author printed, bound and illustrated his own novels. He and other contributors also revealed a pattern by the third edition of Life Sentences: a growing awareness of their new identities as writers.

Life Sentences is giving prisoners a chance to write expressively.
Shutterstock

What Prisoners Need

Australian prison libraries are often inadequate for supporting prisoners who seek to improve their literacy skills.

Knowing what prisoners like to write about could inform decisions about the types of books to stock in prisons to encourage reading and writing. Prisoners who wish to write motivational books could be exposed to notable authors in this genre, such as Tony Robbins and Dale Carnegie.

Education is a powerful way to prevent prisoners from reoffending once they leave jail.

To stay out of prison, ex-prisoners need to achieve what criminologists call “secondary desistance”, meaning both the prisoner and society see the prisoner as changed and occupying a law-abiding role in society. Writing might be one way to achieve this and open up new career paths. Writing may also allow prisoners and “civilians” to connect. As one Life Sentences writer put it:

Without seeing their individual faces, I recognise that I am part of the greater consciousness that makes up the brotherhood of writers across the world.The Conversation

Dr Michael X. Savvas, Senior Lecturer in the Transition Office (PhD in Creative Writing), Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Do authors really put deeper meaning into poems and stories – or do readers make it up?



Many books, like ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ contain symbolism.
Dmitriy Os Ivanov/Shutterstock.com

Elisabeth Gruner, University of Richmond

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com.


Do authors really put deeper meaning into poems and stories – or do readers make it up? Jordan, 14, Indianapolis, Indiana


One of my favorite novels is “Charlotte’s Web,” the famous story of a friendship between a pig and a spider.

I often talk about this novel with my students studying children’s literature. At some point, someone always asks about “deeper meaning.” Is it really a story of, say, the cycle of death and rebirth? Or the importance of friendship? Or the significance of writing?

Or is it just a story of life in the barn, with talking animals?

In a way, it doesn’t matter. Because every writer is also a reader, and that means that whatever a writer puts into a story probably came from somewhere else, whether it’s another story, or a poem, or their own life experience.

And readers, too, will bring their own experience – of other stories, other poems and life – and that will direct their interpretation of what they absorb. We can see one example of this if we look at the spider in “Charlotte’s Web.”

The meaning of character

That spider, Charlotte, is based on a real spider. We know this because E.B. White drew pictures of spiders, studied them and made sure to be as accurate as he could when he wrote about them.

‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E. B. White.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

But, to a reader she may also represent Arachne, the talented weaver who challenged the goddess Athena and was changed into a spider for her pride. Or she may be the “noiseless patient spider” of Walt Whitman’s poem, who flings out thread-like filaments as the poet flings out words.

She may also be the spider who weaves “the silken tent” of Robert Frost’s poem. Maybe we’ll think about how the spider, like a human storyteller, generates something seemingly out of nothing, which makes her web miraculous.

Each of these spiders symbolizes different things. When we read about her, then, we may think of all those other spiders. Or we may just think about the spider we saw on our own front porch that morning, weaving her own web.

As the writer Philip Pullman said, “The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind.”

The reader is in charge

What Pullman is suggesting, then, is that it’s up to readers to make the meaning they want out of the stories they hear and the books they read.

It’s a powerful statement: We are in charge.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Meanings come from context, from convention, from older stories and from previous usage. But it’s up to us to interpret what we read and to make the case for how we’re doing it.

Or, as the novelist John Green writes of his books, “They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing – because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.”

What we do with the books we read matters, Green tells us. It’s up to us to make the meaning and up to us to decide what to do with that meaning once we’ve made it.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.The Conversation

Elisabeth Gruner, Associate Professor of English, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘I want to stare death in the eye’: why dying inspires so many writers and artists



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Claire Hooker, University of Sydney and Ian Kerridge, University of Sydney

This is one of our occasional Essays on Health. It’s a long read.


It may seem paradoxical, but dying can be a deeply creative process.

Public figures, authors, artists and journalists have long written about their experience of dying. But why do they do it and what do we gain?




Read more:
On poetry and pain


Many stories of dying are written to bring an issue or disease to public attention.

For instance, English editor and journalist Ruth Picardie’s description of terminal breast cancer, so poignantly described in Before I say Goodbye, drew attention to the impact of medical negligence, and particularly misdiagnosis, on patients and their families.

English editor and journalist Ruth Picardie’s description of terminal breast cancer drew attention to the impact of medical negligence and misdiagnosis.
Penguin Books

American tennis player and social activist Arthur Ashe wrote about his heart disease and subsequent diagnosis and death from AIDS in Days of Grace: A Memoir.

His autobiographical account brought public and political attention to the risks of blood transfusion (he acquired HIV from an infected blood transfusion following heart bypass surgery).

Other accounts of terminal illness lay bare how people navigate uncertainty and healthcare systems, as surgeon Paul Kalanithi did so beautifully in When Breath Becomes Air, his account of dying from lung cancer.

But, perhaps most commonly, for artists, poets, writers, musicians and journalists, dying can provide one last opportunity for creativity.

American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak drew people he loved as they were dying; founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, while in great pain, refused pain medication so he could be lucid enough to think clearly about his dying; and author Christopher Hitchens wrote about dying from oesophageal cancer despite increasing symptoms:

I want to stare death in the eye.

Faced with terminal cancer, renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, if possible, more prolifically than before.

And Australian author Clive James found dying a mine of new material:

Few people read

Poetry any more but I still wish

To write its seedlings down, if only for the lull

Of gathering: no less a harvest season

For being the last time.




Read more:
Vale Clive James – a marvellous low voice whose gracious good humour let others shine


Research shows what dying artists have told us for centuries – creative self-expression is core to their sense of self. So, creativity has therapeutic and existential benefits for the dying and their grieving families.

Creativity provides a buffer against anxiety and negative emotions about death.

Cartoonist Miriam Engelberg chose a graphic novel to communicate her experience of cancer.
Harper Perennial

It may help us make sense of events and experiences, tragedy and misfortune, as a graphic novel did for cartoonist Miriam Engelberg in Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person, and as blogging and online writing does for so many.

Creativity may give voice to our experiences and provide some resilience as we face disintegration. It may also provide agency (an ability to act independently and make our own choices), and a sense of normality.

French doctor Benoit Burucoa wrote art in palliative care allows people to feel physical and emotional relief from dying, and:

[…] to be looked at again and again like someone alive (without which one feels dead before having disappeared).

A way of communicating to loved ones and the public

American tennis player and social activist Arthur Ashe wrote about his heart disease and subsequent diagnosis and death from AIDS.
Ballantine Books

When someone who is dying creates a work of art or writes a story, this can open up otherwise difficult conversations with people close to them.

But where these works become public, this conversation is also with those they do not know, whose only contact is through that person’s writing, poetry or art.

This public discourse is a means of living while dying, making connections with others, and ultimately, increasing the public’s “death literacy”.

In this way, our conversations about death become more normal, more accessible and much richer.

There is no evidence reading literary works about death and dying fosters rumination (an unhelpful way of dwelling on distressing thoughts) or other forms of psychological harm.

In fact, the evidence we have suggests the opposite is true. There is plenty of evidence for the positive impacts of both making and consuming art (of all kinds) at the end of life, and specifically surrounding palliative care.

Why do we buy these books?

Some people read narratives of dying to gain insight into this mysterious experience, and empathy for those amidst it. Some read it to rehearse their own journeys to come.

But these purpose-oriented explanations miss what is perhaps the most important and unique feature of literature – its delicate, multifaceted capacity to help us become what philosopher Martha Nussbaum described as:

[…] finely aware and richly responsible.

Literature can capture the tragedy in ordinary lives; its depictions of grief, anger and fear help us fine-tune what’s important to us; and it can show the value of a unique person across their whole life’s trajectory.

Not everyone can be creative towards the end

Not everyone, however, has the opportunity for creative self-expression at the end of life. In part, this is because increasingly we die in hospices, hospitals or nursing homes. These are often far removed from the resources, people and spaces that may inspire creative expression.

And in part it is because many people cannot communicate after a stroke or dementia diagnosis, or are delirious, so are incapable of “last wordswhen they die.




Read more:
What is palliative care? A patient’s journey through the system


Perhaps most obviously, it is also because most of us are not artists, musicians, writers, poets or philosophers. We will not come up with elegant prose in our final days and weeks, and lack the skill to paint inspiring or intensely beautiful pictures.

But this does not mean we cannot tell a story, using whatever genre we wish, that captures or at least provides a glimpse of our experience of dying – our fears, goals, hopes and preferences.

Clive James reminded us:

[…] there will still be epic poems, because every human life contains one. It comes out of nowhere and goes somewhere on its way to everywhere – which is nowhere all over again, but leaves a trail of memories. There won’t be many future poets who don’t dip their spoons into all that, even if nobody buys the book.The Conversation

Claire Hooker, Senior Lecturer and Coordinator, Health and Medical Humanities, University of Sydney and Ian Kerridge, Professor of Bioethics & Medicine, Sydney Health Ethics, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

10½ commandments of writing



Things to keep in mind for writers young and old.
Kenny Luo/Unsplash

Sean Williams, Flinders University

Every author is asked by new writers for advice. There is, however, no all-encompassing, single answer that also happens to be correct. Quite a lot of commonly offered suggestions (“write every day”) don’t work for everyone and must be approached with caution.

A few years ago, I set out to create a list that will benefit all new writers. I put ten commandments through the wringer of my peers, who suggested modifications and noted that this list applies not just to new writers but to writers at every stage of their career. Indeed, I’ve needed reminding of more than one myself.

Here, then, are the 10½ commandments of writing – with an extra one for free.

1. Read widely

To succeed as a writer, you must occasionally read. Yet there are wannabe-novelists who haven’t picked up a book in years. There are also, more tragically, writers too busy to engage with the end-product of our craft. If the only thing you’re reading is yourself you are bound to miss out on valuable lessons.

The same applies to reading only within a favourite genre. A varied diet will strengthen your literary muscles.

2. Write

No need to thrash out 1,000 words a day or pen a perfect poem before breakfast, but you do have to write. The fundamental qualification for being a writer is putting words on the page.

If you aren’t doing that now, it’s possible you never will.

3. Follow your heart

When you really want to write literary fiction, but the market wants paranormal romance, write literary fiction. Chasing paranormal romance will be futile. Writing well is hard enough without cynicism getting in the way.

Passion doesn’t always pay, but it increases the odds of your work finding a home.

The best books come from the heart.
Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

4. Be strategic

But the choice is never between just literary fiction and paranormal romance. You might have poetry and narrative non-fiction passion projects as well, and it’s possible narrative non-fiction will appeal to the widest audience. If a wider audience is what you want, narrative non-fiction is the one to choose.

If, however, you don’t give two hoots about your audience, write what you like.

There are lots of different kinds of writers and lots of different paths to becoming the writer you want to be.

5. Be brave

Writing is hard, intellectually and physically. It also takes emotional work, dealing with exposure, rejection, fear and impostor syndrome. It’s better you know this upfront, in order to fortify yourself.

These crises, however, are surmountable. We know this because there are writers out there, leading somewhat normal lives, even healthy and happy ones. You can too, if you don’t give up.

The ones who persist are the ones who prevail.

6. Be visible

Many writers would prefer they remain hidden in a dark cave for all eternity. But stories demand to be communicated, which means leaving that cave. Whether it’s you or your written word, or both, broaching the bubble of self-isolation is important.

This doesn’t mean assaulting every social platform and attending every festival and convention. Find the kind of engagement that suits you and embrace it, and don’t overdo it. Remember: you still have to write.

You have to come out from there at some point.
Matthew Henry/Unsplash

7. Be professional

Don’t lie. Don’t belittle your peers and don’t steal from them. Keep your promises. Communicate. Try to behave like someone people will want to work with – because we all have to do that, at some point.

8. Listen

Heed what people you’re working with are saying, because you never know what gems of knowledge you might glean – about craft, about the market, about something you’re working on – among the knowledge you (think you) already possess.

9. Don’t settle

Every story requires different skills. You’ll never, therefore, stop learning how to write. The day you think you’ve worked it out is the day the ground beneath you begins to erode, dropping you headlong into a metaphorical sinkhole – and nobody wants that. Least of all your readers.

Readers can tell when you’re getting lazy, just like they can tell when you’re faking. You’re one of them. Deep down, you’ll be the first to know.

10. Work hard

Put in the hours and you’re likely to get some return on your investment. How many hours, though?

There’s a wonderful saying: “Even a thief takes ten years to learn her trade.” Writing is no different to any other career. Hope for overnight success; plan for being like everyone else.

The bonus commandments

When I put this list to my friends, several raised the importance of finding your people. Although I agree this is an important principle, I would argue it is implicit in commandments 6-8: these have no meaning without engaging. I decided to encapsulate this as 10.5. Embrace community

Find those who will walk alongside you.
Kenny Luo/Unsplash

After I’d been teaching and giving talks on this topic for several years, someone suggested another commandment that lies beneath the rest. It is so fundamental none will work unless you have this in spades. It is 0. Really want it, which sounds so obvious that it barely needs stating – except it does.

One day, I may no longer want to write. If that happens, I will take every mention of writing from this list and substitute the name of a new vocation – because this list applies to everything.The Conversation

Sean Williams, Lecturer, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Comma again? Philip Pullman’s Oxford comma rage doesn’t go far enough



Philip Pullman thinks this coin needs another comma. What do you think?
HM Treasury/PA

Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

High-profile author Philip Pullman tweeted on Sunday about the new 50 pence English coin due for release by the Royal Mint on Friday, January 31.

“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” he said.

An Oxford comma is the comma inserted before “and” or “or” in a list to separate the final item in a list from the items that go before it.

Sir Philip lives in Oxford, which voted to remain in the European Union. He has written several bestselling books, including the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. He argues that the commemorative coin requires a comma between “prosperity” and “and” – a very controversial opinion.

When The Guardian republished his tweet in an article, hundreds of responses were posted within hours. Moderators removed many comments – presumably the most heated ones.

Exciting passions

The mention of the Oxford (or Harvard or serial) comma unfailingly attracts passionate advocates (of which I am one) and determined detractors.

As Comma Queen Mary Norris, former copy editor at The New Yorker, says:

Nothing, but nothing — profanity, transgender pronouns, apostrophe abuse — excites the passion of grammar geeks more than the serial, or Oxford, comma. People love it or hate it, and they are equally ferocious on both sides of the debate. Individual publications have guidelines that sink deep into the psyches of editors and writers. The Times, like most newspapers, does without the serial comma. At The New Yorker, it is a copy editor’s duty to deploy the serial comma, along with lots of other lip-smacking bits of punctuation, as a bulwark against barbarianism.

Although its use is widespread in North America, the Oxford comma is not as widely used in Australia and the UK.

The Australian government’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers merely says “sometimes a comma is placed between the last two items to ensure clarity” and doesn’t use it in the manual’s title.

The UK National Curriculum authority warns students will be penalised if they use a serial comma in a list of simple items such as “apples, cheese, and milk”.

Many of the detractors say: “I was taught at school not to use it.”

To them I would say: “Well, you were taught wrong!”

As one poster on The Guardian article comments:

The use of the Oxford comma is not standard practice [in the UK], merely because of the ignorant, narrow-minded grammar school teachers we had.

Many believe it should be used only to avoid ambiguity, as in Robert Fulford’s example of a blooper that occurred in a newspaper reporting on a documentary about Merle Haggard: “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

My argument is deciding whether or not to use the Oxford comma is an unnecessary burden. I advocate using it at all times, although most journalists aren’t fans of the comma – perhaps because they can save a couple of spaces by omitting it.




Read more:
Grammarians rejoice in the $10 million comma


The 50p coin

To return to the quote on the coin in question, “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”, placing an Oxford comma after “prosperity”, as Pullman advocates, doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion, to sort out the problem with the quote.

The intent of the quote seems to apply “with all nations” to the three nouns, but by parsing out each section we can see this does not work.

Does “Peace with all nations” make grammatical sense? No.

Does “Prosperity with all nations” make grammatical sense? No.

Whatever committee adapted US President Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration principles “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations” by merely deciding to drop the Oxford comma and echo the rest of his words has resulted in this egregiously inept wording.

As admirable (or pedantic, depending on your feelings about the Oxford comma) as Pullman might be in advocating for the use of the Oxford comma on the coin, it’s clear this coin has committed more than one crime against the rules of grammar.The Conversation

Roslyn Petelin, Course coordinator, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

All hail apostrophes – the heavy lifters who ‘point a sentence in the right direction’



Doing away with the apostrophe is not just the beginning of the end … it’s the end.
www.shutterstock.com

Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

Reports this week about the demise of the Apostrophe Protection Society may have been greatly exaggerated.

The Apostrophe Protection Society was set up in 2001 in the UK by retired journalist John Richards with the aim of “preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English Language”.

When I read that Richards had capitulated to the “ignorance and laziness” of those who wrongly used apostrophes, I toyed with the idea of resurrecting the society in Australia.

There may be no need. A six-fold increase in traffic to the website after the story broke caused the society’s webmaster to close the site down. He has promised to return the archive in the new year. Its survival is important. The apostrophe isn’t all that tricky to get your head around – and doing away with it won’t make language simpler.

Though many get it wrong, others’ contractions are so right.
Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash, CC BY

Its – not it’s – big impact

British newspaper writer Harry Mount once wrote: “missing apostrophes is just ignorant and lazy”. He praised “the device that does so much with so little ink to point a sentence in the right direction”.

Richards’s desire to expel the intrusive greengrocer’s apostrophe (all those mango’s and tomato’s on special discount) mirrors that of Keith Waterhouse, the English columnist renowned as the author of classic comedy novel Billy Liar (1959) and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell – a 1989 play about the musings of a London journalist and alcoholic who is locked overnight in The Coach & Horses Soho pub.

Waterhouse was the self-appointed life president of the (fictional) Association for the Annihilation (also Abolition) of the Aberrant Apostrophe and claimed to have an apostrophe incinerator in his back garden for superfluous apostrophes. His attendant goal was to redistribute ill-placed apostrophes to their rightful location.

Closer to home, the ABC’s Tiger Webb has previously dismissed the apostrophe. And
I have responded with an argument for its preservation (with many fine examples).

We need apostrophes in the right places in examples such as this: “She’d wed him in a shed if we’d agree to it” when letters are left out. And for possession: the “ant’s pants” or the “ants’ pants” and likewise the “bee’s knees” or the “bees’ knees”.

Writers’ rules for writers

Driving along William Street in the Brisbane CBD in 1990, I was horrified to notice painters putting the finishing touches to the signage for the about-to-be-opened Queensland Writers’ Centre. It was without an apostrophe. A phone call to the committee soon corrected that oversight and the apostrophe was used for a while, though the battle was lost in later years.

It’s now known as the Queensland Writers Centre and it hosts the Brisbane Writers Festival each year.

The writers’ festivals held in Byron Bay, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart, and Wollongong are also sans apostrophe. Their respective management committees must have reached an agreement that the word “writers” is used in a descriptive or affiliative sense rather than as a possessive adjective. Thank goodness the committees of the writers’ festivals held in Sydney, Adelaide, the Northern Territory, and the Outback held out.

Possession in place names has caused controversy in the UK and here.

The UK’s National Land and Property Gazetteer, which registers street names, doesn’t require apostrophes in new names, but the rule doesn’t apply to existing signs. Devon and Birmingham unilaterally disposed of the possessive in in all street and road signs in 2009, though the Devon council backtracked shortly after.

In the UK, many places have done away with apostrophes on signs.
Shutterstock

South Australia has removed all apostrophes in place names. The policy of the NSW Geographic Names Board is to have no apostrophe in place names with a final “s”.

The Australian government’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers lists guidelines for other states and the Northern Territory. It’s worth noting the last printed edition of this manual was produced in 2002. A new digital guide to government-endorsed grammar has been promised. At the time it was announced, the digital manual’s product manager imagined a time when:

Clear written communication would be valued and personal preference wouldn’t be an option because there’d be one credible ‘source of truth’ that stated the rules and provided the evidence for why.

Statements like this bode well for its future, though “rules” about language aren’t always black or white. The guide is now in its Beta version and set for release in 2020.

Don’t get it twisted

Within the ranks of those who do subscribe to the possessive apostrophe, I can count on Richard Nordquist for his authoritative guidance and The Chicago Manual of Style for support.

Perhaps the most contentious apostrophe point is how to make singular words ending in “s” possessive. Is it “Dickens’ novels” or “Dickens’s novels”?

The Chicago Manual of Style advocates the extra “s” alternative in all cases, as do I. Even in cases such as “Descartes’s dicta” and “Euripides’s tragedies”.

Only use the contraction ‘it’s’ if it can be replaced by ‘it is’ or ‘it has’.

It is heartening to read related news that, whether or not John Richards’s apostrophe work continues, he might consider a campaign to save the comma from a similar fate.

“The use of the comma is appalling,” he told the BBC. “When I read some newspaper websites they just don’t understand what it is used for.”

This man, a punctuation champion in his 90s, is indomitable.The Conversation

Roslyn Petelin, Course coordinator, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humour, justice, belonging, danger, and wonder: 5 story senses and the art of writing for children



Want to capture the heart and mind of a young reader? The five story senses will set you on the right path.
iam Se7en/Unsplash, CC BY

Sean Williams, Flinders University

At the heart of every adult writer lies a novel they adored as a child. No wonder then so many try to write for kids themselves. So why do they often fail?

Perhaps it’s because, on the whole, adults are taught to write for adults, utilising the full power of the five regular senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell – to evoke meaning in even the most trivial of everyday events.

This approach is less successful with younger readers, for one very simple reason: there are five other senses that speak more potently to them.

Consciously or unconsciously, successful writers use these other senses to hook young readers (and open their parents’ wallets) in ways that seem almost magical.

It’s not magical at all, though.

Here are the five story senses guaranteed to stir a child’s literary heart.

1. Humour

Everyone with kids in their lives knows the horror of a joke compendium: the same old gags we learned in childhood, repeated over and over, quickly lose appeal.

The only thing worse would be forcing kids to stop telling them.

Humour is the key to anyone’s heart.
Ben White/Unsplash, CC BY

It is easy to forget jokes are hilarious the first time around, and funny doesn’t mean trivial. Humourist Terry Pratchett understood a reader can learn just as much from a book that provokes a laugh as from one that doesn’t – and he was the bestselling UK author until J K Rowling came along.

Make a kid laugh and they’ll be a fan forever.

2. Justice

People develop a sense of fairness at a very early age, some studies suggesting it kicks in as early as 12 months. Who doesn’t love seeing justice done? For this reason, crime fiction is one of the biggest genres in the world – and kids are no different to adult readers.




Read more:
Young morals: can infants tell right from wrong?


Few people would seriously suggest a sense of justice should be drummed out of children, but it can definitely be quashed when parental authority is under assault. Kids therefore are constantly on the pointy end of injustice, or feel they are.

This is why Rowling takes Harry back to the despicable Dursleys at the end of every book. Exploiting the sense of justice ensures her readers never lose interest.

3. Belonging

The one genre bigger than crime is romance.

While not all kids will be into romantic love (The Princess Bride notwithstanding), they will have a keen sense of belonging. They have friends, family and pets in their lives, and stories engaging this sense helps them navigate these relationships, particularly when loss or denial is involved.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains a classic because, beneath everything else, it is a story about a young boy finding his place in the world, and in people’s hearts.

4. Danger

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer also contains scenes of terrible peril, as does Doctor Who. Children love to be scared by fictional stories because in life, alas, many find themselves in very real peril. Fiction gives kids a safe way to activate their sense of danger, and maybe learn a life-saving strategy or two, as well.

Fiction is a safe way for children to explore danger.
Anuja Mary Tilj/Unsplash, CC BY

The sense of danger is so fundamental to our psyche that it might actually be hardwired into us: the Moro, or “startle”, reflex is innate in healthy newborns.

There are limits, of course, but no one ever ever lost a young audience by trying to push them. (Parents are a different matter.)

5. Wonder

Everyone will have some of these senses, but some people won’t have all of them. This sense, my personal favourite, is very hard to explain to someone who doesn’t possess it. It is the engine that drives fantasy and science fiction. When something makes a reader go “wow”, their sense of wonder has been engaged.

Kids understand this sense very well, because everything to them is big and new: just note how many synonyms they have for “awesome”. While it too may be drummed out of young people as they age, it can be revived under particular circumstances. Reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has been one for many avid readers.

It is easy to forget The Hobbit predated this work, and, although no less awe-some, it was originally created for children.

These senses are just the start

Hefty doses of humour, justice, belonging, danger, and wonder will go some way towards compensating for deficiencies in other aspects of the writing craft. Children, and many adults, will often choose a good story badly written over a well-made dud.

This formula will also work for other media. Take Star Wars and Avengers movies, for example: both rich in the five story senses, and both part of the Disney stable, home to many other examples.

Any author wanting to pen a bestseller could do worse than start here. As always, though, there is no substitute for hard work – and luck.The Conversation

Sean Williams, Lecturer, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Like volcanoes on the ranges’: how Australian bushfire writing has changed with the climate


Grace Moore, University of Otago

Bushfire writing has long been a part of Australian literature.

Tales of heroic rescues and bush Christmases describe a time when the fire season was confined only to summer months and Australia’s battler identity was forged in the flames.

While some of these early stories may seem melodramatic to the modern reader, they offer vital insights into the scale and timing of fires and provide an important counterpoint to suggestions from some politicians this week that Australia’s fire ecology remains unchanged in the 21st century.




Read more:
Mr Morrison, I lost my home to bushfire. Your thoughts and prayers are not enough


After an apparent bushfire, a horse team pulls timber at Lavers Hill in Victoria, circa 1895.
Museum Victoria/NLA

A contender for the first fictional representation of an Australian bushfire is Mary Theresa Vidal’s The Cabramatta Store (1850). Although she does not specify a month, Vidal is very clear regarding the season and the oppressive, sweltering heat:

It was one of the hottest days of an unusually hot and dry Australian summer. No breeze stirred the thin, spare foliage of the gum-trees, or moved the thick grove of wattles which grew at the back of a rough log hut.

Vidal’s account of the bushfire that ensues is evocative and intense:

The tall trees were some of them red hot to the top; the fire seemed to run apace, and every leaf and stack was so dry there was nothing to impede its progress.

Postcards from Australia


Cambridge University Press

Vidal was not alone in treating fire as a fleeting, one-off incident. Other early accounts, such as Ellen Clacy’s 1854 romance story A Bushfire, or the prolific novelist William Howitt’s A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia of the same year follow Vidal in depicting the bushfire as an isolated catastrophe.

Howitt’s novel takes the form of a notebook kept by Herbert, a recent young migrant, who recounts the wonder of his new life in the Bush. Though he doesn’t experience a fire at first-hand, Herbert regales the reader with another family’s bushfire adventure in lieu of his own. Yet in closing his account, dated January 14, he writes:

I wonder whether, after all, I shall see a bush-fire. During the last week we have seen lurid smoke by day, and a deep-red cloud by night … immense fires are raging in the jungle.

For Herbert, surviving a bushfire is a settler rite of passage and again, the dating of his entry emphasises the fire as a uniquely summer concern. The boyish narrator, though, cannot appreciate the trauma and severity of Antipodean fire.

An annual event

Over time, the settler community began to understand fire as a recurring phenomenon and the tone of fire stories shifted from a triumphant celebration of settler endurance, to a more brooding acceptance that the flames would return another year.


Dymocks

So season-bound was this understanding, a sub-genre of bushfire fiction emerged: the Christmas fire story. These works responded to the Victorian enthusiasm for yuletide tales, while at the same time highlighting the often horrific seasonal tribulations of bush-dwellers.

While there are many examples of Christmas fire stories, one of the best-known is Anthony Trollope’s novella Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874).

The plot, which takes place in the sugar-growing region of Queensland, revolves around the protagonist Harry’s deep fear of fire. Trollope highlights the hostility of the climate, the dangers posed by deforestation, and the deep-rooted anxieties that haunted migrant farmers each summer.

Exotic and dangerous tales from Australia – these images were published in The Australasian sketcher, April 9, 1884 – depicted life for settlers and visitors to those back in England.
Troedel & Co, lithographer/State Library of Victoria

There are countless other works that allow us to map the Victorian era fire season.

Henry Kingsley’s sprawling 1859 novel The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn begins with another date reference:

Near the end of February 1857 … it was near the latter end of summer, burning hot, with the bushfires raging like volcanoes on the ranges, and the river reduced to a slender stream of water.

Once again here, the date identifies fires specifically with the summertime.

Climate emergency fiction

While 19th century fire stories offer a date-stamped and clearly defined fire season, today’s novelists work with a much less predictable set of environmental conditions.

The backdrops for the crime novelist Jane Harper’s thrillers The Dry (2016) and The Lost Man (2018) are tinder-dry rural communities, where years of drought mean fire could erupt at any moment.

Realist writing is capturing changing conditions, just as it did for settlers more than 150 years ago. Australia may always have been the “continent of fire”, as historian Tom Griffiths terms it, but literature shows us those fires are more prolific and less predictable now than ever before.The Conversation

Grace Moore, Senior lecturer in English, the University of Otago, New Zealand, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.