National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenges writers to write a novel during November. Begun in the USA in 1999, it is now an international event
NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge, when aspiring and established fiction-writers take to their computers in an attempt to write a 50 000 word novel in just thirty days. The idea is to write a first draft, rather than to complete the project.
Can you write a novel that quickly? Do you think it’s possible?
Writing about vulnerable people in memoir is tricky. There are no absolute guidelines. Compassionate writing boils down to the writer’s personal moral and ethical codes. For me, these are based on my Catholic faith and the Australian Code of professional conduct for nurses. Moral and ethical codes differ for everyone.
People become vulnerable when others assume a position of power. Everyone is vulnerable at least some of the time. This means all relationships have elements of power and vulnerability. Having power means it is possible to inflict harm, suffering or damage. The more dependent one party is on the other, the greater their vulnerability. The act of writing itself may make a subject vulnerable.
A memoir is a story from one’s own life. Almost all of our stories involve other people. Because of this, we can’t write about ourselves without also writing about vulnerable people. Some of our subjects may be vulnerable people.
Disadvantaged people are always at risk of harm. They cannot access the benefits available to other people in the wider society. This means they are rendered voiceless. Writing about vulnerable people demands great care and compassion.
Many conditions render individuals powerless and vulnerable. For example,
Infants and young children are defenceless.
Frail old age can render people helpless.
Physical, intellectual or emotional disabilities usually mean increased dependence.
People who are financially reliant on others have less power than those who control the money.
Gender can also be a factor – for example, women are more likely to be victims of familial violence than men.
The poor, the oppressed and asylum seekers are always vulnerable.
The lovely Hebrew word ‘Anawim’ is used in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, to describe vulnerable people – the poor, the humble and the powerless.
Through depiction by writers, powerless people and their lives are in danger of falsification. They are unable to examine, respond to, or resist, misrepresentation. They cannot recognise themselves in the way they have been presented. This is an abusive situation which can be both painful and disorientating.
Writing about vulnerable people
Australian journalists have a code of ethics. But in the end, the editorial policy of their publisher determines what is published. Finding an ethical code for general writers is also a problem.
Ethical and moral decision-making are not always straightforward. Ethics are complex. They may differ across cultures and even from one individual to another. Often an ethical decision depends on the circumstances of a particular case.
A simple approach to writing ethically about others might be to start from the four main principles on which systems of duty ethics are based in our culture. These are
respect for the autonomy of the other person and a recognition of his or her unconditional worth;
the intention to do no harm;
beneficience, or the intention to bring about good; and
justice, which implies responsibility, agency, accountability and intentionality.
In other words, the first aim of moral writing about vulnerable people is, at the very least, to do no harm to those one writes about. The second is to bring about some of the benefits for individuals and groups that can result from story-telling. At the same time, the writer must minimise the costs to everyone involved.
Some life-writers accept the idea of harm that is so broad that any life writing that causes others to feel humiliation or annoyance is unethical. In my view, that is an inappropriately restrictive standard. As part of ethical decision-making, writers need to ask ourselves if the harm is trivial or serious. We also need to consider if such harm is justified in the context of what we are trying to achieve.
Most life-writers believe they have a responsibility to tell the truth about the world as they see it. There is a need for caution in relation to censorship by others, in case the truth is a casualty. Memoir writers also have a responsibility to be trustworthy story-tellers. To allow censorship is to damage trust.
Accepting censorship might also mean that memoirs about child abuse, domestic violence or harm caused by institutions and governments, for example, would not be written. Justice for victims overrides any discomfort or annoyance that may be experienced by perpetrators of abuse and harm.
To do no harm to those who are vulnerable forms the basis of most codes of ethics. This means writers must not deliberately hurt anyone through what they publish. Many writers, including me, subscribe to the idea that we must try also to do good with our writing.
If we edit our work with compassion, our writing about vulnerable people and everyone else will be ethical. I believe such writing will sing.
I can’t imagine anything worse than to be diagnosed and labelled mentally ill. To be diagnosed with a mental illness in our society means almost certainly to be sentenced to a life of stigma.
A few years ago, I had a narrow escape. The circumstances of my life changed – dramatically. In spite of my best efforts, I seemed unable to regain control. As a result, I was diagnosed with hypertension and cardiac arrhythmia. I was prescribed medication. From the second dose, I knew the drugs did not suit me.
I became a constant visitor at my general practitioner. Her eyes glazed over as I tried to explain symptoms of muscle pain and weakness, lethargy, dizziness and sadness. She prescribed yet more medication. Growing more and more miserable, I changed doctors. I was irritable and weepy. I became withdrawn and felt ashamed of myself. My depression deepened almost daily.
Thankfully, one of my daughters asked what was wrong. She made an appointment with a cardiologist. In hospital, the medications were changed and reduced to minimal dosages in line with good practice. My recovery was miraculous. I regained my health and good spirits and averted being labelled mentally ill.
Power and vulnerability are implicit in all human relationships. The nature of mental ill health implies that the person is dependent on and controlled by psychiatrists and the mental health system.
Mental illness exacerbates the misery of already disadvantaged groups. These include youth and the aged, homeless and Aboriginal people, rural men and fly-in, fly out workers.
While the Western Australian government was setting shark nets at great expense to save a few surfers last year, people committed suicide in large numbers. More people committed suicide than were killed in car accidents.
Yet mental health care is overlooked time and again in government funding rounds.
For most people, accessing adequate care within the mental health system is problematic. Hospital stays following suicide attempts and psychotic events are short. People regularly return to emergency departments only to be turned away.
For other people, being labelled mentally ill and involvement within the overstretched health care system can become a nightmare. There can be many horrendous consequences.
One young woman I know was labelled mentally ill some years ago. One might have expected she would have been supported to mother her child with the support of her loving family. But the earlier diagnosis meant the effective loss of her newborn baby.
During her pregnancy social work staff in the public health system and officers from the Department of Family Services and Child Protection met with the mother and grandmother. They developed a so-called ‘safety plan’ for the mother and baby following discharge from hospital.
The plan went dramatically wrong. The father claimed custody of the child on the grounds of the young woman’s mental illness. Twelve days after his birth, the tiny breast-feeding infant was removed from his mother by an order of the Family Court.
The baby was given to the father who had not even lived with the young woman. He also had a history of mental illness and of drug use. He had no previous experience of child care and very little family support.
Now the mother is allowed access to her baby for a few hours four times a week.
The child protection workers have devised more and yet more ‘safety plans’. These include strict supervision of the mother at all times she is with her baby. I have watched the family members who are nominated supervisors. Over the last four months, they have become frazzled with the constant requirement to be available.
There will be many more such stories. But people labelled mentally ill do not have the resources to fight the system. They do not have a voice to tell the rest of society what can happen.
A memoir without a trustworthy story-teller is just another piece of fiction.
There’s been a storm raging in an on-line writers’ group to which I belong. The argument is about whether it’s OK for memoir-writers to change the names of people and details of events in their stories. It seems some writers feel the need to protect themselves from legal action. Others fear the wrath of those they write about. Yet others want to protect the vulnerable.
Reading memoirs is a passion of mine. I write them, too. I’m amazed that it’s taken so long for me to write about my passion here.
During the three years of my PhD candidacy at Edith Cowan University I wrote a memoir and grappled with ideas about what makes a trustworthy story-teller for a major essay.
I came to the conclusion that what sets memoir-writing apart from fiction is that the memoir-writer can say, ‘This happened; these people and places existed; these thoughts, feelings and opinions are mine. This story matters because it tells the truth.’
A memoir-writer deals with limited facts. He or she makes a pact with the reader that the honesty of the memoir lies in its emotional truth.
Readers share the pact with memoir-writers. When readers accept that what they’re reading is the truth, they imply that they understand and respect the sincerity of what they are told. While they may not share the writer’s values they’ll accept them as the writer’s reality.
Telling the truth in life writing is a matter of both ethics and aesthetics. Ethically, to falsify a story by changing names or events is to damage the relationship between writer and reader. Because of the reader’s trust, a writer occupies a position of power. If he or she distorts the truth or tells blatant untruths it creates a false world.
Dealing honestly with limited facts demands storytelling skill, not falsification.
Writers should share insights about what matters to them, what preoccupies them, things for which they have a passion. Memoir is a way of using creative and artistic means to tell a wide readership about places, people and events without preaching, lecturing or hiding behind falsehood.
Such writing is a political act.
It is possible to present an ethical expression when writing about the ills of the world.
This is true even when one is the survivor of abuse or adverse events. One way is to position oneself as a confessing subject, and to reveal personal details and to describe the effects of the conflict, contradiction and disruptive adventures which led to the story.
Memoir is about the teller as much as the story. The genre requires the subjective voice of the trustworthy story-teller to be clear, conspicuous and unmistakable. As readers, we expect the writer to express a personal opinion.
The writer’s thoughts, feelings and musings about people and events are even more significant when they are portrayed in a way that is compassionate towards others and detached about themselves.
The credentials of a trustworthy story-teller include the person he or she has become as result of the experience, as well as the scars that are left.
Creativity and playfulness (having fun) always exist together. Children at play create. They experiment with whatever is at hand. They invent new roles and try them out.
Creative people talk about ‘playing with ideas’. Artists and writers, cooks and gardeners all experiment. They try out new ways of doing things. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, ‘Creativity is the intellect having fun.’
Play can be defined as engagement in activity for enjoyment and recreation. Its opposite is activity undertaken for a serious or practical purpose. Play engages the brain in ways that silence the “inner editor,” which censors a person’s thoughts and ideas. Play enables one to see problems from a different angle. It helps to generate solutions.
Sometimes creativity and playfulness become difficult, if not impossible. Problems arise that make our lives difficult or tedious. We feel anxious and exhausted or else we become agitated and distressed.
Relaxation and rest are the antidotes to onerous events and occasions. Recreation and play restore vitality to minds and bodies. Play is a form of self-care which nourishes our spirits. It can be boisterous and rowdy. It can involve fun and frivolity. Sometimes, it is peaceful and restful.
Our own well-being and our relationships flourish when we play. We have fun with our lovers, our children and friends. Fooling around with colleagues helps to relieve stress at work.Play can also be a solitary pursuit.
Attitude and choice are important. Most situations improve when we choose to bring creativity and playfulness into the equation. How we think about what we do changes how we do it. Imagination-at-play creates fun. Instead of vacuuming, imagine dancing with the cleaner. Instead of washing the car, play with the bubbles. Pilot an aeroplane while driving. Think up new ways to do the same old chores.
Very young children play by themselves. As they mature they play alongside others before finally learning to play with others. At each stage, they learn through their play. We can recapture and use those stages of playfulness.
Our creative selves are like children. They need the one-on-one nurturing that children need. Making things at any age demands a constant supply of sensory images and ideas. It also requires openness to imagination and possibilities.
Julia Cameron, author of many books on creativity, including The Artist’s Way, suggests we should take ourselves regularly on ‘creative dates’. She describes these as planned outings undertaken alone. Each outing should be for a couple of hours, weekly. The purpose is to ‘fill the well’ of sensory imagery that can be drawn on in later creative activities. A haberdashery shop, a model railway display, a place of worship different from the one you usually attend, a beach, a park or a bus ride all qualify. The list is endless. The idea is to be as curious and open as a child.
As John Cleese says, ‘The very essence of playfulness is an openness to anything that may happen, the feeling that whatever happens, it’s okay…’
Can we nurture creativity, our own or that of our children?
It’s a pity we even have to ask the question. Pre-school children show intriguing powers of creativity. They invent and experiment as they play. They imagine what it would be like to be another person – Mum, Dad, teacher, doctor, ballerina, helicopter-pilot. Their drawings and paintings are free and uninhibited.
Sadly, though, there has to be a high level of conformity for a society to function well. There’s very little room left for innovation or imagination. Thinking must be channelled. Creativity must be moderated. Parents and teachers impose their ideas on their charges. That’s their job.
Early in their school lives, most kids discover that originality and imagination are no longer valued. A few lucky ones, those who have teachers and parents who are themselves creative, escape the mould. Those kids grow up to become non-conformists and eccentrics, artists and innovators.
Thankfully, even the strictest or most unimaginative parent or teacher can’t entirely snuff out individual creativity. Because it’s an innate human trait, we all manage to hang on to some of the inventive spirit we were born with. In spite of mass production, no two houses are decorated in the same way. No two gardens are identical. Once past adolescence, people dress differently from each other. Our speech and conversation patterns vary. Life without a little creative spirit would be very dull indeed.
Fortunately, the tiny spark of creativity in us all can be fanned into a flame and fed. We can indeed nurture creativity. The people society acknowledges as ‘creative’ – artists, writers and inventors, for example, know that creativity must be nurtured. They all have ways to fan the flame, even if they think about it differently. No one is too old or too young to be more creative.
My husband, John Fleming, snapped last weekend as he climbed a tree to look down a well on the other side of the fence
Some ways to nurture creativity
Here is a starter list of activities that might help to nurture creativity.
Play with intimate partners, children, colleagues and animals
Laugh, out loud. Find what makes you laugh and do more of it
Have fun with ideas of all sorts
Ask ‘What if?’ Often.
Indulge your curiosity – ask questions about everything
Mix with other creative people in your own field
Mix with creative people in all fields
Enjoy other people’s (and your children’s) creative work
Experiment with elements of your job, cooking, gardening, house-cleaning
Try new things – new food, places, hobbies, sports
Learn new skills
Learn a musical instrument or a new language
Visit new places – a nearby art gallery, a church, tool-shop, haberdashery, battery shop
Visit your usual haunts, but be aware of what you see, smell, touch
Do old activities in new ways. (Clean your teeth or write with your non-dominant hand. Back the car into the garage if you always go in front first. Take a different route to work – or catch a bus or train if you usually drive. Anything!)
Read. A lot. Try different genres. Try poetry, science fiction, romance, non-fiction, thrillers, memoir, classics, jam labels… Everything we read feeds our creativity. No topic is out of bounds
Have several (or many) hobbies
Be involved in more than one project at a time. Projects feed on each other in some mysterious way
Start a new project
Be mindful of sounds, odours, tastes, sights, tactile experiences
Journal writing is my favourite creative tool. It is also my favourite tool for living.
‘My journal’ spans the last fifteen years. It’s written in a series of cheap chain store exercise books which take up two shelves of a bookcase. Unlike the beauties that feature on Pinterest boards, my journal is ordinary.
Three pages written in longhand first thing every day, get easier with practice. The pages aren’t for anyone else’s eyes. I love the fact that even my Censor (who often looks like a lion ready to pounce) has nothing to do when I write morning pages. Without him looking over my shoulder telling me what I can write, there’s space to moan and complain, I can play, change and grow.
The pages don’t nag about single words and half-formed ideas, poor grammar or spelling mistakes. They don’t mind that my never-copperplate writing has deteriorated over the years or that some pages are illegible. They don’t worry if I’m tired, grumpy, depressed, disappointed. They don’t care if I’m elated, joyful or complacent.
Content doesn’t matter, either. As long as my hand keeps moving over the page, all is well. If I write, ‘I can’t think of anything to write,’ a couple of times, some other part of my brain takes over. Before long, words, sentences and ideas tumble onto the page. They tell me what I’m thinking and feeling, what I need to do or what I’m longing for.
I stumbled on the idea of morning pages serendipitously. Julia Cameron’s inspirational book, The Artist’s Way, was on display in the bookstall at an Intergenerational Conference where I was speaking on advocacy for older people. I’d never heard of the writer or the book. It didn’t fit with the conference theme, but something about it attracted me. I bought it. That was one of my most significant purchases ever. The Artist’s Way would probably be the most life-changing book I’ve read.
Soon, morning pages, journal writing in another guise, became entrenched in my life. It’s is hard to imagine abandoning the practice of filling the pages.
Often the writing is mundane. Sometimes it is energetic and exciting. Journal writing pushed me into Masters and Doctoral degrees. Mostly the ideas are good, sometimes not so good. As a result of an idea while writing, I once painted an old wooden outdoor setting brilliant turquoise. It was fun, but the chairs and table looked odd under the wisteria in my cottage garden. Someone carted the furniture away ten minutes after I put it on the verge outside my house.
There are tear-spattered pages in my journal – memorials to personal tragedy and overwhelming sadness. Highlighted passages, asterisks and arrows confirm exciting breakthroughs when new ideas I could use in my work, writing and life tumbled onto the page.
My journals incorporates ‘to do’ lists, written once a week in coloured Textas. They act as prompts for things I have to do or hope to achieve in the short term. At the back are lists of longer-term goals. The lists grow organically from what I’ve written.
My journal writing is
A creative prompt
Inspiration for writing
A place to play with ideas
A change agent
A problem-solving space
An aid to deep and clear thinking
An organising tool
A record of my life.
Journal writing is also discipline in the best sense of the word. It is often prayer.
My life without lists is unimaginable. I don’t know how I’d operate without them. Some of my lists are ongoing. Others spring up whenever there’s a new need, or simply because I feel like making a catalogue or a record. Mostly my lists are about the future. Occasionally, they’re open-ended records.
My lists have been quite furtive, a slight embarrassment, really. In my life, anything can be an excuse for a list. The truth is that I really love writing and using them. If I’m not making lists it’s because I’m miserable or unwell. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: when I’m not making lists, I become miserable…
Recently, two things helped me focus on the idea of lists. The first was that someone who read my new manuscript said they’d been struck by the number of lists it contains. A global search showed far too many semi-colons (the device I use without thinking for separating items in writing). I rewrote the offending passages immediately.
Second, a number of ‘pins’ have appeared on the social media platform Pinterest These have been lists about ways to be creative, or more creative. These pins about creativity all seem to include making lists.
I’ve decided to come clean about my own list-making.
List-making is a family habit. My father, a cardboard box maker by trade and a dreamer by inclination, always made lists. He took his list-making so seriously that he even cut special cards exactly the right shape to fit into his shirt pockets. His cards were white, with a lovely writing surface. Now my brother, Peter Stone, keeps me supplied with similar cards cut exactly to my specifications.
Peter (of The Big Picture Factory, a useful resource for artists, writers and other creative people) is one of the most original thinkers I know. He makes lists. So does our sister, Elizabeth Worts, owner of Dowerin Bed and Breakfast in the Eastern Wheat Belt of Western Australia. You can see the blog I posted about Elizabeth here.
A list can serve many functions, besides being an organising tool
Here are a few of the things lists can do:
Generate ideas for current and future projects
Provide a sense of control and mastery
Organise and contain inner chaos
Help select and prioritise tasks
Show the steps to achieve a goal
Set the stage for commitment and action
Show what is important and what is trivial
Help manage overwhelming task-loads
Record and rank achievement
Lists can be strictly utilitarian, like the one on the refrigerator door with the groceries that need to be replaced or a list of things to do before the holidays.
But others are more personal and creative, like the ‘to-do’ list I write every Saturday morning in my journal as a reminder of what I’m looking forward to, what I hope to achieve and the things I must do during the following week. I use colours to highlight the different categories of activities. In the back of my journal, I have a list of short-term goals.
My ‘birthday list’ – a record in a pretty notebook that goes back perhaps fifteen years – is a review of what I’ve done as well as a substantial catalogue of what I hope to achieve in the following year.
As well as these, there are at least thirty-two other current lists on my computer, in notebooks or on cards. They include things I’m grateful for and the oceans I’ve paddled my feet in. No wonder I’m embarrassed about my list-making. Obviously, keeping that many lists up to date can be time-consuming but there’s always room for more.
I’d like to start some new ones along these lines:
New ideas to ponder
Things to do before I’m too old
Things to learn
Things I want to know how to do
Things I should change
My favourite things
Thank you again for visiting my post. I’d be fascinated to hear about the lists other people make in comments .