It’s All In The Telling

Guest Author: Maria Chaudhuri

One of the comments I often hear in reference to my recentlymaria chaudhuri 3 published memoir Beloved Strangers is, ‘Oh your life must’ve been really interesting if you felt compelled to write about it.’ This is one of the popular misconceptions that block young writers from writing the stories they really want to write. Life itself is neither interesting nor boring. It is a series of events that happen to us. It is one’s response to these events that give life any meaning at all. From a writer’s perspective, the art and craft of writing lies in presenting this ‘response’ in as rich, as evocative and as engaging a manner as possible. The simplest plot can have great impact if the storytelling taps deep into the reader’s heart and mind. The most complex of plots can fail to have much impact if the craft of storytelling falls short of the nuances and intricacies that every reader hopes for when they pick up a book.

Beloved StrangersI would encourage every young writer to shift some of their focus on creating a plot to reflecting more on their own response to the plot and to see if that might set the story apart from others or touch a special chord with the reader. For example, there may be a touching story about a cancer patient who goes through great pain and difficulties – rendering much sympathy in the reader and rightfully so – and this will make for the agonizing tale that it is. But a similar story about a cancer patient who finds his illness liberating because he can now do whatever he wants in the short time left may spark less sympathy but more intrigue in the reader’s mind. The plot of a story – i.e. the actual events – is just a framework. The flesh and blood comes from the author’s treatment of this framework.

I hope that I was able to do some of that through Beloved Strangers. It is not a story of great events or feats or mystery. Rather it is a story of how everyday things change the very foundation of our beings, how words and actions can make us feel homeless, how the most beloved people in our lives can seem like total strangers. I wanted the reader to see and acknowledge that pain, reflection and reformation can come in many forms and in many ways. There are people who feel rootless and unconnected without having to live on the streets and it is possible to feel unloved and misunderstood by even those who have your best interest at heart. If you truly believe in something, anything, then give it expression and it will come alive. Don’t wait for the perfect story to come to you. Simply wait to feel perfectly strongly about the stories that do come to you.

About the Author:

Maria Chaudhuri was born in Bangladesh and lived there till the end of her high school years. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Religion from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Post-college, Chaudhuri moved to New York for work, while studying Screenwriting and Feature Writing at New York University. A lot of her writing focuses on personal experience, especially drawn from the perspectives of being a Bengali woman living in both Bangladesh and abroad and as a person who has never been able to call one place ‘home’.

In 2009, Chaudhuri received her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College in Vermont, where she studied creative nonfiction and started working on a memoir that spans her experiences of growing up in the bustling metropolis of Dhaka and then returning to live there after many years. She has had essays, features and short stories published in various collections, journals and literary magazines. She currently lives and writes in Hong Kong.

Lao – The Victim Finds a (Crotchety) Voice

Guest Author: Colin Cotterill

photo credit to peter janssen - CopyLaos, in both its royalist and communist incarnations, has ever been the victim of bullies. The Thais had their wicked way with her as its empire expanded. The French forced her to wear a corset of a land border that trussed together some thirty non-harmonious ethnic groups then put a ridiculous ‘S’ on the end of her name. Then the Americans wined and dined her generals and bombed the daylights out of her. After being converted to socialism the Vietnamese took her hand and dragged her unprepared into the new millennium. Currently, the Chinese are invading her one hectare of cash crops at a time. Poor Laos has rarely been the minder of her own destiny.

Dr. Siri Paiboun, its fictional national coroner, brought to life in the award winning novels of Colin Cotterill, is slowly making the world aware of the indignities his country has been forced to put up with. Siri, seventy-four, a frustrated member of the communist party and battle hardened surgeon, does not suffer fools lightly. He says exactly what he feels and is constantly stepping on the toes of his employers with his non-regulation leather sandals. He’s ornery, drinks too much rice whisky, and is prone to possession by more ethereal spirits.

So, what kind of woman could love such a man? In Dr. Siri’sbook - Copy ninth adventure, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die’, we learn of the history of his new wife, Madame Daeng. The ex-freedom fighter and spy for the underground movement had long been carrying a torch for the old man. She’d first met him upon his return from twenty years of education in Paris and fifty odd years on, her patience has paid off. They have become a devoted couple. But with the release of previously classified documents in France, her identity is revealed and there are those who would seek her out for revenge. Only the doctor stands between her and a horrible death. And then there is a village woman who has come back to life after being burned at the pyre. And then there are ghosts and hidden treasure and boat races, and, of course, a lot of drinking.

But, as in each of the previous tales, it is Laos, the country itself that takes the starring role in these stories. It is 1978 and the administration openly admits its incompetence. It is bound in red tape to the point of inertia and rightly paranoid about the intentions of its neighbours. Movement from one village to the next is virtually impossible and the forced introduction of rice cooperatives has rendered the peasants even poorer than they had ever been during the years of fighting.

Modern crime fiction has educated its readers as to the technological shortcuts and communication innovations available to today’s policemen. But imagine an investigation with no crime scene gadgets, no police records, no cooperation. Imagine an elderly couple attempting to evade an assassin and solve an historical mystery. This is the thoroughly annoying but intoxicating world of Dr. Siri Paiboun.

Exclusive Video Book Review: The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die by Colin Cotterill

Colin Cotterill talks about The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die

About Author:

Colin Cotterill was born in London in 1952. He worked as a teacher and social worker for most of his life before coming late onto the writing scene in his fifties. Since then he has introduced two series, one set in PDR Laos, the other in Thailand where he lives with his wife and a number of annoying dogs.

Mining Your Gold

Guest Author: Barbara Diane Barry

_MG_3686-low-res-cropped - CopyI never thought of myself as a writer.  I certainly didn’t envision my name on a future book. But, I was a great note taker. As an artist and art teacher I was always jotting down something about the process at hand whether I was painting, sculpting or teaching a class.

A long time artist familiar with the trials of finding and losing her muse, I originally focused on teaching art as a way to render life on paper. After years of doing battle with my own creative blocks I turned to teaching others how to honor and break free to give birth to their own creative imaginings. I focused more on the process of painting itself, with its stages of inspiration, blocks, and flow, rather than technique. However, it was during a move to New York City from the burbs, that I truly discovered how painting every day in a journal could not only ignite my creativity, but also help me release feelings and ground fears about my new life so that I could make everyday decisions more easily and get past what was blocking me. I felt a strong desire to share my insights not only with my students but with anyone who might be struggling to make similar changes as I was. Could I put this in a book? How would I begin?

I decided to go back and read the notes I’d kept on my first improv Painting Your Way Out of a Corner: The Art of Getting Unstuckstudents while they painted. In the file I found a series of letters I’d written to help them reflect on the blocks that arose and how to make sense of their revelations in a wider context. Here was the foundation for the book! I would expand on these essays and make improvisation something people could practice on their own without the need for an elaborate studio set up. The notes I’d taken supplied the anecdotal material I needed to illustrate my main concepts.

Over and over, I found that I already possessed some seed of the material I was going to need. As I was writing about the “Aha” experience I remembered an article I’d read and saved about the brain’s ability to pull disparate and seemingly unrelated ideas together. I thought, “That would be helpful for my readers to know – their brain is already able to do this. They just need to practice a little.” The next thing I knew I was adding more research about the ways the brain supports creative process and how we can help it along simply by a practice of painting freely.

Whenever I got stuck in the writing process I turned to painting in my journal. I would either breakthrough any surmounting tension or find my next idea. Creation doesn’t happen in vacuum. Scratching through my files and folders, or scribbling with paint, I found ideas that I already had and built on them.  My recommendation to anyone wanting to create is to do the same. Mine your gold. Better still; mine it by playing with paint. The wandering brush goes its own way and suddenly something interesting shows up on the page that you didn’t know was inside you or you discover an old edict pressuring you to be perfect. That’s when you paint your way through it.  There’s nothing better to stir up creative juices and pull disparate ideas together then playing with paint. Disparate ideas you already possess in the files of your mind.       

Enjoy the First Hand Video Review by Barbara Diane Barry on Her Book, “Paint Your Way Out of a Corner”

Barbara Diane Barry talks about her book, "Paint Your Way Out of a Corner"

About Author:

Barbara Barry is an artist and teacher in New York City.  She is the creator of Art for Self-Discovery (www.artforselfdiscovery.com) an art program for adults and children. As a teaching artist at Symphony Space, she teaches in public schools throughout NYC’s five boroughs and gives tours in the city’s leading museums. She is also on the faculty of Continuing Education at The C. G. Jung Foundation of New York and the South Street Seaport Museum, enhancing curricula with art making.

Her new book, “Painting Your Way Out of a Corner: The Art of Getting Unstuck, is a guide to personal transformation through the practice of journal keeping and image–making.

Guest Author Peter Worley On His Book, “Once Upon An If”

Guest Author: Peter Worley

PeterStories are as old – almost – as breath itself.  Teaching too. And the relationship between the two is just as old. But the nature of that relationship has changed with the times. Once Upon an If: The Storythinking Handbook is a book about thinking with stories and has been written to the tune of ‘thinking with stories for oneself’, in other words critically and creatively.

Having found storytelling to be the most effective way to engage difficult-to-engage classes – as well as getting that message across to any teacher struggling to engage a class – I also wanted to write a book that shared the craft of storytelling, particularly as it pertains to teaching good thinking with stories. The section entitled ‘Sheherazad’s Handbook’, after the storytelling character in The Thousand and One Arabian Nights collection, aims to do just that, as I could not find a similar guide when I needed it. Though the book can be used by a teacher who intends to read the stories (in fact, there’s a section on how to read stories well), the ‘handbook’ helps a would-be storytelling teacher to use (among other things) their voice, body, hands, eyes, props, language, classroom space, person perspective, tenses, pause, movement, gestures, structure and even the senses to help engage a class through storytelling – all skills that can be used in other areas of teaching too.

The book contains, in its third section, a collection of stories,once upon an if each one a  new resource, but also an example of a kind of story and a kind of approach for using stories for teaching and thinking. So, it includes examples of:

  • Stories about stories (‘The Matches’ and ‘Once Upon an If’ parts 1 and 2)
  • Dialogue stories (‘The Cat That Barked’)
  • Parables (‘The Patience of Trees’, ‘The Six Wise Men’)
  • 2nd person stories (‘The Magic Crown’, ‘Flat Earth’)
  • Tall Tales/anecdote (‘Il Duomo)
  • Narrative stories (‘The Sinbad Stories’)
  • Stories in Verse (‘The Luckiest Man in The World’)
  • Allegory (‘Water People’)

The ‘Storythinking’ section equips a teacher with many ways to use stories to help classes think better with and about stories. For instance, when is it best to stop a story and hold a discussion? What are the best questions to ask and how should they be asked? How do you approach the ‘moral of the story’? (This is one of the clearest indicators of how the relationship between stories and teaching has changed over the years.) How can role-play help children face, more forcefully, the horns of a dilemma? ‘The Thinking Kit’ section outlines some original techniques for critical thinking in the classroom developing strategies introduced in the earlier books The If Machine and The If Odyssey. Worth mentioning and of particular interest to teachers who struggle to get children to approach and unpack metaphors is a new procedure called ‘The Concept Box’. This is a tried-and-tested method for getting classes to identify for themselves central concepts and themes in a story or poem (or other things metaphor-related) to enable them to engender discussions around stories and poems without the need for the teacher to intervene in exasperation with such exclamations as, ‘But it’s not really about that!’

About Author:

Peter Worley BA MA FRSA is co-founder and CEO of The Philosophy Foundation, President of SOPHIA, and an award-winning author of five books about doing philosophy in schools.

Peter is resident philosopher at 4 state primary schools in Lewisham, visiting philosopher at Wellington College and Eagle House School, and is a Visiting Research Associate at Kings College London’s Philosophy Department. He has delivered training for philosophy departments across the UK, including Edinburgh, Warwick, Oxford Brookes and Birmingham Universities. You can find more about him at http://www.philosophy-foundation.org/

Arcanum – Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

Guest Author: Simon Morden

Simon - CopyHaving trained as a scientist, gaining a PhD and eventually teaching, my writing has often revolved around science and technology – as a matter of course, I’ve tried to make the science as accurate as possible. Arcanum is a very different book, because it involves magic.

When the idea for the story came to me, it was on this basis: here was a society dominated by powerful magic, where every aspect of life was made easier by the use of magic items, from ever-shining lights, through carts and barges that propelled themselves, through to millstones that turned on their own. Science wasn’t so much stagnant as unnecessary. Even that great driver of scientific innovation, warfare, was rendered impotent, because the land was defended by sorcerers of such power that they could destroy invading armies by turning the ground they stood on into lakes of lava. So there is Carinthia, a magical superpower at the heart of a alternative Europe, wedded to the old Germanic gods, a centre for trade, rich and peaceful, surrounded by fractious, envious, warring princes picking up crumbs from the Carinthian table.

But what does a magic kingdom do when it runs out of magic? Surrounded by their enemies, all but defenseless, a social order that has stood unchanged for a thousand years crumbling by the hour, and led by a man brought up to not just believe in, but expect, Carinthian superiority in everything – ruinous civil war, invasion and extinction are the most likely outcomes.Arcanum

The seeds of their salvation don’t lie with the shattered Carinthian nobility, or in the ruined towers of the wizards. They lie in the much-neglected library, created on a whim by a long-dead prince and maintained by poorly paid and poorly regarded librarians who, despite everything, have managed to amass the greatest collection of manuscripts in Europe. Somewhere, hidden amongst the uncatalogued scrolls and books, is the beginning of the scientific revolution, and a whole new way of life, founded not on the strict hierarchy of lord and commoner, sorcerer and mundane, but on a much more democratic order of administrators, scientists and technicians.

Arcanum was always conceived as a story about change, about sweeping away the old and seeing what would grow in its place. What I didn’t anticipate was the profound, passionate ways my characters would embrace that change. These are people whose history and life has told them that everything always stays the same, and when confronted with disaster, quietly and with great dignity they step forward to meet the challenge head on. They know that they might fail, and in failing lose everything – but in Arcanum it all rests on a knife edge. I try to present ordinary people, men and women doing ordinary jobs, being called on to do the extraordinary. Which is where we come in.

About Author:

Simon Morden is the author of the Philip K Dick award-winning Samuil Petrovitch novels (Equations of Life, Theories of Flight, Degrees of Freedom, The Curve of the Earth), as well as Heart, The Lost Art and Arcanum. He also writes short stories (with two collections, Brilliant Things and Thy Kingdom Come), and often comments about the interface between faith and fiction writing. Several of his essays and some of his short fiction can be found at simonmorden.com

Stay Connected