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Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

Posted originally on April 21, 2010, but the content has since been slightly edited for better context.

 

The art of writing — though on some days, writing feels more like a science experiment gone wrong — is a slippery slope. The faster you try to scale the incline, the faster you lose your foothold and scramble downwards.

I believe writing is something that you discover, experience and learn over time and with patience and perseverance.

As I gather information about literary agents, editors, submission guidelines et al, I keep hearing two words – loud and clear – again and again. Critique Group. That seems to be the mantra today in the writing business, and rightly so!

As the publishing industry stands today, most of the houses are refusing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. In plain speak, they are not accepting manuscripts that come directly, if they are not exclusively requested by them, from the author. They will only look at manuscripts that reached their tables through a literary agent. This guarantees, for them, that the manuscript has gone through at least one round of checking for marketability and viability, along with some editing.

Literary agents, I hear, in turn want to make sure that the manuscript that they consider has at least been objectively reviewed. And this is where our two magic words come in.

A critique group consists of, as its name suggests, a group of people (writers in this case) who come together to critique each other’s work, objectively. Now, that last word is key. So, who constitutes a good critique group for you? A group of writers who are serious about writing, and are willing to be interested in your work enough to be critical about it.

Choose a group that fits your personality and your expectations of the level of critique. This is very important, or you’d be left being part of a group that does nothing for your learning process. It also helps to have the various members of the group writing for different age groups and in various genres. This provides for a better scope of learning.

I have been part of a face-to-face critique group for several years — I’ve been lucky enough to find peers (now my dear friends) who enhance my writing experience in all aspects. This may not always be the case. In which case, try different groups until you can find one that suits your needs.

Online critique groups are in now. And why not? They have some advantages (along with disadvantages, of course) over the traditional group. They eliminate the need for meeting in person at a fixed time – you can work at your own pace and time. The same point may also sometimes work as a drawback. Due to lack of a restriction in meeting time, others things may bump critiquing down the list when your plate is full.

It is also advised that you belong to more than one group in order to get as varied and in-depth an input on your work as possible.

This is what my critique group has been for me when it came to my writing:

–          My support group

–          My coaches

–          My cheering squad

–          My fellow-students

–          The harshest critics of my work

And I wouldn’t want them any other way. I have been fortunate enough to find a group where everyone is serious about writing and is committed to the mutual growth of every member as a writer.

In short, your critique group is a big part of your writing family.

Here are some basics that my group follows implicitly:

When you are offering a critique:

  • Begin the critique you’re offering with positive feedback.
  • Any comments (even the negatives you bring up) can and should be made constructively. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear kid gloves every time you offer a negative comment, but it doesn’t hurt to modulate it.
  • Offer your opinions as such and not as hard facts, because they are just that – your opinions.
  • Critique the work and not the writer. Refrain from using words like: “You said here…”. Instead, say, “This character sounds older than his age.” etc.
  • Remember that if a character expresses debatable opinions, that does not necessarily mean that the author subscribes to those opinions.

When you are receiving critique:

  • Be open-minded. You are asking for feedback, so be prepared to hear both positive and negative comments. In fact, be hopeful that you will receive more of the second kind, which will help you better your work.
  • Remember you are not your work – learn to effectively divorce yourself from your writing. This will allow you to receive comments/critiques much more openly.
  • Be respectful of others’ opinions. You have asked for them.
  • Finally, week after week, if all you hear is “Wonderful work”, “Nothing amiss” etc., then it is time to look for another group.

Did you notice something?

The principles above do not necessarily apply to only writing. They hold equally well to any other situation in life.

Consider the following scenarios, for instance:

–          You are required to review a technical document written by a peer.

–          You are discussing right and wrong with your child.

–          You are trying to pitch a new idea to your boss.

–          You are bargaining for a car at the dealership.

Aren’t the above rules relevant to these settings, too?

I think that’s the beauty of belonging to any group that thrives on the principle of give-and-take. It provides you with the discipline needed not only to have a better life in a particular field, but a better life. Period.

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Exotic is as exotic does.

I never really understood what that adage actually meant. Is it saying that people are labeled exotic because they have strange habits? Then how about those so-called exotic places? Which of their habits have led to them being tagged alluring?

How many of you, who have immigrated to America, have heard your accent or looks or even opinions called exotic at least once in your lifetime? Do I see heads nodding vigorously? And, if I’m not wrong, most of those times that comment has been meant kindly or even as a compliment.

Was it truly a compliment, though?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes Exotic as:

: very different, strange, or unusual

: of a plant or animal: not living or growing naturally in a particular area: from another part of the world

How does being born with almond-shaped eyes (one of the trite descriptions for Asian-looking eyes) automatically make you strange? Especially in those cases where generations of your family have lived in America, which makes you as native to this country as the next person?

How does that hint of an accent that remains in your speech, even after you have lived in the U.S. for 20+ years, because you speak more than one language make you very different?

Please let me make the distinction here that someone remarking on your accent or ethnicity is not in and of itself a bad thing—this is how we make connections, acknowledge that each of us is an individual and learn about each other. But commenting on the differences in a tone of condescension or with the intention of labeling as “other” is not recommended.

Most of the cultures that the West likes to call exotic have flourished in their parts of the world for thousands of years. They had to have lifestyles and routines that are somewhat more grounded, and in keeping with the times, than unusual to have been around for that long. (For instance, yes, it has been a decade or two since India has grudgingly given up elephants as a mode of transportation in favor of those smaller mechanical contraptions called cars. And, members of The Snake Charmers Association of India, after several rounds of negotiations, have finally agreed to openly charm their snakes only on national holidays. So, World, please feel free to move on to other clichés about India!)

Also, has anyone who’s tagging another person exotic ever stopped to consider that he/she might be exactly as strange to the other person? Probably not.

To summarize, exotic, even if meant kindly, is a label. And as with any label, it’s limiting. It stops the labeled in their tracks because they have been boxed. Because it indicates that the labeler—for lack of a better word—is refusing to look beyond the other person’s clothes, habits or preferences that are dissimilar to the labeler’s own.

If you see someone who’s a bit different from you, why not frankly share an interesting tidbit about yourself first and then invite her to share something about her? Then stand back with an open mind and let the ensuing discussion lead you in the direction it wants to head.

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In keeping with the topic for this week, here are excerpts from a few children’s classics from my bookshelf. Again, they are presented in no particular order, and these form but a mere fraction of all the incredible works available to us.

 All the books I have selected have the following things in common:

  • They are all written beautifully, almost in a lyrical fashion.
  • Each of them takes place in a different country (or countries) or has a diverse setting.
  • Every one of them provides us with glimpses of lifestyle from various time periods in the past.
  • Each of the authors was possibly influenced, in their writing (both in style and content), by the cultures and belief systems they grew up imbibing.

(And, oh, be sure to stroll by Books-For-Young-At-Heart and Books-For-Young at your leisure – I have populated the latter only recently.)

 

*****

“Anna Maria,” said the old man rat (whose name was Samuel Whiskers), – “Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner.”

“It requires dough and a pat of butter, and a rolling-pin,” said Anna Maria, considering Tom Kitten with her head on one side.

“No,” said Samuel Whiskers, “make it properly, Anna Maria, with bread-crumbs.”

“Nonsense! Butter and dough,” replied Anna Maria.

                    – The Roly-Poly Pudding by Beatrix Potter

As the children walked in, they saw that most of the walls had crumbled down. There were rubble heaps everywhere. In some places, parts of the walls were intact and they could see the niches in them, which must have been used for storage all those many years ago. Once or twice they came across wooden pillars rotting away. On one of them they saw something that looked as if someone had tried to carve a name on it.

The children stared in silence. It was so quiet, it was impossible to believe it was the middle of the day. There were no bird sounds, not even an insect. Two large crows, perched on one of the walls, flew away noiselessly as the children approached.

“It’s … it’s … eerie,” Dinu said, using a word he had just learnt. Polly was too subdued to ask ‘What’s that?’. It was Ravi who asked instead.

“It means, funny and frightening – like this is.”

“Frightening? Don’t tell me you’re frightened, Dinu?” Minu’s face was grave but her eyes held a mischievous twinkle.

                    – The Hidden Treasure by Shashi Deshpande

October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry-trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in the aftermaths.

Anne revelled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill – several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

                    – Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

“Can’t I go out and play, Ma?” Laura asked, and Ma said:

“’May,’ Laura.”

“May I go out to play?” she asked.

“You may tomorrow,” Ma promised.

That night Laura woke up, shivering. The bed-covers felt thin, and her nose was icy cold. Ma was tucking another quilt over her.

“Snuggle close to Mary,” Ma said, “and you’ll get warm.”

In the morning the house was warm from the stove, but when Laura looked out of the window she saw that the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees the snow was piled like feathers, and it lay in mounds along the top of the rail fence, and stood up in great, white balls on top of the gate-posts.

                    – Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Might I,” quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth?”

In her eagerness she did not realize how queer the words would sound and that they were not the ones she had meant to say. Mr. Craven looked quite startled.

“Earth!” he repeated, “What do you mean?”

“To plant seeds in – to make things grow – to see them come alive,” Mary faltered.

He gazed at her a moment and then passed his hand quickly over his eyes.

“Do you — care about gardens so much?” he said slowly.

“I didn’t know about them in India,” said Mary. “I was always ill and tired and it was too hot. I sometimes made little beds in the sand and stuck flowers in them. But here it is different.”

                    – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 “You’ll not say anything about it at home, will you?”

“Not a word.”

“And you won’t tease me in private?”

“I never tease.”

“Yes, you do; you get everything you want out of people. I don’t know how you do it, but you are a born wheedler.”

“Thank you; fire away.”

“Well, I’ve left two stories with a newspaperman, and he’s to give his answer next week,” whispered Jo, in her confidant’s ear.

“Hurrah for Miss March, the celebrated American authoress!” cried Laurie, throwing up his hat and catching it again, to the great delight of two ducks, four cats, five hens, and half a dozen Irish children; for they were out of the city now.

“Hush! It won’t come to anything, I dare say; but I couldn’t rest till I had tried, and I said nothing about it, because I didn’t want anyone else to be disappointed.”

                    – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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A couple of dictionary definitions for Tolerance are:

1 : sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.     

2 : the act of allowing something : toleration.

Isn’t tolerance one of the most needed qualities in all of us, in this day and age? Is tolerance an instinct or is it a learned behavior? If the latter, could it be cultivated in children?

What are some of the best ways to expose children to diversity?

  • Travel: No better way to teach children about how the rest of the world lives.

 

  • Movies: Remember the three protagonists in Finding Nemo? Marlin, the dad, is a little different, with his paranoia for his son’s safety; Nemo is not your run-of-the-mill Clown fish, what with his one small fin and everything; and Dory is way out there, literally, with her short-term memory loss. Still, at the end of the movie, you come away loving these characters — their idiosyncrasies and all.

 

  • Books: The best and cheapest means of getting your point across, if you ask me. (You guessed I’d say that, right? This is a blog all about books, after all! :)) You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home and which child can resist a bed-time story? There are so many books out there, both fiction and non-fiction, that help us nurture empathy in children that is at the crux of the definition for tolerance.

* Won’t a child be less likely to torture a classmate who speaks with a stutter, if the former understood why the latter does that and how that makes him feel?

* Won’t a child be less likely to bully another who dresses peculiarly, according to her, if she knew the reason/custom behind the clothes being different?

* Won’t a child think before she judges another’s family structure if she were taught to be more sympathetic?

* Won’t a child be a little less likely to be sniggered at because of the contents of his lunch box, if his friends knew the name of the food he’s eating and how it is prepared?

Overall, it is my belief that children exposed early to diversity in geography, culture, and belief systems tend to grow up to be more tolerant and understanding of the physical, religious, and cultural differences in the population around them.

What do you all say?

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