Zen and the art of writing

Arriving on a Caribbean island is an object lesson in slowing down. It didn’t help that four planes arrived at once, but the line for passport and customs checks took nearly two hours. Inline_979198_4.3Friday night traffic jammed the road from the airport, and by the time we had walked to a local restaurant, the meal on the plane – surprisingly good – was a distant memory.

We were a large party and the young man serving us struggled to keep track of orders. He came back twice to check drinks, and three times to check the food order before anything arrived. You could feel people getting more fretful as the time ticked by. When it finally came, the food disappeared fast, but dessert was abandoned as we trudged towards our beds, four hours on from local time and more interested in sheets than sweets.

Today while the rest of the group went sight-seeing I stayed behind to rest my injured leg, and practiced doing everything more slowly. I swam in the pool slowly, did some slow washing, lay languidly on a lounger and drank a bottle of beer one small sip at a time. Delicious. And I also did something I haven’t done for too long – read my copy of ‘The Author’ (quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors) from cover to cover. Normally I skim the headlines and read whatever looks most interesting, but in the spirit of a slow day I started at the beginning and read on to the end. All sorts of unexpectedly good things revealed themselves, most memorably a piece by a Turkish author currently imprisoned about the life of the mind which nourishes him in the bleakest of circumstances. That helped to put things in perspective

More prosaic, but still important, were references in various articles to the choices that minor novelists like myself face. Fundamentally, what are we really trying to do? It’s a question I put right up front when I do workshops on ‘Successful self-publishing’: what constitutes success? Every author will have their own answer, and these days whether you’re self-published or part of the mainstream commercial publishing world, writing just for profit is increasingly problematic. We know that most commercially published fiction actually makes a loss, and even if you keep outgoings to a minimum by self-editing and going for ebook only, the result may not financially justify the hours of time and effort invested in the project.

zenFrom my slow reading of various reports of events, the advice to fiction writers seems to be ‘Be true to yourself; enjoy the reactions of readers, regardless of how many there may be; find a community of writers (and agents, publishers etc for those who have them) to engage with and be supported by.’ Nothing new there then. No blinding flash of revelation, just a message of internal efficacy and relatively low expectations. Of courseĀ  close scrutiny and replication of commercially successful books, and assiduous courting of the ‘blogsphere’ might pay off financially. But who wants to spend their precious time doing that? Not me.

The zen of the art of writing seems, ultimately, to be about doing what pleases and satisfies you, and letting go of the urge to borrow other people’s definitions of ‘success’.

How do we measure ‘success’?

I spent decades of my professional life working with schools and education systems on how they find out how well they’re doing: what information to gather, how to do so, and how to use the information so that it improves their ‘performance’ rather than just measures it. As the old saying goes, ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow.’quote-Charlie-Brown-sometimes-i-lie-awake-at-night-and-3-254664

Many of my Twitter contacts are educators, from all around the world, and these same concerns never seem to fade. All of us accept that as educators we should be accountable for the public money we spend and for the futures of our students that we share with their families. The issue has never been ‘accountability’: it’s always been accountability to whom, for what, and what information is pertinent to these purposes.

The key first step is to define what constitutes success in our classrooms, schools and systems. Only after that can we decide what information will relate to and reveal these important outcomes. All sorts of information can be useful, including numerical data, so long as the numbers accurately represent something of agreed value. The problem is that the quick and ‘manageable’ tests commonly used as the most important measure are seriously flawed, capable only of representing a fraction of the outcomes that we all agree to be important in preparing our children for their future lives. These future lives are to be lived in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, our young people need to be literate and numerate, but they also essentially need to be resourceful, flexible, digitally confident, and collaborative if they are to thrive as individuals. If the communities and societies they inhabit are to be successful, our people also need to be aware and respectful of others, thoughtful, optimistic – the list goes on, influenced by one’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, in England, our students and their schools face a barrage of measurement that hardly scratches the surface of the information we really need. Students’ worth can be calibrated on their performance in these inadequate assessments, and – as we have seen this week – those students whose estimated future performance might adversely affect the school’s overall ‘scores’ can be asked to leave. This perversion of true educative values has been going on for years, and this week’s headlines have been no surprise to many of us.

There is much more to say about all this, but for now I want to make a link to what can be defined as a ‘successful’ book, or author. Yes, of course ‘success’ can be defined simply in sales which are gratifyingly easy to count, but even that number doesn’t equate to the number of people who actually read the book, finding it in a library or lent by a friend. Other quantifiable measures might be the number of five-star reviews on Amazon, but you don’t have to look hard to find the flaws there.Screen-Shot-2017-03-28-at-16.48.56

Professional reviews? Questionable indicators of quality, in terms of which books are chosen and how they are reviewed, by whom, and under what pressure or obligation from a shared publisher or personal loyalty.

As with education, the starting point for deciding the success of a book is to ask the author to define what they were wanting to achieve, and go from there. When I run my workshops on “Successful self-publishing” that’s where we start. ‘What constitutes success for you?’ I ask, ‘and what it would look like if this were achieved?’

In writing as well as learning, the most useful information is ‘ipsative’, from the Latin ‘ipse’ meaning ‘self’. We are most usefully assessed against our own previous best, not against some external norms, or even against criteria that may not fully reflect our personal aspirations. If you’re a teacher or a writer, what does success look like for you?