Writer, Editor, Parent...

Dear MATT,

Posted: September 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The first time I heard about you was from Nazma Muller, an unlikely mentor but one of my first in the practice of journalism. There was a controversy–might have been the jailing of journalists after they defied a court’s gag order, but I’m not entirely certain–and a march in Port-of-Spain organised to raise awareness of the rights of the media. I didn’t know about the march or the Media Association of Trinidad & Tobago and Nazma well bouf me. “Girl, you’re a journalist now!” she said in her inimitable way. Message was that MATT was for people like me and I should get acquainted with them for my own good.

I did, in time, and eventually stood for election as a floor member of the executive. We had our moments but I eventually stepped down in frustration from the post. I stayed a MATT member, though, because whatever the problems that might plague one executive or ten, we as an industry need MATT.

I was proud on Saturday gone, as I am every two years, to vote in the new executive of MATT. I think the people on the new executive are bright, enterprising and energetic. I will give them my full support.

But that’s not why I’m writing this letter. You see, it has been burning me for the past few weeks the things people have been saying about you. They say MATT is useless, powerless and maybe even corrupt. They say Trinidad & Tobago has no “real journalists”. I don’t know why they’re saying those things, and I certainly don’t agree. Yes, MATT needs restructuring to better meet the needs of journalists and people working in media. But it can’t live up to its potential when only about 20 people are ever active in it. I’ve been to too many MATT meetings that had to be abandoned because of poor turnout, or training sessions with only about five or six people present–many of them seasoned professionals with little need of training (although everybody could use a refresher from time to time).

It frustrates me to hear the things people say about you, MATT. I hear these things and say to myself, “Why don’t they help build instead of tearing MATT down all the time?” We need MATT, or its equivalent. Who but a MATT is going to speak against muzzling journalists? Who but a MATT is going to keep an eye on the government and stop it from doing things like registering journalists, or putting prohibitive measures in place to keep public information private? Who but a MATT will provide affordable training for us?

People talk about MATT instituting a code of ethics. I used to be ambivalent about this, but I’m not any longer. I firmly believe now we need individual media houses to take responsibility for this, as there is room for all kinds of interpretations of the laws of publishing and broadcasting and to ask a whole industry to subscribe to one standard is undemocratic. The courts are there to protect citizens; the media ought not to stop itself from breaking the news if there is news to be broken. There will always be media houses that walk a thin line between libel and journalism, and I know from personal experience what a nasty, personal media attack can feel like. But do I want those papers to go away? No, because they sometimes in their temerity and audacity publish the things the “legitimate” media won’t. But it’s not for me to say. I think MATT should debate this, properly, openly, and let people be satisfied that they have had their say.

I know in a democracy it is only right for everyone to have their say. Even in criticising you, MATT. But when the criticism becomes mere target practice, it’s time for us to grow up and look at MATT not as the enemy but as a vessel for all of us in media to get on board. Nobody can fix MATT from the outside.

Sincerely

Lisa


Connecting the dots

Posted: September 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Steve Jobs, the guy who gave Apple its shine, gave this amazing speech that I happened upon some time ago.

The whole speech is really moving and inspiring, but this is the part that hits me every time:

“[M]uch of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Although in my life I have never wanted to be anything but a writer (well, there was that time I wanted to be a nurse, but… does five minutes count?) I have somehow ended up doing a lot of different things. I’ve been an administrative assistant, sending faxes and doing filing. I’ve been an actor. I’ve been an administrator, co-ordinating an NGO and an educational tour at two different points in my life. I’ve  produced shows and done stage management. I tried catering. I’ve been a housewife and full-time mom. Now I’m teaching part time.

All of these things gave me different skills and ways of thinking about the world. I wonder about people who have only ever done one job, and what it’s like to know what you’re going to do every single day. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the life I’ve chosen, but you can’t ever say it’s boring or predictable. And all the skills I learned along the way somehow come in very handy in my new incarnation as the administrator of The Allen Prize, and even in my teaching. Yesterday I shocked my students by doing a very convincing portrayal of “anger” in a lesson on nonverbal communication. It was fun, taking me right back to the days of working under Charles Applewhite at Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

No matter how far I go, my past comes with me, for good or bad. What do you take with you on your journey?


The right thing to say

Posted: September 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column, Editorial | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

From Corbis images

I got really annoyed today by someone’s foolish, outta timin’ comment. It wasn’t just the comment, which was mildly offensive and directed at me, but that the person chose to deliver it in front of a room full of people while I had the floor.

I’m not sure why the speaker chose to say what he did. Maybe he thought he was being cute. Maybe it was just his way of breaking the ice. Maybe it was honestly what he thought and he felt the burning need to say it at that time. Whatever the reason, the effect was that I got properly vex.

Not the comment so much but the whole situation sat on my chest like sour doubles for a couple of hours, until I paid a visit to a friend who is recovering from a serious illness. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, in fact, not since she got out of hospital, and I was frankly scared to visit because I am always unsure what to say in such circumstances. It’s not that I was squeamish so much as I was afraid I’d say something to make her uncomfortable about her illness and her gradual recovery. And when I was there, actually sitting next to her, it was as bad as I had feared.

But visiting her helped me put the earlier comment into perspective. Why should I let one comment ruin my day? There are people facing real problems in this world.

And having left her home, I had a chance to think about my own lack of words to say to her. I guess finding the right thing to say can be very hard sometimes.


The message of the bat (for adult readers only)

Posted: September 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column, Editorial | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

I got this message from someone who read my blog. My epic struggle with Chester, the bat who terrorised me at home, touched a chord in her and she wanted to share her own bat story with me.

Warning: this post is on a very sensitive subject. It contains graphic language.

She wrote:

“When I was 30 I was raped and attacked by a man (I remain convinced it was the security guard who eyed me for days).  The long and short is that I was strangled for a while – just enough to almost lose consciousness and die.  I still will never know why he released the hold around my neck (I had black and blue imprints of his fingers around my neck for days……) or why in the end he agreed to leave me alone….I did some serious negotiating with him including getting him not to blindfold me as well as wearing a condom – in the darkness he actually let me feel his dick so that I was sure it was on……

“So with all the negotiating and treating him like a person he lost his desire to control me and left me on the bed naked, bruised and terrified….I lost chunks of my hair from the terror…..called the police after I allowed him enough time to leave (that was part of the deal I struck with this man)…….

“Some days later I went to my parents house – the family didn’t have a clue what to do with me…..and in the bedroom there was this bat – after opening up all the windows I hoped and hoped it had left…I went to sleep (was so exhausted)…..and woke up the next morning…..and guess what the bat was dead and ‘asleep’ on the pillow next to mine…..I think it came to teach me about facing my fears and the ugliness of what had happened to me…..I still don’t love bats but I do have a soft spot for them (at a distance……..) – I received a real blessing……and I remain grateful……”

Thanks, friend, for sharing that story. It doesn’t make me feel any more fond of bats but I value your decision to openly talk about that life-changing experience and what it teaches about fear. They say God doesn’t give you more than you can bear but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way at all. I’m glad to know you survived to tell the tale.


Writers are still readers

Posted: September 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Books, Column, Editorial | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Maybe it’s the weather or the time of year, but I’ve had two requests for writing advice in the past two days. Here, once again, is my best advice.

 

When asked what advice I would give to writers, I usually say these two things:

1. WRITE

2. READ.

The first bit of advice sounds so simple but is so hard to do. WRITE. It means making a conscious effort to write, if not every day, on some regular schedule. Turn off the TV, close the MSN chat window, get off Facebook and write. Life is so full of distractions and responsibilities that it’s not uncommon to hear writers complain that they can’t find time to write. I, too, am guilty of doing it. Even though one of the things you’ll find when you Google my name is this post on discipline in writing, lately I’ve been making plenty excuses for not buckling down to the half-finished manuscript I began last year. Granted, the book is depressing as hell and drags me back into a personal memory I’d rather ignore–it’s a novel about possible consequences of child sexual abuse–but I have made a committment and I need to attend to it. Plus, it’s a really good story. 🙂 I think the world, especially Trinidad & Tobago, needs this story so people stop ignoring a problem that is right under their noses.

But writing is hard work in some ways, especially writing fiction. I have no publisher yet so there’s no deadline to whip me, and it’s my own project so there’s no editor to nag me. I started the book with Wayne Brown as my writing coach and he would give me weekly deadlines to meet, but he has since passed away and my subsequent attempt to work with the brilliant writer Monique Roffey flopped because I just couldn’t write at the time.

When I’m writing it’s great. There are times when the words fly onto the computer screen all by themselves, the characters sing and dance and take lovers and licks as if they were real people and I were just a cameraman recording the action. There are other times when each word is a struggle. Because it’s set in multiple times, I have to keep other windows open with calendars and research about clothes, food, news events and other stuff that fill out the story. And you can imagine that I sometimes get distracted by children, housekeeping (VERY RARELY! Ha!), hustling and the rest of my life. Sleep is the biggest culprit, though. Why write when you can sleep? Sleep usually wins, even though I know those last eight chapters won’t write themselves.

Maybe I should do like Mystie Thongs and blog on the struggle to get back on my (literary) feet. If I had written a page a day over the last year when I didn’t write anything at all, the book would be done and in third revision by now!

My only consolation is that at least I’m taking my own advice on the other thing writers should do: READ.

I am, as my Facebook friend Adrian Charles called it, an obligate bibliovore. I have to read, and I’m usually reading at least one book. In the last couple months I’ve read Sun Dog, by Monique Roffey, Falling Angels, by Tracy Chevalier, and Dog-Heart, by Diana McCaulay, among others.

Reading increases your vocabulary, improves your technique and widens your repertoir. I have read hundreds of romance novels and–as much as literary types would turn up their noses at the genre–I owe my relatively good grammar to them, and my vocabulary in part to them, too.

Those long-time Mills & Boon books were great for words like “maelstrom” and “ingenue” and so on, and they were written in the strictest Standard English. I read other things, too… sci-fi, poetry, plays, murder mysteries, text books… and everything I read somehow creeps out into my writing, not in direct ways but you can see threads of them if you know what you’re looking for. Plus, reading is fun!

What do you writers do to keep writing?


Things that go “Dumb!” in the night

Posted: September 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments »

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my late, great housebat, Chester. (He’s now decaying in a ravine somewhere, I hope. He was taken out. I’ll say no more.) I talked about how scared  I was of this animal zooming towards me, his leathery wings flap-flapping around my head. But bats are not the only thing I’m afraid of.

I’m afraid of spiders. Not just any old spiders, but the big, creepy ones that thrive in our lovely, lush, tropical climate. Guys like this:

from: http://www.antiguamuseums.org/fauna.htm

I also am afraid of roaches, centipedes, scorpions, etc etc ad infinitum. Pretty much any crawly character turns my blood to ice. Even if I know it’s not dangerous.

Snakes are even worse. When I was a little girl filling water by the tank outside–before the halcyon days of indoor plumbing came to my childhood home–I was shocked to screaming by the sight of a harmless grass snake oozing over my toes. I was probably afraid of snakes before that because of the cultural apprehension most western people have about snakes, but this made it worse. Now, I see a snake and I literally start to stammer, shake and sweat. Frogs, less so, but they still give me the heebie jeebies. Big, maco crapauds will make me run screaming in the other direction.

from: http://alpesoiseaux.free.fr/batraciens/crapaud_commun_bufo_bufo.htm

It’s not only things outside in the bush (or boldface bush denizens who visit indoors) that spook me. Some dogs–pitbulls, especially–scare the daylights out of me. And some animals on two legs have a similar effect.

Cocktail parties nearly top the list of non-animal things that frighten me. Strangers in general make my stomach churn. Oddly enough, public speaking gives me the willies, but you’d never know it from the amount of it I actually do.

Scary?

Top thing that I’m scared of? Being “outed” as dumb, incompetent or a failure. Of course, this biggest fear of all is the most irrational. So what if somebody thinks I’m stupid or untalented? (Big shout out to my homie Raymond Ramcharitar here!) The truth is that I try, harder than many, though no harder than some, to do my best. And whether I fail or not, I have to be satisfied with my best because it’s all I’ve got. In the light of day I am mostly secure in that knowledge. But when the lights go down, insecurity attacks. I can run away from a frog, squish a spider, call a hit on a bat, but there’s no avoiding that ugly voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough.

This story has no happy ending. I wish I could say I talk myself out of it, or that I have a friend whose reassurance makes it all better. Those things happen sometimes but more often than not I just have to work through the fear–“feel the fear and do it anyway,” as the popular book says.

What are you afraid of?


The Allen Prize opens!

Posted: September 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

So after years of planning, praying, hoping and organising, The Allen Prize for Young Writers is finally open!

You can read about it and get submissions forms here.

It has been a long haul and we still have far to go. We are still waiting for funding, and still in the process of planning our inaugural seminar. Two very impressive regional writers have already signed up to talk at the seminar–but you’ll have to wait for the official release to get more info on that.

We have lined up a great head judge of The Allen Prize competition in Judy Raymond. Judy was my editor for many years, at the Trinidad Express and the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian. In a way she has always been my role model, because I remember reading her hysterically funny column with my brother when I was a teenager and she always epitomised for me the best combination of witty, erudite and accessible writing. As an editor she was exacting, sometimes scarily so, and pushed me to being the best journalist I could be. In short, I am well chuffed that she has agreed to head the judges for the prize competition.

This whole experience has been very humbling and I’m grateful to Judy and all the other people who have contributed so far, and those who will contribute in the future. And as Judy said in the press release about the opening of the competition, I can’t wait to read the results!