empathize & understand

I love finding insights about teaching and writing in the weirdest of places…and this time, the inspiration comes from twisted psychological thrillers!

2014-01-30 13.31.47

My coworker recently brought me as a guest to the Yankee Dental Congress’ Lunch with Author 2014 at the Seaport Hotel. We enjoyed a delicious lunch in a ballroom before a speech and Q&A by esteemed author Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. In fact, just getting to eat for longer than 20 minutes with adults was almost a better treat than the chicken entree and apple tart.

2014-01-30 11.47.11Grilled Chicken with Sweet Corn and Sundried Tomato Relish, Black Pepper Mashed Potatoes, and Roasted Tomatoes

2014-01-30 11.19.35Apple Frangipane Tart, Salted Vanilla Caramel, Gingersnap Cookie

Gillian (not pronounced like “Jillian” as I had thought but more like “gill” of a fish or “McGillicuddy”) was refreshingly happy and normal…not at all what I had expected after reading Gone Girl last year. She told stories of her journey from imaginative Midwestern child to Entertainment Weekly writer to best-selling author of thrillers with dark female narrators. Her first story was “To the Outhouse,” a 3rd-grade tale of a young girl who lived on a farm with an outhouse. The young girl went to use the outhouse in the middle of the night, and when she came out, she got eaten by wolves. Now that story might have caused other parents to freak out, but Gillian’s gave her the freedom to explore books and movies and make her own decisions about whether material was too scary.

On Writing
She offered her wisdom on writing and developing characters, beginning with “don’t wait for the muse” and to “write when you can” vs. taking a certain amount of time off from work to do it. I found this advice so useful for getting myself to blog more consistently and therefore develop a habit. I used to envision the “real” blogger as a glamorous superwoman who dashes off posts at coffee shops between green juices, twice-daily workouts, and curating of her outfit-of-the-day and meal-of-the-day. Now I feel confident that the times that I choose to sit down and reflect are the right times for me.

On Writing What the Story Needs
She also advised not to write what you think people want to hear or what marketing wants, citing this attitude as the reason for her failed first attempt at writing the character of Libby Day in Dark Places. The original Libby was a perfect cheerleader who had solved all her demons…someone who would appeal to readers and marketers and keep Gillian from being stereotyped as the author who “writes dark female narrators.” Her husband’s constructive criticism of the first draft of the book included the observation “you really don’t like this character.” She rewrote Libby in a way that was true to herself, ending up with the first line of “I have a meanness inside me as real as an organ” and a much more powerful novel.

I find it important to note that Gillian doesn’t necessarily “like” her characters in a way that she’d go out for coffee with them. She emphasized that as a writer you have to empathize with and understand your characters or they will turn out bland and flat. Nick and Amy in Gone Girl are manipulative, unreliable narrators who trick the reader. Gillian delved deep into the minds of these two narrators by writing stories from the point of view of people like Nick’s kindergarten teacher or Amy’s high school best friend. These stories never made their way into the final book, but they helped Gillian empathize with Nick and Amy and understand their motivations.

I find this interesting for teaching too. I’ve told my past student teachers to “be friendly to your students, not their friends,” but now I would encourage them to empathize and understand. Friendliness without empathy or understanding would be about as authentic as Libby Day the Cheerleader. Most importantly, the empathy and understanding can grown when you’re being true to yourself, not teaching the way you think that your mythical vision of SuperTeacher does. Your own voice is wonderful just the way it is. It took me a long time to accept that. I used to aspire to copy exactly what my mentor teachers did, but those copycat attempts fell flat. Now I accept that I can be sarcastic, kind, creative, or tough when I want or need to be.

On Sticking to One’s Guns
Several attendees asked Gillian about the ending. One woman even said that members of her book club had each written their own version of what they wanted the ending to be. Gillian acknowledged that many people hate the ending. She stood firmly by the ending that she’d crafted, stating that it was the only one that felt real, true, and right for her. She also would rather have people talk about the ending and disagree than like the ending and forget all about it.

I agree with this re: teaching/coaching. My debaters have learned so much about Latin American economic engagement through their research, practice, and heated debates against rival teams. I’d rather have them talk and disagree than take notes and forget. If they received the same texts in a history class but had no context for a discussion with different perspectives, the content wouldn’t resonate as well. Math doesn’t fit as neatly into the debate model as history and science do, but I like challenging students to try two methods to solve the same problem, then discuss their opinions of each.

However, I’m still working on how to find what’s real, true, and right for me in the classroom. Debate in math isn’t quite it. Some of my creative projects are getting there, but still have a ways to go. I’ve realized that as I’ve spent more time focusing on teacher-leadership, that I’ve lost some of the fire that I had for creative math projects or educational technology. This year, I haven’t done the animations that my students so loved, the trig fairy tales, or the probability carnival. In the past I might have felt guilty for not aspiring to be SuperCreativeEdTechTeacher all the time, but now I feel better for admitting that and for empathizing with and understanding myself.

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