Can you learn to be a writer? Do you need an MA in Creative Writing?

It is interesting how it all comes down to being passionate about the things you do. I wrote a post in January titled, “Let passion be your guide“. It was a post about overcoming procrastination and me wanting to write. I am glad to see that even the professionals agree with me on this.

Writerly Debz

This is an interesting question because there is a lot of debate around the value of doing MAs in Creative Writing and the notion it’s a way of universities making a lot of money.

So I would be interested in hearing peoples’ views on this.

Are MAs worth the price and do agents and publishers take you more seriously if you have one? What do you think?

I’ll tell what I think. I am quite academic and as some of you will know started my working life as a scientist. I have a BSc. and an MSc.  but have always written. I attended a basic creative writing course some years ago to get me writing again, an ONC I think it was.  A friend did later suggest it might be worth me doing an MA when I was getting really serious about my writing but I disregarded it at the time as…

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A Father’s take on Gender Stereotypes

(This is a comment on my post on Gender Stereoptypes. It is written by a father and he makes such great arguments, I thought it is worth being a post of its own. Here is the link to the author’s blog: Covered by the Dust. Thank you for sharing your views with us.)

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My wife and I worry over gender stereotyping with our daughter… especially before she was born. Everything we bought was gender neutral, but I look over to my 8 month old now and she’s dressed in pink. Ok its leggings and a t-shirt rather than a dress, but still typically ‘girly’. The clothes were a gift

So why did we relax about it and put these clothes on her? Well we came to realise that to impose gender neutrality is still imposition. As Tabitha grows she’ll know she’s a girl as will the world, by hiding her gender the world will not suddenly treat her in a non-gendered fashion… in fact it’ll become more amplified. We don’t buy Tabitha dolls and we never bought our older son an action man. But our boy does have a lot of ‘boyish’ things… he was into Ben 10 so he has some Ben 10 stuff. We try hard not to re-enforce gender stereotypes but nor will we legislate completely what they have… so we dont deny our son a toy on the basis of it being too girly or too boyish. As it turns out our son isn’t at all sporty, he likes to write stories and draw and do a number of things that other boys around him think him strange for, but importantly he doesn’t feel uncomfortable in his skin because as parents we’ve never made it a ‘thing’. So what if a boy wears a bow in a hair and prefers a hand bag to a rucksack… it’d be a mistake to judge against that because of stereotypes… but I do think that it is possible to take it too far the other way and make everything loaded and have meaning as a gendered thing or activity… when to kids it doesn’t even enter their heads, but they can pick up on it from us. I think its just as bad to bring a kid up as being hyper aware of gender through denial as it is to force them into traditional gender roles. Kids should be allowed to be kids, and what kid doesn’t want to clop around in their mums high heels… its funny!

People always mistake tabitha for a boy… even on days when she’s in pink. Thats because physically babies look the same whatever their sex. The social signifiers of hair length isn’t in play yet I suppose but more to the point it says to me that gender isn’t even something at play till much later, any gender worry is totally the imposition of adults.

What I hope to do with both my children as they grow is model and explain how to be the best they can. I hope to demonstrate how to be a good person but also to my son I hope to show how to be a good man, by which I mean that I want him to understand that societal gender disparity is a construct and I want him not to contribute to it. Same with Tabitha.

I certainly think that the story of Sasha and many others like him has noble aims but I’m not sure that it doesn’t contribute to the problem of a child’s gender, treatment and later sexuality being something constructed by outside forces… its just a different set of forces.

Forever young – I want to be forever young

As I write this post, the chorus of the Alphaville song Forever Young is playing over and over again in my head, like a broken record. There is a line in the song that goes, Youth like diamonds in the sky and diamonds are forever. Some time ago, I blogged about why immortality is not as great as it sounds. This post is about what I believe to be more than a trend in modern society – the mission or obsession to remain youthful and also about why I hate Jennifer Aniston and the likes of her.

When I was about 16 years old, I participated in a public speaking competition. There were two parts to the competition. The first part was delivering a prepared speech and the second part to make an impromptu speech on a topic given by jury. My prepared speech was on the topic of Youth Culture. I spoke about, if it is just a trend or a way of life. I am so sure about what I spoke about so long ago because I was traumatised by a case of total mental blackout on stage that day. But I also remember that most of the points in my speech came from my teacher. Honestly what can a youth know firsthand about trying to stay young as long as possible? However ever since I have crossed the thirties threshold, I am confronted with this topic every day – whether I want to or not. With age comes wisdom and I believe I have enough experience of my own to add my two cents worth to this subject.

Wrinkle free skin and a body I would have been proud of in my twenties
Wrinkles and grey hair are widely accepted as the first signs of growing old. I was distraught the day I turned thirty and the salesgirl, who packed my “make-me-feel-good” shopping items, added a sample of an anti-wrinkle cream to the lot. I still do not know what I did to her to deserve such horrible treatment!

The ladies in Hollywood are turning the natural process of ageing into a nightmare for me. Have you noticed how incredible actresses like Demi Moore look the older they get? I am certain Jennifer Aniston looks better in her forties than in her twenties. I know that a lot of money and effort is invested in maintaining this appearance. But the mind only hangs onto the thought that it is possible to look age defying young. If they can do it, I should be able to do it too, right? Who cares that even in my youth I did not have toned muscles or a flat tummy? I can imagine that I am not alone here and that others feel the same way too. So whose idea of youth are we trying to emulate? (Again the word stereotype comes to mind.)

Manipulating our age to look younger
We have a couple of ages. There is the calendar or chronological age, the biological age and the perceived age. The calendar age is self explanatory. It is the number of calendar years we have lived. The biological age is much more difficult to ascertain. It is a combination of various factors, which reduce, slow down or reverse the constant cellular deterioration that constantly goes on in our bodies. The perceived age refers to the age others estimate us to be at based on our appearance, attitude and behaviour.

There is nothing we can do about our calendar age; apart from forging birth certificates. But it is possible to manipulate our biological age. Here is an interesting talk by Dr. Dean Ornish, a clinical professor at UCSF.

From the sound of it, it takes more than creams, hair dyes and clothes to being youthful. No pain, no gain. I am not referring to the pain due to plastic surgeries or Botox injections. (Honestly taking away the mimic from your face does not make you look younger. Instead it makes you look like a well embalmed zombie.) I am referring to the muscle aches as a result of exercising and the pain of having to abstain from sinfully delicious fatty food. The good news according to Dean Ornish is that sport, a healthy diet and lifestyle have a positive effect on our cellular structures. This helps us reduce our biological age.

My perceived age is younger than my calendar age, which is actually a curse in disguise. It keeps me from exercising because my subconscious tells me that there is no need to start just yet. (In project management speak; I am using up my puffer time.) In my opinion, two factors contribute to the perceived age. First is the appearance factor, which is influenced by the physical appearance and fashion sense. Certain types of clothes or hairstyles can make us appear older than we are. Second is the attitude factor, which is the way we think and behave. Our attitude towards technological advances and affinity to new social media could make us appear younger.

Why do we want to be youthful?
One reason that comes to mind is that looking youthful has an impact on the level of success in our career. On the one hand, looking old might give an impression of not being up-to-date. On the other hand, looking youthful is associated with being dynamic, open-minded, flexible and able to easily adapt to changes. It might sound shallow but it is common knowledge that good-looking people are more successful in their careers. (I blogged about it some time ago.) Given the choice between a youthful looking candidate and a old looking candidate with the same qualification and experience, I am pretty sure that the youthful looking candidate would be chosen. In this case, it would not even be a case of ageism.

Another reason I can think of is the fact that we live longer than our ancestors did. Retirement may mark the end of one’s career but it marks the beginning of life. Retirees finally have enough time and money to catch up on all the dreams postponed in favour of the career and the quest of earning money. Therefore being physically youthful is necessary to support an active and possibly adventurous lifestyle.

As I have expressed in this post forever young could mean many different things. Do you want to be forever young and what does being young mean to you?

Are you leaving behind a digital inheritance or a digital zombie?

As I was researching for the post on the Facebook app, If I die, I came across a Ted talk by Adam Ostrow. His talk was titled: After your final status update. It is about his idea for the future of our digital inheritance. He pondered the possibility that all the digital content we create during our lifetime, could be used to create digital personas. These in turn can interact with the living even after our death. Click here to view the video. Here is a transcript excerpt of his talk that inspired me to write this post.

But what if those robots were able to interact based on the unique characteristics of a specific person based on the hundreds of thousands of pieces of content that person produces in their lifetime?

Finally, think back to this famous scene from election night 2008 back in the United States, where CNN beamed a live hologram of hip hop artist will.i.am into their studio for an interview with Anderson Cooper. What if we were able to use that same type of technology to beam a representation of our loved ones into our living rooms — interacting in a very lifelike way based on all the content they created while they were alive? I think that’s going to become completely possible as the amount of data we’re producing and technology’s ability to understand it both expand exponentially. Now in closing, I think what we all need to be thinking about is if we want that to become our reality — and if so, what it means for a definition of life and everything that comes after it.

Do the contents we are creating accurately describe us?
Adam mentions in his talk that on average of 200 million tweets are posted in a day and each user creates about 90 pieces of content on Facebook in a month. By the sounds of it, we are creating a lot of content. There should be enough input for some machine to analyse all the content we have created and generate a digital persona incorporating our interests and views. Theoretically this digital persona would create new content on its own and continue to interact with the world and no one might be the wiser for it.

But how much of the content we are creating is new content and how much of it is forwarding content created by someone else? Of course you might argue that the act of forwarding in an indication of our interest. Is it really? Or do we think about what others would favour and post accordingly? Of all the videos uploaded on YouTube, what proportion are rip offs of TV series and movies and how many are original? (One user uploaded a video of a popular TV series and added the disclaimer “No copy right intended”. I wonder if the producers would agree with her. :-)) How about the YouTube stars? Is the image they are presenting really theirs or are they saying and doing stuff just to attract the clicks? How would their loved ones react, when this digital persona is brought to life? Would they feel as if they are communicating with someone they know or would they think that it is a stranger?

Do I want this to be my reality?
Two aspects come to mind when I consider this question. One aspect is would I want to “live” on after death, albeit in a digital form? A part of me says yes. Otherwise why do I blog? There are other ways I can improve my writing. Don’t we all feel the need to leave some kind of “legacy” behind? Leave something that would make others think of us after we are dead? What about all the photos we take and videos we make? Even having children could be seen as a way of keeping a part of our genes alive. It might sound narcissistic. But I think that human beings are somewhat narcissistic; some more than others. But would I want some algorithm to calculate what I would post, if I were alive and do it on my behalf? I don’t think so. I might want people to read what I had written but not what I might have written.

The second aspect is would I want to digitally interact with a dead person? Every one deals with loss in a different way. In the movies, grieving people often watch home videos or photos showing the person, who passed away. Wouldn’t a hologram of the loved one sitting next to me and conversing with me- using words written by my loved one- be more satisfying? Wouldn’t it be great to get an answer to a question and the answer would be what your dad would have told you had he been alive? On a superficial level I would say yes. If I really think about it, I would have to answer with a No.

Saying goodbye might be the hardest thing to do. But wouldn’t having a digital replica to hang on to only prolong the grieving period? The temptation might be great to hang on to an inanimate being; especially when we are feeling lonely and vulnerable. The movie Lars and the Real Girl comes to my mind. In the movie, shy and single Lars compensates his loneliness with a Real Girl doll. The whole village plays along, treating the doll like a real person and giving him the feeling that he is in a real relationship. Eventually he doesn’t need the doll and she dies from an “illness”, giving him the opportunity to meet a real girl. I think there is a danger of people withdrawing from reality and leading a life with a digital persona, if they feel alone.

Definition of life and what comes after it
I do not want to get into a religious discussion here. I am Christian and my definition of life after death is different from those of other religions. I would like to sum up the points I made earlier though. In my opinion, if it possible to live digitally after death, we all might spend more thought over the contents we generate in the digital world. After all these contents would make up the “genetic” code of our digital being.

From the perspective of the one living and interacting with a digital zombie, it could mess up the rest of our lives, if we become dependent on it and use it to delay dealing with the grief of losing a loved one. I would rather manually go through the posts, photos and videos instead of having a machine do it for me. I think it is a necessary process of dealing with death. On the other hand, to have a hologram repeating but not creating new content is a much comfortable way to do through the digital inheritance of a person than surfing through posts on the internet.

What do you think?

My Dream

I dream of a world where girls are not murdered at birth.

I dream of a world where no one knows the meaning of dowry.

I dream of a world where the price of a bride cannot be expressed in goods.

I dream of a world where education is available to all.

I dream of a world where there are no gender stereotypes.

I dream of a world where women are treated as human beings.

I dream of a world where there is no need for women to have a special day because they are treated equally in every way.