The left hand & the right hand

I’m the midst of 3 days training at work. I can’t say I’m enjoying it. That said, I rarely enjoy training. Sometimes it gives me opportunity to think up new ideas, design new processes etc. Not this time.

I think I’m trying to disengage. It’s the type of training I traditionally struggle with. It gets me a little bothered; emotional. Bordering on Hulk-like rage. It’s mainly because of a heightened belief that most of the facilitators don’t know the business. Actually, that’s not entirely the truth, it’s more to do with a lack of humility about the front line role (the facilitators, not me). It’s like some of them have forgotten what the work is like, and the others that haven’t worked in child protection before don’t bother to consider the gulf between knowledge and experience.

So this time I have kept quiet at the back, as is my wont. I have had opportunities to speak out – some unbelievable nonsense has been uttered in the last couple of days – but I know little good would come of it. I imagine my reputation has spread wide enough in head office (not very far, just north of the river) and not in a good way. Just a suspicion. I don’t intend to add fuel to the fire unnecessarily.

Meanwhile, it turns out there is an air of confusion. Yesterday the training referenced something that contradicted separate training I had the week before. This morning, thanks to the convenient distraction of urgent issues, I was largely absent. As we munched over our carbohydrate heavy sandwiches and cake, I got the distinct impression that there was a lack of clarity from the AM session. It appears some of the, erm, guidance, contradicted procedure (or general understanding of it). A number of people suggested I would have liked to be there, but I know better. I’d say something I would regret.

I must say it’s refreshing to see the training from the staff side of things. I should have mentioned it’s district wide, so most of the office is in attendance. Normally one or two staff members are off to training, and as team leader I get the feedback afterwards. This time round I see the same training and experience it. I can think about how to manage outcomes for staff, deal with the confusion.
It’s rather telling that the left hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. It demonstrates a lack of consistency. The silo effect – not one Department, but lots of mini-Departments doing their own thing. Neoliberalism in action.

It’s unfortunate – I’m sure the facilitators mean well – but it’s a more common reality of work in government these days. Troops can’t function with contradictory orders. Like any good CO I need to step in and restore some discipline. Not the harsh barking orders kind, but the kind that leads and motivates. There will be some good lessons out of the training – I always find it’s the subtle I get the most from – and it’s just managing the adjustment the team get from new information. I just have to keep them on course for the greater purpose. 

5 learning points about learning

Went to training yesterday. Those who know me will know to expect me unleash a gargantuan rant about how useless the training was. For the benefit of everyone, here is a small, toned down sample.

1. No matter where are you are going to facilitate training, make sure it has all the requisite technology needs for you. Asking for things like a) a power cord for the TV to show your PowerPoint presentation and b) is there Internet, are two basic questions to resolve before the presentation.

2. Adults are like children; they can be unruly, disruptive, stoopid (deliberate misspelling for humorous effect…share in a chuckle), and spend time on their smartphone. However, like teachers, a single facilitator should be able to handle a group of about 20. We were less, but had 3 facilitators, all of whom sat at one end. This is too large a set of facilitators for such a small group. It might be reasonable if the plan was to split into smaller groups, but this didn’t happen.

3. Tailor the presentation to audience. We were two distinct groups of attendees, with an obvious distance between our knowledge of the subject matter and the other group. I think if the gap is too wide, consider having two different sessions. Furthermore, think about the aim from the presentation and training. This was repeat training for me, and I have even facilitated training on the same subject matter so my expectations were pretty high.

4. Physical environment matters. We were crammed in a room in an external agency building where they had clearly just redecorated. There was no natural lighting (…sigh) and the air conditioning was on deep freeze. Think about the workspace.

5. Keep the subject matter specific. In a single day training, you’ll be lucky to cover more than one specific issue well. We had three, and it made it difficult to focus. Remember that the training is more efficient and effective based on what the attendees get out of it, not the cost of facilitating. 

So that’s my list. Normally I wouldn’t so sanguine about it, but I was in a good mood, and my hopes weren’t that high.

Normally, I get little out of in house training, except it gives me time to think and come up with ideas for work. On this occasion, I had already gathered some ideas for work over the weekend, so didn’t get that benefit. I did however get some benefit of thinking time for some writing projects, so the whole day wasn’t wasted.

Up and at ’em

It’s a lovely morning. The Sun is out, blue sky, and there’s a lovely breeze. It’s got to the point where winter clothes start to decline. For the first time in months I’m not wearing a coat (I say coat, it’s more of a hoodie). It’s brisk, but after a little walking I warm up pretty quick.

So the seasons change. I don’t know what it is about Aussie winters, but they seem to last a long time. Longer than I recall in the UK. Must be a perception thing. Aussie winters are no where near as cold as UK ones can get, bar a few places over east.

Today is a good day. At least, I’m starting off on the right foot. Some days it can be an effort to get out of bed, and it’s not a sleepy lazy kind of thing where I want a lie in. It’s a force myself out of bed and to work kind of effort. Normally, once I get the coffee and breakfast in me, and a bit of a walk the effect passes. Some days though, it could be weather like today and I wouldn’t notice. It would just be a cloud of grey on my mind.

I find if I get rest over the weekend my starts much better. This doesn’t mean doing nothing, but it does mean spending more time resting than working. A couple of weeks ago I got a little carried away with some household cleaning. The result was come Monday I was shattered. I didn’t have time to recover because my line of work is pretty draining. It was a difficult week.

So this morning I’m feeling quite refreshed. Ready for work. This evening I’ve got writers club, on a different day, so I’m keen to see how earlier day helps with the writing. I can’t guarantee work will keep the spirit of a good day, but I’m as prepped as I think I can be.

Benefits of critique if you’re the critiquer

Last night was critique group for we motley crew of writers. This time round I was not the person receiving the feedback. 

Writer’s need feedback. In fact, I go further and think writer’s should crave feedback. It should be as natural a part of the writing process as checking spelling and grammar. This doesn’t mean you should enjoy the process. Even writing a short story can take a tremendous effort and it’s a sensitive matter to put your head on the block. I crave feedback out of necessity, not some masochistic desire for verbal punishment.

Giving the feedback takes some effort to do well. I have a slightly deadpan humour that might not always come across so well in written format, so I have to be careful what I’m writing. On the other hand, it’s a particular style I’ve developed  professionally so I have learnt to be (mostly) subtle about it.

I look at feedback in terms of the macro and the micro. Macro relates to the broad thrust of the story, it’s characters, plot etc. Is the general idea sound? Can I detect it’s theme from just a few chapters? 

Micro is the line by line commentary. I tend not to bother about specific elements like spelling and grammar unless they are confusing a sentence. 
I tend to read the work very broadly in the first instance to get the gist of the story, and then read and comment in more detail. This sometimes means I make a comment and then find my query/issue resolved in the next paragraph. I find this handy though, because if the writer is deliberately trying set up a situation with a little misdirection, foreshadowing or hints, then it’s a good way to experience it from the first time reader point of view. It allows me to guage levels of subtlety. It’s annoying if a change comes out of the blue without some prior indication – it makes me question the realism of the subject matter.

In giving feedback, I try to be as structured as possible, giving a broad overview, providing detail, and then summarising. Writing is an art but it still has a professional quality about it. A good analogy is the suggested structure of an interview question – tell them what you going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

Providing a copy of your notes is always handy.

A final thing is to be respectful, but honest. If I don’t like something, I try to be prepared to give a reason, but I don’t shy away from it. It may be that it’s a common response that the writer has picked up, giving them opportunity to make changes. I don’t worry if the writer doesn’t accept my suggestions. The purpose of feedback is not to find fault, it’s to give the writer options. They may have legitimate reasons for rejecting my comments. They don’t have to agree. 

What I learn from the process though is the feedback others in the group give. It helps me think about my own work, and elements of it that might need changing. It helps me gather some insight on the process of writing.

So getting feedback is essential, but being to give feedback constructively is beneficial too. Treat it as one of those “treat others as you would be treated” moments and I reckon that’s the best way to get improvement out of it.

Remake crap films

I just saw a poster for the remake of the Magnificent 7. Really? They are remaking a classic western…

Fuck it. I can’t even act surprised. A long litany of excellent films being remade, with no real hope of usurping the original, and every chance of tanking.

A few do well…ok, I can only think of Star Trek right now. I suppose you could argue Star Wars Force Awakens is a remake, but I preferred the original. And yes, the original Magnificent 7 was a remake of the exceptional Seven Samurai, and it was an excellent remake for the genre.

Look at others; Bladerunner, Total Recall, Ben Hur. I mean Jesus they remade a multi-Oscar winner. Why!? Yes, I know, money. Yes, I know Ben Hur was the remake of a silent film version of Ben Hur.

I’m going to pick on The Karate Kid. The original is a classic 1980’s film. It beautifully encapsulates the Reaganomics society of the time; the idea of the lone individual being the means of resolving conflict, rather than the group/community (Witness is a good antidote). Faced with bullies, does Daniel (or his mother) attempt to engage the school in managing a serious issue, or does he decide the best way to face down oppression is to learn karate from some strange old guy that trucks him into cleaning cars? Seriously, only the 1980’s could get away with that kind of premise. It’s not the best acted or crafter film, but as pure 1980’s Republicanism it is a cultural gem (and I say that as a socialist – I really like the film).

The remake missed the point. Or at least, the premise of having a remake missed the point. I have never seen it. Now wait, I can see you asking how I can condemn a film I’ve not seen. I can’t. It might be quite enjoyable, but the truth is I refused to watch it on principle. The idea of the film is flawed, not its delivery.

I really wish people would explore bad films to remake, like the Star Wars prequel, or Howatd the Duck (I reckon the latter is a pretty good bet the way Marvel are going). Remake the stuff that should have been great but ultimately wasn’t. It would be nice if for once money was not the sole motivation, and some desire for artistic penance was the influence.

Remake the story by all means, but remaking the film is missing the point entirely.

The Rewrite – Style

I have no style. Really don’t. Ask my hairdresser. I hate my hair. I really, really hate it. I half wish we lived in THX 1138 world where hair doesn’t matter…and the state hands out free drugs. Everyone’s a winner.

I reckon when Robert Duvall reached the top of that giant shaft (still in THX 1138, keep track) the first thing he thought was ‘I’m going to grow my hair how I want.’

I bet it wasn’t. It was probably more along the lines of ‘I have no survival skills whatsoever. No idea how to make food much less gather it. I don’t know what safe plants look like compared to unsafe. Are there animals up here? Is there civilisation? I’m also about to go into withdrawal from the large doses of narcotics the dystopian society handed out, because there are no drugs here. This creeping metal cops were right. I should have gone back down.’

I guarantee you, Robert Duvall’s character dies after the events of the film.

Now, getting back to reality. I am on the the 5th stage of rewriting, 5th out of 6. Remember the others? Understandability, structure, characters, and dialogue. Polish is the last one.

Style. What is it?

Well, it’s how you write. Part of it is the voice of the author, but that’s a little nebulous. The main part, for me at least, is consistency in how I am writing my piece. Have I kept the same tense? Is the point of view consistent throughout? Have I maintained the right vibe? Is an emotive piece about a mental breakdown interspersed with off the wall Monty Pythonesque escapades that completely car crashes the sense of what the story is about? You get the idea.

I have been using the example of a short story I wrote, the Darken Path, as a focus of rewriting. This is a story of a woman being chased, and then she gets eaten by a daemon. That’s pretty much it, with some window dressing. Most stories are like that I guess – complex interweaving of story, plot and character summarised in a simplistic one sentence description. The difference between spin and substance.

So, in this short story, the pov is the woman being chased. I know without looking that a lot of sections have omniscient storytelling – a narrator looking over it. It takes away from her voice, and that isn’t the type of story I’m after. 

Another characteristic is an over use of analogy – ‘She ran. A white wraith through the woods…the men chased, shouting after her, like wild dogs yelping at their sport’. Some of this works in sections, but overuse is problematic. As my dear old mother might say, it reads like a private detective novel…except, fantasy horror and daemons I guess. It’s more important to get a sense of what she (the character in the story, not my mum) thinks it sounds like – it can sound like yelping of wild dogs to anyone, but it has to sound like that to her.

It’s an important part of the story then, to establish a set style. Sometimes, that voice of the writer – a gravitas if you like – can carry the most mundane of plots. Take Hemingway’s The Old Man and Sea. I really have to say, I am not enamoured by a story about a guy going fishing. Yet I persevered, because Hemingway’s voice – his style – in the story kept me going. It makes a big difference.

Kerouac’s On The Road is another good example. When I got to the end of the book I felt like I had gotten to the end of a drunken joy ride, and really gone no where. I won’t deny, as much of a road tripper as I am, the lack of story was disappointing. Maybe that’s the point though, writing beatnik style. Either way, Kerouac had a way of writing that I loved throughout. The people and places were real, even as I was nearly begging for a story to appear. Maybe I need to re-read it one day, to get a better idea. 

I daren’t place myself in the place of the likes of Hemingway or Kerouac. I have a long way to go. All I’m looking for is consistency of style, and make sure my ‘voice’ comes loud and clear. 

Reading out loud is good too. I’ll try that.

Short post tonight, as my battery fades away like a distant dystopian society and fading hair line…

Warm sticky goo phase

After feeling much improved yesterday I hit an uncomfortable reminder that saying something don’t make it so. I should have worked that out before, but unfortunately a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc – after this therefore because of this. Let me explain.

For the past few weeks I have been under the weather, courtesy of a cold (possibly two on quick succession) that has taken a while to shift. Even now, four weeks on, my throat is feeling a bit flemmy. Despite my best efforts and wishes this has an impact on functioning, as I became mired in mucus, both literally and figuratively. I even took time off work, which I almost never do.

In addition to my general working, my writing has also taken a knock. I had assumed that this was due to the cold, and as my energy returned so too would my creativity. Alas, this is not the case. 

My intent was to embark on a new writing project – a novel in fact – and though a little ambitious my aim is try and come out with a draft of at least one, maybe two if I can keep up the NaNoWriMo in November. I have an idea, and semblance of plot and story, but recently getting th subject matter off the ground has been hard. I’ve barely managed a few hundred words in an evening, which is very poor.

Admittedly, just getting something written is a step in the right direction (300 words a day for 100 days is 30k words – half a book almost). I am making progress, even if slow going. I guess my wider problem is that it’s too slow, and is stemming from a difficulty formulating the story. 

My approach had been to have a rough idea and go from scene to scene and casually find my way through a narrative. I could have opted for a more detailed plan, but I was wary of this becoming a structured way of procrastination. So my preference was something more off the cuff.

Truth is, it’s not working. I’m a little mired in the first section, and perhaps I need to break free from that into something else. In addition, though not a sizeable plan, I need to prep each day with some notes of what I plan to write. I can probably do 2000 a day (2x 25minute sessions) if I know ahead of time what I intend to write about. Maybe more on a weekend day. So this is the approach I intend to try. With luck the productive writing habit will follow from there.

Like yesterday never happened

Where did Monday go? I feel as though there was a day of activity, but at best seen through a haze of uncertainty. I might have said it was like trying to recollect a night out after being really, really drunk, but there’s no uncomfortable after effect. No hangover, headache, or sense of shame. Monday happened, but I think it happened to other people.

This is, of course, not the case. I do remember very distinctly sections of yesterday, but for the most part I felt more observer than participant. Joints ached, mind muddled; not exactly conducive to effective operation.

Today though, feels better. Slept well, up in good time, body feels relaxed, mind active. 

I guess it was fortunate yesterday was quiet. Then again, maybe that’s why it was so difficult to get in my groove. I don’t work well when there’s less activity. It doesn’t mean I want to be rushed off my feet every moment, but having the hum of activity in the background gives me energy. Helps motivate.

On a slow burning day it might seem like the perfect opportunity to progress some projects. Unfortunately, the slow burning is from me. It’s akin to self motivation, propelling action. Yesterday, though notionally productive, just felt, well, a little bit…meh.

So today I have a bit more vigour. Take the opportunity to kick start Some ideas I have, clear up my slightly pudgy task list. 

It’s also about personal wellbeing. Need to exercise today – my lunchtime routine is horribly lacking. Probably why I’ve been getting more tired than normal. A busy weekend probably contributed – my body has had less time to recover.

I need to get the creative juices flowing. I tried writing last night, but could only manage a few hundred words. Two 25 minute segments should be yielding 1500 words at least, and top up at the weekend. 

So I’m feeling a lot more motivated today is the long and short of it. Here’s hoping it carries through the rest of the week.

Photography desire

So, the other day, while on my daily commute home, I had cause to take the train home since I had missed the various buses home. I decided it was quicker to take the train rather than wait for the next bus.

On stepping out of the train at Perth station I had a view of the concrete block next to the art gallery. It was fading light, and normally the bland concrete would simply blend with the dull steel grey of the darkening sky. This time though, sunset light fell upon the building and delivered sharp contrast and lines against the background. The building was transformed under the orange glow, and simple concrete turned into vibrant urban visage.

At the time, I was moving quickly to get to my next train, only had iPhone on hand – at that distance a hopeless task of photography. The thought that occurred to me was along the lines of wanting a camera lens (and obviously camera) to get the shot. The actual words in my mind were ‘that’s the kind of view I want to make love to with a camera lens.’

…sigh. Yes, weird. 

Setting aside the distinction between badly chosen words and paraphilia, it has in fact opened my mind to a new realisation, about my passion for photography. This last year has been about writing, setting time aside to work on writing projects. I even delayed my degree by a year to do this, but the principle casualty has been photography. It’s not that I have lost interest, or passion, but time I might take for trips and camera walks, has been set aside for literary pursuits. 

I still love photography, but seeing that building reminded of desire. The desire to capture a moment on frame, whether it be film or digital. It is refreshing to be reminded of a core passion, and that moment it was about pure desire to take a photo. 

I’ve still got the love.

Big Block of Cheese Day

Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, famously received a 700kg block of cheese. He allowed members of the public to share in the cheese.

In the fictional series the West Wing, the White House Chief of Staff forces his staff to go through their version of the the Big Block of Cheese day. Organisations that would not normally have the President’s ear are invited to speak to senior staff. These include Cartographers for Social Justice and also campaigners to build a highway for wolves.

The actual White House under Barack Obama has held real life events using social media under the banner of Big Block of Cheese Day. Although in the context of promoting the State of the Union speech, the use of social media to engage the public is very much of the modern times.

All this got me thinking. Firstly, it gave me a craving for cheese and crackers. More importantly though, I have begun to think about how a similar event could benefit my workplace. In this context, I’m not thinking about organisations or people trying to influence government policy. What I am thinking about is creativity, and its impact on the way we think.

I was thinking about different professions and how they operate, and what that could teach us about our own business and way of working.

Architects and designers could teach about increasing complexity of design in the way they work, mirroring the increasing complexity of assessments as we gather more information.

Artists could have powerful influence about interpretation of a subject, analysis and finding new perspectives.

Photographers need to think about the multiple influences on a shot, balancing aperture, shutter speed, film or sensor sensitivity, and the framing of the photo. It’s an holistic approach similar to social work assessment.

By calling on local organisations we don’t normally work with I would hope to encourage some out of the box thinking. It would also be on a micro level. Instead of singular large all staff meetings, it would be small groups of workers, maybe just 3 or 4, meeting with an individual guest. This would allow for more informal discussion and develop personal rapport between presenter and worker. The workers could then disseminate their experience through their own networks in the workplace.

Yes, it does depend on the generosity of professionals giving their spare time to talk to an agency that I doubt crosses their path very much. On the other hand, I see a lot of opportunity for creative application in the workplace, and as experience of learning. So it’s an idea I’m planning on introducing at today’s leadership meeting, to see how far it can get.