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A five-finger exercise

I published this before the 2009 HSC on my personal blog. You can’t use it, because it’s my life, but it may give you some ideas…

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While my coachee slaved away on a Trial HSC English Advanced paper this morning I undertook to answer the creative writing question from our previous session: “Select one of the following quotations. Use this quotation as a catalyst for your own piece of writing on belonging.” I think I rather overdid the thematic side, but I was hoping to demonstrate how this rather artificial task may be done. It isn’t fiction, but that’s in the parameters given.

c) “My fondest childhood memories”

When you think about it there is a lot of truth in the old Catholic saying “Give me a child to the age of seven and I will show you the man.” By that age our sense of identity, which is so much shaped by our sense of belonging to family, home, town and country, are basically set – if not in stone, at least firmly enough that escape if needed is quite difficult.

In my case my grandfather rather than my father was the key influence. My father, you see, was rarely home, being overseas with the RAAF, so my family were living with my grandparents, and the one who had time for me most was my grandfather.

My grandfather was a retired teacher. I don’t know how he did it, can’t remember, but before I went to school I could already read and tell the time. This led to early alienation in Kindergarten. Invited in week one to “write” on the blackboard I wrote “Sydney Morning Herald” and the date. I gather the teacher was not amused and rang my mother to complain – strange as that may seem.

He was a mine of information, my grandfather, and I was a hyper-inquisitive child. Once he was gardening and I asked him: “What are snails for?” He stood up and took me round the garden, showing me snails, describing their life-cycle, their means of locomotion and their feeding habits and why, if we wanted our lettuces, he had to get rid of them. “Yes,” I replied with precocious analytical skills, “but what are they FOR?” Since the metaphysics of the snail was not something that had occurred to him he became uncharacteristically short with me and called out to my mother, “Get this bloody kid out of here!”

I never have found out what snails are for, but I guess they fit into the web of life. Even snails belong, don’t they?

Another thing about my grandfather was that he talked to just about everybody. He was genuinely interested in their lives and what they did. I would accompany him on his walks and get impatient as he stopped at this fence or that gate to chat to someone for what seemed like hours to me. I was not displeased though when he would climb over the railway fence to chat to the driver of the milk train when it was waiting at the siding for the express train to go through. There were steam engines in those days and I was enthralled standing on the tracks with my grandfather as the fireman and driver leaned down from the cab to share finer points of their trade.

On the other hand, so I am told, when my father at last returned from overseas my first words to him were “Get that man out of here!” (Perhaps I learned the expression from my grandfather.) To me my father was the picture on the dressing table, not this large imposter who had suddenly disrupted my life, just when I had my mother pretty much in control. What this may have done to our relationship, indeed to my father’s recovery of his belonging, I can now only guess – but it did rather colour our later lives.

You can see what a network one close relative can set up for you in those formative years. With my grandfather I explored so many aspects of my environment and he was, you could say, my map-maker. Through him were developing all those templates of background, culture and place which shape so much where “I” fits in – belongs, indeed.

There are many other stories I could tell of my grandfather. Did I mention he only had one eye? No? But that is another story.

I was 21 when my grandfather died. He had mentored me in so many ways, easing the pain of high school maths, answering my incessant questions about other countries as we browsed the atlas together, showing by example tolerance of people from other cultures, leading me (without pressure) to emulate him in my choice of career. If he were removed from my life story I wonder if I would today have the network of belongings that I now possess, modified as they may have been by other experiences and circumstances. Nonetheless, if I look for the rock on which it all has been built I need look no further than those childhood experiences with Roy C. – my grandfather.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2009 in creativity, HSC, writing

 

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“Sylvia” (2004)

sylvia

star30 star30star30star30star30a  I watched this partly out of HSC-related duty, but also out of interest. I have to say I was very impressed by its accuracy and fairness. The lead review (at the moment) on IMDb pretty much sums up my reaction.

In 1998, "Hilary and Jackie" explored alleged episodes in the short life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre and her pianist, now also conductor, husband, Daniel Barenboim. Despite very very good acting the film was largely a descent into the basement of scurrilous storytelling by relatives of the dead musician. Whatever the truth of the claim that she bedded her sister’s husband, the movie said nothing about the couple’s meteorically brilliant early careers. It was slanted voyeurism writ large.

Director Christine Wells has taken a very different and insightful tack in exploring the life of poet Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, a poet with laurels garnered while Ms. Plath was still starting up a not very steady ladder to recognition.

Plath, an American, met Hughes in England. A short courtship was followed by marriage and then two children. The relationship was tumultuous and eventually it foundered because of Sylvia’s underlying emotional instability followed by her husband’s desertion to another woman…

Wells takes a sympathetic view of Ted and Sylvia, not joining in the political debate over feminism and Sylvia’s supposed maltreatment by Ted. Sylvia in this film is brilliant but also terribly brittle and her inner demons are not caused by a brutish or callous husband. As Platrow portrays her, I believe accurately, Sylvia was seriously and chronically depressed with life events worsening but in no regard initiating a downward spiral. Today she would probably thrive and be both prolific as a poet and happy as a person if successfully maintained on an effective anti-depressant.

Ted, played by Daniel Craig, is a bit transparent – loving but somewhat distanced by his own quest for fame. He hectors Sylvia to write more, annoyed that she bakes instead of composing verse while on a seaside vacation. He’s supportive but also blind to the deepening reality that he is dealing with a woman who needs help, not critical comments about non-productivity.

The supporting cast is fine but this is Paltrow and Craig’s film. She has a strong affinity for England and its culture (I believe she has moved there) and she gives the role deep conviction and understanding. It happens that she somewhat resembles Sylvia but the true recognition is internal and intellectual. And emotional, let’s not omit that…

"Sylvia" sets the record straight as Paltrow acts the part of a woman – mother as well as poet – who slowly loses control of her life while her husband reacts first with confusion and later with the self-protective armor of withdrawal.

Hughes went on to publish many fine poems and he became poet laureate of England, a post he definitely wanted and enjoyed (Hughes was one of the very few modern and relatively young intellectuals who was a convinced monarchist).

Not long before succumbing to cancer, Hughes published "Birthday Letters," an attempt to show through years of verse the nature of his relationship with Sylvia. Whether viewed as an apologia or a last record – and chance – to give his side, it’s an impressive work. And "Ariel’s Gift" by Erica Wagner is must reading for those who want more than a film and sometimes potted articles can provide. It analyzes the poets’ relationship through the prism of Hughes’s writings, most unpublished before "Birthday Letters." A recent book, "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," by Diane Middlebrook, is also recommended…

The movie is M15+ in Australia.

It would also perhaps be a good supplementary for “Belonging”.

Adapted from a post on my personal blog.

 

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Someone has posted on Ted Hughes (HSC Module C)

And I am very grateful, for one. See Fulbright Scholars some notes. Thanks to Mel McGuinness, who has in turn kindly referred students to this blog for Frankenstein and Blade Runner.

melmcg

I propose to say something about Module C myself shortly.

Update 24 June

Some references I have found.

 

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HSC English NSW Area Study Standard and Advanced: Belonging 1

In this first post I will simply look at what is in the Board of Studies Prescription for this module:

The Area of Study must be considered in the context of the Area of Study description in the syllabus, course objectives, content and outcomes. (Reread English Stage 6 Syllabus, p 32 and pp 35–38; p 50 and pp 53–56.)

AREA OF STUDY

In the Area of Study, students explore and examine relationships between language and text, and interrelationships among texts. They examine closely the individual qualities of texts while considering the texts’ relationships to the wider context of the Area of Study. They synthesise ideas to clarify meaning and develop new meanings. They take into account whether aspects such as context, purpose and register, text structures, stylistic features, grammatical features and vocabulary are appropriate to the particular text.

AREA OF STUDY: Belonging

This Area of Study requires students to explore the ways in which the concept of belonging is represented in and through texts.

Perceptions and ideas of belonging, or of not belonging, vary. These perceptions are shaped within personal, cultural, historical and social contexts. A sense of belonging can emerge from the connections made with people, places, groups, communities and the larger world. Within this Area of Study, students may consider aspects of belonging in terms of experiences and notions of identity, relationships, acceptance and understanding.

Texts explore many aspects of belonging, including the potential of the individual to enrich or challenge a community or group. They may reflect the way attitudes to belonging are modified over time. Texts may also represent choices not to belong, or barriers which prevent belonging.

Perceptions and ideas of belonging in texts can be constructed through a variety of language modes, forms, features and structures. In engaging with the text, a responder may experience and understand the possibilities presented by a sense of belonging to, or exclusion from the text and the world it represents. This engagement may be influenced by the different ways perspectives are given voice in or are absent from a text.

In their responses and compositions students examine, question, and reflect and speculate on:

  • how the concept of belonging is conveyed through the representations of people, relationships, ideas, places, events, and societies that they encounter in the prescribed text and texts of their own choosing related to the Area of Study
  • assumptions underlying various representations of the concept of belonging
  • how the composer’s choice of language modes, forms, features and structures shapes and is shaped by a sense of belonging
  • their own experiences of belonging, in a variety of contexts
  • the ways in which they perceive the world through texts
  • the ways in which exploring the concept and significance of belonging may broaden and deepen their understanding of themselves and their world.

“Belonging or NOT belonging.” Interesting. Note too the final set of points which I have introduced in red. I think there is a warning there to make sure you explore at least some significant aspect of the way in which any text you use to illustrate some aspect of belonging makes its point. Again note that we need to consider when, where and why a text came into being: in other words, CONTEXT. The second-last point is also interesting: how texts may shape what we understand about belonging.

So, I will be looking to further my understanding of what “belonging” is, what dimensions it might have, what importance it has. I will also be looking for both positive and negative consequences of the urge to belong.  After some initial brainstorming I would want to dig into whichever text is set for study in this module and really tease out what reading or viewing that text through the lens of “belonging” actually produces. This is not the same as just reading the text for its own sake, notice. Yes, you need to understand and appreciate the text, but you have to mine it for the purpose of having something intelligent to say about the set topic. You need to organise a few major issues that text throws up. Then dive into other texts to see if they complement or contrast with the set text in those issues. Be careful not to allow issues to multiply endlessly thus losing direction when you come to write essays. Be careful too not just to rabbit on about “belonging” without anchoring the discussion in the specifics of the set text and your chosen supplementary texts. With the latter, cast you net widely across contexts and text types/genres.

OK, next time* a few specific ideas… I hope. 😉

A coachee tells me there is now a Facebook group called “I hate ‘belonging’” – ironic, really, that it is a group… I do sympathise, but would also say this really is a topic worth thinking about. Further, the prescribed texts are also, in the main, of some interest – most of them of great interest. So hang in there. Organising and supporting your thoughts is where the hard work comes in.

Update 4 January 2009

*As announced on the “sticky” post, this blog is going into hibernation. However, I propose a page on Belonging and there may also be pages on other modules in the 2009-2012 HSC added from time to time.

Update 9 January 2009

Go to Belonging pages: HSC 2009-2012. From there you will now find a “model essay”.

 

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