Deborah Jackson

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Shoot the Writer

What could I possibly mean? Who would want to shoot a writer?

Well, I could think of a few examples, but I’m referring to an experience I had a few years ago, or perhaps it was many years ago, but I won’t let you do the math.

Many years ago, on a planet far far away, or at least I was on an existential plane that was as remote as such a planet (in other words, I was a newbie to the whole author/now-you-must-be-a-speaker way of life), I was invited to do a school visit at a local high school.

Wrestling with my inner demons and some outer ones (yes, you know who you are) I agreed and spent days in preparation, creating a riveting PowerPoint presentation, with the inevitable stick man animations (which I use to this day), flexing my vocal muscles which were rather flaccid and pathetic (and still give me trouble when I spend too many days chatting internally and ignoring the husband and kids), and sifting through my mountain of props—mostly books.

Yes, I was prepared.

Yes, I was terrified.

But I could do this. I’d written the books, now I could talk about them and talk about writing.

I entered the school, a little damp, a little quivery—picture a pale version of Scaredy Squirrel—shook hands with the teacher and followed her dutifully down a kilometre-long hallway and up the stairs to the library, sagging under the weight of my laptop and props. There she smiled and set me up with the computer and projector, and I inserted my disc (stop doing the math) and took a deep breath.

In filed the students, eager, passionate potential writers, and a few students who’d look for any opportunity to skip class. They assembled in front of me and I began.

I explained the exciting process of brainstorming, character development, research—including some examples of volcanology, NASA proposals for a moon base and the mysterious lake with unspecified life beneath Vostok research station in Antarctica. I explained how my science fiction stories were based on hard science, including the bane of my existence—quantum physics—and how essential the Idiot’s Guides were to writing (at least as a baseline). I was passionate, so I don’t imagine they noticed that I was paler than usual or that my voice cracked occasionally. Amazing. They looked . . . interested.

Then it happened. Bells ringing, loudspeakers blaring, students stampeding into the library. A lockdown.

I stopped, of course, as the students were ushered into the back of the room and thrust behind the shelves that blocked them from any view through the glass windows at the front. The doors were subsequently locked.

The teacher then smiled, shushed the students as best she could, and gestured for me to proceed. Are you kidding me? So yes, I continued, but I kept glancing at the doors and began to consider that all the students and staff were handily protected from potential gunshots, but I was chatting away in full view of any shooter who might decide to wander our way.

Might as well put out a welcome mat: shoot the writer. Or, at least, shoot the writer first.

I wasn’t shot. The shooters or whatever they were never even made it into the school. And nervous Nelly finished her speech in front of a hundred students instead of thirty, despite constant interruptions over the loudspeaker. But it always made me wonder.

Why did they not think to move me? Is it because writers are dispensable? A novelty, a bauble to place on a tree once a year, but if it shatters, oh well, there will always be others.

Sometimes we’re subjected to acid reviews when we strike the wrong chord, and once again it’s time to shoot the writer, in a little less dramatic fashion. Often people forget that there’s a human being behind that book they’ve trashed.

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison
us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that.

That Shakespeare Guy

I know the staff at this school made no conscious effort to put me in the line of fire (and I have no wish for revenge). Protecting the kids was paramount and I understood that. And if one good thing emerged from the experience, I discovered I could speak through anything. They even invited me back this year and I had a wonderful experience.

I just ask that if there is a next time, perhaps they usher me behind a desk too.

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