Within My Teaching Box

This month my teaching box has grown. I’ve moved more items into it and added a hatbox to the hatbox to contain everything. One of the new additions is something I collected on my US book tour, in 2003. I bought it for the use it will have tonight – as the item the speaker will hold in a writers’ crit circle to give that person the floor. I have an alternate set of beads, but it contains squeaking frogs and I do not trust most writers to refrain from punctuating their own comments.

I’ve brought out these beads to teach so many things, but right now, just as my teaching box is changing, I’m planning a new use for them. I’m using them to teach writers how to develop damaged cultures.

So many novels contain people who have damaged cultures. Anything set post-Holocaust, or in the Somme region after World War I. Anything after war, after apocalypse, after attempted genocide, after civil war. So many of us have damaged pasts. I needed to be able to teach writers how to create the kinds of cultures that would reflect this.

The alien beads are one step. Not the first step, nor the second, but one step. I use them to show writers some of the facets of culture that we take for granted: the charm, the throwaways, the tourist elements and the offshoots of religion. We bombard the whiteboard and make a list of all the aspects of culture those beads could represent. Then we look into each category and discuss how it can be affected by a given change or disaster.

After that, if the students are ready, they start designing their own damaged cultures. Most of them aren’t ready after just a few exercises, but there is often one person who’s done a lot of thinking before they ever come to class. Since I love reading books with carefully-thought out worlds and sensitive cultures, that person’s name goes on my inner list of “Need to read their work”. For them, a lot of what I teach from that moment is revision of refinement. For many of the others, it’s a brand new world.

Some love it. Some hate it. They all offer to give a house to my set of beads, whatever their response to understanding just how much people can lose when their life is damaged by big events and how this affects story.

Open with care…


About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren't funny at all.


Within My Teaching Box — 2 Comments

  1. I love post-apocalypse stories that are about more than grim survival. We can only truly examine a culture after it is broken, sort of like partially opening a meatball to see if the center is cooked. Only by finding the flaws can we go about rectifying them. For me, I had to write half the book to find out what drove my characters and the culture they created. “Trickster’s Dance” by Irene Radford here on BVC https://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/tricksters-dance/

    It started as a paranormal romance and became a study of why Utopias crumble. The setting strips away the obvious and makes us think about how cultures arise. Can we make the next one better?

    • I started teaching this to help people understand just how cultures worked, oddly. It became something for writers when i realised how much writers wanted to learn how to write cultures, then break them.