PODCAST – Emma Mactaggart
Emma Mactaggart is based in Toowoomba (in South East Queensland), and the Child Writes program is her brainchild. The program began in 2005, as Emma combined her love of children’s literacy with her desire to promote community respect for children by giving them a voice.
Believing everyone has the right to see their words in print has become a slight obsession for Emma. This has inspired her latest publishing project – the ‘how to’ guide for inspiring writers. Child Writes: Creating a Children’s Picture book is Child’s Play, was published in May 2012 and it won a GOLD Best Non-Fiction Adult eBook at the 2012 IPPY Awards. Emma was a finalist in the 2014 Condamine Alliance Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Cultural Heritage and a Finalist in the 2012 QRRRWN Strong Leadership Awards.
Her latest children’s picture book, Imagine, illustrated by Ester De Boer has just won a GOLD Best Children’s Illustrated eBook at the 2015 IPPY Awards in New York, USA and one of the illustrations, ‘Lyrebird’ was selected for exhibition in the Book Illustrated Gallery, for the Asian Festival for Children’s Content in Singapore.
For those who don’t want to listen to the podcast have a read below.
DYAN: What is it that we do to bring our books and ideas to the rest of the community? From that, it leads into to the next questions, which is describing your creative process. So what do you do to do what you do? Everyone has different methods, for example, some people like to get up early in the morning, or go for a walk or have a notepad with me. Personally, I always take notes, otherwise called sketch noting. You had mentioned various ideas of what inspires you and gets you started on your profiles on Writers’ Web and Child Writes. I thought sometimes when you then think about it again, you go actually my thoughts have evolved since that profile I did 12 months ago, and now I see that this is what inspires me because I’ve had events happen, which as you mentioned, events happen that builds who you are and that changes the initial journey.
EMMA: I think you’re absolutely right about evolving. This is what I love this is about a personal interview; I really wish we were sitting at a table having a coffee.
DYAN: Hang on there, I have a cup.
EMMA: There we go, a virtual cuppa, that will do. Whenever you write a profile, I find that the process is really safe. It’s because you can’t see your audience. You can’t see people who are reading it. I was thinking about that process of self-analysis and not being judgmental. I have been reading for example, over the last 12 months, Shaun Tan books. It is nearly the darkest kind of children’s books. I’ve written a children’s book for Adults, which is inspired by The Green Sheep (by Mem Fox), but it’s The Lost Ewe. It’s about motherhood and about losing yourself in this conundrum, which is children and losing your identity. But then when you start trying to reclaim your identity, it’s all this really fictitious stuff, the stupid stuff that doesn’t really matter. Am I fat? Can I fit into my wedding dress? Those banal conversations that you have with girlfriends and it’s deeper than that, what you are trying to find is deeper than that. It is 168 words like, The Green Sheep. Having written that, and I’m still producing safe stuff, a bit like the safe profile, I had a dream the other night, which is the first one I’ve ever come up with a book from a dream, and it’s about a little boy. It’s going to be a story about childhood depression, which is really hard to tackle. But I had a visual of how to do it, even though I don’t know how to do it, but I know that I will do it, if that makes sense. So I think what I’m really enjoying now is that that safe profile is absolutely my background, and it’s my history and it’s got me to this point, and I’m so proud of everything that I’ve done, even though I look at them on some days and say, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s so embarrassing’. Every step that you take, you just become a little bit more confident. My friends now refer to me as a writer. ‘Oh, you’re such a writer! It’s like ‘Oh my God, I am,’ and it is so exciting and it’s more exciting that the labelling is coming from externally. While you’re also reading it and you say ‘Oh, that’s something quite extraordinary’. I just think of it as I put one foot in front of the other and in front of the other and other and it evolved.
DYAN: I mentioned to you I think the thought bubbles that I’ve written in my mind map, it did segue way into each section. You’ve talked about how you said you’ve fallen in to being a writer, that you kept on doing it and doing it and it happened. And then people would wonder when did you go from ‘Emma–here’ to ‘Emma–over there’. It’s just step-by-step.
EMMA: Absolutely. I think I’ve got to remember that that’s how school happened. Year one, then year two and year three. You don’t play an instrument without having lesson 1, lesson 2, lesson 3. I really factor that into this process of writing. It kills me when I hear people that have an idea for a story, they don’t know how to proceed, they can find the information, but that it’s not just the next step and next step. Once you take one step, then you’re a bit closer to somewhere, even though you don’t know where that somewhere is. I guess that’s part of it. So really, without knowing how to track that idea, it really is the journey; it’s not the destination. That still oversimplifies it because if everything is about the journey, that’s only part of it.
DYAN: Yeah. Or as you say, it becomes the inspirations for story lines. One of your quotes from Child Writes, which I loved was the ‘Difference between an author and a writer, is that the author did it’.
EMMA: Yeah. That’s the crazy thing. If you speak to people, even though the consuming public, from my perspective as a teacher and educator, to make sure that people can write and illustrate their own books. For the life of me, it is the best time to ever have this as an aspirational goal. You’re led by the nose with information from the Internet; the technology is that up to date. It is no longer a big prospect to get it out there. It’s really exciting. People want to do it. Everyone will tell you. People don’t say I’d love to make a movie or I’d love to write a song or I’d love to run a marathon. People do. Regardless of what people’s backgrounds are inevitably at some point, they’ve had a fantastic idea that should be a story, because that’s what we are. That makes us people.
DYAN: Yeah. I think, as you say, storytelling is innate and that some of that skill, as you say, it’s almost as if it’s been lost, and when you rediscover that because you have these platforms and saying, ‘Hey, you can share your story, not just with your family, but with anybody in the world. I think sometimes that can be intimidating for people.
EMMA: Absolutely. Yes, ‘to the world’ is too big. I’ve just had the biggest epiphany while you were just saying that. You just made something click into place for me. You know this preoccupation that we have with falling literacy rates, ‘We are not a literate country ad we are in the lowest range of the OECD countries’. Nothing seems to change.
At the same time, the family is falling apart, the conventional community that used to raise children is falling apart, maybe it’s not the literacy rates that are the problem, maybe it’s the storytelling. Storytelling was how we learnt the rules and the fundamentals of society. That’s probably why ‘we’ have disappeared and ‘me’ has replaced it.
DYAN: Yeah, there you go.
EMMA: There we go. So another advantage of writing, I was writing something this morning and it was boring me. So I’m going to need to read it out aloud, the story telling aloud is a good indicator.
DYAN: Yes. As you say, I just love watching kids when people do read a story. They’re just fascinated. As you say, what has happened with our storytelling?
EMMA: It is innate; it is part of the way we are programmed as humans to respond to that verbal storytelling, reading stories aloud. And if that is how we respond then we need to deliver more of it. Because if you’re a child in a village, before the pen and paper were even invented, there must have been stories every night. There must have been.
DYAN: Oh yes, definitely. As you say, it was just part of the culture. It wasn’t just stories from your immediate family, it was from people outside your family as well. As you said, how often do children get exposed to that? How often does that happen? It’s an exciting world. The world has changed.
EMMA: Yes. That shared discourse, you just nailed again, you are good at this. The shared discourse only happens with a popular author. So the story is only shared, not because it was a cultural norm, but because the author comes in first. So the author first, then the story, if that make sense. We’re not hearing, as you said, from the next door neighbour’s father, whose experience is inspirational we’re not getting those experiences actually shared to us as children. The stories are dictated by the commercial construct, I guess, as opposed to what is important, to what we really need and what information we need today.
DYAN: I guess more in that split, when you and I commented and I think it probably also talks about favourite aspects of where all I work, and wouldn’t be surprised if you were similar, as you say etching out these stories with the children about what their vision is. It just changes how you see things. I think it also helps give them that clarity, because they then have the opportunity to distil the information that they have received. As you said, in this commercialised world. And then try to put it in words that make sense for them, to help them take that forward into their own experiences and exactly what you do with your program with Child Writes, is giving the children communities. I watched your YouTube videos. I loved your epiphanies when you talked about how you went on The Expert Academy last year and that you’d almost, it was like you had not captured enough of what you’re doing and then you changed, you re-tweaked the meaning you put with Child Writes saying ‘Help children create stronger communities by providing children with publishing platforms’. I know you have tweaked that again .
EMMA: Yeah. How good is that. To hear it from a business perspective, that’s what I love about all the information that’s out there, but until you have that epiphany, and often it’s about people that you’re surrounding yourself with. That sentence fell into my head while I was talking because you were pushed into it in the environment. Everyone has heard about the elevator speech. It’s really important to be able to describe what you do fully and wholly. But if only being able to do that, it meant that I nearly have an exploding head, because at the moment, Child Writes is like that, it all came about, if I use that line, which I think I’m about to go back to again, I don’t think I’ve tweaked it much further I’ve got to start pulling the thread and change the business model completely. That’s quite exciting but very daunting. Whenever I think about it, you know that wave of fatigue is what stops us doing it. It’s good now as a writer for me to understand and not being, impatient with people not writing their story, a sense of overwhelm that literally can put you into bed because you’re so tired. It’s too hard. Then you start again and off you go. I’m like I’ve got to remember that I’m right in the middle of that, nearly stalled, in, the inaction, I’m completely overwhelmed by that [LAUGHTER].
DYAN: Yeah. On the other side, a number of people I’ve spoken to, their favourite part and their least favourite part of their work is basically the same thing, because it’s two sides to one coin. It’s what gets you out of bed, but also what keeps you in bed some days. Because you think how am I going to do this? Like I know it’s taken me 10 years to get from there to there. Now I want to get to there. I don’t want to wait 10 years. I want to do it in two. You do. You push yourself to that, that next level, saying hey, I’ve done that, that was awesome, but I’m going to rise again. That is a big challenge and also passing that information to your children, it becomes part of the experience for the children as well, because you can see that. They’re like oh no, I can’t write a book, I can’t draw a picture and then at the end, they go ‘Ah, I did it’. Then they sort of can’t remember not being able to write a book.
EMMA: It demystifies the process, that they’ve actually physically gone through it step by step. So first hand they have experienced it the joy of outcomes, as you say, having people in a standing ovation and many report, just everything that comes with it, their books are on Jetstar, Amazon, you know, all of those kinds of things, which are outcomes. Those outcomes are accessible. That’s what I mean about ‘the now’ being so fundamentally, just so exhilaratingly exciting for anyone who wants to produce their own material. There’s a lot of steps in between. I think our favourite in the classroom ways of describing that, and now, I had a little boy go (hyperventilating) I thought, ‘What is going on here? I know you’ve got this’. He said ‘But across the year . . . every subject . . .’ He was absolutely upset about the workload he had on that year. I said ‘Right’, he looked at me, then said, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time.’ Because that has a Dr. Seuss visual hilarious connotation, and it then becomes like the informal in-house type motto. It’s wonderful. Everyone just calms down. But I have to remember that. If you could see the desks sitting around me, and I’ve got an elephant sitting on my desk and I can’t find the person that’s for. That’s where that thing, that wave of overwhelmingness comes from, I think, when you’re looking at what you’ve got in front of you.
DYAN: As you say, it is such a challenge, because you’ve got your business, you’ve got those experiences. Hey, I know I can take this to the next level. You’re like a child. You’re saying I can’t write a book, where do I go next, and you having to create that new ground in a way that’s going to increase what you want to do, get you closer to that goal, and at the same time, not taking too far on track. You know how easy it is to get tangential in this world. Then you go ‘Oh, hang on a tick, I’m a mother and oops, I’ve got to cook dinner and we have so and so’s birthday this weekend, oh no’, and that as well. You have to keep all that going and I’ve got all this in my mind, and then you think, I can’t go to the party and start writing my ideas down because people may think that’s a bit rude. But it’s in there.
EMMA: You are right about that juggling, how does that happen? So in my head, I wasn’t allowed to start anything new until my youngest was three, now she’s thirteen. They actually would prefer me to miss a party or write some notes and keep that creating process ticking over, rather than be with them and be starting at them because I’m begrudging the process. So it’s really, when you’re talking about different phases, that’s a different phase, because ironically, I’m actually busier than ever with them, because they’re all emotionally so needy again, as opposed to physically needy. I just had a text from Georgia; can I read her research proposal for her final art project? I was like, what? [LAUGHTER] ’Mum, I’ve got to hand it in 20 minutes’ time’. It’s the middle of the day. The communication is so instant. But on the same side, it’s really fascinating me how all of them, and my husband as well, they would prefer me to do, down tools and work constructively than be half drifting around and unintentionally be grudging the things I’m looking at. So that is quite good. No excuses [LAUGHTER] though, I am mum.
DYAN: As you say, except when you get the text that says ‘Read this paper now’. [LAUGHTER]
EMMA: I love it. ‘Now’. Everything is ‘yesterday’. Oh I don’t know. It’s quite interesting. It’s really interesting the requests that you get through the day. I’m sure they allow mobile phones at school but anyway, I haven’t worked that bit out.
DYAN: It’s all bring your own device these days, BYOD?
EMMA: Yes absolutely. We were talking about that with a group of artists last night. They think it’s fascinating that shift because everyone self-records and self-monitors. The bit I don’t like about that stuff is it is me, me, me, which is breaking down no one is available for storytelling. No one is available to listen to everyone. Maybe the storytellers have to go to that device.
DYAN: Yes. And you did, because you recorded your books on your YouTube channel I noticed.
EMMA: Yeah. I was thinking I had a meeting with the Inside Entertainment mob from Jetstar during the week that provides to Jetstar. A really dynamic awesome team of women are pulling that together which has been really exciting. They said ‘Right, this is finite this opportunity’, and originally was only for a year. Now practically, three years later, you say to yourself that’s been really exciting. But we’re talking about it being finite how once you settle in, you know, I mean you settle in and you don’t need to do anything, yet. So I’m glad you looked at that YouTube channel, if I say it out loud to you, in the next 2 years, all 350 Child Writes titles plus the new stuff, have to be on that YouTube channel as a, go to storytelling site, there.
DYAN: There you go.
EMMA: Now I have said it out loud.
DYAN: You know. It’s a theory that if you say it to the universe, the universe will bring it to you, so now you have said it.
EMMA: I am convinced of that. That’s how the Jetstar thing started. There was a girlfriend saying you know the best place to be reading these books, would be in the air. You don’t want to carry books and you’ve got to keep children’s busy, so I was like ‘Ok’. I went and found out, and I said it out loud. Some days, you look at the work and feels a bit like your own work. I’ve spent my time looking at what I’ve done and pulling it to pieces with the children’s illustrations and their words as far as the design or lack of design. Poor little things. Anyway. Then other days, I remember to actually read the stories aloud. I can’t believe, well I can, that the children can produce. It still goes you’re right about the thing that puts you to bed, gets you out of bed. I cannot believe that we’ve worked out a “something” that takes children to that point. It’s so beautiful and so extraordinary. So poignant, it’s quite beautiful, that it’s worth the viewing. So I big kids now, who 10 years ago, worked with me in the classroom, asking me why on earth we are working on their book when they’ve moved on. Those children are now at university. One of my oldest is now studying medicine. He goes ‘That was a little book I did at school’. That little book is important.
DYAN: As you say, the children pick up on something that resonates with them so strongly and I think that kids do have that ability to shut out a lot of the noise and just pick up what is really, really important to their heart at the time that they write the story. I think that’s why it then continues to resonate, as you said, so many years later. As an adult, as you know, we have all this other noise going on in the background. You think of something and you get images of a million other things that happened in the past. So that sort of skews your thoughts. Whereas as a child, you’ve got such a fresher perspective on everything that you look at.
EMMA: Also children, if you put an adult in a classroom, the adult will be asking the instructor like how do I do that, how do I do that, over intellectualise it. Whereas a child is particularly comfortable with the process, and admittedly, they’re in that environment in school where there’s a lot of instruction and there’s a lot of output and that is what they are up to but adults are in the same space effectively too. They just don’t see it as ‘Do you think that’s good?’ like an adult does. When an adult say to me do you think it’s good, what ‘retrospectively day care good’ or ‘one hit on YouTube good’. How do you define ‘good’ and what are trying to do with it? If you want to make a million dollars I don’t know, you won’t be able to tell until you have or haven’t. Not at the storytelling/writing stage particularly. You have to tap into your inner child and just do it.
DYAN: Yes. It is funny now that we have started writing number of book ourselves. I keep looking at books that we love and how long ago they were written and now they are popular, and there is at least a 10-year lead-time for anything to become ‘popular’. So I was like, it’s 2015, 2025 here we come, we’ll be the next best thing.
EMMA: You and I are rocking it all over, you know, we are the new Mem Fox, Judy Horacek or whoever [LAUGHTER]. I do the same math as well. Do I have the energy for another 10 years of this? Because popular is only once it’s earnt it stripes, and the sales are made, it is only in retrospect that you get to call it that.
DYAN: Yes, it is like the ‘Oh yes Emma, my friend the writer.’ Ten years and you only want to call me that now, the you think, yes, I have been doing this for ten years.
EMMA: Yes. I guess because, even if you did study it, you might have a bit more confidence I am sure someone coming out of uni that has done a Masters in Literature or something like, might be a bit more comfortable with it. Maybe because they’re comfortable calling themselves a writer, as they start their careers, that’s why maybe these younger kids that are coming out of university are winning the awards and stuff because, they just do it. They write it, finish it, and submit it. If it doesn’t go anywhere, they write another thing, submit it and do it. They just believe that they’re writers, like a child believing that they’re a skateboarder. I always have in my head, and my youngest daughter always comes to me, not so much now, mostly when she was younger, ‘Mum, mum, I’ve got something really exciting to tell you.’ I would say ‘What, what’. She would say ‘I have a new talent’ and I go ‘Oh, what’s the new talent?’ ‘I can turn the shower off and on’ She breaks down her day into the most simple steps. She recognises that once you can conquer one thing, the next thing comes along. I thought if we just realised that as adults, we wouldn’t be talking about the elephant in the room. Because we would just start writing, then you would enjoy, then you would look for someone to read it to, then you’d get a response and you would start the natural process of creation that way. What are we doing? We’ve got it all wrong.
DYAN: I’ll draw a picture of it. You can add that on as well.
EMMA: Of the elephant?
DYAN: Of the elephant, and then also the person not with the elephant. We can eat an elephant.
EMMA: Yeah. That’s your talent for today,. Yes absolutely.
DYAN: Now we should have at least one crazy fact about you.
EMMA: One crazy fact.
DYAN: Now you’re going to have to think hard on that.
EMMA: No. I don’t own a hairbrush.
DYAN: You don’t own a hairbrush.
EMMA: I don’t own a hairbrush, this is me doing my hair, and that’s it. I don’t know if that’s crazy enough. I do own a toothbrush. But I don’t own a hairbrush.
DYAN: That’s ok. Top Three tips. Let me just see how well I’ve extracted from my consciousness. I think one of the important factors you noted was that you need to do things step by step, that things will happen, when you get over this step, the next step will come. That’s part of how do you eat an elephant mantra. Having a vision and passion about where you’re going to get to, and knowing that that’s not the end goal necessarily, that there’s a journey to get there, so that’s part of the process, It is part of the fun that you have going from here to there, that it is part of a journey. I think that the other one that you talked about was [LAUGHTER] . . . fake it till you make it. I watched the Ted talk. I did watch the TED talk on it. You may know, the crazy fact about me, I can never get all those quotes that everyone else knows. I always get mixed up about them.
EMMA: That’s an illustrator would be the world’s best picture book if it was make it till you fake it. Do the illustrations and everything, all topsy-turvy. That would be hilarious as a children’s book for adults. It is my thing at the moment.
DYAN: So yes, as you say, there are those chunks that help keep that vision in place and absolutely having fun along the way. I think that you cannot underestimate that is how important to laugh and to say some days, I’m going to have a bad day and that’s ok, I will still continue to step forward, because I know I’ll have a better day. It’s very Nietzsche, isn’t it? You got to have the good stuff to have the bad stuff.
EMMA: What I found is that by engaging in the broader writing community is that, it’s the most generous community. All you need to do is ask. There is always someone who is one step in front of you or one step behind you and you just need to ask. There are forums and writers group and all accessible. Which brings you to, what I was saying that this is the best time to be doing this. It’s really beautiful to be able to ask for help so that you don’t feel so isolated otherwise, the only time you get out after your book is published and you’re finally in the classroom or whatever, there’s a lot of quite time when you are by yourself. You are mad not to tap into that community, because they are seriously there for you, which is pretty exciting.
DYAN: Yeah. It goes back to your Dr Seuss quote, I just think of, ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go’, and he talks about the waiting room, where you just have to sit and sit and sit, and then you’ve got to get up and got to get out of that room and you’ve got to continue to move forward. It is really hard when you get stuck in those moments. As you say, with Google now, and the internet how it is, just getting on and saying give me a forum that can help writers who are doing, whatever the genre is that you’re working in, and join it. Even if you don’t participate initially, you can at least see some of the conversations and go ok, so I’m not the only one that’s having that experience.
EMMA: Yeah. So all of those normal rules, as much as we say the world is different now, all of the rules that we grew up with at school, which is if you have a question it is highly likely the someone else has the same questions, everyone is in the learning process, so take courage in that. That’s part of that ‘Fake it, `till you make it’. Because if you start living it, then you actually do it, you put it out to the universe and do it and people are there. You can easily find them.
DYAN: May be this is just going back to you talking about these kids coming out of universities, their expectation is that their work will be spread. But it won’t spread like millions and millions of copies. But they expect that it will get spread in the thousands or tens of thousands because they’ve already built up a network. You look at these kids, with their Facebook pages and their friends in social media. So many of these kids are look at my kids, they are in primary school and some of their friends are on social media and they’ve got a thousand friends. How do you get that many friends at 9 years old? They’ve built these tribes and communities and then they have that confidence. So when they write a book and they release it to their community, people will say, ‘Yeah, that’s cool, that’s a book’. So may be that part of that confidence, is saying we come from a different era where you do things and everyone will be like ‘Oh what? What are you talking about?’
EMMA: Yes. And their peers, having spent time with artists this week, their peers are at the book launches, they’re at public reading, they’ve already pulled apart the book, they completely engage their tribe in the process of creation as well. You’ve just got to ditch the shackles of isolationism and embrace the community, in whatever shape or form. If you don’t, if social media doesn’t tick the boxes, get up and drive to the closest writer’s group that will be in your town, and if there’s not one, like when I couldn’t find one because it wasn’t on social media, I found out later there were three of them, but anyway, I started another one. And it didn’t take long, now there’s 50 members of Toowoomba Wordsmiths, and a hundred on the mailing list and, that group then took their writers to a festival last year, and it was because I wanted to meet people.
DYAN: No pressure.
EMMA: Yes. No pressure.
DYAN: Thank you Emma. I will wrap up here. Take care.
EMMA: Ok. Thanks. Bye.
DYAN: Thank you. Bye.