Taboo? The topic young men won’t talk about

ImageIn one of the university tutorial classes I teach, we had the best discussion this week of the unit so far: the students were engaged, presented different viewpoints, and listened to what others had to say.
Yet, it was, in some ways, the most disappointing tutorial I have ever taught.
Why? Well, of the five men in the class, only one attended. Yet, 9 out of 10 of the women attended.

The topic was gender in the media. It was a look at both historical progression and current challenges.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the men in the class were absent: they have had excellent attendance rates every week until now.

Students must attend 75% of tutorials, thus some choose which ones they will miss. Eighty per cent of the  young men in the class chose this one.

I don’t know for sure if they were absent because of the topic, but if that is the case, I suspect it could be for one or a combination of these reasons:
a) They think gender equality is women’s business;
b) The topic bores them;
c) They believe the media is already equal, or that, in fact, women have it better;
d) They don’t care;
e) They find talk about feminism intimidating.
I don’t blame them: at the beginning of adulthood, young people are largely a product of what they have observed and learned through childhood.

This made me think about the reason we have so far to go in the media to give men and women an equal voice, to give female journalists the same opportunities to take leading roles as male journalists, and to achieve equal pay across the genders.

It will take both sexes to achieve gender equality, and we desperately need to engage young men in conversations about it, particularly in learning environments such as at university . But how can  we do that? How can we encourage young men to take an interest and to become advocates of equality instead of the status quo?

Dear Media…

This month’s challenge at Bloggers For Peace is to write a letter to any person or group you like. As a former journalist for more than 20 years and now an academic teaching communications and journalism studies, I take a great interest in the media. While there are still some superb news organisations, so many have become harbingers of doom and gloom that I often don’t want to read or watch the news. I sometimes have to close my eyes or look away. One of my former teenage students, from the Middle East, said to me last year: “I cannot watch or read the news in Australia, because the only thing I see of my country is violence and war. We have our troubles, but that is not all we are.” While I appreciate that such things as wars and accidents and even shark attacks are news and need to be reported, I would like the media also to report some of the good things going on. I don’t mean sugar-coated fake stories about nothing much, but real stories with a positive angle. Here is my open letter to the media.
Dear Media
It seems that the ”news” these days is full of awful things: crime, destruction, neighbours against neighbours, frauds, gangsters, political mud-slinging. No wonder your readership and viewership numbers are falling; no wonder few people want to pay for your online services.
As a result of this constant emphasis on the negative, you give a warped, unbalanced view of our society as a dangerous place in every way.
Imagine a media that restored the balance and actually reported the positive above the negative. It would be like this:
What the media show us: stories about drunken or drugged footballers behaving badly.
What I want to see: stories about footballers doing good work. Some are doing degrees at university; some are doing amazing charity work; some just have interesting stories or an interesting skill apart from their sports, e.g. painting, singing, dancing; and let’s have more stories about actual sports, particularly women’s sport.
What the media show us: stories about neighbours at war
What I want to see: stories about neighbourhoods with initiatives to make their area a better one in which to live, e.g. communal gardens. There is  a street down the road from me that has a little bit of open land with a tree. They turned this into a communal outdoor lounge room over summer, where families could meet, children could play and neighbours could get to know each other.
What the media show us: stories about con men and women who promise to cure cancer then rip off a person’s money; stories (really ads) about vitamins and supplements, quacks with this or that new miracle diet.
What I want to see: stories about real advances in science from around the world. Stories about wonderful inventions and their inventors.
What the media show us: horrendous stories, with pictures, about wild or domestic animals who have been mistreated, abused, tortured. Sometimes this does have a positive result, such as a story this week about a kangaroo that had been shot with two arrows (but survived), which subsequently drove the person who did it to turn himself in. However, I didn’t need to see the pictures of this poor animal a hundred times over.
What I want to see: stories about the wonders of the natural world and about responsible ownership of pets.
What the media show us: stories about road rage, drunk driving, and stupid exploits or car chases.
What I want to see: investigations into our transport systems, what is really happening, and what some real solutions might be. Stories about initiatives to improve driving habits.

I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it there for today. What sort of stories would you like to see the media do?

Letter FROM my 17-year-old self

Magazine columns, websites and blogs lately have taken up the idea of asking a columnist to write a letter to their teenage self, given the wisdom they have today. My version of this is a bit different: it’s a letter from my teenage self, caught in a time warp and forgotten about for 30 years, a surprising blast from the past.

The occasion was the 30th reunion of graduates from my one-term journalism certificate course at Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT), which I was travelling to New Zealand to attend. My former classmates were coming from throughout New Zealand, from Australia and the US. From memory, about 18 of the 23 graduates were there.

We had two tutors: the formidable Geoff Black and his younger sidekick, Colin Moore. Geoff had died years before, but Colin was in his 60s, still writing and very active.

Colin was delighted to be invited to our reunion, and had made plans to attend. Sadly, just a few weeks before the reunion, he was killed in an accident, crushed between his boat trailer and his van on a boat ramp at Taupo Bay in the Far North (not to be confused with Lake Taupo).

When Colin’s children were going through his belongings, they found he had kept some of his materials from his one term of teaching at ATI so long before. Among them was an exercise we had done at the end of our course, when we’d been asked to write a paragraph about our strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes during the term. Colin’s children kindly contacted us and said they would send these papers to us, which would be even more poignant given it was our reunion.

I looked forward eagerly to receiving mine, written by manual typewriter on a piece of old-size journalist’s copy paper. When I received it, I was disappointed that mine seemed so juvenile. My feelings were easily hurt, I said, and I hated the thought that people might be gossiping and laughing about me—though there would have been absolutely nothing in my life for anyone to gossip about in those days, to be sure!

I thought of myself as grown up then, but instead, I reveal myself as a typical mid-teenager. In fact, I exhibit the same characteristics for which I find myself criticising young people today: lack of interest in or knowledge of current affairs, won’t watch the TV news despite wanting to be a journalist, dislike of formal tertiary study (such as lectures and exercises), and an over-emphasis on obtaining money.

My description of myself as putting on a “sweet little reporter act” to “grease people up” was perhaps something I had seen in a movie and was romanticising about: most politically incorrect, these days, but I had done a lot of acting training as a child, after all.

This is what my paper said, strengths and weaknesses on one side, likes and dislikes on the other:



Practical work, quick writing, good at greasing people up when the need arises, i.e. the sweet little reporter act, get a kick out of seeing stories in print; naturally tidy and orderly, deep thinker (or perhaps that’s a weak point)


Can’t stand people hassling me or making jokes about my private life; don’t take in current events – they go in one ear and out the other – I need to concentrate more when reading and perhaps listen to
TV news; feelings are easily hurt; want revenge on nasty people; never have enough money to settle my enormous appetite, therefore am miserable; or miserable cos I don’t have any of my own money.



Field trips, newspaper layouts, lunchtimes, writing stories

Don’t like

Court reporting, boring lectures, exercises (Altho’ I realise these are important. [sic]

The hand-written marks on the paper show my tutor did actually read it. Oh, another thing it reveals: contradictions. In “strengths”, I claim to be a “deep thinker”, yet in “weaknesses”, I say information goes “in one ear and out the other”. Colin was clearly perplexed at this, and circled it.

It seems strange that I typed this all in capital letters. But perhaps it shows I felt like shouting with frustration, as many teens do. At 17, I wanted to get on with my life, leave home (to the dismay of my family, though they supported me) and be the best journalist I could be. I knew that to do all that, I would need a living wage. I also had a weakness for beautiful and expensive clothes.

I really did wish for more than money in those days—for a start, I thought that one day, I would be a top broadcaster with my own news show, or editor of the New York Times, or a famous actor, or a scriptwriter of films. As a teenager though, perhaps I was too embarrassed to write these things. Teens often give ridiculous or non-descript answers to adults’ questions. For example, when my brother was a teenager, if my mother asked him what he’d done at school that day, the answer would be “Stuff”.

So, if I could write to myself today, what would I say? Well, I’d probably give myself the same sort of advice my parents gave me back then…to which, for the most part, I refused to listen. As my mum says, although “they don’t know what they don’t know” you can’t tell them—young people have to make their own mistakes.

Although I was disappointed at first, all those years later when I was older and wiser, in what I’d written on the scrap of copy paper, now, a couple of years later, I think it has more to say to me than I at first thought. More than anything, it teaches me to be more tolerant of young people, because once upon a time, I was just like them.

What’s In a Name?

A few people have asked me to explain the title of my blog, The Crayon Files. It actually evolved from an apt nickname someone once gave me.
My first name, Caron, is a French surname (as in Leslie Caron, the dancer and star of Gigi, for whom I was named).

I’ve been writing constantly since I knew how. When I was a journalist, I always scribbled down my notes in shorthand. I worked for years in the 1990s at a tabloid TV magazine that had a big youth readership. During that time, I appeared in an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) series for children titled Writers and their World, or something similar.  I had thought it would be an innocuous little show screened during the day and forgotten. But the power of TV in those days was extraordinary. The series was shown during the day all right, but loads of children, their parents and teachers tuned in, and it was repeated for years. I was even recognised in the street! “Are you on TV?” a stranger asked me one day. “No,” I replied, truthfully I thought. “Well if you’re not, you’re a dead ringer for that girl on that show about writers,” he said. I had to then sheepishly admit that it was me after all. A local shopkeeper recognised me too.
Then the funniest part: I was then our magazine’s reporter for one of Australia’s highest rating shows, so the cast knew me well. So, one day, they were in the makeup room preparing for the day’s shooting. There was a TV in the room, which was tuned not to their own network but to the ABC.
Up pops Caron on the writers’ show episode. “Oh look,” said a cast member, one of the country’s best known actors and a writer himself now, “It’s Crayon”.
The name stuck, and quite a few colleagues called me Crayon for years—one still does.

Crayon-to-be: Caron at work at the magazine in 1990, about six years before the "Crayon" nickname came about.

Crayon-to-be: Caron at work at the magazine in 1990, about six years before the “Crayon” nickname came about.

I’ve also been nicknamed C.J., after my then initials, which morphed to Siege; and Biddle, by my parents when I was a baby, because I used to say “Biddle, biddle biddle” when I got frustrated.
Most people have had at least one nickname in their time—some stick and some don’t. If you’re Thai, you most likely use your nickname for all but the most formal of occasions.

I’d love to hear some of your nicknames and how they came about.

My life in TV

Going, going, gone: some of my old TV Week clippings that I don't need any more.

Going, going, gone: some of my old TV Week clippings that I don’t need any more.

You know how an old song can conjure up images of where you were in the past when that song was popular? I have the same memories when I see old TV programs. I was an entertainment journalist from the 1980s to the 2000s, and browsing through my clippings file is like a walk through the history of Australian and New Zealand television and associated events in my own life.

I worked for Australia’s then-most popular entertainment magazine, TV Week, from 1989-1990 and from 1993-1997, becoming assistant editor in 1994. I kept all my clippings—probably about 1000 articles—from that time, and a fair few of the magazines intact, particularly the editions for which I was acting editor.

After my father died in 2006, my mother gave me their collection of seven years’ worth of TV Weeks that I had written for. This collection took up eight drawers in my home office.

Recently, I’ve been trying to streamline my household and get rid of stuff I don’t wear, don’t read, don’t look at, don’t need. As the Canadian writer Fransi Weinstein said in her blog Three Hundred Sixty-Five this month, it’s about “living simpler”.

So, some of those old TV Week magazines had to go. As journalists, we were taught from the beginning to keep all our clippings. They are a record of your work and you need them when you apply for a new job.

Today, however, no one would be interested in my clippings from so long ago. And if I need clippings for a job application, I have more recent ones that I can simply provide a website link to.

I don’t have children, so there’s no sense that I would need to keep something for posterity. Yet, always before when I’ve tried to cull this collection, I’ve become lost in sentimentality and nostalgia, and have ended up putting the mags back in the drawers.

Not this time, though. Last weekend, I got rid of 60% of the magazines in the eight drawers, plus about half of my clippings, keeping only the more notable among them. I also threw out lots of clippings from my work as a news reporter in the 1980s, again keeping only the important ones.

Now I have extra storage space in which I can accrue more stuff.

Have you heard the one about the journalist who wanted to be a novelist?

Mark Twain as editor of the Territorial Enterprise, Virginia City, Nevada, 1863

Mark Twain as editor of the Territorial Enterprise, Virginia City, Nevada, 1863

I went to a fiction writing workshop in November at which the tutor, a university lecturer, insisted that “Very few good novels have been written by journalists”. I was astounded by this statement, but said nothing during the seminar, not wanting to be seen as adversarial or—as I am a university lecturer myself—as trying to be a know-it-all and trump the teacher.
I was offended, actually, because I am a former journalist and a published novelist, and I think I’m not bad at both.
Traditionally, many young people who want to be novelists have been steered into journalism as a way of making a living but still using their writing skills. It seems most journalists I know have a manuscript half-written or ambitions to write a novel.

Anyway, this got me thinking about great writers who also worked as journalists. Contrary to what the fiction workshop tutor said, there are many great novelist-journalists. What follows is a list of just a few that occur to me. They are in no particular order and they are eclectic: that is, some are world renowned, others are much lesser known; some are from a previous age and some are current; some are literary, some populist, some both.

Ernest Hemingway
Mark Twain (pictured above)
Geraldine Brooks
Graham Greene
Djuna Barnes
P G Wodehouse
Martin Amis
Willa Cather
Charles Dickens
George Orwell
Ruth Rendell
Will Self
Linda Grant
Tom Wolfe
Susan Kurosawa

In a recent article in the Guardian on this topic—specifically on the worth of Will Self’s work—Robert McCrum examines the cliché of the journalist as unable to write good fiction:  “What lies behind this prejudice, of course, is the idea that fiction (and poetry) is a higher calling,” McCrum says. “Journalism is hack writing (it doesn’t have to be) and novelists dwell closer to the top of Mount Parnassus (well, occasionally).” Read the full article here.

A 2006 scholarly book on the subject, Journalism and the Novel, by Professor Doug Underwood, examines why so many journalists have aspired to fiction writing careers. I think it’s often the other way round: many people aspire to the seemingly more romantic and mystical calling of fiction writing first, then realise they have to make a living as well. That’s what happened to me. I was going to be a famous actor, playwright and novelist. However, making a living as a journalist is not wasted time, for journalism is a fascinating occupation that allows access to people and places that others don’t get, thus providing much material a novelist can use.

Just because someone works as a journalist doesn’t mean they can’t write good fiction: that’s faulty logic. Just because I once worked at McDonald’s, for example, doesn’t mean I couldn’t become a chef at a fine-dining restaurant; and just because I worked at Target doesn’t mean I couldn’t become a high-end fashion designer. Making a generalisation, as my erstwhile tutor did, can manifest simply as a prejudice with no evidence to support it.

So, my advice to anyone who thinks journalists can’t write impressive fiction is, read The Old Man and the Sea, Animal Farm, Huckleberry Finn, March, and The Quiet American, then get back to me.

Everything you wanted to know about beginning art…but were afraid to ask (part two): “Old Gadgets”

This post discusses not the techniques of painting, but a reason to paint, other than simply wanting to be creative.

One of the reasons I took up painting was because I wanted to use art to preserve the past. Of course, photography can do this too, and I appreciate fully its importance in documenting our lives and times. But for me, painting a picture of something makes it more personal, almost as if I actually manufactured the subject myself.

I had the idea for my “Old Gadgets” series before I started painting—in fact, it was the catalyst that led to me picking up a paint brush, laden with colour, and gingerly directing it across a canvas.

I’ve completed two paintings so far in the Old Gadgets series, of my manual typewriter and my film-era camera. They have been framed and they will hang on a wall side by side. Here is the first:

Old Gadgets No. 1: my manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok, 1991. On the case is the German version of my novel, The Occidentals (Das Erbst Der Schwestern). I wrote the first draft of this novel many years before it was published, on this typewriter. Acrylics on board.

Old Gadgets No. 1: my manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok, 1991. On the case is the German version of my novel, The Occidentals (Das Erbe Der Schwestern). I wrote the first draft of this novel many years before it was published, on this typewriter. Acrylics on board.

As a young journalist, a manual typewriter and a camera were my tools of trade (as well as a shorthand notebook and a pen, of course). I started at a small newspaper in Waipukurau, New Zealand—the Central Hawke’s Bay Press—for which I was both photographer and reporter. Here’s a photo of me there as a teenage cadet in 1979:

Caron Eastgate as a cadet reporter, Central Hawke's Bay Press, 1979. Note the manual phone. The typewriter is pushed up like that to indicate that I've finished my story and will now work on another. I'm also balancing my cheque book. I had to leave home to come to this job, and when I went to the bank to enquire about a cheque account, they told me I wasn't old enough to have one. When I said I was a reporter, however, they made an exception.

Caron Eastgate as a cadet reporter, Central Hawke’s Bay Press, 1979. Note the manual phone. The typewriter is pushed up like that to indicate that I’ve finished my story and will now work on another. I’m also balancing my cheque book. I had to leave home to come to this job, and when I went to the bank to enquire about a cheque account, they told me I wasn’t old enough to have one. When I said I was a reporter, however, they made an exception.

Note the telephone: Waipukurau was the last  town in New Zealand to operate a manual exchange, which didn’t become automatic until 1980. You would turn the handle in the centre of the phone and tell the operator what number you wanted. Many people were on “party lines”, that is, several houses shared the same phone number, each with a different letter at the end. So, you might ask for “2645E”, for example. We were all convinced the operators listened in to juicy conversations, and they definitely knew what was going on in town. I remember one day asking to be put through to someone I wanted to interview, and the operator said, “I can try for you, but I’ve just seen him go past on his way to town”.

We were still using manual typewriters at metropolitan newspapers in Auckland when I moved to Australia—and computerisation—in 1988. After the move, I thought my days of writing on manual typewriters had gone. I was wrong. When I moved to Nonthaburi, near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1990, I decided to write a novel. I had an electric typewriter with a memory then (I got my first personal computer in 1992). The problem was, the electricity was unreliable and, particularly in the wet season, would frequently drop out, though usually only for half an hour or so. This disrupted my writing, and I decided I would have to buy a manual typewriter again to work efficiently.

I found a cute German model in a dusty little shop. I think it cost 2000 baht (about $AU100 in those days, but less now). I hadn’t used that typewriter since 1993, however, and it was gathering dust in the spare room. So I asked on Twitter what I should do with it, and a friend of mine who lives round the corner said she’d love to have it (she collects such things). But first, I decided to do a painting of it, so I would always have it, and as you can see above, I did. This picture took me a very long time to do, working on it most nights for a couple of months until it was right. Each key has about 10 coats of paint on it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I loved photography and used to shoot about 20 rolls of film whenever I went on holiday. When I lived in Bangkok, it was a great hobby, because film processing and printing there were much cheaper than in Australia. I bought my first Canon Eos in 1990, and a new Eos—the subject of Old Gadgets No. 2 (above)—in 1999. I still have the latter camera in its case, with film and all the other things you see in the picture, but I haven’t used it since 2005. Here’s my old camera:

Old Gadgets No. 2: my film-era camera, 1999. Acrylics on board. The prints are from a trip I did to China in 2001. The slides are the only ones I ever took, on a trip to Vietnam in about 1996.

Old Gadgets No. 2: my film-era camera, 1999. Acrylics on board. The prints are from a trip I did to China in 2001. The slides are the only ones I ever took, on a trip to Vietnam in about 1996.

I stayed at my mother’s house for a few days this week, and in my room there is a large portable cassette player we bought in the US when we lived there in the early 1970s. I remember when my parents bought it, and it seemed the ultimate in modern sound equipment. I think it will become Old Gadgets No. 3.