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On Resets, Writing, and Life

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. – E.B. White

This quote, from Day 38 of Barbara Abercrombie’s Year of Writing Dangerously book of meditations, accompanies a mini-essay on the archetypical concept of “ideal conditions,” basically making the point that there is no such thing. Real life will always be seeking to get between an artist and their work, particularly when (like me) your deadlines are flexible and you’re accountable in the end to no one but yourself.

For me, the last few days have been a particularly trying example of this. In a holdover from dissertation discipline, Mondays are my designated writing day, the day on which I schedule no appointments or errands; but yesterday, after a very chaotic two weeks for our family that ended in a rush of late-night Sunday paperwork, I spent half the morning picking up pieces of our orderly household that couldn’t wait any longer (since banks and creditors are not much inclined toward flexible deadlines). When I finally settled in with my chapter, I got far enough along to know that I had the makings of a good writing day ahead of me – and then had to spend half the afternoon running a similarly-urgent-but-ultimately-fruitless errand. I resolved that Tuesday would be a “reset,” and that to make that happen Husband and I would have a relaxing night and go to sleep early… and then, around 9 PM, a beloved local stray cat was hit by a car on our street and killed. So instead of unwinding, we spent the evening grieving with neighbors and digging a grave in the front yard. Now, on Tuesday morning, I’m sleep-deprived, frazzled, and cranky… and yet, more than anything, I want to be in a state of mind to work on my manuscript. So I’m writing this post as part of my reset effort, cleansing myself for writing time.

In introductory sociology, I tell my students about Emile Durkheim’s work on religion, and the distinction he draws between the sacred and the everyday. Sacred objects are set apart, treated with special reverence; sacred places often require their visitors to perform a small ritual when they enter (whether that’s genuflecting to the altar before you sit down in a Catholic church or removing your shoes at the door of a mosque). And sacred time is different from everyday time.

I don’t always have time for a long ritual before I start my morning writing, but there are certain things that are more often than not a part of my routine. I make a cup of tea; I see my cat settled on his window seat next to my writing desk; I read that day’s writing meditation from the Abercrombie book. And then I shut off my wireless adapter, I mark how much time I’m going to work that morning (one hour, or two, or three) and I sit down and see what happens.

My expectations for today aren’t very high. I don’t think I’ll write beautiful prose or solve sticky plot problems: I think it’s more likely I’ll fumble around, add a few words here or there, maybe review a scene I’m already happy with. But regardless, I’m going to do it for an hour and see what happens. Because I might break through and find the focus that I’m hoping for, the focus I had in my sights yesterday – and if that’s the case, it’ll make my day immeasurably better.

The more I do this, the more I realize that half of writing is prioritizing the time; most of the other half is showing up. So today, with all the crises that took my Monday away resolved, I’m going to take a deep breath and see if I can’t find my way back into my scene.

Reset achieved. Wish me luck.

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Designing Realistic Magic Academies

A version of this post appeared first in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy series, where guest experts share their specialty knowledge and how it’s relevant for genre writers.

When I reread JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books these days, I have different questions than I did the first time around. Questions like: who are the great legendary heroes of British wizarding society that every kid learns about? What options does a talented student like Hermione Granger have for post-secondary education? Who taught Ron Weasley how to read?

Anyone who’s read or watched the Harry Potter saga knows quite a bit about Hogwarts. But even after reading all seven books, I’m still pretty confused about the education of 20th-century British wizards. And if you’re planning to create a school of magic for your fantasy world, there are some things you should think about to keep your readers from having this same confusion. Most importantly, you need to figure out the function of your school within its society. Another way of thinking about this is to ask yourself this question: who is your school’s target audience?

At first glance, schools of magic would seem to be pretty common in fantasy fiction. Besides Rowling’s Hogwarts, there’s the Citadel in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and loads of others. However, most institutions of magical learning seem to operate on the trade school model: students are a slice of the general population, of various ages and backgrounds, who’ve come in search of highly specialized knowledge or training. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is presented as a general education program: all British witches and wizards between the ages of 11 and 17 are expected to pass through its doors. Like general schools in most parts of the world, it divides its students primarily by age, and students have relatively little choice in which courses they take for most of their academic career. Hogwarts students aren’t there to get a cosmetology certificate or a law degree: they’re just trying to graduate from high school.

If you’re thinking of creating a school on the Hogwarts model, the first thing you need to consider is the prevalence of formal education in your larger society. Although human societies have always had to train their children in how to be productive adults, and formal instruction for some elite portion of the population (on topics including literacy, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and science) has existed in almost every society throughout history, widespread education of “the masses” is a relatively new concept. Laws requiring formal schooling for all children regardless of their background first appeared in parts of Protestant Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries; compulsory schooling didn’t become the general law in the United States until 1918 (though many states mandated it decades earlier).

But let’s set aside the question of prevalence: let’s say your story is set in a version of our modern real world, like Rowling’s is. That means that some sort of formal education for children is almost certainly mandatory in your society, at least through the mid-teenage years. So you know you’ve got a school system designed to serve the general population. Your next task is to think a bit about the people who designed the system, and figure out their most important goals. Because a quick look at the history of the modern Western educational system shows that the people putting together public schools have had different goals at different times, and these goals have all affected our complicated modern system.

Scholars of education pretty much agree that in the 21st century, the general Western education system has a few main purposes:

  • Instilling practical life skills. Although there are a lot of debates these days about what schools ought to be teaching students – how human sexuality should be discussed in school (or if it should be discussed at all), whether programming courses should be mandatory, whether teachers should make sure every high school graduate can balance a checkbook and change the oil in their car – there are a few skills the modern world takes for granted. If you’re an adult living in an industrialized country, it’s expected that you can read, write, and do basic math. That’s one reason standardized tests focus on these skills: someone who’s illiterate or innumerate will have a really hard time in the modern world.
  • Developing loyal citizens. The first public schools in Protestant Europe came about because religious leader Martin Luther thought it was important for all citizens to be able to read the Bible. In the United States, widespread public schooling became popular during the massive immigration of the 19th century, and one of its main goals was to teach immigrant children how to be Americans. The Pledge of Allegiance was developed with this goal in mind; ditto the story many American children still learn about President George Washington chopping down a cherry tree as a boy. Although many modern schools in the US and elsewhere try to take a more multicultural approach to their curricula, it’s still expected that schools will teach children about their country: geography, civics, and perhaps most importantly history. And what’s included in that history is a matter for constant debate in countries all over the world. Public schools put a country’s entire next generation in a room together to learn about the world. It’s unavoidable that part of that learning will involve establishing some basic norms about what it means to be American/Australian/Japanese/a British wizard.
  • Establishing cultural literacy. If you grew up in the United States, there are certain books you probably read in high school: The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird. If you grew up in the English-speaking world, you probably have at least a passing acquaintance with Romeo & Juliet and The markers of what constitutes “an educated person” are different from one place to another, but education almost always includes more than facts and figures. And depending on which rank of society you’re planning to move in once you’ve finished your education, the amount of “culture” you’re expected to be familiar with could go beyond literature. You might be expected to speak a foreign language fluently, or to recognize classical music or fine art, or to know which fork to use at a fancy dinner party. Which brings me to the final role of formal education…
  • Gatekeeping and credentialism. As I say above, in much of the world throughout much of history, formal education was the domain of an elite few. As education expanded to the masses, that wealthy few began creating additional prestige markers to set themselves apart. For a while, it was only the elite who attended high school; then, it was only the elite who pursued bachelor’s degrees; now – well, you get the idea. This phenomenon, called credentialism, is one thing sociologists point to as a cause of “degree inflation” (where bachelor’s degrees are increasingly not sufficient education for a professional job). The harder it is to get credentials for a job – credentials that imply particular specialized cultural knowledge as much as they do practical knowledge – the longer that job will stay in the hands of the elite.

With these goals in front of us, we can see that Hogwarts has an odd curriculum for a modern comprehensive school. As far as we can tell from the books, it focuses very heavily on the acquisition of practical skills: like Martin’s Citadel and Rothfuss’s University, it feels much more like a trade school than a place for general education. I’m not suggesting that Rowling should’ve given us long accounts of Harry and his chums doing algebra and reading Dickens (or, y’know, 19th-century wizarding-world novels with titles like The Goblin Lord of London). But she could have given us a little more cultural backdrop than the one almost-universally-disliked History of Magic course that appears briefly in Order of the Phoenix.

If your school of magic is a specialized place where people go to learn the wizarding arts, then you can feel free to make the classes as content-focused as you want. But if you’re designing a place for general education, you’ll want to include at least a little of the other stuff. What cultural touchstones are young people in your magical society expected to be familiar with by graduation? What does “an educated person” look like? Who teaches students the basic intellectual survival skills? (These could be reading and fundamental math; they could also be something completely different.) And how do the elites in your society (because every society has people who’d rather not mingle with “the masses”) set themselves apart? Are there private magic academies that teach spells in ancient languages known only to the wealthy? Does your school have the equivalent of AP courses, or a PTA pushing the school to offer Mandarin to give their kindergartners a jump-start on the road to Harvard?

You don’t have to put it all in; you probably shouldn’t. Like all worldbuilding, a little in the text goes a long way. But thinking about it will help you build a better magic school, and with it, a better world.