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Episode twenty six

The Virtual Staffroom - Episode 26

The modern writer’s toolbox – with bestselling author Heather Morris

 

Joachim Cohen:

Welcome to the Virtual Staffroom, a podcast made for teachers, by teachers and all with a dash of educational technology thrown in. My name is Joachim Cohen and today, like every day, I'm joined by two rather awesome members of the Technology 4 Learning team: Linda Lazenby and Yvette Poshoglian. Welcome team!

Joachim Cohen:

Does the image of a number one New York Times bestselling author conjure up lamplight, a large mahogany desk, sheets of paper, and a glowing laptop? In reality, the life of a busy best-selling world-famous author is one equipped for writing on the run, gathering ideas and chapters between virtual meet-and-greets with readers, editors, and publishers. In this episode, we are so lucky and excited to hear from the Australian author of "The Tattooist of Auschwitz", Heather Morris. About how she works, what tricks she infuses into her creative life, and we get a snapshot into the toolbox of the modern storyteller.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Well, we have a bonafide literary superstar in the house today. Heather Morris has sold over eight million copies of her books, including "The Tattooist of Auschwitz", "Cilka's Story" and "Stories of Hope", and we're so lucky to have her here today to chat with. Heather was born and raised in New Zealand, but eventually moved to Melbourne, so we're claiming her as one of us.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Her story is simply extraordinary. She decided to pursue screenwriting, something she'd always wanted to do after raising her children, but it was a chance meeting with Holocaust survivor, Lale Sokolov that set Heather's writing path on its way. Many of you will know and have read the book or have had students that have read this story. And you would know that this book has topped book charts all over the world, including stints at the top of the New York Times Best Seller chart. She's a passionate storyteller and her suite of stories around this first book continue to inspire. Heather's just released her latest book called "Three Sisters" and has been kind enough to stop by between chats with her international publishers and booksellers to tell us about her writing life and her tech toolbox.

Heather Morris:

Oh, thank you. This is wonderful. I look forward to chatting.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Heather, your story, which became "The Tattooist of Auschwitz", came about when you met Lale Sokolov, who relayed his story to you. Did you rush home to take notes of Lale's story, or did you use a Dictaphone or audio recording device to capture his story? How did the process work?

Heather Morris:

It definitely did not include taking notes or having any recording device anywhere near us. I knew that doing that would be a distraction. So for me, it was practicing what my great grandfather taught me, active listening. Only then I could go home and I could recall exactly what he'd said and write it down then.

Joachim Cohen:

It's interesting. Isn't it? How we sometimes get lost in our devices and in technology these days, but there's still such a core process of a lot of the writing our students do. And it makes me wonder, Heather, do you take notes by hand or do you use a computer, is it a tablet or a PC? And have you tried some other ways like dictating your writing?

Heather Morris:

I have not tried dictating. I have definitely...I just transcribe onto my computer. Here's the thing about also taking notes I learned many, many decades ago. Shorthand. Now, when I first went to university as a mature adult, I thought I would be clever and I could sit there and I could write every word that my lectures were saying to me because I'd take down this copious notes in shorthand, but here's the thing about doing those kinds of dictation and notes. You actually don't hear the words and you have no recall of how they're said and the significance behind them. And I learned very quickly that that is a bad way to learn anything. Now, of course, shorthand was invented because they wanted stenographers to hear the words, take them down, but never remember them. They were to be just recorded. So don't try that, if you do know it, and just listen. Shut up and listen.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Great advice for storytellers and our young storytellers out there. Heather, the book that sort of rocketed you to all of our consciousness was a historical story. And I know that there was a lot of historical research behind it. Not only talking to survivors of the Holocaust. With historical research, do you have favorite websites or teams of researchers that use particular sites to do that work? And do you have any particular favorites?

Heather Morris:

Here's the thing about research and me. Patience is not one of my virtues. And so I am now lucky enough to be able to engage professional researchers in whatever country I need, to get me the kind of documents that would take me a long time. So I use professional researchers for data, for documents, photos, that kind of a material I need. However, when it comes to wanting to hear the emotional, personal parts to my research, only I do that. When I was writing "Cilka's Story", once I had all that material out of Moscow, from my researchers there, it was to Slovakia, to Košice. To the friends and the neighbors of Cilka that I went and sat time and time again, listening to these incredible old Slovakian people who, they spoke no English and I spoke no Slovakian, and still we communicated because I listened and they could see I was listening. And the two translators sitting off to my right, they were taking down the notes, but I need to be there to do that. That never gets outsourced.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh gosh. I tell you, we're in a world where we want to get things done so quickly. And I think you're transporting us into the idea of the power of making meaning out of listening, out of doing in-depth research and the power of that old form of journalism and old form of writing that maybe we don't see as much anymore.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Hmm. I wonder if our students would even have heard of shorthand.

Heather Morris:

Good point!

Yvette Poshoglian:

They probably haven't seen it. And also to even look at it is quite different as well. Heather, you're a screenwriter by trade. How different was it to develop the story, which eventually became "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" into a novel? Particularly one that was developed from someone's personal story.


Heather Morris:

Oh, first, can I say thank you very much for referring to me as a screenwriter. It is not a title I give myself. Yesterday I spent four hours with a screenwriter and when you're a screenwriter, they know what they're doing, but yes, I did study screenwriting and so I'll accept that, and that context. Very different. Writing a screenplay is writing to a formula. Learning the rules and unless your Quentin Tarantino. And I bet you are not. You do not get to deviate from the rules of writing a screenplay. Three acts went and goes for four, and have those sort of beats and those arcs that are driven into you when you're learning how to do it. I hate that means you get structure. It means you do get a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and there's no getting around it. So I found that very easy to learn rules of writing. Writing a novel, like I ended up doing, I didn't know what the heck the rules were and I couldn't find anybody to teach me either. That was trial and error, but yes, but it's a good way to learn just some structure and you don't need to become Quentin Tarantino.

Joachim Cohen:

I like the sound of that though. For our teachers out there, they know that as well. You can't just give a student a pen and say, go and develop me a story because what they come back with won't necessarily be what the student intended or what the teacher intended. And it's about thinking about how they can structure it and think about it. And...

Heather Morris:

Yeah

Heather Morris:

That word, structure, it's got to be all about storytelling because here's the thing about, say a screenplay that you'll be told you must sketch your significant actors in the first ten pages. The first ten pages are crucial. Do not introduce a character in page 30 that you've not even hinted at in page ten. And so there are these really strict rules and to have had a certain number of, what they call beats, things happen, your inciting incident. I love that phrase. Yeah. You've got to get that in the first ten pages. So knowing that you've got to go and frig around to get it there.

Joachim Cohen:

Absolutely. Yeah. Go back and edit and make sure. Oh God, I forgot, I missed that beat. I've got to go back. Yeah.


Yvette Poshoglian:
Cause everyone knows how to do a sizzling starter, but what happens after that? That's on everybody's mind too.

Joachim Cohen:

Now, look, we are a technology podcast here, Heather, and we were just wondering, what's your favorite program that you use to do your writing?

Heather Morris:

Word. I have bought Scrivener, which has a particular storytelling or novel writing, piece of software. For writing screenplays I do use what's called "Final Draft". So it is very clearly specifically designed to write a screenplay. And so it does not allow you to skip parts to it. If you don't put in some dialogue followed by some descriptive prose and, and you don't tell them whether it's daytime or nighttime, an internal or an external shot, it doesn't allow you to progress. And it's not that expensive. You can get versions of "Final Draft" if you want to write a screenplay and it helps you because it doesn't let you move forward without doing the right bits to the story. But in terms of writing my novels, look, I just stick to "Word". I found, I know you're technologic about...it's the thing. Scrivener was so brilliant that I couldn't master it. It wasn't for me because it kept wanting me to go up there and make this little postcard signs over there to make sure that I put it in over there. And I went, but why can't I just put it over there? So lots of conversations between me and Scrivener and Scrivener won.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh, I love it. I love it. That's simple, reliable, effective. It's one of the mantras of our team. And I think that's what "Word" is. We all know it, we can all use it, it doesn't get in the road or the process that you're going through. Now, look, we are in this new reality of 2021, and we've seen the huge rise of Netflix. We've seen podcasts like this one appear out of the period that we've had. We've got audio books. Has this really changed the way that you approach writing and you know, what do you think this implication has for young writers of the future?

Heather Morris:

Yeah, here's the thing about the technology in the last 12 months that we've all been introduced to, and this is a Zoom top, by the way. I am wearing a Zoom top. I have a wardrobe of Zoom tops. The bottoms don't matter. And I have also first had to master and in Melbourne and lockdown, I didn't have any technical help. But I do a lot of talks around the world, particularly when I'm talking to a live radio station or a live television station, they send me these most complicated and complex formats and programs to link into. So yeah, they're just not zoom, they're really complex and I've had to master them. So I'm doing okay on that level, they all have funny names. And what they use in Poland is, but different to what they use in Sweden. Go figure. I'm getting quite good at mastering that. And of course I have Facebook. I was doing live Facebook events every Monday night. I'd be talking for 45 to 50 minutes for about five or six months last year. And so it was pretty cool. I had to learn how to do that, once again, in my own home...Lockdown.

Joachim Cohen:

I tell you, Heather, that for someone who says you're not very technological, you've just outlined the way that you have got such an open approach to the way technology is. You're such a lifelong learner. It's unbelievable. Congratulations is all I can say. It's a role model to so many people out there, I think.

Yvette Poshoglian:

And 2020 just gave us so many other ideas. The fact that you've embraced it. Has there been a standout moment with that tech that maybe went extremely well or was memorable for other reasons within that format?

Heather Morris:

Look, I'll tell you this story and you may want to edit it out. I'm doing a live. Thankfully it's only audio interview into the BBC in London. And I was looking after my daughter and son-in-law's dog. Now it's a big golden retriever. His name is Diego. I'm sitting on a sofa. I'm comfy having this great interview, live interview. And I have this pure white rug that I'm sitting on and Diego comes and sits beside me. That's fine. Then Diego kind of half sits up and he starts doing the bum walk on my white rug. I'm trying to keep a straight face and talk and kick this dog who is leaving this poo mark down my white rug. If you want me to come up with another one, we can, but yes.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh dear, well Heather, I think we're just about reached the end of this amazing podcast. We are so honored to have had you, but you know what? Every single guest that comes on the Virtual Staff Room has to answer one question and it's called "Rocket Ship Robots". Now you might be someone who's heard of the radio program, "Desert Island Discs". And what they do is they challenge every guest to come up with the disc, or the cassette, the CD, that old thing that they might take them with them to a desert island, but we're a technology podcast. So we're flying into outer space in our rocket. And we challenge our guests to say, what piece of technology would they take with them? So Heather Morris, what would you take with you?

Heather Morris:

My iPad has to be, cause then I can both read and listen to it and hopefully catch up on news as well.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh, create, consume, do it all.

Heather Morris:

And I know how to work it.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Bonus points. Heather, thank you so much for joining us and taking time out to talk to The Virtual Staff Room.

Heather Morris:

Ah, thank you. Thank you.

Joachim Cohen:

Does this inspire you to write a bestseller, Yvette and Linda? What ideas have you taken away from Heather's advice? Have you got any time savers? Yvette?

Yvette Poshoglian:

Well, gosh, Heather is really the master of time-saving because she has such a busy schedule and obviously with things being what they've been in the past year or two, they've really thrown a spanner in the works in the way we all work. I think for me, when I'm writing, I think using speech-to-text and enabling some of those dictation functions that you've got in some of those products, like a Google Doc, that's a great way to capture an idea and then have it ready for later. And similarly, I think there are different aspects to collaboration with Docs as well that could really work. If you've got students, for instance, that might be writing together or you giving feedback. Linda, what do you think?

Linda Lazenby:

Well, I was thinking of it, that collaboration piece in terms of not so much students, but for teachers. And I know with the teams we work with, without some of those fantastic collaboration tools that we have, I'm not sure how we would've gotten through this lockdown period at all. And the team and our teachers in schools are able to use some of these tools to really make sure that collaborative approach to teaching has remained consistent when they're not together physically as well.

Joachim Cohen:

Yeah, I hear you Linda. It doesn't matter where you are, who you are, who you need to connect with. There are all these tools that can make it possible. You know, as Heather was mentioning, so many ways to connect in with all the people that she needed to talk to or that she needed to inspire. And it made me reflect and think creativity comes to you anywhere. You can't tell where it's going to come. And if you don't have a place to write down that idea, you're going to forget it. So using things like Google Keep, which you can use on your mobile, you can get it on your computer. Google Docs where you can do it across those areas as well. So you're not going to lose that idea. I think that's something that really drilled home to me because I know I sit in bed at night. Sometimes I go, oh my gosh, I just had this idea and I can't forget it. And if I can get my phone out, pop it onto Google Keep. But at the same time, it will happen when I'm walking down the street and I'll know that I've got that same list that I can connect with. So Heather has really inspired me, I can tell you, with those kind of tools that mean I can work anytime, anywhere on the go.

Joachim Cohen:

So, Yvette and Linda, it's mid-term four and we're back face-to-face teaching, but there were so many great digital resources created during the learning-from-home period. Are there any ideas or gems that you want to share with teachers? Linda? How about you?

Linda Lazenby:

Look, you're right in that there's so many great resources that were created during that lockdown period. And I know teachers have their work cut out for them to support our students in transitioning back to face-to-face schooling. One of the things that our team's been working on is the T4L kids magazine, and this is the sixth edition that's been released. And its all on data, which can often seem like a very dry topic to go through with students. But this is a focus on using infographics to share data and really write some great data stories. Some of the team that have worked on this have used really great sources to really inspire the kids around using sport and other statistics across the world that might get students really engaged in this work. And, you know, I think this type of work that's, self-paced learning where students can do a group task with someone is probably what our teachers are looking for. And I hope that this hits the mark.

Yvette Poshoglian:

I've also got something too, Linda, that would really suit students and the teachers might've been super busy during that period in August, but don't forget to check out the DART Learning Virtual Book Week celebration. There are 10 sessions of all the sessions and all the talks, which were just brilliant. We had 22 authors appearing and they're all still available on YouTube. You just simply had to DART Learning and you can tune in by stage. There are lots of sessions according to stage, and some of the guests combinations are just really fun. There's also a couple of sessions aimed at stage six students too, which target that idea around the craft of writing. So it dovetails nicely with what Heather was talking about today. So just give a little shout out to that one as well. And also complementing T4L kids mag. We've got Magazine T4L for all our teachers, and it's all about leveling up your practice. So, that's what I've been hanging out to talk about. Joe, what about you?

Joachim Cohen:

Oh, I'm just loving listening to these resources that I've got to go and check out. All the great on-demand content that will just live on for so long. How fantastic to be able to bring these amazing authors into the classroom and make data come to life. Data...people sometimes fall asleep when they think about it. I think about accountants. They think about people working with numbers, but they're so exciting and infographics really make it come to life. And one of the tools you could have used for that was actually Canva. And I'll be doing a little bit of exploring inside Canva for education, which now all New South Wales teachers can access if they think it's right for them and for their school. So I'll provide the link in the show notes. But I love Canva because when you're telling stories, you sometimes want to make those words come to life. And I think Canva's got the real capacity to do that. Whether it's creating a visual story, an infographic, with your creating an app prototype or a movie or a film, or you know, other resources and assets to go along to promoting those. It's a fantastic tool to go and experiment with. It's designed for everybody. And so I really hope people go and check out those resources and get creating and making their stories come to life.

Joachim Cohen:
Many of us may be thinking about writing in a different light and thinking about how tech can support us in our creative journeys and how students can utilise tech to work on their craft of writing and how it can take on a whole new multimodal meaning. Exciting times ahead for the students of today and the writers of tomorrow. This podcast has been produced by the masterful, Jacob Druce with the assistance and supreme coordination of the "Technology 4 Learning" team. Before we go, please make sure you send us through your comments. Your world of techno wizardry wisdom. Yes, they'll be back next time. And your thoughts for new guests and segments. And if you liked the podcast, give us a rating. So more and more educators find us and be inspired to get a little techie in the classroom. Stay supreme, get learning, stay passionate, everyone. And thanks for joining us.

Yvette Poshoglian:
Just a little note, please be aware that all views expressed by the podcast presenters, that's us, are our personal opinions and not representative of the New South Wales Department of Education. Discussions aren't endorsements of third-party products, services, or events. And please note that as much as we sound like it, we are not experts in legalese, tech speak or anything in between. We're just passionate people keen to boost technology for learning in the classroom and to help build the skills in your students and for you to solve the problems of tomorrow. Do your due diligence, read further and if we've got something wrong, let us know. We too are always learning and always improving.