Had the opportunity to share with Maaja Wentz, a teacher, librarian and author about Espresso Love, cell phone novels, digital technology, multimedia, art and writing, Japanese culture, teaching, student experience, education and its reform.
I realize I am probably much more eloquent in writing, and much more redundant and imprecise in conversation, but nevertheless it was still fun. I apologize for the background noise. There is a transcript below the video.
Creative Teacher Librarian
Takatsu, Author of Secondhand Memories, the very first English cell phone novel
MAAJA: Could you tell us what cell phone novels are?
TAKATSU: The cell phone novel is a way of using poetry and narration together. Ten years ago in Japan, they started writing novels on their cell phones. Because of how the cell phone screen is shaped and also how many characters it can contain, all the chapters are really short. Using the Japanese blogging style with a lot of line breaks, it started to look more like poetry. It got popular there and publishers picked it up, publishing these books that young authors are writing. So I saw that, and I brought it over to North America. For the English cell phone novel, each page is around 100 words, but less than 200 words – it all fits in a very small frame. You use a lot of line breaks and it reads like poetry.
M: So Textnovel is the platform that you’re on? Did that come here and you were the first writer for it?
T: Textnovel is the first site that recognize the cell phone novel technology and the literary movement, and I started the first one on the site. So it’s really about online serialization, while using a special literary form – which is the poetry style novel.
M: I’ve been reading a couple of your novels and there’s this repeating theme of conformity and routine – I was wondering if there are any autobiographical reasons for that?
T: I think there is. We all go through school for so many years of our lives and repeat the same schedules over and over again. And it continues on throughout work as well – nine-to-fives; that’s sort of the life I don’t really want to live. I’m an artist, I love to be creative, I love to be free. I guess it’s the creative spirit in me. I think I have my values set on the more metaphysical aspects rather than materialism, trying to conform to the capitalist system. I feel there’s the capitalist system that expects us to be workers in society for corporations, to earn money and you know, owning a house, having food on the table. For me, my art is probably my first priority.
M: Your cell phone novels and Wattpad stories are set in Japan – why is that?
T: It goes hand in hand with the creative spirit and wanting to break free of my environment. And in a way, I was seeking outside sources of influence and I really liked Japan a lot. I grew up on Japanese culture and entertainment. It connects to me on a deeper level because I feel Japanese culture is about its spirit – the spirit of perseverance and fighting for your dreams. It’s conveyed in almost all their entertainment and every story, all the songs. Also, they’re really sentimental and hold on to memories, to relationships. And actually when you go to Japan, from their education, when they’re kids, like in kindergarten they’re taught and trained to work really well together. They’re sort of taught to conform, like for all classmates to need to clean the room together afterschool and so on. There are certain really strict rules but at the same time, they encourage creative growth. There’s sort of a juxtaposition or a contrast. They maintain growth while teaching discipline. There’s a lot of interesting things like that deeply invested in their culture. About relationships, friends are like family – you know, comrades or comradery.
M: Personal question here, when I see how many thousands of words you’ve written already at your tender age, I really do admire your discipline. Where do you see that discipline coming from?
T: It’s the drive or the creative spirit. I want to pursue my dream, I want to create art that will touch people, the same way that Japanese entertainment that I grew up on touched me and changed my life. Or inspiring teachers, inspiring works I’ve read, they really speak on a deep level. I really want to do that for other people. I want to inspire people, I want to change lives and help people to grow. It’s my core value that drives every move I make. I think discipline didn’t come til I was more mature. When I was younger, I was always scatter-brained – doing this and that. As I grew up – the first cell phone novel for example – was when I stepped out of my comfort zone and committed to something and I saw the whole thing through. It sort of comes naturally as well with age, I felt I could handle more and commit more.
M: Was it difficult for you to express your feelings knowing that anyone on the internet could read them?
T: I would say I never really had that issue. I’m a person who would always criticize myself. As artists, we always have high expectations of ourselves, like perfectionists – I mean there are times when I’ve been in doubt or insecure but when I posted it, it was on a whim. Let’s try this; no one’s going to read it anyway, right? That’s what I thought in the beginning. I read a cell phone novel that really touched me, it made me tear up in the end. I was like, I want to do this too. I’m going to write my own story. And I gave it a try. I didn’t really think about the results or the consequences. What’s funny is I find that a lot of artists who are successful would say the same thing: I was just playing around or experimenting or trying out new things – and hey, people liked it.
M: Do you think teachers in Canada have anything to learn from the school system in Japan?
T: Yeah. Since they were young, they’ve been trained to work in society and in the classrooms they would have to bond together very well. Each child will be responsible for a lot of tasks. For example, after school cleaning – they have to clean up the whole classroom and be responsible for one another. Kids might be responsible to serve lunch to their classmates, certain people are on duties, they work together as a team, making sure no one is falling behind or out of place. It’s a pretty strict structure, there are a lot of rules that they have to follow. This inspires a lot of discipline, self-control, I think it trains them in a lot of life skills, even while they are very young. Building on this foundation, they can move on to high school, middle school and learn and explore different subjects. They’re expected to join clubs after school. These clubs are basically teams where they devote all their time after school, three or four hours or even longer, however much time they need to get things done together. While in classes they’re expected to follow rules, outside of school, they learn a lot about what they’re good at. It’s up to them what club they want to join. They can join music clubs, sports, track and field, things that we might have here too, the arts. I guess the difference is the foundation that’s built on as little kids: they are expected to put all their effort, giving their best and they have that kind of training where they can do their best no matter what and support one another as a family – comrades, working together to get things done. In clubs they can explore their strengths. Throughout the year there are events like club fairs, school fairs and festivals where outsiders will come and students can see what each class or club has been doing. They would work together to put on a show, performance, sports games, all kinds of things that are competitive. They make signs or decorations for their classrooms or run events. A lot of Japanese entertainment like TV dramas, anime, would show activities like creating a haunted house for visitors, or cafes, maid cafes, serving food, snacks. There’s a lot of room for creativity where they have to think outside of the box and they have space to do that, while they also understand how the system works, how to be disciplined with effort. They (the system) tries to do both things. They develop skills in as many fields as possible. Because of their strict expectations, they’re able to think outside of the box. Whereas if we give kids too much freedom from the beginning, they don’t know where they would like to go. They want to try everything or get easily distracted: I don’t want to do this anymore, I want to do something else. But in Japan, they would have friends and comrades, they would need to be responsible for one another. This kind of training goes on throughout life. When they graduate from high school and go through university you find that alot of them are really creative – they continue to do art, they continue to do music. ‘Cause they have the passion, the training, and the skills for it – they’re very talented, especially after all that practice.
M: Let’s talk about your friends and your collaborations, in making Espresso Love and other projects online, I’m impressed with the number of multimedia tie-ins. Now can you talk about that? Did you do all that work yourself or are some of those things collaborations?
T: In the beginning, I would do things myself. I do music, I do art, illustration, graphic design, as well as write, so I have the passion for all the arts. But there’s not enough time to do everything. I find that a lot of my friends are talented and passionate as well. But I feel that a lot of people just don’t have a platform to stand on. They would just do it at home as a hobby, yet how to take it further remains in question. People may go to school, study, work for a company, and forget all about their talents. I’m taking this opportunity to build a platform and collaborate together. For Espresso Love, we’re trying to do an artwork collaboration. Illustrators, painters, can put their own interpretation towards the themes of the book, because the themes are really abstract and metaphysical. We’re trying to put together an artbook and if there are graphics that will work for merchandise, like t-shirts, coffee cups and so on, we can try that as well. Also, I will be working with independent singer-songwriters to throw together a mini-album of original music or soundtrack to the novel. It would be really interesting because if the novel is printed and released, we could have a launch party where there would be live music as well and have songwriters come and perform. It’s about creating a platform where everyone can stand on and work together.
M: So you’re saying art and commerce is really compatible?
T: I believe it’s compatible – you just got to be very tactful. I think art needs to remain art, like you need to be clear of your ideals and your values. What are you trying to convey, what is your reason for doing art, what’s the purpose of writing and singing. With that in mind, then you can reach out to the commerce, but I think you need to have that core. In that sense, the core won’t be corrupted with commerce. But there are a lot of ways of doing it: marketing tactics. Even books now have book trailers. So you explore different media and techniques but the core still remains.
M: I really enjoyed your book trailer for Espresso Love. I thought it was very interesting the way you had the signs – it was cleverly done. How many people worked on that?
T: That was just me because there’s a website where you can put on images and it places it for you. It’s actually a free service.
M: What’s it called in case teachers want to use it?
T: It’s called Animoto.
M: Fantastic. Now here’s a question I have to ask you as a librarian, as a teacher: do you feel that teachers have a place on websites like Textnovel where the cell phone novels are or Wattpad – do teachers belong there or is that a playground for teenagers?
T: I think teachers definitely belong there. You see in the more recent years that a lot of teens are writing. But there’s not really much of a direction. Like fanfiction is very popular, also trends like paranormal, vampire fiction and so on. They just go with the flow. I think teachers can be part of that and help bring people to learn from writing, how to learn from reading, learn from interacting with one another. Even social etiquette online, how to be polite. I think there should be guidance online. For example, I’m starting up a new network called Literary Fiction on Wattpad @LiteraryFiction. It’s a hub that has brought a lot of professional authors together. There’s a lot of really talented authors all over the site, but nothing really to connect them. I think we need to start connecting people online as well and teachers can be a part of that. Writing tips, I know people are doing that as well. We can have a hub where people can learn more.
M: On an artistic note, you started with cell phone novels and now you’re writing on Wattpad which is a much longer form, how did you find your writing change?
T: This was something I really wanted to challenge myself with. I’ve been writing cell phone novels for a couple of years – just writing cell phone novels. It’s all been poetic, line breaks, white space, playing around with words and its formatting. So it’s really different. But I think cell phone novels trained me to be able to write prose. Because of my eye or ear for rhythm, that intuition. In cell phone novels, rhythm is so important: it conveys different emotions depending on how you break up the lines. For example, how if you have someone falling down a hole, which happens in one of my stories, you can have the description go down
so it actually has visual direction to it. Brought into prose, this gave me the sensitivity on conveying not just through words but through the whole piece and its balance, all the nuances and the techniques behind it. I think my mind matured as well throughout the years of writing. In the beginning, my content was more about emotions, people, friendship, love, romance. As I got older, I guess my philosophies changed and I became more focused on the self, identity in the world around, how we fit into society, how we can change society. In that sense, I graduated from cell phone novels because I needed more words to express those ideas. So I moved into prose with Espresso Love. That’s actually the first time I wrote a prose novel in a long time.
M: And it is long, do you remember how many thousands of words it is?
T: It’s 165,000 words.
M: Exactly, it’s a full sized novel.
T: Actually I need to cut it down a bit. I was aiming for 100,000 words but somehow it went on for too long.
M: Have you ever thought of going into teaching?
T: Yeah, definitely. I’ve been teaching for a lot of years now. I work as a summer camp counsellor, I teach art classes; even when I was really young, I would have classes in my house with little kids in the neighbourhood. I would teach them art. I’ve definitely been passionate about teaching. In the beginning, I was not as confident with expressing myself. So I didn’t want to become a teacher, since I didn’t have that kind of technique or confidence yet. But now, I think I’m developing that. And I’m passionate about inspiring people and changing lives which fits into teaching. We can bring up the next generation that’s really capable, powerful, talented, who know their place in society and what they want to do in life. I think we need to encourage that. Throughout the education experience, a lot of times, we might not know what we want to do. I think there needs to be a lot more one on one support and mentorship to explore what students’ strengths are. I definitely have a passion for that.
M: So after Espresso Love, what’s your next project?
T: After writing it, I took a huge break. It was very tiring to write it. Not only was it long but all the content was also very complex, (heavy) – I had to do a lot of research into society, history, and all kinds of things. It was draining on the mind because I had to put my subconscious into it. Based on my intuition, feeling; abstract themes and metaphysical things that you could only do through feel. It had challenged me to the fullest and after I’ve been only posting chapters online so the whole novel would be up for readers. Now, after the break, I’ve branched off into multimedia projects for Espresso Love. I have character Twitter accounts and sequel, spin-off stories. Text messages or letters or things the characters might have written during or before and after the story. Those are the little things I’m doing right now. I don’t think I’ll be tackling a huge project really soon. There’s a sequel novel that I’m planning for Espresso Love, which is based on the same universe but different characters. But I don’t think I have enough energy to do that right now. So I’ll just be doing short stories. I have a short story collection. Little projects like that.
M: What creative advice do you have for people, teens, kids, whoever wants to write a story on Wattpad? Should you start at the beginning and write it sequentially in instalments as you’re posting it? Or do you think it’s better to write the whole thing first and then post it after it’s done?
T: I think it depends on the person, whatever they’re comfortable with. For cell phone novels, the whole culture of cell phone novels, is that it’s real time and it’s serialized. You’re writing on the go, on your cell phone and you’re uploading it, and people are reading it on the go as well. In that case, for cell phone novels, I would encourage you to write real time. It’s sort of improvisation, you kind of go with where the characters are taking you, how the story is flowing. Sometimes when I write the novel, I have no idea what’s happening next. You just embrace that feeling and intuition and let it flow – let the words flow from the subconscious. Cell phone novels are more real time. On Wattpad, it’s really up to you. Prose is harder to write. Cell phone novel is intuition-based but prose you really need to think and plan, or else it won’t really make sense. In a way, cell phone novels in its poetry format makes every line stand out, but so does prose, I find. Because it’s all in a line and it keeps going, you keep reading, and if there’s a stumbling block, something that snags, that’s an issue. I think it takes a lot more conscious effort. It depends on the writer. If possible, do it real time of course, because that’s real cool. But I think there needs to be conscious effort: edit each chapter, plan it out before you put it up.
M: How should teachers improve things for their students?
T: This goes along with my studies in alternative quality education. There’s an idea that grades is the most important thing in school. That’s how we’re raised and we’re expected to get high grades no matter what subject. Not all students are going to be good at everything or that subject, like math or something. I’m not a math person. Okay, I can pull off some okay marks but it’s not my thing. I should really be developing my strengths – and improving my weaknesses, but my strengths should be encouraged. I didn’t really feel that because we’re expected to achieve high marks in everything. Why are we expecting people to have grades (results), when some kids may be smarter or quicker at that subject and can get high marks doing things last minute? While some might not be as talented in that aspect. There are students of different levels. What we should really be encouraging is for people to put effort into it. Like in the Japanese system, effort is probably the most important thing. Each kid has a different journey and a different future ahead – and we don’t know what that future might be. It’s so important to have that direct mentorship. Throughout my education experience, I felt that I didn’t have guidance at all. There are inspiring teachers but they’re presenting a speech to the whole class. We really need that one on one. Sometimes in classes, the teacher might not know that I love art, that I love music and that I like to write. Teachers might not know that. In university, we are expected to write essays but not everyone will be able to write a good essay right off the bat. Maybe that’s not their strength. Maybe they can speak well, they can present an essay as a speech but not through writing. Each person has a different approach. Of course they should learn and explore different aspects but we need to know what their strengths are. So, class sizes: we need to be more one on one. Especially in high school when kids don’t know what they want to do in the future. Mentorship from actual career professionals can help them know whether they want to go into a certain field or not. Even after university, when students graduate, they realize that it’s completely different from what they expected and from what their majors are. So we need to have that connection for the kids. And the effort issue, kids should be marked on effort rather than the result. If they aren’t as good as someone else in a subject, if they put in the effort, I’m pretty sure they will improve. There’s kids who get good marks no matter what. I’ll admit, I was one of them. I would procrastinate and I would hand in something and the marks are alright. So I don’t have to try.
M: Well, I’m kind of sad to hear that you didn’t benefit from any mentors in high school. Did you find them later on?
T: Throughout my life, not really. There have been people who helped. Like my parents helped me a lot. There’s a pastor or maybe an inspiring teacher. Even right now, I’m friends with a professor. He’s really inspiring, like a genius, a literary genius. He inspired a lot of thoughts towards Espresso Love. But I feel that there isn’t a long term guidance. I think how I arrived at where I am now, is through my own thoughts. Thinking, analyzing everything and anything, thinking behind the scenes. We shouldn’t accept things at face value, there’s always a story behind it. Each person has a story behind it, each action has a story behind it. That way, I was always thinking about life. That’s how I arrived where I am now. And I also analyzed myself so that I could find out more about what my core values are, what are my ideals, and what my passions are. I think that skill of analysis, is also one thing that should be in the education system. Kids should learn how to learn. I find that a lot of students would just accept things, just study, memorize, try to get good marks, that’s their focus. And the good marks are for what? To get a good job in the future, to earn money, to get a good nine-to-five job. We should teach kids how to learn, how to think, how to analyze everything and come to their own conclusions. I think that’s important. I know that throughout our years in high school or university, we are encouraged to think, but it’s not enough or some kids aren’t getting it as well as others.
M: Thank you so much for speaking to me today. Where can viewers find your work online?
T: My main website is Takatsu.tk or on google you can just type in Takatsu cell phone novels or Takatsu novel