I’ve created a monster. Not a staple-browed, ham-fisted, bolty-necked ‘friend’ you understand. Oh no, happily we’re talking metaphors here. I’ve actually created a job for myself which has completely run me over and is snowballing downhill with my arms and legs protruding from within.
About a twelve years ago, I innocently offered my services as a visiting writer to schools, thinking young people might be interested in hearing from someone who’s been ‘at the type-face’ for a while, earning money from writing funny.
I’ve now run workshops at more than 600 schools from opposite ends of the spectrum; from small private schools with their own string of ponies in the stable block, to huge razor-wired comprehensives, and everything in-between. Both here and abroad.
And my findings? Wait for it. Nearly everyone can write.
I’ve been writing for the last twenty odd years – originally as a stand-up comedian, then for just about every medium there is; GQ, The Sunday Times, Radio 4, Channel 4…I was even a columnist for Mother and Baby magazine for a year – the unacceptable face of modern parenting!
And it’s this variety which seems to appeal to pupils. Many have a picture of a writer as a fusty, dusty, grey-haired fart, hunched over an ancient typewriter, ploughing through chapter nineteen of a big old book. Not me. OK, I don’t go marlin-fishing like Hemingway, or live the louche roué existence of Noel Coward, but I do play in a band and go to the pub sometimes. I know, mad eh?
My workshops have now developed into solid sessions of stealth teaching. After a brief ‘greatest hits’ résumé of my writing – ranging from writing bullet-proof one-liners to deliver on stage at lairy comedy clubs, to more considered columns for a sleepy Saturday morning Radio 4 Home Truths audience, I open their eyes to the huge lifestyle benefits. The excitement of getting commissioned by The Boston Herald, to go and write a travel piece about Lille, or the thrill of writing a slightly unhinged routine about police horses, performing it to a raucous Comedy Store audience, and then getting paid. Money for something you enjoy.
Once we’ve established that writing is fab, I run through techniques they can employ to make their work more engaging and entertaining.
It really isn’t rocket science, and though having a sense of humour in the first place definitely helps, they can all do it. It just takes practice.
This is something I’m keen to point out to them – I’m not a trained writer. I’ve only got to the point where I can earn a decent living as a writer through practice, and I know I’m still not the finished article.
We then move on to getting them writing. I tell them the methods I use to get over ‘the fear of the blank page’ the most empowering of which seems to be merely ‘don’t panic.’ When they hear that there probably isn’t a writer alive who pulls their chair up to the desk and begins writing straight away, there’s almost a palpable sense of relief in the room. It’s OK to be ‘between ideas.’ But not for too long though, eh?
I get them to think about writing in their voice and to use phrases peculiar to them, as for me, originality is everything.
There’s always a little resistance when the group are asked to write, and there are always a few cries of, ‘I can’t do it,’ or ‘I’m stuck,’ but everyone ends up writing something. I explain that these are only first drafts, and that I spend time endlessly tweaking and honing my work before it’s ‘put to bed.’
At the end of the session, I encourage them to volunteer to share their work, which has an effect of breathing life into it. It’s not just scribbles on paper. It’s a thing.
A teacher told me that one particular disaffected boy wrote more in my workshop than he had all term, so I guess I must be doing something right.
Now, if I could just extricate myself from this comedy snowball, I might actually be able to get some writing done.