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Castaway - The Inside Story
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When Defiance Is
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A Craicing Good Time
My London Village
How To Speak ... Dance
South African Ghosts
Pseud Awakening
Mad Matt's
One Hundred Years
Of Total Confusion


Teaching creative writing, as I have done for some years, to the maturer end of the student spectrum, you never quite know who you’re going to get in your groups. One affable fifty-something Irishman who signed up for a weekend masterclass I was teaching at the Guardian, told us that he was writing a memoir about his life as a serial taker of drugs. ‘You mean,’ said a cut-glass voiced older woman in the group, ‘a been-there, done-that, learnt-my-lesson kind of memoir.’ The Dubliner laughed loudly. No, he replied, the main thing he’d learned from his experiences was that people should take more drugs. ‘Imagine if all the politicians took an E before they started their discussions on Brexit or whatever. The problems of the world would be solved in a jiffy.’  

Often it’s the flashier participants, who arrive with a great title for their memoir, or who enthuse about it at length in the lunch break, who turn out not to be so hot on the page. Other more modest types, who hum and ha and come close to apologising before they read their pieces out, generally prove more promising.

‘I’m not sure anyone would be interested in my experiences in the gay chem-sex scene of the 90s,’ said one handsome forty-something, looking nervously round his group.  His prose turned out to be as well-honed as his story was riveting. The older ladies around the table he had been worried about shocking were agog to hear more.

Another quiet-looking woman introduced herself by saying that she wanted to write a memoir about her relationship with her brother. ‘OK,’ I said tactfully, never wanting to discourage. ‘Is there any particular angle that might make it interesting?’

            ‘He was a playwright,’ she replied.
            ‘OK, well, there’s something to be going on---’
            ‘Called Jo Orton.’

Her prose, luckily, turned out to be almost as funny as her famous brother’s dialogue.

Having taught many such groups over weekends in London, weeks in Devon or Italy, and even a six-month winter course, I have learned to recognise various types of creative writing student. The stickler for grammar, for example. ‘Wasn’t that a split infinitive?’ such a person may ask beadily, when another’s work has been read out and it’s time for the group critique. It may well have been, but these are things that can be sorted out later by copy editors. What you cannot fix is decent imaginative work in the first place. Getting uppity about grammar in the early stages of someone’s draft is a not-so-subtle way of point scoring.

Another type worries too much about the process. How many words should they write a day? Should they use a pen or a word-processor? Is it permissible to stop for lunch if one is in mid creative flow? One seventy-something spent a whole weekend obsessing about her technology. Forget all the points I’d been making about narrative and dialogue and structure and so on, could I possibly tell her how to get her files in an order on a memory stick.  I thought she might have been on the wrong course.

There’s always at least one participant whose expectations are, to put it mildly, unrealistic. One woman in her sixties was stuck on the structure of her life story. Perhaps, she concluded, it might work best as a trilogy. ‘But you’ve only written two chapters,’ I pointed out. ‘Maybe concentrate on getting one book done first.’

Another, much younger, guy wanted to write ‘an inspirational memoir’. His (very) rough draft was full of bullet-point tips about how to get stuff done, be proactive and get on in the world. Based on his own experiences. It sounded like a great idea, I said, not wanting to prick his bubble either. But what had he achieved personally?

            ‘The memoir,’ he replied.
             ‘But you haven’t written it yet.’
            ‘There’s a website as well.’

He was only twenty-nine. I thought that he should maybe audition for The Apprentice. He certainly had the energy.

One of the things I enjoy most in teaching, either general creative writing, or memoir specifically, is watching people coming out of their shells as a course progresses. One rather grand ex-diplomat assured me at the start of a residential week abroad that I wasn’t to expect great things from him, he was used to writing dry dispatches, and he was only on the course to keep his second wife company. By the Friday he was writing in some detail about his sex life with his first wife.

Another old fellow, who had spent his working life in the City, was also only there on his wife’s instructions. ‘But you do have something to say, Hugh,’ she kept telling him bossily. Many of the group found him stuffy, if not pompous. But during one exercise in which he wrote about himself as a small boy, stuck waiting outside a room in which his mother lay dying, his suddenly powerful prose reduced him and the rest of us to tears. After that, he was seen differently by everyone, even the young woman who had complained about having to sit next to him twice running at dinner.

Perhaps the thing I’ve found hardest is explaining how tough it can be to get these life stories published, however interesting or well done they are. In the last session of my Guardian courses I would invite a literary agent in to explain the commercial realities of the publishing world. I kept this to the end for a reason. You could almost hear the enthusiasm drain from the room as one agent explained that publishers are generally looking for writers with their lives ahead of them and a future career they can build. She tactfully didn’t mention that the marketing team are often also keen on a face that will look good in an author photo. However excellent the tyro older writer is, they have a mountain to climb just to get a look in, even with memoir, which of all genres they are surely best equipped to try.

Others don’t realise how crowded the market is. It was hard to watch another agent I’d asked in explain bluntly to a woman with terminal cancer that the fact of her having this terrible illness wouldn’t necessarily help her get published. I will never forget the look on her face when he asked, ‘What kind of cancer memoir is it?’ As V.S. Pritchett once observed about the art: ‘You get no credit for living.’

Because television and pop stars, actors, sportsmen and noted politicians are likely to sell well, it’s often hard for the ordinary writer to realise that without the artificial boost of celebrity it has to be a remarkable or brilliantly-told story to make the cut. Having said which, even the celeb memoir won’t generally take off without a good story, honestly and engagingly told. I’ve worked as a ghost on a few of these books, two of which were top ten bestsellers, so I have some idea what it takes.

Despite the difficulties, I’m glad to report that several of my ex-students have found publishers. One was Leonie Orton, with I Had It In Me, her entertaining memoir of growing up with her famous brother Jo; but others without any whiff of fame have got there too. Others I have taught have self-published with distinction; one got the kind of press coverage for her memoir that would have shamed the efforts of many a traditional publisher. Even though, with my writer’s hat on, I feel the book market is way too cluttered anyway, as a teacher I can’t help but feel a huge vicarious buzz when one of my one-time students finally announces the launch of their long-nurtured manuscript into print.

The teaching process feeds back constructively into your own work too. You realise how much you know. You are forced to up your game to demonstrate and lead. Quite often you learn from your students; depth of experience and wisdom from people who have lived longer or more interestingly than you; but also ways of expressing yourself and yes, writing well too. It reminds you that we are all struggling as writers and, even if, after a score of finished books, you call yourself a professional, you are always at one level an amateur, struggling to turn the elusive impressions of experience into something that might work on the page.  

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