LET me start with a little autobiography. I went to a secondary modern school in Leeds. It was in the fifties, and I had failed my eleven plus I was a reader of comics. Lines of images were my narratives. Something magical lay under these varied pieces of daring baloney in which Bash Street Kids and Roy of the Rovers featured. Yet, in doing battle with Janet and John readers at school, even with the help of the very patient Mrs. Brown, I was left out. The words were enemies. Pictures were friends. Even popular culture in its most garish and compulsive forms confirmed this. The Saturday matinee at the Shaftesbury Cinema gave me derring-do in the extreme. After all, Don Winslow of the Navy would be pursued into a giant cave by a hundred Arabs, then after a minute or so of stirring music, he would emerge not only unscathed but victorious. He may even have slapper his hands together in triumph -- or is that my memory creating something?
The point is that I was image-led. There were no books at home, and yet I bought them. I bought the gorgeous red-backed Everyman classics from Dent. I had no skill to read them, but I somehow sensed that there were treasures within. They were pillows of imagination; you slept on them and dreamed. So what made me into a word-child? It was a reading of Nevil Shute's novel, No Highway. This was such a wonderful story that it made you want more. It gave a certainty that there was more like this, but you had to work at it. It's the story of the boffin, Mr. Honey, travelling on a plane, knowing that metal-fatigue is to strike on this very journey. The safest place to be is the toilet. The stewardess can be saved ...
My teacher, Mr. Makin, was inspirational. Nevil Shute is responsible for my book-buying habit, but between them, they are responsible for the fact that I now not only write and read with obsessive fervour, but also for the amazing role I now play in teaching creative writing. Accessing the words for others has now become my vocation. It is a daunting task. Not all experts agree that writing may be taught, but consider the rewards as well as the challenges. I offer some profiles of typical students over the years (I have been teaching for over twenty years).
Number one: the Rita. Willy Russell has it right. There are thousands of Ritas, men and women, who want to know everything; in this case they want to write everything. This student reads all the creative writing magazines, tries genre after genre, goes to classes, and believes that being Catherine Cookson is possible. This student you have to rein in and discipline. As in the football match, the first thing to do is dress them properly for the task and point them in the right direction, to avoid own-goals.
The second is the young bohemian. This is the writer who aspires, as Dr. Johnson would have said, `to be a man ...' as he will `drink brandy'. The brandy of ambition. This student has immense self-belief. They are to write the next `Great English Novel'. The teacher has to not only rein in, but fit the reins in the first place.
Finally, the journeyman carpenter. Here, the belief is in permanent apprenticeship. There are many aspiring writers who believe that it is the writing, not the publication or the acclaim, that counts. They are self-critical in the extreme. No-one sees their work. They continually talk of the writers they idolise, and who can never be equalled.
These students, you have to coax, lead them out into reading their work. talking about technique and so on.
But beneath all this lies the question: how do you access the words? There they are, lying dormant, almost numberless words: grunts, syllables, plosives, dialects, formal words and laid-back words; the right ones and the wrong ones, the dead ones and those not yet invented. Can we all access them satisfactorily? Is it a case of keys or codes? Or is it simply hard work and solid research that brings them out for use? …