Those who can’t teach

When I’m not being a house husband or soon-to-be-bestselling author, I run a small acupuncture practice. It, too, is an enterprise that has yet to make me a fortune, even though I’ve been at it for fifteen years or more. Therefore, to supplement my immense-but-not-quite-fully-realised dreams of wealth, acclaim and power, I teach novel writing.

Ha, ha.


Inconceivably vast remunerative possibilities aside, I both love and hate the job.

I hate it because I don’t believe it’s possible for someone with little or no flair to learn how to do it. Acquiring techniques will never be enough for someone with no basic ability – no such thing as a melamine Ming vase, is there? So when the inevitable would-be-but-cannot-bes become apparent, I have to find ways of helping them. Within the confines of a plastic flower receptacle. Not easy. But as long as students feel they’re improving and as long as they enjoy the journey, then all is well.

There’s a lesson in this: writers should endeavour to be honestly self-appraising and yet it’s one thing we find impossible to do. We either think we’re dreadful when we’re not or we think we’re brilliant when we’re not. A bit like X Factor contestants.

Did I just say that on my own blog? Pass me that skewer. Yes, the one with the poisoned tip – I’ve got itchy eyeballs…

I also hate reading the novels as they develop in case they’re rubbish – because it’s my job to address such things. Actually, in the classes I teach with John Costello – a man whose artistic abilities are multifarious and monumental – we give honest, considered feedback and we do it in a very supportive atmosphere. In fact, we prevent rubbish novels from ever being written (agents and commissioning editors can thank me with a small donation through paypal or an offering of their firstborn).

I hate looking at a stack of manuscripts too. And don’t you dare suggest I’m the only person in the world who feels that way.

But, after term started last week with seventeen students on the register, I fell in love with teaching writing all over again. Just like I do every year. Seventeen individuals, no two the same. Seventeen people about to embark on a year of literary adventures that will push them to the limits of their ability and make them question everything they thought they knew about the craft. They’ll go beyond what they believed themselves capable of. It happens every year and it’s wonderful.

Another payoff is that in every class I’ve taught, we’ve struck gold with two or three people who have the skill; the desire to learn; the discipline to write; the bravery to edit and the great ideas it takes to complete and sell novels. I’ve no doubt some of them will go on to be published and have car accident careers just like mine!

Last Wednesday they told us a little about themselves and we got them started on their protagonists. Already I’m hearing ideas with great potential and characters with great scope. We’ll have comedy, romance, horror, thrillers, SF and much more over the next academic year and, after dreading it all summer, I suddenly can’t wait to see what they come up with.


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