Reading for writers

This week I’ll be starting the first of my Autumn reading groups.  Lined up are two seven week courses and a day school, that means I’ll be discussing one novel and two short story collections.  So alongside the writing groups that are already up and running, I shall be kept on my toes until Christmas.

I’m not complaining.  What I’ve found is that these two strands compliment each other. At the first pass, I read purely as a reader, sometimes racing, at others, taking my time, getting involved with the characters: enjoying the story.  It’s only after that my work starts.

I see my role as being to help a group get the most from what we’ve read.  Book coverSo I re-read the set piece again, and again.  I delve into the writing, asking myself questions about what the author was doing.  I construct a series of feasible theories, suggestions, questions and ideas that I can take in to intrigue and challenge my class with.

The interesting and intriguing thing about this process is that no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve investigated a story, when we get into a group discussion, we always find at least one more way to read it.  Everyone brings their own understanding of the world to a story, and sharing our ideas opens up our perspectives.  I learn loads.  

book coverReading groups seem to me a perfect place to investigate how skillful writing can be. I take my discoveries not only into my own writing, but also to my writing classes.

Lessons learned about writing after sending letters of protest to the government.

I sent two letters of protest a couple of weeks ago, one to the chancellor, the other to my MP.  You may remember in a previous post I drew your attention to some huge cuts being proposed for Adult Education.

This week I received replies.

Spotlight on lemons

Spotlight on lemons, by

I hadn’t expected either recipient to do an about turn, or ask me for more ideas about how Adult Education classes work on all levels.  I hoped to get a thank you: a recognition that I’d felt strongly enough to spend time thinking through some arguments.

My first reply came from The Department for Business Innovation and Skills.  It began:

…the chancellor receives a large amount of correspondence every day and is unable to respond to each one personally. As Further Education (FE) falls within the policy area of this Department, your correspondence has been passed to this Department and on this occasion I have been asked to reply…

My correspondent, Richard O… then proceeded to quote figures and facts regarding government policy on apprenticeships, traineeships and English and Maths.  All of which are undeniably important, but have no connection with the points I made in my letter.

My MP’s reply arrived a day later:

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I do agree that Adult Education is very valuable. ‘

It was a good start.  If only he hadn’t gone on to say, ‘and is not only vital for assisting people make progress into work, but also adapt to changing job contexts.’

The truth is, that he wasn’t agreeing with me.  He was using a phrase from my letter as a spring-board for spouting party-line.  And, since I had no opportunity to interrupt, I got harangued for a further four paragraphs.

I’ve been trying to put a positive slant on my frustration with these answers.  What I’m most aware of is feeling some fellowship with the political journalists who regularly and patiently take part in this kind of jousting.

Did either man bother to read my letter?  It’s impossible to guess.  Somewhere, I assume, someone has added another mark to a list that keeps the score on protest letters received, and that, after all, was why I wrote it.  So despite my irritation I do still feel that we should sit down and write a letter.

Looking at this from a writerly point-of-view though, brings me to a more positive frame of mind. I’m reminded of two things.

Firstly, never get on a soap box to tell a story.  Writing that makes overt political points is boring, unless the reader happens to already share the writer’s views.  No doubt my letter was as tedious to the recipients as these two directives were to me.

Secondly, when writing dialogue, remember that characters don’t always respond directly to what has been said.  Conversations often happen at cross-purposes.  Such circumstances illuminate character and can be amusing.

The only decision I’m left with now is whether, having been handed two lemons, I make a cake or a cocktail…

lemon cook book


At The Cheltenham Booker (1915) panel event

So the weather was good, and that always helps, even if you’re seated in a blacked-out marquee, because when you’ve walked past families settled on the grass, or students gathering at the promotional tents, and the rest of us are milling between those seven other possible gathering points that have been fitted into the grassy square, well it could have got messy.

cartoon books 001But we had sunshine slanting across the autumnal leaves that line the main route into Cheltenham, so there was a lot of cheerful chattering as people compared notes and ‘book bags’.  I was in literary mode well before I found my seat.

I was early.  There was time to settle down and take a good look about.  A woman squeezed past to take the seat on my left.  ‘How many have you read?’ she said.  ‘We’ve done them all.  I passed them to my husband as I finished each one, and then we discussed them.’

‘Which one would you like to win?’ I asked.

‘Somerset Maugham,’ she said.  ‘Isn’t he marvelous?’

And that’s how it seems to be at the literature festival, people are ready to talk book at the drop of a smile.

The audience was divided, evenly at the first straw-pole, between the five novels that had been chosen as ManBooker contestents.  It was an eclectic selection: The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan), The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford), Of Human Bondage (Somerset Maugham), Psmith, Journalist (P. G. Wodehouse) and The Voyage Out (Virginia Woolf).

The panellists, Victoria Glendinning, Andrew Lownie, Selina Hastings, Alan Judd and Robert McCrum championed a novel each.  If you’ve ever wondered about one of the most often repeated pieces of advice given to would-be writers that they should read, lots, events like this demonstrate what it’s about.

cartoon reader 001After writers have read for pleasure, they go back and think about how the story got written.  So, that’s what we heard, writers thinking aloud about the nuts and bolts of creation, assessing not just the literary merits, but also the creative skills.

Chairman, James Walton was not impartial.  He anticipated which of the novels would fall at the first and second hurdles as he pushed for a decision on the titles that could be quickly discarded.  But, he pointed out, half of his job was time-keeper.  This panel could not luxuriate in arguments about what was clearly lesser literature.  The winner would be decided within an hour.

Was this a fair collection of titles?  How come Joseph Conrad’s, Victory, or The Rainbow, by D. H. Lawrence weren’t included?  I’d wondered about how this list had been put together when I booked the ticket.

It was only after the event that I realized how artful the compilers had been.  What we had were titles to appeal to all sorts of readers – adventure, comedy, social issues, female writing and a mystery.  Many had, like my neighbour, read all of them for the first time in preparation for this event.  Some were going home to read one or two again, some to try them for the first time.cartoon rusty 001

What the panel had done, was to rouse our curiosity.  As we filed out, all round I heard people discussing those five, 1915 novels.  Is it me, or isn’t the idea that something published one hundred years ago can still grip us, wonderful and somehow reassuring?

Now’s the time to stand up and shout that, ‘Learning Lasts for Life.’

Do you know that the British Chancellor is suggesting that funds for adult education should be cut by 25% and 40%?

I’ve no head for figures, so I’m going to give you what the WEA have to say about it:

Less than 6% of Government spending on education and training is devoted to adult further education and skills. Further cuts, on top of the 24% and 3.9% per cent cuts to the Adult Skills Budget already announced this year, will have a devastating impact on a service that is life-changing for many people.

Putting that in context, over the next 10 years there will be 13.5 million more jobs but only 7 million young people coming into the workforce. At the same time employer investment in skills and training has declined by 2.5 billion since 2011. Apprenticeships alone will not fill the gaps. In addition, the research shows that adult education improves health and wellbeing, develops confidence and builds better communities.

I’m standing up here to say that I have a vested interest in Adult Education.  Not only doWEA Tate_Liverpool I teach adults through the WEA, I became a mature student when I was in my twenties, and I still like to go along to other people’s courses, when they fit in with my timetable, and I hope to continue to do so.  I do it because I like to top-up my skills, and because I’m interested.

What happens when I get there is I meet interesting new people.  They could be any age between 19 and …well, the oldest student on one of my classes, so far, is 94.  On an adult education course people come from all sorts of backgrounds to share their ideas.  I can’t think of any gathering more diverse.  What we have in common is an interest in knowing more about the subject.

What we get is something more than we might have expected.  A sense of community develops.  My horizons are continually broadening.  We get into stimulating discussions, and I go home buzzing with ideas.  A good class is a tonic.

That’s why I’m adding my letter of protest to the others that are going out to our local MPs and the Chancellor, to say, think again.  What Adult Education provides is precious.  It’s not just a second chance, it’s about getting out of the house.  Instead of looking at how much it costs, I would say look at how it improves our sense of self and community.  We want more of this, not less.

Learning-lasts-for-lifeIf you’re interested in finding out more about the WEA campaign to save adult education, you should take a look at their facebook page.