“The best way to get kids to read a book is to say: ‘This book is not appropriate for your age, and it has all sorts of horrible things in it like sex and death and some really big and complicated ideas, and you’re better off not touching it until you’re all grown up. I’m going to put it on this shelf and leave the room for a while. Don’t open it.’ “
– Philip Pullman
Last week I had my first public speaking engagement as a published writer. I had the enormous privilege of speaking to a Year 9 Creative Writing class at Christ Church Grammar School in Claremont, Western Australia. I almost made myself sick with anxiety in the preparation for it. I almost made myself sick with anxiety on the morning of the class. Here’s something people won’t say out loud: “I feel like a fraud and don’t think I’m good enough.” Being appallingly honest and abysmally unfamiliar with Writer’s Blog etiquette, I will say it out loud though: “I feel like a fraud and don’t think I’m good enough”. Turns out being fraught works in a girl’s favour!
Quaking, sweat in my ears, glass of water white-knuckled, trying to conjure my happy place, I stepped up after my introduction and began. And it fell into place. How?- well, I prepared as if I were stepping up to argue for my own stay of execution; but it was the young men in the class who turned my fraught into fascination into delight. They were genuinely interested, in that subdued, polite way young men are with a guest speaker. I spoke about my own journey as a writer and the importance to me of character over plot. I read aloud from Creepy & Maud to illustrate the two distinct character voices (nothing grabs an audience’s attention like alcohol, pubic hair grooming and the odd “fuck”). But it was the activity I had them do which really kick started things. I don’t know exactly what their teacher (Mr. Tom Spurling) does on a regular basis in that class, but these boys can write!
Based on the observational drollness of Creepy I asked these young men to write a description of someone – someone in the room, or someone from memory. I then asked for volunteers to read what they had written aloud. The silence at this point was terrifying. The class teacher, Mr Tom Spurling, came to my rescue and jollied someone up to go first. After that the hands went up and boys wanted to read. I was staggered by the result.
Every single boy who read aloud had something quirky, honest and entertaining to say. Many of them described others in the room which made for some moments of piss-myself comedy. “He thought he had a six pack, but then he’d always had double vision” will stay with me forever. Likewise, one young man chose a more serious topic and wrote about asking a girl out and being rejected. His description of the girl, himself, and the heart breaking understatement of the pain involved, led to applause from me, and the class. There were descriptions of fictional characters and descriptions of people well known. The language used, the pithiness, the effort, were absolutely delightful to me. I actually lost myself in my audience.
So thank you, Christ Church Grammar School Year 9 Creative Writing class. Thank you Ms Teresa Scott and Mr Tom Spurling, for inviting me to enjoy a moment with some very talented young men who, even though they may not realize it, have extraordinary skills with language.