What's the idea, then? Usually the answer is something on the lines of 'encouraging the children to write.' I did go to a school in Sheffield once where an extremely chippy (on the shouldery) young teacher told me that it was an easy way of making a living, so the kids should be set on the path as soon as possible. When I said mildly that I didn't think it was that easy, especially in the 'making a living' sense, he got really indignant. I was getting thirty odd quid for an afternoon's burbling (it was a long time ago), while he had to actually work for a living - and teaching was bloody hard work, too.
Fairly obviously, he wanted to be a writer himself, and had so far found it impossible for anyone to recognise his genius. He wasn't even mollified when I agreed with him about the hardness of a teacher's lot, and really got quite offensive. He told me finally that if I was as 'socialist' as my books appeared to suggest, I ought to give my fee to the school funds. I tried to humour him. My first book got an advance of £200, I said, and I bought myself a bar billiards table with the money - except that it cost me £350. Wrong answer. He dreamed of having a bar billiards table, he said, but on his wage, etc, etc. I just hope to God he didn't become a careers adviser. He might actually have told the children it was a route they ought to follow.
More recently, I've been asked quite frequently to help older people with their writing, rather than going into schools and talking about my own. I did an Arvon week once, which is a deep-end experience in more ways than one, I found. One of the things that most fascinates me about this blogspot is the robusticity (there can't be such a word, but it sounds better than robustness) of spirit and of niceness that everybody shows. People talk about helping others to become writers as if this is not only a duty and a service, which I probably agree with, but also a good thing. For whom, a good thing? For why? Let's break it down a bit.
In classes I have been running recently, the participants were all extremely high on natural talent. It was honestly a pleasure and a privilege to listen to their work, to talk it through with them, to offer ways I thought they might like to think about to move it on. I had been dubious about taking the gig, and did so only on a trial basis, but it worked. Except, except. One day there was a new arrival, young, dyslexic, troubled, directed to the group by a well meaning person who thought, like my Sheffield teacher maybe, that...that what? I and all my regulars were completely thrown. Had he turned up for his second session, disruption would have been complete. Fortunately, he was extremely bright. He joined a music group instead. That was his good thing. Why writing, though? Why had that been suggested? To make a living? To enhance his self-esteem? Because it helps to pass the time?
Back to Arvon. There were perhaps a dozen of us. This time they had paid, and I guess quite a lot of money. For the majority, excellent. A week in a lovely place, like-minded people, feedback, fun. For a couple, it was torture. For the tutors, that was torture also. One woman asked me, halfway into it, if I would tell her, honestly, if she was wasting her time. Her eyes were deep and frighteningly vulnerable. Was she challenging me to tell the truth? Did she know the truth? Did I know the truth? I talked it over with other Arvon tutors later. It worried me for years. I took comfort from one of my favourite Brecht tropes: 'Truth is a black cat in a windowless room at midnight.' It was not that great a comfort.
Let's break it down a bit more. Here we all are, taking people's money to teach them how to write. Or to tell them what we know about the subject, or what we think we know. And what's the end result? A billiard table they can't afford to buy, a life as a writer who has to scratch a few quid helping other people to not be able to afford to buy a billiard table. Or - for the favoured few - an even worse fate. To be Jeffrey Archer, maybe, or to write The Da Vinci Code, to end up ridiculously rich. The Brecht quote ends: 'And justice a blind bat.'
But now I'm being silly. There have been times in my writing life when the money's come rolling in, and others when I've fought the mice for the cheese off the trap (not literally, you understand) - and to me it was all exactly equal. Because the fact is I write because I have to, not because I want to, I write because it's embedded in my genes (or something), I can't just give it up. I told the Arvon lady that she was doing fine, to keep on going, that Scott Fitzgerald papered his bedroom wall with rejection slips before he sold a word, and he would have gone on writing even if the knock-backs hadn't stopped. My mum always used to ask me if I was ever going to give up writing and get a proper job, but I don't think she meant it, much. She certainly knew the answer, anyway. If you're going to write you write, period.
Which means money is irrelevant, as is fame and acceptance - and probably 'being taught.' So when people ask me now if I can help them, I think of Bertolt Brecht, and tell them that I probably can't, but I'm prepared to have a look and chat about it. At the very least it seems to make them feel better about their affliction.
So I do it out of altruism.
And for money, naturally. Merry Christmas!
http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/86960 (Albeson) (Both under a quid)