Is education good for you?
I feel privileged to be part of Authors Electric. I’ve read and reviewed several books by fellow members and they’ve all confirmed that this is a group of professionals who care about the business and are gifted, hard-working writers. It’s been interesting, too, to read their blogs, especially when they recount the journeys that have brought them to this particular point in their careers. Some time back, a journalist friend was planning to write a piece on me to help plug The Sparrow Conundrum, which was a favourite of hers. She sent me some questions to answer and the subject of the first one set me thinking about my own trajectory. I wrote a blog about it at the time and I’m cheating here by revisiting and updating it.
The question asked about my education and other influences and it made we wonder, not for the first time, whether getting an education helps or hinders a writer. Obviously, we need to learn to read and write, to find out about things, other cultures, people; we need to know the value of researching things, understanding them and being able to apply them in different contexts, but do we lose anything in the process of acquiring those skills?
I taught at a university and wrote academic articles (not because I wanted to but because that’s what you had to do). I loved the teaching bit, which consisted of sitting around with young, intelligent, interested people talking about books, poems, thinking, creativity – and I learned at least as much from that as the students did. Astonishingly, I also got paid for it. But, given that my dad was a labourer on a building site and worked from 7 am to 6 pm (and often later than that) for 5½ or 6 days a week, I never found it easy to think of what I was doing as ‘work’. And it’s that apparent (or real) gap between academia and reality that’s the problem.
I came from a background and a part of town where ‘university’ was what happened to other people. Nobody resented that or even gave it any thought, and far more important was the fact that my upbringing was full of real people, in a community which cared – individuals who, for all their lack of formal education, were wise, compassionate, philosophically astute (without the terminology), and REAL. I know it’s a cliché but their wisdom and their education came from life.
So, when you put the education I got into such a contrasting context, it’s obvious that, yes, it gave me a wider vocabulary, a new set of cultural references, and literary models I might not otherwise have come across, but it also introduced an artificiality, the notion that life was full of sub-texts, the feeling that I was talking with a different voice. Somehow, it seemed pretentious. I still think of the trawlermen and others who were around me when I was growing up as being more ‘real’ than the middle classes amongst whom I’ve moved ever since graduation. That’s not me denigrating my excellent friends, real and virtual, nor am I suggesting that I’ve been living a lie or being what Sartre called a ‘social-traître’. (See? Sartre. If I’d mentioned him back then, I’d have been slapped with a wet mackerel.) It's great being middle class, comfortable. But I do get a genuine sense of there being a gap between the spontaneous, instinctive life I led back then and the more measured, considered way I am today. The very fact that I’m choosing these words with relative care is somehow ‘foreign’.
So how has it affected my writing? Well, education constrains us, tells us the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of doing and saying things, tends to suppress the sort of individuality which doesn’t suit current fashions. At university it didn't seem that obvious but students today think in terms of vocation, outcomes, objectives and all those other perfectly good words that have had their meanings usurped by the purveyors of corporate jargon. Maybe if I’d by-passed all that, I’d have had a more natural, less mannered voice, and its more limited vocabulary would have been compensated for by its directness, its lack of artifice.
I love words and their combinations but my writing is driven by people, the compromises they make, the hopes they have (in the face of utter hopelessness at times), the complexity of their conditions. Rather than reveal them, elaborate word pictures can spin veils which hide them, which focus on speculative stuff rather than on who they actually are.
I offer no answers – I’m just asking. And, since I try not to take anything too seriously, I’ll hop quickly to my friend’s second question ‘How important to you is humour in your writing?’ It gives me an excuse to pass on to you some comments from a list the same friend (coincidentally) sent to a writers’ group of which we’re both members. They’re all extracts from letters sent to local councils in the
There are some which seem to relate to an educational deficiency:
‘50% of the walls are damp, 50% have crumbling plaster, and 50% are just plain filthy.’
‘Our lavatory seat is broken in half and now is in three pieces.’
The scatological ones:
The neighbours’ ‘18 year old son is continually banging his balls against my fence.’
‘It's the dog mess that I find hard to swallow.’
And the ever-welcome surreal ones:
‘Will you please send someone to mend the garden path. My wife tripped and fell on it yesterday and now she is pregnant.’
‘My lavatory seat is cracked, where do I stand?’
Real, life-defining questions, however much my education may have elevated or debased me.