“I want to marry a nice wealthy man who will protect me”.
A line written by a thirteen year old girl in a performance poetry workshop I was running. Unable to stifle my dismay, my usual “Accept everything they say so they won’t be afraid to write” mantra went out of the window and I exclaimed “Couldn’t you make your own wealth?!”. She put her hand up a bit later and said “I’ve taken the word “Wealthy” out of the line”. “Good” I harrumphed, but moved on to a boy who wanted me to read his poem about enjoying going into battle and didn’t get to have a more useful conversation.
The moments of insight that a poem provokes are echoed by surreal, moving and downright weird moments of insight that come from working on poems in a classroom. I’ll never forget the lad who wrote; “I wish I could die every morning at school and then come back to life at the end of the day”. I haven’t yet found a way to bring the slower process of being a novelist into any of my work in schools. It’s still a new thing for me anyway- I’m an established performance poet but an unpublished first time novelist. I can’t help being curious about whether there’s a way to do it.
There are generally more poets than novelists doing hands on workshops with kids. Children’s novelists are more likely to go and do readings and question and answer sessions but for economic and practical reasons, it tends to be the poets who are involved in longer projects and getting children to work towards anthologies and shows.
I remember the recent case of a teacher in Hebden Bridge engaging some hard to reach boys by writing a novel with them. She was sacked amid much kerfuffle over “Inappropriate” language and writing;
I wonder if there are more risks involved in working on novels than in parachuting in with poems and being able to dip out again? Plus, of course, it’s easier to give an idea of a poet’s process in a single classroom session than that of a novelist. Perhaps a true picture would involve inviting a class to come and watch a writer at work in their office for a morning, and follow them from kettle to biscuit jar to Twitter and back.
Novels seem to be about mess and pruning unrestricted growth, weaving several strands together and being able to hold contradictory ideas without tipping over. They’re to do with patience and persistence, multiple voices and getting to the nub of prejudices and beliefs. All things I would love to get the chance to work on with children. Maybe in writing a classroom novel, we’d have had more time to interrogate a happy ending that involved “Getting married to a nice wealthy man who’ll protect me”. Hopefully I wouldn’t get the sack in the process.