learning

Education is about more than getting a job

It being National Short Story Week, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve got… an essay about the purpose of education out today (it’s ok, I’ve got a story coming out at Cabinet of Heed on Wednesday). Regular readers will have experienced my passionate views on education before but I’ve summarised a strand or two in Why bother with education? which is my entry to this year’s NUHA Foundation blogging prize.

The topics this year for the prize were:

  1. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln. Do you agree?
  2. “Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Camus. Discuss.
  3. Should the role of education be to prepare students for working life, or to broaden their mind?
  4. “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” – C.S. Lewis. Discuss.

Since I suggested topic 3 to them on Twitter earlier in the year I had to pick that one really, though I could have gone to town on topic 2 as well. I haven’t read the higher education bits of The Guardian much since I quit the day job a year ago but by then I was already sick of hundreds of comments (and a few articles) that saw university education in particular as essentially pre-work training. Will it get you a job? Will it increase your salary? Is it applicable in the workplace? Never: Will it give you pleasure? Will it widen your horizons and introduce you to new ideas, lead you to make new connections?

I’m not saying everyone should study every available subject and like it, there were plenty of subjects I couldn’t stand at school and wouldn’t study now. I am saying life can be richer if you’ve studied a variety of things, whether through books, BBC documentaries, or a formal course, and that as an added bonus it probably helps you at work too.

The aim of the blogging prize is to spark debate, so go along and read the essays (particularly mine, obviously: Why bother with education?) then leave your own views.

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Mentoring for the less confident

Everyone has something to teach. Yes, that includes you. It might not be unique to you, it might not be earth-shattering, you might have read it somewhere else in the first place, but you can pass it on and someone else will find it useful (not necessarily the person you’re passing it onto right now, but that’s another story).

Last week a newsletter from writer, editor, mentor, writing coach Rachel Thompson exhorted us all to become mentors, particularly if we’re looking for mentoring ourselves. The point she was making was that even if you’re not doing brilliantly, there will be writers who haven’t reached your level yet who might benefit from a helping hand (or a critical but encouraging word). Even if you’re an absolute beginner, passing useful tips around writers at a similar level is a good thing.

Are you teaching other writers? Rachel Thompson asked. Well, yes I am (and sometimes I chuck out some writing advice in this blog) but I still get the ‘who am I to talk?’ doubts. It’s good to remember that teaching or mentoring doesn’t mean you have to be a superstar in your field, or have all the answers. As long as you’re at least one step ahead of the person (or group) you’re trying to help, they’re going to gain something from you. And you don’t have to be at the same level in every aspect, as this audio diary from Tania Hershman illustrates.

Tania Hershman writes short stories and, more recently, poetry. In the audio diary (a week in the life of a writer who’s not writing much at the moment because her new book’s just come out) she mentions being a mentor for a couple of short story writers, and knowing what she’s looking for, what to suggest, in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to ten years ago. She then says that to do the same for poetry might take her another ten years, because she doesn’t have much experience in it yet. I can immediately see the sense in that, but it was refreshing to hear. Being a novice at novels doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty to offer in flash fiction, for instance.

As if to illustrate this point, up popped an interview at Zero Flash with Chris Drew, a flash fiction writer who’s a well-known name among flash aficionados on Twitter, and hopefully beyond. With the usual drawerful of abandoned novels, he changed writing tack and took off. He’s only been submitting flash fiction for about eighteen months, but he’s already successful and has advice to share with new writers.

So come on, writers (artists, musicians, family historians…) think of something you can do to help the people following you. It might give you some insight into your own work at the same time.

Enter stage left

Friday of this week, I’ll be at a script-writing workshop. I keep dabbling in scripts of some sort, for graphic novels and radio plays mainly (as for Script Frenzy 2011) but a lack of confidence (surely not!) prevents me from diving into a stage play. Living in West Yorkshire as I do, I’m within the sphere of influence of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and every so often I contemplate their script submission process then decide against it. There are rules, for writing plays, and I find that daunting. There are also other people involved – actors, directors – so that once a play has been released into the world, it takes on a life of its own, much more than any piece of fiction does.

Radio plays have their conventions too, and actors and directors who will interpret them, but having studied the Goon Show scripts at an early age and written radio plays (with Big Brother, friend T, or alone) many times since, they don’t scare me. Stage plays have a visual element, a constraint imposed by what it may be possible to suggest with low-budget scenery. I saw Educating Rita at Bradford Alhambra last week, and as Rita says in response to a question about the difficulties of staging Peer Gynt, if radio had been available to Ibsen, he’d have used that instead.

I did study a couple of plays in the run up to GCSE English Literature, and I probably see one at the theatre every few months, but I feel seriously out of my depth writing them. Which makes Friday, a day of exploring characters and dialogue in short plays (it says here), a healthy challenge. I don’t want to spread myself too thinly over short stories, novels, graphic novels, radio plays and stage plays, but I do think sometimes that particular stories demand particular ways of expressing them. If I have a story inside me that needs to come out as a stage play, how will I do it justice if I shy away from the form? So, armed with my silver notebook and a headful of concentration, I’ll see if I can expand my toolkit.