Ruminations on Writing – Blog Post

It’s been a long time since I blogged rather than just wrote, but I had an interesting interaction with a couple of students of mine today, and I wanted to unpack it a little bit.

As a public school teacher born and bred (quite literally, both my parents taught in public schools, although while my mother became a Principal, my father didn’t like the idea of actually teaching students as he was one of the “flower-children” teachers that came out of the post-Vietnam period in Australia), I come across students of all descriptions, talented in a plethora of areas, and – if you give them the right opportunities – ready to absolutely thrive. The profession has its challenges, but it is essentially the best thing I could possibly be doing with my life, and it brings me absolute joy.

It was absolutely pouring down with rain this morning, but I had organised to have a chat during my morning playground duty with one of my more talented students (and when I say “more talented”, I mean a better poet and writer than I have ever been, and only 16) about a spoken word poem she’s going to perform at a big event coming up.

The poem is seriously amazing, and it’s a shame I can’t link it here, because it’s a pleasure to behold.

During this conversation, with the two of us shivering in the unseasonably cold wind and being sprayed lightly by the icy mist bouncing off the pebblecrete standard to an Australian High School walkway, she said a few things to me that stuck out, and while I addressed them with her, I thought it would be worth just exploring the ideas here as well:

  1. “Anyone can write a poem. Anyone can act. Anyone can write. It just takes practice. What I am doing isn’t special.”
    Sure, as a teacher I absolutely believe that. In theory, it’s true. I don’t believe there is a huge amount separating the Terry Pratchetts from the others, but the bit that is separating them is integral. That bit might be drive, it might be experience, it might be opportunity, and it might well just be practise. If you write, try and write well, and if you perform, try and perform well. But who cares? If it were that simple, wouldn’t everyone do it? She doesn’t realise it, but I think that my student proved how special her skills are.

    We say that those people who do things well make what they do look easy, and young people sometimes find it hard to separate this feeling from even their own achievements. I think it takes time and maturity to be comfortable with success. If we are special; if we stand out, then we have to do something with it.

    I want everyone to write poems, and act plays, and publish books, but the key factor is they won’t. Most won’t, and because they won’t, they can’t. It’s not an easy thing to put your soul on the line, and when you do, no matter what, that makes you special.

  2. “Why does it matter anyway? This stuff isn’t tangible. How do you even measure poetry? Shouldn’t I be doing something more important?”
    What is more important than storytelling? We tell stories to our children. Ourselves. Our loved ones. We tell them to create maths problems, and build stories to explain scientific phenomena. We tell stories about our days, our lives, our loves, our embarrassments.

    Jokes are funny stories. Elegies sad ones.

    Our lives are just stories that are being told to us, and will be enfolded into a larger cultural, experiential, and human narrative that can’t be broken, no matter how small a part we played.

    It’s stories, all the way down.

    At my school in Year 11 (the second last year before the end of High School) we teach a unit called “Narratives that Shape Our World”, and we look at a whole bunch of different ways that narratives are constructed. From campfires, to oral traditions, to Dystopias, to Documentaries – even just in the space that the English curriculum has cut itself into the broader education syllabus we have multitudinous ways in which we can engage with stories. We only started teaching this unit last year, and on the second run-through of it, I am really starting to see the importance of what we do as writers, poets, and storytellers.

    As I said before, we don’t all get to tell a story well – for whatever reason – but we’re drawn to them no matter what. As a storyteller, we can keep our stories to ourselves, and we can hide them away. They are mine, and mine alone, who has a right to experience them?

    No one. No one has a right. They never have and they never will.

    But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway.

    These stories we tell, and read, and view, and hear, they are stories that may touch some eternal part of someone. They are unquantifiable and intangible, but I can tell you now that the stories my Grandfather told me are etched into my memory like they are my own. I have sat in the plane with Yossarian holding the guts of Snowden, and I have cried with him. I have waited for Godot with Estragon and Vladimir, watching Lucky with bemusement and Pozzo with disgust. I have travelled with Samus into the depths of an unknown planet, and felt her fear when Ridley almost got us. I have watched as Dagon rose above me in an ancient ocean hellscape. I have walked the streets of a city that doesn’t exist with Commander Vimes, and I don’t just remember the words, but I remember the streets. The sounds. The smells. Everything.

    When Sir Terry Pratchett died a few years ago, I sobbed for an hour for him, and then for another one for the people I knew from within the pages. Tiffany, Susan, Death, and Moist would never walk the Disc again. They had stopped. Their stories were over. And just as we have our memories – the stories we tell ourselves – the old stories still exist, but they will never change.

    How can something that has such a visceral effect be meaningless? Maybe we put too much stock in the tangible. The streamer, Vinny Vinesauce (I know, stupid name, but we live in the age of the internet so you’ll just have to get used to it), that I watch has the following statement in his rotation of memes: “words, man. We made ’em up.” I mean obviously, but the fact we’ve been able to ascribe meaning and value to what was once intangible says something about the act of telling stories.

    But we made up numbers too. And science and time and everything else. So why bother? Because the further down we go, the less tangible and measurable everything becomes.

    Maybe we need more of the immeasurable, and much more of the felt.

    If we just listened and experienced the stories of others, we wouldn’t hate each other so much.

    And if you can really give someone else a story, and place it in their memory and their heart and their soul, well that’s probably the most important thing of all.

  3. “My mum said to me last night: [Student], you were on your way to becoming a scientist, or an economist, something like that, but then you met these teachers and you want to be a poet or an actor” and “I don’t think I should do maths in Year 11 and 12, but my parents will probably make me anyway”

    Screw your parents.

    Listen to them, and consider what they say, and move on. Hell, screw me too. You may be a kid, but you know what you want now. Follow that, and see if it works, and if it doesn’t you have a story to tell, and have learnt something.

    We have almost no time on this planet or in this universe. We’re a coincidence: born from nothing and turning back into nothing, and we don’t have a right to anything we have, but we have it anyway.

    Who has time to waste our lives making other people – even your parents – happy at the expense of yourself?

That’s it for now.

I hope if you read this is will help you to understand my writing better, and maybe help you to find meaning in your own writing.

Thanks for indulging me, it’s been a pleasure.

Enjoy yourselves, and tell your stories.


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