Teaching boys to write

Savage Fighter has no spare time. Or hobbies. He instinctively sidelines anyone you introduce him to. He has a mouthful of yellow incisors and never misses an opportunity to beat up his enemies. Savage Fighter might sound a bit like the worst boyfriend you’ve ever had, but he’s actually a character in a story by my nine-year-old tutee Joseph.*  Savage Fighter was born a child of Sparta for two reasons: 1) When I met him,  Joseph didn’t like to write very much ( SF’s lack of characteristics meant he could written up faster) 2) When Joseph did write, it was always about warrior heroes- bloody conflicts, earthly or celestial, fascinated him and redeemed the process of writing.  You might be surprised to learn that Joseph is also a kindhearted cat-lover, who recently wrote about a lego utopia, where no one ever dies.

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A lot of people attribute the resistance  boys like Joseph have to writing, to their maleness. ‘Like all boys he can’t be bothered… Boys aren’t very creative…’ are things I’ve heard from parents and friends alike. With a growing roster of male tutees, all of whom had difficulties in writing, I might have believed it. But I couldn’t quite square it with four years study of mainly male authors during my English Literature degree; or with how books by male authors are still taken more seriously, to the extent that in 1996 Bailey’s took a break from perfecting the churn of fermented Irish cream, to introduce a prize for women’s fiction. Does all this mean that there are two types of man: the kind who can write, the literary genius entitled to immortality and earthly perks (a  writer friend  thought he did better on Tinder because he could deliver more than ‘wow ur fit, fancy a drnk?’ ) and the strong, silent man of action/ mathematical formulae?

I also couldn’t square these stereotypes with my experiences as a tutor. Each boy, at this age of 9 or 10, when they can be lumped together in one conglomerate category,  is different. Some write riotously fast with an ear for comic detail. They just want to communicate their ideas and aren’t too fussed about what Flaubert termed le mot juste.  Others deliberate over everything they write and are as eager for new words and sentence structures as a Michelen-starred chef is for nuances to their method. The overriding similarity is a preference for adventure stories with almost nonsensically complicated plots and varying degrees of bloodshed. When a boy is overly obsessed with shoot-outs, with describing the exact dance of bullets though a torso,  we negotiate a sort of Arms Treatise, whereby we agree that only a small proportion of stories can feature brains being blown out by AK47s. Though it’s not my main role, I feel like I have some responsibility, as an accomplice to these boys’ visions of life in writing, to show them that gun-crime isn’t a joke and that narratives can be just as exciting when they’re not littered with corpses.

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Violent or otherwise, their fictional worlds are resolutely male, with a protagonist who they identify with, and the male sidekicks, superiors and enemies he interacts with. Mothers appear fleetingly, as did one obese neighbour called Sally. Girls aren’t that interesting yet, (and you wouldn’t want to force them into someone’s latency period), but do they have to be banished entirely from the fictional worlds of adventure? Should I intervene?  This is fiction, after all; in reality, they treat me and every other woman they speak of with respect. And yet, I don’t think it will harm them to imagine more inclusive scenarios…

As I teach, I find that I’m also thinking more about the process of writing and the problems that crop up, whatever your level. Here are three simple observations:

  1. Environmental factors creep in and shift things around. ‘I think I made it rain because it started outside,’ one boy explained.
  2. Everyday actions get in the way of/make a good story. Together we debate when to reel out the detail and when to cut to the next scene. It’s a question of tone and pacing. We really don’t need to know that your characters brushed their teeth before bed every night; but if you don’t make unlocking the treasure chest last for at least two sentences,  the discovery will be anticlimactic.
  3. It’s pretty difficult to write about someone’s eyes in an unromantic way. I kept this observation to myself while my tutee, Oliver, churned out 5 variations of his story’s opening line. The story began with a dream of President Obama letting him know with one look that he was about to be entrusted with a special task. Oliver’s variations included: ‘President Obama gazed at me with his cloudy brown eyes’/ ‘looked at me with his warm brown eyes’/ ‘stared at me with his intense brown eyes’ and so on.  Although Oliver had been encouraged to write as descriptively as possible at school, using ‘strong adjectives’ and ‘powerful verbs,’ I was half concerned that when his mother saw the sentences she’d think I was engaging him in a  Mills & Boon assignment for my own satisfaction. Then I thought that unless you’re giving a deliberately unflattering account, your writing on eyes automatically gains an erotic charge, because it shows that you’ve been looking enough to notice their colour, size, shape and expression and you’ve carried this memory through time. This may or may not have been your original intention.

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Over time, I feel my own taste for language changing.  As I encourage my tutees to use more sophisticated language, I’m learning to appreciate simpler, more spontaneous turns of phrase. Those staples of arts academia, long latinate words like problematise (which should be banned because it sounds ugly), destabilise, amanuensis , deconstruct and fashioning, make me grimace whenever I hear them. Spoken within too close a range of each other, or too often, they feel pompous and long-winded. They can take you so far from what you actually mean; you can lose yourself in them. My tutees would simply say that you’re trying to sound ‘clever and posh’ by using long words.  It’s not that I want to go back to being ten, unlearn everything, but I do want to write in a way that’s more authentic, less studied. The irony is, I’m studying anyway, filling whole notebook margins with passing snippets of so-called common parlance.

*names have been changed

 

 

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