“Carpe diem, Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary” from Dead Poet Society was voted the 95th greatest film quote of all time by the American Film Institute.
It’s not hard to see why.
Even before the untimely death of Robin Williams in 2014, his portrayal of English teacher, John Keating’s unconventional approach to teaching at an elite boys’ boarding school was profoundly moving, inspiring and uplifting. Since Robin Williams’ suicide, the words seem to have an even greater poignancy.
Stripping away certainties
I have been hearing them growing louder inside my own head over the last few years. Maybe it’s a natural consequence of being in my 50s and feeling my own mortality. Maybe it’s something to do with the ending of my marriage, the loss of my home and the personal breakdown I experienced two years ago.
The world as a whole has become a more troubling place in recent years and, coupled with my own stripping away of certainties, I find myself in a strange and unfamiliar place, raw from struggle and fear, living in a way that I didn’t expect to be living and ready for positive change.
Urgings of the heart
Two months ago I was suddenly inspired to act on the urgings of my heart. Ever since I was a child myself, I have wanted to write for children but for one reason or another, life has got in the way. I have been busy earning a living, bringing up my daughter, getting into debt, getting out of debt and getting into debt again…. Despite the longing to write a children’s novel I have never succeeded in writing more than a plot outline, a couple of chapters and the occasional poem.
A couple of months ago, I heard them talking on radio 4 about the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia and I began to wonder if studying for an MA might be a way to break the deadlock. UEA’s MA was already full for this year but I figured that an MA specifically aimed at aspiring children’s writers might be the best option for me anyway. I asked a friend, who is a published children’s author, which MA he would recommend. Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing for Children and Young People, he told me, is the most highly regarded of all the MAs for aspiring children’s writers.
I decided to apply, figuring that if I start at the top I can always work down. I began my online application in May and immediately received an email urging me, politely, to get a move on as the course was nearly full.
I was hurtling through the application until I reached the section that asked for a personal statement. I have never written one of these before (such things didn’t exist when I applied to do my BA Hons back in the 1980s) and I wasn’t even quite sure what one was. After consulting Google and reading what a personal statement should look like I began thinking “OK, so why do I want to write for children?”
Hardwired for story
The answer to that question is this: I have always been fascinating by storytelling. In his book The Science of Storytelling, Will Store describes our brains as “the ultimate storyteller”.
We tell one another stories all the time – in our conversations, in our news, in our religions, in our morality, in the way we educate our children… And our brains tell us stories too – in our dreams and daydreams and in the very way we interpret and make sense of the world.
We are hardwired for stories and some of the best stories, in my opinion, are those that are written for children. Often these are the stories that are most imaginative, the most creative, the most compelling and exciting. I admire the way children’s authors create imaginary worlds, depict believable characters (even if they are non-humans), write realistic dialogue and use every tool in the storyteller’s toolkit to produce dynamic, fast-paced plots that make you want to keep reading. I would love to be able to do that and that is why I want to do an MA.
In my work as The Café Copywriter, I tell stories all the time, albeit in an organisational context and with a particular objective in mind. Some years ago I created a website called Uplifting Stories and was fascinated by the power of real-life stories to inspire and motivate. I observed how the very process of retelling their own life story seemed to have a therapeutic benefit for the teller as well as captivating the listener. I trained as a clinical hypnotherapist, which is another form of storytelling aimed directly at the subconscious mind, and saw how this type of storytelling can produce profound and lasting change.
The power to change the world
Storytelling is within us. It goes back to the oral traditions of our distant ancestors, predating written language. It is fundamental to our understanding of the world and our place in it. I’ve seen how story has the power to change the world in the way that mere narrative cannot. When I am writing about change (and the need for change) in the NHS, for example, it is always the telling of patient stories that has the greatest impact. As much as you can try and persuade people to change the way they do things, it is often the story of patients being harmed by the way things happen now that succeeds in changing behaviours.
The internal storyteller
Over the next two years (starting in September) I am looking forward to learning from some of the greatest children’s authors more about the subtle art and science of storytelling. I am noticing that my unhelpful internal storyteller is already starting to weave scenarios in which I turn up for tutorials only to find I am the only one who can’t do it and, unable to quite meet my eye, the tutors tell me it might be best for me to leave.
Every now and again, though, another less familiar storyteller presents a magical picture of the vast sleeping dragon of my imagination waking up, blinking a bleary eye, stretching its aching wings and starting to fly, stiffly at first but with increasing grace and ease, across a star-strewn sky towards a destination as yet unknown.
I have been a writer all of my life and I have made my living this way since I was 21. It is a great way to earn a living and I have no complaints.
An imaginator, however, is something different, it is someone who imagines. Like all of us, I imagine things day in day out, but often what I imagine is not particularly helpful or encouraging. I am hoping that this course might help me to harness the power of my imagination to create something wonderful that inspires not only me but possibly also generations of children to come. That would be a deeply worthwhile way to spend the rest of my life.
I will be blogging about my experience of becoming a children’s writer and you can follow my progress on here. Like you, I have no idea how this story ends so if you would like to join me in its unfolding, you can sign up to make sure you don’t miss anything. Coming along for the ride…?
I’m currently crowdfunding to help me support myself while I study for the MA. If you would like to donate you can find my page here. Thank you!