The Caravan at the Edge of Doom is hitting the shelves, we LOVED it! So we asked Jim Beckett to pop into My Book Corner to tell us how teaching has influenced his writing…
Like many children’s books, The Caravan at the Edge of Doom is set during the school holidays. I suspect it’s no coincidence that my imagination sought an escape from school for Harley’s first adventure…
My teaching experience has been in the secondary phase, 11-18. I vaguely remember a lecture during my teacher training in which the primary phase was likened to a CIRCLE, a nurturing family, small, intimate, familiar and cosy, surrounding and protecting the child – while secondary schools were big, impersonal, hierarchical TRIANGLES. This struck me as a depressingly convincing distinction – and eighteen years later, I’ve not really been persuaded otherwise. Secondary schools are designed to be hierarchical, serious places – determinedly seeking to prepare young people for “real life” and other such nonsense. Personally, I had a great time at secondary school – and I reckon most of the teenagers I’ve taught have had a good laugh with their friends too.
As teacher, you’re typecast as Authority – an obstacle to children’s fun – at times, an outright villain. Sometimes, you might get to be a mentor – but all too often you’re the curmudgeonly oppressor; the pompous buffoon getting hot under the collar. For me, writing middle grade has been an opportunity to play the underdog once again. A chance to slough off the mantle of authority, and, through imagination, to resist and rebel!
(Though unfortunately, it turns out The Author is just about the most omnipotent Authority of all. Creating and destroying worlds, making up endless RULES that you’re then expected to adhere to…)
One of the best pieces of advice I received as a beginning teacher was ‘Teaching is messy; get used to it’. Many teachers have to overcome an instinct for perfectionism; there simply isn’t time to make things as polished as you’d like them to be. The requirement to accept messiness and imperfection is a big compromise. As a writer, it’s a relief to be able to indulge a professional (and personal) desire for pedantry and precision. Teaching has also taught me to be VERY grateful for the chance to be remunerated for being quietly creative in Costa.
A teacher is expected to entertain, “control” and inspire, whilst being accountable for why any given child is too loud or too quiet or too vomiting into another child’s hood. According to studies, the average classroom teacher makes between umpteen and too many decisions per minute. Inevitably, some of these decisions aren’t the best – there’s no time for reflection. Writing can feel like the opposite experience: an endless series of agonisingly over-deliberated choices. (This word? That word? Chapter break here? There? Will anyone care? YES! They absolutely will! Sleep can wait; let’s mull over that semicolon forever.)
Famously, writers have to cope with years of rejection. Teachers have to cope with a lot more. So please, email a teacher today. Thank them for the incredible job they’re doing for a child in your life. One line. Go on, please.
Finally, it is worth reiterating that spending time with young people is an enormous privilege. Moreover, it keeps you grounded – mainly by reminding you how old and out of touch you are. For years, teenagers have filled me with hope for the future. Their compassion and idealism is inspirational. And the great news is that my first cohort are in their thirties now, so the New World Order should be kicking in real soon.
Read Sarah Broadley’s review of The Caravan at the Edge of Doom here.