Wednesday, 7 September 2011


My son starts his new school today!
(Um, meant to post this a couple of weeks back. Sorry.)

Even as I type, I can imagine him in his stiff and heavy uniform, chatting with other frightened kids in a dinner hall heavy with the sounds of clashing cutlery and chair legs scuffing varnished floorboards and a thousand boys discussing their summer hols, and with the smells of whatever has replaced the boiled cabbage and suet puddings of yesteryear.

He read through his rule book last night and had some questions for me.
Most of the rules are obvious, he said: Don't smoke and don't drink alcohol and don't gamble at school or on the way to or from school. We discussed briefly whether Top Trumps qualified as gambling.
Several rules concerned him however. It says we're not allowed into the school buildings during lunch break. So how am I going to get my lunch? And am I going to have to sit outside to eat it? And what if I need the toilet. (Yes, toileting is surely one of the top concerns for schoolkids. If it was a Top Trumps card, it would have an Anxiety score of ten.)
I allayed his fears by explaining that it was the same at my school, and the rules simply prohibit students from hanging around the classrooms and the like during breaks. Dining halls and toilets are fair game.
He also has games today and hasn't moulded his gum shield and wasn't sure which of his shin guards he needed. Multiple shin guards! I jest not!

Coincidentally, I'm reading Stephen Fry's (if I was gay, I certainly would! Heck, give me a couple of glasses of wine and I'd give it serious consideration) Moab is my Washpot, the first installment of his autobiography. Like my son, he's just started big school, and is surveying this foreign landscape. Looking back, Stephen bears no ill-will towards the masters who caned him; rather, he recalls the injustices, especially those acted upon him by other schoolkids.
Certainly something I've noticed in my son over the years, as he grapples with the concept of the fallibility of adults and the often uninformed judgements of teachers.

Lord help us all if we dare to breach the topic of rules whilst in creative company. Whenever someone would mention the word over on the writers' forums, I would pull a lemon-sucking face and recoil from my monitor. We prefer the concept of guidelines, or techniques, or methods, or tools, or anything that doesn't stand over you with a birch.

Thing is, 'creative rules' are nothing more than starting points. A writer who has mastered POV and plotting and all those dry techniques still has a very long way to go before she can craft an unforgettable tale. Or, to put it another way, if you bought me a tool set for Christmas, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to knock up a uniquely handsome, weatherproof gazebo. Oh no.
Creativity is about understanding how stuff works, and then setting sail on a long and lonely journey, where you make a million informed decisions, ruthlessly, um, paddling out brilliant mixed metaphors and splicing mainbraces with toasted emotions.
If a dead rat measured the creative process, and you started at the tip of its tail, you wouldn't even touch its arse with your tools.

When you get how stuff works and what it is doing, well that's when you can reinvent.
The learner artisan doesn't get this. I've known writers who will witness a professional author breaking POV and then exclaiming But you told me not to break POV! And amateur artists producing bland and hackneyed abstracts, confidently referring the viewer to Picasso's success. Just as the barber I visited as an art student was unable to distinguish between his infant daughter's painting of flowers and Van Gogh's Sunflowers.
Picasso didn't jump straight into cubism. Aged thirteen, he was admitted to the Barcelona School of Fine Arts. And he did this.
And, aged about seventeen, he did this.

And with that, he climbed into his boat, waved goodbye to his friends and his family, and set sail for terra nova.

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