On humiliation in a classroom

It was a professional event, the horror of which is still with me months after it happened. It could have been a nightmare – the sense of helpless humiliation, the feeling of talking ever louder without being heard, the sensation being trapped in events over which one has no control, the acrid smell of panic – but it wasn’t.

The occasion was a school visit of the type that I have done hundreds of times before. Talking about yourself is no great hardship, children are normally a good audience; it should have been a breeze. The age-group I was addressing, admittedly, was a tough one – early adolescents who were deep in the dark forest of teenage non-communication – but they were my potential readership at the time, the school was well-run, and I had a new book to boast about.

The class teacher who introduced me was bearded, tubby, and dreary of manner. What a relief it would be for these children, I remember thinking, to hear a voice from outside – an author with stories to tell, jokes to make, someone to dispel for a few moments the stale air of school life.

Five minutes into my talk, I sensed that, for reasons I could not quite understand, I was not quite getting through. Something in the eyes of my audience had shifted, really quite rapidly, from curiosity to indifference. Anecdotes withered on the vine. Jokes flopped. The questions, when they came, were tauntingly facetious. What car did I drive? What sort of house did I live in? Which team did I support? Normally I can segue from the most idiotic enquiry into something faintly relevant but today there was no point. The children were bored and nothing, short of the writer in front of them breaking down in some interesting way, was going to break that boredom.

I was aware that I was talking against a faint background noise of distracted mutterings. As I raised my voice, the sound grew louder. There was a moment when, still talking, I considered whether I should bring the class to order, grow stern, ask the teacher to remove the gigglers, chatters and wind-up merchants but, at that point, as visiting speaker, you have lost. You have given up trying to say something of interest to hold the attention and have resorted to discipline. You might as well be a teacher.

I ploughed on through the anxiety nightmare. At the end of the talk, I became aware that my throat was actually sore. The hum of conversation continued after I had stopped speaking. The class teacher, Mr Tubby Beardo, made his way from the back of the class, where he had been sitting, stood beside me and looked at them for a moment. An immediate, respectful silence descended upon the room. It was the final humiliation.

Hitting the ground that hard stays with you. I remember that from the days when I used to ride in steeplechases. One day, a jockey would fine; the next, his nerve had gone. You could always tell those who had had one too many falls – something in the eyes, a compulsion to talk even down at the start, an unconvincing leeriness of manner.

After my own fall in that classroom, talking in schools will never be quite as straightforward as it once was. Children, like horses, have a fine instinct for fear. A couple of gins and tonics after my return home that day, it occurred to me a couple that, in writing as in racing, nerve is important – and not only on those occasions when the author leaves his desk to face the public.

When you write for a living, the terror is always there, a gaping ravine beneath the fraying rope. It would be good to think that, with experience, the temptation to look down would recede and that, having survived for a few years, one could gaze clear-eyed into the future. Cruelly, the opposite is true. Those wobbly early steps at the beginning of a career turn out to be the easy part; the further you go, the further you can fall and the greater the terror.

It is, necessarily, a private matter. An author openly expressing self-doubt is bleeding in shark-infested waters. And there is nowhere to turn for help. Determinedly positive creative writing courses tend to avoid the less uplifting areas of career guidance for authors: Dealing with Jealousy, Fear of Younger Writers, Channelling Publisher Rage, Literary Impotence Syndrome.

But Endpaper, refusing to be afraid of fear, can offer a few basic tips for those facing the terror.

  1. Avoid leafing gloomily through books you have had written in the past. They will either remind you of how bad you were or – far worse – how good.
  2. Do not have a crisis meeting with your agent. When it comes to the terror, agents are with the enemy. The last thing they need to know is that their client is cracking up.
  3. Try to remember when writing was not a job but what you did for fun. In that spirit, write something that is absurdly uncommercial but which gives you pleasure.
  4. Remember that even the great have gone through this. ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness,’ wrote Orwell. ‘Quel métier de chien!’ wrote Conrad. Convince yourself that the very fact that you are assailed by doubts confirms that you are a true author.
  5. Remind yourself of the job you might be doing if you had not chosen to be a writer. Personally I find that the thought of being a teacher of 14-year-olds does the trick.

Autumn 2006