Thursday, November 15, 2007

J. S. Haldane returns

I'm back on the John Scott Haldane trail. Next Wednesday (21st November, 6.30pm) sees me take the train from the West Country to Oxford (a regular route for Haldane himself) to present Haldane's life at Blackwell's (50 Broad Street: Tel: 01865 333623). Haldane spent his working life in the city, working at the University and in his home laboratory. The book store event's a splendid chance for people to remember what a fine and affordable Christmas present Suffer & Survive, my Haldane biography, makes ... particularly for that father in your life.

It's been a lively week on the Haldane trail. On Monday morning I had a guestspot in Plymouth's Life Writing MA segment, speaking in a more general way on my life-writing career. Yesterday saw a crowd of about 45 turn up for an English and Creative Writing research event. My talk here was called 'The Biographer's Journey', about the nature of a writer twining his life with a subject for several years.

And Tuesday saw another aspect of myself flip into public view, when my own MA in Fiction class asked to use an 'open themed' week to look at one of my own novels. We chose the most recent, Slippery When Wet. It's a different game, teaching from your work as opposed to presenting it. I declared open season on the book, since this is a rigorous course, and people immediately dug in.

I suspect the difficulty is not so much teaching from your own work, but giving teachers free rein to comment. Years ago I gave a dear friend, the poet and film maker James Broughton, a proof copy of a book. I'd forgotten he'd spent years as a teacher. In proof form the book appeared open to change and he steamed in, lacerated it. When I gave him the finished copy, unaltered, he wrote to say how much he loved it and that his previous remarks were astray. Teachers just can't help digging in. I've tried to trim that tendency in myself, balancing what I might term 'critical insight' with praise etc, though I'm sure that didactic streak still flares through. When I put my manuscripts out for readers' comment, I take care to avoid teachers. They just can't help themselves. You come away pummelled. There are several teachers or ex-teachers in my MA group. I've learned my lesson. I shan't be teaching from my own books again next year.

In praising that eventual book, James Broughton still couldn't resist offering me a piece of advice. 'You start sentences with 'There is' .. 'there were' ...' he told me. 'You can always find a better way of doing it than that.'

Scanning what's above, I note I've used 'there are' once, but the message did strike home. I became conscious of the habit and sought to check it, and to improve. Balancing praise with pointing out one area in which I could find improvement, now that was grand teaching for which I stay very grateful.


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