Sunday, 15 May 2011

Is education good for you?

OK, I’ve run out of guest bloggers for the moment so I suppose I’d better write something from me for a change. Luckily, a journalist friend, who’s going to do a piece on me to help plug The Sparrow Conundrum, sent me some questions to answer and the subject of the first one was education and other influences. It made we wonder, not for the first time, whether getting an education helps or hinders a writer. Obviously, we need to learn to read and write, to find out about things, other cultures, people; we need to know the value of researching things, understanding them and being able to apply them in different contexts, but do we lose anything in the process of acquiring those skills?

I taught at a university and wrote academic articles (not because I wanted to but because that’s what you had to do). I loved the teaching bit, which consisted of sitting around with young, intelligent, interested people talking about books, poems, thinking, creativity – and I learned at least as much from that as the students did. Astonishingly, I also got paid for it. But, given that my dad was a labourer on a building site and worked from 7 am to 6 pm (and often later than that) for 5½ or 6 days a week, I never found it easy to think of what I was doing as ‘work’. And it’s that apparent (or real) gap between academia and reality that’s the problem.

I came from a background and a part of town where ‘university’ was what happened to other people. Nobody resented that or even gave it any thought, and far more important was the fact that my upbringing was full of real people, in a community which cared – individuals who, for all their lack of formal education, were wise, compassionate, philosophically astute (without the terminology), and REAL. I know it’s a cliché but their wisdom and their education came from life.

So, when you put the education I got in that context, it’s obvious that, yes, it gave me a wider vocabulary, a new set of cultural references, and literary models I might not otherwise have come across, but it also introduced an artificiality, the notion that life was full of sub-texts, the feeling that I was talking with a different voice. Somehow, it seemed pretentious. I still think of the fishermen and others who were around me when I was growing up as being more ‘real’ than the middle classes amongst whom I’ve moved ever since graduation. That’s not me denigrating my excellent friends, real and virtual, but I do get a genuine sense of there being a gap between the spontaneous, instinctive life I led then and the more measured, considered way I am today. The very fact that I’m choosing these words with relative care is somehow ‘foreign’.

So how has it affected my writing? Well, education constrains us, tells us the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of doing and saying things, tends to suppress the sort of individuality which doesn’t suit current fashions. Students today think in terms of vocation, outcomes, objectives and all those other perfectly good words that have had their meanings usurped by the purveyors of business jargon. Maybe if I’d by-passed all that, I’d have had a more natural, less mannered voice, and its more limited vocabulary would have been compensated for by its directness, its lack of artifice.

I love words and their combinations but my writing is driven by people, the compromises they make, the hopes they have (in the face of utter hopelessness at times), the complexity of their conditions. Rather than reveal them, elaborate word pictures can spin veils which hide them, which focus on speculative stuff rather than on who they actually are.

I offer no answers – I’m just asking. And, since I try not to take anything too seriously, I’ll hop quickly to my friend’s second question ‘How important to you is humour in your writing?’ It’s an excuse to pass on to you some comments from a list the same friend (coincidentally) sent to our writers’ group. They’re all extracts from letters sent to local councils in the UK.

There are some which seem to relate to an educational deficiency:
“50% of the walls are damp, 50% have crumbling plaster, and 50% are just plain filthy.”
“Our lavatory seat is broken in half and now is in three pieces.”

The scatological ones:
(a complaint about the neighbours) “Their 18 year old son is continually banging his balls against my fence.”
“It's the dog mess that I find hard to swallow.”

And the ever-welcome surreal ones:
“Will you please send someone to mend the garden path. My wife tripped and fell on it yesterday and now she is pregnant.”
“My lavatory seat is cracked, where do I stand?”

Ah, those life-defining questions.

Oh, and while I remember it, there's a collection of flash fiction stories from Rammenas to which some of you have contributed. A selection of the best is available as a wee ebook  including examples from Scary, Anneke, Diane, Beth, Donnie, Ron and me. It's called In These Hands, it's dirt cheap and all the proceeds go to a charity called War Child Holland.

You can get it from:
Amazon US -
Amazon UK -
Smashwords -


  1. What a great open-ended question, Bill. My thoughts are that education is good for you as long as at least part of it is from the university of life!
    I had no formal education at all. I played truant through for most of my secondary school years, although I always spent those ‘missing years’ in art galleries or museums. I was lucky to come through that relatively unscathed, and it’s interesting to note that throughout my working life, I’ve often worked as an equal alongside university graduates. However, I wanted an education for my children and they have been lucky enough, and focussed enough, to get it. My children are the first people (ever) in my and my husband's family to go to university.
    There is no doubt that where we come from demographically shapes us - and your non academic family background, Bill, obviously adds great contrast to your life - it gives context and empathy and makes you the very interesting and articulate person you are today. I hope my boys can one day reflect (and humbly appreciate) their education the way that you are now able to reflect upon yours.

  2. Bill,

    I came from a similar background, although in
    southern California, and was the first in my family to attend a university. My lower middle class upbringing has served me well for I can not only write both good and bad grammar with ease, I understand what people are thinking on both sides of the railroad tracks. :)

  3. Interesting post as always. I think the most important point about any kind of background and education is how we use it as adults. All of life informs us and university is only one element of who we are now (if we've been).

    I'm from a very humble background but had an insatiable curiosity for learning. I didn't do my degrees until as a mature student with the OU and that was some of the best years of my life. But I never consider whether someone has been to universtiy or not - it's all about who they are as people.

  4. I think the sort of education you're speaking of, Janice, is exactly the sort that works - i.e. maintaining a balance between the formal, structured stuff and what comes through actually living. As I read your comment, I wondered whether you thought that if you'd had more of a 'formal education', you'd have been a better writer. I don't think so.

    You're right Jean, about both sides of the tracks. Maybe I gave the impression that I was denying the validity of the middle-class experience - I wasn't, I was just noting that it's qualitatively different. There are different realities.

  5. Yes, Rosemary, and what you say makes me realise I've been too broad in my claims. I think we become who we are (and continue to keep on becoming it) by amalgamating all the things we've been. I really should have focused more clearly on the effect that a formal education, with its rules and outcomes and exams and conformities, has on our voice as writers. Now and then I write stuff that's sort of posh, but I'm as far from posh as it's possible to be.

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  7. I used to think that I was somehow lacking because I didn't go on to further education. Then when I began writing I felt less of a writer because I wasn't familiar with the classical themes or tropes of literature. Now I mostly don't give a f**k.

    In my case I confused "education" with intelligence and I've learned that many people manage to get the former without involving the latter.

    I've also met a few English graduates who went into the subject because of a love of reading and then had that love "educated" out of them by interminable analysis.

    My education has come from reading writers I love and trying to emulate their success in telling a good story.

  8. Thanks, Michael. I think my point's supported both by your comment and by your work. Your poems are dynamic, free, intensely personal and uninhibited. There's no doubt that it's your voice we're hearing in them.

    And I like (and echo) your observation that many people manage to get an education without having any intelligence. It's education as a veneer.

  9. oooooo - "education as veneer" - LOVE that. Gaunnae steal it.

  10. Interesting subject, Bill, thanks. I always thought I was away from school the day they did grammar. It turns out we weren't learnt it in the 60's. Ouch. Sorry. But when I did decide to do a degree (age 47) I opted for Media Writing and not English.I honestly felt that my writing,my self expression, could become sanitised and I didn't want nowt of that.In my latest endeavour I have tried to compromise and only use colloquial or grammatically incorrect language in dialogue. Cuz, par example, if that's 'ow we talk, why change it? I sometimes see people shudder when mistakes are made and wonder if we shouldn't be worrying about more important things..? Like, will the world on Saturday ( as some are predicting) and will it be during my flight to the UK? Just in case, I am not paying next month's rent...until next month.

  11. I think that journalist friend of yours asks far too many silly questions. Suffice it to say, Bill, that your education - be it bare wood or veneered - shines throughout your work and provides the basis for your hallmark humour. It also makes for faultless manuscripts. And, by the way, don't let Michael exploit you. As your lawyer, I advise you not to settle for anything less than 2.759%

  12. Helen - I totally agree that 'bad' grammar in dialogue helps make the characters authentic. But I'm also one of those who shudders at 'bad' English from people who should know better.

    Sara - I'm flattered by what you say but I should add that I can also tell really filthy jokes. And since, as my lawyer, you're already taking 83% of my earnings, I have to settle for whatever I can get from others.

  13. I'm worth it but, as your doctor, I think you should get your eyes tested - it's 93% plus VAT.

  14. I just loved your examples. especially the one about banging the balls against the fence. :)

  15. Thanks, Scary. The laughter bit's always the most important.