Taking the author’s chair


By Lucy Oliver, Research Fellow, University of Exeter

Amidst the hype and celebration of Booker Prize week we learn that Paul Beatty was told by his teacher to quit writing because he was no good at it. Not a recollection, one imagines, that has sustained him through his darker writing hours since. I wonder what alternative source of feedback and encouragement enabled him to keep going when many young writers would surely have thrown in the towel. I’m reminded of Arvon’s founding purpose in 1968 – to provide a sanctuary where committed young writers could escape ‘the creative deprivation imposed by the system of standard education’ and receive the guidance of writers.

As one such (semi-committed) young writer, I attended my first residential at Totleigh Barton aged 15, along with a group of strangers, all slightly older and far more self-assured. The visiting author was Charles Causley. It was to him we offered up our final efforts for critique, each in turn taking the author’s chair and reading aloud. There was no hiding place. I still remember the unmistakable brilliance of others’ work, the avalanche of self-doubt as my turn neared, the imagined humiliation. Needless to say, I came away unscathed, with fresh perspectives to explore and the dawning realisation that writing can be a shared enterprise as much as a private struggle.

Of course it’s not just young writers who suffer such anxieties. As Teresa Cremin pointed out in last week’s blog, teachers of writing often lack confidence too and fear exposure to the judgements of others. Research clearly shows that when faced with the prospect of sharing their work, they can conjure a veritable army of painful emotions – self-doubt, unworthiness, guilt, shame, paralysis, the sense of being an impostor, even wanting to cry. Unsurprisingly perhaps, such insecurities frequently stem from teachers’ own negative school experiences and the kind of critical feedback that Beatty recalls.

We can all empathise therefore with the squirming young writers who beg ‘Do I have to?’ when asked to share aloud. How can we help them feel safe to share writing in this way? Should we even try? Evidence from the Teachers as Writers project suggests that small shifts in classroom expectations or positioning can make a big difference. Students identify as helpful those teachers who share their own insecurities about writing; teachers who write and read aloud alongside them; teachers who offer their compositions for student feedback; and naturally, teachers who provide ‘constructive’ criticism. They also ask for choice about what they share; time to discuss and improve their work first; and sometimes help with scribing, so they can get it all down or decipher what’s written.

With these assurances even the least confident writers have been able to contribute to whole-group sharing, reading aloud their final pieces to assembled peers, teachers, professional writers and adult helpers. The expectation that everyone participates brings with it a different energy. Revising acquires a new urgency and meaningful purpose, not just correction. Audience feedback necessarily addresses substance and expression, not cosmetic requirements. Applause is not just polite. The after-glow on writers’ faces is not just relief. No doubt the girl who observed with a sigh that writing confidence is built in ‘baby steps’ has a point, but there are also experiences that enable giant strides. One hopes that these are the ones that stay long in the memory.

Lucy Oliver
Research Fellow
University of Exeter

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