Thinking outside the box

By Matt Bryden, poet and Writer Co-Mentor on the Teachers as Writers programme

When my mother dropped me at Beckenham library each Monday before her weekly shop, I used to pore over the large colour pages of A Tolkien Bestiary. As she delayed over the fish fingers in Safeway, or calculated the potential of her weekly housekeeping, I would open the pages of some of the other books in the Outsize bin, which were principally books on photography and art. If she was to buy chipolatas from the butcher, I might open a newspaper. If the Daily Mail was being read I might open Today, and if that was being read, the Guardian.

Ten years or so later, after graduating from university, I was unemployed for a spell in York. So at intervals I would pop into the Job Centre to peruse the notices. These were pinned to free-standing shoulder-high boards and hand-written on cards. The benefit of this system was that after ruling out the three or four potential jobs I was qualified for, I might venture south to the cluster of gardening notices, or consider the various nursing positions available. I was able to compare salaries and hours. Might I become a tree surgeon? I certainly liked fresh air and could climb a tree. I had good balance. Or a teacher, there were plenty of jobs in that discipline.

One afternoon, I dropped in to find the notice-boards had been done away with and in their stead, standing sentry, was a row of computer consoles resembling weighing scales. Now you had to type in a specific job area, such as Education or Care, before the jobs were revealed. Gone were the days of browsing the boards and stumbling across a ‘Gardener required with edging skills’ or a ‘Woman desired to cook in front of a second party.’ As someone with very few transferable skills, or simply skills, this meant not only that I looked at a smaller number of jobs, but also that I didn’t have the chance to stumble across an appealing job outside of my skills set and perhaps be inspired to apply or get qualified to pursue such a position. To learn what was out there.

I still remember the sense of reduced possibilities during an electronic career test at secondary school in which my input was to place ticks in boxes describing interests and favourite subjects. I was in the English and Classics set, which left me the choice of lawyer (not interested) archaeologist (interested, but too many people pursuing too few jobs) or Egyptologist (interested, but the only position, at the British Museum, was currently filled).

Amid the limited reasons for cheer in 2016, Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature was surely one. Here was a decision which raised healthy debate about category – what constitutes ‘literature’? – and which credited him with ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ He had done this by ‘dedicating himself body and soul to 20th century American popular music, the kind played on radio stations and gramophone records for ordinary people, white and black: protest songs, country, blues, early rock, gospel, mainstream music.’ Famously, he offended people everywhere his music led him; folk-purists disliked his ignorance of (or lack of interest in) the boundaries between different categories of folk, and then disliked his electrification. In turn, many who liked his electric music disliked his transition to country, and so forth through a career characterized by surprising turns. At the time of the Nobel announcement, typically, he had just recorded an album of standards.

The point is that Dylan discovered his creativity, and his own path, through exposure to all these different styles. The Swedish Academy wrote, ‘He listened day and night, testing the stuff on his instruments, trying to learn. But when he started to write similar songs, they came out differently. In his hands, the material changed… all creativity begins in imitation.’

A few years ago, I took a Creative and Life Writing course at Goldsmiths college. Genres might switch between memoir, short stories and poetry. One student on my course took a poetry option to hone her work even though she was an established short story writer. Poets employed unreliable narration in their work and memoirists collaborated with computer coders and film-makers. Studying disciplines other than your own provides great scope for creative play. It is good cross-fertilisation.

In a polarised time in which one side increasingly does not listen to the other, and in which self-reflecting media bubbles actively filter adverse opinions, exposure to a wide range of influences – including material you may not ‘like’, or be interested in now – is invaluable. This catholic public space exists in a library.

The libraries I have come to know through my teaching, particularly those in Exeter and Taunton, are now state of the art hives offering DVDs and CDs as well as boasting their own cafes. But what is this to people in Merseyside or Brent, Stoke-on-Trent and Sunderland? As an avid purchaser of books, many of which often only exist second-hand, how heartbreaking it is to receive copy after copy stamped with the words WITHDRAWN, often still bearing the name of the library which has either reduced its stock or closed entirely (343 in the last six years, with 111 scheduled for closure in the next year). Books that children will not now have the chance to stumble upon, a poetry book coupled with illustrations say, or a book on Dylan Thomas nestled next to a biography of Bob Dylan.

Bought for a song.


Matt Bryden teaches Creative Writing for the Poetry School and is the creator of the Poetry Map, a free online teaching resource


One thought on “Thinking outside the box”

  1. Libraries are interesting spaces to read and ponder. In younger years, with several unemployed friends, we often spent mornings reading the respected Sydney Morning Herald – for free! There was always something to discuss, some free events advertised, and new ideas surfaced. Such treasured moments.

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