‘To Say A Great Big Thank You’ – what I learnt from a multi-faith primary school

One afternoon last week I was at my mum’s flat, helping clear out cupboards of soft toys, Sylvanian Families and boardgames that – having left home a decade before – I felt just about ready to think about parting with at some of. In one of the cupboards was a box of cards and letters spanning my early childhood in Greenford and teenage years in Ealing. Among this box of treasure spanning the cripplingly embarrassing to the almost forgotten, was a letter written to Mum by the deputy head of Coston School, where I was a primary and secondary pupil.  

I hadn’t known Mrs Stapells well – I’d been too shy to know many people well, particularly those I looked up to. But Mrs Stapells was the kind of teacher I knew even then I wanted to become. The kind that ‘got’ how important teaching was, doing it with a sense of performance and celebration. Her letter is addressed to my mum is what it says:

Every so often something happens in teaching which helps me remember (when I’m feeling a bit jaded!) why I do it.

There have been several special things that have happened over the years which I remember with a mixture of emotions – sorrow, elation, pride, even. There have also been many poignant moments.

Today’s Special Moment occurred right in the middle of the “Hannukah, Holiday” song. It was the slow bit in the music referring to the miracle of the oil burning for so many nights.

I looked at the stage and the last of the candles of the menorah was being lit. The combination of the lovely music, the candlelight and shadows on Rachel and Susannah’s faces and their wonderful expressions was so beautiful I was spell-bound. I think I continued to wave the baton and lead the song on, because somehow we were “spinning the dreidel”. Then the curtains closed.

That one picture, however, was fixed in my mind. I just wish you could have been there to see it all for yourself. I felt I had to write and tell you about it partly because you missed seeing Rachel do something which must have made her feel nervous yet which she did so calmly and sensible, and partly because I was so moved by it.

Thank you for your contribution to an important part of our school’s Entertainment this year and for providing me – albeit unknowingly! – with a reminder of the joy of teaching in a multi-faith school.

I experienced a moment which awed me, and which I shall cherish for a very, very long time.

My good wishes to you and your family.

Yours sincerely,

Jenny Stapells

The letter is dated Monday 17th December 1990. I was seven, nearly eight, and the younger of two Jewish children in the school. ‘Multi-faith’ was, I’m pretty sure, the context in which I first learnt the word faith. It came into my consciousness synonymously with having a religious identity. Sure, I went to Cheder (Jewish religion school) and enjoyed celebrating the festivals with my family and community, but my everyday experience of Jewish identity was it being all the more special for being a normal part of me, not “special” in the accidentally patronising way that would quite often at high school (and which, alongside my other labels of vegetarian, dyspraxic, American, single-parent family, gave an ample menu) but special in the truer sense, that we were all different and therefore, in an important way, all the same.

One of the things I’m most grateful for is that assemblies like Mrs Stapells’s made it an absolute surprise to me to later learn hymns everyone had sung together were originally written not to “our God” but to “Jesus”. Colours of Day was one of my favourites; more so Autumn Days with its reminder ‘to say a great big thank you’ without specifically naming who to. If a multi-faith class gave me one big idea, that was definitely it. You thanked who youthanked; the important thing was gratitude itself (I’m the Urban Spaceman and Streets of London also made the song-sheets from time to time).

I looked up Coston’s website after finding Mrs Stapells’s letter, and wasn’t surprised to see the multicoloured hands around the slogan at the centre. It’s exactly what I expected, even though I haven’t thought about it at all much in the years between. 

I remember walking down a corridor in the secondary school on my last day and being too shy to say goodbye to Mrs Stapels – seeing her surrouded by girls and boys I’d seen in the school play, so apparently comfortable expressing and receiving love and attention. I wish I’d been brave enough to ‘say a great big thank you’ to her as my favourite Coston School hymn, Autumn Days, had encouraged me to do to the world. Still, seeing what she did so well is the reason reason I love teaching now and know how important it is, even or especially on our most jaded days.

Many of the soft toys and Sylvanian families are, of course, staying with me. What else has come with me to stay is  coming with me is Mrs Stapells and why teachers like her keep on making a difference long after people like me have left primary school.

I don’t know where you are, Mrs Stapells, if you’re still teaching, or even still alive, let alone if there’s any chance of you reading this. But I hope you would be glad to know I am writing it. Good teachers light candles in slow motion, the warmth and light growing over a longer time than they get to see.  If I’ve missed my chance to tell you, I still learnt what you teach and how you teach it are the same thing. And that nothing should be more natural than difference. 

Self, Other and Rupert Thomson

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

Possibly the most important thing in teaching creative writing to adults is getting across that there is No Wrong Answer. Everything you write is a combination of your unique imagination, memory and viewpoint; the more your confidence and courage grow as a writer, the wider and more surprising the results will be.

Yet most questions students ask in creative writing workshops run along the lines of  ‘Is it alright if…’, ‘Am I allowed to…’ etc. The answer to all of these is a passionate ‘Yes!’ It is absolutely fine – and absolutely necessary – to experiment in whatever direction feels interesting. That’s how your get to know your story, complete your first draft and – as all worthwhile creative writing advice can be distilled down to – you need to write your first draft before you can edit it. There is only one question about creative writing that has ever irritated me, and no writer or writing student has ever asked it. Others have. It is “Why write as male?”

The reason writers don’t ask this question is writers realize very quickly that the quickest route to the universal is the specific: your reader recognising themself in the other comes from authenticity about that other. Writing that character in the first place does too. Empathy – the discovery of commonality of emotion with someone else – is much of why we write (“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster).

My short story Wolf in the Mirror won first prize in Writers’ Forum a couple of years ago. The protagonist was secretly in love with someone he couldn’t tell. His jealousy, like so much gothic fiction, was becoming a literal monster. Currently, only he could see it in the mirror but knew it was silently threatening to break out. When it was suggested to me by someone who I really don’t think intended to be sexist and patronising (any more than the dinosaurs meant to become extinct) wasn’t the point of being a female writer the female voice, I took a moment to suppress the scream, and said something along these lines:

No gender owns jealousy, love, fear or any other emotion. It’s easier to be truthful about them when you have a bit of distance (be that a distance of time from an event, or in this case a distance of gender, aesthetic tastes and many, many other aspects I changed between me and the viewpoint character of that story).

If you want to see this done really well, in prose that is effortlessly elegant, gripping and honest, look no further than Rupert Thomson.

Never Anyone But You is a fictionalised memoir and bildungsroman of two artists who fought against gender boundaries, artistic traditions and the Nazis. As teenagers, they fell in love before there was vocabulary for it, chose male names and men’s clothes, lived as sisters in the veiled eyed of the world when their single father and mother married, championed surrealism, resisted the Nazis and survived imprisonment by the SS and suicide attempts before and during their incarceration. Thomson’s prose is as astounding as the history that informs it. In the narrative voice of Suzanne Malherbe, who chooses the name Marcel Moore, Thomson writes fearless, direct emotion. One human being appreciating another is not about what that other looks like: the reason this emotional landscape makes every dialogue and every sex scene so believable is it does not try to be female – it is beautifully human. Her relationship with Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob, remains passionate and credible from teen to old age. Here are some of the reasons:


1)Emotions not organs. If you take a look at the bad sex awards –https://literaryreview.co.uk/bad-sex-in-fiction-award if you don’t believe me – what the annual winners usually have in common is attention to anatomical detail. Bad sex scenes are driven by anatomy. Good ones are driven by emotional connection.

2) Drive the plot. This is the most elegant and direct style I’ve read all year, but that would be nothing without momentum. You can feel the plot ticking beneath every scene, a sense of what is impending, what is returning. We never lose the sense of when or where we are – the test of good historical fiction is that the story needs that setting in time and place – but characterisation is not overshadowed by this: it is enabled. Each character fully inhabits their life.

3) Recognise yourself in the other, whether this means another gender, a Nazi guard or whether your character is yourself. Just a little distance, a spoonful of otherness, and you’ll find all the more self is waiting.

From July 2018, this blog will continue at the Writers’ and Artists’ website.

Subjectivity, James Wood and First World Problems

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

In my Ten Writing Touchstones series for Bloomsbury’s Writers’ and Artists’ website, I mention how new writers occasionally confuse ‘the truest thing you know’ (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway) with autobiography. Human experience is subjective, and truth will not necessarily be autobiographical any more than autobiography is necessarily objective or definitive truth. We, like the fictional characters we create, will always have our own agendas. We are subjective about our motives, our results and everything that happens in between. No narrator is entirely reliable.

Nor would any agent, publisher or reader wish it otherwise. Getting away from the hopes and fears, memories and associations that make an individual who they are is the last thing truthful writing asks. But nor is truthful writing simply copying down from memory. Truth doesn’t demand objectivity; it does demand self-awareness of the subjectivity of personal experience. Like a particularly beautiful distorting mirror, fiction clarifies outline, shapes narrative, makes elegant and comprehensible what is chaotic. It chooses where beginnings and endings will sit; it contextualises them with the circumstantial evidence of best-fit for the message or plot it has chosen as its framework; it sprinkles hindsight and foresight over events. It is intrinsic to voice. James Wood knows all this. His taste and talent for exploring philosophy through fiction went down well in The Nearest Thing To Life (2015). He also wrote How Fiction Works (2009). Yet here I am at of his latest novel, Upstate, still waiting for something to happen.

Alan Querry leaves his home in the north of England with his successful, music industry executive daughter, Helen, to visit her sister, his US-based, depressed, academic daughter, Vanessa. The immediate cause of this overdue reunion is a note from Vanessa’s boyfriend who they’ve not met but comfortably disapprove of from afar. Alan’s mental declarations of love for both his daughters are plentiful. So are his declarations of guilt at his divorce from their mother – guilt he is quick and regular in diminishing for the reader, with reminders of his late wife Cathy’s adultery. Most awkward of all in this inner monologue of a novel (with token linear time-checks in the shape of breakfasts, dinners and the opening and shutting of car doors and laptops): the relentless, tell-don’t-show depiction of Vanessa. Her personality is composed of little beyond vulnerability, unworldliness and weakness. The longer this built, the more of a revelation I hoped for when family legend would be confronted with the reality of Vanessa upon Helen and Alan’s arrival. That didn’t happen. Neither, really, did anything else.

reads like a very intelligent draft. The plot outline, though thin, could have been a perfectly sound platform to raise the stakes and build full, contrasting characters, and so let the philosophy that interests Wood convey itself through action and dialogue. Instead, all is introspection. Worse, it’s introspection from a man we don’t see in action long or tellingly enough to know, trust or feel strongly about. In one chapter, external to Alan, floating dialogue lets us watch Helen and Vanessa speak to each other without him. By the time I got there (chapter 27 of 40), that passed for action (but did it pass the Bechdel test? It did not).

It’s possible to make readers care about and even respect a character’s first world problems if that character gains our sympathy, but the stakes and investment and level of direct action the reader feels privy to are so low it becomes a struggle to finish let alone care. There may be deliberate irony when Alan’s barely-interrupted thought train conveys that Helen “did things while Vanessa thought things” but if so it is not deliberate or careful enough.  When Alan comes up with his mental term for Helen’s accent as “winebar posh”, it is one of the great questions he answers in his mind. Alan Querry is exactly what the unsubtle nominative determinism suggests: a self-questioning, well-off, middle-aged white man thinking about things. If western literature was ever going to satisfied with a white, well-off man thinking about being a white, well-off man, this, thank God, is not the era for it. If this rambling were a spiral staircase, bringing us closer to the narrative voice or the others it all too briefly leaps into, fine. But it’s not. It’s a circular walk, leaving the reader no more enlightened. This doesn’t even tell the reader the truest thing it knows, let alone convey or show it.

May writing tip inspired by this month’s author, James Wood:

Write your first draft – and don’t worry about any of this.

For most of us, a first draft is guilty of everything I’ve described above – a section that is almost entirely dialogue, a section that is almost entirely exposition. Good. That’s what a first draft is for: getting it out of your busy, indecisive brain and on to a page where you can meet and edit it in the real world (or at least the real notebook/computer screen).

Now begin the real writing – which is, of course, the rewriting. Invite us in. Mix it up. Allow the elements of introspection, dialogue and action to balance, make room around each other. Show with actions and well-chosen personality driven words what each character wants and whether it’s in their interest to say it.

Make things happen.

There will probably be a lot of thinking. Notice it. Frame it in linear time. Convert lots of it into dialogue or sensory detail. In literature and in life, actions speak loudest. Philosophy communicates itself through action, not the other way around. Now you have a second draft.

Show it to friends who know about writing.

You don’t need to follow all the advice you get but you do have to listen to it. What people don’t understand is useful to know – it means it hasn’t been translated from individual truth to universal truth yet.

Show it to friends who don’t know about writing.

Repeat previous step but pick your least fiction-friendly friends and see what they enjoy, don’t enjoy, don’t understand, love, totally fail to comprehend. It’s all useful. Say thank you, don’t try to change a reader’s mind, just note the response and move forward your way.

Encourage your editor to challenge you.

For now that may be your best friend/mum but get good editorial habits now. Make the use of your editor. When you’re writing for money, you’re providing a service. Your audience pays you, not the other way around. You owe them a story. Use your editor. Make them ask you the difficult questions in their head. Believe in your idea, but let your editor help you communicate it better.

Join Green Ink Writers’ Gym at Waterstones, Piccadilly; the Barbican Library; Olympic Studios, Barnes. Private sessions in Ealing, Piccadilly, Barnes, Putney and by Skype. More venues across London. Contact Rachel or book online: www.greeninkwritersgym.com

Realism, Magic Realism and Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

Most performers will have been asked at some time or other how naturalism onstage is different to being natural. My way of dealing with that one is usually to illustrate it. You only need to be the other side of a room from a conversation to see how vague and rapid our gestures and sentences are, how much more comprehensible our meaning when words and gestures are simplified (or edited, if you will). That’s how to get the meaning into the audience’s mind as directly and “effortlessly” as possible. “Naturalism” – a simplified, streamlined version of the truth – conveys more of that truth than “nature” could at such a distance. It’s the difference between a good novel and a first draft. So, yes, a lot of art and effort goes into creating the appearance of the real. And, no, reality itself doesn’t cut it.

Most people grasp that difference, if not with the visual demonstration then with the audio equivalent: for those worried about public speaking, clarity is a much better focus than volume. Focusing on what you’re trying to say, and not what your hair is doing or what the audience might be thinking, you make the point without apologising for it or for yourself with the smaller, awkward false starts and gestures of everyday life. You don’t waste mental space with words that sound big or clever; you choose words because they are the most direct route to your meaning.

I’ve known graphic novels to take similar explaining. We’ll take as read (sorry) the sadly common assumptions about “comics” being “for kids” and go back to directness and clarity. Authorial voice is, of course, saying what you mean as only you can – hence the finite number of basic plots and the infinite number of original voices. Graphic novels do this in pictures as well as words: a beautifully direct route into someone else’s world. My favourite example in a long time is Bizarre Romance, published last month by Jonathan Cape.

This collection of “short stories with pictures” is partly inspired by the long-distance courtship of its creators, Audrey Niffenger (The Time Traveller’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry, The Three Incestuous Sisters &c) and Eddie Campbell (From Hell, Baccus, Alec &c). Living in Brisbane, Australia and Chicago, USA, “two cities that are almost exactly opposite each other on the globe”, they heard about each other’s days, weeks and worlds by telephone. Once married, and asked by the Guardian to collaborate on the “Novelists Do Comics” section, they revisited other stories by Niffenegger: “In the past I have been my own illustrator… Taking risks is always surprising and often uncomfortable… The result has been a book that neither of us would have made alone – a book that is ours.”

Mental and physical distances, familial and romantic relationship, endings both happy and unhappy flit between the world as we know it and beyond with courage and precision. From angel-infested loft to Victorian asylum, cruise-ship to afterlife, from parent to friend and pet to partner, every love and every story is crystal-clear in voice and insight. The introduction is Audrey and Eddie’s courtship, a beautiful love story that means the punches the next few pack catch you off guard. This is not romanticism, it’s nowhere close: it is magic realism, fully deserving both parts of that name. You’ll recognise yourself, your loves, your fears. The truth and beauty of magic realism, like realism onstage, is the strange brings the familiar into sharpest focus. Reading Niffenegger is like the first day of wearing new glasses.

April writing tip inspired by this month’s authors, Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell:

Get Real…
Forget the reader just for a minute, or just for a page. Forget what you think you “should” write, “normally” write, or “can” write. Look at the image in your head, look at the reason it’s there. Pick up the pen, and say what you see. Don’t stop until the page is covered. Now look back. Maybe cross out the conjunctions. See how clear, how simple, how specific you can be. Anything that apologises for what you want to say, cross it out. It doesn’t matter how big or small what you want to say is – you have the right to say it.

…But Don’t Stop There
We don’t live only in here and now. We’re worrying about what happened yesterday and what might happen tomorrow. We’re associating, and remembering, and hoping and fearing. Why put all that in backstory when the little voice in your character’s head could be a bird/rabbit/dragon sitting on the nearest wall? Just as an experiment, add an extra dimension to the world you’ve created and see what happens next. You might find the questions you’re asking have more ways to venture out. That’s how to start freeing your voice and ask your questions.

Example from this month’s author:

“The thing that makes us want God is the same thing that makes us want Art – we want meaning. We want there to be more than meets the eye. God is an attempt at an explanation for the universe. Art is not an explanation. Art is a question permanently unanswered.”

Join Green Ink Writers’ Gym at Waterstones, Piccadilly; the Barbican Library; Olympic Studios, Barnes. Private sessions in Ealing, Piccadilly, Barnes, Putney and by Skype.

Book now at www.greeninkwritersgym.com