We are in danger within Creative Writing of alienating ourselves from the next generation. The idea of technology from mobiles to smartphones, from word processors to tablets has always irked some writers. I started my career with a pencil – I am overly fond of a pencil, it never runs out unexpectedly and is accompanied often by a rubber to eradicate the worst of lines and a pencil sharpener if you are ever caught in a MacGyver kind of situation – and a notebook. I learnt to type on a typewrite and when the electric typewriter came into my home, I instantly disliked it, from its woodpecker sounds, over zealous desire to print multiple versions of one letter and its ability to be bloody useless during a power cut. The word processor, which I actually loved, owned and used throughout my university years was a step up but again it was accompanied by that irksome printer, that sounded like a mouse with a dodgy hip tap dancing on rice. I remember fondly my first proper computer – when I was young I had an Acorn Electron but that was reserved for playing Elite, my smartphone today is more powerful than that beige masterpiece – which I had custom built long before the advent of social media. Even dial up was painful to engage with, the sound of what could only have been Commodore 64s having sex introduced me to a world of early Creative Writing social media. I was hooked. The internet, now largely silent when you log in, allowed me to work with writers across the world via wonderful forums run by trAce and LinguaMoo. Sadly, forums have largely gone the way of the dodo, forums are not immediate unless someone else was sat in front of their behemoth monitor and clacking keyboard. I do miss my old typewriter, I still have it but I am not fool enough to want to type on it, I do not miss the blue fingers from carbon paper. I grew up in a generation that saw the computer, once an expensive object, become affordable to all. The mobile phone has now morphed into the smartphone but we are still carrying the baggage that phones shouldn’t be allowed in class, that somehow they demean the writing process, that it’s rude to be in the company of others and just take a call – this has never happened in the sixteen years I have taught Creative Writing. I felt the fear of phone bore too when I first started teaching, clutching my pencil and notebook like I had just come down Mount Sinai, declaring to students that these where the holy tablets all writers work on, but let’s face facts, that’s bollocks. I’ve never met a writer who writes the same as me, I have met writers who have physically attacked me for the way I write because they felt it was wrong. I was sneered at for collaborating on the web with Quickshift. My collaborative story, Neuter, would never have come about without technology, and nowadays I collaborate through social media. Neuter went on to be short-listed for an international award and my use of social media has landed me on Radio Four .
Yet, we are still dragging behind us that the web is not real, that phones are rude, that we should all be social by speaking in a room together on a Monday morning, that we should discuss the craft of writing, read aloud and ignore the elephant in the room. I am not dismissing old comforting ways, we all do are own things, but a student who engages with social media and their smartphone is not going to find inspiration in a park, on a bus, or in a university classroom. They are more likely now to find it online. Now, let’s face facts, social media has changed us all. You either use or you don’t, and the latter are now looked upon like they just said they still smoke. People who don’t even own a computer or a smartphone, and never access the web, are seen as odd. I overheard this only yesterday, ‘He doesn’t use Facebook. You couldn’t trust a guy like that’. That wasn’t a kid, it was a man who is fifty-seven, a poet who ten years ago said to me, ‘Who needs the internet?’ Times change and we adapt but younger people adapt faster. However, we do neglect one thing in how we approach social media and the internet, and our fears that if they use it in class they are goofing off.
We neglect the idea of gaming, we are all obsessed with gaming, many of us don’t know it but the web is a giant game, social media is a very addictive game, and our smartphones are another game. We even get frustrated with people who don’t know the rules of the game. If we tell students to switch off their smartphones, close down their laptops and then fire up a display to teach them Creative Writing through a series of films on YouTube and websites we are being hypocritical. We are forgetting the game. There is no denying that some students will goof off but by telling them to get off their phone only underlines that you are incapable of engaging with them. You are a dinosaur. Now, I like being a dinosaur, it means sometimes I get to stomp around and eat people. Maybe I could pick up Raquel Welch. However, I’m not and I bet many of you aren’t too, you probably have a smartphone, a laptop, a tablet, you probably don’t know how they are built or what to do when they go wrong – the next generation don’t either – technology has become to ingrained as a disposable object that we know we don’t have to pull it to pieces and get out a soldering iron. Then why are you scared of them? You use social media to talk with other writers, discuss ideas but then in the classroom you oust it all, deny it’s existence and hold up your pencil and jab the nearest student with it whilst doing a passable Albert Steptoe impression: ‘Bloody students, with your bloody smartphones. Well this was good enough for my father, so it should be bloody well good enough for you’.
Let’s consider another type of workshop that uses social media to benefit the most vocal and the most silent. Use live twitter feeds to give a voice to the whole of your class. Ever live tweeted a workshop, allowing the feed to whizz past you on the screen behind you? It is glorious. You find funny, witty, rude and insightful views? Students ask questions in the class and online, sometimes other writers wander in from elsewhere in the world and they get involved. It’s as if the classroom suddenly has no walls. Writing shouldn’t have walls, it should engage with the here and now. Play the game. Show them you understand the power of the game. Get them to write you a new game and marvel when you show them that the rules they have created, the worlds that they have built, the stories they have crafted are as old as the hills, older than your pencil and notebook. Story is at the heart of everything, all it does is change horse every few decades, I mean who writes on papyrus anymore? It was all about the papyrus when I was a kid. Remember that storytelling is joke telling, all that changes is the location, the punchline will still be there. If we neglect that, if we forget that it is the same story but a different horse we alienate the next generation of writers, we alienate their ways of telling stories, we neglect understanding their world by forcing our world upon them, and that is not good storytelling, it’s not even got a punchline. That is you being a pissed off parent who thinks they know better. ‘Write what I say or I’ll tell your Father when he comes home’. No punchline, just the punch.