Look, this is just you and me, right? I can tell you something and it won’t go any further?
One day this week, I was working at a college. The weather was very, very hot, the food was terrific but I ate too much, too quickly, and I’d had everyone working such a lot that they were flaking out. I’d got them all flying off around the college doing these things and when I could manage to keep my eyes open, I could see that the students in front of me were struggling. There was just no question but that the ones everywhere else must be the same.
On your feet.
I got the three or four students in my room to stand up and follow me. I strode out of that room, across the little campus – it was the most gorgeous 1900s home converted to a college – and led them through the building. Picking up the other students as we go. Right, with us. Come on.
One of the students commented on how well I knew the college. This was my first time there and by chance everyone on this residential writing course had done at least one other project there. So they knew this place and knew exactly where I was now leading them all.
Not one single clue.
Didn’t know where I was going and most definitely did not know what we were going to do when we got there.
But the sheer surprise of how Pied Piper I’d become, coupled to how anything was better than staying in front of screens in hot rooms, meant that the entire group followed me.
I saw a door out to the college’s garden. That’ll do me. This way.
Across the garden. Saw a huge tree. That’s where we’re going, I said, having decided that during the very sentence when I said it.
Here’s what we’re going to do.
Nine people facing me in a beautiful garden. And I stole a writing exercise. Can I just quickly tell you this one? Because it’s good. And I only learnt of it about a week before. Learnt is a writer’s euphemism for “I’m having that”. And the moment writers Polly Wright and Mandy Ross showed it to me, I knew I would use it somewhere. Didn’t expect it to be a few days later.
You need a big group. Nine is just about enough. Stand in a circle and create a character together. The first person says whether this character is a man or a woman. The second says whether they’re tall or short, perhaps old or young. You go around the circle adding details and there are two rules. First: whatever you say, that character is. No going back, no changing, no replacing. He is an old man with a peg leg. Deal with it. And the second rule is that you can’t repeat anything.
The result of the rule is that people get more and more detailed and therefore so does the character. Eventually you name him and our one was Cornelius. He is a hunchback with a peg leg, a distinguished moustache, he could use a bit more deodorant, he loves animals though he has a phobia about cats, he is in love with a prostitute and keeps documents locked away in an old antique safe. There was a lot more.
And there was a bit more to do.
Having got all this about Cornelius, you go around the group again. This time each person announces who they are in Cornelius’s life. So I can say that I’m his brother, for instance, though we haven’t seen each other since that time in Nam. Or something. Our group this day included Cornelius’s estranged wife, long-lost son, hang gliding instructor, postman, drinking pal and Jezebel, the first prostitute he slept with.
That’s usually where this ends. You’ve created one main and detailed character, you’ve created a life really, and you’ve populated it with many more characters. When you do this in a circle, you can’t help but leap to connections and stories and when this was first shown to me, the group I was with bounded off to write tales about these people.
I didn’t want that this time. I just wanted my group to step away from their current work, think in detail of something completely different, and to do it on their feet in the garden. That’s post-rationalisation, that’s what happened and what I then told everyone was the plan all along. Really all I’d wanted was to shake us all awake.
It did that and I’ll admit to you that I rather enjoyed leading this group across their campus like that. And I’ll admit that most readily because they then led me.
They didn’t want to go back to their work. They wanted to continue this circle. So we did. I should ask Polly and Mandy if this happens to them, but for us they really wanted one more go around. Easy, I said. Definitely, I said. Good idea, I died inside, having not one clue what to do. “It’s that antique safe,” I said. Immediately. As if pre-planned. I don’t know how I was doing this that day but I’d like to do it again, please. “What does Cornelius keep in that safe?”
I can tell you that it turned out to be a big safe. It’s actually a beautiful oak box with a diary listing his previous lovers. Out of date condoms. (Please, this is a family show.) Bed sheets. What appears to be kitty litter but is really… something else. Mysterious. And there’s a will, covered in melted jelly tots and Spangles.
We did not use one pixel of that in our work for the course but clearly we could have. And clearly the exercise was a true boost. We all of us, myself included, went back to work then really alive and alert and ready.
And that’s not what I meant to tell you.
Sorry, got excited.
Here’s what I want to tell you and here’s why our natter this week is headed Just Say Yes.
I want you to say yes. I recommend yesness. All the time.
One day last week, it was very hot and I was driving around somewhere, lots of meetings, oodles to do. At some point racing back to a carpark, I scan-read my emails and saw one from Polly about a college. She’d sent it hours before, I didn’t read it properly until some hours later, but it was about how a certain college suddenly needed a replacement tutor. I can’t remember now but I think Polly had emailed a dozen of us. Something like that. She’d been asked to do the course and couldn’t, so she told us and explained how it was so urgent that if we could help, we should phone right away.
I must’ve read that properly five hours after she sent it and what she said of the course and the college was so interesting that there was no question but that every other person on the email would certainly have phoned by now. Plus, hand on heart, I wasn’t sure I could do what they needed.
I’m sitting now in the same seat I was when I rang them and I can picture how it had felt. No point ringing, far too late, can’t do it anyway, let’s have a quick mug of tea and get on out to the next meeting.
You already know I rang and that I got the gig, it’s a wee bit late for me to try building suspense here. But you also know how well it worked out. For me, at least. I don’t want to claim great success for the students and the college though it all felt marvellous to me. You can feel the enthusiasm in me. I think I sound as if I’m on my feet, pacing around, striding, gesticulating, sparking.
I had a lot to do this week and I am now about five days behind because of this. (It was a three-day course, the longest I’ve ever taught by about two days, plus I had a lot to do planning it and meeting with the college staff.) But just as the garden exercise invigorated us on a hot and heavy day, so doing this, being somewhere new and having to get people the best experience I’m capable of, it has invigorated me.
I’ve done a lot of things that didn’t work out, I’ve done even more that were a shrug. But sometimes I get to do things that I love. And they all come from closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and just saying yes.
Okay, in this case, it was phoning someone up first and pitching. But I could’ve far more easily have just said no to myself and not had this bounding, bouncing, glorious week.
So when someone asks if you can do something, you say yes. Okay?