A writer's life for me

8th April 2005 at 01:00
From stand-up comedy to prenatal commentary, Dave Smith has penned something for almost every situation. He explains how he is showing secondary school students that writing is cool

I can do my job in my pyjamas. I'm a writer. It doesn't matter what I wear, what time I get up, or how many tea breaks I take. Sometimes, I don't even shave - can you imagine! No shaving! Crazy! What I have to do to earn a crust, however, is write. It's part of the job, you understand.

I've spent the past 14 years or so ploughing my own furrow as a writer, firstly as a fairly successful stand-up comedian, which led to all manner of radio and TV writing jobs. I've written humorous columns and features for an eclectic mix of magazines, including GQ, Real, Junior, Home Buyer, Slimming, Minx and Mother and Baby. You're a versatile writer when you can write an informative travel piece about Lille in the morning, then turn your hand effortlessly in the afternoon to detailing the "hilarious" consequences of a day spent wearing an "Empathy Belly" pregnancy simulator.

Tricky getting into cars, makes your knees ache - since you asked - though I was quite taken with the perky breasts.

In the past few months I've been visiting secondary schools and talking to pupils about writing for a living, and it seems that it's this variety aspect of the job that really seems to appeal. When they realise being a writer doesn't necessarily mean sitting for three months in a garret writing a big fat novel, the job definitely seems a lot more realistic to them as a career. I wouldn't know where to start with a book either: way too daunting.

I start by telling them what I do now, taking care to mention the crucial "working in your pyjamas". Writing for The Sunday Times and appearing as a regular columnist on Radio 4's Home Truths means at least I can mention names they may recognise. It hardly renders them goggle-eyed in awe, but it does earn me a modicum of respect.

Still, rather than merely dinging on about me, I get them to come up with as many outlets for writing as they can. This seems to open their eyes to the possibilities of life at a keyboard. Whether it's honing bullet-proof jokes for schlepping around the comedy circuit, or writing longer, more considered pieces for the Saturday morning Radio 4 listener, they all need words, and words can earn.

However, writing a lean one-liner for a tough comedy club needs a completely different tone from a more thoughtful, gentle piece looking at the "joys of parenting" for Junior magazine. Thinking of your reader or audience is key, as is finding your own "voice".

So once we've established that writing is great, we talk about the different ways they can make their writing more entertaining, and the different "tools" used in humour. Getting the students to open up and talk to me seems to be inversely proportional to their age. A group of sixth-form girls, bearing the entire weight of an unfair world on their shoulders, definitely tend to be less forthcoming than a group of excitable Year 9s, hopped up on orange fizz and crisps. But we get there in the end.

Years of performing in front of rowdy crowds in comedy clubs has given me plenty of experience at holding a group's attention, so making the hour and a half session fun is second nature. Also, if they want to heckle, they put their hands up.

Once we've nailed down some of the various paths to sparkling prose - exaggeration, the rule of three, the rhythm of the language - I get them to do some work. Teachers say the problem many pupils have is getting over "the fear of the blank page", which I can understand completely. To free them up, I give them random stimuli for the structure for their stories.

This injects some fun into the session, and it's the point when the pupils really come alive. They might get to write a piece about, "going to Argentina, by bike, to buy some sausage rolls". So with the inspiration and perspiration done for them, they get scribbling using some of the methods we've discussed.

I'm always amazed by the quality of the work they produce. Whether they are a cherry-picked group of bright kids in a nice school, who are keen on creative writing, or a class of rowdy 'erberts who initially see my visit as a free lesson, they all get involved and end up with something to read out towards the end. Almost everyone is keen to read out their work, and there's nothing quite like getting a few big laughs to make you want to carry on.

Boys particularly are underachieving in literacy, and are harder to engage in reading and writing, possibly because it's seen as a bit fey. When I tell them that all stand-up comedians sit and write their material, and that The Simpsons is only brilliant because the writers have pored over every single line, they realise writing can lead to very cool things indeed. I don't think it's ever occurred to them. At the end, they can ask any questions they like, and these have ranged from the importance of editing your work, practising, and the need to read; to "Oi Sir, do you know you look like Dennis off EastEnders?"

I began this as an offer to my daughter's school, but it has now snowballed, and I'm getting calls from all over the country. It's fun and gratifying to pass on a few things I've picked up, but I'd be lying if I said my motives were completely altruistic; I do get paid.

One of the schools contacted me recently saying parents were moved to write to the school to say how much their kids had benefited from my visit. So I must be doing something right. Now if I could just get them to come to me, I wouldn't even need to get out of my jammies.

Dave Smith is a member of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) www.nawe.co.uk. He can be contacted at smithamos@btinternet.com

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