Awakening to words

3rd July 2015 at 01:00

I could tell a good tale from an early age and I thrilled to the stories of older voices. But put a pen in my hand and I froze.

At school, this inhibited me to the point of paralysis. I felt increasingly alienated from my own language. Formality and structure served to thwart my creativity and diminish my appetite to learn.

You have only to look at how the written word is presented in corporate and public-service speak to see how over-formalised language confuses and ultimately alienates young people. But students will come alive when they realise the power of their words to inspire, shift minds and inform.

At school in Scotland, I was treated as semi-literate and expelled at 15. Leaving school for the last time, I felt a joyful release. Yet through all this, I had been fascinated by how words could be crafted like clay into numerous shapes and forms.

Conversation was animating and immediate, and I felt alive when I talked. I could out-talk people around me but was apparently a failure.

After a period of homelessness in London, I moved to Dublin to further my burgeoning career as a singer-guitarist. I felt immediately at home.

In Dublin, people tell stories with flair and they listen avidly to what you have to say. It was here that I discovered writing as an extension of speaking.

Dublin is, and has always been, home to some of our greatest literary architects. When I listened to stories in Dublin bars, I kept picking up on references to the words of those writers.

Curiosity piqued, I read in earnest my first adult book, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It read like an expression of the soul and reminded me of my own early experiences. By the second chapter, I had fallen in love with the written word.

That was 37 years ago. I now speak and write professionally, have a book in its final preparation and read at least two works of fiction each week. I want every young person in Scotland to find that same passion for language as I did.

Confidence comes from the realisation of strengths, and my starting point in any training exercise is to find and comment on those qualities early on. It is like self-raising flour: you see the slow swelling of belief.

Young people quickly learn that words can sink or lift spirits. They see the immensity of language as an expression. Most importantly, they realise that they possess the power of their own influence on the world.

It worked for me - but that was years after I had been deemed a failure at school. I want no child to experience that same humiliation.

Mike Stevenson is the owner of Scottish motivational agency Thinktastic. He recently addressed a Children in Scotland literacy conference in Glasgow

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