21 March 2013

Children’s author Tony Bradman on the wisdom of Coach Taylor

Tony Bradman reading to children in Norwich in the mid-1980sTony Bradman reading to children in Norwich in the mid-1980s
by Rufus Purdy Guest Blog, Opinion

Author Tony Bradman, host tutor on the forthcoming Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children course, on the parallels between creative writing and sport:

Over the last few months I’ve been watching Friday Night Lights, a US series about a Texas high school football team and a range of characters associated with it. Like all the best contemporary US TV drama, it has high production values, great storylines and acting, and the kind of cliffhangers that make you want to watch the next episode as soon as possible. As someone who has now lived through The Sopranos in its glorious entirety four times, and who was a big fan of The Wire, I was born to love Friday Night Lights. That said, I realised a while ago there’s a parallel between this show and the thing I’ve been doing in recent years – teaching people who want to write for children.

Friday Night Lights is full of storylines about relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and people who work together. It’s about the ordinary things of life and just how important they are. But (and this is where it differs from almost any other long-form drama I’ve seen) it’s also about a sports team, and the questions in the minds of all those affected by its success or failure. In those episodes where the storyline turns on a young player’s feelings or behaviour, the question is direct – is this player any good? Does he stand up to pressure or buckle when things go wrong? Most of all, does he have any talent and is he using it to the best of his ability?

A key figure in this is Coach Eric Taylor. He’s the guy who has to take young boys and mould them into football players. He has to discover what they can bring to the team and help them develop their talents, whatever those talents might be. Some of the boys have limited abilities, and then it’s a case of getting the best out of them, or perhaps even lowering their expectations. Others have extravagant, amazing talents, but find it hard to exploit them – perhaps because they lack self confidence or have personal problems to deal with.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Creative writing courses have proliferated in recent years at every level, and understandably there has been a bit of a backlash. Some commentators have even called into question the whole idea of teaching such a hard-to-pin-down skill as writing. I’d be the first person to agree that just as you can’t turn an un-athletic klutz into an NFL quarterback, it really is impossible to teach someone to write well unless they have some talent in the first place. But if you do have talent, then it sometimes really helps to work with people who can help you identify exactly what that talent is and teach you ways of enhancing it.

So what can a course do for you? As with anything in life, I’m pretty sure courses vary enormously, so I can only talk about the way I approach it. To begin with I tell students that writing well is never easy. I tell them to put out of their minds any ideas of big advances and film rights and earning vast sums from your work. The important thing is to study the craft – and I do think it’s possible to teach people with talent a lot about the mechanics of writing, about character and plot and how to grip readers. Like any good coach, I study the students and try to help them improve on what they’re doing already.

I believe that a good course should be pragmatic, and taught by someone with real experience on the field of play (to slip back into a sporting metaphor). And part of the appeal for me is in the idea that I might find someone who is a fantastic talent, a Pelé among writers. There’s a thrill in finding a new voice, in reading something and knowing it’s unique and original, and also that you might be able to help that writer become even better. Coach Taylor’s team has a motto, one he quotes to them before every game – ‘Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.’ I’m thinking of saying that before every lesson I teach.

Tony Bradman’s latest novel ‘Viking Boy’ is available here.

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