Not being an actor, I’ve always say that I “Perform” my stories during the sessions I do in schools and libraries. I always add the ironic quote marks. I’ve had no training or acting experience beyond spear-holding in school plays many years ago. Everything I do in schools and libraries is instinctive.
But I’ve suddenly realised the whole day at a school or library is a performance. As I ring the bell and the School Secretary buzzes me in to fill in the guest book, I hear a little voice saying, “Enter stage right.”
Then follows a dizzying day of introduction and performances.
As the compere – the teacher or librarian introducing me – leaves the “stage” I find myself alone, in the “spotlight”. The stage might be a carpeted area in a classroom, a corner of the children’s library or a school hall with 500 children staring at me.
When I first sat down to illustrate books in my mum’s garden shed, I never knew this was part of the job. I love being an illustrator. The quiet and solitude is something I chose. And when I started writing, no one ever told me about school and library visits. I like the quiet and loneliness of walking by myself, working out plots and plodding out rhythms.
My gregarious actor and musician friends will do up to two performances a day. I know what they are like afterwards. They want to talk about it. They’re buzzing. They need to work their way back down from the high.
I do up to four full-blown one-man shows in a day. I want to talk about it too! I want feedback. I want to know how I’m doing.
But, at the end of the day, I say goodbye to the School Secretary and “Exit stage left”, on my own, and drive three or four hours home again, or crash out in a Premier Inn somewhere on a roundabout somewhere near the school I’m visiting the next day.
Am I Complaining?
Not at all. It’s a privilege to be asked.
It’s just that I have no idea if I’m any good or if I’m doing what’s expected or what is wanted. There’s no training for the Visiting Author. There’s no job description.
I suppose it’s some kind of validation to be told you’re better than that bloke they had last time!
Often there’s something going on in the school. They’ve just been told that they’ve got an ofsted visit next week, or a child has gone missing. I don’t know what’s going on, but the distracted teachers make me I feel like I’m not performing as they expected. On these occasions it can feel like I’m an inconvenience, but I have to battle on. The children sense it too. Those sessions end up very… well… very exhausting.
Sometimes I fly, soaring on adrenaline and new ideas. Over the years I’ve built up a repertoire of riffs, just like a jazz musician. I play the riffs differently depending on the audience, their age, the group dynamic, what they’ve been studying. Where did I learn to judge the mood of an audience?
I’ll feel an opportunity coming up moments ahead of where I am in the story. An opportunity to try a movement, a dance, a pause, a moment of timing. I try it and sometimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes it lifts everything. Somehow the kids know I’m going out on a ledge, being dangerous, and a wet, Wednesday afternoon is transformed into something special – a real performance!
Sometimes I get applause! Hooray!
Sometimes I get a baffled silence. I don’t know if they are stunned or bored or confused. Then it’s up to me keep the show moving until the bell goes. But I want to say, “Did you see what I did there? Where did that come from? Wasn’t that amazing?” But there’s no one to say it too. So I sit in the staff room and eat my sandwich and listen to the gossip.
I rarely get to see what other authors do in schools and libraries, so I can’t judge myself against them nor learn from them.
Am I complaining?
Not at all, it’s that I’ve just realised how much of a performance, school and library visits are. And so they should be. Once I stop performing and feeling the adrenaline surge as I drive through the school gates, ready to leap onto the “stage”, then I’ll just be going through the motions – reading a script. So I wind myself up for each new day.
I imagine, it’s much the same for the teachers and librarians, but they own their stage and have a supporting cast to wind down with at the end of the day.
I imagine it’s the same for every other author visiting schools. Unless they’ve had theatre training and they’ve brought their director along with them too… I gather it happens!
P.S. I nearly forgot! If you’d like me to come to your school or library to perform, draw entertain or maybe even educate and inspire, pleas don’t hesitate to click the contact link at the top and see if I’m free.
I’ve been visiting schools for years now, telling stories, sharing my writing strategies, showing how to draw things and, I hope, inspiring the odd child here and there.
I’ve never been a teacher. I’ve not trained as a teacher. In staff room conversations, it’s clear that many teachers think I’m an ex-teacher that has escaped! But I’m not. I started as an illustrator and was pretty much taught to write by my editors. I don’t think of myself as a writer, because I’m dyslexic and have my own peculiar ways of planning, plotting and writing stories. I’ve worked very hard to find my own way of doing it. If I had to do it the way the National Curriculum suggests, I would never have written anything. But I think my experience is useful for those kids, like me, who just don’t get it.
My focus is on dreaming up stories and characters, writing them down and drawing the illustrations. Schools and teachers have a very different focus, and the system makes them change that focus all the time. There’s a whole new curriculum coming along. It’s hard to keep up as a teacher – harder if you are not in the system very day.
Some schools I go to are happy just to have a day of fun, celebrating stories. I feel that others want “measurable outcomes”, a phrase that makes my heart sink, but I appreciate the world we live in and know that teachers are under huge pressure to deliver and much work can be achieved during and following an author visit.
No one teaches authors how to do school visits. We write a book and are thrown in at the deep end, complete innocents thrown to the crocodiles, and we have to work something out – quick!. My sessions are like Jazz. I have a whole load of riffs that I can call on from years of experience. I modulate my delivery according to the age the group and the life experience they have. I sense the level of the audience and play what I feel will be the right note. Sometimes its spectacularly right and at other times… less so!
And then I’m gone and never quite get time to talk to the teachers to get some feedback or know what they would have preferred. They are far too polite to make suggestions, but sometimes I’ll see follow on work at the end of the day, and that gives me new ideas for how I can tailor what I do, so the next group can take my characters and situations and draw or write their own stories.
If you were planning a perfect author visit to school, (you’d want J K Rowling, I know!) what would you really like an author – like me – to do? It would be good to know!