Playing with words

As with reading I don’t know the point at which I learnt that I could write. By writing I do not mean writing my name or the words c-a-t as cat. I mean that I made a remarkable discovery. I could put my pen or pencil to paper and with the letters I formed (most times quite badly) I could actually make meaning that someone else could understand.

I have spoken in earlier posts about the fact that I went through a number of years of my youth and even early adulthood with the wish, the intention, the dream of becoming a writer. I wrote a number of what I now know were somewhat immature and undeveloped pieces. I sent some away and got some quite good responses from people.The highlight of my writing “career” was when I was called to the Royal Court Theatre in London to discuss a play I had written about the General Strike of 1926.

But the real world of making a living, of seeing the impossibility of ever breaking through in a very tough and competitive environment meant that I eventually stopped writing for any sort of audience and eventually stopped writing for myself. Like so many would-be writers, artists, musicians, I made my way, eventually into teaching and the rest, as they say, is history.

As a teacher I “taught” children literacy, as we came to call it. The Government in their wisdom, decided that the best way to “teach” children to write was to bombard them with different genres of writing and let them play with these styles. I taught children to be persuasive,to use certain adjectives that would influence others. I taught them to construct a story with an introduction, a development and a conclusion. I told them they must use certain words and not repeat the same term all the time.

What I forgot,as I “taught” these ideas to the formula that the Government had laid down for me,was that my own personal road to writing came from being able to “play with words”. I went to school in an age that preceded the “formula” approach. I was never given any real guidelines or templates, I was allowed to write as and when I got the opportunity.

I remember that, when I was about thirteen I produced a piece of writing for our school magazine that was called “A Passage From India” it drew heavily on the ideas of E.M. Forster whose “Passage To India” I had read and admired. It took the characters of that story and set them back down in their native country, foreigners in their own land. I examined the thoughts of arriving at Paddington Station in the 1950’s in a London that had itself become transformed by war. I particularly focussed on the character of the young girl who had come home to marry and reproduce in this strange place where her experiences from birth had been of Indian culture and that savage, idealistic colonialism that had brought the British to India in the first place.

My English teacher, Mr Kennett, absolutely loved it. He thought it showed imagination and was impressed by the use of language to express deep feelings. I remember being delighted when it was printed in the magazine… it was to be one of the only times that I was able to see my words in print. The origins of the piece are a bit of a mystery to me to this day, excepting to say that an image of a family arriving at Victoria Station in the early 1960’s, seen from a distance as I accompanied my father (a shipping and forwarding agent) whilst he handled baggage arriving at the station, was the impetus.

The rest, was playing with words… letting the words express the story that I wanted to write. I did not have a straitjacket of starting with some snappy “setting the scene”, developing the story and then having a neat end. I knew that I wanted to express a clash of cultures and the confusion in a young girl’s brain as she waits at the roadside of a large station in a great and bustling city feeling lost and petrified about what the future holds in store for her.

This post has been an opportunity for me to play with words again. This time I am not writing a story but writing about writing and what it meant to me personally. I can only say that we need to allow children the ability to play with words and ideas for themselves and to develop their writing  without making the whole process a mechanical learning of rules. Let them develop the pictures in their minds (as I developed that one snapshot in mine) and then let them express what they want to say in the way that they want to say it. Better still, give them the opportunity to have a blog (as I have with this) and let them write because they want to and not because you tell them to.


I have no copy of my original story about the “Passage From India” so I decided that I would try and re-write it as a 2010 version. It conveys many of the emotions and ideas that I put into the original but has obviously been affected by my lifetime’s experiences since I was 13 (44 years ago!).  Please see if interested… I would welcome your comments.

About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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