I have a confession.
I went to see a theatre-piece recently and, as part of the show, the audience were asked to write on to small pieces of card what they considered to be their finest memories. To my right, my wife wrote: My wedding day. To my left, my mother wrote: Having children. As we passed our cards down the rows towards the stage, one of the performers collected them and then hung them with clothes-pegs on to a washing-line which drooped from wing to wing. I prayed silently that my wife and mother would not be able to read my card, for it did not proclaim familial pride or marital glee. I feared that, were they to read it, they would think me ungrateful.
I had written: Getting published.
The road to publication is a long and arduous one for the writer – largely tough or even boring, but punctuated by moments of absolute euphoria. These moments appear at varying intervals and tend towards an accretion of firsts. The first time a publisher says ‘yes’. The first time you sign that contract. The first proof. The first review. The first time you see it on the shelves of a bookshop.
For me, there is a singular moment which I hold above all others. I have had three books published now, and the excitement and thrill I feel at this point in the publication process has not diminished each time it has happened – indeed, it has grown exponentially. The moment comes during the fortnight before the book’s official release. During one of those days, a delivery-van arrives at your door-step, and you are presented with a large cardboard box. You sign for it, you take it inside, you claw it open. And there, before you, are the Advance Copies of your book. Your book which you have sweated and debated and toiled over for who-knows how long. Your book which has only ever been a patchwork of concepts and notions and words inside your own head. Your book which has only ever been real in as much as a digital document on a flashing computer-screen can be real. Your book which was never even really a book, just a manuscript, a tiny microcosmic dot inside your hard drive.
It is a feeling the likes of which I’ve never quite equalled: those three times when I’ve reached into that box and pulled out a copy of my book – my book! – which had magically become hard, corporeal, tangible; complete with the weight of a book in one’s hands which is perfect like no other weight; complete with the smell of a new book which is perfect like no other smell. Suddenly, my book had become real.
That reality is key. Who was it who said there is no such thing as a reader-less writer? Google won’t tell me, I’ve just tried. But I remember the phrase very well, one of those aphorisms from university-hall lectures which stay far longer than their original contexts manage to. No matter, because I’ll tell you this – most writers feel at many times that that is exactly what they are: a reader-less writer. It can be very difficult plugging on with your work when you have no guarantee whatsoever that anyone will ever actually read the thing.
Such a thought has not just plagued my experiences as a writer, but also as a teacher. For the last ten years, I have taught English in various secondary schools across the country. I have, throughout those years and throughout those schools, worked with some tremendous young writers – writers whose names I will doubtless find on the spines of books in my local bookshop long after my own efforts have been submitted to the pulping factories – and it has always saddened me that I was the only one who was afforded the priceless opportunity of reading their work. Countless times, I was presented with a story or essay or descriptive piece which bowled me over with its sheer imagination and force (for young writers can transliterate their experience of the world in ways which us older writers can only ever nostalgically dream of). I would take in that work, and I would mark it. I would give it back. It would be placed in a book or a folder. And it would never be seen again. This never failed to sadden me immeasurably. Out of school, in private, I thought: what a waste.
Not long ago, I was made aware of a website called Pobble, its tag-line: Making writing ridiculously exciting. I visited the website and there, to my amazement, was the very platform I had unwittingly been looking for all along. Pobble was doing something so fundamental and, in turn, so effective that I was amazed no-one had thought of it before – it was, quite simply, publishing the work of young writers, and it was sharing this work with a gargantuan audience who spread across the world. This audience celebrated that writing by commenting on each piece in some of the most positive online forums I’ve ever seen. I began to look through the work from individual students as they posted regularly throughout the year. The work was improving, improving at such a rate that I had to keep checking the dates each piece was posted. There were leaps and bounds in those successive pieces of work which I had never seen in my own classroom. These children weren’t just learning, they were learning at a rate so advanced it made me envious. Pobble clearly was, without doubt, creating a more literate world. But how?
I wanted to know more, and signed up immediately. When I showed Pobble to my Year 7 class and asked if they would like to write something for it, they jumped at the chance. It was gratifying to learn that it wasn’t just me who wanted others to see their work, but they did, too. Of course they did! What writer doesn’t? They had never worked so carefully on their writing and, once it was published, the starter activity for each lesson became, at their demand, a visit to the website. We watched as the view-counter rose ever upwards; we delighted in every comment made – some from as far away as the UAE and Australia; we read over each other’s work and, while I marvelled at how brilliant it was, they discussed methods of improvement. They decided unanimously that their next collection would be even better.
There it was, as simple as that.
They wanted to be better writers.
And they wanted to be better writers because their writing was being read by ever-increasing numbers of people.
They were getting, as Pobble had promised, more literate.
That, you see, is the power of publication. The surge of elation I feel when I open my box of Advance Copies each time is both inevitable and glorious, but when it ebbs it is replaced by a resolve: if I want that elation again, I must continue to write, and I must make the next book even better. If not, I might lose the public’s interest. Because that is the root of publication, a word derived from public. To publish is to make public. Writers write because we don’t want to be reader-less. Young writers write for exactly the same reason. It’s not because they have to; it’s not because their teachers tell them to. It’s because they want to. And, like every other writer from J.M. Barrie to J.M Coetzee, they want others to read what they have created.
I have a new bunch of Year 7s now. I introduced them to Pobble in a recent lesson. I started that lesson by telling them a story, my own story of becoming a writer, of what it meant to me to get published, to go public. Then I projected Pobble on to the whiteboard and told them that, at the end of the day, they too would all become published writers. When I said that, a certain look came across their faces. It’s exactly the same look I have when I open that box of Advance Copies.