Watching my child slosh paint with absorption on an outdoor table last summer, a neighbour who also has a young child commented that in her view there were two types of person; those who follow instructions, and those who improvise. She herself liked instructions; so, on the evidence so far, did her daughter.
“We can be very successful,” she adds, “professionally and academically.” (She is. Her daughter was starting to read at two.) “But sometimes I think there is something missing.” She carries on watching my son for a moment. “Evie (not real name) never plays on her own like that. I have to do everything with her.”
Exhausting for her, I can see. And of course my improvising son can be exhausting too, especially when his improvisations don’t quite match up to his vision. Right now a train track improvised with masking tape on my kitchen floor, modelled on Clapham Junction, is proving a challenge to equip with overhead cables.
But I take her point, following on as it did a breezy injunction of mine to just “make it up” if in doubt as to how to introduce phonics (her child is not yet in reception.) She wants precise instructions she can memorise; that’s how she’s used to doing things. That’s how she got to where she is now, and why she is concerned that the local school (which my son attends with enthusiasm) will not sufficiently challenge her precocious daughter (she’s wrong, but never mind.)
She was being generous to us less-academically-able, expressing her genuine insight that there are talents that do not involve, primarily, memorising instructions. The same thought struck me this week at my new writing class.
I have attended these on and off for a couple of decades, but this is the first since my son’s birth. Not much has changed. A large group of aspiring writers, all ages, mainly female, sit before a young, charismatic professional practitioner. Many take copious notes. Many haven’t even started to creatively write; they are learning the instructions first.
And there are some who sit motionless, pencil in hand to show willing, a studied expression of attention on face, but sheet of paper remaining obstinately blank. Most of these have already produced thousands and thousands of words at home of relative tosh. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves not to doodle.
I am the kind of student teachers hate, I can see that. Each time I ask myself, why do I go? I suppose I have a recurring need to re-affirm my gut instinct that, if you need instructions as to how to creatively write, perhaps you should take up pottery instead.
But basically, my neighbour is right. My real life experience tallies with hers; the instruction-memorisers are the winners. They will pass exams, be welcomed into corporations and institutions, artistic, academic, and entrepreneurial; rise swiftly, and end up as chiefs. They will be the movers and shakers, the influencers and the noted; the ones ultimately dispensing instructions to the rest.
And the rest? The failed artists, hired and fired foot-soldiers, con-men and women, petty criminals and the mentally unstable; they will perpetually struggle for attention, not to mention sustenance. A few will break through against the odds; another few get lucky in other unexpected ways (marriage, inheritance.) The remainder will join the backdrop of relative failures without whom the success of the successful would be meaningless. We are the audiences, the consumers, the readers, the fans, the perpetual clients, students and patients, and really, when it comes to making the world go round, our function is just as vital. It’s just a bit frustrating for us.
I should be worried for my son, I suppose. Sometimes I am, chary of my own poor example. But sometimes I look at his improvisations and think, wow. Is that genius in the making, or what?!