Monday, 24 October 2011

Failure is so-o-o-o good for you

by Yvonne Coppard
(with absolutely no pics, 'cos I'm still learning and completely failed in my attempts to include them, sorry...will procure the Idiot Guide to Blogging before next attempt...)

I am not by any means a scientist. I failed almost every Science exam I ever took (and I went to the sort of school where you took a shed load of them every year). I couldn’t understand what Doctor Kornfeld was going on about as she chalked up diagrams and chemical formulae on a rolling blackboard (no Internet, no power point, in those days). I argued frequently with her (she was my form tutor, poor woman) about whether or not surface tension, the different qualities of gases and so on, were things that mattered to me. In Physics, I sat in the darkness with my classmates around a ripple tank watching tiny waves begin to form – very pretty, very soothing, but WHY? I still don’t know.

And I was often in detention with my Biology teacher, who firmly believed that I could keep up and do well, if I would only TRY to be interested in the life cycle of a locust or the dissection of a crayfish. (Tip for budding teachers – nagging and imprisoning your pupils will never endear them to your subject. D-uh.)

Five years ago I made a deliberate decision to step away from being a children’s author for a while, and try new things. I went travelling, filling my notebooks with the sights and sounds of nine different countries and cultures. I read books that I would never normally pick up – romance, science fiction, horror. I didn’t stop writing; I wrote articles, a travelogue, book reviews, non-fiction of many sorts, and half a novel for adults (still in progress). It was a great experience, and I am now ready to return to my first and proper love – fiction for children and teenagers – with the kind of enthusiasm I had twenty five years ago when my first book (Copper’s Kid) was published.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered Science.
It came as a huge surprise to me that suddenly, nearly forty years after I jubilantly left school and Science lessons behind, I have begun to devour articles, books and TV programmes on Astronomy, Engineering, Geology – even Chemistry, once – in the quest to answer questions that I belatedly have about the world. How do you make lipstick? How does thermal heating work? Could I really predict when and how I am likely to die by analysing my DNA ? (Would I want to know? The way that traditional science links up with religion, psychology and philosophy was NEVER explained to me at school). Is the truth really out there?

I blame fellow author Anne Rooney, in part. Last year, as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Essex, I shared an office with Anne Rooney. Her knowledge of all things vaguely scientific or mathematical astounds me. I read the books she put on our office shelves, books designed for children and therefore pitched at just the right level for me. I loved 1001 Shocking Science Facts

I sort-of understand what a light year is now (title?) And thanks to her ‘Technology All Around Us’ (Franklin Watts, 2005) I’ve almost grasped how it’s possible to communicate with Mars (still a way to go, on that one).
So, these days, I’m devouring a stack of children’s science books and pop TV programmes, hoping to move on to the more complicated stuff once I’ve grasped the basics. It may show up in my writing in the future, it may not. They say education is a lifelong process; they say it’s never too late to learn. I hope that’s true. My Science teachers said their stuff was relevant to my life, whatever I was planning to do with it. I wouldn’t listen, and I fought any attempt to engage me with their world. If you are still out there somewhere, Dr Kornfeld, Mrs Trevass, Mr Cole, Dr Jones...I’m sorry. You were right, and I was wrong.

Is there anyone else out there who wishes they could go back to primary School and learn stuff they missed first time around?

I am currently working on The Arvon Book of Children’s Fiction, with co-writer Linda Newbery, to be published by Bloomsbury (UK and USA) early in 2013. Also in the pipeline are two novels: ‘Amelie’s Secret’, and ‘In the Kingdom of Abbadon’, but no publication details yet. Finally, I am working on my website, to be re-launched in a couple of months with a new look and contributions from young readers, joke tellers, rant-and-ravers and fellow authors. Hopefully it will be finished sometime in November: in the meantime, if you want to know more, there’s still :


adele said...

Lovely to see you on here, Yvonne and can't wait for new crop of books and new website! Very exciting developments all round.

Yvonne Coppard said...

Thanks, Adele. If only you could have seen all the lovely images I spent a whole day choosing...I didn't mean the title of my blog piece to be quite so apt!

madwippitt said...

Oh goodness yes, if only I could go back to school again - but never, ever maths! That NEVER improves with age or time ...

Stroppy Author said...

Yvonne, I am so pleased and touched that those things I stuck on the shelf were useful to you! Let me know whenever you want any more and I'll drop them over. Do you want to move on to Einstein yet? :-)

I'm so glad you are writing again, too - we should not be deprived of your stories!

Penny Dolan said...

One of the pleasures of out-of-school learning is that there are no exam pressures or those "little" competitions to see who comes highest and so on, which might encourage some but doesn't encourage me. Time to just enjoy all the lovely stories, facts and information.

Good to hear of your travelling, whether through places or books.

Carole Anne Carr said...

Yes, here's one primary teacher who wishes she could have those children back again! :0)

Leslie Wilson said...

I failed Greek O'Level, so my parents regarded my learning it as a waste of time. And yes, I didn't work hard enough - but I read the Iliad in the original, which was marvellous, and I can still remember some phrases - I learned quite a lot of Greek words, which then helped me to understand many technical and scientific words, and I learned to read Greek characters, which helped later when I learned Russian, and also helped when we took two holidays in Crete. I think it was good for me to fail, I'd cockily thought there was no language I couldn't learn. As it was, I was bewildered by things like the Optative mood. Dative, ablative even, fine. Optative, h'mm..
On creative writing courses, I have taught so many people who were taught at school that they couldn't write. It has been a pleasure to watch them develop and unfurl wings they didn't realise they had. Maybe not for a high flight, but enough to express themselves.
Good luck with the new projects, Yvonne, and also congratulations on undertaking science, and helping to bridge the arts-sciences divide!!

Yvonne Coppard said...

There should definitely be some sort of alternative reality school where all the oldies who had a mis-spent youth can go back and start again - in selected topics. (No, Anne, not ready for Einstein quite yet, but keep writing and one day you might make ecven him appealing).It's a pity so many people hate Maths, what with it being so valuable. When I applied to do the MA in Enghlish Lit at London uni, after 12 years as an English teacher, I was told I had to get Maths GCSE before I started the course or they wouldn't let me in (I had the old CSE - not good enough apparently). So at 39 I did it - but why??? I have never had to do a single algebraaic problem since...
Thank you for all the lovely comments.

Nicola Morgan said...

Yvonne, my last science report for physics and chemistry (taught together) read: "Well below standard. Nicola has no aptitude for science subjects." I went on to write two books of neuroscience and be shortlisted for the Aventis prize for science-writing. I'd love to tell the teacher who wrote that report!

Yvonne Coppard said...

Now that IS encouraging, Nicola; I love your writing and always assumed you were one of those children I saw around me at school whose experiments always worked perfectly and who were consequently trusted to work alone with the test tubes (anyone seeing me approaching a bunsen burner or the chemical cupboard would quietly provide me with an escort, just in case).

Sue Purkiss said...

I was useless at science at school but have become fascinated with it in recent years. I think it started when I was tutoring a girl who was out of school because of a medical condition. When we got on to the Periodic Table, my heart sank - that was where science and I parted company back in the day - but we ploughed on together - and there came a point at which it all started to make beautiful sense - Eureka! (Brian Cox is quite a help too, I find.)