Novelist, Author of The Harvard Skull Fiasco and other stories, and founder of

Suddenly A Class Presentation

It's nearly Christmas in Australia. But it's never more than nearly Christmas here, because it's summer in December which, frankly, makes Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere a bit rubbish.
March 3, 2022 ~9 minutes

This was featured in my newsletter of December 23, 2022. Subscribe below
A picture of two cricketers.

Being busy can be a fatal error. Ten years ago, Cooldeep happened to visit me in Cambridge, MA, and among other things, started yapping my ear off about a cryptocurrency called bitcoin which – at that precise time – you could buy for $29. It was a gamble, he said, but it might pay off. I looked at him and said, well, I’ll buy 30. “I don’t mind gambling nine-hundred-dollars.”

Now, Cooldeep and I were busy people. I was working as a creative director in something called the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard, and I’d just taken on a web contract for a big company you’ve heard of. Mind you, I didn’t mind being busy. I was having a successful career precisely because I enjoyed being busy. So after making the firm decision to immediately spend roughly nine hundred dollars on cryptocurrency, I went back to work, and promptly forgot all about it. And completely forgot to buy the bitcoin.

I owe a great deal to my work ethic – and I’m not advocating laziness – but it’s a mistake to confuse activity with productivity. I would have achieved more if I’d worked a little less. I didn’t give myself time to scan the horizon for opportunities. My own intellectual curiosity gets in the way sometimes. This past week, for instance, and whilst writing and editing and parenting and doing chores, I started learning a programming language called Go.

But wait – don’t you, Kris, have some sort of deep interest in literature and language? Yes I do, and that’s precisely why programming interests me. And so you know, Douglas Adams used to program. He wrote brilliant a text adventure game based on his book, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. And as much as I want to talk about that, the point here is that, whilst writing novels and parentings, I somehow managed to build a rudimentary application in Go that allows me to send and receive wrongcards. Just a fun side project. The problem is, I do all this high-intensity mental work, and I don’t pay attention to the things going on around me. Then I find myself being ambushed.

On Wednesday morning, my daughter Boudica reminded me that I was supposed to give a talk to her class the following day.

“What?” I said, startled.

“My teacher wrote to you. You said …”

Oh yes, there’d been some emails. I stared away, perplexed and trying to remember. How had it all happened? Well, first of all, I’ve been busy lately. And apparently Boudica’s class is spending the semester talking about ‘composing stories’ or some such, and she told her teacher that her father was a writer, and wrote funny books, and moreover offered for me to come in and talk to them all sometime.

“You’ll do that, won’t you, Dadda?”

“Uh-huh,” I said, staring out the window, thinking about the protagonist of my most recent novel.

There were a few emails. I responded promptly to make them go away, and went back to thinking about my protagonist’s fist fight with a nefarious gangster alien.

When I went back and checked my email, I discovered that not only had I agreed to talk with Boudica’s class, but I had agreed (unwittingly and innocently) to presenting to the entirity of Grade Four. You see? This is what happens when I’m too busy.

Very well. The next day, I walked over to the school, talking to Byron on the phone. Yes, the same Byron who watched me get arrested in Poland that one time. And on this occasion, he was equally amused and unhelpful as well. This seems to be a pattern with Byron. We talked about programming languages for half-an-hour, and then I was at the school, wondering why I was there, and incidentally unprepared to talk to the entirity of Grade Four about Story Composition.

The school has a front-desk thing. I had to sign in on an Apple Tablet. Under purpose for my visit, I typed; ‘Yapping’. Next, I was escorted through the school to a classroom by three Fourth Graders. I asked them if they were my protection detail, and did they have contingencies in the event of us being attacked by werewolves. They did not.

“Well, I hope for all our sakes we don’t run into any werewolves.”

I arrived at a classroom filled with Fourth Graders. Their teacher was lovely and welcoming. I introduced myself and explained that I was once a creative director for –

“Well, you might not have heard of the place, it’s on the other side of the world, but basically, it’s Hogwarts for Muggles. Except there are no dragons. I mean, apart from that one lady on the fifth floor…”

They were delighted and delightful. And shockingly intelligent. Most adults I meet around the place are like brainless, sleep-deprived farm animals. That’s what happens when you force humans to work unrelentingly tedious jobs for a few decades. But these nine-year-old were incredible. One asked what my favorite conjunction was; I looked back, confounded. “Well, I like semi-colons a lot, but ease up on me, kid. I went to school in the eighties, so I’m not as well-educated as you.”

And because I liked the kids, I shared with them a few secrets of narrative writing that I would never otherwise share with anyone. The teacher was lovely, she wrote down notes. And before I knew it, it was all over, and I was being escorted to the next classroom. My escort this time was a thoughtful boy, who peppered me with questions. One being, “how do you find the courage to keep writing every day?”

I shook his hand immediately. It was the best question anyone has ever asked me. Normally it’s ‘where do you get your ideas?’ He was on the money. I told him that I could see he was a talented thinker, but talent was only part of the game. “Just put in the daily work, and don’t worry about success or failure. If you’re loving what you do, you’re succeeding.”

The next classroom was interesting. The teacher looked harassed and annoyed. I found myself a chair, and started talking to the kids, whilst their teacher looked at her phone. I explained who I was, and that – being an adult – I knew slightly less than them about creavity, because whilst creativity is innate to humans, adults wind up forgetting how to do it. “The only reason I’m able to do it is that I didn’t properly grow up, thankfully.”

Another teacher came in, crossed the room behind me and started a conversation with the first teacher. Quite loudly, actually. This seemed strange and incongruous, and distracting, so I stopped talking and turned and stared at them with a degree of incredulity. They took it outside, and the kids and I went on with our discussion.

Turns out, their next assessment item was to write a story that is a sequel to one of the books they’d read in class. So, I made them explain to me the story in their own words. Then I asked them to think about their favorite books, and tell me what they thought was completely cool about them. Then we talked about what we wanted from stories, until eventually I reached my point.

“We write stories because we want to read a story that doesn’t exist. And my advice is to write precisely what you think a cool story would be. If you like dragons, then there’s a dragon in your story. If you don’t like the main character of that book you were talking about, make sure the dragon eats him in the first chapter and move on.

“Ahem,” the teacher interrupted, coming back inside. “There can be no dragons in the story. There were no dragons in the original book, so there can’t be any in the sequel they’re writing.”

I was taken aback. I was there to explain how to write compelling original stories, not how to make counterfeits of existing ones. But time was up, and I was soon ushered into the next classroom. They were all delighted to meet me.

“Hello, horrible children. And hands up, which of you knows they’re horrible?” All hands shot up. “Excellent.”

I proceeded to introduce myself, and rather than writing my name, I drew a picture of myself on the board that drew expressions of approval. I declared it, A Portrait of the Artist as a Silly Man.

Then I set about explaining the word ‘untenable’ to them. “Untenable is an important word, in the contexts of story telling. I generally like to see characters in untenable situations. Silly situations. I am in one now, for instance. When a character is in an untenable situation, we get to observe them doing interesting things. They have to improvise. And really, what is a story, other than a sequence of fascinating solutions to interesting problems?”

Then I wrote, in capital letters, the word, ‘INTERESTING’. “Because, believe me, most adults forget that one when they’re coming up with stories.”

We had a big discussion about the things in stories that they like. They became very excited, talking about ghosts and zombies. I told them this was all fantastic, and the ingredients of good stories.

“I put a ghost in my novel about Harvard. Only she doesn’t know she’s a ghost. It was very spooky.”

Boudica’s teacher wearily pointed out that that the students could not, of course, put ghosts in the story they had to write for their next assessment.

I don’t know. Teachers do their best. I know that they have a difficult job, herding cats, and being basically wild animal tamers. And – you ever see Jack Black in School of Rock? Well, I was ‘Jack Black’ing the hell out of this situation. I had them all amped up, excited and talking about stories they could potentially write. I explained how to think about stories, what they are and why they are, and I was giving away really solid advice for free. The only problem being, of course, that I wasn’t supposed to be doing that. I wasn’t there to explain how to write good, original stories; I was supposed to be offering tips on how to write workable fan-fiction. Not that that was explained to me until I was precisely half-way through the 1.5 hours of my talks. It wasn’t mentioned, I think, because to most adults, composing counterfeits and formula-based fan-fiction is what passes for creativity. It’s just a tacit assumption, and the teachers had no reason to expect that I would possibly think otherwise.

It was intensely self-evident to me that all those children were getting an exceptional education. I mean, they were seriously bright. But if you ever wonder what happened to the natural creativity you had as a child …

The Harvard Skull Fiasco

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