February 04, 2011
February 04, 2011
Why Nelson’s column? Well, one reason is that you’ll give an arm and a leg to have the column removed from the site once you see the bad jokes. Another more serious reason is that things haven’t been too good recently, and the best way forward seems to be to turn a blind eye to all the problems and dangers and sail on regardless. There are other reasons for the title that I’ll go into at a later date.
When David English House closed, I lost a dream that I and many others had worked so hard for over so many years. Fortunately, almost all our teachers and students have emerged unscathed from the turmoil, but, personally, things have been bad. I’ve lost my home and life savings, my personal life is in a mess, and I’ve now found I will even lose future royalties on my books. If I was ten years younger, this probably wouldn’t matter, but at 59, people around me are asking how I’m going to rebuild, what I’m going to do if I become sick or retire etc …
But, do these practical dangers really matter? Everybody has things to worry about, and most people around the world are suffering from far worse problems than I am. If we dwell on the dangers, there’s no solution. If we turn a blind eye, and just get on with things, and, more importantly, focus on supporting or helping others rather than on our own situation, life can be very rewarding and a lot of fun at the same time. In my case, I seem to be in a position to support teachers in Japan, so I think I should use that position and find ways to provide as much support as possible.
It’s an old cliché that we can be most creative when living on the edge and going through hard times, but I’ve certainly always found it to be true. I wrote ‘Teaching English to Children in Asia’ after a failed relationship. I didn’t want to meet anybody, so I just stayed in my room and wrote.
I started writing poetry when I was a child, but I could never write anything that was any good when things were going well. I also couldn’t write when I tried too hard or when the school asked me to write something for a special occasion. I had to be living close to the edge, stop thinking rationally, and just let go.
So now seems like a pretty good time to write. This time, I’m working on a new edition of Communicate. The first edition was published in 1994 and was very popular in Japan and Korea, but it feels old and rather dated now. In its day, many of the characters in the book had quite a cult following, and the bad jokes in the dialogues certainly got a reaction from both teachers and students.
I often get asked how one goes about writing humorous dialogues. With characters like Atchoo the Alien, Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare, and the princess that became a frog, it has often been assumed that I must have been smoking something when writing Communicate, but I deny the charge.
For me, the conscious plan always comes first. The theme or the joke is always the last stage, and no compromises can be made with the rational plan and syllabus in order to accommodate a good joke or an interesting theme. I spend years researching and getting critical feedback on a precise language sequence that works for a wide range of teachers, and it’s only after going through that process that I start to think about things like jokes.
With Communicate, when I had completed the detailed syllabus, I tried to think of as many jokes as possible over a period of a few months, and wrote them down. Some were original and some were not. I then read through the list of jokes a few times. I didn’t memorize them. I just put them into the back of my mind somewhere.
At that stage, the dialogues where the jokes would go were just a collection of patterns that I needed to include. I knew exactly what the patterns were, but hadn’t attempted to actually write the dialogues.
I found that if I tried to think about the jokes for the dialogues in a rational way, I couldn’t write anything that worked well. So I decided to use a technique that had worked for me when writing poetry. Every morning, I would look at a dialogue for about twenty minutes, and focus on the problem that needed to be solved. I would concentrate on the language target and think about possible characters and jokes for the dialogue. At this stage, I could never come up with a good idea. I would then go to school, teach all day, and forget about the dialogues. When I got home at night, I would sit down, relax, and the dialogue would just come out. The jokes and characters that came from my subconscious in this way were generally very different from the ones I had been consciously thinking about in the morning, but posing the problem to my subconscious in the morning was essential to make this work.
Here’s an example:
|Mrs. Shakespeare:||The price of paper is going up!
And the price of books is coming down!
We’ll never pay for those new curtains.
|Shakespeare:||I know! I’m writing more than last year,
but I’m making less money!
|Mrs. Shakespeare:||Maybe your new play will help.
But I don’t like the title!
Nobody will buy a play called “Omelet”!
|Shakespeare:||It’s a very good title! Omelets are becoming very popular.|
|Mrs. Shakespeare:||Yes, but not plain omelets.
They’re going out of fashion!
|Shakespeare:||Well, how about “Ham Omelet”?|
|Mrs. Shakespeare:||That’s better than before.
But something is still wrong.