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Nelson's Column

Turning a blind eye to reality

February 04, 2011

The conscious and the subconscious

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:

The title of the unit was ‘Describing Trends’ and the target patterns I needed to include in this particular dialogue are marked in red below, and an extra related target is in blue. At some point I’d had an idea that the Shakespeare character in the course could be working on the name of one of his plays, but not have it quite right yet.

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.

I warned you about the bad jokes.

Main | Herd of humans? (1) »


You are my role model for making lemons into lemonade, David! I know you must have days that you feel down (who doesn't?) but even then you seem to focus on what you can do to help others. That's pretty wonderful, and teachers in Asia are lucky to have you on our side :-)

Best of luck with Communicate--may all your jokes be appropriately bad!

Glad to see you're not taking things lion down with this column and have decided to square with us about your creative process. Still, I'm going to need a hardy spirit to get through the puns in this column, however admiral your aims.

Are students required to role play the dialogue with Python-esque accents? I have a clear image in my head of Terry Jones in drag saying, "Nobody will buy a play called 'Omelet'"

It's good for you and good for us that you're writing. Looking forward to a next generation Communicate

Keep on believing and keep on supporting the teachers in Japan!

All comes to he or she that waits...

You know how much I LOVE your bad jokes.
Keep them coming!

Oh, BTW, I love your books, too. ;-)

Shakespeare: If you have some ham and eggs in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world. So, please never say to be or not to be.

I will proudly admit that not only did I not consider the joke 'bad,' but found it hilarious! I laughed out loud.
Your courageous, optimistic and adventurous spirit are to be lauded, David. I hope I am not too presumptuous in speaking for others as well as myself: We love you all the more.

Lastly, I was fascinated by the insights into your writing processes. I will look forward to further editions of your column!

Thanks for sharing about your writing process; I'm looking forward to reading more. I'm so sorry to hear about your troubles. May you rise from the ashes like a phoenix!

I am fascinated with the creative process. I, too, like to put a creative idea aside for a while to let it simmer. The results are always so much better.

As a Scottish fellow teacher trainer used to tell me when I was in one of my worst-scenario-writing stages: "Worrying never makes anything better, it can only make them worse. So why the f..k worry?" Actually, he prefaced this with, "As my uncle always says..."

That idea and the crucial question, "How important is this really -- in the larger/more spiritual context?" have saved me from many a looming depression. (My answer to that question is invariably, "Not very".)

You seem to have learned these lessons a lot earlier than me (you're only 59, after all!) and have already been putting them into practice. Keep doing good and you'll be doing well, David.

By the way, the jokes in Communicate make me groan, but not my students. To get a pun in another language is a major achievement and motivator. When I occasionally get a manzai pun, I feel triumphant even though my (Japanese) wife groans!

David, I thank you for sharing your thoughts and feeling regarding the future since the fall of David English House. They are inspirational. I believe "the cosmic powers that be" take care of those souls who genuinely love to help others.

David, I am looking forward to the new edition of Communicate very much. Because I thought that textbook is great for Japanese learners. It has everything I needed.


Enjoyed your column, and the thoughts you expressed. My heart is with you! I think life seems to throw us these curve balls.

I was diagnosed with the most dangerous form of skin cancer 18 months ago. I wondered if I would be leaving this world and my wife and three young kids.

That really makes you take a good hard look at what is important. Two operations later and
a 90% cure rate. Have fingers crossed it will never come back. When I get a strange pain, I wonder....

Seems to me the key is getting back up on your feet, dusting yourself off and getting back on with what you were doing.

Sounds like you are doing that, and I admire you for it! I think you are right in your column about what you were meant to do.

Thank you for sharing! The creative process is interesting to think about and can do wonders when the walls are closing in.

As far as the bad jokes, they are perfect for language learning. Most non-pun jokes just fly way over the heads of learners, but these jokes can be grasped pretty much immediately.

For what it's worth, David, I still have a very old battered copy of Communicate, and I dip into it on occasion for ideas in my classes. No joke!

Thank you for the inspiration David. We all need to be reminded to focus on what is important. I believe better times are right around the corner for you.

Thank you very much for all the supportive comments. This is my first time to write a blog, and I wasn't really sure how to approach it. I plan to write once a month.

Please feel free to express opinions or comment on related experiences. It would be great if the column could generate a good discussion of the issues

A brutally honest appraisal of what's going down in your life right now. I hope things begin to turn up soon. Your attitude is good, though.

I really appreicate your honest, David, about both your life and your creative processes. You're greatly appreciated and I know many people are praying for you.

Wow! You have been so frank and open. I really appreciate the honesty and I hope sincerely that in the near future things will turn around in your favour. A man of your dedication and integrity truly deserves it. Good luck with the new edition and remember that there are many of us here supporting you. Gambatte!


You are the one person who has made the biggest difference in the way I teach. Through the courses you have run and the books you have had published, I have become without doubt a much much more effective teacher. I have taught hundreds of students over the years and they have benefitted from your good work.

Although your financial position is far from what it should be, the positive impact you have had and continue to have make you a real star.


Nice one David.
I have absolutely no doubts that you will rise above your current adversities.

As to your description of way you write dialogues (planting a seed in the morning, and letting your subconscience mind stew over it during the day), I can absolutely attest to the effectiveness of this approach, as its very close to the method I have used for my own writings.

Although, my 'mental crock-pot' seems to be a bit slower than yours, as often I don't get a decent return until after a night's sleep!

All the very best, and looking forward to the next edition of the colunm.


There is this phrase "after very storm there is a calm". I think this saying holds true. Just carry on...!
I am really glad to hear there is a new version of "Communicate Book" in progress. I personally love the Jokes! Of course, there are always areas to improve by articulation of ideas. I found contents in "Communicate" really helpful for students and in a light hearted way to learn. I would stress that the editor carefully check on misprints before publication. I hate to be surprise... But, I really love the funny humors .
ATCHOO is great a good character,please keep him..
David thanks for all your support. Wish all this best as always.

Thank you for sharing your personal story and your excellent dialogue.
You are not alone.
Be well.

No one person has had a bigger influence or effect on my school and its curriculum than you. Looking forward to the new communicate and wish you the best in all your new endeavors.

The course ‘Teaching English to Children in Asia’ was one of the best events in my life!
It has given to me the better sense of what kind of teaching could be really good and profitable for everyone !

You are right to write (sorry!) in your present circumstances. Sorry to hear that your school has closed but Good Luck with your text book.

You inspired and challenged me to go further with my teaching career even though we had just met at one of your presentations. Thank you for always sharing your passion and drive.

Hello David Sensei,
Everyone of us have ups and down in our life.No one knows what is next in our future, only the our Saviour knows it.We met several times in your presentation and you're one of my inspiration in my teaching. More power to you.

David I have been out of touch for quite some time and was saddened to learn of your suffering. Your honesty, compassion for others and determination to strive on in light of your recent losses are commendable. I too have benefited immensely from your workshops and writings and continue to do so. I wish you well in your future endeavours and am very much looking forward to your New Communicate.


It's always darkest before the dawn. You don't need to work for a living as you have found a way to make a living by doing what you love. I'm sure prosperity will find you again, and in a double dose.

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