Friday, May 30, 2008

Giving it all away

I was very lucky as a child in that I had a string of enthusiastic, creative and inspirational teachers. I also had any number of old duffers, bullies and people who should have been in an old people's home, but time and my rose-tinted specs have pushed them aside. It all started in primary school (in the UK, that's aged 4-11) when I had a fairly bonkers head teacher called Geoff Helmore who was fiercely Cornish, could bellow out a song like Brian Blessed and who took part in all kinds of dramatic events, not the least of which was playing the dragon during the Hal-An-Tow.

Every May 8th in my home town of Helston, Cornwall, is Flora Day. It's a huge festival - the narrow streets are crammed from wall to wall with thousands of happy revellers - and it's a big draw for visitors every year (lots of photos here at Graham Matthews' Helston History site). The day has its roots in pagan Spring festivals and consists of a series of traditional dances through the streets (and houses) that all follow a proscribed route. It's something to do with ley lines I suspect. Every schoolkid takes part and the various dances are miles long like a huge conga line. The Helston Town Band splits into two halves; one at the head, one at the tail and both out of earshot of each other (that's how long the lines are). The people in the middle of the dance hear snatches of both, depending on wind direction, and have to constantly readjust their footwork to match the conflicting beats. Anyhow, I digress.

The day starts with the Hal-An-Tow, which wakes the town up. It's a musical, shouty, drum-beating, whistle-blowing riot of dancers, singers and actors telling the stories of various saints defeating dragons and devils. But these are newer lyrics added by Methodist ministers in the 19th century. Hints of the earlier song are still there in the chorus:

'Hal-an-tow! Jolly rumble-O
For we are up as soon as any day-O
And for to fetch the Summer home,
The Summer and the May-O,
For Summer is a come-O
And Winter is a gone-O'

... accompanied by the violent shaking and waving of foliage. In recent years the Green Man - the ancient symbol of pagan tree-hugging England - has wormed his botanical way back into the act. I'm still digressing aren't I? Right, Mr Helmore played the dragon, slain by St George. Hoorah. We got there.

Geoff Helmore was just one of many teachers at Parc Eglos School (the name means 'Field of the church' in Cornish) who pushed us to develop our artistic sides. I was only at the school for a couple of years, having recently moved from Penzance where Mr Luke - my teacher at St Paul's County Primary - had inspired in me a love of science and Mr Paltridge had taught me to sing to choirboy competition standards (I won several) and also got me living and breathing music. As mentioned in a previous post, he also had me playing women in all the school plays (it was an all boys' school) - Perhaps I was prettier than the other boys? I definitely had the fluffiest hair.

After leaving Parc Eglos, I moved to Helston School (now Helston Community College) where I stayed until I was 18. And it was here that I met a number of teachers who would change the way I thought and worked forever. Foremost among them were Fiona Wagstaffe and Judith Lassiter (English), Mike Stephens (Biology), and Phil Howells and Arthur Andrews (Art). Mr Andrews, in particular, gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice I've ever had. It went something like this:

Never be afraid to give your work away as it makes you more creative.

At the time, I can't say that I fully understood what he was getting at. Giving stuff away? How could I build any kind of a career on that? But now, I get it completely. And he was absolutely right.

I presume that this advice is something that creative types have been bandying around amongst themselves for years because, in 2003 - more than 25 years after I'd left school - I picked up a book by Paul Arden called It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be ... and found the very same advice. Arden, a hugely successful marketing and advertising whiz, put it this way:

'You will remember from school other students preventing you from seeing their answers by placing their arm around their exercise book or exam paper. It's the same at work. People are secretive with ideas. 'Don't tell them that, they'll take the credit for it'.

The problem with hoarding is you end up living off your reserves. Eventually you'll become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish.

Somehow, the more you give away, the more comes back to you.'

As I say, it was some of the best advice I've ever had. Other than 'Don't eat yellow snow' that is. What Andrews and Arden were both saying is that a creative person produces work for the pure love of creation; the true artist is someone who writes or paints or sculpts or composes for themself and for no one else. If others like it, that's a bonus. And if you create lots, why keep it to yourself? Some of it may sell. Most of it probably won't. So why not share it?

On this blog, I post a lot of older stuff - holiday remiscences, descriptions of places, short stories, poems, songs - and guess what? People have approached me to do work based on what they've seen and read. My blog has become a kind of showcase for my writing. By giving stuff away, more has come back.

A few years ago I did some work for gratis for the Save the Rhino charity. Consequently, I was invited to the first Douglas Adams memorial lecture given by Richard Dawkins (Douglas was a patron of the charity), where I met Stephen Fry for the first time. Stephen later endorsed my book and, undoubtedly helped me to sell it to a publisher.

See how this works?

As another example, I did some free artwork for the UK branch of International Talk like a Pirate Day, a day when we all dress like Johnny Depp at work to raise money for important charities like cancer research, AIDS research, the Red Cross etc. As the direct result of me doing the poster, I was approached by Scholastic Books to be the official artist for the 2006 Autumn National Children's Book Fair (see brochure above). I also did some pirate illustration work for a charity called Osteoporosis 2000. All paid work that came directly from an act of pure philanthropy.

The more you give away, the more comes back to you ...

Trust me ... it's good for the soul and the bank balance. You make contacts you wouldn't have made before, you even make new friends and, most importantly, you become so much more creative. I'm currently working on a couple of screenplays. There isn't a single element in either of them that I've used in any previous rejected or unwanted screenplays.

I rather like the fact that I can still work like that.


SueG said...

Great post and an important message to remember. Thanks, Stevyn.

Stevyn Colgan said...

No ... thank you for popping by, Sue. You have a great blog BTW.


willow said...

I love that principle, Stevyn. Good karma.

Flora day is comletely new to me and so very charming. We just don't have any ancient celebrations here. Proably because we, as a country, aren't ancient.

I am totally in love with Brian Blessed. I have several of the Kenneth Branagh films in which he performs. He is especially handsome as the ghost in Hamlet. Sigh.

Yes, you do have pretty hair in that school photo...teehee! Cute little bowties, too.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Sadly, all of my cuteness was extracted during puberty.

Flora Day is wonderful and, as you say, there is a whole calendar of such events in the UK. And yes, we've been at it a couple of thousand years longer. However, you may be a younger nation but you already have a pretty rich folklore and tradition of your own. I've seen some fantastic events - mad, wacky, serious, thought-provoking ... although I still don't get Monster Trucks ...

What IS that all about?

punk in writing said...

Great advice.

I don't understand monster trucks either, and I live with a guy who's busy converting an old Ford special coupe from 1928 into a hot rod.

Now, I understand finding an old jalopy (btw, jalopy is one of my favorite words) and bringing it back to life, but a big ugly truck that smashes into other big things?

Hang on, is it an updated version of medieval tournaments?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Jalopy is, without a doubt, word of the week. And you may be right about the Monster Trucks. It is jousting isn't it? But instead of guys attacking each other with long pointed poles, now it's the biggest car they can find.

Hang on ... is this all about ... male member size?

Dammit to Hell. We have a SMART car!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Oh, but that's Dawn's car. I have a BMW ... what does THAT say about my insecurities?

Blog Princess G said...

It's a fine philosophy and one that becomes truer for me the older I get.

On a more shallow note, I think it is ridiculously cool that you are the illustrator behind Talk like a Pirate day, pretty much my favourite day of the year after Christmas. I'm so looking forward to September 19 - arrrrrrrrrrrr.

Dreade Pirate Captain Colgan... he be a generous pirate to be sure, but a dreade one nonetheless!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Arrr ... why, thank 'ee kindly Cap'n G. May your scuppers ne'er be awash wi' bilge.