Can one teach the gentle art of making stuff up?
Iwent to university once and quite enjoyed it. If there had been a student loan scheme back then, I might have stayed. There wasn’t, however, which meant you paid your own way, so I got a full-time job and went to uni at night. I soon realised this left little time for my other interests – these being beer, beach and girls. Against this unholy trinity, studying stood little chance so I departed academia never to return. Until now.
Forty years on, I’m back as a tutor at Queensland University of Technology, ladling out the distilled essence of a lifetime in newspapers to a small group of journalism students. Once a week, I park my car and walk across the campus, expecting at any moment someone will tap me on the shoulder and say: “What are you doing here? You’re too old. Get out!”
“They all look so young,” I exclaimed when because they are,” said my wife, still struggling with the concept of people listening to what I had to say. The previous day I’d told her that henceforth I would prefer if she addressed me as “Professor”. For a moment, she’d believed me and was still unhappy that I’d duped her.
“Do you tell them how you used to start work at 7am, go to the pub at ten, work from 11 until one and then go to lunch for the rest of the day?”
“I don’t think they need to know that,” I said defensively. “Anyway, we all did back then.”
“How about driving home after one monumental lunch and putting your car through the back wall of your garage?” she asked.
“No, I have not felt the need to mention that to my eager and attentive band.”
“How about the time you fell into Wivenhoe Dam doing a story on the drought? I reckon they’d lap that up,” she offered. “Or the time you carried a cabinet minister through the corridors of parliament because he was so drunk he couldn’t stand up. That’d make a good story.”
“He was very tired. As tired as a newt, you might say,” I replied. “So what do you tell them?” she persisted. “It’s funny,” I said, “because no-one ever taught a cadet journalist with a high school pass in English and nothing else.
“Someone said to me, ‘use that desk over the toilets and that was the extent of my training. You learnt as you went. You either got it or you didn’t,” I said. “Can you teach someone to write?” she asked. “I’m not sure,” I replied, for I’d wondered the same thing when I’d begun the tutorials. “You can show them the right way and the wrong way. You can show them how to be adequate, but I think there’s an unseen element to it. Some people have it and some don’t. It’s that magic
“If you mean the ability to bullshit on demand, then you’re a natural,” she said.
“Thank you,” I replied modestly. “I like to think that while it might be bullshit, it’s wellwritten bullshit.”