As an ex-teacher myself, I was intrigued to read Fran Hill’s book Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? Her memoir is written in the style of a diary that takes us through a year-in-the-life of an English teacher in the UK.
To begin with, it was a little too good. I was thrown back into the chaos of the teaching life. How little I slept, how hard it was to switch off, how I never felt I was on top of the constant barrage of work. The immediacy of the diary style means you are living with the main character throughout her hectic days. I’d be intrigued to know how non-teachers respond to this insight into our crazy life!
Later on in the year, we begin to see glimpses into the past, of her childhood and her motivations for getting into the world of teaching in the first place. At times it’s easy to forget you are reading a memoir, with the style so effortless and immersive. What it reveals is the impressive story of a woman who went into teaching late in life, and who conquered her own demons and those in teenage form in the classroom.
I wanted to find out why Fran chose such an unusual style for a memoir, and how she managed to keep such a lovely balance of light and shade. Read on to find out more.
It’s refreshing to read a memoir in such an unusual style. Why did you decide to use a diary in the telling of your own story?
Thank you, Sarah. I’m so glad you found it so. The diary decision arose because it seemed a logical way to tell the story of a typical year in a teacher’s life while allowing flashbacks to the past. I teach from home now but when I taught in schools my life revolved around my ‘planner’: a teacher’s diary containing lesson plans, lists of students, registers, timetables, marking grids, phone numbers, details about sanctions and rewards, notes about duties and after-school meetings. If I ever mislaid my planner, my stomach would flip in panic! Schoolteachers often digitalise all this information now, I’m sure. The other advantage to the diary genre is that it’s so conversational and informal and this worked well with the humour. It was also a nod to other funny diaries such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and The Diary of Adrian Mole. My story has resonances of both, featuring bumbling, awkward adults (including moi!) and self-conscious but funny teenagers.
The style of the book is incredibly easy to read. I think it was Maya Angelou that said easy reading came from difficult writing, is this something that you can identify with?
Having said all that about the diary genre, it wasn’t something I’d done before on this scale, so I needed instruction. The initial sections I submitted to my commissioning editor got a thorough going-over. He encouraged me to make the sentences less grammatically formal (something that horrified my English-teacher-heart to begin with). For instance, I had to take the subject ‘I’ from the beginning of many sentences so that they began with the verb (eg ‘Woke up at 6.’) Another feature of the diary genre is to remember that you can’t give out information to a reader that you would never write in a diary which is normally private. You have to find other ways to communicate it. So, yes, Maya had it bang on.
I’ve heard that the process of writing a memoir can be very cathartic. Reading the book brought back all sorts of memories for me about the stress, lack of sleep and constant pressure that came with being a secondary English teacher. How did you find the process of reliving your teaching experience while writing the book?
I’m sorry it did that to you but you’re not the only one to say it! Some people have said, ‘All student teachers should read this’ and others have said, ‘Don’t whatever you do let student teachers read this’. While writing the memoir, although I had left teaching in a secondary school, I was working in a pupil referral unit, mainly teaching one or two students at a time. They were often challenging to teach but writing about my school teaching memories helped me to be grateful that I wasn’t having to plan 5 or 6 lessons a day for classes of 30, teach the lessons, do a corridor duty, mark a hundred books, write 30 reports, attend after-school meetings, fear Ofsted, and everything else involved in a schoolteacher’s day. I still did lose sleep, though. Working in a pupil referral unit is no picnic.
There are obviously many moments for humour in a teacher’s life (at least from the outside, perhaps), so it makes sense that the book is so funny. But you also deal with a lot of difficult issues, from dealing with more serious problems in the classroom to processing trauma from your own childhood. How did you go about finding the humour in these situations and why did you go with this tone when writing the book?
I didn’t intend to delve quite so much into my own childhood at first. I thought I was writing a light-hearted book about funny classroom experiences. However, the more I wrote, the more I realised how much my own insecurities around being a teacher stemmed from my past. It didn’t seem honest not to explore why. Also, a friend whose opinion I respect had read a previous novel I was working on and said, ‘I feel as though you’re holding back on us.’ That really stuck. I determined not to do the same with future writing and the book has a lot more depth as a result. As for humour, I honestly think the line between humour and tragedy is so, so thin. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the two and I think that’s an honest place to be, too.
What advice would you give to writers that are just starting out?
I’d say that starting out as a writer is similar to starting out in any profession. Take any criticism too personally and you’re sunk. For instance, I was a trainee teacher in my 40s and if a mentor said, ‘That lesson didn’t really work and here’s why’ I would torture myself that this was a personal attack on my character and would cry in the staff room. But it wasn’t. I had to learn my craft from more experienced teachers. It’s the same with writing. If you show your writing to someone and they say, ‘I got quite bored in that chapter’ or you receive a rejection because ‘the structure doesn’t work’, take it on the chin and use the feedback to improve. They are doing you a favour by being honest. You have to balance this with the idea that people’s views are subjective and may differ, but when fourteen readers have said, ‘You have a saggy middle’, it’s probably time to tighten up. My second piece of advice is, buy yourself an inspirational coaster to put your coffee mug on!
Fran Hill is an author and English tutor from Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England. She has been a freelance writer for 25 years and a teacher for nearly 20 years, having worked as a medical secretary in the National Health Service before venturing into classrooms.
She writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry and has been widely published including a four-year spell as a regular columnist for the Times Educational Supplement. She has written many articles for the journal Emagazine on all matters English Literature and Language.
Fran was selected for the respected Room 204 emerging writers’ scheme run by Writing West Midlands in 2016. She self-published her first book, a novella about the teaching life called ‘Being Miss’ in 2014 and her second book ‘Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?’ was published in 2020 by SPCK Publishing.
She blogs at www.ilurvenglish.blogspot.com and more information about her, including a full and more entertaining biography, is available on her website at www.franhill.co.uk
Fran is currently writing her first full-length novel about a teenager who moves into foster care only to find that she’s gone from the fat into the fire.
You can catch Fran talking about ‘Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?’ and about her writing process with Warwickshire Libraries on Thursday 24 June. Register here and get that kettle on! https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/virtual-coffee-morning-with-warwickshire-author-fran-hill-tickets-152815532371
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