Socialism and the Art of Writing by Colin Cotterill

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I was at my lowest ebb. The book I thought I was writing suddenly started to write me and I had no control over it. I was suicidal. All those Shakespeare impersonators had it right. They used a quill. If the writing didn’t work out you just span it round and impaled yourself on it. But how do you even begin to kill yourself with a keyboard? I tried smashing myself over the head with it but all I got was a headache and ‘qwerty’ engraved down my forehead. Where would my next idea come from? Where could I go for inspiration? And, as always, the answer was, Laos.

The Director General of the Ministry of Information and Culture’s Publishing Department, who shall remain nameless because it’s got more letters in it than Paris Hilton’s mail box, gave an inspirational talk on the occasion of Lao Printing Day. I usually send a card but this year I’ve been a little tangled up with a bloody book that wouldn’t let me write it. The director general should know how to get us stuck writers over the hump because he’s written over fifty poems some of which became songs. (I imagine any poem could become a song if you sang it.) His key points were;

1. “Reading is one of the many ways in which we can improve our knowledge, but books containing useless information are a waste of readers’ time.”

There you go. Right off the bat he got the nib square in the solar plexus. The DG was talking about me. He was killing me softly with his song which had originally been a poem. I wasn’t writing anything to improve anyone’s knowledge. I WAS MAKING IT UP. Nobody could trust me. I wrote it down. ‘write knowledge.’

2. “In addition, they (writers) should be clear on their own standpoint and national policy when they write a book.”

Oh my word. Got me again. Where was my standpoint? I tell you, it was in the ideology toilet. MAKE ENOUGH MONEY FROM THIS BOOK TO PAY FOR DOG FOOD. I didn’t have a point, either erect or reclining. And I hadn’t even considered my national policy. I wasn’t even sure where my nation was. I wrote, ‘write to conservative party.’

3. “One way to support the Party’s strategy on national development and economic policy is to write more human interest pieces, especially profiles of successful businesspeople, which would act as an example for others to follow.”

Exactly. Where has my head been all this time? The public doesn’t want to read about losers. People who spend all their time reading novels are already losers. THEY WANT TO READ ABOUT STINKING RICH PEOPLE. It’s just like all those country people addicted to TV soaps about hi-so philanderers in Bangkok. I wrote, ‘forget everything the Lao communist Party used to believe in. It’s so passé.’

4. “A good book should make readers laugh or cry while they are reading it.”

There you have it in a nutshell. It’s the readers who are supposed to be crying. Not me. The only time I ever got sobs out of my readers was when they reached the end of a book and referred back to the price they’d paid for it. I discovered that in 1968, the DG had written a book entitled, It’s Very Easy to Learn the Lao Language. And I bet you generations of readers have been laughing and crying through it ever since. But DG’s point here is quite simple. Don’t take it personally. IT’S THE STORY THEY’RE LAUGHING AT, NOT THE AUTHOR. I wrote, ‘Stick in a few jokes.’

I thought I had all the inspiration I needed, but the greatest uplift to my saggy self-esteem goolies was yet to come. And it arrived, not from the Ministry of Information and Culture, but from the Ministry of Education. Somebody had decided that Lao university graduates compared unfavourably with those from neighbouring countries. So, what did they do? THEY CANCELLED UNIVERSITY ENTRANCE. Really. All the kids who’d forked out for a corsage for this year will have to put it back in the freezer cause they all have to do another year of high school. That’ll teach ‘em. And, you know? It taught me the best lesson of all.

IF IT DOESN’T GO RIGHT – START ALL OVER AGAIN.

If you’re on the flight from Bangkok to Surat around now and you look down and see a rather large bonfire, fear not. That’s just my first draft. Kop jai, Lao.

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