Reasons why I loved being in Colin the Harsh's classes

You bump into someone in the street. ‘Sorry,’ you say.

‘No, I’m sorry,’ says your bumpee.

‘No, my fault,’ you insist.

‘My fault,’ they say. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘No, really …’

And it could go on for ever, this quest to be the one in the wrong, if you didn’t both have shopping to do, letters to post, and other people to apologise to.

They say it’s a British thing. Whatever it is, my creative writing tutor, Colin, was determined to stamp it out.

I joined his class in 1995 when my third child had started school. During that first lesson, he asked a woman to share her work. She opened her notebook, announced, ‘I’m sorry – it’s not very good,’ and began to read.

He interrupted her. ‘Rule Number One,’ he said. ‘We will never apologise for what we’ve written.’

It took us weeks to learn that he meant it. If we launched into a bumbling, self-effacing, ever so ‘umble apology, he’d put up his hand, like a police officer stopping traffic, and say, ‘Start again.’

He wouldn’t accept any of the following:
‘Sorry – it’s not quite finished.’
‘I do apologise – I think it’s a bit rambly.’
‘I’m sorry – I had to rush this before I came out tonight.’
‘I’m sorry – it’s not my best work.’
‘Apologies for this – it’s a bit depressing.’
‘Sorry about this one – it’s not the funny stuff I usually do.’
‘Sorry, guys – I didn’t have time to do the usual edit.’
‘Gosh, how can I follow Simon’s? It was brilliant. Well, I guess I’ll read it anyway.’
‘I really struggled with this. I’m sorry if it doesn’t come over clearly.’
‘Oh dear, I’ve lost my place. Sorry, sorry. Let me just find it. I knew this was going to read badly.’

The need to apologise beforehand – or during - was as strong as a Delhi-belly urge: verbal diarrhoea in its purest form.

Sometimes, we’d apologise all over again for apologising.

‘I’m losing the will to live,’ Colin would say.

One day, he brought in a pineapple. Don’t ask me why he chose a pineapple. ‘Every time I sense an apology-fest coming,’ he said, ‘I will shout “Pineapple!” at which point you must stop explaining, justifying and second-guessing our reactions, and just read the damn piece!’

That was a turning point.

‘This is a piece I wrote last night about my grandmother’s funeral,’ we learned to begin, or ‘I wrote the start of a short story. Here it is.’

We could request particular critique, but only in positive terms. These were fine: “Could you listen out for sections you think are confusing?” or “I’d like to get the girl’s childish voice exactly right. Could you comment on that?” As Colin put it, ‘Self-aware is fine. Self-deprecating nonsense, no.’

He also pointed out that, sometimes, when we heralded a piece with ‘This is a bit rubbish,’ it wasn’t lack of confidence at all. It was over-confidence. We thought we were the new Stephen King or J K Rowling.

‘So, I’m not allowing false modesty either,’ he’d say. ‘It’s not sincere. And if you come to class thinking you’re Booker Prize material, you won’t listen to anyone’s critique. Go and join Embroidery or Spanish Cookery: something you think you need help with.’

Colin the Harsh, he was, but also Colin the Wise.

Anyway, I’m sorry if you found this blog post a bit …..


Apologise one more time and I'll just throw the tin at you


  1. When my favorite professor asked, How are your essays coming along?, I answered, Terrific!

    Often, I hadn't started writing yet, but why should anyone want to read my work if I don't believe in myself?


    1. Absolutely! Colin would have agreed with you.

  2. Good advice to stop apologising. It tends to make a writer sound really unsure of the work they've done.
    As for bumping into people, I just say oops and move on.

  3. That's a very good lesson for us all.

    1. Indeed - we apologise too much for the things we haven't done!

  4. Anonymous13/6/16 13:55

    I feel sorry for pineapple!!

    1. You have such compassion, fishducky!

  5. Did Colin share out the pineapple after class ?

    1. That I don't remember, BadPenny. One would hope so, or perhaps he gave a prize to the person who apologised the least....

  6. .. I love this post....
    I apologise a lot and it isn't always necessary to do this.... it's habit. I do the 'Sorry, it's my fault' when I bump into people...or even if they bump into me. I've been known to say "Sorry' if I walk into the table or trip on the step...
    I've decided that this has to stop, now! So, I'm not going to apologise for my apologis..PINEAPPLE.... I'll just say 'Thank You' to Fran and Colin ... hugs... Barb xxxx

    1. Yes, I've said sorry to lamp posts before! It's such a natural instinct :)

    2. XXX we were raised to be polite XXX

  7. When travelling on the bus , is it still alright to use the Sorry that means ,
    "Ow ! You've just trodden on my foot . " ?

    1. You mean the one with the tone that says, 'It's not I who should be saying sorry here .. I'm waiting for your own apology'? Yes, I know that kind of sorry!

  8. Sorry to butt in but both spanish and french teachers have informed me that excessive apologising is considered a trademark of the English and seems hilarious to them.

  9. VERY late to the party here, but I had the same phenomenon with my urban American high school English students whenever they prepared to answer a question or give an opinion. "This is probably wrong, but. . . "
    I called it "my grandmother's biscuits."
    My Oklahoma grandmother was a fabulous cook, but when she'd put the biscuits (or fried chicken, or roast beef, or whatever) on the table, she'd say,
    "They just didn't come out right this time.. too flat...too thin...etc."
    Of course they were excellent, but we were all duty-bound to pipe up with how excellent they were.


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