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Turning Embarrassment to Your Advantage

As a writer looking for material for stories is not especially hard, particularly if you have led a reasonably active life and are old enough to reflect back on it without feeling too emotionally entangled. The most embarrassing incidents of one’s youth are often the most fruitful for storytelling later.

For example: at school in Australia in the 1970s, we had what was called Charities Week in which the whole school put on a week’s worth of stalls, shows, games etc to raise money for charity. My teacher at that time -- his specialist subject was Drama and he had a flare for theatrics — came up with two ideas that he thought were great: he would advertise around the school that he was showing a ‘blue’ movie (i.e. the suggestion being that it would be pornographic) and, during the intermission, I would perform a demonstration of Jackson Pollock doing ‘action painting’ — i.e. splashing a lot of coloured paint around onto a canvas. It was supposed to be funny. Today, of course, the school would have been outraged at even the suggestion of pornography on the premises, even when we all knew that it would be a joke, but this was Australia in the 70s.

It was a disastrous afternoon — though as I’m writing this, it strikes me as a good basis for a humorous short story. No-one had really thought things through: the gang that turned up to watch the ‘blue’ movie were of course the group who would have been interested in such a thing in real life, the hard cases, the less intellectual members of the school. They arrived expecting the worst (or the best, depending on your viewpoint). They were shown a clip from the 1966 Ashes cricket test between England and Australia, but with a blue cellophane filter over the lens and a lot of grunting superimposed over the soundtrack. The teacher had thought this would be amusing. It was a misjudgement: his youthful audience was both confused and aggravated.

I peered through the curtains anxiously at the severely disappointed characters who had been expecting something quite different. My rapidly firing brain could think of no viable escape plan. Into this maelstrom of anger, therefore, I stepped to set up my easel and do my demonstration — but the teacher had decided that actual paints would be too messy to clean up, so I only had crayons. That’s right: a performance of ‘action painting’ with crayons in front of a baying mob. What that entailed was me standing three feet in front of a blank easel throwing crayons at it, trying to invent something amusing to say as I did so.

The audience was silent; then swear words were muttered under their collective breath. I cut short the demonstration and left the stage humiliated. It was perhaps the most gruellingly embarrassing moment of my life, especially as the girl I had had a crush on for years was in the audience.

But now, distanced by some 44 years, it seems to me to form the framework for a good yarn.

Is there an incident from your life which similarly might yield the basis of a good story?

Cringeworthiness doesn’t have to live forever; there may even be some capital in it.


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