I like solitude. Even before I needed peace for writing (though, come to think of it, I’ve managed to work with the sound of sanding and drilling going on for the past few years) I liked being on my own: to hear my own thoughts and observe the world and dream, not having to talk (except to myself) or be derailed by someone else’s thought train.
And then you take yourself and your work out in public …
It’s certainly helpful when you’re immersing yourself in the world of your story, particularly if you’re trying to sustain the long-haul writing of a novel. But I love people too and their ideas and conversation. These last few weeks following publication of my first novel, The Chicken Soup Murder, have been as sociable as any I can remember, meeting up with friends who are at the very least as amazed as I am to see me accomplish this feat.
Kind and supportive friends are one thing: in order to take my book into the world, I have to creep out and away from my shell, stand up in front of roomfuls of people and deliver a performance. Even when I’ve been assured that the experience will be a good one and the audience friendly and appreciative, I still feel burdened by the possibility of letting others or myself down. The only way to relieve my anxiety about this is to prepare and, having done that, to enjoy the moment and love and thank the audience for being there.
The first time reading with my brand-new novel in my hand and a microphone in front of me was as one of the guests invited by Amy Wack to take part in ‘First Thursday’ at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre, on October 5. Mine was the prose offering between readings by two acclaimed poets, Susie Wild and Rebecca Parfitt.
The upstairs room was full. In that very place, ten years ago, we had the launch for my short story collection, Pumping Up Napoleon. My mum, who died just weeks ago on August 23, was there that night in February 2007. I have a photo of us together, beaming. My late husband and my sister’s late husband are forever holding up glasses of red wine and putting the world to rights in a photo taken then. I had to deal with the emotions that brought and decided it was a comforting thing to think of them being close, particularly when I heard that First Thursday events aren’t usually in that room: to me it felt like the right place.
At that first book launch, my friend, the writer Sarah Klenbort, said, ‘It’s like a wedding, only you’ve done something to deserve it.’ Though this reading was not a launch, and many people had come to hear someone else, it felt festive to me, because friends were there and I saw in one place more people I care about, who were happy for me, than I have seen in many years.
I still feel awkward in front of a microphone stand, holding the book and turning the pages and looking at the audience at the same time. And when I wrote the novel, the thought that I would one day be reading the words of a first-person narrator, Michael, a boy of eleven, going on twelve, wasn’t uppermost in my mind. And there were other voices to differentiate: the Bully, Nan, her friend Irma. I was glad I had practised.
Preparation meant I could just rely on doing it as well as possible. I enjoyed it and felt great when it was over! And having done that reading, I know where I can improve. I hope that confidence will grow and yet, next time, until I feel I know what I’m doing and am as prepared as I can be (not yet knowing how to do it better), I will probably once again dread the whole business of performing. Again, preparation will help to reduce the anxieties. I admire anyone who can wing it but I find spontaneity is easier when you already have something to say and know how it could be delivered.
I include teaching in this too. The following night, I was to deliver the ‘professional workshop’ to students (and their tutors as it turned out) at the University of South Wales, followed by another reading. It’s something I have missed, being in charge of a class and meeting students and I welcomed that workshop as a chance to get to know them.
The performance element plays its part: back in my days of teaching undergraduates, I remember that one of my groups for fiction writing, which was bursting with talent, sometimes gave me the perplexing sight of one of the best writers falling asleep. It was after lunch so it couldn’t have been because she was tired. But I saw her yawning and kept upping my levels of engagement and entertainment until I felt I was about to burst into song or start tap-dancing. Then I found out that her lunch had been a couple of pints at the Students’ Union and felt a little better.
A tutor relies on participants being receptive and willing to engage, though we all have our ways of disarming the student who likes to say no (often, I think, goaded into finding fault with everything and everyone else because of their own fear of failure). One of the easiest workshops you can do is for a group of people who are already writers, studying for an MPhil. You share a common understanding and commitment. On the other hand, they’ve seen a workshop or two and you are the one supposed to be bringing something new to the party. Though I like to think of a workshop as a way of sharing creativity, with as much coming from the students as from the tutor, it’s natural that everyone is looking at you to know what’s going to happen next.
I was glad I had prepared two alternatives: one a way of focusing on how to talk about your project, and the other a way of keeping in touch with your creative side when pressures of time, home, family, other work and even writing business can make you feel in danger of the well-spring, not being drawn from, sealing itself up. I called it, because it seemed cheesy and memorable: Haiku for Happiness. Nearly everyone in the room was a prose writer and they could come at writing this very short form of poetry in the same way as I did, without expectation and therefore perhaps without fear. Something small and fun to slip into those chinks of time that are sometimes all you have, a way to engage with the world around you, and not always be scanning your phone or the inside of your own head.
In that workshop, which was only one hour, I intended to offer a choice of two simple ideas, one on the business side and one on the creative side, either of which people could keep coming back to at any time in their writing careers and which they could develop further for themselves. I thought we’d only have time for one, but we did both! I was glad I was prepared for that.
This was followed by a talk – an interview, with USW creative writing Senior Lecturer Barrie Llewelyn asking me questions – punctuated by readings from my three books (flash fiction: Tea for Mr Dead; short stories: Pumping up Napoleon; novel: The Chicken Soup Murder) – and further questions from the audience. Some old friends and colleagues and former students turned up. For me, it couldn’t have been nicer: it couldn’t have been more fun.
We drove back to Dorset that night and the next morning, at a Dorset Writers Network Open House event in Dorchester Library, I sold more books and chatted to other writers about their interests and hopes and writing conundrums and experiences. By Saturday evening it was all over for the time being.
Beforehand I had looked forward to the day after: to waking up to a morning when my only aims would be to write and to be kind. But three days drenched in adrenaline and endorphins made me realise performing and teaching are addictive. Solitude for the writing is something to preserve. But the sociability of a reading or a workshop, the gift of sharing is something to look forward to as well.
I will remember that, next time I’m scared.