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Before we all started writing things down, typing, blogging, stories were shared verbally, around the campfire. You know this. Everyone knows this. So readings, to a room full of people, with alcohol sat sweating in glasses, well it’s just part of the tradition, albeit warmer, better dressed, but really nothing new.
So what are you reading tonight?
Oh, it’s just a short story about a grieving millionaire, who might be going insane.
I shrug my shoulders. I don’t know. I take a sip of my beer.
What about you?
His answer is composed, assured, delivered impeccably. I want to cry. Pull the hood of my coat over my face and sob. Why do I do that? I’ve been told before,
You mumble Reece. It seems so rude.
Have a little more confidence. Don’t presume people aren’t interested.
I’ve had a lot of conversations about my writing recently, which is natural given that I’m doing a creative writing Masters. People want to know about your practices, people want to tell you about theirs, this is what writers do so I’m told. Part of me has craved this. Part of me wants to be accepted. I sit though, nodding along, all the while feeling like a charlatan, not knowing what my work is about, not having a detailed account of how I got from a to b. Words are thrown around, didactic, artifice, I don’t know what they mean. I tell myself,
You don’t belong here. You don’t belong.
I try to take comfort from writers like Cormac McCarthy who seems to exist outside the world of literature completely, hovering over it like some moral force. In this day and age though, when the squeeze is being put on the arts, writers, musicians, artists, they need to stick together. Of course we don’t have to like everything, that is not a community I want a part of, but a creative landscape where art is encouraged, and expression is nurtured, well count me in.
Have you done anything like this before?
I look up from my pint. I explain yes, once, at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. I leave out the details; such as being so nervous I vomited, twice. That I had to drink three double vodkas just to steady my shaking hands. That a beautiful woman smiled at me and I blushed so hard my face almost fell apart.
Am I right in thinking you are doing a Masters?
How’s that been?
Friends and family have asked me this frequently. Some of them say,
Haven’t all the writers teaching them said it’s a load of bollocks?
Most of the time I cannot be bothered to waste my energy on a suitable, well-informed response. Most of the time I switch my thoughts elsewhere, and allow their voices to drift slowly into the background, melding with the television noise, the coffee shop chatter. I understand most of it comes from a good place; they want to know I am ok. They look at me, thin, pale; I can see the pity in their eyes. They get uncomfortable, what should I say to him? What should I do? Nothing. Remain calm. Follow procedure and this will all go away.
It’s all right.
This seems the right response. The room is filling; the readers, performance veterans compared to me, are relaxing into their chairs. We’ve only just met, now is not the time to rant. If I could, I would have said something righteous, loud enough for the room to hear, but righteousness has no place in the modern world, in the arts, and to be fair I have been lucky, I have had some great lecturers, some that have graced the Litro pages, others that have taken the time to understand me, encourage me, tell me,
You are doing ok. Keeping going.
Yes, this is sugar coating; there is no guarantee these courses will get you anywhere. It will not teach me how to write, it will not teach me some secret formula to getting published, everyone doing any writers course should know this, if you don’t then you are being ripped off, and you have no one to blame but yourself. What I don’t think students need to hear though is the following, said to me once by an author I’ll call Z. Z said,
You guys are getting into this at the wrong time. The market is pretty much dead. There is nothing left really. No money to be made. It’s all tiny, nothing, publishers.
Yes, I know, Z is being honest. This should be applauded. Maybe the other well known, well reviewed writers, who teach courses they say are a waste of time, you know who they are, should be applauded to. Well, no they shouldn’t. If these are Z’s and others’ honest feelings, which I shall not try to dispute, they should really be nowhere near a classroom. They should not be lecturing. Where is their integrity, their conviction in the 3000 word articles they write? Yes the market is changing, this cannot be denied, but this should be an opportunity for the artists to take control, that is unless everyone is happy to read about celebrity diets, and detoxes, and pregnancies, and sex lives, and addiction problems, and cook books, and computer game tie ins, the book of the 3D film, the book of the book about a book, if that is what everyone wants go ahead.
Good evening everyone. This is Listen Softly London…
The room goes quiet. The host has everyone’s attention. I take my crumpled short story out of my bag, the title Auto-Suggestion is in bold type. In my head I start singing the words to the song I took it from. Yes here everything is kept inside. Yes I will take that chance to step outside. Because that is what new writers have to do. They take a chance; they step out into that brave new world, ignoring the X’s, the Y’s, the Z’s, who from rooftops shout,
It’s finished. It’s over. We are the last ones left.
What they are really trying to say is,
Literature is full. Literature is ours. We won’t let you take it away.
A fool would deny the state of things, but a fool would deny it hasn’t always been this way, forever changing. The establishment always fears what’s coming, the Romantics dismissed the Expressionists, Stravinsky was booed out of the opera hall, Dylan was called Judas, the ridiculed of today is usually the canon of tomorrow. It’s only arrogance to think our time is more special than another.
So Artists sick of it all, sick of hearing that you’ve got nothing to say, nothing to produce, no platform to share it, no audience who cares, I implore you, go and claim that brave new world, go and claim what’s yours, because they are not going to give it to you.