The Creative Writing Student: The Great American Literary Conference

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In Britain we are well aware that the United States doesn’t do things by halves. The country is huge, there are animals that can swallow a person whole and they have national parks the size of my home county. So it should come as no surprise that the literary scene, too, is a great, growling behemoth compared to ours. One of the best examples and proofs of this is AWP, North America’s largest writer’s conference and bookfair.

I was lucky enough to go to this year’s conference in Los Angeles last month. I’m hoping, with this brief overview of it, I can convince the British literary scene to pool together their powers and put on something just as spectacular. AWP has around 12 000 attendees each year, there to catch the 550 panels and discover the 800 presses, journals and literary organisations dotted about. As well as that, there is also the matter of it being in a different city every time. So not only did I have to psych myself up to tackle the abundance of literary distractions, but also to make the most of Los Angeles.

The amount of excitement and inspiration rushing around a literary conference hardly needs mentioning. Everyone there is buzzing with the kind of energy that can only come from being completely surrounded by like-minded people. They are all aware that, for these four short days a year, there won’t be a time when all the nitty-gritty details of one’s favourite books and writers, as well as one’s own writing process, are not only going to dominate conversation, but they will be the only conversation that anyone is interested in. What heaven.

Last year, in Minneapolis, when I was bright-eyed and naïve about the physical expectations an American bookfair demands of you, I made it to perhaps five panels overall in the course of the four days. Day one of Los Angeles, and by two o’clock I was three panels in. It’s hard to choose (or remember) all the discussions that I came across, but some highlights were, ‘Laugh to Keep From Crying: Using Humour To Write Through Pain’, which illustrated how tragedy and comedy can bring out the best of one another. There, too, was ‘The Furious and Burning Duende’, which started the conference on the Thursday morning and put some fire in the bellies of everyone present with talks about Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s evocative and expressive theory of duende. There were more, many more, and I fear describing them here will do them no justice. Only going there and struggling to organise your own schedule will do that.

As well as these unrelenting and impassioned conversations about literature, however, there is another thing that writers apparently do when brought together in large groups: they party. Now, travelling from New York to Los Angeles is relatively similar to travelling from New York to London, so I was both fairly well-practised in this kind of voyage and aware of the wreck I would be once the plane landed. As you might imagine (or entirely disagree with) there is nothing less appealing than a dance party full of drunken writers after a seven-hour plane ride. However, saying that, there is also nothing better than a dance party full of drunken writers to ease the pain of a seven-hour plane ride. It’s funny what this conference can make you do. It is this unexpected desire to party, as well as the masochistic urge to get up really early and get in a full day of panels and book-shopping, that makes this conference an endurance test more than anything else.

But no one knows endurance, and powering through in spite of madness and misery, like a writer.

Although I only got about one night’s sleep, and spent more money on books than I am proud of (though, who am I kidding? I am never ashamed of spending money on books), I can wholeheartedly say that the pain was worth it. On the plane back, I was filled with the entirely expected feeling of glumness and emptiness. The post-AWP blues, as I’ve come to know them. Where else will I find a never-ending stream of inspiring and enthusiastic literary types to while away my days with? What will I do when I can’t just turn a corner and run into something that shakes my core and sets my writing muscles to twitching? I wonder these things just as the familiar skyline of Manhattan comes into view from the plane window and I realise that I have had my questions answered. Because AWP, and the other giant literary events in the US, are not the machines driving this great storytelling culture. It’s the other way around. They are a result of the unending desire and passion for literature that this country has. I know that, on any given night, I can, with a fast pace on me, see just as much in NYC as I did on any given day at AWP. And no doubt I can even manage a dance party on top of it.

So, Britain, I ask you to do your best and try to take note. We might not have as much space as the US, and we might not have as many cities that will fit 12 000 tote-bag wielding writers for four days every year, but we can try, can’t we? Because all budding British writers should experience the US’s gift of constant refuge and opportunity for creative types, whether they’re looking for a quick fling by way of a poetry reading, or a full on love affair with the hulking conferences. Come on, you don’t even have to dance if you don’t want to.




The Creative Writing Student: The Great American Literary Conference

123259-full

In Britain we are well aware that the United States doesn’t do things by halves. The country is huge, there are animals that can swallow a person whole and they have national parks the size of my home county. So it should come as no surprise that the literary scene, too, is a great, growling behemoth compared to ours. One of the best examples and proofs of this is AWP, North America’s largest writer’s conference and bookfair.

I was lucky enough to go to this year’s conference in Los Angeles last month. I’m hoping, with this brief overview of it, I can convince the British literary scene to pool together their powers and put on something just as spectacular. AWP has around 12 000 attendees each year, there to catch the 550 panels and discover the 800 presses, journals and literary organisations dotted about. As well as that, there is also the matter of it being in a different city every time. So not only did I have to psych myself up to tackle the abundance of literary distractions, but also to make the most of Los Angeles.

The amount of excitement and inspiration rushing around a literary conference hardly needs mentioning. Everyone there is buzzing with the kind of energy that can only come from being completely surrounded by like-minded people. They are all aware that, for these four short days a year, there won’t be a time when all the nitty-gritty details of one’s favourite books and writers, as well as one’s own writing process, are not only going to dominate conversation, but they will be the only conversation that anyone is interested in. What heaven.

Last year, in Minneapolis, when I was bright-eyed and naïve about the physical expectations an American bookfair demands of you, I made it to perhaps five panels overall in the course of the four days. Day one of Los Angeles, and by two o’clock I was three panels in. It’s hard to choose (or remember) all the discussions that I came across, but some highlights were, ‘Laugh to Keep From Crying: Using Humour To Write Through Pain’, which illustrated how tragedy and comedy can bring out the best of one another. There, too, was ‘The Furious and Burning Duende’, which started the conference on the Thursday morning and put some fire in the bellies of everyone present with talks about Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s evocative and expressive theory of duende. There were more, many more, and I fear describing them here will do them no justice. Only going there and struggling to organise your own schedule will do that.

As well as these unrelenting and impassioned conversations about literature, however, there is another thing that writers apparently do when brought together in large groups: they party. Now, travelling from New York to Los Angeles is relatively similar to travelling from New York to London, so I was both fairly well-practised in this kind of voyage and aware of the wreck I would be once the plane landed. As you might imagine (or entirely disagree with) there is nothing less appealing than a dance party full of drunken writers after a seven-hour plane ride. However, saying that, there is also nothing better than a dance party full of drunken writers to ease the pain of a seven-hour plane ride. It’s funny what this conference can make you do. It is this unexpected desire to party, as well as the masochistic urge to get up really early and get in a full day of panels and book-shopping, that makes this conference an endurance test more than anything else.

But no one knows endurance, and powering through in spite of madness and misery, like a writer.

Although I only got about one night’s sleep, and spent more money on books than I am proud of (though, who am I kidding? I am never ashamed of spending money on books), I can wholeheartedly say that the pain was worth it. On the plane back, I was filled with the entirely expected feeling of glumness and emptiness. The post-AWP blues, as I’ve come to know them. Where else will I find a never-ending stream of inspiring and enthusiastic literary types to while away my days with? What will I do when I can’t just turn a corner and run into something that shakes my core and sets my writing muscles to twitching? I wonder these things just as the familiar skyline of Manhattan comes into view from the plane window and I realise that I have had my questions answered. Because AWP, and the other giant literary events in the US, are not the machines driving this great storytelling culture. It’s the other way around. They are a result of the unending desire and passion for literature that this country has. I know that, on any given night, I can, with a fast pace on me, see just as much in NYC as I did on any given day at AWP. And no doubt I can even manage a dance party on top of it.

So, Britain, I ask you to do your best and try to take note. We might not have as much space as the US, and we might not have as many cities that will fit 12 000 tote-bag wielding writers for four days every year, but we can try, can’t we? Because all budding British writers should experience the US’s gift of constant refuge and opportunity for creative types, whether they’re looking for a quick fling by way of a poetry reading, or a full on love affair with the hulking conferences. Come on, you don’t even have to dance if you don’t want to.




A Walk Around New York: The Spiritual Core of the Big Apple

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I live in Bushwick, commonly known as that part of Brooklyn where people like me can both afford to live and survive a midnight walk down the street. The twenty-something writers who don’t mind where they live as long as it’s a short walk to a pizza place, a bar and a whole wheat bagel, aren’t the sole inhabitants of this area, however, because Bushwick is on the border between two worlds. One is the Hispanic community, whose loud music in the summertime and socialising on the stoop of their apartments make me feel as if I’m enjoying a carefree holiday. And there are the millennials, whose creativity and never-say-die party attitude make me glad to be part of such a vibrant generation. These traits are not mutually exclusive of course, and there are many areas of crossover in this Venn diagram of a community. One such crossing point I find myself honing in on now. That amorphous thing: spirituality.

Walking two blocks north and two blocks east of my apartment takes me down the ‘high-street’ of my neighbourhood, if it has such a thing. I go past as many traditional Puerto Rican eateries as I do iMac-infested coffee shops. My local coffee place (or at least the only place where a faint flicker of recognition comes over the baristas’ faces when they hear my accent) is along this road, and, today, having ordered my usual breakfast tea and taken the only free seat that wasn’t at a table that doubles as an arcade game, I relax and begin to read my book.

This peace lasts exactly three seconds.

A man next to me, sitting in front of some sort of Spirograph drawing of the solar system, loudly proclaims that he has always felt the sway of the planets in his life and that reading the celestial map was something he has always thought he could do.

“A lot of people just don’t realize how much work goes into it though,” the woman next to him, who I will later find out is the person training him to harness and unleash his god-like powers, says. “And I can definitely sense that you have the ability to interpret the celestial map.”

In a few minutes of pretending to read my book I have learnt that she has performed readings for the likes of Russell Brand and Noel Fielding; she’s seen into this man’s soul and recognised a supernatural ability; and that the universe has the ability to tell her about the rising fire in a person’s life. After ten minutes of his first lesson she confidently tells him that he seems ready to give a full reading a shot. She finally acknowledges the strange drawing in front of him and asks him what kind of person this represents. To me, it represents someone whose compass is broken, but I decide to play the game and continue listening.

“Because of this area of yellow in Libra,” he says, looking anxiously from the concentric circles to the woman, “I think that this person is going to have some financial success in the near future.” Pulling the paper in front of herself and tweaking her glasses, the woman says that that could be right, but it’s really more general luck than specifically financial. “Good job, though,” she says, and the look of pure pleasure on his face makes me almost believe in magic. I’ve started scribbling their conversation on a napkin now, and a few glances tell me that she might have sensed what I’m doing. Perhaps the celestial bodies ratted me out.

I want to tell the woman, and indeed anyone reading, that as a believer in nothing by mortality and the occasional lucky coincidence, I come to matters of the spirit, soul and religion as a fascinated outsider, and make the probable mistake of grouping all those things together. Some mockery may be intended, but with a healthy dose of what I hope is good humour. But she’s too busy telling him about how these powers grow over time to take any interest in me now, so instead I drain my mug of tea and leave.

Back on the high-street, I make my way east to catch the M train so I can travel across the bridge into Manhattan. It’s a sunny day and in New York one must take any opportunity to sit and watch the sunlight dazzle the Hudson River as Williamsburg gives way to the Lower East Side. Peace on a subway car is a rare thing though, and as I dip my head to catch sight of the Empire State Building through the bridge railings, I can’t help but miss the usual interruptions and unexpected characters. Today I remember one in particular, the memory spurred on by my earlier dealing with the psychic-in-training.

A few months ago a ghostly figure slipped onto an unusually busy L train and distracted me yet again from my book. Though there were people pressed up to the backs of each other, apologising after each unexpected sideways lurch, this woman managed to slide effortlessly through the throng. As she did so, she repeated that “God’s word is the only way to true happiness” to a crowd of New Yorkers well-practiced in ignoring people. Walking back and forth, her volume increased and decreased like the siren of a passing ambulance. “If your man makes you a good breakfast, don’t just think it, say it out loud! Spread happiness! Tell him, ‘That was a great breakfast,’” she said, which only served to make me realise I hadn’t had any breakfast. Sure as I was that no one else had reached a stage of enlightenment that didn’t also involve their breakfast, I was surprised to see, on stepping out of the doors onto the platform of Union Square, a man offer his head to the woman, who took it between her hands and treated it to an impromptu blessing. I say blessing, but all it seemed to involve was a vigorous shaking motion and some mumbled words that were lost to the announcement that the doors were closing.

I entertain myself with this memory until I step out of the M train doors onto Broadway-Lafayette. I walk north along blossom-filled streets and through ever-increasing crowds towards Washington Square Park, which, on this sunny day, is a rock pool of colourful, active and vocal organisms. Acrobatic yoga is being performed in the same space as accordion playing clowns. A man covered in pigeons shares the same space as a jazz band. As I sit down on a bench with a cup of tea to admire the scene, I notice amongst this mish-mash a large board that reads: ‘The Ugly Truth About Muslims’. Countless people hug and shake hands with the owners when they read the small print which reveals this ugly truth. Apparently Muslims have great frittata recipes.

What a testament to the beauty and personality of this great city, I think, breathing in the fresh air. The United States may have its problems, but right now, here in New York, there are people eager to bridge any gaps caused by differences in spirituality, religion, or whatever deeply-held beliefs a person may have.

That thought doesn’t last long though. I look over to the spot where a couple are playing banjos in support of Bernie Sanders and immediately remember another character I saw there a few weeks before. In a colourful enough sandwich board to camouflage himself in the sunshine, a large bearded man was telling the park-goers that they all qualified as sinners, destined for hell, in worse language than I can print here. As if this wasn’t enough, his sandwich board held a litany of what these qualifications were and the joy on his face as he read them out was something I can still picture vividly. Liars, Muslims, sex addicts, drunkards, thieves, money lovers, atheists, he shouted. Needless to say, I was filled with relief to see how over-qualified I was.

After an hour or so of watching the circus of entertainment around me, I stand up and see that I’ve been sitting on a flyer, which, in nice enough language, asks me whether I am one-hundred percent sure that if I died today I would go to heaven. As I’m forced to admit that the answer is a resounding no, I wonder again if the celestial bodies have been conspiring against me. I decide to call it a day and retreat to the safety of Bushwick, where the spiritual mind-sets are just as prevalent, but the desire to involve passers-by is not.

By happy coincidence, I get home to find a group of women on my doorstep holding leaflets that say ‘Eternal Life is a Free Gift’. On the cover is an appealing picture of a large gift tied with a bright red bow. Being an avid collector of all the street literature New York can offer me (as the phrases and indictments they use to frighten me with hellfire is really quite impressive in its creativity), I make a face of interest and linger as I walk past, but find I am ignored. The Latino gentleman walking the other way is handed one without hesitation, and I remember that I am not the target market for this kind of faith in Bushwick. To her, I am closer to the psychic trainee than I am to the local church-goers. She might even be right, but either way, I don’t mind. People can assume what they like of me as long as they don’t mind me scribbling on napkins about them. The mix of faiths, beliefs and spiritual conversations adds a great current of life and mystery to this city which, as a writer, I am thankful for. You don’t need to believe in anything in order to enjoy and be affected by the great and eye-opening things other-worldly matters push people to do.

As I lay back on my bed and read over the best lines from the earlier conversation in the coffee shop, I realise that perhaps the fire rising in Libra’s yellow circle might be the very thing I’m feeling inside. But it’s not the pesky celestial bodies that are causing it, but rather the unpredictable universe that is New York City.




No Free Speech Please, We’re British

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In Britain I would find it difficult to write something that would get me thrown in jail. Unlike a great deal of modern democratic countries, we Brits enjoy being able to write and express ourselves with almost no fear of any legal interference. This freedom and our boundary-pushing artistic expression has made Britain the great hub of culture that it is today. So, I ask myself, why, in a recent poll did 46 percent support the idea that legal limits should be placed on free speech concerning religion?

The poll asked people to choose whether they agreed more with the statement: people should be allowed to say what they want about religion, or: certain things should not be allowed to be said about religion. Being a writer myself, this desire for censorship was unsettling to say the least.

The most likely demographic to champion these limits turned out, perhaps surprisingly, to be young, liberal, self-proclaimed fans of a multicultural society. The motivation for their desire to limit free speech is, presumably, to bring society closer together. At first glance, their logic seems rational. Enforcing legal action against certain offensive things that are said would probably do quite a good job of curbing a lot of hateful speech against religious groups. But the loss of free expression would be a heavy price to pay.

I’m confident that a lot of the people polled do not actually want to limit free speech, but instead only want people to be more respectful of each other. A worthwhile cause to fight for, without a doubt. What they must realise, however, is that the problem is not with the words, or the saying of them, but rather with the hateful ignorance of the people behind them. Limiting free speech only opens the gates to more limits, which is throwing the baby out with the offensive bathwater. Effective social integration does not come from laws and restrictions, it comes from engagement, debate and less restriction on expression. Because with these things comes the free sharing of ideas and art, and the gradual replacement of bigotry and ignorance with mutual understanding.

It also seems important to ask ourselves: If something is deemed worthy of censorship today, who is to say that it will be tomorrow? We read things every day that would have mortally offended the morals of an average person one-hundred-years ago. Back then, one could still be imprisoned for blasphemy. It is a cause for celebration, surely, that we have advanced, and continue to. Obviously, we cannot base our morals on the future, but we can at least be aware that any blanket statements we make about what deserves to be censored today are not likely to be the final words on the topic. Where free speech is concerned one must be delicate, not definite, and think relatively, accepting the good with the bad. Ignoring that is to begin the slippery decline into moral absolutism and a society where we assume we’ve become the perfect versions of ourselves.

Perhaps the problem with the poll is that it is asking British people. With so much freedom ourselves, we are bound to think quite glibly about losing it. How far can we really fall? We all hear about things like the recent increase on the death fatwa bounty on Salman Rushdie by the Iranian regime, and the imprisonment of British author Alan Shadrake in Singapore back in 2010 for his written criticism of their use of the death penalty, and we think that that’s as close to home as these things get. So it’s all fine, because as long as we stay out of Singapore and don’t upset the Ayatollah, then we’re okay, right?

Well, no, not really. And the intricacies of free speech might seem a little more important to the public when things like the Snooper’s Charter (or the Draft Communications Data Bill), are pushed forward, allowing the government to not only snoop through whatever files or documents of ours that they please, but to be able to do so without reason for suspicion and without care for our privacy.

Surveillance of some sort is necessary, of course, because we all want to enjoy some safety precautions. But, (and I’m reminded of Christopher Hitchens when he said, regarding writing about his trip to North Korea: ‘I though they wouldn’t make me mention 1984, I just wouldn’t do it. But eventually they make you do it.’) an assumption of privacy is vital unless we want to descend into some sort of Orwellian, constantly-looking-over-your-shoulder nightmare.

So at a time when it seems more important than ever to debate the pros and cons of ideologies and ideas, and empower the kind of artistic expression that paves the way for a greater understanding of the world, it doesn’t help if the well-meaning public and questionable government bills are fighting against that. But maybe I’m fighting a losing battle. If we’re going that way, and going there democratically, perhaps it is time to practice my regime-praising songs and learn the style-guide our supreme leader has deemed appropriate for journalists and artists. The government is close to becoming an omnipresent deity, and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, they’ll be a god we can’t even talk about.




The Creative Writing Student: Does Everyone Have A Novel In Them?

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We’ve all heard the popular maxim: everyone has a novel in them. Whether you believe it or not, it certainly sounds like a good thing. The beauty of literature, after all, comes from learning about the world from someone else’s viewpoint, from experiencing something that is detached from us physically but can nonetheless engage with us emotionally. So for those of us who want to discover the full range of ideas and experiences amongst our fellow humans, it is a welcome thought that everyone has a potential novel to write.

On the other hand, there are already a great deal of bad novels out there, so perhaps a more discerning filtering process is a good thing. The arguments for and against are both numerous.

This potential novel question didn’t seem important to me before I came to study my Creative Writing MFA. An inner novel, and deciding what to do with it, is someone’s personal business, I thought. It was only when it became my business that I was forced to pick a side. Let me explain.

Being a creative writing student and having to regularly introduce myself with that fact, I am very used to the inevitable questions which require me to describe what I’m writing. I have long been suspicious that neither party really enjoys this, but social etiquette requires that I plow on with my rehearsed novel pitch. The usual tell-tale signs of forced interest on their face and the discomfort on mine have been enough to convince me that one’s novel is not good conversational territory.

Once in a blue moon, however, something quite wonderful happens. When people learn that I am a writer, rather than ask what I am doing, they gleefully tell me, as if the fact is something that has been clawing away at their insides and has only just found the direction with which it can make its escape, that they, too, despite not thinking of themselves as ‘writers’, are writing a novel.

Obviously, when this first happened, I was thrilled. The more people telling stories, encouraging the sharing of creative expression, the better. So, out of genuine interest and politeness, I took up the position of curious questioner.

“I’ve been thinking of writing it for about nine years,” the guy at the house party said.

“Is that right?” I replied. “What’s it about?”

“Angels,” he said. “Well, an evil angel.”

“Oh,” I said, a sudden perverse interest coming over me.

Over the next forty-five minutes, he took me through a world in which a fallen angel, someone akin to the devil, had come to earth and started impregnating women. Some of these women, however, are secretly magical angel-like beings themselves, which means that, when one of them gives birth to the villain’s daughter, the child has a great enough mix of powers to be the only one who can stop him. Twist upon twist. I nodded and nodded, throwing in the occasional oh cool. It’s a story, I was told at the conclusion, about sexual morals. Good versus evil.

“So how far through are you?” I asked, exhausted.

“I’ve not written any of it. But I think about it a lot.”

Noticing that he had paused to take a sip of his drink, I told him that I had to go to the bathroom and, after splashing my face with cold water to try and forget the details of the angel’s promiscuities, went back out and hid from him in the kitchen.

The next time this happened was in a coffee shop, a place where I usually feel safe enough to let my guard down and not worry about sudden unexpected chit-chat.

“I’m a writer, too. People tell me I’m a great writer. They say, ‘you’re a beautiful writer, you should write a novel, we would read it,’” the guy at the coffee shop told me after casually asking what I do. “So I’ve been thinking of writing this book for about five years.”

“Good for you,” I say, urging the queue to move faster with an intense creasing of my brow. Stay interested, stay polite, I told myself.

“Yeah, I noticed that there’s certain things that are popular now, like trees. You know, after Guardians of the Galaxy. So I’m writing about a world where trees take over. But the trees are all female, and they’re, like, sexy trees. They create a government called the Democratree,” he said, as serious as if he were talking about tax returns or his sick grandma.

“Democratree?” I said, glad that I didn’t yet have my tea, otherwise I would have spat it out in disbelief.

For the next ten minutes I was treated to an in-depth speculative monologue about what the motivating factors would be for an evil army of trees and how a ragtag team of heroes would work together to stop them. It was kind of like an arboreal War of the Worlds. Once my tea came I struggled to find the right words with which to conclude.

“How much have you written?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing yet. But I know the whole story.”

“Good luck,” I said, mentally noting that coffee shops were no longer safe spaces.

After these, and a couple of other similar occurrences, my patience with people’s inner novels had started to run rather thin. But please, I add desperately, don’t think I am judging these people, because that’s not what this is about. And I’m certainly not judging their ideas either. I’ve struggled through enough elevator pitches of my work and unnerving workshops to know that you can never tell whether an idea is good or not until it is written. In fact, I might even go as far as saying that I like these ideas (Democratree, in particular, has franchise written all over it). But these people, the poor unwitting souls, only succeeded in reminding me of that age old question: should everyone write the novel in them? Is everyone really capable of that? Their willingness to tell a stranger their idea rather than writing the thing down tipped me slightly closer to the no camp. After all, the difference between a serious writer and one who talks about their novel to strangers is vanity, surely. It’s wanting to seem like a writer rather than be one. To tell someone about your story for nine years without having written a word is failing to realise that pushing the bike along beside you, no matter how nice and shiny that bike is, does not mean you can ride it.

On top of it all, too, I find that I am hopelessly jealous of their confidence in their own ideas. If I could have half the amount of confidence it takes to tell a stranger about a non-existent work for over thirty minutes, then I would get a lot more done. I would be a much more prolific writer. These people are, it seems to me, wasting this confidence.

So I think the envy and the annoyance have forced me to come to a conclusion. Everyone, if they were to root around enough, has an idea for a novel inside them. That I don’t doubt. But this is, I see now, not the question at all. The question is what one does with that idea, whether one writes it or not. And either is fine, as long as once you’ve admitted it will never be written, your novel doesn’t only exist in vain conversations with strangers at parties. That is not a work of art burning inside you. That’s an anecdote.

That novel that you have inside you, then? Well, as a writer who doesn’t enjoy speaking about my work half as much as these self-confessed non-writers do, I think that these potential novels, whether they are about sexually violent angels or attractive trees bent on world domination, should be written. Because then maybe their authors would be too busy to lecture me about them when all I want is a cup of tea.




A Walk Around New York: Oh, So You’re From London?

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I had dreamt of living in New York City ever since I saw the opening scene of Manhattan ten years ago. I could imagine myself wandering up and down the avenues to the tunes of George Gershwin and joining the joggers in their laps around Central Park.

As soon as I arrived, however, I realised that it was not, as Woody Allen might say, my city. This isn’t a criticism, nor is it a compliment. It is simply something of which I am glad, because for it to be mine would be to allow it to become familiar, and the excitement of New York City comes from what springs at you from nowhere. Or, rather, who springs at you.

There are, I’ve found, two types of people in this city more prominent than any other. There are those to whom New York is the centre of the universe, the be all and end all of existence. They holiday in New Jersey because, on a clear night, they can still see the Empire State Building’s brazen lightshow in the distance. And then there are those who are passing through. There is no shame in being either of these people. Those who see it as the universe itself join the ranks of the determined, street-smart creatures, known to us in the UK, and no doubt everywhere else, as ‘New Yorkers’. A phrase spoken as if the title itself qualifies its holder to some inner-strength of character not available to the rest of us. Those who are passers-through are, I suppose, people like me.

Passers-through walk around and allow the city to happen to them. And, however easy it is to quickly become an expert in the straight-lined streets which lead nowhere but water, they will be constantly reminded of the fact that their level of expertise falls significantly short to a real New Yorker’s. It seems suitable, then, to begin this column by describing some of the people I have come across who took great joy in reminding me of my foreignness.

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I am writing this now in Bryant Park, only seven blocks north of where I found myself emerging on my first trip into the city. Back then, when I was living on Long Island, this journey required a forty-minute train ride. Not ideal for a boy from the English countryside with dreams of living amongst the tall towers and screams for taxi-cabs, but it did allow me to acclimatise, like a goldfish, and not become too overexcited. I decided to spend the day as I would any normal day in my hometown, browsing the shops and reading in cafés. If I was going to survive here, I thought, I would need to check my touristic impulses.

Rising from Penn Station at 34th Street and being caught immediately in the bustle of commuters and high-street-shoppers, I wandered east and ducked into a familiar shop to pick out a shirt. I happily reflected on how easy it was to feel at home.

“I’ll take this, please,” I said, handing over my purchase.

“Oh? Where are you from?”

“Oh, um, from the UK. England. Britain.” (It is difficult to know which one to say. I had never considered before whether I was English, British, or from the United Kingdom, and it suddenly seemed important.)

“Wow, so you’re from London!”

“Well,” I said, trying to work out whether lying that I was from London would be easier than explaining where I am actually from. “Yes. I am.”

“Well done you!” she said, putting my shirt into a bag.

“Thank you,” I meekly replied, before squeezing back out onto Herald Square, trying to find Broadway in order to head downtown.

Well done you. Those words echoed in my mind. Even though I suspected they might have been a result of a slip of the tongue, they couldn’t be forgotten. I felt that my foreign-ness had been irrevocably revealed. I had not noticed on my way in that everyone foolish enough to advertise their touristism with a bum bag or a map was stopped short at almost every junction by multiple purveyors of city tours and ‘I LOVE NY’ branded selfie-sticks. And, as I walked with my neck tilted to look at the buildings and street signs, I realised that I, too, was emitting some aroma of innocence and was subsequently being mobbed by incredibly friendly city tour-guides while the real New Yorkers glided past. Well done you, I thought.

It has taken me a while to work out the implications of that sentence, but as more people have reacted to my Britishness, I have found a certain pattern playing out.

Having made my way down Broadway and past Madison Square Park, I am now sat looking out over Union Square from the top of a Barnes & Noble bookshop. I have just been told that of course I wanted an English Breakfast teabag, because, well, you know. I can see over Union Square Park, over the crowds of locals and tourists alike enjoying the farmer’s market, to 14th Street, and it reminds me of another similar event in my first few weeks of being here.

In the wine shop, along said street, I had taken my bottle to the register only to be told that my driving licence couldn’t be accepted as real identification.

“Is there another ID that I can use next time?” I asked.

“Wait, where are you from?” came the reply.

“Um, Britain.”

“Oh, great. Don’t worry about it this time,” they said. “But only because I have a thing for British accents.”

Well done you, I heard again. Only this time I was actually benefiting from the situation. It seemed that with each well done you I found a more sincere joy being taken in my nationality. On my journey downtown, as well as through time, I found the enthusiasm had only grown.

From the bookshop it is a short walk to the 3rd Avenue L Train, and, to my equal dismay and pleasure, also requires one pass by the best pizza place in the city. I am waiting at the 14th and 3rd crossroads, with a cheap slice in my hand, looking like a real New Yorker. I’ve just been asked by a woman, a strong New York accent on her, whether the C Train is nearby and proudly, but casually, I tell her how she would go about getting to it. Before she has even managed to work out that I am foreign and yet familiar with the streets, I make sure I have eaten my folded pizza, woven through the traffic and complained at the people crossing my path in front of the subway entrance.

Sitting on the L, heading back to Brooklyn, I feel a smug sense of pride. That’ll show ‘em. This city is mine, I think. As I congratulate myself, however, my thoughts eventually whittle themselves down to those infamous words: well done you. With that, I realise my pride is misplaced. Even though in the past two years I have constantly been reminded that I am British – being told I sound like a Harry Potter extra, and that I’d be the perfect person to have a child with because then they would ‘get an accent’, for example, or being cheerfully reminded on a weekly basis that the British lost the Revolutionary War – I have finally realised that the well done you I have been honoured with is not an acknowledgement or celebration of my Britishness. It’s not about me at all. Rather, it is proof of something that is quintessential to the New Yorker: a friendly, I-will-find-something-to-compliment-you-on attitude that can guarantee anyone who is passing through this great city will be recognised and celebrated for who they are.

Well done you is nothing to feel smug about, but something to humbly appreciate. And so I find my ride through the grimy tunnels under the river a little more pleasant thinking about how next time I might congratulate them back.