People view writing as such a solitary activity. A man, usually in a turtle neck and some kind of glasses, typing on some kind of typewriter by prolific candlelight with a glass of whisky on one side and a half-smoked cigar on the other is the romantic view of “the writer”. A man who refuses to let anyone so much as breathe on his manuscript before he has edited his pages at least a dozen times. And yes, traditionally, writers are always seen as men, aren’t they? Even Mary Shelley had to use a pseudonym back in her day because female writers were Taboo.
For me, writing is predominantly me with my laptop, cooped up in my room, tapping away at my keyboard and watching the words drip slowly onto the virtual blank page. Once I have bashed out a first draft, I let a select few people read the rough prose before I go back and sand back the edges of confused tenses and overwritten description. But it is still a very lonely activity.
But over the past two nights I have come into contact with my fellow writers and literary enthusiasts and I have come away from each experience with a legitimate warm, fuzzy feeling that I can only describe as feeling a sense of absolute belonging.
Night 1: Tuesday 10th September
After a particularly dull day of making various people various sandwiches at my day job, I trekked out to West End, getting off the bus two stops too early, and found my way to Avid Reader. I was looking forward to watching my favourite lecturer interview an up-and-coming writer about her collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia. To be honest, I was more interested in the interviewer than the interviewee. At first. A couple of my fellow Bachelor of Fine Arts students and I sat and listened as the MC told us that our lecturer wasn’t coming due to a bad case of the flu. I’ll admit, I was disappointed. But then the night got started.
The night started with a reading from a fellow third year BFA student and she blew me away. Her writing was gorgeous and the way she read her work: cool, calm, and collected, was something that I could not have done in a million years. I could smell the ocean and hear the “universe turning” in the enormous conch shell that she described.
The second reader was a woman who wrote a beautiful piece about a child born illegitimately in Africa and the ways in which this infected the child’s life, and that of her mother’s. She read with such passion and empathy that I felt I was watching each of these scenes she described from the other side of their living area. Both of these women held me entranced.
And then, finally, Laura Jean McKay got up to read from Holiday in Cambodia. Her mastery of description and dialogue made me itch to grab a pen, paper, pencil, lipstick, laptop, or any type of writing apparatus I could find to try and perfect my craft to her standard. Her reading was over far too soon and then the interview began.
During the interview, McKay spoke of her experiences in Cambodia as an aid worker, a tourist, and a writer. She spoke of her arduous journey from unpublished, to published in periodicals, to finally having a publisher who told her that her stories were worth binding, covering, and placing on shelves. Although her collection took her five years to complete, and all together it took this woman thirteen years to be published, what she said resonated with me. Essentially, if you believe in your story and your abilities enough to ignore the naysayers and the “realists” that tell you you’re crazy, you will eventually achieve what you set out to do. I have been dreaming of creating worlds for people to pick up and carry in their bags since the first time I read a book (the author had used the word “politicians” as a curse word. I thought this was incredible, and I was about ten years old. I wish I could remember the name of this book so that you could discover its brilliance for yourself). So to see someone actually achieve the goal that they had inadvertently set themselves over a decade before gave me a ray of hope that, possibly one day, someone would publish my story as well.
But this was not the most uplifting part of the night. For approximately two hours, a group of people all interested in writing, whether because they are writers themselves or because they are obsessive readers, came together to listen, talk, and simply be with each other. Every single person in that room could have elected to stay at home and watch trashy TV, but instead chose to head out and listen to an author talk about her work and her experiences. And every once in a while, sitting there in the front row, I felt inexplicably ecstatic. I could not stop smiling. Especially when the audience was allowed to ask McKay their own questions. I think, at one point, I had both my hands on my cheeks in that 1950’s expression of delight.
Night 2: 11th September (Twelve years since that horrific day in 2001. R.I.P.)
Tonight, instead of going to a lecture about script-writing (which I will catch up tomorrow before my tutorial, just in case any of my tutors/lecturers are reading this), I chose to go to a meeting of “my people”. One of the classes in my course – which I should have chosen, instead of wasting my units on a Journalism minor – created a “salon” event, held once a month from now until the end of semester. Essentially, it is a place where third year BFA students can come and read their work in a safe space. A space made safer by the availability of alcohol. All twenty or thirty of us crammed into that tiny boutique bar/café and listened to our fellow students read excerpts of novels that we will all be rushing out to buy one day.
These people were not the polished self-advertisers of last night. They were nervous, hands shaking their manuscripts ever-so-slightly under the spotlight. I was struck by their bravery. But every person in that room was someone I had come into contact with at least once during my three year Creative and Professional Writing journey. Everyone was supportive, smiling, and nothing less than attentive. We clapped, whistled, laughed, and gasped in all of the right places. During one story I felt as though we were all being stalked by one of the starving, wild dogs in an African village.
But what impressed me most about tonight was that our tutors, who have been with us since we were terrified first years in 2011, actually bothered to show up. There were at least seven of them. These people have so many stories to mark, lectures to plan, books to write and edit, and their own lives to lead that the fact that they chose to spend two hours of their time surrounded by their students spoke volumes. I am descending into cheesiness now, but as I watched our tutors talking with us during intermission and listening attentively as some of us read, I felt as though I belonged to a family. I mean a second family. My family is actually very supportive of my writing. But they don’t actually understand it. Everybody that was in that room with me tonight understands the demands and rewards of a writing life, like nobody else does. And being surrounded by them outside of the walls and constraints of tutorials and lectures, knowing that we were all their to support each other, felt like the universe was giving me a huge bear hug.
Cheesiness aside, I suppose what I am trying to say is that I think the traditional view of writers being solitary individuals is obsolete. Writers, when they come together, are among the most positive, encouraging people in the world. At no point over the past two nights did I hear someone say “well, that was shit” or “what the hell was that?”. All I heard was positive, constructive feedback. And as artists, I think we all need that positive foundation underneath us as we try to write the next best-seller. With literary merit, of course.
- Finding [not Nemo] Your Voice… (mcgeejp.com)
- Inspecting our Writings Imperfections (garrisonpublishing.wordpress.com)
- What makes a writer? Are you one? (valerierian.wordpress.com)
- Who AM I as a writer? (au697wednesdaysblog.wordpress.com)