The Delightful Decline of the Silent Writer by Dan Holloway
Jan's frankly hilarious and utterly untoppable piece yesterday got me to thinking about the various things various authors say they're not so keen on in the modern age. And it struck me that one of the things that regularly tops such lists is the expectation that we do readings as part of the endless publicity mill.
Now, I've been a 24 carat spotlight junkie since way before I decided to throw my writing into the public arena, spending several years with a borderline addiction to appearing on cheesy TV gameshows and regularly crossing the street at the sight of a local news camera or microphone in the hope of grabbing an interview about whatever rent-an-opinion they are interested in today. So I've never really understood the antipathy to the limelight.
As with many others who suffer from depression, I think it probably comes down to the fact that behind a microphone, or in front of a camera, you can lose yourself entirely and immerse yourself in another world, the world of your words that's far more real than the one that confronts you every day full of shadows and terrors and the confusion of other people and what to say to them or how to filter out the countless streams of data pouring into your senses without turning and running into a corner and clapping your hands over your ears - because you can't, this fake world, the one with other people and conversations and community and all those other monsters that haunt your sleepless nights and watchful days, this is the world you have to carve a path in, earn the money to keep yourself off the streets in. But when those people you find so frightening and confusing are buffered from you by a microphone, it's like you have this gloriously comforting blanket thrown around you. The noise that bombards you is gone. It's just you. and that wonderful world of your words . The real world where you wish you could live. And for those three minutes when you're in front of the crowd, you can live there.
It's more than that, though. That's a personal reason, and other people have different personalities. But at a much deeper level, I think of myself as a storyteller. And storytelling emerged thousands of years before writing, and thousands more before anything like what we think of as books. To me, for a writer to cut themselves off from oral strorytelling, from the whites of their audience's eyes, is to cut themselves off from the whole of that history. It's like cutting off a limb.
Which is why to me the increasing calls for authors to get out there on the hustings with their work, and the opportunities that brings, are like a cleansing balsam restoring what I love to its proper place, reconnecting me with history.
But more than that, we are seeing the spoken word emerge as an art form in its own right. We even managed to persuade the Guardian to start talking about it! Spoken word nights are springing up everywhere, connecting people with literature who'd never be seen dead in a bookshop, and that's marvellous. And for writers, the opportunity to get out there and discover a new audience is fantastic. I've also found myself a niche where I truly belong, performing poems and stories to live audiences - just two nights ago, I was lucky enough to win the Hammer and Tongue Oxford slam.
Anyway, I would encourage everyone to try it. It won't be for everyone, but it's an essential part of the history of storytelling, so try it. There really is nothing quite like looking your audience in the eye and watching their faces as you lead them through your world.
I wanted to end with a video of one of my readings. Many nights are rather low tech though, so there aren't that many. These ones were recorded in my study and you'll see they were done before I'd learned the poems properly so there are glances at the page rather than the usual recital. On the other hand, the words are suitable for most audiences so I feel comfortable putting them up here. There are videos out there of several of my readings, at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, Grit Lit in Brighton, Literary Death Match. The same can't necessarily (!) be said for those but, um, I believe the saying is "google is your friend" if you want to hear some of the other stuff!!
And if I may be allowed to bounce up and down a little because, not having had a book out for a few months and having made a pact with myself not to submit any books for review in 2012 I don't very often get reviews outside of Amazon and Goodreads, I would love to point to a review I got for my set of poems performed at Blackwell's for International Women's Day, from Sabotage, which is the UK's leading spoken word review site. I was particularly chufflicated by:
"‘Her Body’ is more heart-breaking each time I hear it. A startlingly gorgeous piece on a person’s death being appropriated as a ‘theme park for ideologues’ and their body being turned into a metaphor."
I haven't put up a video of this one because it contains some sort of naughty words, but if you're not at work and of age you can see it here.
I have put up the deliberately restrained poem Mentalist, of which Sabotage said:
"A chilling and potent treatise on how people will try to go along with the Con-Dem reforms even when it takes ‘an act of heroism to get out of bed’, how even when people are deprived of life-saving support they will still cling to peaceful protest. A poem everyone in this country should hear."
Which is about as frabulating a comment as I've ever had. All of these will be in my forthcoming collection and CD, Spitting Blood.
When you fail, you cry
Because you believed the lie
That if you try
With all your might
If you pursue a single line of sight
Looking neither to the left nor right,
Ignoring the distractions and delights
There is no height
You cannot reach
So when you don’t
You’re the failure, right?
Your dreams provide their alibi.
But I know there are things I’ll never achieve
And I deceive myself if I believe I will.
My limitations are a bitter pill
Of stillborn expectations
And thrills I had to leave behind
But I was too blinded by stories
Of glory, fame and wealth
To see that I had whored myself
To the lie that I’m alone.
You see the only dream that counts
Is that we all count,
That every voice is heard
Every hope, anxiety, despair
Every tear you shed that no one saw
Because you turned away
And every desperate word
That you were too ashamed to say.
And I can’t do that on my own.
Do not comply
With what they tell you to desire.
Defy the boundaries
They place upon your mind
And start a fire
That will not die
Until your whisper
And that of every brother, sister
Mother, father, lover,
Every angry fist in history
Unclenches and becomes a kiss
And every pair of lips becomes a choir.
Don’t let your dreams provide their alibi.
Make them accountable for every crime,
For every voice that they deny.
Look them in the eye
And let your rhymes and passion fight them.
Unite and let your love and the fact that after every disappointment you still believe in this sorry species indict them.
When you embrace humanity in its broken condition,
When ensuring those who cannot speak are spoken for’s your mission
And you chase the truth till every eye is open,
Every sleeping conscience woken,
Then your vision can incite them
To a revolution.
So take a moment, and your dreams,
And write them.
Go out into the alleys and recite them
And if humanity evolves
Sufficient to resolve
To make a reckoning
Of those who were involved
In lifting us from the mire
And those who just devolved
The choice to someone down the line
You’ll stand absolved,
Your head held high.
The ones that you made fly,
With a whisper, quiet as a lullaby,
Those dreams will be your alibi.
I’m a mentalist.
I’m a ventriloquist and this fake smile’s my dummy.
Behind the guile I know I’m scum,
I’m hungry, desperate for your crumbs,
I’m broken by the years that no one spoke for me,
I’m choked beneath society’s conceptual thumb.
The thing is, if I’m cheerful
You think I’m well enough to work for free
And if I’m not then you’re unreasonably fearful of me.
The last boss I told I was bipolar said OK, but please don’t stick a knife in me
While I sat there silent, stunned
Thinking you think I’M the violent one
Just because I have an illness
That the media exploits for thrills
Because they haven’t got the skills to see beyond the pills
That someone else’s taxes paid for,
Someone wealthy for no other reason than that they happened to be born healthy.
But their hard work must not be squandered
On dropouts and shirkers,
On the berserkers lurking in the social undergrowth.
So now the government can force us into slavery
Without protection from the rules that gave us dignity
Or made staying alive in the cold and hostile environment a workplace can be
Anything close to a possibility.
With every decency they steal
They feel their backs slapped
By the so-called cash-strapped hacks in suits
Whose stacks are packed so tight
No cracks of light
Can leak out and disturb their sleep
With the sight of the smacked-up jacked-up lives
Of those whose dice fell on the wrong side of the tracks
And all this is sold as a triumph of slashed bureaucracy
A victory for democracy,
For a people poisoned
By years of drip-fed filth
And casual hypocrisy,
By myths of laziness and hazy memes of craziness
Dreamed up on whims on days of bliss and Pimms.
And here’s the thing.
People will comply.
People will try.
They will try so much
No matter that it takes an act of heroism just to get out of bed,
No matter that their eyes are red
Because they cried so much
And kept on trying
And held their heads high so much
Their tears were washed away by the saliva from the bile
That people piled on them.
People will die
Their voices will fall silent
The iniquity will not be heard.
Their indignity will have the final word,
But still those who are left will smile in the face of tyrants
Still they will cling with grace to the ideal of non-violence.
But then you give us so much more, with your insights into depression, and then poetry too - riches!
But please tell us which cheesy game shows you were on! A writer friend of mine, Elizabeth Kay, once appeared on 'Pets Win Prizes' with stick insects! Can you match that?
My experiences range from the pretending to be respectable like Mastermind (specialist subject: The Hannibal Lecter novels) through staple daytime fare (Countdown - in the twice nightly Whitely days - blimey he was a grumpy old git, but Carol was surprisingly nice, and very funny doing all the warm-up; Weakest Link, and 15 to 1) to the downright never heard of again (One to Win, a Going for Gold rip-off, and Channel 5's finest, Brainteaser). Cheesiest of all was getting on Athens local news talking utter made-up gibberish about restaurant prices 15 minutes after our taxi had arrived from the airport!
when i used to make a living talking in schools, i never found it a problem at all. me and jan mark used to set each other off and the laughter sometimes lasted well into the night. but when i started playing my tin whistles and mandolines usw in local pubs, i found it almost impossiblly gruelling. weird, public performance. perhaps i'll grow my beard to be like yours.
thanks for the post. it was wonderful.
Jan, but she is a painting from Tate Modern so that's officially OK :) Well, actually she's a print of a painting from Tate Modern before the art theft police come knocking! Yes, I think you have to find the place you feel most comfortable. And you should most definitely cultivate the beard!
Cally, thank you. I'm very nervous about Aggie as you know, and often try to go out of my way to stop people reading her because I'm aware she's very imperfect, but I also think she contains some of the stuff, and certainly characters and ideas, I'm proudest of.