Poet time writer

Please don’t ever ask me who my favourite writers are because it would be about eight hours before I finally asked who yours are in return. Still, if you were nutty enough to enquire, then way up in the first ten minutes of mine I’d be saying Emily Dickinson, Suzanne Vega, Christina Rossetti and Dar Williams.

Spot what they’ve got in common.

They’re all poets.

Actually, I don’t know that Williams would say that of herself as she, like Vega, is a songwriter, but to me her finest work is exquisite poetry.

Only, I don’t know when it happened that I spotted that or when so many of my writing heroes turned out to be poets. I can’t write poetry. Not a single line. And while I’m reasonably half or quarter sure that my school must’ve mentioned poetry at some point, none of that went into my head. None of that made me like the stuff.

I can tell you that it was when a TV show called Head of the Class claimed you could read any Emily Dickinson poem to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas that I first heard of “Because I would not stop for death / Death kindly stopped for me”.

Then I associate Christina Rossetti chiefly with “and if thou wilt, remember, and if thou wilt, forget” which pops up in Alan Plater’s work. That is a chasm of a poem. I swear Rossetti sat down one day in 1862, cracked her knuckles and said right, I’m going to upset that William Gallagher bloke.

I can’t read it, can’t hear it, can’t even type that extract without feeling the centre of my body yanked down into the dirt.

That’s the other thing this bunch have in common: they upset me. Emily Dickinson does have that gleefully, joyously conspiratorially friendly “I’m nobody, who are you?” piece which balances out a lot of things, but still, on average she upsets me greatly.

There’s the one of hers that begins “Hope is the thing with feathers” and when that line, just that line, was read out over a scratchy tannoy at a breast cancer rally, I stopped and wept.

Dar Williams has You’re Ageing Well, which in its original version has seen me pulling over to the side of the road to let hot tears fall out of me. Curiously, she did a version with Joan Baez and I find that one a shrug.

Then Suzanne Vega has Tired of Sleeping which used to double me up in pain and can still be a blade in the gut.

I think you and I can also conclude that poets are really nasty people while I am a hard, macho man. But, grief, I yearn to write like them.

Depth perception

I’m not going to name someone here because I don’t want to embarrass them. But also because I think it might apply to you and I’m hoping it does to me.

It’s about how we see ourselves and how others see us. Let me give you the example that prompted me thinking about this, that prompted me to want to talk to you about it.

I ran a pair of workshops last Saturday, back to back things all day with mostly the same writers across the two. All sorts of writers, all sorts of experience, but every one of them professionals. And afterwards we got into a topic that for some reason is a recurring one in this job: the discussion over when and whether you can call yourself a writer.

I don’t know why we have this: maybe it’s an arts thing as perhaps it happens with painters too yet there’s no engineer who’s ever been in doubt what their own job title was. It’s a tough world, there probably isn’t an engineer who hasn’t doubted whether their job would continue, but they knew what it was called. When asked on a form they don’t have heartbeat’s hesitation over what to write as their occupation. Writers do.

I used to. These days I’ve come to accept that I’m unemployable in any other field.

But there was this one person on my workshop who was talking about this and about the genuine relief that she’s recently felt able to call herself a writer. There’s a deeper issue here about identity and I think also self-worth but this particular writer saying this particular thing was a jolt.

She’s not only published, she is a publisher. She has a poetry imprint, she runs events, she runs workshops. Now, to me that’s all writing: she disagrees, she calls them writing-related jobs and of course she’s right but to me it’s all the one thing. You use the same muscles in producing an event as you do writing anything: there’s a lot of actual writing, for one thing, but also you’re communicating, you’re persuading, you’re trying to inform and to do so entertainingly. You’re trying to learn, too, which is a big thing in this lark.

A year or two ago, a mutual friend asked me to meet with this same writer to tell her how to do a particular thing – and I laughed. The notion that I could tell her a single thing she’d hadn’t already done and wasn’t already doing. We did meet, we did have tea, I had a good time and fortunately there was something she hadn’t happened to have tried. Or so she said. She may have been being kind.

But the fact that it’s only recently she has felt able to call herself a writer means she didn’t think it when we met that time. There is absolutely not one single question that she wasn’t a writer then, that she isn’t now: she’s a writer and she’s a pro.

I’m glad and relieved that she now accepts it but I’ve been thinking about this workshop conversation all week. The disconnection between how she was seeing herself and how I was seeing her. I’ve been going around impressed with her and she’s not seen why.

This isn’t exactly a new thought in the world but it resonates me with me this week: if she could be so wrong about how good she is, perhaps we all are. Even you.

Maybe even me.

A favourite thing

This is not about Brexit or any politics. And that’s not because I’m hiding from those topics, although I am a bit, but rather because they heightened something good. They made me appreciate something I’d forgotten was a big deal for me: the fact that this thing happened in the middle of that thing, just reinforced for me what I find special.

It’s only this. I profoundly relish being with colleagues late at night and having a drink after we’d done something big together.

Now, it does most definitely work best when those colleagues are my friends but they tend to become so in this late night moment. (It is scary how many friends I make through working with people. How many people I get to know and cherish when they hire me. I was saying to someone this week that she’s dear to me and I’m expensive to her.)

It doesn’t have to be all that late at night, either. I was doing this last night and it was only around 10pm. It was only for a short half an hour, perhaps less, and it is better when it goes on but last night’s was rather perfect.

Then when I said drink you inescapably assumed I meant alcohol and that was true last night. (I don’t drink but we were in a bar.) I do think it’s even better when the drinking is of builders’ tea and you’re gathered around a kitchen table. That’s where I first found this.

I found it many times after a regular weekly late-night hospital radio slot where a group had come together to make something. It wasn’t the most diverse group in ages or genders or anything really, and the greater the differences between the people, the better. There is something glorious about a lot of people coming from different backgrounds, with different hopes and aims, all focusing their every effort on the same thing.

That’s what makes the thing big. Not its size or scale or importance but actually, yes, its size, scale and importance to me. To us.

Last night I co-produced Private Moments, a poetry and prose event, with Charlie Jordan. I’ve known her for years, always wanted to work with her, finally got to do it – and to work with something like a dozen poets and storytellers. It was always going to be good: you just know when someone’s idea is right and will fly. It was always going to be an excellent night because Waterstone’s in Birmingham hosted it. A poetry and prose event in a bookshop. With chocolate.

But there was a point where I thought I would only be able to help produce it, that I wouldn’t be available to actually tell a story or eat the chocolates.

Between you and me, I was glad and hardly at all because I’m trying to lose weight. Instead, this lineup included poets and storytellers I’ve known and admired, it included ones I’ve just admired, and there were something like four former Poet Laureates in the mix. I was chuffed at working on an event that featured Charlie and also Matt Windle, Roy McFarlane, Cat Weatherill, Sarah James, Gary Longden, Jenny Hope, Lorna Meehan, Maggie Doyle and Marcia Calame, now officially my favourite person in the world.

She’s that because of what she said of my performance. Because I did perform. I was available in the end and I did perform and, oh my lights, that great list of names was now a daunting list instead.

I really do want to urge you to do this late night kitchen table tea with friends but I want you to have that same wind at your back. Sitting there like you’ve earned a spot, that you’ve all worked together and you’ve earned that drink.

I did a pair of short theatre plays once, vignettes in a whole evening of performances, and one time I was the star of the night. Really clearly the best writer with the best piece and that post-show gathering was brilliant. The next time I was the worst writer with the worst piece and that post-show gathering was crap.

This is better than both of those. A late night where you can stand your ground with people you do admire but also just really like. No comparisons of quality because you all stepped up. No post-mortem discussions of the evening, just good people and good conversation and your warmly sore back from having worked hard.

Exposed

I have literally bled over my keyboard: I like to say that it was from the power of my writing or at least the power of my typing but in truth I just had a paper cut one Tuesday. This was untold years ago but I want to talk to you about it today because I’ve had three messily disconnected thoughts that I think might just be very tidily connected, if we can just focus on them.

At the start of the week, a friend mentioned that she’d had some criticism of a script of hers, that she’d been told “not enough bombs go off in it”. My friend agrees with this and now she’s said it, so do I. Only because she’s said it, though: I read that script, I enjoyed it very much and between us I rather envied her writing, but yes, on reflection, it needs a bomb or three.

Then a couple of days ago, another friend sent me a poem of hers which, as well as a good thousand other things, was about her breasts. Now, I’m a man and I am rather deeply flattered that she correctly trusted that I would take this poem the way it was intended, that I would look at it as a piece of writing she wanted an opinion on, that I wouldn’t go all hot and flustered about it.

Okay. I went a little hot and flustered. Oh, but you should see it: a real example of the power of a poet where those thousand things are all there, all present, all explored in the shortest, tightest, briefest writing. Every word vital, every rhythm and punctuation a key part of the effect.

Only, look what I just did. I admitted to you that I got hot and flustered but then I immediately ran off to hide into literary critique and try to sound like a professional writer. I did the equivalent of coughing at you, of saying I’ve just got something in my eye, of saying “so anyway, did you see the match?” or something.

Her poem is really, I feel, about many different kinds and levels of intimacy, of trust and bonding, of shared and unshared experiences and feelings, I think it’s about friendship and just human connection. But I’ll say it: her poem is also very sexy.

I found that hard to say to you. I find I’m also suddenly hoping she never reads this or that the next time we meet up, we can drink a lot of whisky to disguise my red face. Nothing could go wrong with that idea, could it? But I also need to accept that I find it hard to write material that is exposed and sexy. I think it may come from childhood when I read a lot of Arthur C Clarke and got exasperated at how schoolboy his constant panting about breasts in zero gravity is. Flash forward a lot of years and someone told me they thought a character of mine was a sexual fantasy and I was appalled because I think she’s right yet the character is not a fantasy of mine. Did she think it was, would you think that’s what I, um, respond to?

I think sexy goes far, far beyond the physical and I’ve written many women characters that I’ve fancied on the page for their wit and excitement, that I’ve then fancied in studio for who played those characters. I think you are now reading the only thing I have written about body parts. No, wait, I did a Self Distract once about the word skin. Okay, you’re now reading only the second thing I’ve written about body parts.

That skin one was to do with a misheard Suzanne Vega lyric that I found charged and exciting and true, and therefore feel gigantically smug that as it was misheard, that means I wrote it and she didn’t. I also feel stupid for mishearing a line for twenty years, but. Speaking of Suzanne Vega, though, she has a song with called Ironbound/Fancy Poultry and, set in a food market, it gets to speak of “breasts and thighs and hearts”. It’s taking words we associate with sex and keeping that association but also taking the words out into the light to examine them.

I said I had three thoughts and you’ve got to expecting that the third is also about sex. I’m being very male today. Only, no. This is where the disconnection comes in, the feeling I have that I’m groping – unfortunate word, sorry – toward something more. This third bit is about another friend who, possibly two years ago now, also asked me to read something of hers she was working on. It was a novel and I enjoyed it but in the talk with her later, I realised she’d had no qualms about asking me to read it.

There was nothing in that manuscript that worried her. Wait, no, there was one thing: she had a character called Will who was particularly attractive and she needed me to know that “he isn’t remotely, distantly, possibly based on you, William”. I would never have made the connection, it would never have occurred to me that it was my name, but now I went harrumphing into reading it.

That was all that troubled her, the coincidence of names. And I can see us in a coffee shop talking later, I can see the moment when I realised that what I felt the book was missing was something that gave her, the writer, qualms. Something that exposed her more, that for all it was about interesting characters in an interesting situation, it needed to also be more about the writer. Exposed is the right word. It needed some risk. I think the piece needed something that when she handed me the manuscript, she was embarrassed about how I’d take it.

This is what I’m striving for with you today, what I realise my writing needs to strive for more. I hurt my characters, I have emotional bombs going off and I have emotional bombs waiting to explode, but I don’t cut into myself. I don’t mean that I have to write about breasts but I need to bleed over the keyboard much, much more and the fact that I hold back is really getting on my tits.

Just hang on a sec

I want to give you an example of something. On Wednesday, I was nattering with this guy in a pub in London. He mentioned a writing job he used to have that he had particularly enjoyed. The front of my head is fully in the conversation and enjoying the talk when the back of my head starts thinking.

I couldn’t do what he had done – for one thing, it’s his idea and for another it’s quite a while ago, the gig is gone – but there are elements that really particularly appealed to me. Take this element, change that, bring this, try the other, soon the back of my head is joining the front and I’m enthusing at him about what we could do now.

That’s Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, I knew exactly – I mean, exactly – every inch of the new idea and what to do plus who exactly – I mean, exactly – to pitch it to. And had pitched it. I can’t know if it will happen and I imagine it’s a year away if it does, but 25 hours after the idea, I’ve got a meeting.

This is how I like to work. Think of something and do it. I can’t tell you how satisfying I’ve found the last year: I’ve produced five events in 2014 and while that isn’t many, it is 100% more than I have ever produced before. To think of something and get it done, to eventually be sitting in the audience watching people you’ve chosen be everything you wanted them to be, it makes me giddy.

I like being giddy. I like being busy. I like rushing, I hate waiting around. It’s just that I feel I’ve wasted so much time and have done so little, I need to catch up and get on. If I’m not shaking with giddy exhaustion by the end of the day, I start shaking that I’ve burnt those hours away for nothing.

Except.

That does tend to be the only time I think of today. Usually my head is in next week or next year. I’ve had a stone in my stomach for the last month because I couldn’t get a guest speaker for an event I am especially keen to do well. My head’s been in the day of that event and in the days since I got the gig. Worrying about what I’ll do and worrying about what I could’ve done better or sooner or quicker. Not an awful lot of my head in the day today.

I’ve got the speaker now. She’s a mensch for doing it, I’m a bit of a mensch for asking her, but let’s not menschion that. Let’s just leap to how, now that I have got that sorted out, my giddy mind is looking forward to how that event will go. And my relaxed mind is half looking forward, half very nervous about an event next week where I’m performing myself. (I’m reading from my entry in a book of short stories. I love the story, I deeply loved how the book required me to meet various people before writing, I love how those people reacted to the story, I hate how sick with nerves I am before the launch.)

And.

I have this fear that I’ve wasted so much time yet here I am arguably wasting every day. Always working on the next thing.

But.

I went to a poetry event earlier this week, an evening about Next Generation Poets. Originally I was going on my own, just nipping in to see it, and it was a treat to then find that a friend was going and we could meet up beforehand. I don’t want to presume she had as good a time as I did, but I had a great time and was walking in to that show with her feeling very good and relaxed.

And by total chance, found myself seated precisely in the middle of seven friends I like and whose work I rate immensely.

It was terrible.

There they all were, great and talented people, every last bloody one of them better dressed than me.

None of them were performing, none of us were doing anything, we were just this tiny segment of the audience that happened to be sitting together. My body was in my seat and for once my head was in the room, in the time too. At that point I still had the stomach stone but it lightened. I forgot how far behind I had been feeling I was with everything.

I was just acutely, deeply and actually happily aware of the here and the now. Maybe I’m only reaching for the Ferris Bueller line “Life moves pretty fast… if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”.

But in the here and the now, the there and then, there was a buzz that wrapped around my shoulders and it came from these talented people.

Maybe even from me.

The Evil I

I thought that was such a clever title there: The Evil I. Things happened this week that have been making me think a lot about first-person writing and how really no matter what I’m working on, I am kind-of writing for myself and absolutely, specifically writing to you. You can’t tell this since I say ‘I’ an awful lot but I don’t like it. I like writing the word ‘you’, I don’t like writing the word ‘I’.

Before you check, I’ve now written ‘I’ nine times and ‘me’ once. Please bear with me on this for a minute.

Given all this, the mantra has been that writing in the first-person is bad, hence calling the word ‘I’ evil.

The Evil I.

I thought that was so clever. Then I type it here and all I can think of is: when’s The Evil 2 coming out?

When I solely wrote journalism, first person was out because as a journalist I do not matter. I am not the story. As a teenager I used to read The New York Times at Birmingham Central Library but eventually stopped because its style of journalism became featuring the journalist more. I just remember reading one interview in the paper where a third of the article was about the journalist getting ready to meet whoever he or she was interviewing. I seem to remember a paragraph about the orange juice served at the hotel.

That makes me shake. And it makes me tremendously pleased to tell you, if you don’t happen to know already, that the Times is far better now. You might question certain employment decisions (a prominent editor was just kicked out) but the writing is such that I am back reading it. I read a lot of news online through RSS and since that brings websites’ stories right to me, I doubt there’s been a day in the last five years that I haven’t read something on The New York Times.

But no first person in journalism. That’s clearly not a universal rule but it was for me.

I have many and specific responsibilities to you as a journalist, but the core job is to get the news right and to get the news to you. I want to write well, I want to tell you things you don’t know yet are then glad you do or in some way find it useful. But if you can tell without looking at the byline that I wrote a particular news story, I reckon I failed.

It took me a long time to understand that drama is different.

Alan Plater once said that poets write about themselves, dramatists write about everybody else. He knew that was a broad generalisation and I knew he was right. I just also thought that I belonged entirely on the drama side. I’m not interested in me, I’m interested in you. And I can’t write poetry or, say, song lyrics. Just can’t. (Though – this came up in a workshop I did yesterday – I’ve realised that if you asked me who my writing heroes are, the first names that come to me are Suzanne Vega, Dar Williams and Emily Dickinson. All poets.)

(There’s also Alan. And Patricia Highsmith. Paul Auster. Sarah Dunant. Carrie Fisher. Anton Chekhov. But let’s not go there.)

The short conclusion I’ve come to with drama is that the deeper you reach within yourself, the more people you actually reach.

I like that very much, except for how bleedin’ hard it is to do and except for how I’m not interested in reaching more people. One of my favourite jobs ever was writing a thing called On This Day for Radio Times. It was a TV history piece and there was a wee dollop of it in every day’s listings page. I can’t remember the numbers now but I know that at the time, research was saying that about 1.1 million copies of Radio Times were sold each week and that each copy was read on average by three people. So three million could’ve read my pieces each week.

Maybe it’s just that I haven’t the imagination to comprehend that number but I write for myself and I write to one person. It’s best when it’s you but I feel I’m putting some pressure on you now. Let’s not dwell on how you somehow got lumbered with reading everything I ever write and instead look at why I’m thinking about this so much today.

I do think about it a huge amount and very often, most usually whenever the topic of radio comes up. I caught Steve Wright on BBC Radio 2 while driving the other day and I switched him off immediately. It’s very unfair of me, especially since I didn’t give his show time for me to know what it was about, but Steve Wright equals the zoo format to me. That’s the type of radio where there is a posse in the studio, a whole group sort-of co-presenting. It’s what he always did in the 1990s on BBC Radio 1 with “Steve Wright in the Afternoon”, it’s one of the many things I adored about On The Hour: how it mocked him and the format with “Wayne Carr in the Afternoon“. You have such an innocent face. You might need to say that title aloud right about now.

Sure, there was the inanity and the banality of the format but also just the sense I would have that everybody on the show was having this  fantastic time and I was over at the window saying hello, have you forgotten me?

This isn’t some ego thing. There is no reason why the posse in a zoo gang – tell me you don’t think that’s a great title for an action movie – where was I? Right, thanks. There is no reason why the posse in a zoo format radio show should have anything for me, no reason for them to care if I listen. But there’s also no reason for me to listen. So I don’t.

That’s not why this is on my mind today. This is why. I’ve just read The Paris Review’s collated quotes from John Steinbeck, which include:

It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

The Paris Review

Recently a couple of companies have approached me about running advertising blog entries for them. This ain’t gonna happen.

But I was amused by the kind of terms and conditions I would have to abide by if I were to take money from these advertising firms. The key one was to do with what they called website traffic and hit rates and I translated as “number of readers”. It was something about reporting the figures to them and while politely declining the offer, I did tell them that they were welcome to know how many readers I have on this blog.

One.