To the point
The value of forgetting

Ducks, dreams and cross-channel ferries: the York Festival of Writing

I'm feeling like Piglet after he escaped from Kanga's house: not yet my own, nice, comfortable colour again, and not at all sure what's just happened. Since rolling all the way home in the dust wasn't an option on a train from York which was so full that moving my foot to relieve my backache required carefully planning, I'm going to do my thinking aloud here. What was last weekend's Festival of Writing all about?

At the obvious level, in my case it was about giving eight hours of workshops, solo and with others, and eighteen one-to-one meetings with writers to discuss their work. Also innumerable casual encounters with: aspiring writers; agents/editors/authors; friends old and new; ducks; drinks; my books; interesting, intelligent questions; good food (they had the sense not to serve duck); echoes of my own undergraduate days.

But what was it really about, I'm asking myself, in the tone of voice that my agent (who was also there) uses when she's trying to get me to sort out my latest novel. Her next question is usually, 'What's at stake?', and now I come to think of it, that's a more interesting way to think that the usual tales of triumph and/or disaster. So what was at stake?

As an author, you're hugely dependent on the organisers of any event, just as actors are on technicians and backstage crew. Whether you're teaching or reading or just signing books, it's a kind of performance, and you can't do it well if you have to sort out glitches or cope with muddles. At the very least you're distracted: at the worse you look like an idiot. That there were remarkably few problems in York is a tribute to the swan-like skills of the team at Writer's Workshop and York Conferences, who were paddling furiously underneath the surface (we don't seem to be able to get away from wildfowl, do we?) so that the festival as a whole could glide smoothly along in the sunshine (which no doubt they also arranged specially). It isn't always thus, as all authors know.

One aspiring writer, new to this odd world, said that she was disconcerted by the undertow (or overtone) of desperation in so many writers - even in the air of the festival itself. I know what she means, though I think on the whole it's balanced by the amount of realistic hope (of writing better; understanding more of craft, art and industry; finding fellow-writers) which is genuinely on offer, as opposed to the delusional hopes that vanity publishers and some kinds of writing course peddle.

What's at stake for the writers is everything from their need to be heard to their dreams of the future. What I hope they go away with is realism of both kinds: a clearer idea of what being published is like, and a clearer idea of what it takes to get there, and what you can actually do about it all. If the devil of writing is in the detail, so too is the salvation.

As a teacher, it's lovely to be told by someone who's just been in your workshop that now they understand something in their novel which has never been right. But very often someone would say, 'Yes, Jeremy Sheldon said something about that, too' or 'Katie Fforde was talking about that,' and so on. I've talked before about how you can tease writing apart to look at the different strands, but how those strands insist on curling themselves back together again. But it's interesting to think of all of us teachers/authors as supplying a strand or two of one thick rope which is the art and craft of writing.

When I said I'd do one-to-one sessions I was a bit daunted by having only ten minutes in which to say anything useful, let alone have a discussion. But in the event, it really did seem to be possible. One or two writers will try to fend off every comment with an explanation of why nothing should be changed, and in a longer seminar you can say, 'Okay, but it doesn't work,' and risk the nasty silence while they deal with your instransigence. In ten minutes there isn't really time, but at least they were brilliantly and ruthlessly organised by Obergruppenfuhrer Susan, complete with school bell, so that neither side of the table could ignore it and cause chaos in the schedule.

And finally, there's the Kanga-and-Piglet effect. As a writer, your energy goes inwards, mining the book from inside yourself, and then living inside its world to make it better. As an author at an event, however small, your energy goes outwards: towards the audience. Making and sustaining that change of direction (which always reminds me of the moment when a cross-channel ferry goes into reverse and you hear and feel the stall and storm of the engines under your feet) takes energy, and so does enlarging the performing part of your self to fill the whole of you. As I was describing in Doughnuts, Dickens and utter silence, afterwards you're very, very tired.

But it's not just physical and psychological hypoglycaemia I'm suffering from. It's a big buzz to help people who want to be helped; to encourage people honestly, if only with my own how-I-got-published story, who want to be encouraged; to sign a book I wrote, which someone who cares about writing wants to read; to explain how I think writing works to people who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have cause to trust what I say...

And now I'm back to my own work, and that's quite another matter. With your own work you're never sure if you ARE right; you're always at the far edge of what you know you can do as a writer; you're often un-encouraged and short on hope, because you're at the far edge of your own story. And while you're chewing dully on that, you need to sort out the washing, the cooking, the gas bill and the children, and then get back to a novel which had better back up all the confident things you've said - all the nice things that were said to you - over the last few days.

A while after that trip to Mexico, I was talking about this uncomfortable state to my cousin, the composer Nicola LeFanu, who over a distinguished career has learnt a thing or two about performing versus creating. Yes, she said, when you get home you have to mourn the end of what another friend calls your shine time. It sounds ridiculous, or even ungrateful: you've had a wonderful time, so how dare you be sad? But now you're not having a wonderful time, are you, and you miss it. Don't worry, I'm telling myself. The wash will get done, the novel will get (re-)written, and the wonder will come back. Meanwhile, there's always chocolate...

Comments