I have a bad habit, sometimes, of generalising about what “writers” are like, mostly based only on my own experience. Last night I got a good reminder that there are many different kinds of writer.
I was performing at an event called “Stand up for Books“, organised by the Society of Authors and the Society of Young Publishers. I was one of six authors reading from their work. Not only was the writing itself very varied in style and subject matter, but the way we behaved on stage was very different too.
The generalisation I tend to make is that writers are people who like to lock themselves away in a room of their own and type away furiously at a manuscript for months on end, and therefore are not ideally suited to standing up on a stage, reading, telling anecdotes and entertaining people in all the ways that seem to be increasingly expected of them these days.
What I learnt last night was that this is not necessarily true.
Some of the other writers truly owned the stage, looking as comfortable and confident as any stand-up comic or other professional performer. The most entertaining was poet Ross Sutherland, who does this sort of thing all the time, organising a regular ‘literary cabaret’ in east London and doing a one-man show, as well as developing a piece of interactive theatre called “Comedian dies in the middle of a joke”.
The compère, Guardian writer Bim Adeyumni, was also brilliant. She’d forgotten all her notes, but still had the audience laughing and clapping wildly as she gave a series of off-the-cuff remarks. Her introduction to my reading somehow made me sound like a real literary heavyweight, which is not something I’ve experienced before. And she got a good laugh out of my name, saying she’d love to have a name like that herself so that she could introduce herself as “Bim Blackwoman” and ask people “Do you have a problem with that?” It was all so natural, so off-the-cuff, so funny.
I, on the other hand, am the sort of person who only thinks of the right thing to say when it’s about an hour or two too late. On the train on the way home, I went through the evening in my head and came up with half a dozen charming or hilarious responses I could have given when I went up to the microphone. But in the moment itself, I said nothing. I walked up on stage, smiled awkwardly, adjusted the microphone and began to read.
I think my reading went fine, but it was just that: a reading, not a performance. I’ve worked hard to overcome my discomfort in front of large audiences, but still I think it shows through. Sitting at home writing the story is what I love, because in the quiet of my room I can get the words just right, express exactly what I want to say. I can order the world retrospectively in the same way as I retold the story of the “Stand up for Books” evening to myself on the train home, forming a version in which I said the right things instead of being stuck for words.
In spite of my discomfort, I still enjoyed the event, and am glad I did it. It was good to meet very different kinds of writer from myself, and to listen to and enjoy their work. I’m reminded that there’s a whole world out there of spoken word events, open mic nights, literary salons and poetry slams. If I keep practising, and maybe get some training from someone who can help me improve my reading, there’s no reason I can’t be a part of that world. It’s very different from what I’m comfortable with, the traditional role of a writer sitting at home forming words on a page and periodically sending those words out into the world in chunks of bound paper. But it seems to be the way the world is going, and maybe that’s a good thing. It’s a lot for me to learn, but learning new things is a big part of what makes life interesting. If I shrank from doing things that made me uncomfortable, I’d probably never have become a writer in the first place. So expect to see me in the coming months at a literary event near you. Maybe at one of them, I’ll finally manage to produce a witty, off-the-cuff remark some time before the evening ends.