Gutter Spoken Word: The Greatest Magician

Contributing to Gutter’s spoken word issue (which is all about celebrating words off the page as well as on them) has made me wonder how I got from crowd-avoider to (fairly) confident reader.

There was a very, very brief moment in my teenage years when I thought I might like to be an actor. I was probably about fourteen. There was something very appealing, then, about the feeling of being someone other, someone bigger, on the stage. I quickly realised that there was a massive difference between doing well in your drama standard grades and actually working and let that dream drift safely away. I wasn’t destined to be on stage and that was fine.

Except, many years later, when I started to take writing seriously, I found there was this whole other side to it: the spoken word. This side tends to take place, you guessed it, on a stage. Or at least, in small space cleared among a motley collection of bar stools. Microphone optional, position as the centre of attention required.

Up until that point, I’d assumed writing was writing, other people would take care of the reading. Then I started paying more attention to those author events and lit nights and realised that reading your own work aloud is a skill. One I was lacking.

So I worked and I shook and I sweated and I fumbled with microphones and heard my voice rise to an unholy pitch and depended on kind audiences to forgive me my nerves until, eventually, I found I was really enjoying myself. To my relief, I’d discovered that reading stories to people isn’t the same as standing up in front of them and talking about yourself. It’s got a lot more in common with those heady, teenage moments when it was possible to step outside a bubble of embarrassment and be someone else for a while.

For Gutter, I read a story written to be read aloud. I originally wrote it for Illicit Ink’s Unbound slot at the EIBF, when I read it to a tent full of nice, bookish people. This time, I read it into my little brother’s microphone (thanks, Evan) and had to magic up an imaginary audience for myself. And you know, whether in the room with you or just there in your head, there’s nothing like an audience for conjuring up a touch of magic.

New York dream time

"Working" in our apartment's garden

“Working” in our apartment’s garden

It’s been about three weeks since we got back from New York and it already feels like I made the whole thing up. I didn’t though, I really did spend a whole month living in a flat in the East Village, where I did a minimal amount of work and a lot of walking around.

I don’t think of myself as the kind of person who gets to go and spend a month somewhere like that (we’re not exactly rolling in the dough) and there are so many spots that recall films and TV series that we watch on the sofa at home that the experience was rather dreamlike.

It all started with the madness of NYCC, where Fin and Sean launched Walk Don’t Run and I ran around trying not to buy too many cool things, and ended with a day lost at the Met then a desperate swapping of books and weighing of luggage as we tried to stay under our allowance. Beautiful.

I’d meant to get a lot of writing done while we were away. I always mean to get a lot of writing done. And I’m a little sad to report that I didn’t. I did have an amazing time though, and had the chance to not only see a lot of things I really wanted to, but also to spend some extra time reading which is always a treat in itself.

Also, the ABC: Why Children’s Books Matter exhibition at the NYPL happened to be on, meaning I unexpectedly found myself face to face with the original manuscript for The Secret Garden. This, somewhat unexpectedly, caused my to blubber like a fool. Maybe because I’d only just found my childhood copy a few days before we left. Maybe because it reminded me how fragile such things are. Maybe because it made me feel as though it doesn’t matter what we do with our words or with our days, as long as we try to fill them with an adventurous spirit.

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

A book that’s like coming home

A while ago, I had a moan on Facebook about how difficult I was finding it to get hold of a book I loved when I was a kid. The Reluctant Vampire by Eric Morecambe snared my imagination when I was still young enough to try and turn my bunk beds into a coffin with the help of a spider-webbed sheet scavenged from the garage and I’ve never forgotten it since.Reluctant

I didn’t have my own copy, I borrowed it from the library over and over again (thanks Portobello Library for letting me!). I’ve been wanting to get my hands on this book for a long time but hoping I could find it without having to pay six times its cover price. I’ve been keeping an eye open but hadn’t thought about it for quite a while when a package came through my door last week.

My friend Jason spotted a well-loved copy of this very book and bought it for me. Then shipped it all the way from NYC without telling me what he was doing. I ripped open the envelope feeling mild curiosity that was quickly replaced by a big bubble of elation.

I jumped up, had a little dance to myself, ran through to show Fin then sat back down and reacquainted myself with this little book that has somehow become a big part of the story of growing up. It was bloody brilliant.

Making Friends With Ducks (Taking Writing Retreats)

IMG_0988At home, there are always things to do. Even if those things are reorganising the drawers or picking hair up from the carpet (don’t ask). Escaping those things is tricky, unless you have the chance to run away for a little while.

I used to think writing retreats were pretty self indulgent and maybe useless. I now know that even if they are a little indulgent it is in a wonderful, enriching kind of way and they are nearly always very useful. Even if you spend quite a lot of the time making friends with ducks or worrying about how close that cow is about to get.

First of all, the guilt of being away from home and your normal life for a week tends to work wonders. Then there’s a distinct lack of distractions. You’re not as likely to pick up the hair from the carpet when it’s not your carpet – or your hair.

And then there’s a glimmer of that great feeling you get when you’re on a proper holiday. That ‘everything is out of my hands because no one can contact me’ feeling. It’s a good one when you’re trying to work.

IMG_0991So far, I’ve tried hiring a little flat to myself, booking a hotel room (both off season) and renting a place with other writing friends. I was also lucky enough to go to Cove Park through the Scottish Book Trust. The four experiences were really different (in the first flat I felt lonely, in the hotel I ate a lot of sneaky olives and oatcakes in my room and at Cove Park I stared at the sky a lot), but ultimately, it was the getting away that was the important thing.

Finding the time and money to escape isn’t easy, especially when it’s to do something that ultimately only benefits you, but it’s really valuable when it comes to getting work done. Sure, it means that instead of holidays where I relax and stuff I tend to spend any break working, but it’s super satisfying when the work is done.

There’s also a bunch of retreats you can apply to, including Cove Park and the current James Hogg residency, but if you don’t mind skimping on comfort, teeny hotels can be pretty cheap. And if it means you’ll spend some time really understanding a project or getting some words down, it’s totally worth it.

Books: the flings and the forevers

many books on shevles and stacked on the floor.

A long gone bookcase

How many times have you read a book and fallen head over heels about it, blabbed on at all your friends about what a life changing experience it is, given it a pride of place on your shelf, then gone back to it a year later to find that, actually, you’re not that in to it? I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this, and I reckon it’s the ‘lust and love’ effect.

You know, when you’re in the mood and you want something a little special to happen, and you pick out a book that looks like just the kind of thing you’re after, and then you project all of your good feelings on to the book and turn it into something its not, just so you can have a little literary fling. And of course, lusty, hungry encounters like that, filled with your own expectations rather than the author’s, rarely last.

These books, the ones you inevitably feel disillusioned by, it’s often that there’s not anything wrong with them, you just turned them into something they’re not. Don’t disregard them, recognise that you needed what they had to give at the time, and relegate them to a special moment in your past.

You’ll probably find that they offered you a few wee lessons along the way, so that when you come to the books that fill you with a real, long lasting sense of satisfaction, you’re able to appreciate every sentence, luxuriate over all the right words. Because those ones might not always be the ones that look as attractive or sounds as exciting, but they might just be ones that you’ll come back to again and again and love forever.

The post book fest blues

The Edinburgh Book Festival is over. The tents have been packed away, the authors and booklovers have dispersed, the grass is starting its slow journey to recovery and all over town there are folks like me wishing we could do the whole thing again.

There’s nothing like being to pop along to Charlotte’s Square Gardens at all times of day and knowing you’ll be guaranteed to bump into someone who is as crazy about books as you are. The atmosphere is always amazing, the bookshop is a delight and chances to see some of the world’s biggest authors discuss their work are never sniffed at.

Me at Unbound. Pic by Chris Scott.

No wonder we tend to feel somewhat deflated when it’s done for another 12 months. This year, I was incredibly happy to see lots of my friends perform at Edinburgh City of Literature’s excellent Story Shop programme and the popular Unbound nights at the book fest Spiegeltent. I even got the chance to read a story for Illicit Ink’s Unbound event myself, which was a fab experience.

Plunged headfirst from the bookish wonder of the festival to the stacks of work abandoned at home, I realised this wasn’t the time to let enthusiasm dwindle, and decided to book a last minute place on an Arvon course at Monaick Mhor. I can’t wait to spend another week luxuriating among words.

A little belated love for introversion

Hiding in plain sight

Who gets ahead? The loudest, the fastest, the best talkers, the dazzling party guests, the fearless? Well, a lot of the time, I’d have to say, yes, those are the kind of people that tend to shine. If you’ve got the gift of the gab, you’re probably more likely to find yourself being promoted, racking up invitations to parties and (I haven’t tested this one) getting laid. No wonder I’ve always been jealous of you.

All those years, forcing myself into group situations, trying to be free and crazy and losing myself the night’s sprawl the way my extroverted friends did. Those were good nights, I enjoyed an awful lot of them, but here’s me only just now getting to grips with the idea that it’s OK not to love being in a big group.

Actually, it’s totally cool to be the kind of person who prefers to hang out one-on-one, and even actually tends to enjoy their own company quite a lot of time. It’s taken a lot of time to get around to thinking that way and this TED talk helped.

It gave a lot of validation to something I’d always assumed was the case but never bothered to seek evidence for – that some people simply feed off group emotions in a positive way, and others don’t.

As it often is, it was actually one of the simplest and most obvious points that really struck a chord – that no one is a true introvert or extrovert, we’re all on a sliding scale. So it’s possible to reconcile the buzz you get from giving a reading or dancing like crazy in a club with the person who would often rather stay at home on the sofa with a book and only some words for company.

I promise I’ll make up for lost time little, neglected inner introvert, and give you plenty of love from now on.

A problem of solitude

So, writing stories, it takes a lot of time, doesn’t it? Normally, a lot of time all on your own, thinking hard and scribbling away. A lot of time when you may not be actually, physically speaking to or making contact with very many people at all. When I first decided to give up my day job, I looked at all that time, and I laughed in its face.

Ha, I said. I love spending time on my own. Books and words will fill the gap fine, and when I’m not chained to my desk writing freelance articles or editing the same sentence over and over again, I’ll head out to spend time with the people I really care about. Perfect, I said, you won’t catch me complaining.

So now that I’m starting to question just how easy it is to deal with daily solitude, I can’t help thinking it serves me right, really.

On a day by day basis, it’s totally fine. I get loads more work done than I did when I was in an office or working at a cinema and I generally seem to be able to tick along fine. But on Sunday I was reading at the lovely Illicit Ink, one of my favourite spoken word events, and I noticed something – I was super nervous.

I mean, I always feel a bit sick before a reading, that’s not unusual. But I was at least three times as nervous as the last time I read, which was less than a month ago, and way more nervous than I was at the end of last year, where I was pretty much raring to get up on stage.

After worrying a little about the Rescue Remedy I was squirting into my mouth, I started to wonder if it wasn’t just the reading I was fractious about – but the fact there would be OTHER PEOPLE there. More people than I’ve spoken to in ages, seeing as most days, the only person I actually physically speak to is my OH.

I hadn’t considered this as a potential problem with my suddenly rather solitary existence, but it’s probably one worth working on. Unless I can just start doing readings remotely, via Skype or something.

Rolling with the punches freelance style

By nature, I’m a routine driven kind of girl. I’m not saying I can’t deviate from the plans every now and then, but overall I find it easier when I have some idea of what’s coming ahead. I don’t know about you, but if it’s a workday, I want time to get into the mindset, and if it’s a day off, I want to be able to savour the thought of it beforehand. I do not hate a little forward planning now and then (although the big stuff, the life planning stuff, that can take a running jump).

Routine desk style

So the thing about the kind of life I’m leading at the moment, is that it’s not a very forward planning kind of life. Predicting when I’ll need to work and when I won’t is tough, because it’s not controlled by a pay check but is instead at the behest of clients, and we all know the fits of whimsy they are susceptible to.

Then there’s the real reason I gave up a full time job, because I wanted to be available to take chances on and enjoy things I wouldn’t when I was tied to someone else’s hours. While this freedom is wonderful, it goes against my natural inclinations pretty strongly. Sometimes I find myself tussling over how great and experience will be and how much it’s going to disturb my made up routine.

When the sense of adventure wins, it’s more than worth it. The other week, Fin and I went to see two shows on relatively short notice – The Bone Yard and 2401 Narratives which were both grand in very different ways. Then there was an already planned visit to Literary Death Match, a last minute decision to travel through for the always excellent Words Per Minute – all shows well worth re-jigging plans for.

But the thing that got me musing on his topic is really the way my plans have shifted in the last 24 hours – in which I agreed to help set up a short story event, fill in a last minute slot reading at Nights at the Circus tomorrow and attend a fabulous looking scientific creative writing workshop run by the delightful Tania Hershman on Friday morning. All of which I wouldn’t have been able to do this time last year, what a lucky SOB I feel at the moment.

Rolling with the punches might not always be the easiest, but damn does it help you get the best out of freelance life. If you see my whinging about my plans being upset, please do feel free to kick me in the shins.

Where does your imagination reside?

This year, I am making a conscious effort to reawaken a sense of curiosity and do things that spark my imagination. It’s something I suppose I have been putting off for some time, because I guess I liked to think that I already possessed these qualities.

But now that I have more time to ponder and daydream, I’ve been forced to admit that they are not as strong as they once were and that I am more naturally inclined to think about, well, boring stuff when given half the chance.

Is this a symptom of getting older or does it have something to do with letting myself live a life that is ruled by deadlines and making enough money? I also wonder how much of it is just plain old laziness. Why imagine things when someone else could do it for me? (I do love it when someone else does it for me.)

As part of this project, I’m trying to work out exactly what it is that is most likely to persuade my imagination into a flight of fancy. I’m reading loads, going to exhibitions, restricting the watching of TV shows and generally trying to not check the emails on my phone every five minutes.

Me as a wee 'un

But am I missing something here? Is there anything you do to shake your mind out of the mundane?

I recently wrote a guest post for the lovely Kirsty Logan for her Thievery series – posts about the inspiration behind stories – and I enjoyed the process a lot, mainly because it encouraged me to recall some childhood holidays I hadn’t thought about for a long while.