You’ve been tremendously intimate with them long before you first say hello. This is a recipe for a disturbing experience
Ah, Best Beloveds, is it that time again? Am I really propped up on yet another hotel bed and nursing my bruised laptop into one of our usual time-delayed chats? Yes. Am I at another festival? Oh, yes. Am I in Galway, at the very lovely Cúirt festival, surrounded by still-trembling and weeping participants who had to get here in the non-flying, convoluted, mind-crushing and spine-warping ways that I now take for granted as an inveterate airport avoider? Indeed. I am. And may I just mention that I have quite recently decided my accommodation should always feature a small chandelier and a jacuzzi. I am very fond of my jacuzzi, it is tender and true, and – in fact – should we grow any closer, I may have to marry it.
I’ve already mentioned how nourishing it is to attend festivals and meet members of the public who care about books and who greet them with intelligent enthusiasm. Festivals also provide an opportunity for writers to meet other writers and this can be a splendid thing. (Although we should always be prevented from breeding – the resultant impoverished gene-pools, interlocking autobiographies and romans à clef would be more horrible than we can imagine – and we can imagine a lot, as you know.) But there are always pitfalls when it comes to encountering writers, even if you are one yourself.
For example – do you really want to say hello to X or Y author whose every semicolon has caused your tiny heart to flutter like a prayer flag in a breeze of pure delight? What if they turn out to be twat? Then you’ll feel betrayed and unable to read them. Actually, it’s quite unlikely that someone whose work you really connect with won’t be someone with whom you would also get along – their work is of them and from them and will be dibbled all over with things that are, in various ways, highly characteristic of who they truly are. Like the fruit – enjoy the tree. But they may be having an off day – or a divorce (writers are constantly getting divorced, it’s not unlikely).
Be careful with yourself in this regard, perhaps observe your idol for a while before approaching and, should he or she cuff an old lady out of their way or step on a dog, then maybe allow them to retain their mystery. And bear in mind that, if you do approach them and interact, you will think that you know them already. Writing and reading are intimate processes and so, in a way, you have been doing an intimate thing together, in your absence. This can be both unnerving and misleading. If you consider that even I – your humble, raddled, permanently weary and deeply unprepossessing author – have encountered a number of gentlemen who decided to be in love with me within moments, purely because my texts had previously interfered with them, then you can imagine what a minefield this becomes for people who are attractive and good at social contact. And, of course, I have fallen distantly and quietly in love with authors myself. It’s hard not to – their voice is already in your mind, the walls are breached. Best to run. I always do.
Above all, I avoid talking to other writers about writing. This seems counterintuitive, but trust me – the last thing you want is to be discussing the thing you love doing most in the world, the thing that is woven up and down your arteries and in the marrow of your bones, and to find they don’t do it the same way. When you’re inexperienced, this dreadful revelation makes you feel you should give up at once because you’re an idiot. When you’re a little more grounded, it can lead you into terrible, never-speak-to-me-again arguments and, whatever else happens, it will be disturbing. Deeply.
Let me put it this way – I have chums who are actors. They have to do actory things and this occasionally involves their being unclothed and simulating activities which would not normally involve a focus puller and someone who powders your arse to stop it shining. (I don’t mean porn, I mean proper acting. I don’t know anyone who does porn. No harm to them, I just don’t.) Now, of my chums, some are happy with the whole – if the part requires it – naked and groaning thing and find they can think of it as something sculptural and interesting and they are, of course, meanwhile involved in working and concentrating and remembering what they should do and say and so it’s really no big deal and they are wholly comfortable with the undertaking. (I would have to point out these are people who have relatively high self-esteem and with whom I have difficulty identifying.) Other chums are not happy – they worry that their physical manifestation is unsaveably awful from any and every angle and worry further that when they are pretending to do this, that and – most particularly – the other there will be something fundamentally wrong with their presentation. Yes, they’re only acting, but somehow the way they are acting will let an entire stricken film crew and then generations of nauseated viewers know that, in their own personal lives, they are deeply peculiar and/or pathetic and/or borderline criminal.
I, naturally, identify much more with these chums. And, for me, hearing a fellow-practitioner describe a writing process which is utterly and shakingly alien is always going to be very much like having the director faint and your collaborator throw up in a corner simply because you’ve made the noises you always make at home and which seem perfectly normal to you, while going through moves which are the best representation of physical affection you can muster and – again – seem quite reasonable and why are those guys laughing and why have they called the police? Humiliating, corrosive, bewildering – that kind of stuff can throw you off for months. I’m more than happy to accept that the multiplicity of writings and writers give rise to innumerable methodologies and there is no harm in this. It is sometimes hugely stimulating to learn from the differences, the conflicts in beliefs and approaches to a craft. But it may not be the best use of your time.
When you meet someone who is in harmony with your aims and hopes, who’s up ahead, who’s tried things and been brave in places you haven’t imagined, who is like you, but bigger and better and finer – that’s when I find the real learning begins. Sometimes in a chance meeting over breakfast, sometimes during an event, sometimes as part of a correspondence – you never know when someone will make the whole thing five-dimensional, pressing, new. But you can hope for it, be ready, keep alert – as any writer probably should in general. Onwards…