Archive for the ‘Being A Writer’ Category

How Many Wrongs Make A Mr Right? Debut novelist Stella Hervey Birrell on rejection, writing, and men jumping up and down in nightclubs…

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Hello friends! Remember me? I am indeed still alive, though my blog hardly shows it. Thankfully, I am lucky enough to know the brilliant Stella Hervey Birrell, and even luckier enough to be able to host one of the stops of her blog tour… so I am, rustily, back to blogging! (Thanks, Stella.) Stella’s debut novel is described as “chick lit with grit,” a slogan so great I wish I came up with it — and it’s called How Many Wrong Make A Mr Right? I managed to corner Stella for a small interview… you’re going to enjoy what she has to say, so grab a cuppa and get settled!

1.  I’m always interested to hear about how people started out writing.  I know that you’re also a singer-songwriter, and wonder — did that come first, then story-writing, or the other way around?  Or do you see them as being wholly unconnected?

Not wholly unconnected, no. I had to think really hard about this question: which did come first? It was terribly earnest poetry, really, as a child and then an angsty teenager. Songs have been part of the deal as an adult for a long time, and my husband normally writes the tunes, so it’s something we do together.
But when I gave up work, it wasn’t to write songs, it was so that I could write a commercial, full length novel. Songs are mostly written as gifts, or for my band, The Domestics, which isn’t a full time job.
I’d love to think that writing lyrics informs my prose, but actually I think they’re pretty different. Although it’s probably best that I don’t write in rhyming couplets!

Sam Burns Yard Domestics Pic
‘And now I will read you my full-length novel…’ Stella with her band, The Domestics. Picture by Caroline Pearson.

2.  Kind of related to that first question: what do you think, say, your sixteen-year-old self would make of the fact that you’ve published a novel? 

Oh my goodness she’d be delighted! She was so pretentious though, she’d have been super snooty about the fact that I don’t have a traditional, paper based publishing deal, or an agent.
She’d probably be more surprised that I’m a generally happy, settled person though, neither of us thought that would ever happen…

Correct cover!
Available on UK Amazon, US Amazon, Kobo, Nook and iBooks. (sorry, 16 year old Stella)

3.  What do you see as the major themes of your work?  What questions are you interested in exploring?  Not necessarily just in your novel, but in your writing in general, I mean.  I’m always nosy about the things folk want to drive at with their writing.

At root, I write for women. In my first book, the strongest theme is probably ‘loving yourself first.’
I’m also interested in writing about the female orgasm, in an educational way though – I don’t write erotica.
In other work, women’s empowerment, women’s support networks (good, bad and non-existent), and the whole parenting lark: things I’m experiencing now. For example, my youngest son started school last year, and the piece that came out of the devastation I felt was accepted by the Ropes Journal. Nothing is wasted, as they say.

Strident Feminist cropped
Melissa, How Many Wrongs Make a Mr Right?

4.  I know (*eyebrow-wiggle*) that you’re a member of at least one writer’s group.  Can you talk about the ways in which being part of writing community helps or influences your writing?  

When I started writing ‘seriously,’ my cousin advised me to join a writers group. I’m so glad she did. Being part of Tyne & Esk Writers means I have a place to read works in progress, the impetus to improve as a writer, a community of writers that I now consider friends, access to a ‘proper’ published author and mentoring from her, a beta-reader who surpasses all other beta-readers, the opportunity to read and comment on other people’s work, and somewhere I go every second Wednesday where I know I’ll have a laugh.

5.  If time, money, and lifestyle circumstances were not a factor, what would your writing career look like in 10 years’ time?

In ten years’ time I’d like a readership, not made up of my close family and friends, and a good few novels under my belt. Like about a million other people!

6.  I have to do it: what advice can you give to other writers?  What have you learned that you wished you knew before you started?

Oooh, advice. Er, no idea. Actually, there have been a few things I didn’t do, because I didn’t think to use Google. For example, I didn’t write a one-line pitch for my debut novel, and at first I didn’t write a good cover email either.
Having short works placed in journals really helps, as you have something to write about in said cover letter. All this advice is online, I wish I’d done my research before going out to agents and publishers! Or read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Especially as one agent emailed me the other day saying she doesn’t accept a second pass, once you’ve been rejected, she’s not interested in looking at future works.

Rejection email table
This is part of the deal folks. I love the smell of rejection on a Monday morning…

7.  I guess we should devote at least one question to your novel…!  What’s your favourite moment in the novel?  And was that moment the most fun part to write?

I really like the scene where the ‘gang’ all go dancing. I’m too old for clubbing now, but I used to go out a lot. It was fun, trying to get across the whole club atmosphere: how you lose all your friends but you don’t care, how obvious it is when a guy wants to snog you on the dancefloor, how, when a particular type of song comes on, all the men jump up and down a lot…

8.  Finally… what’s next for your writing?  Do you have a new novel in progress, or is there something else on the cards for you?

I have a work in progress (The Perfects) which is with my aforementioned beta-reader that surpasses all beta-readers. I am really excited about this second novel, and can’t wait to share it with other people. And I’ve got a sketchy plan for a third too (Having it All). My sisters are slightly nervous about it, because my main characters are two sisters. I’m still submitting short works as and when I can, and blogging twice-weekly.
For me, it’s about keeping going. Helen Fielding said ‘there’s always someone trying to tell you you’re not really a writer,’ and for a long time that person was myself. But with the support of my writing community and the validation of a publishing deal, I’m very nearly convinced.

17.11.2015. Stella Hervey Birrell.
Trying to act normal while getting your photograph taken, there’s another lifeskill I could do with learning… (Photo: Gordon Bell)

Stella says: “please come and say ‘hi’ in one or more of these places!
My blog space is
https://atinylife140.wordpress.com/
Twitter is @atinylife140
I have a page on Facebook here.
Email me at atinylife140@gmail.com.
I can also be found wandering the streets of various East Lothian villages.”

Thanks, Stella!

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I wrote a book of poems! It’s called This changes things, and you can order it here!

You can now get more content from me — and help me pay the bills! — by supporting my Patreon. Get a monthly writing support pack for just $5 a month! It’s like buying me a pint.
You can also support me by checking out the many sweet and sparkly things at Edinburgh Vintage, my Etsy-based store for jewellery and small antiques.
If you just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter, or email me via claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

UPDATED! Where is Claire? Readings and events for Spring 2015!

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

I’m going to be reading words at people from stages across Edinburgh and Glasgow this Spring! Come and find me…

Inky Fingers Open Mic Night: April
Tuesday 7th April, 8pm, Forest Cafe (Edinburgh)
Inky Fingers say:

We want to hear from YOU. We want your poems, your rants, your ballads, your short stories, your diaries, your experimental texts, your heart, your mind, your body. We want the essay on your summer holidays you wrote when you were four, your adolescent haiku, and extracts from your eventually-to-be-completed epic fantasy quadrilogy. We want to hear your best new work as well. And we want people to care about the way words are performed.

Aaaaand you’ll get to read with me, ’cause I’m the booked headliner person for the night!

Best Scottish Poems launch, Aye Write! 2015
Sunday 19th April, 7pm, Mitchell Library (Glasgow)
So as you’ll know if you follow my Twitter, I was PRETTY DARNED HAPPY to have my poem Bad Moon selected for the SPL’s Best Scottish Poems anthology (this is the third time I’ve been picked! 2008 and 2009 too, baby!). I’ll be reading that poem at this event, alongside some brilliant other folks including JL Williams and Richie McCaffery.

Shore Poets: APRIL (the open mic night!)
Sunday 26th April, 7.15pm, Henderson’s at St John’s (Edinburgh)
Every year Shore Poets hosts an open mic night in April — this one is already full, I’m afraid, as we had people signing up as early as September last year! However, I’ve seen the list of performers and can tell you, you’re in for a treat. I’ll be the Shore Poet on the night, which means I’ll also be reading a set!

Illicit Ink: The SEX Show!
Sunday 3rd May, 8pm, The Bongo Club (Edinburgh)
OMG CN LESTER IS PART OF THIS! Is that not all you need to know? In case you need more (wtf), there’ll also be readings from the holy trinity of hip young everywhere-at-the-moment Glasgow writers Alan Bissett, Kirsten Innes and Kirsty Logan. I’ll be reading ranty feminist poems about things like witchcraft, burying bodies and setting things on fire. Yay? Here’s Illicit Ink’s website, and here’s the Facebook event in which I am billed last because I am OBVIOUSLY the least interesting performer.

Hot Tub Astronaut: Launch!
Thursday 7th May, 7pm, Sneaky Pete’s (Edinburgh)
Hot Tub Astronaut say: “Please come to help us launch the beginnings of Hot Tub Astronaut and its project to foster a creative community and to facilitate all kinds of innovative making. Hot Tub Astronaut publishes contemporary words, images, sounds.” They do indeed! In December, they published one of my poems as their first ever creative output (woo!) and they’ve since published many a fine writer on their e-zine. Now, they want to spread the word to more folks and a launch is the way they’re doing it! Not all the acts are announced yet, but I know you’ll be able to come and hear me and the Great Colin McGuire for sure. Entry is a bargainous £2 and you can buy your ticket on the door, or here at Eventbrite.

My appearances at these events were in part made possible by Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund, who have allocated a small grant to allow me to develop my work during the period January 2015 to February 2016. Thank you, Creative Scotland!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Seven pieces of writing advice from the speakers of The Business

Monday, May 26th, 2014

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (1)

Last week, I was extremely flattered to be invited to speak at The Business, an event run by the University of Edinburgh and hosted by their Writer in Residence Jenni Fagan. The event was designed for budding writers who were keen to know more about the ‘business’ side of being a writer. I was asked to speak alongside publishing megastars like Francis Bickmore and Jenny Brown (!!!), and my topic was, essentially “is a Creative Writing PhD right for you?”

I think my talk went OK: the best part about it was definitely making my supervisor, Alan — who was hiding at the back of the room — blush quite a lot as I talked about what a brilliant mentor he’d been. But much better than my barely coherent ramblings were the talks of the other speakers. I hand-picked some useful advice from each of them for your reading pleasure…

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (4)

1. Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates, literary agent:

“Don’t write to trends.”

I’ve seen Jenny Brown speak on many occasions, and she always manages to make her advice to writers fresh and relevant to what’s going on in the book world at that very moment. However, this piece of advice is always in there and I think it’s something a lot of young novelists (in particular) need to hear. “You can never get on top of a trend,” she says, “because by the time you get your novel out there, you’ll have just missed it.” Instead, she advises, you should concentrate on writing a great novel that you love, and that your agent will love. “I don’t pick books based on genre, or based on whether or not I think they will be commercially successful,” Jenny said. “I mean, those things are factors, but at the end of the day if I love your book, that’s the main thing. All the books I’ve picked to represent, I have loved.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (6)

2. Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt, publisher:

“We need more narrative non-fiction.”

Did you know that the market for non-fiction is far larger than the market for fiction? “Fiction is declining,” Chris revealed, and he picked up on a point that Jenny had made about her love of nature writing. “Jenny said she was disappointed not to see more nature books. I agree. I wish more young writers would break into non-fiction earlier.” He said that for every fifty novels that landed on his desk, he’d see only one non-fiction work. (He also mentioned poetry’s market share: less than 1% of the entire book market. But then, we knew that, right?)

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (8)

3. Francis Bickmore of Canongate, publisher:

“The hair shines with brushing.”

Francis gave his own seven rules for writers, all of which were great, but this was by far my favourite. He said it came from a friend of his, another publisher, who’d been listening to one of their writers moaning about how many edits they were needing to do on their novel. “The guy’s response was, ah yes, but the hair shines with brushing. The hair shines with brushing. I think it’s Flaubert or something, and it’s so true.” In other words, edit, edit, polish, edit, polish and then edit some more. Make your writing shine.

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (9)

4. Stuart Kelly of The Guardian and many other places, critic:

“If you’re not interested in writing a novel that changes what the novel is capable of, get out of the business.”

This was probably my favourite piece of advice from the entire event. It’s something I might nick, except I’d replace the word ‘novel’ with ‘poem.’ What Stuart was saying is that the best novels are the ones that really push the boundaries of the form: one of the audience members gave the example of Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad, which happens to be my favourite novel ever, and really does do what Stuart’s talking about. “It’s not enough to just mention Twitter here and there,” Stuart said. “I’m talking about really experimenting with what this form can do.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (10)

5. Peggy Hughes, of Dundee Book Festival, promoter:

“Perform your work in public.”

Peggy, aka the most-loved person in Scottish arts administration (no joke, she’s awesome) was in attendance to talk about the role of literary festivals in the writing business. She revealed that she routinely attends poetry readings, open mics and other literary events in order to scout for potential talent to book for her festival. “Go and read at these things,” she said. “You never know when someone like me might be sitting in the audience thinking, I should book this person.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (11)

6. Kevin Williamson of Neu! Reekie!, promoter:

“Embrace the improbable.”

Kevin’s talk was mostly about his whirlwind experience at the helm of the Creative Scotland-funded cabaret sensation that is Neu! Reekie! He talked about having his face put on a new whisky brand’s label, meeting Richard Hell and somehow managing to get Primal Scream to play at one of his gigs. But it wasn’t just half an hour of how cool Kevin Williamson’s life is: he also talked about how rewarding community work can be for writers, talking a bit about his experiences teaching the poetry of Robert Burns in Scottish prisons. “All the things that have happened to me have been pretty improbable,” he said. “When Neu! Reekie! started we had no idea where it was going to go. So just embrace it, just go with whatever comes to you.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (12)

7. Jenni Fagan of the University of Edinburgh, writer:

“Pace yourself… and get off Facebook.”

Jenni is in the middle of developing her novel The Panopticon (which is good and you should read it, by the way) into a film script, so she fielded a lot of questions from the audience about that side of things. However, she warned that “98% of all films never get made,” and pushed the importance of focussing on the writing first and foremost. “I got off Facebook because I found that I was looking at things like the best way to peel a banana, and then from that I clicked on to a really cute photo of a koala bear… and then before I knew it I’d spent a whole hour and all I’d done was surf a bunch of crap.” She says writers ought to focus on removing anything from their lives “that takes you away from words,” but she also noted the value of pacing yourself, and knowing that everything does not happen at once. “I have this idea for another novel,” she said, “but I am pretty sure I won’t start writing it for maybe another five or ten years. You just have to let things take their course.”

Incidentally, if you have any questions about Creative Writing PhDs, keep an eye out for a post on the topic in the next little while!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Writing advice from Mary Oliver.

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Swanpy

I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader’s part in an implicit author-reader pact. Last but not least, I want the poem to have a pulse, a breathiness, some moment of earthly delight. (While one is luring the reader into the enclosure of serious subjects, pleasure is by no means an unimportant ingredient.)

[...] Take out some commas, for smoothness and because almost every poem in the universe moves too slowly. Then, once the “actual” is in place (the words), begin to address the reason for taking the reader’s good and valuable time — invite the reader to want to do something beyond merely receiving beauty… Make sure there is nothing in the poem that would prevent the reader from becoming the speaker of the poem.

[...] The poem in which the reader does not feel himself or herself a participant is a lecture, listened to from an uncomfortable chair, in a stuffy room… The point is not what the poet would make of the moment but what the reader would make of it.

Mary Oliver, from ‘The Swan.’

…and here’s a poem written using ^these rules. See what you think.

(Image credit)

The Next Big Thing: my first collection

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

huge_typewriter

You’ve probably seen this meme/questionnaire thingy doing the rounds of literary blogs lately? I have, and was kind of dreading my inevitable tagging. However, I found that filling in the answers below actually made me feel quite uplifted and hopeful about the scattered, half-finished MS that is my forthcoming first collection of poems (it has a working title, but it has a kind-of rude word in it. I’m not sure if I’ll have the bottle to keep it, or if a publisher could stomach it, so I’ll keep it secret for now). Thanks very much to Andy Philip for the nudge! You can see his answers here, at his blog Tonguefire.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
It’ll be my first full-length collection, so I feel a bit like I’ve been working towards it ever since I began writing. However, the central themes that are coming to define the working MS really started to emerge last summer, when I did a writer’s retreat on the Greek island of Hydra. It was July, and much too hot for me to be outside between the hours of about 10am and 5pm, so I was almost literally walled inside this one-room cottage with the Selected Poems of Adrienne Rich, and a notebook. I think it’s the most productive I’ve ever been.

What genre is the book?
Poetry. I’ve been experimenting, writing much longer poems than my usual, but I’m still not sure of them. They may yet end up on the cutting room floor.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d love to see a poetry collection — though not necessarily mine! — become a series-of-vignettes movie, like Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, one of my favourite movies ever. Like The Mermaid and the Sailors, this book is going to contain a lot of strong women. I can totally see Annette Bening “playing” one of these poems, she’d be great.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Oh dear, I’m really crap at this. I remember people sending blurbs for The Mermaid and the Sailors that said things like, “these are poems about x, y and z,” and I thought, “are they? Oh yes, I suppose they are.” So you may have to wait until the book exists properly, and ask someone who’s read it. The closest I can get right now is, “a collection of poems about women… and maybe anger.”

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
See my first answer! There are some poems going in here from as long ago as 2007. But there are also still some to write. I never, ever think anything’s finished. I’ll probably need someone to prize it out of my hands at some point and say, “for goodness sakes, it’s done.”

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
In the past two or three years, I’ve widened the focus of my life. I’ve forced myself to get out of my comfort zone in my work, in my slowly-growing activism, and also in my cultural intake: what I read, watch and attend. I always used to tell my own stories — old family anecodotes nicked and turned into poems, experiences I’d personally had. Now I want to tell stories about bigger things. I’m really interested in class now, and privilege. I feel a real desire to write more about those things.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The MS isn’t finished yet… I’m still not sure what’s definitely staying in, and what’s going. But there might be a poem about donkeys. There’s a poem about Allen Ginsberg’s mum. There’s a poem where I answer back, quite cheekily, to Carol Ann Duffy. I’ve also written a series of haiku set in the knicker department of Marks & Spencers in Carlisle… but I’m pretty sure I’ll chicken out with that one!

Will your book be self-published or represented by a publisher?
That remains to be seen! To be honest, getting a first collection placed at the moment seems to be a bit of a nightmare, so I’m not really thinking about it too much. I’m keener to end up with a collection I can be really proud of.

The writers I have tagged are:
Colin McGuire
Helen McClory
Char Runcie

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You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

More words of wisdom: Douglas Maxwell on the writing process

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Stage mic

Roughly two years ago I posted here about my first ever encounter with the incredible Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell. He gave a great masterclass on theatre writing — and just on writing in general — for the Scottish Universities International Summerschool, and I was blown away. Since then, I’ve got to know Douglas’ work much better — most recently, I’ve bought his new book, Plays for Young People (psst, it’s awesome), and this Festival I went to see his Dream Play at the Traverse (it was called A Respectable Widow Takes To Vulgarity. Needless to say, it was excellent). But best of all, he was back at SUISS again this year with more words of wisdom for our young writers. Here are just a few I wanted to share with you…

“[Writing] isn’t craft. This is art. There is no rule you must always follow, no matter what all those books say… and you will learn more from just doing your own work than from anything beardy fools like myself say.”

“The temptation for a writer to give up is probably the most constant temptation you’ll face — and you’ll never really break through to a time when everything you write is classic. But you must not give up.”

“You’re writing for a small audience of people like you, not Lord and Lady Such-and-Such. It all works better when you think of the audience as us. Not them — not, I’m going to shock them, or, I’m going to educate them. That’s not the way to go.”

“It’s subterranean autobiography. We’re writing about us. You can write about a world event, but what does it mean to you? Start with real life, and then drop a storybomb in there.”

“There’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobby, but if you really want to really do it you have to finish. You have to write ‘The End’, and send it out there. Otherwise it doesn’t count.”

“Who wants to read a writer who’s got a thick skin? Who says, ‘I love his writing — he’s completely oblivious to the thoughts and feelings of others’? Writers have to have thin skins, they have to be sensitive people.”

“Emotional writing is where it’s at. But when it goes badly, the blood gets everywhere.”

“You’ve got to remove guesswork — either by writing about your own life, or through research. But never guess.”

“It’s hard, because how do you find a voice? It’s a bad phrase, it’s the wrong way around. You’re not trying to find your voice, you’re trying to find a song to sing that suits your voice.”

“If you’re doing it for the money, don’t do it. It’ll kill you… you write it first and then you try to find a home for it. That’s how it really works.”

You can read more of Douglas’ tips for writers in his Playwright’s Guide To Being A Playwright.

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You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Check the ill Q&A behaviour

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

366 - 350: You can't shut me up

I’ve been to a whole load of readings and other author events this Festival – avoiding as I am every aspect of the white, male, thirty-something, rape-joke-cracking comedy side of things. And although I’ve had a creeping sense of this for a while, this Festival season it has really struck me just how badly people behave in post-reading Q&A sessions.
It’s got to the point where, on the rare occasions that the event’s chair announces that there will not be a Q&A session afterwards, I feel a palpable surge of relief. You’d think that good behaviour – particularly at a set-up as supposedly erudite as the Edinburgh International Book Festival – would be a no-brainer. But apparently not – it’s more likely to be a free-for-all of terribleness. Therefore, let me share with you my no-shit-Sherlock rules for good Q&A behaviour, wherein I will also share some of the horrors I have been [un]fortunate enough to witness.

1. It’s a Q&A… so ask a damn question
The clue to this one’s in the name, folks – question and answer. Seems straightforward, right? And yet, the most commonplace Q&A sin is most definitely Question Fail. The non-question usually comes from someone whose hand shoots up in a Donkey-from-Shrek gesture. And you can tell as soon as they start that there is no question at the end of their faltering verbal rainbow. They start with “I’d just like to say…”, or “Isn’t it interesting how…”, or sometimes “You’ve just got me thinking about…” And after a while it becomes apparent that they don’t actually want to ask anything. The speaker nods politely along, perhaps trying to engineer a possible response in spite of the fact that the non-questioner doesn’t really want one. The non-questioner just wants the microphone. And yaknow, we’ve all paid ten quid for the privilege of hearing from the speaker. Please ask them something so they can say interesting things to us!

2. It’s not all about you.
A greater awareness that there are other people in the audience would serve a lot of questioners well in general. I’m speaking now of those people – some of whom have real questions and some of whom don’t – who see the Q&A session as an opportunity for them to have a private one-to-one conversation with the speaker. They ask a (non-)question, the speaker responds, and then instead of surrendering the slippery, sweaty roving mic to the next eager hand-waver, they respond back – sometimes numerous times and often at length. Admittedly, there are some event chairs who won’t allow this sort of behaviour and who will attempt to head these me-me-me types off at the pass. But this is Blighty after all, and many chairs and speakers will simply nod politely as the precious seconds of the often-too-brief Q&A tick by. Again: dude, I have spent a whole piece of paper money to come to this event. I did not spend that money so I could hear you chat about how much you liked the voice-acting in Brave (this really happened) with a speaker whose topic had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Pixar’s totally-not-a-princess-movie. Please be quiet now. (Although yes, Brave is great. Just not now.)

3. ’splaining is never acceptable…
…especially when you are talking to someone who is an expert in their field. Seriously: I can never understand folks who’ll wait until the speaker has finished unpacking years of research on a subject obviously close to their hearts before reaching for the mic and saying “actually, x is totally untrue! I read an article about it in the Telegraph!” Some cases in point: Marina Warner is one of the world’s greatest and most knowledgeable scholars of myth and folklore. She’s been publishing on the subject since the mid seventies. What this woman doesn’t know about folklore doesn’t exist. And yet, at the end of Warner’s brilliant lecture at the Book Festival, a woman raised her hand to say, “I don’t know if you realise this, Marina, but Scotland has a very vibrant culture of folklore and storytelling!” Dude. It’s Marina freaking Warner. I guarantee you she knows.
I witnessed another example of ’splaining at Alice Oswald’s truly incredible Book Festival reading. There was no Q&A session, but punters were encouraged to bring questions to Oswald during the signing. The signing queue was huge, it was 10pm and poor old Alice had just read non-stop from memory for an hour and twenty minutes. Needless to say, she was obviously exhausted. And yet, a bloke in the signing queue in front of me had no qualms about stepping up to the table to tell her all about the good old days of his own Homeric studies as an undergrad at Oxford, and by the way, did she know x and y about Homer? The woman is an expert, man! She knows.
Finally – and I really thought that in terms of ’splaining, by now I’d seen it all – at Andrew Keen’s Book Festival event, a truly ’splain-tastic gentleman spoke up at the back. Keen had just finished discussing the possible dangers of social networking for young people, a subject that his two nonfiction works have examined at length. After slagging both books horribly (and I’ll return to this in a moment), the gentleman pointed out that, “according to studies” (BECAUSE OF REASONS!), young people are highly responsible users of social media and only ever ‘friend’ people they definitely know IRL. He actually said, his white beard shuddering with indignation, “I know how young people behave, and you’ve got them completely wrong.” As a young person myself (who has nearly 2,000 Twitter followers and not a clue who most of them are), and a FE lecturer who teaches over 150 young ’uns a year (all of whom talk about “some random on my Facebook,” etc), I must say to you, sir: you are embarrassing yourself.
Everyone else: please do not be this person.

4. Do not slag the book.
I’ve witnessed this more times than I care to mention, yet I still do not understand the logic. Before the white-bearded ’splainer above began telling everyone in Edinburgh all about How Young People Behave, he first launched a massive tirade against the speaker, his books, and everything he stood for. He began with, and I quote, “I read your first book and frankly I thought it was a shoddy piece of work” (cue a lot of booing and hissing-through-teeth from the audience), before adding, “and I totally disagree with everything you say in this new book!” Happily, Andrew Keen is a long-time Silicone Valley insider, and about as hard-boiled a speaker as you get at the Book Fest, so without batting an eyelid he responded, “so you’ve read the new book, then?” When Beardy McSplain had to admit that he had not, Keen continued, “well, you’re not putting yourself in a desperately credible position, then, are you?”
However, I have seen authors panic in the face of their book being wantonly slagged in the Q&A. In an event at the Book Fest last year, the author – who I won’t name – faced a screeching elderly woman in the front row telling her that In My Day Women Like You Would Have Been Called Lazy Sluts, or words to that effect. The poor woman was just open-mouthed with shock, as were the audience.
The reason I don’t understand people who publicly attack the book (or the author) is not because I think the authors shouldn’t have to deal with it. Personally, I see hecklers as part of the public reading territory and almost relish the challenge they provide (I’ve never been called a lazy slut, though, I suppose). No, the reason I don’t understand it is this: if you hate this person and all that they write about/stand for so much, why the everloving hell have you spent ten whole pounds to come to their event? That’s two and a half pints, or a good novel, or four copies of the Big Issue! Folks – do everyone in the world a favour, stay home and give that money to a deserving charity.

5. Wait to be asked.
Just a piece of common courtesy, this. I was at an International Festival event the other day – a panel discussion featuring three academics and the chair. It became clear towards the end that the chair was trying to wrap things up for questions, but before she had even finished speaking, an extremely rude man in the front row threw out his arms towards the panel and boomed, “SO LET ME ASK YOU THIS, THEN…” Happily, the chair cut in and demanded that a) be quiet until she was done and b) he wait for the roving mic (although he really didn’t need it) – but even so, I was gobsmacked. I mean, I’ve asked questions in Q&As before – I do so quite regularly – but there is no way in hell I would ever take it upon myself to decide that I was sick of listening now and HEY LISTEN TO ME INSTEAD! Ladies and gents – be nice. Wait til you’re asked. This is the literary world, we’re civilised here! Aren’t we…?

Right – now I want to hear your horror stories. I know you’ve got them! Have you come across someone even worse than Beardy McSplain? Tell me in the comments box!

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You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Eavan Boland on inspiration, the writing process, and failure

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Cathedral Quarry, Langdale

“I have never been sympathetic to the idea of inspiration. [...] I always think of myself as working at a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety five, it’s just a rock face. The other five days, there’s a bit of silver, a bit of base metal in it. I’m reasonably consistent and the consistency is a help to me. It helps me stay in contact with my failure rate, and unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you are doing as a poet. The danger of inspiration is that it is a theory that redirects itself towards the idea of success rather than to the idea of consistent failure. And all poets need to have a sane and normalised relationship with their failure rate.”

– Eavan Boland, from Sleeping with Monsters: Conversations with Scottish and Irish women poets, Polygon, 1990.

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You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Adrienne Rich on how poetry is taught.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

No Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom

You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it. That is not generally taught in school. At most, as if your livelihood depended on it: the next step, the next job, grant, scholarship, professional advacement, face; no questions asked as to further meanings. And, let’s face it, the lesson of the schools for a vast number of children — hence, of readers — is This is not for you.
[...]
To read as if your life depended on it — but what writing can be believed? isn’t all language just manipulation? Maybe the poet has a hidden program — to recruit you to a cause, send you into the streets, to destabilize, through the sensual powers of language, your tested and tried priorities? Rather than succumb, you can learn to inspect the poem at arm’s length, through a long and protective viewing tube, as an interesting object, an example of this style or that period. You can take refuge in the idea of “irony”. Or you can demand that artists demonstrate loyalty to that or this moral or political or religious or sexual norm, on pain of having books burned, banned, on pain of censorship or prison, on pain of lost public funding.
Or, you can say: “I don’t understand poetry.”

– Adrienne Rich

from As if your life depended on it, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, WW Norton & Co, 2003.

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You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Verifiably alive.

Monday, October 10th, 2011

Beats

I thought: I want to be part of some kind of organic and newly emerging literary scene. But then I realized: I already am, one that is largely electronically mediated, and one that is vibrant. I also realized: These things are invested with grandeur only in retrospect. In practice, they are messy and hard, and therefore verifiably alive.

Kyle Minor at HTMLGIANT.

(Photo by Dimitri Gurnel Diniz)