The Wonderful Thing About Writers

September 15, 2015

I have recently decided that writers, much like Tiggers (and three day weekends), are wonderful things. And while their tops might not be made of rubber, nor their bottoms of springs, they are generally a fun, fun, fun bunch.

Not only that, they are also enormously generous. And before you think, hang on a sec’, that’s rich coming from a writer, in my defence, the point I’m making is about writers as a collective, rather than specific individuals.

You see, I’ve just come back from the annual Festival of Writing at York University, and I couldn’t help but notice a couple of things.

Run by the Writers’ Workshop, the Festival of Writing is in its 10th year, and is basically a lot of writers, agents, editors and book doctors getting together for a few days to talk about the art and business of writing. It’s a great event and has been hugely useful to me in my own writing journey.

This was my 5th time, and a very different trip it proved to be.

In the past, I’ve had specific goals; to meet with particular agents or editors, receive constructive comments about my writing, and ultimately hope for some spark of commercial interest. But this year wasn’t like that. I now have an agent, who I first met at a previous Festival of Writing, and my book is out on submission with editors, so I had no obvious goal other than to soak up the collective wisdom and spirit of the event, and generally have some fun.

As a result, I spent a lot of time thinking, and the more I thought, the more I realised what an unusual thing this writing lark is.

We are constantly being told, for example in our rejections from agents and editors, just how competitive the market is, and that, even if you’ve created the most wonderful prose, there’s every chance you won’t be picked up; the publishing industry is on the hunt for the next big thing, and will settle for nothing less.

We accept this, as a group, and press on, polishing our writing and learning our art. We hang out at writing events, learning what we can, schmoozing our socks off, and, along the way, we celebrate the victories of our newly found (and, as yet, unpublished) friends. I had lots of conversations like that this year, giving and receiving such warm praise and support, that I came away filled to the brim with the sense that writers, per the title, are truly wonderful.

Because if you think about it, reconciling these two things shouldn’t come naturally; namely, writing is hugely competitive, and these people you’re congratulating are part of the reason! Even if your writing is ‘good enough’, chances are you still won’t get published. Because maybe the agent you’d hoped for has a full list. Or the editor your agent submits it to already has something similar on her list. Or perhaps you’re not quite as amazing as a book they’ve seen recently and been hoping for something similar to come along.

Whatever the reason, someone has pipped you to the post, moved the goalpost, raised the bar…

You get the idea.

But the chances of it being the very same person you’ve just celebrated with are pretty slim. And I think that’s what sets us apart. We are participating in a brutally competitive industry, and yet we can be as genuinely supportive as we are simply because there are so many of us, and the likelihood of you being my nemesis is tiny, almost to the point of non-existence. And hence, we see ourselves as competing against, well, ourselves (and, of course, this amorphous thing we call the market).

And, at events like the Festival of Writing, or even just in the comfort of my regular writing group, it’s all quite wonderfully refreshing.

Will the continued rise of self-publishing change this, as we accept full responsibility for marketing our ‘products’, and become still more painfully aware of the noise of self-promotion filling up Twitter, for example? Who knows? But for now, I’m going to savour the warmth of my writing peers, basking in the joy of that weekend in York, and feel grateful that I am part of a wonderful community.

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My Holiday of Calm Reflection

September 5, 2015

My Holiday of Calm Reflection

I was on holiday with three families with children, all variously related to me in some way through either birth or marriage and so was tempted to write about my holiday in the lakes area of the French Massif Central.

Oliver_Blog_Picture

Its dramatic peaks and crags and swooping drops to great volumes of probably even deeper lakes below induce a kind of existential calm. The internet only worked after a lot of jiggery-pokery and phones not at all, effectively severing whatever umbilical connection we had to stressful Britain. I have little doubt that the countryside in deepest mid-France worked its magic on all of us.

But freeing the brain to wander in this way can lead to dangerous territory.

For instance, what was it about everyday life that breaks that vital connection with the natural world, the real world? Why do we allow our own personal striving and everyday concerns get in the way of really caring for one another? Because that is what we seem to be doing in order to get on in life. I have little doubt that there are very useful Darwinian survival principles underlying the imperative to narrow down the focus of care and concern to those in our immediate family. In times of stress and danger, we need to protect those closest to us. Ultimately, when the wolf comes to the door, we have to save ourselves.

But that was then, and this is now. If we just follow our natural inclinations without allowing our intelligence to intervene, we eat high calorie foods and bloat out to unhealthy proportions. When we follow the news media, we select the tastiest themes and narratives that support our preconceptions about the world and this serves to deepen our prejudices, instead of challenging and perhaps overturning them. Why should we care more about others if it is going to cost us more money? Why should we buy into the notion of anthropogenic global warming if it’s going to cost us money and damage my lifestyle?

Last night I spent some time with a group of friends with similar interests. We established that we all had come from different parts of the British Isles. We have a diversity of outlooks, and probably represent every colour on the political rainbow. We all had writing in common and this factor was the conduit for sympathy, for personal tragedy, and hilarious recollections concerning the disastrous character of many foreign toilets. And in between these things, we found time to deliver mutual support and advice on personal writing issues.

The big difference was that we all knew one another, understood each other’s problems and wanted to help. But this is not where we as a society are going, so it seems. These little caches of human concern and compassion are counter-cultural and develop in the face of exhortations from larger society for more production and less waste. More exploitation and damn the cost. More selfish accrual of wealth and devil take the hindmost.

This is not the kind of society I want to live in, but I very much do want to be a part of the kind of society that cares for its members in the way that WordWatchers looks after the constituent members of the group.

There is no reason why we as a society shouldn’t face up to the simple fact that too much greed and selfishness serves us all badly. It’s just that we’re all too busy, or too lazy, or too greedy to make these choices, and we expect politicians to do it for us.

Oliver.

 

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