Wednesday 2 September 2015


Why dating writers is not a great idea.
Yesterday I went to an Open Mic event in a grungy Edinburgh café. My young friend Hipsterka (her style, not her name) met me at that café once, and the coffee was so terrible, I never set food again. The prices are very cheap,  the clientele very young, the business philosophy very community-centered--free art classes, etc--but that coffee. People, that coffee.

It had been many years since I put my name down for a five minute slot at an Open Mic (pronounced Mike, by the way). Now if I read in public, I read as a scheduled speaker. That sounds rather grand, so I will hasten to say that I am not invited to read that often: only when I am promoting a book. Fiction is not very well suited to the five minute Open Mic format, as the most one can read aloud intelligibly in five (or five-ish) minutes is 1250 words.

Still, I used to write five-minute stories for my friend Clara Blackwood's Syntactic Sunday, and I dug some of them out their box other day. They are tough-talking, swaggering little things, which shouldn't come as a surprise, considering my then audience: intense, ambitious, Bukowski-worshippers in denim and black leather jackets, or fishnet stockings with army boots. I have here a story that distressed my dearest buddy Trish, as it was inspired by one of her ghastlier friends:

 So will this café of yours take American dollars or do I have to get play money out of the bank machine? Look at all the pretty colours. I think it's so cute how you still have a Queen. Who's this guy? Her dad? Sir John MacWho? Never heard of him.

Socking it to the Yanks was a tried, tested and true crowd-pleaser in 1990s Toronto Bohemia. Socking it to the Catholic Church was too, unfortunately but inevitably. And so I am pleasantly surprised to discover I took a big risk and sent up the "New Yorker's" fashionable anti-Catholicism.

But may I say it's been a pleasure to meet you? Sally's told me so much about you. I must say, though, that I was surprised to hear that you're a Catholic. You seem so cultured. 

There follows a paragraph of anti-Catholic bluster that could have blown from the mouths of half the audience before I--or the 28 year old I was--move to the safer ground of New York snobbery about bread. (What's good here? Is there brown bread? What do you mean by brown bread? In New York brown bread means pumpernickel. Sixty-percent-whole-wheat? Hmm. Not what I call brown.) So go me. On a stage where the F-word was king, that was bad-ass.

The idea of going back into such a milieu as a foreign 40-something terrified the swagger out of me. It roiled my stomach, and I made sad faces at my husband, who seemed grumpy that he was outdoors on a work night. The sight of the café patrons, one a young drifter in actual rags, tempted me to run away. Fortunately, B.A. spotted the tell-tale "clipboard" of the unknown organizer, and the possessor was so young, thin, enthusiastic and apologetic that my heart was rung. Running away might hurt his feelings.

So I didn't. When a grand total of four people volunteered to read, the youth decided he had quorum, and his small band retreated to the back of the café. He read one of his own stories from his smartphone--a storm at the beach featured--and then I opened Ceremony. I estimated that three pages of Ceremony would take five minutes.

The light wasn't great. My reading wasn't great. An inner critic started editing as I read, which distracted me from such stagecraft as adding "he said", "she said" to make it clear who was speaking. All my life, I have been writing "by ear", which means my writing is peppered with "he announced," and "she replied." But most people do not hear short stories and novels aloud: mostly they read them silently. They don't need words to see who is speaking: they can follow the punctuation instead. And thus "he announced" and "she replied" get chopped out for easier reading.

The audience, half male, half female, listened attentively and politely. The readers among them had a variety of offerings: free verse, rhymed verse (!), machine-gun fire lefty ranting, and then, thanks to newcomers, very polished Spoken Word rapping. Astonishing. It was the first Open Mic I had ever attended that was bilge-free. It was also the smallest.

Why am I going? I asked myself on the bus. It was a long journey, and B.A. looked grumpy. Going out at night is really not his thing, a lack I believe he shares with the vast majority of husbands in the Global North. I'm going to meet other writers, I decided. I'm looking for the Edinburgh "Scene". It never occurred to me that there might not be one, or that it might be extremely small. Mostly what I hoped was that it was not entirely dominated by noisy sneering atheists and lunatics who write ludicrous fantasies about evil nuns: this is what my over-long experience of a writing-group had suggested.

Writing stories can be a miserable business. Well, no. Not the writing. The writing can be great fun. It is not unalloyed joy, though; sometimes you have to really work at something, like at a math problem, you have to think and erase and sometimes just leave it temporarily to get on with the next part. The editing can be fun, too, although you usually need some time to elapse after finishing the first draft to truly see/hear what must change. Hearing someone else (ideally) read it aloud is useful, too.

The miserable part is the rejection. And I should know: I got another rejection email today. Big sigh. Rejection goes with the territory. It's like learning a skill or language: you feel incredibly stupid for the first six months or year or years, but as you plod through, things improve. You feel less stupid--but there's a catch: change audience, genre or medium, and you have all that work to do over again. I can get a great idea, or just write the 800 - 1000 words, on some interesting Catholic subject and write to an Catholic editor, and say "Hey Ol' Buddy, what do you think?' Chances are, if the subject is topical enough ("SSPX and confession: what are "faculties", anyway?), he (it's usually he) will take it. But having changed course for another river, I must expect a very bumpy ride.

Update: Tune in tomorrow when I discuss the amazing, possibly inconvenient, fact that men and women are different when it comes to falling in love.

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