Last week, I learnt that the venue we use for Hotchpotch – the spoken-word open-mike night – will be closed for refurbishment until the end of August or the beginning of September.
You might remember three weeks ago, I spoke about the importance of keeping a kind of Cabinet office when there are difficult decisions to be made. The system definitely worked in this instance, with regular members making good suggestions about what to do next.
Within 24 hours, we’d managed to secure another bar in the city centre for this month, and potentially next. We even had an offer from another venue that we can investigate if we need to. The next Hotchpotch will now take place in the Westport Bar in Dundee on Monday 16 July at 7pm.
I mentioned last week I would be spending a lot of time on trains, thus giving me time to read.
When travelling by rail, it’s always prudent to expect delays. In this case, another train broke down near Penrith station and the passengers on mine were allowed onto the platform while the obstruction was cleared. This gave me time to finish one of my books, but I also needed to work on a presentation.
Every month, Creative Dundee holds an event called Make / Share. This is a night where people such as designers, artists, computer programmers, or anyone who creates something, are invited to speak about their work. The next event is on Tuesday 10 July and I’ve been asked to speak on the theme of impostor syndrome.
I’m not a lifelong fiction writer and certainly not a lifelong poet, and I’ve always been upfront about this. Even so, it’s difficult not to feel an outsider when you’re among people who’ve been creating fictional universes since they were in primary school. I’ll be telling the audience about five times I felt I didn’t belong on the writing scene.
I also mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, when I appeared on The Beans Podcast. This is a weekly show compèred by my friends Valerie Mullen, Erin Farley and Sam Gonçalves. Like Make / Share, which Sam hosts, the podcast also invites creative people to give their story; indeed, it’s also worth listening to their previous episode about learning to like poetry.
But until the real writers figure out I’m one massive fraud, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.
By the time you read this entry, I’ll be on a train between Edinburgh and Preston. It’s a long journey, so I’m going to use the time to read two borrowed books.
The first is ‘Hong Kong’ Full Circle 1939-45 by Alexander Kennedy. The author was a lieutenant commander who had 500 copies privately published to tell the story of his service. Although it’s not something I would pick myself, I’ve flipped through some of the pages, and it promises to be an engaging story.
The second is The Lighthouse Boy by Craig Mair, about the construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Arbroath. I originally intended to read the book in the town, ideally on the cliffs overlooking the water, but my plan didn’t work out. Although the overall book is a work of fiction, its characters are based on real people and the plot is based on actual events.
There used to be a Silent Reading Party nearby, modelled upon an event in New York, where readers would sit together and read silently for an hour; attendees were allowed to converse beforehand and afterward. Unfortunately, the organiser hasn’t run the parties for some months now and I have too many commitments to revive it.
I enjoyed attending because the time was specifically set aside for reading. If I’d decided to do it myself at home or even in a cafe, I would probably have become distracted, but the presence of the other attendees kept me what your organiser has focused. So I hope I’m able to employ some self-discipline on this train journey.
When you lead a group, it’s tempting to give orders and expect others to fall in line. There are situations where this is appropriate, particularly in the military.
But in a writing group, a dictatorial attitude only stirs resentments and makes people want to leave. On the other hand, discussing the matter with everyone in the group often leads to a jumble of individual opinions with no consensus. So what is a good way to make a decision on behalf of a group?
In many democracies, only a small percentage of politicians comprise the Cabinet and make most of the decisions. It’s not a perfect system, but it does reduce the number of opinions to a manageable figure, and that’s why I like keeping a group of representatives for advice.
For example, I lead the Dundee & Angus region of National Novel Writing Month. This a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in November, and we also meet up unofficially all year round. There are 520 members who have our region as their home region, but only 1% to 2% come regularly to meetings.
Most day-to-day issues can be solved by speaking to my co-lead, yet the input of the members is particularly valuable in the months leading up to the November challenge.
In those 30 days, we’re required to arrange a launch party, a ‘Thank Goodness It’s Over’ party, and to encourage members to donate money and/or buy merchandise. On our own initiative, we arrange two meetings per week instead of the usual one, we make sure we’re contactable online and by phone, and we tell members how to protect their physical and mental health during the challenge. And on top of that, we’re all trying to reach the 50,000-word goal.
Thanks to this level of involvement with the co-lead and the active members, it’s been a joy to manage this region each year.
In April, I began to redraft a novel that I originally wrote in 2011. In the intervening years, I’ve learnt a lot more about the principles of structure and how to raise the stakes in a narrative, so I was pleased with the way the redraft was turning out.
However, there came a point where I’d pushed the main character through as many hoops as I could conceive until he’d achieved his goal. At that point, there wasn’t much to keep him from doing anything he wanted without resistance, so the narrative began to stall. At around the same time, I began to pull together a spoken-word show. I therefore made the decision to leave aside the novel, so for the last month, I’ve been concentrating on the show.
When I stop thinking about a work in progress, I find that’s the time to leave it. The novel is currently handwritten, so I’ll start typing that up once I’m finished with the show, then see where we can take the main character from there.
Other highlights this week include performing at Inky Fingers in Edinburgh on Tuesday and listening to some cracking poets, including the featured Rachel Plummer.
And on Thursday, I heard Caroline Bird performing from In These Days of Prohibition. This is the second time I’ve heard her on stage, and it was again a wonderfully absurdist experience.
On Wednesday, I saw one of my idols at The Mash House in Edinburgh. Andrea Gibson is a non-binary poet who uses the singular ‘they’ pronoun. This was the very city where I’d been introduced to their work.
It seemed to be the convention that the audience sat on the floor, so I was battling with needles and pins for much of the evening, not to mention a wet patch where someone had accidentally kicked over my wine.
But in spite of the setbacks, the gig itself was amazing. I enjoyed Gibson’s often dense wordplay and imagery, which engaged and touched us in equal measure. Many of the poems were accompanied by recorded music.
Just about everyone in the audience queued up to have merchandise signed after the gig. I didn’t, but I wanted to tell them how much their work had helped me write mine. From nowhere, I found myself ready to cry as I spoke. They seemed to be genuinely appreciative of the thought.
The support act was Suky Goodfellow. I’d heard of her before but this was the first time I’d encountered her poetry. She commanded the stage as she spoke about wealth creators and why swear words shouldn’t be rude.
If I have the opportunity to see Gibson and/or Goodfellow again, I shall definitely take it.
I feel as though I’m giving you a cop-out entry this week because it exists only to link to other posts.
This is partly because I haven’t had much time; I’ve spent a lot of it on a new long-form piece. And it’s partly because another poet has put together some excellent advice that I’d like to share.
A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Blair asked his friends what advice they wish they’d known before taking part in their first open-mike night. The advice he received – including mine – appear in his entry So…you want to do an open mic night.