Performances and Housekeeping.

On Monday of last week, I debuted a new poem at Hotchpotch. This is a local open-mike night for writers. While I’m far more of a prose writer than a poet, I thought this particular piece would go down well.

I’ve been to enough live events to know the standard housekeeping message that’s given before the performance. This poem was a version of the announcement that made it sound as though the speaker was having a mental breakdown. It did indeed attract a positive response, while a second poem and a short story were also well-received.

At last month’s Hotchpotch, I had a picture taken of me. I didn’t particularly like it because my neck was too far forward reading the piece. This time I was sure to stand up straighter and look up at the audience from time to time. I’m not saying my pieces came across better because of it, but I certainly felt better by paying attention to these factors.

I’m an advocate of people reading out their work in public, and of course in private while proofreading. If you know of a nearby group, go along and support it. There are actually two such groups around here, but I didn’t take to the other one since the focus there is mainly on folk tales, whereas Hotchpotch has a more literary flavour. Some groups even allow you simply to listen without contributing for the first meeting.

But what if there isn’t a group, or it’s not the right style for you? Have you ever thought about starting your own? There’s no reason why you should wait for someone else to do it, as it probably won’t happen.

The meeting place doesn’t have to be anywhere with a stage. We meet on the upper floor of a café, and we create an informal Poets’ Corner near the top of the stairs. Some pubs and coffee shops are happy to donate their space provided the participants are putting money in the till, so we hold at least one break during each evening. Just bear in mind that the venue could back out or change their terms at any time. A pub we used to use free of charge suddenly wanted £50 a session, even though we probably spent double that in drinks alone.

The other element you need to decide is the ethos. Should the audience offer constructive criticism to the readers, or is it solely for writers to try out new material? At Hotchpotch, the latter approach is taken, although there’s nothing to stop people giving feedback to each other privately afterwards.

But above all, it’s for writers to meet and talk to each other. Every time we meet up, I usually hear about an upcoming event or two that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. The actual writing process is generally a solitary pursuit, but we all still need that connection.

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Extrovert Through The Gift Shop.

There’s no escaping the truth that writing is a solitary occupation. Authors can spend hours of their life alone in attics, sheds, and cafés, immersed in the land, world or universe they’re trying to create. It’s therefore tempting to imagine that this breed of people are shy introverts. Actually, of the majority I’ve seen, I’ve found the reverse to be true.

These days, it’s important for a writer to be able to self-promote, as many publishers’ marketing budgets are not massive. A prime example is Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, whom I had the privilege to see at a live event last week. She was interviewed about her book The Luminaries and gave some excellent, confident answers. Doug Johnstone also illustrates my point, as he’s forever looking for an opportunity to crack out his guitar. Chris Brookmyre dispenses entirely with an interviewer in favour of his own speech, while Iain (M) Banks usually invited questions from the word go.

This space reserved for Banksy's next piece
This space reserved for Banksy’s next piece

Have you considered trying it yourself?

Public reading and question-fielding is not reserved exclusively for established authors. Anyone can do it, and I believe they should. Like many authors, I read my work out loud when there’s nobody around, as it’s a valuable tool for ironing out clumsy phrases and misplaced punctuation.

I also consider myself an extrovert. I might spend time alone in front of a PC churning out short stories, but I’m perfectly at home in front of a microphone or camera. I volunteered at hospital radio for a long time, and used to keep a video blog. I’m also lucky enough to have a writers’ open-mike night nearby, where I can try out new material. The audience is made up of fellow authors and poets.

That’s not to say I don’t find it terrifying standing in front of them. I’ve never made a complete hash of it, but I have stumbled, and that’s something I need to work on. But even if you’re an introvert, find a willing audience and push through that barrier. It’s valuable for seeing how well the piece goes down with the public, particularly if they’re laughing when they should be shocked, or vice-versa.If you do, your work will almost certainly improve, and if you become published, you’ll already have the experience of making public readings.

While I was writing this, I thought of one introvert who always causes a fuss whenever he exhibits a new piece. I refer you to Banksy in his iconic film Exit Through The Gift Shop. He seems uncomfortable with the camera being near him, but his self-promotion skills are second-to-none. I know he’s an artist, but if he were a writer, I wonder what type of work he would produce?