Still Trying and Failing to Read

Just before Christmas, I was involved in a 12-hour Yule readathon, run by a pal from one of my writing groups. The intention was to devote a day to reading, with optional mini-challenges. I did manage to read on that day, but not as extensively as I’d wanted.

Then couple of weeks ago, we re-ran the event. Rather than start any new books, I wanted to make some progress with War & Peace.

I’d left it about halfway through, and I hadn’t touched it in some time. A lot of people think it’s a hard read from the sheer size, but actually, it’s divided into four volumes with chapters no longer than any other novel. You could easily finish a couple before bedtime.

As I jumped straight back into the story and remembered what had happened, I enjoyed it as much as I did the last time I picked it up. But have I touched it again since then? I really want to say yes, but I have not.

The trouble is not finding the time per se, but alloacating it. You see, a lot of what I do in a week is time-sensitive: creating announcements for my groups, writing this blog, keeping up my exercise routine. Reading, alas, doesn’t need to be done by any particular time, so it’s often left behind.

That said, I’m going to make a concerted effort with Mort by Terry Pratchett. On Saturday, I’m again meeting up with the woman who lent it to me about a year ago, and I’d like to be able to return it fully read.

Poettiquette

I was invited to take part in a poetry reading on Sunday night, spanning not only the UK but other countries in the Anglosphere.

This was a mammoth four-hour stint, even with a time limit of ten minutes per poet, plus just one five-minute break. My spot was halfway through, but I stayed the whole time because I wanted to listen to the rest of them, most of whom were event hosts like me.

I performed one serious piece and two humorous. Although there was no audible feedback, I could see some of the faces in the crowd and read comments in the chat box. The set seemed to go down well.

At that point, I received a friend request on Facebook. I was glad that someone enjoyed my work enough to make that request. Furthermore, I’d been in a planning group with some of the other performers, so we were acquainted already.

It must also be stated that the public part of my profile clearly states ‘Not open to friend requests’, yet as of Monday morning, I had four requests waiting. One of them sent me a message acknowledging that he’d seen my profile, and was basically trying his luck. I admire his gumption, but I told him he could either follow my Hotchpotch open-mike page or my Twitter account instead.

On the back of this, it occurred to me that when people perform at my events, they might also have the same view, and a lot of folk don’t feel comfortable telling someone to back off. To this end, I’ve added a disclaimer to the open-mike. It’s likely I’ll tinker with the exact wording, but the spirit will be reinforced in event promotions:

Unless consent has been given, the host and contributors are not open to friend requests.

This alone is unlikely to stop the issue; three people have either not read my profile or wilfully ignored it. However, it acts as a pre-emptive reminder to keep some distance from those who don’t want to interact so closely with others.

Trying and Failing to Read

For the last few years, I’ve followed the Icelandic tradition of reading on Christmas Eve, or Jólabókaflóð if you speak the language. In a nutshell, it’s about exchanging books, then reading them all evening with a cup of hot chocolate. This year didn’t go to plan.

Firstly, I hadn’t been able to exchange with anyone, although I have plenty of unread books on my shelf. I normally choose a poetry book and try to finish it in one night. This year, it was This: Tay Poems by Jim Stewart, published posthumously.1

Secondly, I’d underestimated how rich and descriptive the poetry would be. I was enjoying what I was reading, but I found it difficult to concentrate. I gave up at the halfway mark to head to bed.

Just a few days before this, a pal of mine had arranged a 12-hour reading event the previous Saturday to roughly coincide with Yule. There wasn’t a schedule as such, just time set aside to start or finish our books, but that also didn’t go to plan.

My intention was to sit down and finish Mort by Terry Pratchett, lent to me by a friend. Instead, as the day approached, other events kept encroaching onto the day, including a three-hour Dungeons & Dragons session. As such, I ended up listening to a total of about two-and-a-half hours of my audiobook: Beauty’s Release by Anne Rice.

Indeed, audiobooks are the way I tend to take in fiction these days. I’ve been trying to increase my walking this year, and it fits in with my schedule much better than sitting down to read. Still, I will carve out time to finish Mort as it needs to be returned at some point.

1 Although it was only published in 2018, I’m having difficulty finding a place you can buy the book. The only place that seems to stock it is a Dutch website called Athenaeum. The publisher barely has an Internet prescence, although you could try contacting the editors via the site they do have.

Friday Night Amphitheatre

For over four months now, it hasn’t been possible to run my two writing groups in person because they’re both in pubs. While the venues cautiously opened a couple of weeks ago in line with government guidance, each group has a different obstacle preventing us from returning.

Let’s take the weekly National Novel Writing Month meet-ups. Last week, a member and I scoped out the venue with a view to deciding whether it was safe to bring members back. Before we could reach a conclusion, however, the decision was taken out of our hands.

NaNo HQ took a blanket decision not to endorse or support any in-person meet-ups until further notice. It’s a disappointing decision, especially as our area is controlling it well, but I understand they’re making the decision for every region in the world.

The other group is the monthly Hotchpotch open-mike for writers. Normally, we can attract a membership of 30 or more per session, so it wouldn’t be possible to cram everyone into the same space while leaving the required one-metre distance between people. On top of this, we have the additional hygiene issue of everyone sharing the same microphone.

What we can potentially do is arrange social night out where everyone sits at different tables, but this would have to be done in consultation with the bar.

That said, the rules are more relaxed in outdoor areas. On Friday night, I went to a street poetry event at a public amphitheatre in Dundee. This was run by Mark Richardson, who organises these ‘guerrilla’ gatherings on an occasional basis.

I’ve always half-joked that if Hotchpotch didn’t have a venue one month we would do it in the street. But was accounting only for the lack of a place and not a public health emergency. Besides, Mark did it first and his evenings have their own distinct character, so I’m not inclined to step on his toes.

My First Library

It came to my attention this week that Kirkton Community Centre in Dundee is on the market and there is a petition to stop the sale. The building also houses the local library. I haven’t been in for years, but only because it’s the wrong side of town for me.

My grandad lived around the corner and he would take me there every week. This was the first half of the 1990s, so I would have been aged between about seven and 12. As such, this was also before the Internet, so there were only books, newspapers and a small selection of video tapes.

I did read the occasional novel, especially those by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, but I don’t recall borrowing any from Kirkton library.

Instead, I always headed for the non-fiction section, where I’d borrow books about any and all subjects: building models from cardboard, how the weather behaves, running a shop, the ancient Egyptian way of life, &c. It never occurred to me to look at the catalogue system. My literary kicks came from simply rummaging around the shelves.

I could even find enjoyment in pure reference books. My grandad owned a thick Chambers dictionary from the 1970s that also contained a wealth of other data: the etymology of given names, ready reckoners for unit conversion, a guide to musical terms, &c. I still posess a copy, although mine is dated 1990. Even the BT Phonebook occupied much of my attention, with its pages of crisis helplines, or instructions about how to call a ship at sea.

All of which reminds me it’s been the longest time since I’ve visited my nearest library, just five minutes’ walk away. That’s only partly because of the lockdown; I’d used it only a handful of times even when it was open.

My favourite feature is the separate reading room, making it an ideal spot to work without the distractions of home. It would be entirely possible to set aside regular time to visit and to take out some books there once it’s open again. I could brush up on my knowledge of ancient Egypt.

Ephemera

When I first started performing my work in public, I used to make sure my performances were caught on camera. I could then review the footage and discover how I appeared to the audience. I still have many of these videos, the earliest dating from 2014, although I’ve now undergone enough stage experience to gauge for myself.

With extreme movement restrictions worldwide at the moment, many writers and poets are turning to video to deliver performances and workshops. I’ve signed up for a workshop with Imogen Stirling via Zoom starting on Thursday, while Luke Wright is performing poetry on Twitter every evening at 8pm.

However, there’s one important difference between my camcorder videos and live-streaming, and that difference is that streams are not necessarily recorded for posterity.

In 2015, the vice president of Google warned of a ‘digital dark age’ where data saved in the present day might not survive the upgrade from one piece of handware to the next. I found this – and still find it – a little odd, considering we’re also told that whatever is posted to the Internet stays there indefinitely.

I’ve found that the video retention policy varies from platform to platform. On Zoom, a participant can record the feed by pressing a button, while Facebook Live allows viewers to access a recording of the content long after the event.

Then I came into Wright’s performances at episode 22, and I thought I could catch up with the rest by simply scrolling back. Unfortunately, their live streams are available only for a matter of hours after broadcast then permanently deleted.

On Saturday, I took part in a fundraiser with local artists using yet another platform: Instagram Live. I delivered an hour of prose and poetry via the host’s account; like Twitter, my set disappeared from Stories after a certain length of time.

Thinking about it now, I could have filmed myself with my own camcorder or used third party software to capture the screen and audio output. On the other hand, I also rather enjoy that my set was done only for the people who were there to witness it at the time.

Remote Control

Regular readers will know I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers.

Earlier this month, we not only celebrated ten years as a group, but we managed to have our last gig before all the pubs were ordered to close on Monday 23 March. This attracted a sizeable crowd under the circumstances.

We’d planned to reconvene on Monday 13 April, but that’s almost definitely off the table. I’d always half-joked that if we ever had no venue, we’d meet up in the street. It’s not something we’ve ever needed to do, and – considering the nature of the threat – wouldn’t be appropriate.

So if we want this night to continue, we need to move temporarily online, as many poets and musicians have done. Our challenge is somewhat larger: we don’t just have one or two writers, but easily 30 or 40.

While mulling over the problem, I remembered we use a GMail account and that Google gives us a YouTube profile with that. So over the next two weeks, we’ll invite members to send in videos of themselves reading their work and post it to the channel.

It won’t be a patch on the vibe that happens when we all assemble, but it’ll keep us going until this lockdown is eased.

I also run a separate writing group every Tuesday evening as part of National Novel Writing Month; this also can’t meet because of the restrictions.

In this case, we’d already set up a Discord server where members can chat via text. Last week, we set up a voice channel alongside the text, and we were able to speak to each other, almost as if we were in the same room.

Playing it by Ear

About a month ago, I bought my partner an audiobook through Audible as she prefers them over paper or e-books. I also received a credit to use in exchange for an audiobook of my choice.

After some deliberation, I picked the J G Ballard novel Crash. With a running time of six hours, it was shorter than many other novels and a good introduction to the format, this one spoken in the calm and almost factual manner in which the author writes.

When hearing something on the radio or in a live setting, there’s no opportunity to recap what you’ve missed. Yet when listening to Crash, I found myself many times pressing the button to skip back 30 seconds.

It is true that if I were to let my mind wander, I would soon be able to grasp a sense of what had just happened. The novel is a heavily descriptive one, going into detail about the curve of the motorway embankment or the injuries sustained by the characters.

I’m already accustomed to listening to podcasts. I found it easier to listen to a single voice on an audiobook, as podcast hosts often talk over each other. That said, with the opportunity to repeat the previous half-minute, I wanted to dwell upon each word and to confirm my own understanding of what had just happened. I only made an exception if it were too inconvenient to reach the controls.

I am keen to listen to more audiobooks, as I enjoyed being free to work or to wash dishes at the same time. I reckon the more I do it, the less I’ll be inclined to rewind what I’ve just heard, so I’m still checking Audible every so often for other appealing titles.

Say It Like You Mean It

If you know anything about the town of Falkirk, you’ll probably have heard about one of its landmarks: giant statues of two horse heads known as the Kelpies. I visited the statues a couple of years ago, led by a tour guide.

Most guides would give a factual description of when the statues were built, how high they are, how many tons of metal were involved in the construction, and so forth. Instead, this one was a great storyteller, reeling us all in with a tale about the mythology of the Kelpies in Scottish culture, weaving in the facts and figures as he went along.

It’s this type of passion that makes for a good performer. Most writers and poets do infuse that into their stage presence – but I have seen a few who recite their words with little emotion. It’s particularly jarring when an event host flatly reads from a piece of paper that they are ‘very excited to welcome’ their guest.

I understand it can be difficult to stir up as much enthusiasm for a piece you’ve read a hundred times. Yet it might only be the first or second time the audience has heard it, so it needs to sound fresh. The best technique is to try to think about the meaning of the words as you read, and to make a conscious effort to pace and emphasise them.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another tour guide who was so memorable, but because he was so engaging, I’ll always remember the one who took me around the Kelpies.

Carving Out the Time to Write – and to Read

On Christmas Eve, we explored the theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make someone an expert in a given field.

It’s a concept I’m still thinking about five weeks on, so I’ve been conducting a couple of unscientific experiments about increasing the time available for writing – and indeed reading, which is almost as important for an author.

As many mornings as possible, I go for a half-hour walk around the local park. I’m also a frequent radio listener, so I often take my pocket-sized DAB receiver with me. I use it when I walk other places, and occasionally at work when it’s quiet.

For five weeks, I’ve replaced that radio listening with educational podcasts; the subjects covered have not been writing-related, as I’m already familar with that.

Similary, I also have two 15-minute breaks per day. To increase my reading time, I’ve started setting my watch to beep after ten minutes, during which time I concentrate on my book. When time is up, I then finish at the next convenient break, usually the end of the current paragraph or page.

By doing this consistently, I’ve now clocked up an estimated 100 hours of learning in just over a month: that’s already one percent of the 10,000 aformentioned hours.

If I were a beginner writer, I could replace the walks with audiobooks, and replace the reading with writing, and I’d be on my way to becoming better at what I enjoy. There is usually time to be carved out if you look for it.