Writing is Not Lonely unless you make it so

There are two myths in writing that are not true. The first is “write what you know” which is limiting, restrictive and should be “know what you write about”, i.e. do your research. The second is that writing is a lonely business.

It isn’t. Sure, you have to actually have to put the words on the page yourself and that’s generally done when you’re alone. But “alone” is not necessarily “lonely”. Even when alone you write with the knowledge of what you’ve read, you turn to other writers for inspiration, suggestions and advice. You join writers’ groups, either online or IRL. You don’t have to be alone when you write either. You can write surrounded by people (providing they don’t become a distraction), e.g. in a cafe.

Once you’ve got the words on the page, formed them into a poem and edited it as far as you can, you start thinking about beta readers, workshops, editors. You might take your work in progress to a writers’ group or post it in an online forum for comments. When you’re ready to submit, you read magazines and try and find the right place to place your poems.

Writers now are expected to get involved in promoting their work, particularly poets. Most poetry books are sold at readings rather than in bookshops. That means getting out and giving readings. A local open mic slot is a great way of meeting other poets and getting feedback on your work. But if you just turn up, read your work and leave afterwards, you might find that slots become unavailable because no one wants to listen to your performances if you won’t stop and listen to others. If you turn up unprepared, either mumble or shout into the microphone and make your audience uncomfortable, you’ll also find you’re not invited back. By all means, tackle uncomfortable subjects but poor presentation can ruin the best of poems.

But what if you want to set up your own events? You book the venue, do your own publicity, figure out your own set list and turn up hoping for an audience. But you don’t do that in isolation from others. If you want your event to be a success, you check local listings to ensure you don’t clash with a similar event. After all, giving an audience a choice of two events on the same date and time usually means they won’t go to either. You liaise with the venue to get the booking that suits you and to get the equipment you need. Obviously having the venue staff on your side by being polite and clearly communicating what you want gives you a better chance of a successful event. Being bullish and making unreasonable demands risks loss of cooperation and assistance, which will negatively impact on your event. When you do your own publicity, you rely on others to use your press releases, display your leaflets, share your event on social media and tell others about it. They will only do this if you have written your press release professionally, your leaflets are attractive, you have made it easy to share on social media (and not guilt-tripped people into sharing) and your reputation is such that people are willing to tell their friends and contacts about your event. The audience will only turn up if they’ve enjoyed previous readings by you or they trust the venue or they trust the person who shared your event. If you’re unrehearsed or show your audience contempt, they won’t be back.

What if you decide you want to do a reading with other poets, e.g. a festival event, a reading with a group with the same publisher or a themed event, e.g. to raise funds for a cause or to draw attention to a campaign? You can’t do it alone. You need to see who is available to read with you (reputation will take you a long way here), check availability of venues, check what other events are taking place, be sure who is doing what to avoid duplication or worse that some key task is not undertaken because everyone thought someone else was doing it, be clear about who is doing what publicity and whether there are any restraints on publicity (some venues will insist they do the publicity for certain channels, if you use a venue owned by a local authority you may need to do publicity through their press office). When deciding on a reading order, it’s best done collaboratively. A reader might need to leave early, another reader might prefer to read later in the order. If one person dictates the reading order without reference to others and hasn’t taken into account readers’ needs, upset and friction occur. A good team works towards a consensus with sensitivity towards the needs and approaches of individual members. If one team member assembles publicity material, they should check with other team members that the material is agreed by all and be prepared to make amendments. If two team members simultaneously produce material, a positive team will work to merge the best ideas from both. If a team is already discussing material produced by one member and, during the discussion, another member produces new material, suggests this new material is an alternative and is not talking about merging ideas, this member is not working collaboratively. When team members are asked to choose between material A and material B, they should refuse because they are actually being asked to choose sides, which divides a team.

For the event itself, everyone needs to be clear about the part they play. Someone running late without notifying or apologising (or having a good reason to be late) or someone failing do to what they’d agreed to do (without good reason; emergencies occur) puts stress and pressure on the remaining team members who may still be able to put on a smooth event or may find it impossible to put on the planned event. The disruptive team member(s) will find themselves isolated.

That isolation will come about through lack of invitations to join readings, other poets declining to join events organised by someone with a reputation for being disruptive or showing a lack of respect for others, audiences staying away and people no longer making recommendations and shares on social media. That’s when a writer becomes lonely.

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