There are things in life that we tell ourselves are going to be easy. Writing – or writing fiction, at least – isn’t one of them, but you probably haven’t clicked this far to read that. But one of the more unexpected things I’ve learned from an MA course in Creative Writing is that, at least in my experience, there is little comparison with writing journalism.
I write blogs and ghost-write learned articles as my main source of income. Just as with fiction, there’s a fair amount of research involved. Fiction has to feel right; journalism – or at least the better of it – has to be right. And we could waste a lot of words on those differences. There’s usually a fair degree of revising and redrafting to be done in both cases too (even if this blog post is pretty much ‘bashed in and published’).
But, whether through practice or some inherent greater straightforwardness of the form (and many more trees could die to distribute our thoughts on that one), journalism comes quickly. I don’t think that’s just the simple matter of press deadlines, ticking clocks and publisher’s expectations, nor even that journalism can be more readily judged in terms of having reached a stage of being ‘fit for purpose’. I don’t honestly know what it is, but journalism is a quicker activity, at least for me.
Prose – fiction, or dare I say it ‘literary’ prose – is much slower. I don’t put this down simply to some sense of the agony of wrenching stories from the darker recesses of the soul. I’m not sure I particularly buy that line of thinking: not as a writer (if honesty doesn’t come relatively naturally to you, writing might not be the best remedy), and certainly not as a reader. Like most metaphorical forms of porn, ‘angst-porn’ palls after a while and lessens the subsequent impact of the real thing. If you’re not careful, you need a stronger fix next time. Soon, nothing less than plane-crashes, abortions, heroin addiction and incestuous torture will do – and you can get most of that in most soap operas. (I’m not a big Stones fan, but I always quietly sided with Mick Jagger when he sang: “If I could stick my pen in my heart/Spill it all over the stage/Would it satisfy you? Would it slide on by you?/Would you think the boy is strange?“)
Or maybe it’s because ‘fit for purpose’ is so hard to define. The answer to “Will this do?” is another question: “Do what?” Journalism, blogging and writing for distance-learning students has taught me to think primarily of the reader: the words are for them, not the writer. (This might also underlie my resistance to ‘angst-porn’: you decide, to borrow a popular contemporary phrase.) Deprived of the article or (paid for) blog writer’s starting point – a brief – I create my own. It’s subject matter arrived it, each piece is then usually a self-determined challenge. To use a particular point of view, to focus on particular senses – there’s a world to choices to make and combine. But I can only judge the result so far: it’s the reader(s) who decide whether I’ve succeeded.
In this specific case, it was an exercise in how much can be left out. There are two characters, in near-darkness. The story focuses on one who is asleep throughout. The other, who narrates doesn’t even have a gender, let alone a name. (Anymore than that and I’m writing spoilers: listen and judge for yourselves.) I was both surprised and excited to be chosen to read it in public – not just as it seemed an unusual story, but it was only the second piece I’d submitted anywhere other than a classroom. Beginner’s luck, perhaps?
The second unexpected thing I’ve learned – and it’s been considerably more unexpected – was the challenge of reading aloud in public. I’ve spoken at conferences and presentations: at my age (53), it would stranger if I hadn’t. And I don’t think it was simply that what I was ‘delivering’ was personal rather than professional. A guitar is something to hide behind, but even the seductive curves of a shell pink Fender Jazzmaster don’t conceal that much of an adult male: I could quote WB Yeats A Coat – a favourite poem – but once we’re in the spotlight, nakedness is a matter of degrees. I’ve walked onto stages with a guitar round my neck since I was a late-teenager. And not just pubs – bragging aside, some of those audiences have numbered into the tens of thousands. (Easier actually, as you can’t really see them, although their applause is scarily loud the first time. You do know they are there.)
So I thought it was going to be a doddle. I joked happily with friends beforehand, listened attentively to the other readers, recognised that slight ‘butterflies’ feeling of anticipation, but no alarm bells rang. And then I stepped into the light, paper in hand.
I’ve listened to the audio recording, and so have some of my friends. I know friends are typically kindly – there’s a reason that we liked them in the first place – even if they are, we hope, the ones who care enough to tap us on the shoulder and whisper advice. “I really wouldn’t wear those shoes,” they tell us. Or “I know you’re joking, but George is going to thump you if you’re not careful.” None of them have said I sounded terrified.
But I was. Maybe it’s because the playback triggers memories of the moment: I can hear my throat tightening and the occasional desperate desire to swallow or take a deeper breath. Maybe delivering a tense story was a blessing in disguise: the audience expectation of a degree of ‘delivery’ in the reading meant that it was interpreted as more a case of skill than of panic. Thank god I didn’t say it to a crowded pub basement at the time, but they’d have been wrong there.
Reading your own work aloud feels like a whole new skill, and one that I have yet to learn and master. Fingers crossed, life will provide more opportunities and practise will make if not perfect than slightly less scary. Or maybe I need to stick to writing stories with slightly spooked narrators.
But I’ve said ‘you decide’, so I’ll let you. The story is called Thrown, and you can listen to the audio recording here.