Whatever I may or may not have said about the difference between performing music and performing literature, I think I have stumbled across a similarity. With music, there is always a feeling of apprehension when you perform a piece publicly for the first time, and one that goes beyond ‘oh Christ, am I going to remember all the chord changes and the song structure’. Especially when something is a little unexpected from your main repertoire, there is a rather more fraught personal doubt: “how are they going to respond to this?”
Most of my fiction is fairly serious in tone. There are jokes – because there are jokes in life,: they’re part of what gets us through our darker moments, after all. A laugh can’t literally light a candle, but it can make the darkness feel a little warmer for a moment. So I got on my feet to read at Milton Keynes Gallery’s Spoken Word Open Mic night last night feeling more apprehensive than usual. The story was inspired by witnessing another gay couple have what can only be described as a ‘domestic’ about the responsibilities of childcare, and I realised that – sometimes at least – the age old dynamics of ‘but doing the kitchen is your job’ can sneak up on even those you’d expect to be the most eager to avoid them. As the moment was also witnessed by a young child, who later that evening asked me why my partner and I don’t have children, I wondered if there was a way of taking what is traditionally a children’s story format and using that to address a rather adult theme. (“Here’s your answer, although you may not fully understand it yet…”)
A Day Out is still a work in progress: my starting point in stylistic terms – the familiar Janet and John stories – turns out to be very challenging to write. The language has to be kept very simple, and quickly becomes repetitive: you have to respect the format while perverting it. Seemingly innocent questions can carry a substantial weight of irony, but applying it is like verbal jenga – you’re perpetually worried that the structure will collapse. And the audience has to do quite a lot of the work too: you have to let them in on the underlying joke early on so they can grasp what you’re trying to do.
And, of course, you need jokes. And they need a palette of their own, ranging from the simple guffaw to word play (ie ‘you could read that line as an innocent remark in a kid’s tale, but you’re 39 and you know full well it isn’t’) to the kind of joke that is the sugar-coating on a rather more bitter point. And writing comedy is no laughing matter – especially somewhere around the fifth edit…
So… I’m very glad to say that not only a number of the audience come up to me afterwards to say how much they’d enjoyed it, and to say that I’d managed to mix a good chuckle with a sharp edge, but also that people laughed throughout. And even in the right places. Sometimes, just sometimes, reading out loud can feel quietly vindicating – that, even if that piece needs another 317 rounds of editing yet, there’s something in there worth persuing. Thank you audience, for having me, and I’m glad you enjoyed it too.