Sunday, 20 January 2013

Here's to the part-timers!

It was a sad decision to have to take – to close down a successful monthly open mic that had been giving the poets of York a voice for more than seven years. Last month The Speakers' Corner closed its doors for the last time, for the immediate future at least. And I know I won't be the only one who misses it.

I've been MC at Speakers' Corner since 2007. The monthly spoken word night has become such an integral part of my time in York that it's strange to face life without it. The welcome I received when I first turned up there, as a newcomer to the city and the literary scene, was what first made me feel I belonged in York. And I know that others have felt the same. I'm really proud of the fact that we have given some brilliant up-and-coming writers their first platform, either in the open mic or as a guest feature. And I'm very, very proud of those superb poets and performers I have had the pleasure and privilege to work with as co-hosts.

But all good things come to an end. Sooner or later, circumstances dictate that things have to change. And not everyone is keen on that idea.

The closure of Speakers' Corner has made me acutely aware of something that has troubled me for awhile about the literary scene. Because of those who have demanded "Why have you closed Speakers' Corner?", a significant but vocal minority have expressed what I can only describe as surprise and disbelief that the three of us who have been running the event actually have other commitments in our lives. The tone has been almost accusatory at times. How dare you put family, friends, career, study or your own health above attending literary gatherings! Where’s your dedication to your art?

There is an expectation that if you write, and are serious about making a success of your writing, that this has to be your all-consuming preoccupation. Everything else – housework, family life, social life, the need to pay the bills – is to be treated as something which gets in the way. Literary magazines are full of this attitude. Countless interviews with authors and poets describe in lurid terms how it was necessary to jettison the day job, the husband or wife, and all previous interests in order to get the debut novel or poetry collection published. Aspiring writers are told in no uncertain terms that there is no place for the part-timer in the literary world.

Well I disagree.

Literature is full of first-rate, part-time authors and poets. Two of my literary heroes, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, made their living as lecturers, not writers. Tolkien's writing was a spin-off from his academic interests in mythology and language, and from his need to entertain his children with bedtime stories. It WASN'T the be-all and end-all of his life. William Blake spent so much time and energy on social and political campaigning that it's a wonder he ever found time to do any writing. Philip Larkin was quite possibly the most famous librarian of the 20th century – after all, nobody can expect to pay the bills with poetry alone!

So why this modern tendency to insist that if you want to write seriously, you have to write 24/7, and anything less is going to harm your prospects as a writer?

I suspect it's not really about the writing. The real issue is the self-promotion that is now expected to go hand in hand with the writing. We all know that the market is overcrowded and it's hard for new voices to get noticed. So it's all too easy for the assumption to creep in that if you're not flogging your wares at every open mic or literary event in town, or travelling great distances to perform to new, potential book-buying audiences, then you're not doing the job properly.

Eventually, if the publishing deal doesn't turn up, something's got to give. The literary equivalent of "executive burn-out" is bound to set in. Exhaustion, disillusionment or the demands of the real world will take their toll. And I think more writers (and agents, and publishers) should be upfront and honest about that.

The test of whether or not you're a writer is not to do with how many open mics you perform at, how many tweets you send out, or how much of your life you spend schmoozing other writers at literary events. The test is simply that you write something, sometime; anything else is a bonus. If that means taking a step back from the self-promotion to give yourself the emotional space to be creative again, for goodness' sake do it and don't be embarrassed about it! It doesn't mean that you're letting the side down or that you'll never be a success.

So here's to the part-timers: the latter-day Tolkiens, Larkins and Lewises. Be proud of what you're doing. And don't let ANYBODY tell you it isn’t enough.