Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Visible Writer by Penny Dolan

The imminent Bank Holiday is usually followed by requests for various school and library visits. I really enjoy going out and about, but there’s a big difference between (ta-daaa!) the public face of The Writer and (grumble-mumble!) the Person who Does The Writing. By that I don’t mean someone ghost writing a sleb’s move into "Children’s Author", but the ordinary, everyday double life. Moving from invisible to visible can be a jolt.

For me – and don’t back away here! - the writer is quite introverted, mumbling, hesitant, unaware of people or things around them when they are busy at the page. Sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet, not bothered too much by eating as long as it can be eaten quickly, happy to sit in ancient clothes because it’s the story that matters, forgetting the time, forgetting the . . what? I’ve forgotten . . . and anyway, I’m almost invisible, aren’t I? . . . If you’re not my cat, and aren’t bringing me a cup of tea, or chocolate, just go away! This total absorption is why I didn’t start writing till my dear children could look after themselves.

However, the Writer who does the public gigs is another being altogether. As I put on my metaphorical “Writer Coat”, the adrenaline starts to rise. I work my way through the certain rituals. I ease volume into my voice in the shower. I prod the face into something recognisable, and choose my clothes with care. I pack and re-pack my “talk-bags”, mark up the trusty A-Z with post-it notes, write down precise times and schedules, and pretend to have a slightly thicker skin. In my head rings the double-edged phrase from Bob Fosse’s film All That Jazz, delivered with an enormous smile: “It’s showtime!”

School visits mean alarms at six, then driving off muttering Uncle Big Bad’s important injunction from Little Wolf’s Book of Badness: “Do Charming!” And through the day, I Do Charming, at least as much as I can. I really want the children to enjoy themselves, to have fun, to think there’s something good about this writing lark. I want the teachers to be happy for a while, to remember that writing isn’t punctuation, but a kind of making, an art form.

Is this Visible Writer a deception? Not really. The bright, energetic visitor is the twin of the invisible writer. You see, when - after a long dull trudge – when an idea sparks, or a story does start making one’s words move into place, it is that bright and wonderful feeling. “Showtime!” indeed.


Nick Green said...

I read an interview with William Gibson where he claimed that it's impossible to meet the person who actually writes the books. People who meet him expect to talk to a sagely guru who can see the future. What they get is someone preoccupied with what he's going to have for lunch today (or something like that, I can't remember what he actually said).

adele said...

So agree with you, IS showtime, definitely and not the same thing as writing at all. It gets harder and harder to 'do charming' as you get older and when you're as old as I am, you've heard everything you've got to say thousands of times before. Which is why I do so few events... Try to keep them to ones I know I'll enjoy. Or think I know....Festivals are best because you meet other writers there.

Penny said...

Nick, that's an interesting thought! Maybe why it's so hard to respond to the "So you're a writer?" at parties. If I ever do start to explain, shades of the Ancient Mariner seem to flow into my speech. And so agree with you, Adele, about the pleasure of meeting writers. However, in schools, the other writers or visitors usually came yesterday or are coming tomorrow, so before long "names" on the local circuit start feeling like friends even though you may never have met!

Lucy Coats said...

It's exactly like 'showtime' for me too. It's certainly not who I am at home, but it's definitely a facet of who I am. As I go into a different space in my head when I write, so I go into a different space when I perform in a school--even if I am just reading stories. I am always nervous, but it's a good kind of adrenaline nervous which I enjoy in a kind of masochistic way. Like Adele, I've heard all the questions before, but I answer them anyway as if they were brand new--as they are to the child who is asking them. My writerly instinct is to hibernate and use my precious time for writing--but getting out there, though against my instinct, is good too, and necessary. Though not always enjoyable.