Tuesday, 1 October 2013

WHO ARE YOU TODAY? by Penny Dolan

Who are you? Or as a writer, when are you, you?

Yesterday, on Desert Island Discs, I heard Lee Mack say that he hated performing when people he knew well, and who knew him well, were at his show. As long as his family and/or friends sat at the very back of the venue, preferably out of sight, he could pretend they weren’t there. He could carry on being “Comedian Lee Mack.”

Later, he said he worried when people who think they “know” him from his appearance on TV and Quiz Shows turn up at his comedy gigs. The “Would I Lie to You Version” of Lee Mack, with all the swearing edited out, wasn’t the person they’d meet in his Live Show tour next year.

Most writers, especially children’s writers who “perform” in schools, can understand what Lee Mack meant. The "Showtime Author" you is not the real you, or at least not the “author you” that does the work.

 There may be people who are completely one and the same in real life and show life. Sarah MacIntyre may sit at home, drawing in her sketchbook or or ipad, wearing a vast oceanic wig and dreaming up more SeaWig stories.

Philip Ardagh may constantly speak in surreal, combative twitticisms while strolling through the lost Victorian streets and poorly lit alleyways, sharing strings of world weary observations with his hero Eddie Dickens.

Historical fiction author Caroline Lawrence may talk to herself in Latin as she wraps herself in her Pompeian toga or, more recently, practice quick-gunning on handily empty hooch bottles.

But I don’t think so.  

 The Showtime Author is -  usually - a kind of creation, a personality developed and angled to attract the spotlight, not the whole self. Furthermore, pushed to the highest volume, Showtime Author can also be a danger, a diversion from what life as a “real life author” is like. 

Publisher’s publicity teams, the media, schools, teachers as well as children and parents love those writers who are larger than life and who can entertain, maybe, hundreds of children. But that Author is a simplification, a writer that's not quite real, a distortion of the role. 

Because super smiling Showtime Author isn’t the one who does the writing, or draws the drawing. The Working Author - imo and all that - tends to be a solitary, slightly tetchy creature, mooching around, thinking writing thoughts, mulling over words or plots, rehearsing lines or scenes or testing out characters in their head.

Working Author is the one who sits at the book, who persists when they could be doing other things. Most of the time, they are not really that bothered about interacting with ANYONE other than the shadows in their heads.  It may even be best if they don’t appear anywhere, not without some tidying up or refocusing their attention.

Yet – and I wish some people in education would realise it – Working Author is the one who writes, drafts, rewrites and edits, the one who uses up long hours of life on making the stuff, on the art and the craft. They do the work. They put down the words.

Not the "Hey, I'm an Amazing Fun Guy", although the work has its own fun. Not the hugely social Showtime Author, entertaining vast assemblies, although there’s few things as satisfying as a brilliant break-through-the-log-jam idea. The Working Author who writes is, usually, a different kind of personality altogether. In fact, I'd almost say that the two rarely appear at the same time.

The hall is full. I can imagine Working Author - her, or him - sitting there in the shadows, away at the back of the audience, giving a knowing glance over the heads of all those gathered together that says “And that’s not even the half of it . . .”

Penny Dolan 

Illustration by Peter Bailey from my book "A Boy Called MOUSE" (Bloomsbury)

PS. There is, of course, that other version - “Author as Ordinary Person” - the alert and often practical soul who deals with relatives and kids, shopping, poorly cats or dogs, visiting workmen, broken computers, post-holiday blues and more, while still yearning secretly – or not! - for a bit of Working Writer time.


Joan Lennon said...

We agree, all three!

sensibilia said...

"The Working Author - imo and all that - tends to be a solitary, slightly tetchy creature, mooching around, thinking writing thoughts, mulling over words or plots, rehearsing lines or scenes or testing out characters in their head."

Not yet an accredited author, but aspiring, I appreciate this description and totally recognise myself.

It's quite a relief, actually, to find that this is normal, not eccentric weird behaviour.

As for "Showtime Author", all that is very far in the future for me (if ever) and is somewhat scary for a naturally shy, reclusive person. Well, as they say about taking out an insurance policy and then finding it is never used, either scenario is equally freighted with both cost and benefit.

Linda Strachan said...

So true, Penny. We are all these people!

Austin Hackney said...

Indeed, indeed.

And of course, there are working authors a-plenty who do not slip comfortably at all into the costume of the showtime author.

There may also be wildly successful, self-publicising authors who are not very good at writing.

It is, however, one of the realities of our age that while I would hope a work is still judged for its merits on the words alone, a publisher will often decide on how hard and how far to promote the book based on a pay-off against the attractiveness of the author's face and her ability to charm a live audience.

It seems that a book cannot live on words alone, these days.

Catherine Johnson said...

This is the truest of the true , thanks Penny xx

Julie Sykes said...

So that's where I've been going wrong! I'm supposed to do dressing up when I'm in schools and not when I'm alone at my computer ;)

Wise words Penny.


Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for all the comments so far - and very glad I'm not alone in thinking all this.

Julie, your "That's where I've been going wrong" did make me laugh!

Stroppy Author said...

I only do my show-time author bit online. Does that count? Then I don't need a smart outfit, or to be able to respond to anything without thinking. So maybe that's where I go wrong - I can't be the performing author at all!

Penny Dolan said...

Stroppy, your online show time is good, especially "mysterious lady looking away over the Venetian lagoon" photo.

Penny Dolan said...

Sensibilia, it is possible to be both shy and nervous, and a captivating extrovert in front of people you don't know. Well, that's what I tell myself.

Austin, a sad truth!

adele said...

Love this post ! Thank you, Penny...

Lynda Waterhouse said...

So true, Penny! I love the illustration.

Damian Harvey said...

A good post Penny - and all so true. You've perhaps wisely stayed clear of the staffroom issue which in itself can be problematic at times as you enter them not knowing whether you can just flop and gather your thoughts and composure or whether showtime author is still in demand...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I LOVED this post Penny and I wish I'd read it before mine came up but I was winging my way home from South Africa the whole of yesterday!

So so true! The Showtime Author. It flattens you as you smile and cope with every emergency and contingency as if Showtime author and Working author is done as easily as stirring a cake with one hand!

Penny Dolan said...

Ah yes, Damian. The Showtime staff-room. A whole other issue. Not always the place to relax that you expect - can recall a staff taking me out for a pub lunch, expecting vivacious conversation after a morning of three different sessions and with an afternoon to follow. On the other hand, there's the staffrooms where nobody talks to you, and you feel even more of a daft cheesy-grinning idiot. I tend to do a bit of being sociable but then escape to a library or similar spot for a definite quiet me-myself time.

Enid Richemont said...

This is why I eventually dropped out of school visits altogether, although I'm at present hyping myself up for a book launch on October 15th. Any chance of you coming, Penny?