A couple of days ago, I watched a clip from a Lincoln Centre concert. Billy Joel was on stage with some mates — Kevin Spacey, Tony Bennett, Josh Groban and others, performing his seminal hit, Piano Man. (Question: What’s the female equivalent to ‘seminal’? Vaginal fluid-inal? For that matter, what’s the female version of ’emasculation’?)
But I digress. Back to Billy.
The audience was enraptured, singing along, word-perfect, and I was, I admit, a little jealous. Just look at the crowd, the way they are all one, united by the song:
I love Billy Joel, but, seriously, dude, these lyrics. ‘A smile ran away from his face…’ OK, yeah, that’s the sour grapes talking.
But here’s the thing: why don’t we have group read-alongs? When was the last time you saw an auditorium full of Douglas Adams fans all reading in harmony, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, swelling as they reach the final chapter? Hugging each other in the shared pleasure. Weeping at the memories. Or a couple of drunks staggering home reciting Keats: O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been / Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth… Now wouldn’t that sound far superior to, well, any pop song at all, really? OK, I’ll make an exception for Shane McGowan and the Pogues. You can’t sing their stuff sober, so you’d better be drunk before you hic your way through Her Father Didn’t Like Me, Anyway.
But to get back on topic: We authors got gypped.
Think about it. All of the arts, other than writing, are meant to be shared. If you like music, there are choirs and orchestras and groups. If dancing is your thing, then there are ballet classes, salsa studios, and whatever the modern equivalent is to nightclubs. Even visual artists can, if they choose, paint as part of a group, or they can partner up for companionship and feedback. Look at van Gogh and Gauguin. Actually, don’t. That partnership didn’t end well. OK, then, look at how paintings are exhibited, in galleries where people walk around and discuss, or take out their own materials and copy the masterpieces before them. How often does a group of would-be writers gather to copy, word for word, James Joyce’s The Dead?
Writing is less rock concert, more Vulcan mind meld: My thoughts to your thoughts…
Pity the poor old writer, eh. Sat all alone, day after day, with nothing but his imaginary friends to keep him company. And some of those imaginary friends are mean and refuse to talk to him, and mock him with the other characters when they think he’s not looking.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: What about book clubs and author’s readings? What about signings and… and… well, there must be more.
And here’s my answer: Book clubs don’t exist for people to read the books together. They’ve already done the reading (or claim that they have), and the purpose of the club is for members to analyse.
Analysing is NOT reading.
Author’s readings can come close to a collective experience. At least you have a crowd who have gathered to listen and experience the joy of the tale or the poem. Hopefully, without heckling. But in general, readings serve as a pitch for the author’s next novel, not so much for one everyone has already read.
So why do we do it?
I’m damned if I know. Other writers with far more wit, wisdom and experience than I are just as clueless on the subject.
Flaubert said, “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” Sell it to us, Gustave!
Orwell: “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” Okaaay. But that’s positively cuddly compared his follow up:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Demon possession. That must be it.
Rather more positive is this majestic statement by William H. Gass (not to be confused with William H. Macy), who said: “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold, they change the world into words.”
But the most honest explanation must be this one:
Gass and Berger (sounds like a pair of villains from Dickens, doesn’t it?) come as close to explaining why writers write as a non-explanation can go.
I can’t tell you why I write. I only know it’s the most perfect, natural high when it goes well. Agony when it doesn’t.
I get very squirrelly when I don’t write. I turn into one of those weird characters you see in old World War II movies: He’s the small, bespectacled chap who talks to himself and isn’t really trusted by the rest of the ‘organisation’. They make their escape plans from Stalag-whatever without him because… yeah. Then, at the last moment, he throws himself on the barbed wire to distract the Gerries so the chaps (they’re always chaps) can make their escape. Later, back in Holborn, they drink a toast to the squirrelly bloke and discover he was a librarian or a horticulturalist. Someone who should never have gone to war, but who wanted to do his bit for King and Country. Hurrah! As they clink their glasses together, one of the chaps says, ‘He was the best of all of us.’ Then they toddle off home and forget his name.
…Sorry, I got a bit distracted. This is what happens to writers. We discover the dark corners and the forgotten trails and we can’t resist taking a look. We write because we’d go mad if we didn’t.
When I don’t write I feel weird(er than usual.) It’s as if I’ve forgotten something fundamental, like putting on my underwear. As Gloria Steinam said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”
The thing is, we don’t write for fame or fortune or even to improve the human condition. Well, maybe you do, but I do it because I can’t not. I’ve got OWD: Obsessive Writing Disorder.
Someone once told American author Philip Roth that he wanted to be a writer. Roth’s reply: ‘Don’t do that to yourself.’ But there is no want. You either are a writer or you are not. And if you are, you’ll know it. You won’t need validation from famous American authors, or your aunt who had a letter published in the Meath Chronicle, or even your best friend.
And it’s not all bad. Sometimes you write something that makes someone cry. Sometimes a stranger will tell you they were moved by something you wrote, or that you made them laugh. Or something like this happens:
Over the past few weeks, my writers’ group and I have been practicing for our reading on the fringe (well, less fringe and more bald spot) of the Hay Festival in Kells. (Running from June 25th to June 28th. Come and see us!) It’s got to the point where we all know each other’s work pretty well. When I stand to read one of my stories, This is What Happens When Gaiman Stays Over there’s a collective chuckle and they say the opening line with me: ‘I murdered God last night.’
And I feel just like Billy Joel.