On words and ears and why I write

One of the questions every writer faces sooner or later is, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Plenty of us tell ourselves, oh, I write for myself; it doesn’t matter if anyone else reads it but if this isn’t exactly a lie, it’s perhaps only a half-truth. Very little makes me admire a writer more than when they stand up to be counted, so to speak, and admit that, actually, they write to be read. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that it tends to be published – and often very successfully so – writers who are brave enough to say as much out loud (although perhaps this is because these writers have less fear of people pointing and laughing or, worse, ignoring them altogether).

Of course traditional print media is not the only way for writers to be heard. Oral storytelling is far older than the written word and, while it has rather lost its place in the western world, it has its successors. Mind you, some forms of writing lend themselves rather better to oral performance than others. Few people would sit through a recital of even a novella but a play is another matter. And the long history of poetry recital is increasingly being supplemented with flash fiction. Years ago I engaged in the quaint-sounding pursuit of “Speech and Drama”, which mostly consisted of reciting – from memory and with appropriate theatrics – a variety of poetry. As a somewhat melancholic teen, I spent far too much time perfecting my performance of several of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” collection. It did gain me a Poetry Society gold medal for spoken poetry after a performance at the Central School of Speech and Drama, during which my grandmother had an angina attack (hopefully unconnected), and also prompted me to plough onwards with my own highly derivative poetry collection (long since consigned to the loft for future generations to squirm uncomfortably over or rats and pigeons to use as nesting material).

The idea of performing my own materials in public had not really occurred to me until a friend of mine – a published novelist – reminded me that it was doing readings of her short stories at the local library that pushed her onwards with her creative writing several years ago now. When that same library, in Winchester, started to host an evening called “Loose Muse“, I read the promotional materials with interest. Started in 2005 by Agnes Meadows, Loose Muse, whose home venue is London’s Poetry Café, aims to provide a supportive environment for women writers of all genres to come together, share their work and learn from each other. As well as providing an opportunity for new and upcoming writers, it also showcases more established ones. For example, I was delighted to hear the award-winning poet Rhian Edwards perform (ukulele and all) and subsequently to enjoy the Family Matters tour, performed by the poet/writers Agnes Meadows, Patricia Foster, Janett Plummer and, in absentia, Linda Shanovitch.

I actually only intended to go along as moral support for a friend who’d been asked to perform one of her comedic short stories in the guest slot but she persuaded me to take along one of my poems in case there was space in the “open mic” slots at the end of the evening. There was – and I read “At Pine Ridge”, published last year in Synaesthesia magazine. The second time I went, I was braver and read something new that I have yet to submit anywhere. It got positive feedback, which has encouraged me to think about to where I might send it but, more importantly, it sparked a conversation among several of the people sitting near me. It’s a poem about early motherhood and everyone near me, including the 80 year-old lady who’d read a magnificent ballad about Queen Eleanor, had something to say or to recall on the topic. It’s a good feeling when something you’ve written engages so many other people and makes what I said in my first sentence above seem only a quarter-truth. Perhaps, after all, writing to spark a reaction in others is what counts…..

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8 thoughts on “On words and ears and why I write

  1. Okay, *deep breath* I write to be read. And I’m learning to be thrilled when someone wants to read my work. I tell the stories that come to me and then share them in the hopes someone might like them too 🙂 Another lovely post Louise – I loved the story of your teen poetry reading (though I hope your grandmother was all right), and it’s lovely to hear you’re still reading your work and getting such a positive response. Xx

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    • My grandmother was fine, luckily. Perhaps it was brought on by the stress of hearing me declaim that, at 17 years and 5 months old, I had just been stabbed 22 times but that before I died I would identify my attackers (an extract from Browning’s The Ring and the Book about the murder of the teenage Pompilia by her horrible husband and his accomplices) or that, like the cat, I had “nine times to die” and had just taken another foray towards “the grave cave” (Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”)! I still love both of these poems but, jeez, I was a morbid, melodramatic teen…..

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  2. I always love the work you share at Loose Muse, Louise. You have a very distinct ‘voice’ (not only a physical one…) I am looking forward to sharing a feature spot with you at Loose Muse in September, when I will read from my forthcoming memoir of my childhood in Hitler’s Germany.

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    • Thank you so much, Ilse. I also really enjoy hearing your poetry and seeing what nspired you to write them. The artwork is always new to me (philistine that I am) so it is particularly fascinating to have my eyes opened to so many new artists. And I am very much looking forward to hearing you read from your memoir. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Germany (for work) and so have many German friends. It was a long time before I stopped being surprised by how open most of them were about Germany’s recent terrible history. I’m no longer surprised but I am still impressed; it seems to me that the UK, and other countries, could learn a good deal from Germany about acknowledging one’s past and drawing on it in an attempt to shape a better future.

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  3. Thank you, Louise, for your comments re. my poetry. As for the German consciousness and the burden of the past (and also, I must say, the presentation of the lives of ordinary people during the war, which I am trying to address in my memoir), all of that is very complex, but as you say, German people (who, in the present generation, had nothing to do with it but suffer the consequences) are open to discussion. Children learn about the past every year of their school life, as I remember.

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