Once a week I zigzag through the curry-house equivalent of chuggers on Brick Lane and arrive at Eastside Books to spend two hours with a group of writers, reading and critiquing one another’s work.
Three or four members might read their work during a given session, followed by critical discussion with a twist: the reader sits outside of the conversation, listening but not responding, until all our incredibly incisive, uncannily useful and crucially constructive comments have been dispensed.
Strange things happen. As the reader, turning marks on a page into sound, all the obvious edits pop out as you read as though your voice has a highlight function. That process in itself, without the ensuing debate, is so useful as to quickly become essential; I’ve tried imagining an audience in order to do this at home and it just doesn’t work, however good your imagination might be.
Likewise, listening and contributing can be as instructive as hearing a critique of your work. Thinking about how a writer could improve some element of their piece, I inevitably realise I can apply the approach I come up with to my own writing. Giving constructive criticism for weeks without reading your own work is not as selfless as it seems; these sessions send me back to my work with renewed possibilities, many derived from other people’s feedback directed at a fellow group member.
Funny things also happen, most often when somebody brings in a script and we read it as a group. Characters become tinged with the personalities of the readers, or flattened by our less-than-superlative acting skills. A soldier’s machismo on the page might get mistranslated via a small English voice into a kind of psychotic confusion, or bravado-filled banter reduced to an odd flirting ritual.
We usually end up laughing during these kinds of readings, but this is no reflection on the writer’s ability. This has heightened my concerns about the effect of my own voice on an audience’s reception. I have felt horribly self-conscious reading at open mic nights in London, sensing that RP and good diction are not only unfashionable but somehow unwelcoming, especially when used to deliver comic verse.
I also wonder whether this influences what I write on paper; if a character or style would sound ridiculous in my own voice, do I shy away from it?
This week the writers' group is finalising plans for an anthology of our short stories. Having debated for months over themes, titles and formats, in the end an ingenious solution appeared. For each member, someone else in the group who is familiar with their writing will come up with three titles or ideas designed to get them out of their comfort zone.
This is a brilliant device to get everyone engaged, because it generates so much pure glee. Thinking of a title for someone else is so much more fun than doing it for yourself, and the game of making it as challenging for them as possible is irresistible, even if somewhat sadistic. I for one hope we’ve all been as vicious as possible – an attitude we never demonstrate, I should add, towards each other’s actual writing.