In West Cork, accompanied by the rolling waves, there’s a concentration of literary types. The draw to the West of Ireland can be found in the incredible beauty and the ruggedness of the land. Those of us with creation in our genes sometimes subscribe heavily to superstitious notions. That surrounding yourself with beauty can make you create something beautiful is not the most outlandish leap that has ever been made. And so, I found myself, on a random Tuesday in July in the Maritime Hotel in Bantry, waiting on Writer’s Idol to begin.
Sometimes gimmicks work, sometimes they breathe fresh and interesting life into weary bones, and sometimes they are just gimmicks. Not sure yet where this one falls. That it was, or has been, is a solid truism to which I can cling. And truth is a type of certainty on a day when the fundamentals of my belief have taken a hammering.
It all started so well. Kate Thompson, Anita Shreve, Marianne Gunn-O’Connor and Suzanne Baboneau took the stage and the rules were explained:
It is a game. Your work would be read by the accomplished and amazing Kate, the others would judge. Two raised hands and the critique could be given. It was anonymous feedback. No one would know who you were unless you started crying. A muted titter at this. A thick skin has always been required for writing. And due to time constraints not all entries might be read out.
And the readings began with Kate Thompson painting a myriad of worlds with her tongue. She was respectful of each typed page, whether the reading survived the length of one, double-spaced page, or was halted with hastily upturned hands after the third cliché in the opening five words.
I always thought that heart pounding, blood thundering through your ears was a much abused description until I heard a famous voice start my opening. The words. My words. Ringing around the audience. Alive. The Americans beside me, they surely can’t hear my heart, feel how the chair is rocking with the force of my thundering blood. They are not being scorched by the flame in my cheeks. I watch Anita Shreve nod her head (appreciatively I think) at a sentence of which I am particularly proud. This is going okay.
Then BOOM. Two hands shoot up. POV change. It jarred. That’s it. Dismissal. Anita Shreve did say she’d have to read on, to see if the author (that’s me…Anita Shreve is talking about my work, for a mili-second perhaps, but still…) was accomplished enough to handle POV shifts. It is a scant balm. With 75 words to go, one final paragraph and I’ve fallen before the finish. I know (well at least I thought I knew) that I could handle POV shifts. Now I am not so sure. To learn sometimes is to unlearn. Do I look at it all again. Review and rework, or trust myself. It is hard to know if I am clinging to some hastily added appendage to a critical dismissal. Were her words spoken to soften an edge or with truthful intent? At least I am given this crumb. Later there are a few almost instant dismissals. No softening. There are two, maybe three that make it the whole way to the end. And the final summation from Marianne Gunn-O’Connor is that there was nothing original about the works she had heard today. No voice raised above all the rest. But she did admit that she had read the first fifteen pages of “Fifty Shades…” and decide not to represent the author, that there was nothing in it that appealed to her. That she still hadn’t finished the first book. (Respect from me at this).
And then it was over, more or less.
It was strange. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. My heart isn’t broken that I didn’t finish the race. But it is cracked. The ease at which the panellists dismissed the words, it was shocking. I can now imagine an editor (or agent) hitting a word that they don’t like and dropping the page as instantly as the hands shot up. It was shocking, but perhaps it was the visual that that entire room full of writers needed. That no one will massage you into a writer. That no one will tease the inspiration from your fingers and shape it into a book that someone will buy. Writers are a dime a dozen (to coin a cliché), even the good ones, and we need to bring something unique, and wonderful, and amazing to the market, and then be brilliant with it.
It was depressing really. Like when a final finishes with a draw and the supporters file out of the stadium knowing that they left it behind them on the day. Sometimes clichés are things to fall back on when your best words fail.