Stage fright and other worries

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by Shanta Everington

Yesterday, my hubby and I went to watch our three-year-old son at our local stage school (no funny comments please).

As he's been putting on little shows for us since he was barely one, I was confident that he'd thrive in front of the audience of other mummies and daddies. But there was a horrible moment at the beginning when he just stood there frozen. And it got me thinking about how the audience affects us as writers.

When I sit down to write, I write for myself, never for an audience. This may sound like an odd thing to say as a published writer but for me, the act of writing is always about discovery. If the writing isn't in charge of itself, if I'm not learning where I'm going as I go, I don't want to know. I worry about the readership later. 'Oh, you mean, somebody's actually going to read it?' shrieks my inner critic. I would never be able to sit down and write if I worried about what my boss and my mother and Mrs Parsons from number 57 might think of it.

On speaking to some writer friends about their experiences, it seems I am not alone. Writer Fiona Robyn agrees, 'I don’t think about my audience at all. I trust that my characters know what my readers will want, and it’s my job to write their story down as accurately as I can and then polish it until it shines.'

It can be afterwards that The Fear sets in. The first piece of creative writing that I had published was a short poem. I was so ridiculously pleased about reaching this milestone that I blabbed about it to everyone within a ten mile radius. Then my dad asked to read it. I was five again, waiting for his approval. As he opened the poetry journal, my heart stopped. The next two minutes felt like two hours.

I'm not the only writer who has experienced panic at the reaction of friends and family. Novelist Megan Taylor says, ''After How We Were Lost was released, I met a group of friends who were each carrying a copy - my first instinct was to snatch those books away! I was terrified, I felt very oddly exposed. With my new novel, The Dawning, (due out January 2010) I half thought about prefacing it with an apology- Sorry about the swearing, Dad. And the drug taking ... But at the end of the day, honest warts-and-all has to be the only way to go.'

Anne Brooke , prolific novelist and poet, agrees that you make yourself hugely vulnerable when you write and it's published. Anne writes gay fiction and occasionally erotic fiction too, which some of her family find hard to understand. She says, 'I tend not to tell them therefore. I also try and avoid telling members of my church anything specific.'

Fiona worried about her nana’s reaction to some of her more racy scenes but as it turned out, 'She had no problem with the lesbian sex, but she wasn’t so keen on all the swearing! My next novel, Thaw, (due out February 2010) centres on contentious issues – suicide, self-harm … So yes, mixed feelings, but once the writing is finished I have to let go.'

Formal reviews can also affect us. When The Big Issue used the words 'a great novel' to describe my debut novel, Marilyn and Me, I believed I must have written a masterpiece. My confidence soared with every good review. Until I received a not so good one, which, of course, I won't go into detail about! Then, my brain disregarded every positive review and concluded, 'Oh, I can't write at all. It was all a lie!' It can be hard to stay grounded sometimes.

Fiona explains that how she's affected depends on how she's feeling in the first place. 'If I’m feeling centred, the positive comments are like gravy and the critical comments are potential valuable feedback or something I feel free to disagree with. On bad days the critical comments wound, and the positive comments are like cocaine.'

With all these fears to face, we might wonder why writers write at all! Is publication the ultimate goal? Anne says, 'I spend most of the time in a roller coaster ride of pleasure and terror! But when I write something, I always want to polish it to be the best it can be and then seek publication if I can. The ultimate driving force is to be read.'

But having other people read our work cannot the only motivation for writing. After all, so many of us keep diaries and journals. Writing is as much about personal expression as it is about communicating to an audience.

Megan explains, 'I do have some writing of which I'm proud that no one will ever read. These are pieces that ended up coming from a much more personal place than I'd intended. I'm very pleased they're written, but I'm just as pleased with my decision to keep them to myself.'

And after the dance, we went home and bundled in the front door and Smallboy proceeded to dance around the living room while I put the dinner on. Nobody was watching but that didn't stop him squealing in delight. Maybe he was still on a high from the applause (and of course, I clapped doubly hard) or just maybe, the best bit was losing himself in the moment.

Photo credit: JacobEnos


Anne Brooke said...

Great article, Shanta! I'm reliving the pleasure and the pain right now :)) Axxx

KatW said...

Great first article for TVFH Shanta! I write for myself but I also want to be published. I would write even if I was never published though. I am allowing select people to critique my finished novel before I send it off. It is scary handing over your baby. And I think Fiona is right when she says our particular mood dictates how we receive feedback.

Look forward to your article next month.


Shanta Everington said...

Thanks, Anne and Kat :)

Kat - Good luck with the critiques - I know how scary that can be. :)