Clare versus the Literary World

Clare in Lyme Regis UndercliffTuesday 26th June

Having got your attention with some nice nosh, I’ll say a bit about my writing. I suppose I’m a (very) late bloomer, really, but none the less sincere and ambitious. I didn’t start writing seriously till at the suggestion of an otherwise useless boyfriend (long story), I joined my first writers’ group in Birmingham. They were a varied lot and by gum, they knew their stuff. I used to listen in amazement as they went straight to the heart of what was wrong with a piece – ‘telling, not showing’, ‘noun verbing’, ‘cup of tea syndrome’, and think they must be devastatingly intelligent and I was probably in the wrong place. But I listened carefully and the time came when I was hearing what they were hearing and pointing it out myself.

There was a pivotal moment when someone read out a poem that didn’t seem to make sense. I wondered if I should let it pass or reveal my ignorance. I plunged in. ‘I didn’t understand that,’ I said. ‘What was it about?’ and waited for the sky to fall. He looked a bit sheepish and explained that he had edited some poems and used the leftovers to make another! I was In.

Of course, I got my share of whatever criticism was going, and sometimes I’d get a slamming that would make me want to crawl into a pit and die of embarrassment. I couldn’t possibly go in next week and face the people who’d heard the awful thing I’d written. But after a day or two, I did what I’ve done many times since; I picked myself up and thought, ’OK, screwed up. Now have another go.’

This is what we have to do, isn’t it? There are hundreds of rejections waiting for us; all we have to do is get out there and collect them. But every now and then, something hits the mark. A success. I go in for a lot of competitions and once won €1,500 for a short story, which I try to remember every time I fail with another.

It’s no good getting angry with a critic, and with one exception, I am proud to say I never have. I’ve been angry with myself for getting it wrong again, but not with the person who did the criticising. Every critic has something pertinent to say, and it’s up to you what you accept or reject. The exception was recently when a tutor was aggressive and insulting about a play of mine that he hadn’t even bothered to read. I don’t know what was going on there, but I know I didn’t deserve it. It takes a while to develop the confidence that knows when it’s not you that’s wrong.

I have written lots of short stories, with varying degrees of success – see website. They might stand a chance in a competition, but there’s not much of a market for them, so I look on them as an apprenticeship while you learn the job. I have, of course, written a novel (who hasn’t?), but it needs a lot more work and these days I prefer to write plays. I trained as a theatrical designer when I was young, and although it wasn’t for me, I keep in touch with the theatrical roots.

And the future. Well, I’m no longer young, so I have to get a move on. This is my year for giving things up but also for getting things done, a feng shui for the mind, if you like. There is an excellent script reading group attached to Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where I’ve just sent my latest play (the one the tutor didn’t like, so that should be interesting). I sent them one earlier this year which wasn’t accepted, but they wrote me a brilliant two-page critique and said it had gone through three readings, so not to despair. I thanked them, said I’d work on it and asked if I could send another so hard on the heels of the last. ‘Absolutely’, they said. This is marvellous. Even if I fail and fail, someone is taking me seriously.

But if I succeed – ah. Having work put on locally is obviously an aim in view, but I’d like to have a longer, harder-to-stage play accepted in London. I’ll stick my neck out here and say I have my sights on Soho Theatre. Too high? There’s no shame in aiming high and missing. It’s a lovely theatre, very experimental, and they have courses which I shall go on later this year (networking!). And best of all, they say they have no age barrier. This is important. People tend to think you’re not worth paying attention to if you’re a certain age. Give us Youth, they say, and you can understand why, but a young writer can just as easily burn out, or be a one-trick pony. Maybe they think there’s not much mileage in us, but my mother still had all her marbles at 97. I have a play I’m working on, two started and on the back burner, and plans for four more. I’ll try and get them done before I’m 90.