Tag Archives: Spoken word

Performance And Presentation

Yesterday I found myself repeatedly walking out in front of a small group of people and swearing at them in the accent of an American wiseguy who’s lived through a zombie plague. And by the tenth or so time, I got past the nerves and embarrassment and – somehow – I actually felt like that character. He was coming out of me in a way that has only ever happened before at a keyboard; it was a revelation!

I was taking part in an excellent workshop on Performance And Presentation, organised (and subsidised) by the nice folk at Scottish Book Trust and led by the frankly awesome vocal coach Alex Gillon. They hold these occasionally and I really recommend it for anyone who has to perform or read in public, because I found it extremely useful. In fact, it gave me a lot to think about and I suspect that parts of her advice will continue to sink in gradually.

Alex really gave it her all – I find it tiring to be ‘on’ for just a short while, but she was ‘on’ all day, encouraging us, giving very detailed feedback and seeming to very quickly grasp how to display each person’s story, poem or play to its best advantage. It was really noticeable that certain parts which passed fairly anonymously on first hearing stood out after she had given their authors some suggestions: the jokes were revealed as genuinely funny, the descriptions were more evocative, the dialogue more believable. On the page these might have worked right away, but listening to everyone else I could immediately hear how what they’d written seemed better just by being performed better (and I’m sure it applied to my piece too).

I feel reasonably confident about reading in public now, thanks in part to the weekly further education classes I run at Glasgow University where – though I do try to get people to volunteer! – I usually end up having to read out the passages we’re discussing to the class and try to perform them a little. However, I haven’t had any acting experience, unless you count my triumphs in the St Lucy’s Primary productions of Finnegan’s Wake (the ballad, not the James Joyce version) and The Broons (my Daphne was acclaimed).

But I’ve only read things in my own voice so far. When I recorded The Goode Daughter for Tramway’s Algebra journal, I couldn’t manage the right accent for a young 17th Century child on trial in Salem, so had to read it as Scottish – not ideal. So for this workshop, I took along an unpublished story which is a monologue of a middle-aged American man. In my mind, he’s got a New Jersey accent and sounds like Tony Soprano; the phrasing of the story is written that way.

When I first read it for Alex and the other workshop participants, I chickened out though and tried it in my own voice. It didn’t work, obviously. She gave me the confidence to try it as American, but of course for that to work, for people to suspend disbelief to that extent (because the accent is never going to be perfect), I’d have to really commit to it and completely believe in it myself. Any trace of embarrassment would just make the whole thing silly. I couldn’t quite match Alex’s remarkable switch from her own very posh RP voice to convincing streetwise American, but I think that with practice I can make the thing work as a funny, slightly weird performance piece.

As well as specific advice for that reading, I came away with lots of great notes about performing in general, from breath control to punctuation beats. It was also really nice to meet the other people taking part: two published novelists, a short story writer, a playwright, two poets, all of us with very diverse work. Now I just need to line up another reading so I can try it all out!



Filed under Literary happenings

February update

Just noting a few of the writing-related things I have been up to this month (which has also seen a depressing number of rejections – oh well).

On the 13th, I went through to Edinburgh for Blind Poetics, where I was a ‘featured’ performer. Now, I just assumed that the name referred to the venue, the Blind Poet pub, but it turned out that I was the only non-poet reading (and, as well as the fantastic Colin McGuire, there were a dozen or so Open Mic-ers). I felt really self-conscious about this as my stories seemed really long by comparison, but everyone was very polite and attentive. A fun night and met some nice people.

On the 16th, I read briefly at the Love Words event at the Museum of Modern Art, organised by the Federation of Writers (Scotland).

On the 25th, the anthology A Thousand Cranes was officially launched at an event at the Arches, part of the Margins festival, reading my story The Unbeaten Track. Helen Sedgwick, Iain Paton, Raymond Soltysek and Katy McAulay also performed and a number of other people from Glasgow Writers’ Group who have stories or poems in the book were there too. It was a surprisingly good turnout (oh, the relief – at one point only 12 tickets had been sold) and quite daunting facing an audience in the large space of the Arches theatre. Some of my friends who don’t normally come along to literary events, along with my partner’s parents, came to support me, which was lovely, and afterwards we drank much wine in the bar. So that’s the anthology now officially out, complete with its foreword by Alex Salmond, and if you could possibly buy a copy that would be very nice (all proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross).

Finally, I went to London for four days this month, piggybacking my partner’s work trip and taking advantage of the free hotel room! An aside: I got the train, he got a BA flight and we left the house at the same time but I got to the hotel by the Barbican literally two minutes after he did … Anyway, my purpose in going was not just to have a Me Party like Amy Adams & Miss Piggy in The Muppets film, but to do some research for my novel in progress.

I had a brilliant time at both the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum (looking into accounts of sea voyages between Britain and China in the mid-19th Century) and then at the British Library Reading Rooms for various other matters. I am a complete library geek and this was my idea of heaven; I’d visited both places before but there was something really exciting to me about getting a Reader’s card and being able to request material from their stacks, waiting for them to be delivered, taking copious notes in pencil (no pens allowed) in the wonderful quiet atmosphere. Absolutely my idea of the perfect London trip (I also saw a great Dickens exhibition) and it has reignited my love for this project.

I’ve been working on it for a while but I feel that I finally have the shape of the story clear and have enough general research (I will still need to check various specific things as I go along) to really achieve what I’m trying to do. Getting the balance right between researching and writing the first draft has been interesting and has thrown up a lot of issues about writing historical fiction. As a result, I’ve put together, with my mate the historian Dr Ben Shepherd, a one-day workshop which will run at the University of Strathclyde on August 23rd, where we’ll be discussing that very thing (more details to follow).

Overall, quite a productive month really (I’ve also written a new, long short story and several thousand more words of novel). I hope this doesn’t sound like showing off; for me, I have to keep note of the good things as a counterbalance for the inevitable crappy feelings that I’m way behind, I keep being rejected, other people are better etc etc. Got to accentuate the positive, talk myself up (to myself) – that’s what Miss Piggy would do.


Filed under Books, Literary happenings, Research, Uncategorized

Avec les beatniks à Shakespeare & Co.

Just returned from a week’s holiday in Paris – did lots of fantastic things like dancing the Madison at a gay tango club, was serenaded by a circus accordion lady over dinner, went to a Chopin concert in the park, mooched around bookshops and classic movie cinemas, rode around on the brilliant city Velib bikes, met some nice people, stayed at a terrible hotel which became almost funny in its escalating crapness, ate so many rolls and cheese (stolen from breakfast to save money on lunch and dinner) that I can’t look at one again, read in parks, stared at gargoyles, hated hole in ground toilets, got overwhelmed at Versailles and stunned by the Manet in the Musee d’Orsay.

But possibly the highlight for me was falling in with some literary beatniks (their description!) through the Shakespeare & Company bookshop. I’d discovered from their website that they had a drop-in writing workshop called the Other Writers Group and emailed its organiser, David Barnes, to check if I could go along. It wasn’t too busy because a lot of people aren’t around in the summer, but the people I met there were really friendly and welcoming and gave me wonderful feedback on a story. And then we went to the pub. Two American ladies, Margaret J Hults & Marie Davis, who live and write together, gave us a sneak preview of their upcoming iPad application book, Spoon And The Moon, a sexy interactive fairytale which looks like it will be fun.

David’s story is interesting. He moved to Paris from England a few years ago because “I didn’t feel at home, at home,” slept at the bookshop for a bit and helped out in the shop, then asked them if he could set up a writing group there – you would have thought such a famous place would have all that entrenched, but they didn’t; thus proving, I guess, that if you’re too shy to ask, you don’t get. As a result he was now launching an anthology later that week called Strangers In Paris – stories and poems in English by non-native Parisians – so we went along to that a few days later. It was a great event, held right outside the bookshop, in the sunshine, with loads of people crammed around to listen to some readings (the shop itself, while marvellous, seems to always be so completely stuffed that I guess they couldn’t have it indoors). Incidentally the book, which of course I made sure to have David, Margaret and Marie sign, is really good, some excellent stories and a better souvenir than a Eiffel Tower model!

Later that night, David kindly invited me and Iain along to their spoken word night, Culture Rapide, which is just an incredible event: I was so impressed with the large number of people who came along (and it’s weekly!) and with the very high quality of readings. We have some great literary events here but there seemed to be something special about this, perhaps because of the location, perhaps because of the energy coming from people who had chosen to come together in a writers’ community, a little out of step with the country, with the trends. They seemed to just love words – their own, each other’s, famous words (with a few reading out their favourite passages from well known works). There was singing and drinking and lots of friendly conversations.

Very nervously, I performed my story World Enough And Time (hastily printed out that afternoon in an Internet cafe) – and people laughed! They got it! I was really happy to be part of their thing for a night. Drunkenly, we discussed setting up an international exchange of some kind, a new Auld Alliance. I’m open to ideas.

If you go to Paris, I highly recommend checking out the night, or the bookshop, or the group. If you go anywhere, actually, I recommend seeing what literary community they have there and whether you can visit and be inspired. I know I’ll be doing that on my next holiday, wherever it is.

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Filed under Literary happenings