Yesterday evening I set off cross-country in the autumnal darkness to one of the small villages that are dotted about the local fens. Inevitably I reached the point in my journey where I came to a crossroads whose signpost lolled drunkenly to one side, one arm stuck into the hedge, the other suggesting flight was the only option. This was relatively easily negotiated as opposed to the next crossroads that didn’t have a signpost at all. We Brits are rather proud of this sort of thing because we like to think it’s one of the reasons that Hitler never invaded. People on the South coast went around actively removing directions and it’s heartening to think that as far up the country as East Anglia, no one has troubled yet to put them back. But despite the obscurity of the route, and the fact that my sense of direction is usually so blunt I get lost in the aisles of the supermarket, I managed to make it through the network of small roads without error and reached my destination: the writers’ group meeting. Afterwards it struck me that the experience of getting there could stand as a fine metaphor for creativity itself, but at the time I was too nervous to be feeling insightful.
What is it about me and a roomful of strangers? I kept on telling myself that they were going to be perfectly nice people, perfectly civilized, moderately welcoming. They were all those things and more. But it seems to me that there is in infinite gulf between people you don’t know at all, and those with whom you have spent a couple of companionable hours; they even manage to look completely different, as if knowledge transfigures them in enigmatic ways. I knew that the local writing group is quite a big affair; it’s split into two in the first instance, long prose and short prose, and the long prose meeting which I was attending had itself been split into two groups meeting simultaneously in separate venues. This happens whenever more than ten people want to read from their work, as even ten minutes for reading and five for discussion can add up to one long evening and a certain dulling of the powers of concentration once the second hour has passed. So I was ushered into a small but neat-roomed cottage that sat low and squat on the road, with the sort of ancient plasterwork that looks like a bad channel crossing and screams hundreds of years of authenticity. Lots of people were already there and with the kind of pitiful judgment that has accompanied me to many a lengthy meeting, I hastened to sit down in the first available chair; a carved and brocaded affair, aesthetically very pretty but, alas, tortuous on the spine. Once seated the amassed crowd of writers turned out to be only six other people, two men, four women and somewhere, shut in the distant regions of the house, a dog trying desperately to add its canine criticisms to the evening.
Business was initially swift and we moved around the group, listening to people read. There was a novel in the style of Jasper fforde (wonderful concept, woeful clichés), a romance novel set in a racing stables (easy on the ear, rather predictable), a mad parallel world thing that might have been tremendous if the passages read out hadn’t been wholly without character, then some scenes from the domestic life of two men who had both walked out of the same company (well-written, but what the book was going to be seemed a mystery to its author as much as to us) and finally two passages of stream of consciousness from the minds of young men supposedly in love with the same woman but which veered off wildly into fantastic scenes of a medical nature that left us all rather disturbed. Never has the phrase ‘you never know what people will come out with next’ been more appropriate. It just made me so glad I don’t write fiction because it is such a difficult thing to do well. I was left with one definite piece of advice to pass on to all would-be novelists: if you are going to write a scene, any scene at all, make sure something happens in it. One thing, preferably, that is memorable, and that is clear. Actually, I felt ready to write a whole treatise on what fiction writing ought to do by the end of the evening, but I’m sure it’s like listening to other people’s troubles in that they always seem so much easier to remedy than one’s own.
Anyway, once we’d got through the reading talk became more general and out came the fascinating gossip about the writers’ group. That’s the good thing about being the new girl; people are ready to tell the old stories all over again. Only a couple of people there seemed to have been attending the group for a really long time but they remembered the evening that preceded the splitting of the prose group, when eighteen people wanted to read (can you imagine?) and they were full of tales about authors who had managed to get published despite inauspicious starts. They recalled the elderly gentleman who had lightly fictionalized his war experiences and had the unhappy effect of sending everyone to sleep with terminal boredom, but best of all, the group once produced what I thought must be the most unlikely marriage in history. The bridegroom was a gentleman (although that might be a misnomer) who had the dubious accolade of being the only person ever asked to leave because of the degree of obscenity and misogyny in his writing, but he had nevertheless won the affections of a very prim and proper woman novelist who, at ninety-four years of age, was the oldest person ever to belong to the group. What a combination! What a novel waiting to be written! Except of course in fiction, you’d have to wonder at its plausibility.
I was invited to read, but not liking to presume on my newness, I hadn’t brought anything with me. Instead, I mangled my way through the concept of the motherhood book, which, kind people as they were, they greeted with encouragement. I find it very hard to talk about something I haven’t yet written, mostly because I think through my fingers and have no idea what I’m going to say until I’ve typed it. They meet once a month, which is more than enough as it was all quite exhausting, but I think I might go back. I don’t know, I’m undecided but it might be interesting to see whether I got any useful feedback. Of course it all depends on whether the roads will guide me to the destination of the next meeting. Perhaps next time the drunken signpost will lead me astray and the bramble hedges will rise in solid ranks and obscure the chosen cottage from my view. But the experience would make for a fine opening to a story, don’t you think?