You may remember that a month ago I went to a meeting of the local writers’ group for the first time. It was interesting enough to warrant a second trip and for me to think that this time I should bite the bullet and take something of my own to read out. So yesterday evening, I didn’t let the rain and the dark and the freezing cold or even the threat of snow deter me, despite the huge temptation to stay warm indoors, cuddled up with a book. Instead I ventured out to yet another new location, this one on the far side of town near the hospital. Don’t you hate having to track down unfamiliar houses in the dark? I’d been told very firmly to approach the house from one direction, as it had a horseshoe-shaped drive that we were all to park along, facing forward. It was, apparently, number 300 in the road, and I drove along at five miles an hour, thankful the rain and the cold and the dark had kept everyone else sensibly indoors, peering at gateposts and house signs and the big wheelie bins that sometimes have the house number daubed in white paint on the side. In the end, running out of houses before the entrance to the hospital, I turned into a driveway, thinking I could always turn around and retrace my route, only to find I had arrived at my destination. But then I wasn’t so sure. The person who entered the house in front of me looked like he might have spent the previous week sleeping on one of the benches in front of the hospital. He was warmly greeted by our hostess, who then turned to look at me with some suspicion. Disconcerted, I blurted out some explanation about having contacted the group leader, wondering whether I had arrived by mistake at a gambler’s anonymous meeting. ‘Have you wiped your feet properly?’ she asked.
Like the last time, I entered another sitting room full of unfamiliar faces. Only one person I recognized from the last meeting was there, and we smiled at each other with gratitude. I made a more careful choice of chair this time, on the grounds that anyone can make a mistake, but to make it twice is unreasonable. This one was a rocking chair, and it was comfy with cushions, but I later discovered that agitated rocking whilst nervously waiting for my turn made me feel seasick. Still, it was better than before. Our host for the evening was an elderly lady who had evidently lived in her house for many, many years. The room was choc-a-bloc full of furniture and ornaments that clearly had a history attached to each one, abstract brass plaques on the walls that must have come from foreign travel, black and white photographs of attractive young girls who were probably now bringing up children or grandchildren of their own. The fluted glass bowls on the coffee tables held twisted cheese straws that everyone was politely ignoring, and I thought of my son, who adores them, and who would have hoovered them up in about five seconds flat.
Then we got onto the reading. There were eight people to read and a quick calculation told me I’d be going 6th. The first man to read produced the introduction of a non-fiction book he was beginning to write on folk music, proposing that it was a way of uncovering a kind of hidden history of Britain. The next woman read a really excellent scene from a historical detective fiction novel, in which a retarded boy charged with carrying an important message was set upon by a gang of teenagers out to cause trouble. Then came the woman who I knew from last time, who read some more of her parallel world novel, which hadn’t improved much in the interim. It was the same set-up as before, ten minutes reading followed by five or so of questions and the most vociferous member of the group was turning out to be the homeless-looking type who’d preceded me through the doorway. He had an extraordinary style of giving critique, which consisted in rapping out a number questions to the person who had read, carefully avoiding any eye contact, picking up on tiny points of grammar as well as overarching issues of intention, genre and content. Then he would subside back in his seat with a hangdog look on his face that made it seem incredible to think he had spoken at all. If anyone attempted to interrupt him in full flow, he would sigh loudly with irritation and keep talking. If he didn’t like the passage being read he would slump back onto the sofa with exquisite boredom. So I couldn’t wait to hear what he was going to read. I wasn’t disappointed. He introduced it as surreal fantasy and handed us all copies of the typescript. The story concerned the adventures of Leonard the mutant lemon (one of a new superrace who had taken over the world, humans being consigned to theme parks) who in a series of brief vignettes, fell in love with a lime, fought off an attack of marmite soldiers, discovered existentialism, married, saved the earth from an alcoholic dragon, etc. It was extraordinary, and I had to applaud him silently for having produced a piece of writing that was destined to foreclose all possible questions while the audience sat in mild shock. I must also say that the way he read it, in a droll, dead-pan style, made it quite amusing at times, although the text didn’t quite stand up to the cold light of day when my son (who finds it hard to believe a grown-up would write such a thing) introduced it to his friends today.
There was only one more person to read before me and I was beginning to feel nervous. Why should it be that one gets an attack of anxiety before having to read a small passage of writing out loud? It makes no sense at all, really. Next up was an older man who read in a rich, rolling Dutch accent. By dint of keeping his head down and reading steadily and rhythmically, without notable paragraph breaks, he managed to read for much longer than anyone else. It was a family story, this part concerning a man whose unfaithful wife had died and a painting that he seemed to both loathe and hold very dear. It was very well written but the story was so smooth it made no impact on me at all. The only thought I had in my head was that it could do with a good edit. He was obviously well known to certain members of the group, who asked him where he was in the narrative. He was still in 1776, he said, where he had been all summer, apparently. But he hoped to make it to the present day by Christmas. When someone suggested that some of the phrasing sounded a little strange, he replied ‘Would you have felt that if you had not known I was Dutch? I don’t think so.’ Oh okay, I thought, someone who won’t change a comma in his precious work. It then transpired that he had written a whopping three hundred thousand words of this novel. But, he declared, he wrote in such a pared back to the bone way that any thought of an edit was out of the question. ‘I have been over and over this section,’ he said ‘and it would be impossible to take any single word out of it.’ Pass it over here, I thought to myself, but it did not seem worthwhile, or polite, to say so.
So, finally, my turn had come. I was just reaching for my pages when the young man in the leather jacket interrupted. He was so sorry but his wife had been away for a while and was expecting him home, and he was off on travels himself the following day, and in any case, he had to leave soon, so could he possibly read next? It wasn’t okay at all; I was longing to get it over with, but what can you say in such circumstances? I felt, as I usually feel, that he had considered it perfectly fine to jump the queue before a woman, whereas he would not have done so to a man. But I could be being unfair; none of us could have guessed that the Dutchman would read for so long. Anyway, we were then subjected to a strange and disturbing passage about a young man who seemed to be suffering from an unexplained plague of flying scarab beetles digging into his flesh, but who then ended up rollicking in the ocean with some nubile maidens. It made no sense, but guess what? He told us that in a few pages his narrator would wake up to find it had all been a dream. I have no patience with writers who insist that readers are happy to wait for chapter three to explain everything that’s happened so far. Waiting for the incomprehensible to fall into place is not a readerly delight, just a pain in the neck.
And so, finally, finally, I picked up my pages and shuffled them, only for the Dutchman, who was seeing the man in the leather jacket out, to reappear apologetically in the doorway. We had all parked in a neat row according to orders, but now we were going to have to shuffle cars so the young man could leave. Inevitably, I found myself back in the freezing cold, reversing my car into the narrow straits of an unfamiliar garden, trying to avoid a row of little white stones like shark’s teeth bordering the curved lawn, and a range of bicycles that were just longing to topple like a row of dominoes if I grazed one. By the time I returned, the party was warming up a bit and the other writers were laying waste to the cheese straws. ‘Do you mind if we munch while you read?’ our hostess asked. I wouldn’t have cared by that point if they’d done the can-can. I finally read my passage, had some interesting feedback, and was much entertained fending off the homeless man’s questions, which he hammered out as fast as I could answer them. I love answering questions. It’s a shame I can’t find a job that means I do it all the time. The last reader of the evening was another elderly lady who was writing a psychological thriller. Her passage saw her detective going undercover in a mental hospital. It was again quite accomplished, but hard to follow because she had a sort of unfortunate speech impediment. We were all rather pooped by that point anyway, so I felt a bit sorry and wished I could have read the typescript. But then we were shrugging on our coats and leaving with the ill-concealed haste that afflicts strangers cooped up together for a whole evening. I returned home and read the adventures of Leonard the lemon to my husband and son, who were amused and baffled in equal measure. Is there anything more extraordinary than the products of the human imagination when let loose? It’s a long, slightly nerve-wracking evening at the writers’ group, but never let it be said that it’s not an entertaining one.