On the last Tuesday of each month, Edinburgh writers venture out of their writing caves and, blinking up at the late afternoon sun (or most likely here, the overcast grayness pretending to be sun), travel to The Wash, a bar in the center of town. They go there to network with other writers and folks in the publishing industry for a few hours over drinks and sandwiches.
I made it to my first Literary Salon Evening, hosted by the City of Literature Trust, in November of last year. Then the editing of my book took over my free time, so I kept making excuses to skip them until last month’s do. I’m no different from most writers in that I find it difficult to strike up conversations with strangers, though my years spent working for corporations did give me a bit of practice. I arrived earlier than the first time, so I was able to grab one of the few seats and observe my fellow networkers as they arrived. After reluctantly giving up my prized seat and meandering from one small group to the next, I found myself talking to a woman who, like me, had written her first book. She (let’s call her Jane) told me how she struggled to get herself to come to the event each month, how she normally made excuses not to come and how hard it was to talk to others about her work. I warmed to Jane, a kindred soul, and we chatted about families, the day job, pets, and so on, until another woman joined us.
The woman had arrived at The Wash by chance, and was unaware that it was a networking do. She told us she was a playwright and asked Jane about her book. After she had described it, perhaps a bit awkwardly, the playwright said, “Don’t you think your book is self-indulgent?”
Now, I am the worst poker player in the world, primarily because everything I’m thinking shows on my face. The playwright glanced in my direction, reading, I’m sure, my irritation and surprise at hearing such a criticism based solely on a brief description. I returned my attention to Jane, who was clearly taken aback by the comment. She hesitated and then said, “Well, none of my readers have said they thought it was self-indulgent,” to which the playwright quickly replied, “Do you really think they would?”
I decided enough was enough and asked the playwright about her work, which she described as “about Medusa having a romance, which isn’t my thing, but that’s what it ended up being about,” and that she had received great reviews so far. I smiled politely, but my thoughts were along the lines of: hasn’t the mythological creature thing been done to death, and if romance isn’t your thing, why write about it? The human brain seems to go into automatic “judgement mode” whenever it’s presented with a new idea. The difference between the playwright and me, though, is that I would never a) feel justified in criticizing a work I had not experienced (read, seen, heard, whatever) and b) offer criticism about anything unless someone asked my opinion or advice first.
I’ve been to a handful of writers’ dos in the past year, and there always seem to be a couple of people who make it their mission to attack their fellow writers after speaking with them for all of two minutes. I’m not entirely sure of the reason; I would guess it has something to do with their own self-doubts. I can only hope Jane saw the playwright’s comments for what they were.
Artists put themselves out into the world through their work, and expect that the world will tell them what it thinks. It’s an important and necessary part of growing as an artist. But in addition to work-evolving criticism, people also need a bit of unconditional support to balance their lives. Writers’ dos exist to help writers meet like-minded people, and if all goes well, develop lasting, supportive friendships.