Monday, 31 March 2014

This is something humans DO

The first time I came to this event, I was an arrogant little tit.

In the back room of The Gardener's Arms, an assortment of humans curl on sofas and perch on stools. The grab-bag of people includes young narrowboat dwellers, embryonic hipster Angry Young Men, retirees, coiffed and courtured North Oxfordians. The point where our curving tangents meet is this: everyone has poetry somewhere about their person.

The first time I came, as a rather young and very arrogant little tit, I'd spent several hours choosing my best poetry and had secret fantasies of being Discovered. I mentally evaluated every poem I heard. I listened, quietly appalled, to one person's first attempts at poetry, mortified on their behalf - behaving like a self-appointed opera buff sneering at someone's sing-song. As I said: arrogant little tit. I cringe with shame at the memory. Mortified, at myself.

The next time I came, I was prepared for the unexpected breadth of quality. I read two intensely personal poems, curious how they'd feel read to a roomful of strangers, unsure if they were good enough. I was vaguely expecting some kind of appraisal, praise or condemnation. I got what everyone got: a warm, attentive reception. I puzzled over how to use that to measure my poetry.

The next time, I finally got it, like a clash of cymbals: this is something humans do. Like a sing-song in a pub, like cooking food to share, it's not about whether you're "good enough" to take part, no-one is standing in judgement over you, it's something humans do and something everyone's allowed to do. My arrogant-little-tit elitism, my anxious evaluating insecurity, were soundly and happily kicked to the curb. Perhaps the founder's Quaker background helps create this open atmosphere, supported by the fairylights, lamps, and candles in bottles they set up each time. It is, as its website says, a warm welcoming space for the spoken word. This does not mean the quality is bad, far from it. It means this is a space where that's not the only point, where you're not desperately striving, where you're not trying to measure everything, where you can do this because it's something humans do.

I say "Writing is my life" and mean it, absolutely. I believe passionately in striving for excellence, I wrestle with the balance between creative process and product, my perfectionism is alternately a spur to quality and crippling paralysis. And sometimes, I need to chill the hell out.

All of human activity seems to have its artistic heights and its daily use. Cooking at home and Michelin-starred cheffing. Handwriting and lettering art. Singing in the shower and professional opera. When we're little, we're allowed to do all of it, but in some areas we lose our sense of permission as we grow older. Even in the areas we keep, we sometimes forget their origin. When an art form loses its roots in human activity, its blood supply is cut off. This is true for the art form, but also for us, as artists.

Too much time on Twitter and I start to believe the hype: that it's all about publishing, publicity, profile, all the exteriors. My writing withers. Too much time with my own ambitious perfectionism and my writing tenses, hardens, freezes. But it's not about either of those, at its core: it's about this being something that humans do.

Ian Trinder and Josie Webber performing in the music slot in the middle. Ian's album will be released in April: follow its progress  and hear his music here. I could peacefully drown in their music.

In Walking in this World, Julia Cameron recommends an exercise for this kind of overexposed / perfectionist freeze: stop being so bloody grandiose about it and use your precious cultivated skill to do something little for someone. Write a little story for a kid you know. Draw a picture for a friend. Take it from its elevated heights back into the realm of human activity. That's what Hear the Word does for me, resetting me, regrounding me, and every time I come away floating a foot above the pavement, buoyed with relief, my love for writing resanguinated.

Oxford-based people: you can visit the Hear the Word website and email to get the newsletter. The next event is in May.

Get occasional emails about interesting things

* indicates required

I won't share your email with anyone else. You'll get emails from me only, about upcoming courses, writing competitions, publishing opportunities, interesting articles about writing, new blog posts, and creative events in Oxford. All emails are sent via MailChimp and you can unsubscribe at any time. Add to your address book if you want to keep the emails from vanishing into spam.