It has often been observed that the comments we make about people change relative to their proximity to us. What’s acceptable when talking about people half-way round the world becomes decidedly uncomfortable when they’re sitting opposite. For example, when I was teaching English in Spain I decided to show my advanced students an episode of Fawlty Towers. I thought they’d enjoy the humour and having a Spanish character in there would give it an extra dimension. But the video had not been playing five minutes when an uncomfortable atmosphere made itself felt, and after a while I began to see Manuel from their point of view; a character whose lack of fluent English made him a comic scapegoat. In the end I realised that to Spanish people the character of Manuel was somewhat offensive. What was acceptable in England became unacceptable in a room full of intelligent Madrilenos. Distance is key. It’s like one of those ‘irregular verbs’ quoted in ‘Yes Minister’ – ‘I’m eccentric, you’re mad, s/he is round the twist.’ There’s a really good explanation of these here.
One of my favourite comments of late has been from a fellow member of the Labour Party. This is a person who frequently disagrees with me, and on the subject of the leadership election they said, ‘I joined the Party to defeat entryists like you.’ I found this very amusing and with it I’ve coined another irregular verb: ‘I am a joiner, you are an entryist, s/he is an infiltrator.’
Proximity is key with insults, but I guess on the internet we’re all in close proximity to each other now. And that’s the problem with social media, that it sets out in print for all to see what was previously expressed in private and in a particular context. It used to be broadcast to a specific audience but now educated students in Madrid can watch it. And find it offensive.
So, as another week grinds towards its end, how is my work going? Good question. I have so many balls in the air I can barely keep track of them: aside from poems there are a slew of short stories, a radio play and of course the novel which I am in the process of editing. God, editing is hard! I’ve got first drafts sorted because I’ve got to the stage where I can I just let it rip; I don’t think about what I’m writing, just trust the process and tell the critical, analytical mind to take a flying leap. But when it comes to editing, my woes begin in earnest. My mind jumps all over the place, thinking where is this going? What sort of thing is it really? Where am I going to publish it? What is it actually about? I am tossed and buffeted by ten different winds until I hardly know which way is up, and unsurprisingly I can’t do it for very long; a couple of hours is about the limit. After that I’m exhausted.
I guess these are the questions all writers ask themselves. What kind of writer am I? Who are my readers? Where do I want to be published? to which my answers would be: no idea, anyone, and anywhere. Not helpful. Some days I’d give my eye teeth to be a writer firmly established in a genre, someone who knows her audience and what they want. Someone with a publisher and an agent. But I ain’t and I don’t.
So what is to be done? One thought I had yesterday, struggling through the choppy waters of a short story, was to be aware of these questions as they arise and record them with a view to analysing them later. This is difficult because they rush by at the speed of light, yelling something indiscernible as they go. They’re like players on a hockey field and I never got on with hockey because apart from being out in the cold and the mud trying to hit a tiny ball with a narrow strip of wood, people are rushing by you all the time shouting things like whazafalabeat! and gizzacobaball! and by the time I’d said, ‘Sorry, what was that again?’ they’d be down the other end.)
This is the story of my life. I didn’t fit anywhere so I became a writer. Then I discovered that I didn’t fit anywhere as a writer. So what’s next?
Answers on a postcard, as ever…