It's late 2007 and I've been writing short stories. At the beginning of the year I finished my second novel, the second destined to never be published - at least not in its present form - and I've been thinking about this writing thing. I've traditionally grown bored of just about everything else I've ever tried to do before it went anywhere. This is the problem with honesty when applied to one's own endeavours. If you're doing it properly - whatever it may be - you're fated to never be entirely satisfied, which is why most people elect to suspend critical faculties and just churn out drivel with aspirations of nothing greater than adequacy. That'll do, they tell themselves. Besides, who'll know the difference? Fuck It.
I've been writing short stories, really just stupid jokes expanded and embedded into something with beginning, middle and end. It's like playing riffs on a guitar, doing the thing over and over until the fingers learn to get the job done without your having to think about it. I'm trying to get better, but I'm more or less having to teach myself, so I start to look at the noticeboard in the library to see if there are any writers' groups in the area.
Miraculously I find one, and sometime around the beginning of 2008 I am sat in the front room of a house in Woodward Road with four or five others. Woodward Road is where the real money lives, at least in East Dulwich. It's a nice place - cases lined with books, not even paperbacks, and a pine coffee table - so as usual I'm subconsciously waiting for the security guard to escort me from the premises. There are a million bedrooms upstairs, and the staircase has a bannister of the kind children once slid down in plummy tales of the forties. Enid Blyton was born within five hundred yards radius of where I'm now sat with my mug of tea and a biccy. In just over a year I will be delivering mail to this house in my job as a postman, and I will once again encounter my hostess, but of course she won't remember me and will find my greeting confusing, like I'm a fan asking for an autograph.
Today though, we've all been introduced. She reads a story she's had published in some women's magazine - Family Circle or one of those. Against my expectation, it's very good.
Richard reads some of what he's been working on. It resembles science-fiction - which comes as something of a relief to me - and it's well-written, but there is an off-putting subtext relating to Richard's earlier comments made about his correspondence with another more famous Richard, namely Dawkins. He and Joan - a much older member of the group - discuss some ongoing campaign intended to get Dawkins to admit to being a twat for not liking God, or something of the sort. It doesn't sound unreasonable in spirit, but this shared view of themselves as thorns in the side of a person who may or may not have bothered to read their letters scribbled in green crayon seems cranky.
Dan reads a couple of short stories, vignettes I suppose you would call them. He has the common touch, something which sounds like inherent talent and an ear for dialogue. Later he joins me outside the front door for a smoke and we talk about Charles Bukowski, which is nice. He shows me his book, copies of which he has had individually published through a website called Lulu. I'm impressed.
The woman who organised the thing, who runs the group, reads part of a story about junkies, but it doesn't ring true. It's well-written but feels voyeuristic, stuffed with gastronomically enunciated fucks and shits as though revelling in its own filth, like Irvine Welsh sat with his writers circle, each competing to see who has the most outrageous junkie anecdote.
I chanced upon this gentleman who routinely shot up using the vein in his old chap. My, dear fellow, it was utterly ghastly. You can't imagine...
The story about junkies doesn't really work read aloud by Libby Purves on Woman's Hour just before Carla Lane pops in to tell us about her latest unfunny sitcom. I ask the author whether this stuff is autobiographical in any sense, feeling certain that it isn't.
'I work in social services,' she explains with a smile which answers my question. She's an anthropologist.
I think of the junkies I've known - dull and deeply unglamorous, just walk-on parts in the lives of the rest of us, not even interestingly dangerous and definitely nothing worth boasting about when in the sort of company which might find them exotic. Maybe I've just known the wrong junkies.
Finally, Joan reads. She's old with white hair and a sad, weatherbeaten face. She's not quite stately, but she moves slowly as though treading with care upon what path still remains. She isn't here because she's hoping to get published. She just writes.
She reads a story about a young woman on the day of her wedding, and the period detail suggests the thirties or maybe the forties. The groom never arrives. He's been shagging the bride's sister all this time, and the two of them have run away together. Joan's voice is clipped, each word spoken just above a whisper, and with a wrench of profound discomfort I recognise the account as a true story. This happened to her, and she's been trying to claw her way back from it ever since.
She concludes the account and it feels as though a great weight has been lifted, or at least that it has been lifted from the rest of us.
I read a short story called The Sixth Day, chosen because it's supposed to be funny, or is at least reliant on a sense of the absurd, and I hope this will work for my audience of strangers. Because I've been writing science-fiction, it feels as though I've avoided baths, showers and a change of clothes for the last week, and now I'm about to read out a list of the bestest characters from Babylon 5 and Stargate: SG1, followed by thoughts upon who would win in a fight with whom. The Sixth Day is just over seven-thousand words, and as I reach the end of the first page I begin to appreciate that it's far too long to be read in its entirety. We're going to be here all fucking evening unless someone stops me, which of course I hope they won't because I want them to like it; but actually I do because the sound of my own droning voice stumbling over sentences apparently composed by a self-important twelve-year old brings me almost physical pain. Everyone laughs in the right places, but I'm so aware of all that is wrong with what I've written that I just want it to end. There are certain crimes against grammar and composition which will forever elude detection until you've heard them read out in your own voice before a group of people whom you're hoping to impress.
Eventually somehow, it's over.
'There were rather a lot of adjectives,' Richard points out, not unkindly, and there really were.
Five years later, I've applied all that I learned from the writers' group - at least the three meetings I attended. I've been published and I'm now living in San Antonio, Texas, way over the Other Side of the World which, coincidentally, was the title of the second novel destined to never be published, the one rewritten as Against Nature. I'm still teaching myself how to write and I think I'm better at it these days, in so much as that I'm finely attuned to my own screw-ups even if I'm not always immediately sure how to set them right. I look for a local writers' group, although this time it's more of a social thing because my wife is worried that I will wither away if deprived of human company. She doesn't really realise that I'm just not that sociable, but I guess it might be fun so I find something on the internet.
We meet in a coffee house called La Taza, something like twenty of us all sat around a table in an area specially cordoned off for the occasion. Everybody gets five to ten minutes, reading either the homework - usually a thousand words on a subject decided at the previous meeting - or whatever they've been working on if they've been working on anything. We take turns, working anti-clockwise around the table. The meeting is organised by a Vietnam veteran called Gene, an older, immediately likeable guy. He speaks in a soft voice and reads a story about something he saw in Vietnam, something he saw from a helicopter as I recall. He has the gravity and the presence of a man who has been in proximity to events so horrible that they cannot be described. He has nothing to prove to anyone and his reading reduces the room to silence just as did Joan's account of her ruined wedding.
Others read but leave no strong impression until we swing around to my side of the table. At the far end is the one person reading from an open laptop rather than loose sheets of paper or a notebook. He has a beard like Philip K. Dick and as our attention turns to him, he taps at the touchpad, closing a few windows and locating the document upon which he is currently working. It's as though we've interrupted him but he doesn't mind. He smiles and delivers a preamble, science-fiction awards, things he plans to do, things about which he is hopeful, then eventually he reads for ten blandly, competent minutes - meetings in slick futuristic cities.
Nevertheless, he's preferable to the next guy - Roy, or something like that. Roy is balding and bespectacled with large lips which appear permanently moist, maybe early forties but it's hard to tell. He looks as though he's been drawn by Dan Clowes.
'What do you have with you, Roy?' Gene asks. 'Do you have the latest installment for us?'
Roy is apparently a regular, and he's been giving us a chapter at a time. 'I'll need to ask the minors to leave the table for a short while, if that's okay?' he says, and there are a few noises of amusement or maybe anticipation, although probably not so raucous as you might get in England. This is Texas, and at least some of the group are either God-fearing or else not well disposed towards an excess of agricultural language.
A young-looking guy who read earlier stands and goes to buy coffee from the counter at the far end of the shop. He is followed by a bored-looking girl who has been playing with her phone most of the time. I would guess she is about sixteen and couldn't give a shit about the writers' group, but her mother does, and that's why she's here.
Roy watches the two of them depart, and then gives us a recap of the story so far. It's a spy thriller. We rejoin the narrative in a hotel bedroom in some exotic place associated with casinos. Two women have recently enjoyed sexual congress with a dynamic man, and Roy's descriptions focus on straps playfully tugged from shoulders, lingering glances, terse words delivered icily and all of the usual crap you would expect. Worse is that his voice drones and he stutters and seems to have difficulty reading his own writing. Not one sentence escapes his lips without having doubled back upon itself, but eventually - thankfully - he's done.
'The plot thickens,' someone observes, which is the kindest that can be said.
I read an excerpt from Against Nature, which seems to go down well, and both Roy and Philip K. Dick are eager to speak with me once we're done. Roy in particular seems to be engaged in an attempt to tell me about his writing for reasons I don't quite follow. I'd much rather talk to Gene, but never mind.
For the next meeting I tackle the homework with one-thousand or thereabouts words on the subject of gnomes and cannibalism. Roy splutters through the next lurid chapter, which is once again suffixed with somebody observing that the plot thickens.
The problem with all of this is that with such numbers in attendance, we're just taking turns at the equivalent of a microphone. There's no time for feedback, no-one to tell me I'm really hammering those adjectives into the ground, or to tell Roy that spy thrillers might not be his forte. There's no nipping outside for a ciggie and discussion of Charles Bukowski, so I leave it at two meetings.
Eventually I encounter Roy again, beyond the group. I cycle past him each morning on the Tobin Trail. In fact I've been cycling past him every day for about six months and somehow it's taken me this long to work out where I recognise him from. Etiquette demands that those using the trail generally nod, exchange a greeting or acknowledge each other in some way as they pass because that's good manners, and Roy distinguishes himself by doing none of these. Having waved at Roy or said good morning a couple of times, I eventually gave up. He's always on the trail with two old, slow moving people which I guess must be his parents. I also guess that the elaborate sexual scenarios of his spy thrillers are probably not drawn from experience, aside from that he possibly spends a lot of time thinking about them.
I used to wave or nod my head in greeting, oblivious to our having met, and he'd just glare at me. After a while I dispensed with the acknowledgement, leaving just the glare. It's as though he's daring me to say something, or he somehow resents my presence in this part of his life. It's as though I've seen him blow sailors, a whole boat's worth all lined up and rubbing their hands together in anticipation, one after another, and now I have power over him.
I have no idea what the look could mean.