Wednesday, 10 June 2009


Sometimes I bring you stories of the things that happen to me as a writer. Sometimes these stories are funny. Sometimes they are not. This one is not.

Yesterday, I was happy until approximately 4.15pm. From 4.15pm onwards, I was not.

Until 4.15pm, I had been doing some lovely events in Dyce Academy near Aberdeen (yay for Dyce Academy, home to many people of taste and intelligence and general excellence in education). Then I got on my train at about 4pm, satisfied with a good day's work. After I had moved from my designated seat in order not to spend the journey sitting next to two men each with a six-pack of Special Brew (for transatlantic readers, this is not tea, but strong lager), I ensconced myself in a carriage the peace of which was spoiled only briefly by the extraordinarily loud voice of a man from Yorkshire (like Porlock but further north and with fewer palm trees), who felt it necessary that everyone in the carriage should hear him phone his secretary to ask how many loads of shingle they had sold that day and whether his wife had phoned to say that the plumber had come to fix the leaking tap yet.

Then, at 4.15, I opened an email. From a school which I was supposed to be visiting with a free visit.

The school has suggested cancelling because they feel the event is "commercial". If losing money is commercial, remind me not to apply for The Apprentice. Why have they decided it's commercial? Because book-buying is (always was) on offer - with fun activities provided for those who don't want to buy books. Fun activities with prizes paid for by me. Because I can't stand the thought that anyone should feel left out if they don't buy a book. I could weep. Actually, I pretty nearly did.

I cannot express how much of my time, effort and money has gone into this series of events. But I was enjoying the whole idea until 4.15 yesterday and saw no downside, except that I'll be exhausted. But exhausted and happy, I thought.

You know me well enough to know that there will be a learning point to this. Indeed. The clue is in the mysterious heading to this post.

That phrase about editing destroying the cathartic blah blah refers to an oft-derided (by me and others) view held by misguided vanity publishers and some self-publishers - anyone in fact who hasn't got the knowledge, wisdom or literary insight to understand the utter essentiality of a good editor for EVERY writer.

Well, you know, they're right after all: editing does wreck the cathartic creativity and all that stuff. I know. Because after I'd spent some time feeling upset and being completely unable to concentrate on the thing that I was supposed to be doing on that train journey, and knowing that it would be a bad idea to reply to the email immediately (not least because I can't type on my horrible little netbook), I took pen and paper and spewed it all out into the written word. My letter was eloquent and beautiful and free-flowing and incredibly cathartic and creative. Unedited. Yay! But completely unpublishable. And unsendable. And needing to be kept private. Frankly, the equivalent of bulimia for writers?

Anyway, it cleared my head and I was then able to focus on the thing that I was supposed to be doing instead. Which is the point of catharsis.

The point being that yes, editing does impede catharsis etc, and so thank goodness for editing. Because without it it's all just spew.


Ivan said...

Argh. How annoying. Although editing can also turn the cathartic creative process into something sharp and pointy. It's also gives you the space and time for the perfect riposte that you always wanted to find at the time....

'Writer's bulimia'. Interesting phrase. I sometimes get stuck in conversations (especially professional or creative ones) where I apologise and say 'look, I have a percolator brain, and this thought has to come out to make room for the next one...' which is similar. Speaking of which....

Jane Smith said...

Nicola, it's awful of the school to cancel so late and for such a flimsy reason. Did they not consider this before agreeing to your talk?

Pah. I bet you could find another school in the area to visit, which would welcome you gladly. If you can't, then just set up a table outside the original school, put on your very best reading boots, and start reading aloud. 3.30 would be a good time to start. You could sell ice creams, too.

Sarah said...

Good point, Ivan! I'm not the sort who rarely reaches anything near eloquence in the first draft. That's why I can be horribly tongue tied during a conversation, but know exactly what I should have said 4 hours later. Oh well.

I think the whole catharsis thing shows a very flawed view of publishing in general. Publishing companies print books for READERS, but catharsis (at least in this sense) is for the writer. You get into a lot of trouble if you think the world is obliged to print/read your cathartic scribblings.

Though I would enjoy reading that first letter, Nicola.

rodgriff said...

Which goes to prove, I think, that writing vicious letters, getting everything off your chest, is a good thing to do. Sending them, on the other hand is not. That is what little notebooks are for and why some kind and insightful soul invented the Save as Draft button.

Paige Bruce said...

What a terrible thing for that school to do, especially for all the students that will now miss out. No authors visited my school when I was young, although I was able to go to a writer's conference to meet Miriam Toews, a local author. That's a real loss for students that'll miss out.

It does stress a very good point though.

Penny said...

That school visit! Grrrr, Nicola! Angry growls! So we now have schools that won't encourage children to buy a visiting authors books, either because a) the author is being paid enough for the visit, so why do we need to do more, blah blah blah AND ALSO b) the FREE visiting author with all her FREE & lovely activities and FREE fun things will be asking to sell her books while she's here. There's very mysterious attitudes in some schools!

Penny said...

Sorry Nicola - think the logic in my previous email got a bit tangled, so hope people can decipher my argument - AND it therefore demonstrates the need for a good editor when one's writing with emotion.

behlerblog said...

How I wish more authors would do this; writing a letter never meant to be sent. It gets out all the pent-up anger and bitterness. Sadly, many don't, and they send the most horrendous things to the editors who rejected them. I could write a book about it. Brava to you for your wise, classy restraint.

Michael Malone said...

I think an aid to your catharsis would be to publish your letter here. Change the names etc. Then we'll all read it and leave you messages of support making you feel all righteous and everything.

Donna Hosie said...

Hopefully the individual who displayed such a lack of manners and grace to cancel at such a late stage, removed their head from their arse before they went in to teach a class.

I do exactly the same when I need to get it off my chest. I open up that word.doc - spew forth - and then delete. It's very cathartic.

Ebony McKenna. said...

My first point (paying attention to the comment directions saying 'keep it rational' is that cancelling an author visit seems completely irrational to me.

Do they have a library at the school? Who wrote all those books? Do they care about literacy? You're not getting paid to appear at the school. Yes, you will have some books available for purchase but it's not expected.

My feeling is someone's hit the panic button and spooked the school committee.

On to the catharsis. I am a big fan of letting it all out in private. I use the word 'private' in the old school sense, as I am generation X and value my privacy, which means the rest of the world doesn't see it.

Catharsis does help clear the head. Keeping it private means it doesn't then come back and bite you in a public forum, which then requires public apologies.

vicariousrising said...

Beautiful post! Spew does have its place, but it isn't in a library.

My first thought when you wrote that the school "suggested" cancelling due to the event being too commercial was because they were really hoping you would be giving away more free books for all.

BuffySquirrel said...

There are lots of weird ideas travelling this country at the moment; looks like you got tripped up by one.

I have no idea where this rubbish comes from though.

Sympathies to you and the kids who'll lose out.