It’s now been ten years since I both started and completed my very short-lived comedy “career”, beginning with a workshop hosted by comedian & writer Natalie Haynes, and ending with me gently slithering out of the five minute slots under or above pubs with a general sense of disinterest in the whole business.
Looking back it seems like an aberration, but also like the culmination of a particular segment of my life. Now, at the end of another decade, the first year in over ten in which I don’t have a recently-completed first draft of a novel to look back on, I find I’m looking back on what may be another culmination, and I am wondering about the slow shaving off of self-expression, of language, of connection to other people that has been under way.
Comedy seemed like an aberration because I’d previously avoided the stage for about seven years in absolute totality, after spending my childhood and adolescence obsessed with it. Not to the extent of learning a single damn thing or putting in any effort, of course–that’s never been my approach to anything where I’m not immediately applauded or validated with grades–but from the age of 3 through to 18 or so I was firmly entrenched in whatever amateur dramatics I could get myself accepted into in the face of my total absence of acting skills.
I loved–and this is what came back with comedy–the tension between how badly I wanted to be the absolute centre of attention, and the complete horror of being seen. Theatre offered the perfect solution: everyone has to look at you, but none of them see you. A whole room full of people staring at a complete fiction who just happens to have your face. And it only worked if you could form connections within a group of people who would be your closest, your nearest, your dearest–intense friendships that could be instantly discarded once the show was over.
The problem for me was the transition between the emotional highs of performance and the complete nothingness that followed. The adrenaline–my entire body shaking all the way through probably didn’t help my performance–wearing off into the flat emptiness of being too young to have cast parties and too weird to have friends. It’s hard to have a polite meal with your parents after you’ve spent two weeks keying yourself up for an hour and a half of prowling around on a stage the size of a postage stamp and pretending to slap people you’ll never see again.
With comedy the situation was simultaneously better and worse. Better, because comedy excused and justified–elevated, even–all the bad conversational habits that I have. Talk too much, steamrolling over everyone else’s interjections, in pursuit of some point you feel you need to provide endless context for? Appalling for conversations but perfect for the stage. Endlessly spewing out things which are mean, ill-judged, outright lies, in sole pursuit of making people laugh? Again, this is an obnoxious way to conduct a conversation but the root of at least the most basic kind of pub basement comedy.
For those reasons it was also somewhat worse than theatre: it indulged my worst habits, encouraged me to disappear into my own self-mythology. I am not, after all, a particularly funny person, but I can make whatever gibberish meanness I’ve thought up sound like comedy because–learning from poetry, at the very earliest stage of my writing life–I know what rhythm a joke should have. It only works on stage, if people aren’t thinking. Pub basement stuff.
And the high and the low were both higher and lower. The reward is immediate: people laugh. Lots of them. And they’re all watching, waiting to be made to laugh, so the pressure is higher, and the adrenaline more powerful, so your body shakes even more, and your stage persona overrides the natural desire to run away. The problem with this is that comedy, even moreso than acting, creates a false connection to an audience, who want to talk to you afterward and are somewhat disappointed when it turns out that the reason you enjoy being in the magic circle of the spotlight is that you don’t want to have a conversation with anyone. And comedy, morseo than acting, creates these tiny bubbles of camerarderie backstage, where it is a requirement to be Mates with people you have never met before and never will again–but might, so you have to make a good impression. Switch personalities in seconds.
Given that I need a good run-up to have any kind of personality at all, it was inevitable that wasn’t going to work.
That was 2009. This is the end of 2019. The me of 2009 failed to finish a novel; the me of 2019 failed to finish a novel. The me of the intervening years (and at least three of the previous ones) has successfully written several. In the intervening time I have taught myself about structure in the most mechanical fashion I could, about character arcs, about pacing, and above all about perseverance: the one thing I have always been told that I lack.
The end of the year is traditionally the period for self-reflection, and the end of a decade moreso. I’m disinclined to put too much weight on the bland mathematics of things like decades, but there’s no time like the present for contemplating what remains to be achieved.
In listening to interviews with much more accomplished writers–people who I admire, rather than people who are perhaps wildly popular–I am beginning to uncover the root of some dissatisfaction.
In pursuing making books which work structurally, along the lines of the most basic, functional fiction–to show that I can write “properly”, write entertaining fiction, and not, hopefully, fall into the traps of unthinking bigotry that are the water we swim in while writing (mixed metaphors are one of the problems I need to iron out!)–I’ve effectively abandoned all interest in the things that brought me to fiction in the first place. Namely, an interest in getting up close and personal with compelling characters and moments from their lives, and the joy of using language to creatively build situations a reader could feel properly immersed in–doing interesting or intelligent things with narratives.
Instead, I’ve fallen into the same trap I fell into with comedy and theatre, of becoming so attached to pursuing a favourable response by following the rules, that I sucked all the fun out of the act itself. There should be more to what I’m doing than just chasing after instant validation; I should care about more than just finishing and avoiding anger or criticism.
Partly inspired by a Tumblr post exploring the rhetorical unity and construction of character voice in Shakespeare’s work (which is incredibly intimidating), partly inspired by the unabashed self-indulgence in Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, which I’ve just started reading and will now probably be reading until the heat death of the universe, because it is very long and I like to read several books at once where possible… and partly inspired by another Stewart Lee Q&A [VIDEO, be warned] where he talks, towards the end, about rejecting three-act structure and letting a good story find its own level…
I think it might be worthwhile to return to the creative influx of university, to get back to reading and acting on texts that encourage technical thought about the construction of sentences, about euphony and rhythm, rather than than solely getting into factual and structural research for novels; that it might be worth my while exploring exercises designed to bolster particular elements of writing, rather than viewing every instance of putting words down as something that has to be finished, polished, and hopefully sold.
I’ll let you know how well that works out, and whether or not the allure of cheap applause beats the desire to be genuinely better at what I do.