I’ve tried several times to sit down and write about this year’s National Young Writers Festival, and what the whole thing has meant to me, but the words are not flowing as freely as I’d like.
This year’s festival came along at the exact best and worst time for me, right at the end of a devastating and chaotic month that felt both exhaustingly long and painfully short. NYWF was a welcome distraction — something to focus on and put all my energy into. But with that came guilt; guilt that I didn’t have enough focus or enough energy to devote to it, but also guilt that I was putting so much into it when it was needed elsewhere. Whatever space my head was in, I worried about the other spaces it should have been, worried about what else I should be doing or thinking about. It was tiring and frustrating and sometimes I just felt so worried and guilty about everything and at about 2.30am on the morning of the first day of the festival I came as close as I have in years to a proper panic attack, as tired and frustrated and worried and guilty and sad and excited and nervous and actually really happy made for too many things in my head at once.
In the end, it all worked out, and once again I come away from NYWF so incredibly proud of the people I worked with, thankful I had the opportunity to be involved, and inspired beyond what I can express in words.
But this year’s festival was special to me for another, bigger, purely selfish reason.
Before the last day of the festival, I hadn’t read my writing aloud in front of anybody — and that includes family, friends, and even my husband — since the creative writing unit I did at uni when I was nineteen. Reading aloud has never been something I’m good at, but at some point it became less about stage fright and more about an intense fear of sharing my writing with others.
I’ve always written, in one form or another, most of it for just a few sets of eyeballs, or under terrible assumed names, or both. Usually both. Some of what I’ve written has been decent, but most of it has been noise, fun for me but probably not for anyone else, because who really needs to read an 8,000 word recap of an episode of So You Think You Can Dance? Nobody, is really who (although if you want to, I still have it). It’s something that I used to believe I was good at, but somewhere along the line of time and space and babies that belief has been shaken and I stopped sharing my writing because I was convinced that to do so would be to have my greatest fear — of being Bad At Words — confirmed.
So of course, when Alex, who is amazing and talented and smart, and who is wonderful at making those around her feel like they are equally so, even when they’re petrified of everything, first asked me to do a reading as part of an event she was putting together, my first instinct — after a brief urge to throw up — was to say no. I’m not a Writer, I thought. Not a proper one. And I don’t speak in public. It would be a disaster. People would laugh, and not in a good way. Nope. No way, I thought.
But then I thought of Future-Me. Future-Me already has a long, long list of bones to pick with Present-Me and Present-Me’s fears and reluctances and paranoias. If I said no to this, Future-Me would hold it against Present-Me for a very, very long time, and she’s an obsessive bitch about things like this. She’d drive me crazy, quite literally.
And if was awful, Present-Me would get a rare ‘I told you so’ moment.
So I said yes. I wrote a thing. I thought it was good. Then I thought it was okay. Then I thought it was average. Then I thought it was terrible, but by then it was too late to write another thing because it was festival time, so instead I tinkered with the the tense of a couple of words like that would fix it. It didn’t. Alex kept telling me how excited she was. I kept telling her to lower her expectations. But I didn’t throw up. I didn’t lose my voice. And somehow, I didn’t pull out in a last-minute moment of panic.
I got up and — once I figured out how to use the microphone — I read the thing I had written in front of a room of thirty-three people, including two I made myself. During it a couple of people laughed in what I thought were good ways. Afterwards, they clapped. The ones I knew said it was great. Later, one I didn’t approached me and told me she really loved it. I didn’t know what to say so I said thank you and that that was lovely and resisted the urge to tell her that she was wrong and it was terrible because maybe it wasn’t after all. You can read it here and decide for yourself.
I don’t know that this experience has fixed me, or my fears. I’m re-reading this piece as I write it and thinking it’s terrible before it’s even finished. I’ll still hit publish on it with a huge lump of terror in my throat, but maybe it will be a little less jagged? I’m a little bit less afraid of calling myself a Writer, even if it’s something I only ever do for a crowd of twelve from my couch. It’s not all I’d call myself, but I feel like less of a fraud adding it to the list.
What I do know is that I’m really glad I did it. All of it. My NYWF experience started when on a whim when only hours from the deadline I put in a no-chance application for the one of the staff roles last year, but it has been so great. It has given me so much and taught me so much, about other people, about writing, and about myself. I’ve made wonderful friends, seen some events that have left me inspired and amazed and moved, and I’ve realised that I’m not the talentless dunderhead I sometimes think having kids has made me. I’m older and doughier and I will never release my brilliant first novel at a prodigiously young age, but that’s cool too.
So thanks NYWF. You’re a pretty amazing festival, and I’m already looking forward to catching up with you next year.