Taking A Seat At The Table
I shared a daydream of mine on Instagram recently.
I am entertaining visitors with tea and spiced apple cake at my future cottage. Because I am intensely homely that cottage will likely be nestled among the leafy hills of Perthshire. Of course, it’s autumn, because I want my visitors to experience this corner of Scotland at its best – burnished, fire-hued and wreathed in mist.
The kitchen table is stacked with books. Armfuls have been brought from my crooked study and my visitors have added to the pile, each contributing a new and absorbing tale from a different corner of the world. We sit around the table, each picking a book from the pile. Chatter mutes to thoughtful quiet, disturbed only by crackling hearth and the crisp crinkle of a turned page. A dog or cat (I have not decided which) pads beneath the table.
The collective spell is broken when one of our number exclaims admiration for the book in their lap.
Who comprises this literary coven? And who are the beloved authors holding us spellbound?
I like to imagine that they (the readers and the authors) are us. And by ‘us’ I mean the bookish community I’ve found myself a part of on Instagram – writers and story lovers. Folk for whom the written word holds a kind of magical power. Curious, like-minded autumn souls who value community over competition and believe in the probability of a slow, creative and sustainable lifestyle.
It’s an idealised image, of course, but inspirational nonetheless. So many of us readers are writers too. Bewitched by words our thirst for stories is never satisfied, to the point where we pick up pen and paper, determined to add our own. Inspired by our first love, reading, we are also frustrated by the omissions. Countless stories are not being told. We are bored of typical hero trajectories. Bored of the status quo. So, we allow our imagination to fill in the gaps.
The next step is sharing those stories. To pull up a seat at that table and hold space with fellow storytellers.
And at this point in the tale two antagonists appear – self-doubt and, for want of a better term the literary establishment.
Our stories are rejected. We are told there is no market. That you cannot live off words alone, that the overnight successes are an anomaly. There’s not enough room for more writers. Your genre is over saturated. Stick to the day job.
Such rejections only create a self-fulfilling prophecy that validates the initial self-doubt.
Maybe, rather than face any of these criticisms the work is sealed shut in a drawer. Perhaps it never gets written. The table and your place at it seems more remote than ever.
But I prefer to daydream about a different scenario. Despite the obstacles, I believe that there has never been a better time to be a writer.
(Consequently, there has never been a better time to be a reader).
For the first time in history writers and readers can connect directly. We can build online communities to support and share the stories that matter to us. We get to choose what we read, connect with writer we admire and readers we appreciate. The tools to publish, market and sell stories are at our fingertips. Friendships flourish – between writers and writers, between writers and readers.
Writers don’t need to wait for an invite to the table – we can create our own.
I want to share my stories with you.
But I also want to read your stories. And I don’t care whether I buy your book from Waterstones, read it on Kindle, download it from your website or read it in an Instagram caption.
When I was 11 or 12 I had a friend who was as obsessed with The Lord of the Rings as me (weren’t we all?). We used to write each other stories where, as elvish versions of ourselves, we travelled with the Fellowship across the map of Middle Earth. I loved writing these stories, but even more, I loved reading the next instalment of my friend’s tale. I feel like the online writing community is a return to those days, where stories were pieces of ourselves we shared among friends.
And while we’ve all come a long way from writing awful epics inspired by Tolkien (I know you did it too), so has technology developed, affording writers the scope to develop a career online. Why not believe that those stories are worth more than banishment to the bottom of a drawer or the back of the mind? Chances are, if one person enjoys reading your story (as I enjoyed my friend’s) others will, too.
I suppose this post is really to give myself a good shake, because there are hundreds of examples of writers who have already bridged this gap between inspiring dream and thriving career. Sometimes I just need to remind myself that it’s possible. (If you’re reading this and find yourself in a similar boat, then consider it your gentle reminder, too).
I suspect I’m suffering some imposter syndrome, too.
I am about to release something into the world - my novelette, The Bone-Men.
A thousand times today I’ve asked myself if it’s good enough. Will folk enjoy it? Who am to write and sell books?
Then I consider the alternative – shutting the manuscript away in a drawer. Adding nothing to the community. Leaving my daydreams at just that – unfruited possibility. Suddenly the reality of sitting around my kitchen table with fellow story lovers seems very remote indeed. A cold fire burns in the pit of my stomach.
I have secrets to share. Things that make me angry, sad or afraid. Silence is anathema.
So, I’m pulling up a chair. I’m taking up space at the table.
Shall I put the kettle on?