The Big Top’s up now for my local arts festival. It’s blue and white and big and it’s on the rec. It looks very impressive whenever I drive past it. And so does the bunting. It’s all very lovely. But there’s a really scary message hidden there too.
Does it fill me with joy and pride? Nah. It really doesn’t. I think it’s brilliant that a small village/town like the one I grew up in, and have lived most of my life – the place where I’ve written all of my books – has a cultural event – and this, for the size of the place, is a four-yearly big one. I think it’s terrific. But there’s also something really uncomfortable about it too that organisers and participants might miss, and something hugely misleading. Something that can kill local art. (Because all art starts at home.) And it’s something that can limit the potential new stuff people are exposed to.
When I first started out having books and stories out there, I offered to be involved. They didn’t want me. Neither did the next bunch of organisers. Or the ones after that. Repeat: over 12 years. And that’s fine – I’m certain that anyone who ever volunteers to organise an event like that has the best of intentions. The trouble is, those intentions don’t mean they know what they’re doing. It means they probably know what they like and, as a result, that’s what gets put on. With, perhaps, not enough thought of the audience (and don’t get me wrong – if I was doing it there’d be Vonnegut interpretive dance and Aimee Bender mimes – immersive Asimov silent discos, and an imagined walk around Kawakami’s Tokyo). But then I wouldn’t be thinking of anyone else, would I?
My point is this. I have been trying to be involved for over a decade, and I’ve been ignored or told the same thing (ie it won’t be like this next time) and I’ve learned that it’s all quickly forgotten. I’ve given up now. I’d have done it for free – since 2004 I’ve been doing what I do really well all over the country and I’d have loved to have been able to give something back. To inspire people. To show them an uneducated local lad can get somewhere. Or just to talk about stories and celebrate them. To show that writing isn’t a closed door. That we can all do it or enjoy it.
But you know what’s really, really scary? If I’d have taken my home town’s arts people’s opinion as a measure of success I would have got nowhere. I would be a failure. I would have given up long ago. No Kensington Palace summer parties, no teaching at Oxford, Cambridge, the BBC. No being used on the same course as a Pullitzer prize nominee, no awards, prizes, brilliant residencies. No amazing experiences at other festivals (I’ve loved them all!).
Jesus, there’d be no career!
I have advice for people just starting out: get out of where’s familiar. Try new places. Do not EVER think you need to tick a small box before you move on to the bigger things. While there are tons of brilliant local writing groups and things like that where you can grow (don’t turn your noses up at those – they’re where great stuff is nurtured, where it grows – just don’t expect them to feed into anything bigger just down the road), look beyond them. Not every town aims for cultural diversity. Not every organiser even thinks of it. Aim high – you might not get there straight away (I didn’t) but at least you’ll be putting yourself, and your work, in places that might understand what you do better. (There’s a great segment on youtube where Ira Glass talks about you not being at the level you want to be at, but reminding you you know this because of what you know of the form you love. Chase that over local recognition.)
Aim to be brilliant. Keep your local writing buddies (they’ll get you, and support you) – Be brave – you’re probably a lot better than you think you are. And, if you can, find something that you love locally (I’m sort of hoping there’s more for you than there was for me here!) There’s a big world out there, and a lot of it will have far better taste than the one you might be living in right now.