It was their Christmas ‘do’, so I wasn’t too worried. I assumed that the ladies in question would be knocking back a fair bit of sherry and wine (and brandy on the Christmas pud), so that, by the time I stood up to speak, after the lunch and the raffle, they’d all be quite merry and would laugh loudly at all the funny bits and/or sleep through it all.
They were actually rather a genteel bunch. About thirty five ladies were gathered and I only spotted one bottle of wine on the tables! Yes. One. In total. They were all on the orange juice – and driving!
So, by the time I raised myself up to speak (tricky because of the amount of turkey I’d just eaten. It was a delicious Christmas dinner and even my nerves couldn’t stop me wolfing down the lot), they were all perky and fresh-eyed and ready to listen to their speaker. Me.
I talked about my former role as Warwick Poet Laureate and some of the disasters along the way and in between the chat, I read about six or seven of my poems. For a while it was hard to tell if they were listening carefully or if they weren’t that interested (someone told me once that when people are listening intently their faces often register the same look as if they’re completely bored!).
But after a few minutes, I could see that some of the ladies were enjoying it. They were laughing and they made a few ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ in the right places. Some of them even came up to me at the end and told me they’d liked it.
The bit they all liked best was a limerick I’d written especially for the occasion, which involved George Clooney as a raffle prize.
But others were clearly a bit disinterested. They yawned, gazed around and when I addressed the audience directly, they looked at me like I’d just spoken Serbo-Croat.
My heart constricted and I could only think about those two or three who didn’t seem to be enjoying it. I felt horrible. It’s not often we get such a direct and immediate response to our writing, is it?
But then I remembered something that the wise novelist Martin Davies told us in a recent workshop: you will never write something that everybody likes.
Think about it. I bet you’ve got a favourite book that other people think is rubbish – and vice versa. There’s a certain best-selling female novelist that I won’t name here (it’s Christmas, after all!) who I can’t stand (I’ve never got further than about three chapters into her books) but who sells novels to men and women by the million and who’s won awards and is generally raved about. She does nothing for me but lots of other people like her. And that’s fine.
As writers, we’ve got to stop worrying about what other people think.
We met up with some friends over the weekend and they asked how my writing was going. As soon as I mentioned the words ‘short story’, their eyes glazed over. I know they don’t think that’s ‘proper writing’. They’ll only be interested if I ever have a novel published. They don’t think much of short stories. And d’you know what? I don’t care. I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for myself, for the editor of the magazines I’m aiming at and for the people who do like short stories.
So write what you love. If you love it, the chances are that someone else will too. And take the pressure off yourself by remembering, you can’t please all the people, all of the time.
So you might as well just please yourself.