Begin at the beginning

“Some said, “Hov, how you get so fly?” I said “From not being afraid to fall out the sky.”

– Jay-Z, Beach Chair

I spend a lot of time jotting down ideas for essays, thinking up tales for potential storytelling events, and dreaming of the success of my non-existent band. But I spend much less time actually writing, performing or showcasing my talent for jazz tambourine. This is because thinking is easy – it’s the doing that’s difficult, especially those first steps, where the walk towards the microphone is fraught with imagined scenarios where I’ve forgotten to wear pants, don’t know my lines and have somehow set myself on fire all at the same time.

I have a lot of admiration for people who have produced great novels and great albums, but the largest space in my heart is reserved for the beginners. People who are just starting out, and can think of a thousand excuses not to continue, but who push through and do the thing regardless. I’ve always wondered what the difference is between them and the ones who sit around talking about “someday”.

To find out, I head to a storytelling event held by Scissors Paper Pen, where seven people have had 24 hours to compose a piece with the theme of “The Night Before” before reading it aloud tonight. I ask two of the performers for a quick chat – Nathan Smale and Shelley Mulherin, both of whom have read shorter works before an audience, but are first-time storytellers.

Nathan tells me that “the pressure of time” has motivated him. “Oh, and there’s some guilt there too,” he adds. “I’ve just finished my creative writing degree and I think, well if I don’t do this, then what? Am I just going to sit at home and play video games for the whole summer?” I don’t tell Nathan I’ve lost entire weeks renaming files on my laptop when procrastinating, but note aloud that there are worse things to do than get more awesome at Alien: Isolation.

The first time I read at a public event was at Bad!Slam! and I could feel my entire body shaking while I was standing up there.

I ask how it went. “I was nervous – which affects how you sound and generally lessens the audience’s ability to be immersed in the story,” Shelley tells me. “So I was really trying to sound steady. I was conscious that prose/short story writing is not really within my comfort zone.” I had thought they both sounded impressively confident and wouldn’t have guessed they were new to performing. Nathan says it’s gotten easier since his first poetry slam. “The first time I read at a public event was at Bad!Slam! and I could feel my entire body shaking while I was standing up there. The second time was a lot better, and this time I stumbled over a few things but I think that happens to everybody.”

Both agree that writing a piece intended for reading aloud is a unique process. “When you publish a piece of work, the audience is far less able to judge you as the author, because you are a less visible part of the work. I think when you perform you have to accept that your connection to the piece is on display to the audience.” Shelley says. “When reading aloud, you have to be more convincing with your language choices, especially if you have characters in the piece – because the audience faces the extra hurdle of needing to believe that both you and the character are genuine.”

I think when you perform you have to accept that your connection to the piece is on display to the audience.

Nathan agreed that the process is good for his writing. “I cut out a lot of the crap that I probably should already be cutting out,” he said. “I knew I only had a short amount of time to read and a small word limit and that forced me to include only the things I thought were really important.”

I ask what kind of advice they’d give to someone who was considering reading at an event like this. Nathan says he’s seen a chain reaction of participation at poetry slams. “The first week I went with a bunch of my friends and I was the only one that read and the next week, four other friends read with me,” he tells me. I ask if it’s a case of leading by example. “Maybe”, he says, “but I think it’s more helping them to realise that it’s not as daunting as it sounds to just get up and put yourself out there. I feel like it’s a really useful creative practice.”

Just talking about creativity is enough to make you feel more creative, and I know I’m already feeling a little braver just by chatting to these two. I feel at least brave enough to keep going to these sorts of events and asking friendly strangers to chat with me, so I can discover a little more about how you go from thinking to doing. The haikus I write during my lunch breaks can stay unheard for the moment – at least until I have some time to revise them.

Shelley sums it up with some final wise words. “I would say, don’t think about it anymore and go for it. Thinking about it probably increases the worry and anxiety, and doing it will probably cause some nerves, but it comes with a sense of achievement and realisation that it is completely doable. I think you need to believe that what you have to say is important and will be valuable to someone. And if you believe you can do that – then go for it.”

Illustration credit: All images by Alice Carroll