Monday, 27 June 2011

Worcester Literary Festival and the compulsion to write.

The last week and a half has been taken up with the Worcester Literary Festival (, the first one ever. Over a hundred events spread over ten days, a massive undertaking for which the organisers should be proud.
I read a small piece at one event, and despite the dental work earlier in the week, got through it OK. As it turned out this was on one of the few days this summer when it has poured with rain and our audience was somewhat reduced as a result.
I found reading to an audience very different from giving postgraduate lectures, something I have done hundreds of times. Talking as an expert is not the same as performing as a creative artist, though many aspects of performance, like pacing and audibility are similar.
The issue is the content. In a lecture there are facts that can be relied upon, referenced back, verified by calculation or repeat observations. Interpretation is based on those facts and extends from a previous body of knowledge and experience. If I talk about how to control a disease outbreak, people who might have to do the same thing will listen in the hope of doing as well or better when they come up against the same problems.
Set the same material in a work of fiction and everything changes. The facts may be the same, but the audience start to consider whether they think the characters are believable, whether the plot moves fast enough, and a whole bunch of other things that make no sense in real life, even though the fiction may be purporting to imitate reality.
In a lecture, you tell it how it is, or should be; in fiction, you tell it how it could be, or might have been. I started writing fiction when I was still working in public health because I thought that my worst fears might make good stories. In every crisis I dealt with there was a more complex and more dangerous one going in my mind and in the minds of my team as we sought to keep one step ahead of reality. The worst-case scenarios were better stories; fortunately, none of them happened. That is probably the nub of it, real life can be boring; fiction can’t.
Yesterday, as part of the festival we had a 70th birthday party for the Worcester Writers Circle (, which apparently is the oldest writing group in the country ( We launched an anthology of members work to celebrate ( The Unboken Circle ISBN978-1-906198-04-6). When you consider that the group began in 1941 in the middle of the war, it tells you something about how compelling writing can be. Seventy years later and the compulsion is still there.

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