The stand up, the writer and the shipping container

Last year I saw a comedian at the Edinburgh fringe festival die, completely and utterly, on his arse. Naturally, the exquisite humiliation and human drama made me think of this writing lark.

In mitigation, it was the first day of the festival (so he probably hadn’t got into his stride) and the show was held in what appeared to be half a shipping container – a hot, airless space about as conducive to laughs as a clown at a wake.

But it also made the whole excruciating affair more intimate, more intense, more like sharing a phonebox with someone having a nervous breakdown.

The comedian started well enough, getting a few decent laughs. But as time went on and he began to sweat and swear and get that panicked look that horses sometimes have in his eyes, the laughs became chuckles and the chuckles became wry smiles and then just a restless scuffling of feet and glances at watches.

The less response he got the harder he tried, but in truth, he lost us well before the end when, following a long silence, he said; “And that folks, was my big finale.” Then he trudged from the stage, defeated.

So what’s this got to do with writing? Quite a lot, I think. For the most part writers don’t perform in public – and when we do, it’s generally reading something that has met with acclaim or won a prize, so much of the pressure is off.

But we tend to do a lot of our writing in small rooms, hoping for an audience that will be receptive. We imagine, like a comedian, that audience lost in the world we have created, hanging on our every word, amazed at a turn of phrase. We want people to be amazed, moved, inspired, we want them to finish a story and to think differently about the world.

Doesn’t a comedian, with their observational humour and their witty insight want something similar? And don’t writers also suffer when someone says: “Sorry but this isn’t for me.” “I need to love this, but I didn’t.” “Sure you will find a home for this elsewhere.”

These aren’t the equivalent of being booed from the stage, they are the same quiet rejection that my comedian suffered in front of an audience who didn’t want him to feel bad, yet just didn’t enjoy what he was offering.

So what’s a comedian to do in such a circumstance, once he’s gone into the wings, wiped the sweat away and listened to the audience file out like grateful freed hostages?

Well, probably the first thing he does is contemplate sticking three fingers in an electrical outlet. But beyond that initial “fuck you, fuck this” knee jerk reaction, what he does is resolve to learn and improve. To hone his material more, to cut the padding, improve the pacing, make the flow better, chop the stuff he really likes that the audience blanked and go back, do it again, risk it another time.

And yes, that’s the same for writers. It’s an unending process of putting it out there, inviting the spotlight, dealing with rejection, making the material better and getting back on stage again.

At some point my comedian will get it right. His material will be tight, his delivery slick. He’ll get a rousing reception for his ‘big finale’ and he’ll go off stage thinking that actually, it is worth all the trouble after all.