I was on a writing retreat with about 12 other writers and, when we were making our traditionally modest introductions at the start of the week about what we were currently working on, one man introduced himself with the words,
“My name’s Bob and I’m not really a writer. I don’t honestly know what I’m doing here.”
There was a collective chuckle, partly in sympathy, partly in disbelief. Even the most successful writers can be self-deprecating when they introduce themselves.
“Hopefully, I’ll work it out during the course of the week,” Bob added.
And that was that. Perhaps he’s not a writer, I thought. Perhaps he saw a writing retreat advertised and thought it would make a fairly easy-going holiday. I know people who’ve never practised yoga go on a yoga retreat for much the same reason. After all, you’re catered for and in the company of people who are likely to demand little of you.
During the days that followed, however, whenever I saw Bob around the house, he did seem to be doing a fairly convincing impression of a writer; scribbling thoughtfully in his notepad or engrossed in a book. Much like everyone else around. We minded each other’s business and exchanged idle chat until the final evening inevitably came and we gathered together after supper to share some work with each other.
Outside, the snow had been falling thick and fast for two days and a welcome fire burned in the hearth. Most of us had enjoyed at least one glass of wine with our Burns-style supper and the scene was one of rosy-cheeked conviviality and thread-veins of nervous excitement as the readings began. For me the joy of listening to the ideas and creations of others is always undershadowed knowing that I will inevitably have to share my creation too. It still feels like a daunting rite of passage every time I do it.
When it came to Bob’s turn, I wondered if he would have something to share or pass up his turn because his writing wasn’t really writing.
He did both.
He had poems to share. Within a few lines of the first, tears sprang to my eyes. Maybe it was the wine, I thought, but when I glanced around, I was clearly not the only one moved. Bob read a second and a third, less emotionally charged, but no less beautiful, evocative and original.
When he finished, there was a sense of awe and we were keen to know if Bob had had any work published.
“No, no, no,” he laughed. “I do it for pleasure. I’m not interested in being published. I’ve been in bookshops and I’ve seen those hundreds of slim volumes of poetry lining the shelves. Who needs another one? I just write these for myself and keep them in my notebook.”
I was astounded. While writers generally accept that much of what we do will never see the light of day, I had never met a writer who hadn’t been published and didn’t want to be. Bob’s response was both unique and surprising – especially since he had just moved a number of people to tears with his words.
As I listened to the responses of the others in the room, I couldn’t help feeling perplexed by Bob’s modesty and I had to say something.
“Don’t you think it’s kind of selfish to keep such lovely writing to yourself? I mean, we all enjoyed listening to your poems and if you don’t publish them, you would be depriving others of that pleasure. You should publish them… as a gift.”
Bob raised his eyebrows at me – who could blame him? I probably sounded quite abrupt.
“Well, I hadn’t thought of it like that. Thank you,” he said.
The truth was, I hadn’t thought of it like that before either.
And even as I blurted out those words to Bob, I realised I should be heeding my own advice.