Having had my mind on medicine for the last few years, I feel very out of touch with the literary scene. I’ve barely even allowed myself to read the books of other authors, let alone write myself. There always seemed to be something else I ought to be doing – exams to study for, my e-portfolio to improve, audits to sign up for; and then there was trying to keep up with the latest research. If I opened a novel while I still had the latest issue of the British Medical Journal to read, I would feel horrendously guilty.
Thinking about it gives me another reason for leaving medicine: if I’m not interested in improving my practice this way, what’s the point? I know not every doctor is this diligent; I have met many who are happy to float along while others tell them what to do, but this isn’t ME. When I think of excitement I get doing the geeky things I love (like reading up on French clauses that use the subjunctive), it makes leaving medicine seem like the most natural thing in the world.
As writing is one of the things I get absorbed in, I was curious to get an idea of what it would be like to work as a professional writer. You may have read my blog post about the Alternative Careers Fair, when Dr Shabnam Parkar told us that she performed at open mic poetry nights, so I decided to set myself the challenge of trying it.
First however, I eased myself in by going to the Waterstones bookstore in Piccadilly, where Jon McGregor and Kevin Barry were speaking about their latest publications and about short-story writing in general.
I have to start by confessing that I didn’t have a clue who either of them were, although I felt like I ought to. Jon McGregor had been longlisted for the Booker Prize twice and won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2012. Kevin Barry had also been nominated for and won several prizes, none of which I had ever heard of. I sighed at my ignorance.
I suppose the evening would have meant much more to me if I had actually read their books, but I really just wanted to be close to the literary scene and taste what it might feel like to be a published author. And in brutal honesty, I wanted to know how they survived with nowhere to hide and no steady, monthly pay cheque.
When I arrived, people seemed already to know each other. I suddenly felt very out of place. What was I doing here? Part of the reason I disliked the medical world was the feeling that I didn’t ‘belong’, but here I didn’t feel a sense of belonging either. Maybe I didn’t belong anywhere…
Stop with the self-absorbed melodrama Peach, and actually listen to the interview!
They answered questions about story writing and their creative process, and within their answers were some very pithy pieces of advice: don’t write with pleasing the publisher in mind, focus on what you want to say. Also don’t spend all your time writing in your shed, as Kevin Barry warned to everyone’s amusement, because eventually you’ll end up writing about writing in a shed! The best writing comes from experience, from contact with people, from living life.
With that in mind, the next day I went to the Poetry Café in Covent Garden for an event called Poetry@3, an open mic for anyone who happens to write poems. I took along ‘Divorce’, the poem I’ve published on this blog, hoping it would go down well. I felt incredibly nervous and small as I was sitting in their little downstairs room waiting to perform. I’d read poetry before, but the last time I did it was as a child in a speech and drama festival, and that was easier because I felt somehow validated by the fact that I’d been entered by my teachers.
I glanced down at my poem, wondering if I would be considered outdated for making so much of it rhyme, and fearing that my random switches in and out of iambic pentameter would sound totally arrhythmic.
The first performer was called, and she strode up to the microphone, frizzy hair topping a red dress, red tights, red shoes and a red handbag, and in delightfully mad eccentricity she began to sing! She was warbling about autumn in a thick accent – possibly eastern European – so she was quite difficult to understand, but it was funny and different and quirky, and I totally relaxed. All sorts were accepted here.
The topics of the poems were as varied as the people who read them. Some were better than others, but I enjoyed every one. Watching someone read out their own work is intensely fascinating, because you see the person behind those words right in front of you. You see what animates them, what distresses them, what they find funny, and it makes an immediate connection. Consequently, it was much easier for me to talk to people after the poetry reading than before.
When I got up to read my poem, I was shaking so hard I thought my knees would give way, but looking out to see the faces of the audience focused so intently on me was exhilarating, because I felt they were truly listening to me. I even got a laugh out of the last line, which I wasn’t expecting, and when people came up to me afterwards to tell me they’d enjoyed my poem, it was so exciting and gratifying. It felt good as well to communicate the realities of working in the NHS, utilising the power of art to express feeling without coming across as whining or accusatory.
This time I had the courage to chat to people and make some connections, which is hopefully something I’ll be less shy about in the future. It’s strange, you know, because I walk up to the beds of strangers every day of my working life and I talk to them about extremely personal things. Out of my doctoring role, I feel out of context with life.
With some new found confidence, I signed up to a Spoken Word open mic in the Vogue Fabrics Nightclub in Shoreditch. I was really excited about going, because I’d heard of Spoken Word before and liked their work, but the moment I walked in I had to fight the urge to turn round and go straight back out again…
The room was filled with the coolest looking people you could imagine, with their edgy clothes, funky haircuts and urban vibe. I had come straight from work and I felt like an idiot standing there in my pencil skirt and smart shirt, and that wasn’t the worst on it, because when they got up to perform, the vast majority of them were incredible.
They spoke – sometimes in poetry, sometimes in prose and often something in between the two. They addressed the major issues of today with piercing directness: racism, sexism, homophobia and environmental destruction. Mental health and experiencing discrimination were also a common theme, giving credence to my theory that pain gives rise to great art. It was brilliant, really, sitting there watching them perform.
I wish I could have stayed for longer. I was signed up to perform at 9.45pm but the evening was running behind schedule and I had to leave before I could get on stage. After all, I am still a doctor who has to get up at 6 and who really shouldn’t be exhausted at work, and anyway, I felt quite relieved I hadn’t had to perform. I had felt much too intimidated, but perhaps confidence will come in time.
It’s really quite strange for me to cater to my artistic side. It has always been something that’s been considered by my relatives as an ‘extra’ – a perk, a bonus to my scientific intelligence.It’s odd really, because my parents spent so much time and money teaching me music and dancing, they let me go to theatre school on Saturdays and they always took it seriously and expected me to do well in all these things. It looked good on my CV – it made me an ‘all-rounded person’, which increased my chances of getting into medical school. And yet they expected that it would be easy for me to drop everything when the demands of medical training slowly took my hobbies away from me.
One thing that really stood out for me during the Spoken Word and Poetry@3 events was the fact that, despite the diversity of poets there, not a single person except me was of Asian descent. As I contemplated the significance of this, I thought of the lack of Asian faces in western TV, film, comedy, even sport, and wondered whether, like me, there were voices out there silenced by the belief that these are inferior practices. Is it an immigrant thing? Do we feel we still have something to prove? How many people out there had their gifts cultivated in childhood until the time came for the superior practices to take over, at which point they were expected to drop it all?
I took my gifts for granted because my family did. I only hope I am not too late, that I have grasped what was left of the creativity within me before it withered completely, and left me a desolate soul with only memories and a vague sense of having once loved…
And the melodrama is back!