‘The Madness of Writers at Work’ – Jasmine Donahaye

‘The Madness of Writers at Work’ – Jasmine Donahaye

The Hay Festival is always riddled with Welsh writers. We head there from all over the country and bump into each other on the walkways, in the cafes, in the Green Room – to tell anecdotes, share gossip, and to ask and avoid answering the perennial question, ‘So what are you working on at the moment?’


Sure, we come for the events, too – but it’s the social aspect, like at the Eisteddfod, that I love. There’s a great deal of kissing of cheeks, and intemperately heated confessional over cake or coffee or free reception wine. Favours get asked and bestowed as you’re standing in line for venison burgers or beer, or passing each other on the way to the loo, or in the car park – will you contribute something to this anthology, will you introduce me to your agent, will you look at this work by my friend’s daughter’s boyfriend… It’s a lovely messy mash of schmoozing and hanging out and drinking.


Of course there are the ones you wish you could avoid, but usually it’s too late to duck into a coffee stand when you see an ex-partner looming, or the writer you rejected when you were a magazine editor, or the reviewer who just trashed your  latest book, or the poet you just trashed – because in Wales we have, in both languages, an intimate (one might say incestuous) writing scene. But perhaps all writing ‘scenes’ are like that.


I’ve been coming to the festival for years, and always find it a strange buzz of caffeine and sore throat, of possibilities and aggravated self-doubt (I’m a writer after all), but it is also always wildly stimulating. One time, driving home, I swerved, tires squealing, into a bus stop in Builth Wells to write down the first sentence of what would become my latest book, Losing Israel. I had been turning over an amorphous idea for months, and some event or conversation at the festival gave me a way to get started. That Hay-triggered sentence – “I was conceived during the Six Day War” – remained through all the subsequent drafting and reworking, cutting and reorganising and rewriting, and it’s still there in the body of the published book.


It’s a dangerous thing for writers, this festival. It can fill you with dread and delight, trigger love affairs and murderous fantasies, and kick off mad book ideas that end up costing you your job, your relationship, and friendships (as Losing Israel did for me), but which nevertheless somehow must be written.


I don’t know what difficulties it will cause me this year, but it’s bound to be messy. I’m one of twenty guinea-pigs in the new Writers At Work/Awduron Wrth Eu Gwaith programme, funded by Arts Council Wales and the Hay Festival. Peter Florence can make good things happen for writers, so to be included is a privilege. ‘Immersion’, he says, when I ask him about the programme’s intension and genesis. These are the key elements: immersion, community, exchange.


That is certainly what we get. By the end of Day Two the twenty of us are exhausted, incoherent and headachy. By Day Four we’ve had sessions with authors, with commissioning editors, with publicists and – most usefully – with agents, some of whom say the magic words ‘actively building our list’. When we hear that, there’s an audible shift in the group. We’ve straightened up and are sitting all bright and attentive. A couple of us have had agents in the past, but none of us currently has representation.


We’ve also heard many (perhaps too many) stories about successful books and how they came to be – through good fortune, or chutzpah, or, simply, through being outstanding. Each of us, I think, wilts a little when we hear this, because we know we can’t all be outstanding. But we must each believe we’ve got something to offer, or we wouldn’t be here. We’re at different stages in our writing careers, from writers with an imminent first book, to writers with half a dozen books published by small independent presses, but we all share the desire to be taken seriously, to move up, to break through to new opportunities and new readerships.


We’ll leave at the end of the festival with the crumpled business cards and scrawled contact details of editors, agents and journalists, with sound advice and stark admonitions, with sensible guidance about PR and publicity and social media – and we’ll leave with good intentions. However, what this collective experience suggests to me is that most of what we leave with will be instantly displaced by that other outcome of this ‘immersion’: a renewed exclusive focus on writing. Because of course what the twenty of us really share is that we are all writers, which is to say obsessive, caffeine-fuelled lunatics.