I once met a poet who, when he found out I was a writer, told me with a knowing smile that I must spend a lot of time alone.
No, I said. I spend a lot of time in the pub.
I was being facetious, of course. As a writer, I do both: spend a lot of time in the pub, but alone. Watching people, doodling, ordering a beer, watching the motions of the bartender, listening to an argument, seeing small children fall over and cry, drinking a beer, ordering another. Writing.
It was something Ingrid – this year’s winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize – asked me about.
Do you really write in the pub? She said. We were sitting on a roof top in Singapore – no cocktails, alas – just six writers chatting about work, writing, editing.
I told her that yes, I like noise and distractions, it helps to propel my writing along. The other writers – Ingrid, Tracy, Anushka, Akwaeke and Jacob – preferred silence. Whether its noise or silence, solitude or being alone in a busy pub, we’re all doing the same thing: looking for ways to shut out the world so that we can focus.
That’s why awards such as these are so important, to remind us that we are part of something else, something bigger.
When I heard that I’d made the Commonwealth Prize shortlist, I found myself very suddenly not alone. There was my name on a list with twenty other writers from all over the world. We’d all sent in stories, cleared the first round, been read by the judges and, most unlikely of all, liked. Being on that list connected us. The 21 writers who made that shortlist may have had nothing else in common except for an allegiance to an old idea – the commonwealth – and an even older passion – telling stories – but there we were all together.
Winning an award like the regional prize of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition is extraordinary. The five winners – Tracy Fells, Ingrid Persaud, Akwaeke Emezi, Anushka Jasraj and myself – were taken to Singapore to meet each other. We explored the city together, had many conversations, and a few drinks. We had dinner with famous Singaporean writer Catherine Lim, and a workshop with award-winning novelist and short-story expert Jacob Ross. We became friends.
The Foundation put on a fabulous prize-giving event where young dancers from the university interpreted our works. Imagine someone reading your story and turning it into a dance! Afterwards, people came up to tell us that they had read our stories and they had liked them! (Never underestimate the excitement that causes in a writer, even if they are too bashful to say anything. They are melting on the inside. Maybe a little on the outside, too.)
Some of us were lucky enough to have our families there, and they also became part of the shenanigans. In the case of my parents, honestly, sometimes they were the shenanigans.
For five glorious days, we were all part of a gang, a little family of writers. It was very nice, for once, to feel part of a community, and not just all alone. I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to my new friends, women I came to admire. Tracy’s humour, Ingrid’s laugh, Anushka’s thoughtfulness, Akwaeke’s confidence.
Back home, it almost seems unreal. Those heady Singapore days are over, and I’m back to reality. Here I am again, sitting in the pub by myself, writing, doing one-beer-one-thousand-words sprints. Watching people. Maybe seeming like some aloof jerk in the corner of the room. But I know now that I am not doing this in isolation. I know that I am part of a wider community of story tellers.
The 2018 Prize opens on 1 September, and I encourage all eligible writers to apply. We are none of us alone in this crazy enterprise called writing. Together, we form a Commonwealth of Writers.
Nat Newman is the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize regional winner for the Pacific. She is an Australian freelance writer, journalist and lover of beer. She enjoys writing about science, food security and public health. Her short fiction has appeared in several journals, and she has just completed her first full-length manuscript.