How to tell stories and read to strangers

Damian Barr — Picture by Choo Choy May
Damian Barr — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, July 6 — Writers are solitary creatures. After all, it takes a lot of discipline to plunk one’s backside down on a chair and tap away at the keyboard or fill pages of a notebook with plot twists and lyrical passages.

Writing is a lonely pursuit.

Writer and journalist Damian Barr, who was in town recently for the Cooler Lumpur Festival, understands this dilemma all too well.

He seeks to nurture a community of “literary citizens” who interact with each other — to learn, inspire and to get inspired. In addition to hosting the Literary Salon at Shoreditch House, he also offers his services as a Reader in Residence, reading books to hotel guests in his pyjamas.

Barr’s first book, Get It Together: How to Survive Your Quarter-life Crisis, was inspired by a column he wrote for The Times from 2001-2003 about graduate work and life.

He says, “I just wanted to tell the story of this particular generation in their 20s. Whether they were earning a lot of money or not, whether they were in London or in smaller towns, they were all anxious. The question on everyone’s mind was

‘When does my life start?’ This was not happening in our midlife but in our early life.”

In the intervening decade since the book was published in 2006, social media has exploded. “Now if someone is having a quarter-life crisis, they can broadcast it to the rest of the world. We’re more likely to have status update anxiety because we are more worried about how we are selling ourselves.

“The sad thing is if everyone is broadcasting and no one is receiving, then you feel doubly not heard. There is still space in this world for talking to your friends.”

Friends feature greatly in Barr’s next book, Maggie & Me, a memoir about growing up in a small Scottish town during the Thatcherian era.

“We used to be a coal-mining community before a steel plant came in. It’s not a political book; rather it’s about how Thatcher shaped the decade and affected my friends, my family and me.

“It’s about my parents getting divorced, about how I loved books and escaped into them. It’s about realising I was gay, coming out and finding my identity. It’s about having great teachers.”

That last experience has inspired Barr to become a teacher himself, through writing workshops and literary events. “I love teaching because it’s about helping people find out about themselves. Your story, the one you tell yourself, is probably not your real story. It’s about stripping away all those layers that we were told by other people to think, things we tell ourselves to think, to get past thinking altogether and get to being and experiencing.”

As the creator and host of the Literary Salon at Shoreditch House, Barr gathers an eclectic mix of established and emerging writers. Past guests have included Geoff Dyer, David Mitchell and Louis de Bernières. His most memorable line-up was when author James Frey was preceded by Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh.

“Imagine an audience of cynical, mostly 20-and-30-year-olds; these are not easily impressed folks. Holloway was this older man of 70 plus years standing before them to speak about his doubt and disappointment in the Church and why he left it. He spoke about sexuality, religion and drugs, and by the end of his talk, there wasn’t a dry eye left in the house. He received a standing ovation. What a tough act for Frey to follow!”

Barr is equally comfortable with an audience of one as he is with crowds. In 2008 he moved into the Andaz Hotel for a month as the Reader in Residence. Guests would book him to read aloud to them in their rooms.

“I spent most of the time in my pyjamas. The guests have to be in pyjamas too. I remember this CNN reporter who was a sceptic; he put his pyjamas over his suit and I said, ‘No, you have to take your suit off, put your pyjamas on properly and get into bed.’ I started off by asking who read to him as a child and what did they read. He said, ‘Oh, my mother read to me’ and I asked him what she read and the more we talked about it, he began to realise his mother didn’t read to him because he went to boarding school. You get to find out a lot about people by reading to them.”

Sometimes guests would fall asleep. Barr recalls, “The first time that happened, I’m like, have they died? How do you tell if someone’s dead? You get a mirror and you hold it in front of their nose and see if steams up which means they are breathing. Of course, if you weren’t dead, and you woke up to a six-foot-three Scotsman standing over you with a mirror over you, you might then die. You have to be careful.”

Barr reveals that a lot of people haven’t been read to since they were children and some people weren’t read to as children. “Some of them get emotional, some of them get tearful. I remember in New York, there was this couple who tried to tip me a huge amount of money, and I refused. The best thing they could give me was the commitment that they would read to each other and that they would read to their children.”

The single thread that links everything Barr does is storytelling. “Whether it’s telling other people’s stories or empowering individuals to tell their stories through my teaching or telling aspects of my own story, I can only do what I care about. I don’t have books at my salon because a publisher pays me to have their books at the salon or because everybody is talking about a book. I can only do what I can relate to. I’m very lucky that I spend most of my life dealing with people and stuff that I love, and that’s a privilege.”

For Barr, the best part of hosting these literary events or teaching is when people tell him that they have read books that they won’t normally read and how that changed their lives in some way.

He believes cultivating more readers is essential. “What would be the point of writing books if there are no readers — we need readers as much as we need writers; in fact we probably need readers more. Before you are a writer, you are a reader. People who read are interested in the world beyond themselves.”

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