2 March 2020
Genevieve Grant-Thompson is a performance poet, dramaturg, and stage-manager.
Q: So, how did you first get into public speaking?
A: I hated it and fell into it backwards. I was working in an HR department and our trainer got sick one day. Nobody wanted the job of doing the welcome to the company talk so they made me do it because I was the only person there and I did it and I apparently did it well because I was offered the job of the trainer. I said yes because it helped to pay the bills faster and eventually ended up getting experience in coaching and helping to empower the groups of people that I trained. And so I became a coach to help other people find their voice and articulate their own truth because there are a lot of people who don’t know the magic trick of how to find their voice and so that’s what I try to teach people. How to hold their space in a room, how to hold a stage.
Q: Were there any particular experiences or pieces of advice that helped you to better understand how to teach effective public speaking?
A: We all do better in public speaking when we take the attention off of ourselves. Like if you’re speaking to a friend across a coffee table, you’re effectively public speaking but because of what you expect of yourself and assume about them you’re okay. You expect that they like you and are interested and you’re not thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about how to tell them what you want them to understand, you know? You’re focused on the message and the receiver of the message and it feels very fluid. Then if you add seven more people to that coffee table your behaviour will change a bit, but if they’re people you feel comfortable with that behaviour will only change because it’s eight people now instead of one but you’re still not thinking about yourself. The problem with public speaking is that we get up in front of a group of people or on a video call or something and we get very self-conscious and we effectively take on a narcissistic stance. We think “I’m not comfortable” “I don’t like how I feel”, “I can feel my heart rate”, “I’m worried…” We become very self-conscious and that’s distracting. So I think the first step is to notice that and acknowledge that and not to pretend that it’s not happening. And then all the tricks to becoming a good public speaker are directed at getting you back to how you would be with that one person across the other side of the coffee table.
Q: How has being a writer influenced the way that you coach other writers?
A: So this is actually the part where I get nervous because me as a writer is always something that I’ve kept to myself until now. I never thought to put myself in the public eye as a writer and I do feel like I’m doing a very sacred task of speaking to writers about something that I consider an important and precious task. Their presence and identity in a room is something that I want to feed and nourish. So I think that being a writer has always kept me in mind of the incredible power of words, of language and almost as if language is a magic spell that you cast, you know? And so if you have that sense of words being so important and potent when you offer them, either with your voice or on paper, you want to do it with respect to the language itself.
Q: How would you describe what you’re writing now?
A: I’m still figuring that out. I’m one of those people who used to write a lot then got a “grown-up career” and stopped writing as much so I’m coming back around to it and trying everything. Right now, weirdly, I’m a poet and I think that’s where I’m going to stay for a while. If you think of the poetry of the beats, experimental and not as formal, that’s where I’m sitting right now.
Q: What is your favourite part about writing?
A: Do you ever go dancing? (laughs) I haven’t gone dancing in a long time but I used to go all the time and there’s that thing that happens when the dancefloor is full but not too full and people are actually just there to dance. When you have that rare environment and you hear your favourite song and you just want to dance and you don’t need to dance with anyone, you don’t need to make eye contact with anyone you just want to close your eyes and dance with amazing sounds blasting all around you. But you need other people on the dancefloor with you to make you feel right. That feeling of being surrounded by other people on the dancefloor dancing separately but together, that’s what writing feels like for me right now. And part of it, and I’ve just realised this, is that being a writer also means being a reader and so when you start reading stuff and start to get goosebumps then pick up a pen and start to write your own story, wherever that comes from, you get this wonderful sense of being on a dancefloor with other people and the music is the music of whatever realm you’re in. Whether that’s the genre or the form or the idea but there are other people dancing there too. And you’re not isolated because you’re reading them but you also have space to find your own groove and discover your own response to the music. That’s what I love about writing right now. That’s what it feels like.
Q: Do you go through any specific rituals when you sit down to write?
A: I used to be really precious about routines and rituals but I’ve found that being precious gets in the way. But I do find that what usually happens is I’ve got three or four books that I’m reading in my backpack and I’ve got a notebook and two pens because one will always run out halfway through a good idea and as I’m reading, I’ll want to write. There’s usually disorder around the ritual. I’ll be in a noisy cafe or a train that’s moving or I’ve taken a break from doing housework. So there’s a little bit of freedom of disorder. And then if I’m really writing, like if I go back to edit or put together big ideas, then I need a ritual of needing to know that I have four to six hours where nobody is going to be around me. Where I can clear the desk and make a pot of coffee with some snacks nearby and I can just disappear into my ideas.
Q: How do you combat writer’s block?
A: A part of me sees it as an act of extreme narcissism right? Like who the hell do you think you are to be so precious about words? I have to work a lot to pay the bills so writing time is rare and delicious which is why I think I haven’t experienced writer’s block as much recently. I don’t have the luxury of writer’s block. And sometimes it just has to be bad. You just have to write and allow it to be bad. I find that it helps to have a few projects at once because then I can go and work on something else, or do the dishes or do the laundry or make dinner. Something important but mundane that brings me back to the excitement of writing. One of my mentors also told me that changing your physical environment can help to cure your writer’s block. Just getting up and trying to write somewhere else or getting up and doing 10 sit ups. Changing your physical state often helps.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A: Just do it. When you notice yourself being precious about it, as if it’s a magic spell you’re afraid of getting wrong, make the spell and make it bad. The most important thing is to just get in and do it. Sometimes it has to be awful for quite a long time. If you want to write, stop taking it so seriously and just get to work.
Q: What are you looking forward to most about the festival?
A: I’m just looking forward to being surrounded by writers all day. If you don’t know what I look like and you want to find me, just look for the person who’s just like the biggest geek with eyes like a beaver soaking it all in with a huge grin on her face and so excited to just be around writers all day long.
Interview conducted by Rufaro Mazarura.