I have spent most of this week in Charlotte Square, home of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, drinking too much coffee, eating too many sandwiches, but revelling in my annual literary fix – the company of other writers.
Some are my good friends; some are acquaintances, to be caught up with once a year in the cluster of yurts that serve as the authors’ hospitality and backstage area; some are my heroes, literary giants whose mere presence reduces me to a state of tongue-tied awe; and some are those whose work intrigues me and whose events I feel brave enough to chair.
This year the latter include four household names – William Dalrymple, Roddy Doyle, Melvyn Bragg and Alexander McCall-Smith, and three less widely known but no less interesting writers – the veteran Scottish novelist Allan Massie, the linguistics professor David Crystal, and the Observer’s deputy editor Robert McCrum.
Why did I choose these seven? Hard to say. Their subjects range from the Irish Troubles to the South Bank Show, Indian mystics to Precious Ramotswe and the chattering classes of Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions, the Royal Stuart dynasty to the King James Bible and a global version of English. Someone else might find a common thread, but right now I lack the energy or inclination to look for it myself.
One thing is obvious, though. They are all masters of their craft – or art, depending on how you see it. And it’s impossible to spend time here in Charlotte Square without – to return to last week’s theme – reflecting on the gulf that exists between the way these writers communicate, and the kind of communication that goes on daily in offices, conference centres and other business venues around the country.
My interviewees are people who inspire because they do not stand apart from themselves. To hear them speak is to receive the whole of them, not some filtered version where their real personalities have been subordinated to the needs of the narrow interest group they serve, their language reined in by the processes and formulations of their professions. They know how to stand on the hill where they can see widely, and communicate their vision in simple but well chosen words. They’re not afraid to employ imagery, metaphor, humour – all the tools we use daily to communicate with one another as emotionally functional human beings.
Imagine the wonders that could be achieved if our business leaders could learn this one simple thing: that to communicate well, to inspire, one must commit all of oneself. One must dare to reveal one’s personality.
Craft and Art seem to me to be inseparable, really, and I wonder if distinguishing between them matters. What all of the writers you mention have in common is their willingess to engage in the hard graft that it takes to polish something enough that personality does show through.