This week, Catching the Comet’s Tail features writer and stand-up Viv Groskop. Her memoir ‘I Laughed I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life’ is based on the diaries she kept during a marathon run of 100 stand-up gigs in 100 nights. The story of Groskop’s whirlwind entrance into the world of stand-up comedy is also a moving and inspiring tale of motherhood, mid-life, following your dreams and the addictive qualities of Diet Coke. Viv is taking a live version of the book to the Edinburgh Fringe in August and if you get a chance to see her perform, you’ll be witnessing one of the rising stars of British stand-up. Also, she’s one of the few people on the planet capable of recounting the entire history of feminism in rap form.
“I know this is really pathetic but I am slightly embarrassed by the grandiosity of words like “creativity” and “muse”. And I generally take a step back from someone who defines themselves as an “artist”. Unless they are Salvador Dali. I think sometimes these terms can put people off making stuff up and getting the job done (which is all “creativity” really is). That said, I am going to say something truly and massively pretentious: the root of the word “creative” comes from the Latin “believe” (“creo”). And if you want to create anything – if you want to do anything at all, really — it helps if you believe in yourself and in what you are doing. Now please excuse me whilst I go and take a call on my lobster telephone.”
Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early literary and comedy influences?
“I initially wanted to be a nurse. Then I wanted to be a teacher. But then around the age of six I started watching a lot of television and reading a lot of books and suddenly I wanted to perform or write. This is fortunate as I would have been an “angel of death” nurse and a “why are you so stupid?” teacher. There’s a whole section in I Laughed, I Cried about watching Doris Schwartz (Valerie Landsburg) in Fame. She was the geeky one who wasn’t pretty enough to be an actress so decided to become a stand-up. I was obsessed with her in the early 1980s. Doris downgraded from actress to stand-up. I downgraded from stand-up to writer. Because even writing seemed like an impossible thing for me to do. I really had no idea how to go about doing any of these things. Which is probably why it has taken me until the age of forty to start a lot of the stuff I should have started a long time ago.”
How long did it take to put together I Laughed, I Cried?
“I had an impulse to do 100 gigs in 100 nights long before I decided that I wanted to write about it. And even after I had done it, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to put it out there as a story in a book. I had found myself in a strange and unique position in my mid thirties: I could change direction in my life if I wanted to (because I’m freelance as a writer) without completely up-ending my life. Once I realised that, I started to perform comedy because I did not have an excuse not to. My progress was agonisingly slow, though, because life was always getting in the way. I needed a push and a fixed time frame to push me up to 100 gigs. I didn’t want to feel that I had to write about it. And I didn’t know if I would want to write about it, especially if it failed and (spoiler alert) I didn’t get to the end of the 100 gigs. I got a deal to write the book (through a literary agent) about six months after I finished the 100 gigs and I wrote the book in the next nine months, based on extensive diaries I had written during the process.
I still don’t know if I should have written about it. As the book doesn’t make me across as (a) a very nice person or (b) a very good stand-up. In my defence it all happened in 2011 and I can pretend that was a very long time ago.”
Who, what or where always inspires your creativity and what is guaranteed to kill it?
“The internet both kills and inspires everything. I waste millions of hours on Twitter, Facebook and aimless Google searches. I had to go to a library with no Wifi in order to get the book finished. I’m always researching these “block-your-social-media” apps you can put on your computer. But I know it would be pointless as I get most of my ideas and my information from the internet as well as all the distraction and wasted time. I think it’s a pretty good trade-off, to be honest. I’m constantly collecting ideas and chasing stories without having any idea whether they will lead to anything. They might turn into a phrase in a joke or a magazine article or the germ of another book or an idea that I can pass on to someone else who could make something better out of it than I can.”
What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?
“I find that I get less blocked the more things I work on. I have a lot of things on the go at once and usually they require different skills. I do a lot of book reviewing and that means sorting through books and ideas and publication dates. I perform at a lot of events and that means rehearsing and memorising stuff. And I’m putting together the programme for next year’s Independent Bath Literature Festival which means coming up with original and exciting ideas and getting people together who don’t necessarily want to leave their room. If I’m not making much progress in one area, I just move to another for a while. By the time I get back to what I started on, I can see it with fresh eyes. (Also I pay for childcare by the hour and this is extremely motivating.)”
Is there a collaborative element to your work or do you prefer to work alone?
“I hated working with other people for many years. I nearly killed people when I worked in magazine and newspaper offices in my mid twenties. I am a born freelancer. In recent years, though, I’ve changed. I am marginally less childish and more curious. I love performing improv and that has really changed how I relate to other people. In improv you have to say “yes, and…” to everything. You can’t block the other person or shout them down or contradict their ideas. (Which would be my natural inclination in most situations. Like I said, I am a really nice person.) After about three years of performing improv, I find that I am genuinely interested in what other people think, often especially if I disagree with them.”
Please talk a bit about the environment you like to be in to create…
“I do most of my writing on a MacBook Air sitting on my bed or at the kitchen table. I lost my “office” to a child’s room a long time ago. There is no such thing as an ideal writing environment and seeking it out only wastes time which you could use to write. I write on the Notes function on my phone. I write on receipts. I have written on train tickets, on my hand and on toilet paper (Soviet toilet paper is particularly effective). If you have a good idea or a turn of phrase, write it down and put it somewhere. It might come in handy. (Also, you might lose it. But that doesn’t matter. If it’s really important, it will find a way back to you.) Maybe I would be a better writer if I had the perfect room or silence or many more hours of childcare paid for by a wealthy benefactor. But things are how they are and you have to work around them. If you waited for the ideal conditions, you wouldn’t do anything at all.”
Do you have a daily routine when you are writing?
“I don’t really believe in routine. When you have the chance to work, work. I do find that if I can get up really early, I can get loads done in the hours before anyone else is awake and before there is much going on internet-wise. Sadly, I am hopeless at getting up early so this is not a great solution.”
How did becoming a parent affect your creativity?
“Being a parent really changed everything for me and made me much more proactive and efficient at everything. It’s partly the practical side of things: if you’re going to pay someone else to look after your kids so that you can work, then you had better bloody well do some work. But it’s partly a more nebulous, kick-ass thing. I began to think, “You brought these children into the world. You better show them what it’s like to live life to the full. Otherwise what’s the point?” I am still reticent about a lot of things and scared of a lot of things. But having children has meant that I really care a lot less about the things that don’t matter. (Like what “other people” think about you — who are they anyway?) Without my children and my husband, I would never have done stand-up, I would never have discovered improv and I would be some kind of weird, alcoholic, depressed and repressed hack from hell. Having a miscarriage between my second and third child was probably the best thing that ever happened to me: it made me realise that life is short and precious and you’re not in control of anything.”
Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process and tell us about it.
“This is an “articulated fish” which belonged to my grandma, Vera. She made a real point of referring to it as an “articulated fish”. (Its scales actually move so that it wiggles when you touch it.) There was a vogue for them in the 1970s and my grandma used to wear one on a long pendant over a stripy boatneck sweater with nylon “slacks”. I always associate it with her. She had an incredible enthusiasm for life and was a real one for just keeping going no matter what. I don’t wear it all the time but sometimes I put it on just so that I can feel like I’ve got a bit of her about me. It’s not magic but it’s nice and wiggly and sometimes you just need a bit of a wiggle.”
Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master?
“I love acting, I love clowning, I love singing, I love trying to find out about what makes audiences fall under the spell of what’s happening in front of them. I used to play the piano as a child and I miss that. If I could start all over again there’s so much I would do. I would train my voice. I’d learn to do accents properly. I would go to RADA, darling. Instead I read a lot of books about the Meisner technique (it’s an acting thing, a bit like method acting) and I’m a member of the Actors’ Centre. I occasionally go to auditions for roles which require “plus size” ladies. (I’m not joking, it’s a whole genre. I almost got a really big role for a diabetes medication commercial.)”
What are you working on next?
“I’ve got a work-in-progress show of the book, I Laughed, I Cried, at the Funny Women Pop-Up Fringe in Edinburgh on August 18 and 19. I still haven’t worked out if there’s a way of talking about stand-up in the context of a comedy show. I guess I’ll find out on those two nights. We’re also taking Upstairs Downton: The Improvised Episode to The Hive at Edinburgh with Heroes of the Free Fringe. It’s a Downton Abbey spoof in full period costume. All the people in it are amazing and come up with the most extraordinary things. It’s going to be the most fun. In the autumn I’ve got more shows based on the book across the UK. And there’s the small matter of about 180 events to put together for the Independent Bath Literature Festival 2014. I’d better get in some extra Diet Coke.”
Viv Groskop’s book I Laughed, I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life is out now published by Orion. You can follow Viv on Twitter, Facebook or visit her website. You can book tickets to see I Laughed, I Cried in Edinburgh 18 and 19 August: 10.40pm or to see Upstairs Downton in Edinburgh, 1-25 August, 5pm at The Hive, click here.