Writer & Stand-Up Viv Groskop: Laughter Lines

Catching The Comet'sTailThis 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.

Viv_GroskopViv on creativity

“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…

Viv Groskop workspace“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. 

Viv Groskops fish“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.”

I laughed I cried cover 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

 

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Tribal Motherhood: The Day I Realised I am a Wanker Mum

Campervan

Organic Camper Van Mum Tribe: Fully Paid Member

The playground is the most tribal place I have ever been, and I’m not talking about the children. The first time you enter a school yard as an adult, you may feel naked and small all over again just like you did as a child. Perhaps, like me, you will come over all foetal and experience flashbacks,  huddling up on a bench, hiding and snotting yourself into the nylon sleeve of a kindly dinner lady while Goliath-sized boys play football two inches from your face.

The thing we don’t anticipate about school when we become parents is that we have to learn, all over again, how to navigate the disorienting waters of playground politics, staffroom statesmanship and results-oriented hysteria. But here’s the thing; it is all much easier if you are part of a clique team. Therefore, all parents are advised to find a playground tribe. These are parents paddling the same kind of canoe in roughly the same direction on vaguely the same river as you.

After a few weeks in the playground, you will start to notice other parents who clearly drink the same amount of caffeine and who are in a similar state of disarray/grooming as you. This is the first sign that they may be a kindred soul. An affinity will develop. You will start to chat and find that you share the same thoughts on what time it is ok to have a V&T (7pm if you must know) and you will begin to rely on each other for support and practical help. Others will join and you will feel that you have found a kind of tribe bonded by shared experience, this journey with your children that lasts for years. It is only in retrospect you will learn that it is more akin to being on a submarine with a bunch of people who, like you, are ever-so-slightly doomed to never resurface. Nevertheless, if you find a parental tribe, however small, cling to them, cling to them like badly flipped pancakes on a suburban kitchen ceiling.

There is an assumed ‘tribe of motherhood’, but actually, there are so many variations, interpretations and individual experiences of bringing children into and up in the world, that giving birth in itself is not a unifying experience. Perhaps the huge disparity between mothering styles and expectations is one of the reasons we still command so little political power. Nowhere are the differences between us more apparent than the playground, the first place you see a lot of mothers in one place after the labour ward if, like me, you studiously avoided hell ‘mother/toddler’ groups.

Hovering near the limescale-ridden playground drinks fountain which acts as an equivalent of the water-cooler at work, you can get a sense of the extraordinary scope of mum tribes. Like a binocularless playground twitcher, you’ll catch sightings of No Stains Mums (aka. OCD mums), Rock n‘ Roll Mums (who miraculously still seem to go out in the evenings), Overly-Attached Mums (child wrapped around each leg, usually on the verge of tears), No Boundaries Mums (their children wrapped around other people’s legs, other people in tears), Organic Camper Van Mums  (weirdly calm – possibly on valium), Perpetually More Exhausted Than Anyone Else Mums (husbands do even less than yours),  On the Verge Mums (their volcanic anger festers like an abscess) and the scariest of all, The Four Mothers of the Apocalypse aka Judgmental Mums (these are the ones you bump into just as you give your child a blue ice cream as a bribe to stop them shouting “cock” at everyone).  You won’t even catch a glimpse of the Mysterious Mums except at the Christmas fair. Sighting of these mothers is rare; they’re like endangered and magnificent snow leopards. They not only work full-time, but are statistically likely to still be doing more housework than their partners.  The list of parent tribes is endless and this doesn’t even include the religious, gender-based and cultural subsets such as Freelance Meedyah Dads, Vicar Flirts and The Women of the Sad Eyes whose  private histories are hidden beneath their many skirts.

I thought I vacillated between the Camper Van and On the Verge tribes until one day,  I realised I am part of a whole other mummy tribe…

It was a beautiful autumn morning; a gorgeous low sun filtered through the trees of my local park where I was walking. The occasional horse chestnut descended into the leaves with a thud, cobwebs glistened, busy London squirrels made winter plans. A pregnant friend called me on my mobile. She was having a serious wobble about the huge life-change ahead of her. “I mean…” she sobbed down the phone. “I mean, I just can’t bear to become one of those middle-class wanker mums pushing their baby around the park in a Bugaboo wearing Birkenstocks, sipping lattes and spending all day pureeing organic vegetables. I mean… I just can’t bear it.”

“Er…no… that won’t happen to you, you’ll be fine,” I said reassuringly, looking down at my powder-blue Birkenstocks. I dropped my mobile back into my handbag which dangled off the handles of an orange Bugaboo, a monstrous four-wheel-drive type of pram that cost more than our car (it was a gift I might add).  I decided not to pop into Gail’s for a latte after all. Instead, I pulled an organic apple from my ‘I Love Kensal Rise’ reusable shopping bag and crunched into it ruefully. So that’s it, I thought, I am a Wanker Mum.

Letting Men into the Cult of Motherhood

HiResI’m having a dilemma.

Am I a parent, or am I a mother?

Am I a uterus, or am I a person?

It sounds funny, but actually, it’s quite serious.  From the age of eleven, I have been reminded every few weeks of my ‘reproductive potential’. Now, in my mid-forties, the odd sweat emanating from my left armpit as I embark on an apparently one-sided menopause, reminds me of that potential coming to an end. Now more than ever, I am consciously unpicking what it means to be a woman. What it is that really constitutes the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ beyond body parts and hormones?  What are the scientific facts about ‘gender’ and how many of my assumptions are the result of nothing more than cultural mythology and social conditioning?*

I have always bought into the idea of ‘the feminine’ as a universal principle. I absorbed the western interpretation of Taoist yin/yang thinking from childhood and have never really questioned it until now.  This idea of the feminine representing the creative dark, the yin, the nurturing principles of community and communication has much appeal, but I am beginning to understand the ways in which this concept as a subtle cultural principle polarizes men and women. It narrows the economic, social and human potential of both sexes.  I have been thinking a lot about whether it would be helpful for women’s equality if I played down what I feel is my ‘difference’ from men; the fact that I birth and breastfeed, the fact that I bleed.

The problem, as I see it, is that if we stick with the feminine and masculine principles as cultural rather than something housed within each individual, how can men ever meet us in the domestic sphere so that we ‘parent’ our children together? If we assume that women are innately better at nurturing, we tie ourselves to the kitchen sink and limit our possibilities, at the same time sentencing men to a life outside the home, chasing some intangible goal that takes them away from their families and the hard work of bringing up children. Men too can be nurturing, intuitive, loving, and caring; these qualities are not somehow innately bound up in motherhood are they? Before you say it, men get a hit of the love hormone oxytocin when they hug their children too!

Does it empower mothers and increase their status in society of we say they are nature’s homemakers and innately nurturing?  I am beginning to see how this helps to keep mothers in a place of cultural servitude, maintaining nothing but status quo. Equally, does it really ‘empower’ men to have a social script that says they should be ‘out there’ earning money, locking them into a lifetime of ladder-climbing and provider-stress that keeps them away from their offspring?

Yet, I am left with a glaring issue if I deny the glory, power and mystical wonder of my uterus!  HEAR ME ROOAAAR! The issue is where to put the fact that mothering my daughters has been the best, most enlightening and empowering experience of my life. Of all the ‘careers’ I have had (and there have been many) mothering my children has been the most natural fit for my personal strengths and weaknesses.

But I have begun to question whether I am ‘mothering’ my children or actually just ‘parenting’ them? What, when we go beyond birth and breastfeeding, am I giving them that my husband does not, other than some experience-based empathy about periods? If I’m honest, my husband is a better shoulder to cry on. He is the ‘nurturing force’ of calm in our home. I am not innately better at laundry and finding lost homework folders. I am far more the outwardly-focussed forager-spirit traditionally associated with masculinity. My partner and I have found ourselves in different (and I would claim, the wrong) spheres as a result of our own social/cultural expectations, education and upbringing.

I despair when gentle fathers who are great with their children, get derided for ‘being in touch with their feminine side’ as if it’s a bad thing. Surely these men are simply evolved human beings. If I hear one more excuse for friend’s sons being allowed to hit me with sticks because, “Oh! They’re just being a boy,” I might choke on my yin/yang necklace. How limiting, how sad. LET’S SHAKE IT UP!

If you take the gender-based social conditioning out of parenting (as in the case of many single sex couples) things get really interesting. It becomes a question of individual temperament, laying the groundwork for a more equal distribution of the task of bringing up children. Plus, a whole load of women can unburden themselves of the guilt they carry about the fact that motherhood, for them, is not enough.

I have found motherhood to be very tribal and divided, with no unified or unifying political voice. Part of the problem is that we see ‘the other’ woman’s choice as the thing that holds us back. Stay-at-home mothers view full-time working mums and nanny-culture as part of the reason motherhood is not valued, and working mums see the stay-at-homers as upholding cultural stereotypes that maintain inequality in pay and rubbish parental leave legislation. We are at a paralysing impasse.

Can and should ‘motherhood’ be absorbed into the word ‘parenthood’, or is it more important to raise the status of motherhood as a ‘career choice’? Can we ever go beyond gender and simply be humans, together, doing this thing called life? Do we need to let men into the cult of motherhood and bridge the divide, one dirty nappy at a time?

I’d love to know what you think and especially hear about any good books on the subject; I’ll compile them into a reading list and share.

*Gender Delusions by Cordelia Fine is a good starting point on all this.

15 Things I Want My 7 Year Old Daughter To Know

Our cat eating Barbie

Molly our cat protests at the impossible standard of physical perfection demanded of women which contributes to epidemic cultural body dysmorphia and continued gender inequality…

The Biscuit Thief is turning 7 on… wait for it… 12.12.12. YES she is my magic, alien, mystical baby. In preparation for this milestone, I have been thinking about all the things she is now ready to know:

1. It is awesome that you get yourself dressed for school now, but it’s always good to include pants on the inside of your leggings.

2. An apple is a kind of fruit and a mac is a kind of lightweight coat that keeps the rain off.

3. It is not funny to say “cock” in front of granny even though it appears to make daddy laugh.

4. Barbie is not representative of women. Anywhere. In any way. And the cat was right. (See photo)

5. No, it is not acceptable that, as a woman, you are likely to be paid less than your male counterparts doing the same work. The fight for equality goes on and I’m sorry we still haven’t fixed that for you.

6. The one hour kazoo concert you gave was… unforgettable…and  mummy is REALLY SORRY that she can’t remember where she hid put your kazoo afterwards.

7. Disneyland is closed.

8. The ‘F’word is not ‘fanny’.

9. Shreddies are not really “knitted by nannas”.

10. The Tooth Fairy can do all that stuff because a) she’s magic and b) she’s a woman.

11. The feisty, determined, rule-breaking, wildness in you that is so hard to parent sometimes, is exactly what will make you an awesome adult.

12. It is not going to be possible to meet Rapunzel. She’s a fictional character.

13. There isn’t really such a time as ‘Gin O’Clock’.

14 . Mummy and daddy are not perfect, but we love you very much.

15. Actually, mummy is perfect.

Your Story in 6 Words: Can You Do It?

I went to see my lovely artist friend Sandra Turnbull last week. She had an open house at her North London studio and it was, as usual, an inspiration to see her and her work. One of my favourite pieces, tucked away in a corner of her workshop was this: My Story in 6 Words.

My Story in 6 WordsEver since, I have been trying to come up with mine. I finally got it this morning: Fear, Sorrow, Music, Motherhood, Books, Magic.

My Story in 6 Words

It’s harder than you’d think to do it!  If you send me yours, use the hashtag #6WORDS and I’ll add my favourites to this page with a link to your blog. The #6WORDS can be in any format: Photos, Instagrams, Tweets, Facebook messages, comments… etc. I’ve shown you mine, I’d love to see yours:)
**UPDATE**
Your life stories in #6WORDS have been rolling in… some of my faves so far include:
Mum Older Single Story #6Words
 This from @mumoldersingle LOVE. JOY. SORROW. TRUTH. TRUST. SPACE.
 From @coffeecampari LONDON. ITALY. ANXIETY. LOVE. MOTHERHOOD. KARAOKE.
 @katetakes5 made me laugh with  SEND. HELP. DROWNING. IN. ODD. SOCKS.
 @dorkymum has me intrigued with ISLAND. ESCAPE. BOOKS. POLITICS.  LOVE. LAUGHTER.
 Having had a good ol’ life chat with her a couple of days ago, I’m really feeling the one from @oldermum:    TRAUMA. VINYL. ECSTASY. PSYCHE. FEMININE. WORDS.
 Also love WINE. WHINE. SLEEP. MUNDANE. JOY. SHINE. from @actuallymummy although how a loquacious schoolgirl got hold of booze, I don’t know.
 I love them all… please keep them coming and I’ll add as many as I can X

8 Things Every New Mother Needs: Where’s My F**king Medal?

New MotherhoodI don’t know about you, but after I gave birth, I expected some serious adoration, praise, and general worship. A small eulogy on the wonders of my cervix or a small (cushioned) pedestal would not have gone amiss. However, like most women who give birth in hospital, it was quickly made clear that as a new mother I was not, in fact, a goddess, but part of a prime consumer market.

Most rites of passage involve symbolic gift giving, and so it is with hospital birth. You will be visited by men and women in strange outfits who will proffer words of wisdom and hand you … The Bounty Bag.  This is a plastic bag containing a disparate collection of ‘goodies’ supplied by various companies who, make no mistake, do not love you. Sorry, but they just want your baby bucks.

This demented version of the frankincense, gold and myrhh story usually consists of some leaflets about formula breast milk, a free nappy, some leaflets, a pot of Sudocrem, some leaflets, baby wipes and some leaflets.  And just in case you are in any doubt about your new role as Queen of the Laundry, there will also be a sample of washing powder. WASHING POWDER!!!!!! What is this? 1952?

SOD THAT! This is what should actually be in The Bounty Bag:

1. A medal. This should ideally be forged from enough quality gold that it equates to the value of lost income over a lifetime that every mother experiences.

2. A big vat of chicken soup containing all the nutrients a new mother needs. Also, several laminated copies of the recipe to be handed to friends and relatives with the words, “Do not arrive on my doorstep without tupperware filled with this.”

3. Another laminated sign aimed at parents and in-laws that reads, “No advice necessary. You have already shown me all you can about parenting.”

4. A tube of Touche Eclat and the sort of mirror Dorian Gray might use.

5. Gin

6. Some sort of wank machine for your partner, or alternatively some “Closed for Business Until Further Notice” stickers that fit nicely across your newly arranged croissant.

7. An electronic sanding machine to run over your nipples thereby toughening them up for breastfeeding.

8. Gin. Oh God, have I said that already?

What have I missed?

Mothers Who Make Me Look Good #1 Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford

When Christina Crawford published her  tell-all autobiography Mommie Dearest  in 1978, the revelations about her adoptive mother Joan Crawford’s cruelty caused a sensation. The book was one of the first ever to dish behind-the-scenes dirt about a celebrity. It contained one of the rawest depictions of child abuse in the popular media at the time and I can still remember trembling as I read it. Mommie Dearest was made into a film in 1981 with Faye Dunaway playing the part of Joan – a role which Dunaway is rumoured to have later regretted, feeling that it ruined her career in Hollywood.  That Joan was one scary mo. She makes my occasional blue- faced Banshee screams of “I’m leaving home” seem like the sweet ikkle noise kittens make when they jump up.

Classic quote:

“No… wire… hangers. What’s wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you: no wire hangers EVER? I work and work ’till I’m half-dead, and I hear people saying, “She’s getting old.” And what do I get? A daughter… who cares as much about the beautiful dresses I give her… as she cares about me…” Joan Crawford in ‘Mommie Dearest’