Re-inspire

A barrel. With laughs in. Coz I think we could all do with some of that. Or at least a very large glass of wine.

A barrel. With laughs in. Coz I think we could all do with some of that. Or at least a very large glass of wine.

Probably a relatively short one this time around, mostly because a) turns out that divorce is a fairly time-consuming and difficult process rather than the entertaining barrel of laughs I was hoping for (who knew?) and b) if I had any spare time it’s been instantly negated by the number of online petitions doing the rounds to stop the Tories from scrapping the Human Rights Act in order to bring in their own version. Seems to me that as humans, with rights, it might be a good idea to get behind this one. The thought of the Tories re-interpreting it fills me with dread. It’s like discovering that One Direction are going to cover your favourite song, only with rather more serious consequences. Your favourite album, then. At which point all copies of all of your favourite songs will forcibly disappear and you’ll be forced to put up with the One Direction version forever. Only with Katie Price singing along too.

There will apparently be a new threshold introduced, below which the Act will no longer apply. Eh? I’m a bit stumped as to how this works. Do some humans count for less than other humans, some being more equal than others? Will there be some kind of points system introduced, target quota to obtain before any of us are deemed human? I’m guessing that you lose points for being say, a Labour voter, or an immigrant, or a Muslim. Or perhaps if you’re gay, or work for the BBC. Or Scottish. Disabled people evidently won’t be counted as human at all, judging by the Tories previous form (and remember, they were still being hog-tied by the Lib Dems at that point.) Prove your humanity, WordPress demands when I log in, but the little box is too small to type in I didn’t vote Tory.

Let’s be clear about this. The Tories are the Masters of Darkness. We do not want them tinkering with our basic Human Rights any more than we’d want One Direction tackling Stairway to Heaven. So. It’s our civic duty to do what we can to stop them. Get on it. Useful links are here, here and here (and yes, I am waving my arms around like an air hostess as I type this. Also, with that last link it’s worth clicking on “Convince Me” to read of cases where the Human Rights Act has been used in a good way, rather than the this pernicious act stops us from executing terrorists bullshit that the papers are so fond of.)

I don’t know if signing petitions achieves much. But at least it’s better than nothing – and it makes you feel as if you’re doing something. There is perhaps a false sense of security in that, or activist smugness whereas nothing has been achieved. Still – better signing than not signing, under the circumstances. It’s important to give yourself hope. Re-inspire yourself.

Writing-wise the lovely Tim X Atack sent me a link after reading this. Here it is. You should read it. Especially, as he pointed out, the third sentence of the thirteenth paragraph.

Like I said, re-inspire yourself.

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Grief

What. The. Fuck?

What. The. Fuck?

So I voted.

Living in a safe Tory seat it was perhaps pointless but I went ahead anyway, to register a protest at the status quo, I suppose. Although part of me suspects that maybe the refuseniks have got it right; voting merely props up the status quo, putting a tick in the box for the continuation of the system. Anyway, I voted Green – I couldn’t bring myself to vote tactically for any of the other parties given that I have no faith in any of them, and besides the only realistic way of stopping the Conservative candidate would be by running him over. And no, I’m not planning on running him over, I can’t afford to risk damaging my car.

Friday is my only lie-in chance during the week, except it’s also bin day, so I usually wind up still getting up before 7 to put the bins out, feed cats and chickens, then retire back to bed with a cuppa. And to answer the obvious question, if I put the binbags out the night before then the foxes spread my rubbish across a half mile radius in some kind of orgiastic glee, and being who I am, I end up picking up every single sodding smelly scrap of detritus and re-binning it so that the neighbours don’t hate me. So – cats, bins, chickens, tea and then the news of a Tory majority. A Tory majority doesn’t feel like a real thing, it’s not a cat, a chicken or a binbag, it’s not the grass in the garden or the bright yellow of the dandelions growing through it. It’s an abstract concept, and yet it’s the very concept which will be ruling over the rest of us for another five years or so.

Really?

Did I miss something?

Or was I one of the few who were paying attention, while everyone else missed what’s been going on for the past five years?

I’m pretty busy right now. Life stuff, house stuff, kid stuff, money stuff, writing stuff. So it wasn’t like I had time to brood over it. But on Saturday I made the spur of the moment decision to have dinner cooked for me courtesy of Sainsbury’s cafe – oh, the glamour! – and read a newspaper while I was waiting. The waiting went on for some time because they’d forgotten to put the mash on, or even “make the mash up” as the young woman later apologised, which begs all sorts of questions about what the hell they’re doing in that kitchen, but it meant plenty of reading time. And as I read, I felt a wave of what can only be described as grief wash over me. Anger too, at the disproportionate representation – the Greens had 3.7% of the overall vote and only got 1 MP, whereas SNP had 4.8% of the votes votes and got 56 – a bit of a WTF? But mainly grief.

fair votesWhile I generally distrust newspapers, with good reason having once worked at a news agency, one article hinted at the right wing having a list of legislation that they’d been hoping to get in much sooner, if it hadn’t been for those pesky Lib Dems getting in the way. Reading it – the plans to scrap the Human Rights Act, for example, as well as rearranging the voting boundaries so as to make it even harder for Labour to get in next time around – it became clear that perhaps Nick Clegg was working harder than we all gave him credit for. That perhaps he was in fact a bit of a vampire slayer, holding the bloodsuckers at bay as best he could for five long years, only to find himself kicked out of High School without a graduation certificate and no date for the Prom. No, wait, I might be getting him mixed up with Buffy. Still – Clegg, defending the beating heart of Old England against the demons that would suck out its Soul, privatise it and send the rest of us an invoice for expenses. Who knew? If he hadn’t fucked up so royally over the students, we might have paid him more attention.

Let’s be clear about who the Tories are; the elite. The privileged. Eton and Harrow and Oxbridge – and before I get lectured about how you don’t have to be privileged to go to Oxford or Cambridge, and going there shouldn’t mean you don’t have a voice etc etc, let me point out the great difference; expectation. Cameron et al expected to go to Oxbridge. Not getting in would have been absolutely untenable. Unthinkable. Impossible. These are not people who have ever had to make stark choices between food on the table or paying the bills. These are not people who have had to worry about their ability to get a job or had to wade their way through crap jobs at minimum wage, serving drinks, flipping burgers, stocking shelves, cleaning toilets. Jobs which they’re very keen that the rest of us should take, even if it means a zero hours contract and the week on week stress over how much money – how little money – there will be to live on. It feels as if those who’ve managed to get into the castle are now pulling up the drawbridge behind them. If you’re not there in Happyland Castle already, there’s not much hope for you.

These are people who closed down Surestart centres, cutting off support for the poorest and most vulnerable young children in the UK. These are people who thought that closing libraries was entirely justifiable. These are people who have slashed funding to the Arts, who are removing creative subjects from the school curriculum either overtly or tacitly (if it’s not assessed then it’s hard for the school to justify spending their budget on it) and who were hoping to sell off the national forests. These are people who are dismantling the NHS for fuck’s sake, who introduced the Bedroom tax, who are intent on fracking the ground beneath our homes, and who are apparently seeing disabled people as a cushy target when it comes to making spending cuts. Oh, and food banks – the one true community growth area under the Tories, presumably the Big Society that Cameron was harping on about.

Yet somebody just voted them back in.

I guess the trouble with hanging out with nice, Green, leftie, liberal, hippyish and magical people is that you forget that not everybody is like that. That evidently some people – a lot of people – don’t really give a shit. No shit given about the environment, and I’m sorry to bang on about it but the scientists are kinda saying WE ARE DOOMED and yet no one appears to be listening. No shit given about the more vulnerable members of society, about people who might need a helping hand. No shit given if libraries close, if the majority of children never get the chance to play a musical instrument, if domestic violence refuges are shut down, if more families have to turn to food banks, if another disabled person opts for suicide over starvation. Does that sound melodramatic of me? Sorry, but that’s what’s actually happening out there.

When did we get like this?

Apparently Osborne only managed to carry out 40% of his planned cuts last time round. The remaining 60% will happen by 2020. Austerity? It’s clear that we’re not all in this together. The rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer. The safety nets are being removed. I’m not even going to start discussing the role of the media and Rupert Murdoch in all of this or we’ll be here all day (hint; apparently he has a loathing of garlic, holy water and daylight.)

This isn’t the society that I want to live in, and I suspect if you’re reading this then it’s not the one that you’d choose either. And perhaps that’s why this feels very much like grief. Grief that people voted with their wallets rather than their hearts, or even their consciences. Grief that the I’m alright Jack mentality has taken over. Grief that we as people and as a nation have lost our way. Lost our Soul. Grief because I haven’t got a fucking clue what to do about it. All I can do is follow my own Soul and do what feels right, what feels authentic and essential; be kind, be generous, be grateful, follow my instincts, take time to be outdoors. Do what I can for the patch of ground I find myself in, the people I find myself with. And I can’t help but feel that if everyone did that, the government would look very different.

photo credit: Grief via photopin (license)

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Workshop: Writing the Self

I’ll be teaching an in-person workshop on Writing the Self on 24th of May, in Stroud. Details here, although venue etc is yet to be confirmed. I’m keeping the numbers relatively low, else it gets impersonal and unwieldy – personally if I’ve paid to go to a workshop I can’t stand having to listen to 30 people introduce themselves and say why they’re here. Although it’s useful for the workshop leader to know that kind of stuff, they’re unlikely to actually remember any of it when there’s so many people there. Hang on – were you the lady with the brain tumour, or the single Mum from Oxford? Nah, best keep it small and intimate, very possibly in my kitchen with tea and cake.

The goal is to use our lives as a basis for fictional writing. I mean, you could head down the autobiographical route if you want to, but personally I find it more interesting to convert elements of real life into inspirational springboards or little splashes of authenticity to an otherwise fictional story. Being able to extract from the past without guilt, shame, fear or whatever negative emotion you’d like to insert at this point, and instead utilize what’s happened to make Art with. It’s amazing what little details can trigger a whole new idea – my play Bike was inspired by the memory of being given a bicycle bell by my soon-to-be Stepdad when I was tiny. Given the content of the rest of the play, I should point out that it’s fiction. Geddit? Fiction. Particularly the bit about shagging the boss on the table. Did. Not. Happen. Anyway, Bike will be on this Autumn at Salisbury Playhouse; result!

Dig deep and find gold, basically. Plenty of writing exercises and inspiration, friendly sharing and discussion, cake (obvs) and time spent doing what you love in the company of others who love it too. Plus a bonus e-book devoted to the topic, with further exercises, inspiration and resources. It’s a workshop I’ve run before, which went down really well with the participants – I’m making it an hour longer this time around to allow more writing and revision time, and to maybe pick apart one of my stories to show how small nuggets of truth can drive a much larger piece, if people are interested in doing that. If this is calling to you and you don’t feel daunted by the many and massive hills of Stroud, head over to the workshop page and sign up before someone else gets in first and eats all the cake.

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Bruntwoodalong; them or us?

Bruntwood Wednesday is happening on a Friday this week. Blame a busy week and a previous version of this post being gobbled up by internet gremlins. It’s now May, Beltane for those of us paying attention to such things. Make sure to light a fire at some point and celebrate. Best if you do your firelighting mindfully rather than chucking a Bic into a rubbish bin, I’m fairly sure that any fertility and passion-raising mojo gets wiped out if the fire brigade have to put out your ritual flames.

So – my first weekend at the School of Myth. It’s not something you undertake lightly. It’s soul-stirring stuff, deepening work that leaves you with a lot of questions. Not least about the play that you’re writing.

I sat talking with a man who had used to be an actor, had amazed himself by walking away from it without regret. His reason? He didn’t believe in what he was doing any more. Shakespeare he still enjoyed, but everything else required him to sing along to a song whose tune he hated. A tune which grated on his nerves. A tune which he didn’t think was healthy. I told him about the post I’d written on The Handless Maiden, feeling the same thing. This isn’t healthy. The play I’m in the middle of writing? I don’t think it’s healthy.

One issue that came up during the weekend was a warning about the seduction of the  wound. It’s a fascination here in the Western world, dominating the arts; we scrabble around in the depths of our pain, convinced that the more blood and pus smeared over the gangrenous bandages of our sculpture, play, installation, the more important the work. But ultimately all we’re doing is shouting Life is Shit. Where’s the meaning in that? What lesson can we learn from it?

I haven’t seen or read every single play to have been written over the last ten, or five years – not even every play coming out of last year. But I’ve read enough to know that Yen is similar to Three Birds is similar to Tsk Tsk. Which isn’t to denigrate any of the playwrights involved, or their level of craft, but to point out that there’s perhaps a bit of an orthodoxy of taste going on at the selection level. A bit like getting David Beckham to fill every position in the team. Other players are available. So are other styles of writing, other subject matters, other voices. The question is – once you’re aware that there’s a particular style of play that seems to be making the team, should you adjust your writing to fit in?

Write the play that you want to write they all say, but we kinda know that’s bollocks. They have tickets to sell, seats to fill and if your play doesn’t match their understanding of what the audience will pay to see, then it won’t get put on. No matter how important the work feels to you, no matter how passionate the writing. Will it sell remains the key question, and sadly an unproven name is harder to sell than a known writer. The risk of the unknown name often seems to mean that other risks are sacrificed – write what we already know becomes the order of the day.

Occasionally the dare is held out by a theatre or company – not an olive branch for writers to grasp but a flaming hoop to jump through. Think outside the box, they announce in the brief. Surprise us. Yet every single time I’ve seen writers get asked to write outside the box, it generally ends in disaster. Writers get giddy with unexpected freedom. Long-cherished passions and ambitions rise to the surface, gulping for air. Be brave! we are told. Be bold! The work flows out excitedly. They read it. They turn pale. Um… that’s maybe a little too bold? They end up picking a black-box-two-heads-talking yadda yadda yadda. You sit and watch with perhaps a tiny tear in the corner of your eye for an opportunity missed. Because if they’d been honest enough to admit that what they actually wanted was a two-heads-talking piece, that’s what you would have written for them, instead of killing yourself trying to think outside the box. You could have played it safe and won, instead of risking and losing. This is a general principle, not a specific complaint against the organizers of the Bruntwood. They’re lovely, I’ve met some of them. Just – you don’t have to have been writing for very long to hit a frustration point between the plays you want to write, and the plays that theatres are willing to put on. That deadly phrase yeah we really enjoyed it but...

But what, exactly? But you don’t have the money to put it on? But you can’t risk investing in an unknown writer? But it’s not been written about a bunch of twenty year olds? But it’s not quite bleak enough? But it’s not quite what’s been done before? But you’re scared you’ll lose your job if you back anything less than a dead cert?

…but we’re not going to take it any further.

And so we start singing a different tune, their tune, alter our style to suit theirs, impose new rules according to what they seem to be choosing. Okay – must be able to be played in a black box, one hour, no more than four actors, preferably three, no set, few props. Must have either one location, or dozens, play out in real time or jump suddenly forwards. Must contain porn, at least one sexual act and an act of violence. Somebody should lose an eye. Feral teenagers with on-trend street slang.

My stuckness? I’m forcing myself to write the play that I think they want, rather than the play that I want. I’ve taken an idea I believed in and done my best to write it in a way that fits the house style. I’m not sure if I believe in it any more. I’m not sure if I’d want to sit through it. It’s a play that has definitely been seduced by the wound. Can it be rescued? I feel torn – do I write a play that seems to tick all of the boxes but feels wrong, or do I write a play that I believe in but which probably isn’t going to tick the boxes? We can bang on about artistic integrity until the cows come home, but if the play doesn’t get produced then what’s the point? If nobody ever sees it, they’re not going to give a damn about your integrity.

I’m not sure to do with what I’ve written. Follow my own advice and push on to the bitter end, then see if there’s anything worth rescuing? Use the draft to light the Beltane fire? Lord knows I’ve precious little time to work on it anyway. One thing is becoming clear; I can’t and won’t send out work I don’t believe in, writing which doesn’t reflect my worldview – that love and beauty are always an option, even in the depths of our suffering.

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Stroud Short Stories; Daffodils

The view from the audience, without me being in the way. Photos were taken. Only those that don't make me look like one of the undead will be permitted online.

The view from the audience, without me being in the way. Photos were taken. Only those that don’t make me look like one of the undead will be permitted online.

I’ve read at Stroud Short Stories twice before and loved it – a great experience to try something out, entertain an audience and gain more experience in reading my work. So when the call-out was sounded for the April event, I was keen to submit something. Fortunately, an idea was percolating through the creative filters of my brain – I nearly said festering, but that would make writing seem even more like the mental illness which I secretly suspect it is. As part of my recent Getting Started in Theatre course, I’d found myself having to quickly come up with the idea for a story in order to try to illustrate the kinds of things that work well on stage and the kinds of things that don’t, in order to develop the students’ pitching skills. So let’s kill several birds with one stone – how to hone ideas for the stage, pitching, and why I was standing on stage on Sunday night reading a story about daffodils. Here we go;

The question I’m asking most often as I read through pitches is How will you dramatize this?  […] Phrases like “She understands…” “He realizes…” “As time goes on…” can be a bit of a warning sign – How? How are you showing this?

I’ll give you a fictional example:

Daffodils

Since her brother’s suicide three years ago, when Anna walked in and discovered his body hanging in his childhood bedroom, she’s suffered from an all-consuming depression. Nothing makes her smile any more, let alone laugh. It’s as if she’s underwater and nothing can reach her, nor can she reach past it to anyone else.

One day, as Anna is walking to work, she sees an old lady planting flower bulbs in her garden. The next day, an ambulance is parked outside the house and Anna discovers that the old lady has had a heart attack and died. The house goes up for sale, and it seems to symbolize Anna’s belief that there’s no point to life. She goes even deeper underwater and starts to question whether she should take her own life, just as her brother did. But then as she’s walking home from work, she sees that the bulbs have begun to grow and begins to realize that life does have meaning after all. Day by day as the flowers grow and bloom, Anna’s hope begins to return, until she’s able to find happiness in life again.

Okay. I understand. I sympathize. Poor Anna, how horrible. My question: HOW ARE YOU GOING TO IMPART THIS INFORMATION TO THE AUDIENCE? HOW ARE YOU GOING TO SHOW THIS HAPPENING? HOW EXACTLY ARE YOU SHOWING “DAY BY DAY AS THE FLOWERS BLOOM?” HOW EXACTLY ARE YOU SHOWING ANNA’S HOPE RETURNING? NEVER MIND HER REALIZATION THAT LIFE HAS MEANING?!

These are not easy concepts to dramatize. How will you show them theatrically? Particularly with no budget. How are we showing that underwater feeling? Do we need to cast the old lady? If she’s got to be carted off, we also need two paramedics and a stretcher. And don’t get me started on the ambulance…

The point is – it’s not necessarily a bad story. It has depth and meaning, it could be quite beautiful. My gut feeling is that it would make a terrible play though, especially if you’re trying to present it in a naturalistic style. It’s impossible to stage it according to how this pitch is written. I’m a firm believer that nothing is impossible to stage, but if the brief is a ten minute rehearsed reading, there’s no way that this pitch would be chosen. Granted, they’re more usually selecting scripts than pitches – but the script written from this pitch as it stands would likely be dreadful; lots of short scenes to show time passing, lots of expositional dialogue or even Anna having to talk to herself a lot. You also need to find some fake/real daffodils to stage it, a stupid point to make but seriously – you will end up with someone clutching a glittery plastic Christmas poinsettia because that’s all we could find.

The above pitch would make a great short story or short film, full of beautiful imagery and atmosphere. In a film, we could show clips of murky underwater footage to illustrate Anna’s state of mind as she goes about her day. That’s not so easy to achieve on stage – and before you start telling me about projections and sound effects, they’re not going to be available for a ten minute scratch performance.

[…] Looking again at the above idea – how could you take the idea and find a way of staging it so that it’s suitable for a ten minute scratch night? What elements would you use, what would you need to change?

Okay – a young woman plunged into depression after the shock of her brother’s suicide, starts questioning whether there’s any point to life, feels like she’s underwater, knocked even further back when an old lady dies, but starts to see hope emerging with the spring bulbs that the old lady planted. The flowers come to symbolize her recovery from depression and the blooming of hope.

I would… have the young woman planting the bulbs, dragging a friend or family member into helping her (preferably at a really inconvenient time), making it quite an obsessive activity, Anna feeling compelled to do it but not really knowing why, and eventually realizing that she doesn’t want to give up on hope.

You might prefer to go more with the underwater theme instead and find ways of dramatizing that, changing the title to suit. Anyway, a more realistic pitch might be;

Daffodils

Girls’ night in. The Pinot Grigio is chilling, the Pringles are ready, the chick-flick is lined up on Netflix. So why is Carly standing out in the rain, up to her knees in mud and wrecking her Jimmy Choos in order to plant daffodils? The trouble with a friend in need is that needs tend not to be convenient. Or even clean. And Anna has had a really hard time of it, losing her brother like that. But it was eighteen months ago, isn’t it time she moved on? And surely they could just talk it through indoors?

As it gets colder, darker and wetter, Carly begins to worry not only about her best friend’s sanity, but also her own. Is she just facilitating Anna’s breakdown? Is there any point to this? Perhaps Anna is right, perhaps life itself is pointless. Still, as the bulbs go into the ground, secrets begin to spill and the point begins to emerge, in this biting exploration of mental health and whether hope itself is a hopeless idea.

This is inspired by the original idea, rather than sticking to it rigidly. It uses elements of that first idea to create something new and more theatrical. Somehow in writing the second pitch, it became about the best friend character rather than Anna herself – because if a character is morbidly depressed, it’s quite hard to have them driving a play, and Carly can bring the humour that Anna lacks. It’s perhaps made it more reassuring to the producer that it won’t be ten minutes of someone moping around being melodramatically depressed and suicidal. It’s going to be funny, yet still have depth. And although I’ve made this up on the spur of the moment, the energy in the second pitch makes me want to go and actually write it.

(excerpt from the Getting Started in Theatre course pdf.)

Having written that fictional pitch, I knew I wanted to go on to write the story – but given that I had a deadline for the Stroud Short Story event, I went with writing it as a short story rather than a play. Once you find a way of writing a pitch, treatment or outline in a way that clicks, it should create a massive impetus to want to get on with writing the story itself. If you write a pitch and you don’t feel the urge to write the story, something has gone horribly wrong. Go back and start over.

IMG_20150315_144545846The story itself turned out a bit funny, a bit sad, a bit uplifting. One of those pieces that flows out without too much need for intervention. There were 128 stories submitted to the event by over 90 authors, being whittled down anonymously to the eventual ten of us that performed. And so there I was, reading Daffodils on the night, inspired by what I’d created on the spur of the moment during my own course, and memories of planting bulbs in the past.

A couple of years ago, I bought a big sack of bulbs at B&Q with the aim of planting them in the untended land outside our house; guerilla gardening going down in the ‘hood coz I’m like totally rad. Daffodils are rad, right? As a family, we all picked up trowels and spent a morning digging holes and planting bulbs, encouraging the kids to join in and help rather than play in the road. Those daffodils have just flowered once more, and now the tulips have come out in the sunshine. I’m aware that when I move out, those flowers will remain here, blooming year on year, slowly dividing and increasing their number. Perhaps even after I’ve long shuffled off this mortal coil, those flowers will bloom, along with those planted in our two former homes. You’ve got to be pretty heartless to dig up a daffodil. Da da DAAA!! Spring is here!! my kids used to chant as toddlers, blowing into imaginary trumpets whenever we spotted daffodils, for that’s what they are – golden trumpets of sunshine announcing that winter is over, thank god. Can I really get away with golden trumpets of sunshine on this blog? Hell yeah. My bat, my ball. But that memory fed into the story too, and perhaps along with it my desperate hope that me and the kids will still be here in this house next year to see the bulbs bloom once more, like bookmarks marking the pages of the year; snowdrops, daffodils, tulips, bluebells, alliums.

My neighbour babysat so I could attend, apparently enduring an evening of Top Gear, guitar recitals and post Build-a-Bear excitement. I’m eternally grateful. SSS had sold out, it was a good crowd, the stories on offer were hugely varied in tone but all excellent in quality. Copies of the anthology that has been put together from all of the stories featured so far on the SSS nights were available for sale, beautifully designed. Reading, listening, meeting, chatting – a lovely evening, and then home to a glass of wine and a catch-up with a friend, both of us staying up far too late when there’s a school run to tackle in the morning. I’m aware that this is the life that I’ve wanted and chosen; writing, creative expression, the opportunity to move an audience with my words, plus home made wine and good friends to share it with. More please.

IMG_20150315_144611351

More info about the event here, by Debbie Young, whose story The Alchemy of Chocolate provided the title for the night, plus the anthology here by Nimue Brown who has been impressively heroic at putting it all together. Many thanks to John Holland for organizing the whole thing.

(Taking a break from the Bruntwoodalong this week. No progress on the play this week, too many meetings and phone calls and shit-storm intervention instead. Sigh.)

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Bruntwoodalong; progress?

We can do this. Totally.

We can do this. Totally.

It’s been the school holidays, so precious little progress has been made around here. Returning from a weekend away, I’ve been dropped into a shit storm of such massive proportions that it’s hard to imagine that I’ll ever get to write again. This is when it’s more important than ever to protect that writing time, to make it a daily habit – and yet, and yet, and yet… If you’re a parent, you can’t make that writing time a priority if your children are suffering. For many of us, writing time is an unaffordable luxury, only achievable once the bills have been paid, the money work done, the kids safely asleep in their beds. I recently argued back at an Artistic Director who disparaged what he called “hobby” writers, ie anyone not doing it full time. My point – it takes a hell of a lot more commitment to write a play to a professional standard when you have to fit it in around the day job and the kids. It’s nigh on impossible. If that’s you, don’t be discouraged. Keep writing. We need your voice.

Meet me tonight. Bring your script-in-progress. We’ll glug down some wine and force some words onto the page, no matter what. I think I can make 7.30pm, but I’ll understand if you need to come later, after you’ve put the kids to bed. Maybe we can’t make a full hour, maybe it will be more like twenty minutes, or ten, or five. But let’s do it. Let’s keep writing.

photo credit: With Pen In Hand via photopin (license)

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Stucketty stuck

Okay, it didn’t quite look like this, but it definitely felt that way.

Stuckness seems to be a theme right now. My last post was about feeling enmeshed in the sticky middle of my new play, to the point of fearing that I’d be risking arrest by the playwright police (if not the actual police) if I showed it to anyone else. Then yesterday, I got stuck. Really, truly, utterly and completely stuck, to the point where there’s no limit to the number of words I could put in front of stuck to feasibly demonstrate just how stuck I was. And just to make it worse the stuckness was not even a metaphor this time.

Picture the scene. You’re going to have to use your imagination – I tried to take an action photo, but my phone’s memory was full. Feeling a little stressed and wanting to enjoy the sunshine, I took the kids up to Winstone’s Ice Cream Factory, a local landmark. It’s a popular place, especially on a sunny afternoon, the narrow lane quickly filling with cars, leading to lots of drivers having to reverse and squeeze to one side in order to negotiate the traffic. We parked up, enjoyed our ice creams (chocolate, toffee fudge and a blue one that I have no idea about, in case you’re trying hard to visualize it all) and then went to leave. Leaving should have been a fairly simple manouevre, a case of pulling out, driving forward about ten yards and then reversing around a corner onto a dirt track in order to turn around and drive out. Admittedly the corner was at a tricky angle, and there wasn’t much space with a line of parked cars opposite it, but it shouldn’t have been difficult. I slowly reversed around, until – CRUNCH.

People turned to look at the noise. I had no idea what had just happened. I’m still not entirely sure. Let’s just say that the turning circle on my new car is nowhere near as tight as on my faithful old Micra, and the angle of the lane meant that I’d gone wider than I’d thought – and now I was wedged in. There was a significant dip down from the lane onto the dirt track – the front of my car was grounded on the lane while the back was wedged into the grassy bank behind me. Stuck. And with absolutely no idea what to do about it. People stared. Some came over for a better look. A young man, Joe, appraised the situation.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. Well, actually he said I’ve never seen anything like it Madam, but I’m not repeating the Madam aspect of our conversation. He said Madam quite a lot and it made me feel old. To continue, Madamless; “I don’t know how you’re going to get out – you’ll either have to rip off the front bumper, or wreck the back bumper, your choice.”

I’ve only had the car since February. I didn’t particularly want to rip either of the bumpers off. I didn’t want to wreck my car, have to pay to fix it or bugger up my No Claims Discount. Also, I needed the car in order to drive us all off for a weekend away, so wrecking it wasn’t high on my To Do list. I did need to get it out though.

I called the AA. It wasn’t exactly a straightforward call, given that the woman on the other end was based in Birmingham and wasn’t entirely familiar with the precise whereabouts of Winstone’s Ice Cream Factory. When you’re on a dirt track, surrounded by nameless lanes, it’s not particularly easy to give directions other than The Ice Cream Factory! I’m right outside the Ice Cream Factory! Tell the guy to ask where the Ice Cream Factory is, everyone knows it. However, we eventually tracked the route from the nearest pub – The Old Bear in Rodborough, and she promised that a patrol van would be with me within the half hour. She also warned me that if specialist lifting equipment was required, it would be at my own expense.

Right. Because if I wasn’t sure about paying out for a new bumper or wrecking my NCD, I was well up for hiring specialist lifting equipment. I’ve had better days, to be honest.

Meanwhile, Joe had been joined by Terry and both of them were peering at my stuck wheels and wedged-in bumper.

“I reckon if we get it jacked up on either side and get some wood in under the wheels, you can drive straight out,” Joe said. Yeah, you guessed it, there were a few Madams in there as well. I wasn’t sure about the jacking-it-up plan, but then I wasn’t sure about hiring specialist lifting equipment either, so I was willing to see where it went. Between them, Joe and Terry got both sides of the car jacked up, the rear wheels lifting precariously up off the ground in a way that wasn’t entirely reassuring. A raiding party headed off to the Ice Cream Factory in search of wood, led by my kids, and returned jubilant with two planks, a large pallet and a guy in a white coat. The guy in the white coat appraised the situation and headed back towards the relative safety of the ice cream. To be honest, I wished I could join him. The wood was wedged in under my tyres and the car pronounced ready to drive, when the AA van turned up.

“Looks like you’ve got it all sorted,” the AA man announced, before taking out a bigger jack and pumping the car up higher again. He added in more wood, changing the angle of the planks, while Terry swung my number plate up out of the way, using its one remaining screw as a pivot. The AA man was now clearly in charge, ousting Joe’s leadership.

“Well, he’s got a much bigger jack,” I shrugged, hoping that Joe wouldn’t feel too badly about it.

“It’s not the size, it’s what you do with it that matters,” Joe muttered. “Madam.”

It was now time for me to get in and drive. I was just a teensy bit TOTALLY FUCKING TERRIFIED at the prospect, with wood wedged in at strange angles beneath my tyres and the very definite possibility of completely wrecking large chunks of my car. The even more likely possibility of proving my complete and utter muppetry to everyone present. I felt sick. However, guided on by Terry at the front, and Joe and the AA man at either side, I slowly edged forward.

Success! The car rolled forwards and free. I was so busy whooping with joy that I didn’t hear the AA man yelling at me to Woah! Woah! WOAH! He then informed me that I had to reverse again, in order to make the turn. Uh-oh.

“I don’t want to get stuck again,” I said.

“You won’t get stuck IF YOU LISTEN TO WHAT I’M SAYING,” the AA man told me. Right. Lesson learned. I backed up by the tiniest amount (WOAH!) then turned hard left and forward to freedom. From there it was an easy matter of parking up so I could thank everyone profusely (“No trouble, Madam, have a good evening.”) then everyone went on their ways and it was time to go home for dinner, my car miraculously undamaged by the whole adventure.

Phew.

The whole thing was a disaster. A stressful, public disaster. Or at least it should have been. I was worried that Joe and Terry had got it wrong, that I’d end up in an even worse mess. I couldn’t see a way out of the mess I was in, never mind making it worse. Stuck? Hell yeah. And yet – things had to work out. They had to. Wrecking my car wasn’t an option. But then… I was helped. Two complete strangers went out of their way to help me out, and solved a dilemma I had no idea how to fix. The kindness of strangers still exists, despite austerity and terrorism and impending environmental doom. A couple of days ago, a Bible verse came to mind for some reason, the one about the sparrow;

What is the price of two sparrows–one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. (Matthew 10:29)

I’m not sure what I was thinking about at the time – trust, perhaps. Trust that if I fall, I will be caught. In recent months it has felt as if there is no safety net, no one to catch me. Today I learned that there is. There was perhaps a certain belligerency in my unwillingness to accept the reality of the situation (that my car was fucked) and blind faith that somehow a way would be found. Call it belligerency, or call it positive outlook – whatever – it felt as if I was just going to trust that things would be okay, because the alternative wasn’t an attractive proposition. It seems to have worked. It doesn’t really surprise me – I’ve long since suspected that we generally get what we expect. If we think that the world is a dangerous, difficult place, then that’s exactly what our world will be. It might however be worth experimenting with a more positive attitude and seeing where it gets you. Maybe I just got lucky, but I’ll take it.

What does any of this have to do with writing? Not much, other than that life is not merely about writing, writers have lives to lead too. And also this – what is it that you’re dreaming of? What is it that you want to do? And what are you telling yourself about whether or not it’s actually possible? It looked like it was impossible to get my car out. Bring on a couple of strangers, a few bits of wood and a jack I didn’t know I had hidden in my boot – job done. Are you willing to believe that there is help out there, whatever it is you’re trying to do?

You think you’re stuck? Think you can’t do it? Picture me at my most muppetty in my wedged-in car. Picture Joe and Terry, a few bits of wood, an AA van zooming in at the nick of time. Let yourself believe that they’ll be there for you as well – at least, your versions of Joe and Terry will be, because there’s only so much that two men can do on their own, and there’s a bit of a geographical limitation to the area that can reasonably be expected to cover, rescue-wise. No matter; you’ve got tools at your disposal that you didn’t know you had, and the rest you can cobble together with a bit of ingenuity and imagination. Throw that together with the fact that most people are essentially good and want to help and suddenly you’re unstoppable.

Go get ‘em tiger.

photo credit: Burnt out car via photopin (license)

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Bruntwoodalong: stuck in the middle with you?

Yeah, we've all been there.

Yeah, we’ve all been there.

So I thought I might be getting into sticky middle territory. This week I know for sure that I’ve sunk neck-deep down into the murky swamp of stuckness. I’m not even sure that it’s because of the play itself, rather it seems to be the fault of the school Easter holidays, the need to finish off the final few script reports from my course participants and the new pressure of having to get the house into some kind of For Sale condition. The play seems like the innocent victim of the above, languishing untouched on my laptop this long week. It doesn’t take much though for a play to sink into that foul-smelling swamp though, leave it long enough and the emotions around it start to feel the same – an unwillingness to pick it up again in case it’s really really bad. The feeling that it was a terrible idea – this usually arrives along with a bright shiny new idea which would be so much better, so of course we should abandon the old idea and head off to pastures new…  A kind of resentment that the play is demanding your time and energy – it’s sunny outside for God’s sake, shouldn’t I be spreadeagled on a picnic blanket with a bottle of something vaguely alcoholic and some good company?

This is why the daily writing habit is a good idea rather than a cycle of binge and starvation. Keep on chipping away at it on a daily basis and it’s possible that you might find a set of stepping stones to navigate the swamp of stuckness. Granted, the stones are small and hard to find, and it doesn’t take much to slip off them and land knee-deep in the muck, but the habitness of it all (and why yes, that is a proper word, thanks for asking) can keep you moving forward rather than allowing the wearying slime to fill your mouth and nostrils and choke off all hope of progress.

A certain amount of belligerence is needed in order to be a writer. You have to keep going in spite of all of the rejections. In spite of everyone telling you how impossible it is to make a living at any of this. In spite of the critical voices in your head telling you that it’s all hopeless and you should give up and never show it to anyone. You have to stick your fingers in your eyes and chant I don’t care, I’m writing it anyway. Even if you don’t quite believe it yourself, even if deep down you’re convinced that anyone who reads it will be convinced that you’re not only a godawful writer but a terrible person with evident mental health issues, you have to tell yourself I’m writing it anyway.

Frankly, I’m not even sure if what I’m writing in this play is legal. There’s a ridiculous amount of swearing and a child actor who definitely shouldn’t be exposed to any of those words, never mind the twerking sequence. Whoever reads it will not only wind up convinced that I’m mentally ill, but likely to call Social Services for an immediate dawn raid to rescue my children. I’m writing it anyway. My friends will be appalled and delete my number from their phones. I’m writing it anyway. My agent is going to walk away, whistling while pretending she’s never heard of me. I’m writing it anyway. Whoever is in charge of playwriting in this country (who would that be? David Hare? Simon Stephens?) will make a decree that I’m never allowed to write a play again ( I’m writing it anyway) and if the critics ever catch wind of it they will surround my house with hexes and the stunted bodies of dead foxes with small, handwritten notes pinned to their decaying flesh; You can’t write for shit. Kill yourself. Now.

See? See what happens to my mind when I’m not writing? See what strange, dark, twisted places it goes to? I suspect this happens to all creatives when they’re not creating, when those not-quite-understood otherworldly powers aren’t being utilised in a healthy and sustainable manner – they turn in on themselves into a negative spiralling descent that has you convinced of your unworthiness, your inability, your every insecurity and negative thought taking foot and proclaiming your uselessness to anyone who will listen. You are not an artist. You’re just shit.

This is still the sticky middle. This is exactly what the sticky middle looks like. This is why you have to keep going, keep inching forward even if it’s one line per day – otherwise you’ll never get out of that swamp. If you try to start a new project instead, you’ll be starting it from the middle of the swamp rather than on dry land – and within weeks you’ll be back in over your head, only worse this time because now that’s two, three, four, five unfinished projects laughing at your inability to get any of them written. Keep going. Keep going no matter how terrible you’re convinced it is. Keep going even though you think they’re going to send out the playwriting police on this one. Keep going until you reach the far shore and type The End and roll over onto your back and breathe a huge sigh of relief in the newly fresh air.

I’m writing it anyway.

I’m writing it anyway.

I’m writing it anyway.

photo credit: paper ball…. via photopin (license)

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Bruntwoodalong; Get Organized

So the yellow beads are my characters and the green beads are my narrative beats, and the purple beads are... ah shit, no, the blue beads are the characters, I'll have to start over.

So the yellow beads are my characters and the green beads are my narrative beats, and the purple beads are… ah shit, no, the blue beads are the characters, I’ll have to start over.

How’s it going, fellow Bruntwooders? I’m very much in the sticky middle of my play, the swampy ground that covers the middle third of a play, when the initial rush of inspiration has worn thin and the ending feels like a long way off. This is the point at which writing anything else seems like a brilliant idea, or perhaps giving it all up and becoming a Barista instead. But no. We will continue. Wading doggedly through the sticky middle is what separates the writers from the wannabees; we know we have to reach The End or else watch unfinished project after unfinished project litter up our hard drives. So keep going, no matter how murky and meh the play is feeling right now – as long as there’s some words on the page you can edit it later. Those of us who have children will be aware that it’s now the Easter holidays and so actual writing time has suddenly got thin on the ground. Don’t give up. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

Nothing motivates quite so much as a deadline, so give yourself one – and not the official June deadline of the competition. If we’re going to take our efforts seriously, we need some kind of reading beforehand, to hear the play spoken out loud and test the waters. I’d suggest that this needs to be at least your second draft, preferably third, and it will need to be mid-late May at the latest to leave time for re-writing afterwards. We’re now in April, so those first drafts will need to be ready by around April 20th. The jump between first and second draft is one of the hardest shifts – taking that soggy mass of words and turning it into a structured, cohesive, well-thought-out whole. Take out your calendar and write some dates on it. When could you organize a reading of your work – even if we’re talking a kitchen table read with friends rather than a rehearsed script-in-hand? Mark it on the calendar and set about organizing it, or it won’t happen. When do you need your first draft ready in order to have a second/third draft ready for the reading? Mark it in red on the calendar. Leaving everything to the last minute and sending off your first draft one minute before the deadline is pretty much pointless, given the standard of the competition. Give yourself the best chance of success and get organized – once you know that your volunteers will be turning up at your doorstep for pizza, wine and script-reading, you’ve given yourself the motivation you need to keep on writing through that tricky sticky middle.

Where are you at? Flying through your first draft, or even your second? Stuck in the sticky middle yourself? Hit the comments and let’s inspire each other to keep going.

photo credit: bead organization via photopin (license)

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Bruntwoodalong: to plan? or not?

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How’s it going, Bruntwood peeps? I reckon I’m just over halfway through my first draft, chipping away at it for half an hour to an hour every day. Meeting up with some fellow playwrights last night, we discussed the extent to which we plan – or don’t plan – our work before we start writing. Okay. I’ve read all the stuff. I know all the advice that tells you that you MUST plan your play to the nth degree before you write a word of dialogue. Because dialogue is the easy bit, the lovely bit, and dialogue has a habit of running away with you in a completely different direction and seductively tying you up in knots which you can’t then undo because it sounds so good when you read through it. So there you are, trapped in the Red Room of playwriting, surrounded by interesting-looking objects that you hadn’t exactly planned on being in your play, meanwhile your characters are lining up to spank you and your narrative has run off with the blindfold and is sitting sulking in a cupboard somewhere and refusing to come out and play.

I know all this.

I know that officially dialogue should be the last thing that you write, that you need all the beats planned out first, so that you’re in control of your material. That if you don’t do this, then you’re writing pretty but pointless dialogue and meandering all over the place while you try and work out what the point is and why the hell you’re even bothering.

I know this.

And so every time I approach a new play, I sit down and get all serious and start working on The Plan. And every time, The Plan remains a stubbornly blank page, while tumbleweeds blow through my mind. But a hint of dialogue will lurk somewhere in my brain, and if I write it down then another bit of dialogue will turn up, and another, and some stage actions and images… and so the first draft begins to take the shape. And that draft will contain surprises that I could never have imagined if I’d tried to plan it logically. That’s why they’re a surprise.

I’ve got to a point where I’m labelling my first draft the Jazz Draft. I’m improvising here. I’m throwing everything at it and seeing what happens. Some bits will work, some bits would work a lot better if I moved them to a different scene, some bits would work best if I cut them out altogether. Some bits have evidently crept in from an entirely different play, possibly one that’s being written by someone else. I’ve reached a point where I’d be happy to write SOMETHING NEEDS TO HAPPEN HERE in the middle of a scene, before moving on to the next bit and not worrying about it too much. Something will turn up. But it very much feels as if my creative brain completely and utterly refuses to get on the bus until the bus is moving. I have to just leap into the driver’s seat and make that thing go. Otherwise we’re stood there at the bus stop, staring at a blank timetable that should have a lot of information written on it, but doesn’t. We’d be stood there forever, staring at it, willing those words to appear.

It means that a lot of what I write might go to waste. It means I have to be ruthless during the re-write. That in fact the re-write very much is a re-write – setting everything aside and starting over, now that I have a firmer idea of what needs to happen. It’s a do-over rather than a tweak. It’s probably a lot more work this way, but I’m okay with that. Perhaps I’m picking out the sofa cushions before I’ve worked out what colour to paint the walls, but it feels as if the paint colours don’t suggest themselves until the cushions are in place. There is only magnolia in my planning mind.

One of the other playwrights last night looked as if she wanted to leap over the table and hug me for admitting my inability to plan what I write. Oh my God, you too?! Her relief was palpable. It feels unprofessional somehow to admit that you can’t plan your work, it sounds ridiculous. But there it is. I can’t. If I try to plot out story beats, there’s nothing there. It only happens when I’m actually writing, and then the connections and possibilities and pathways start to appear, sometimes dizzying in their potential. Decisions have to be made, and sometimes it feels as if I’m free-falling without a parachute. It’s okay though. Parachutes are for the second draft. Control can be regained later on. I’ve learned that if I trust my process, a logic will emerge.

I’ve likened it to taking a road trip. I know I’m starting somewhere near Land’s End, and I’m fairly sure I’m going to end up outside York Minster. I’ve a gut feeling that I’m going to stop for elevenses in Exeter, that I’ll probably have to pull over in a layby and have a quick pee behind the hedge somewhere near Swindon and dinner is likely to be from a burger bar in Sheffield. I don’t have a map, but I roughly know where the major towns are en route and I’m hoping there’ll be enough road signs to point in the right direction along the way. There may well be some wrong turnings, leading to some spectacular U-turns. I might find myself on a beach in Weston Super Mare, enjoying an ice cream, and question if that’s actually going to get me to my destination. Or, like Richard III, I might inexplicably wind up in Lincoln Cathedral instead. I might realise that Lincoln is exactly where I need to be, who knows? I don’t head out entirely unprepared – I’ll have picked out a few landmarks along the way, and maybe put together a mix tape for the journey. I’ll have read up about my stopping points, researched what I can. I know who is in the car with me, and who I’m picking up along the way. But I don’t really know what’s going to happen until I start driving.

The play, for me, needs that journey. But it also needs me to then sift through all the bits and pieces that happened on the journey, and throw out the things I don’t need – the half-sucked polo mint that fell onto the floor and rolled under the driver’s seat. The receipt for the latte I bought to keep me awake in Hull (Hull? What the hell was I doing in Hull?) and promptly spilled all over the passenger seat. The dent from the prang with the white van man. The hitch-hiker who turned out to be the most boring person in the Universe, ever. That’s where the planners would have an advantage – no fluff-covered sticky sweets under their seats that they’re left trying to prise out with a stick during their second draft. No dents in their bodywork. No hitch-hikers brutally killed off and kicked out of the car mid-draft. But I sometimes wonder if there’s a risk that in plotting the route so efficiently they never find themselves somewhere unexpected, staring in wonder at the bones of a dead King.

Over to you. Do you plan? Can you plan? Can you fill us non-planners in on how you do it? Or do you prefer to meander, with no more forethought than a boiled egg wrapped up in your knapsack, until the story reveals itself?

photo credit: Panic (Underground) Station via photopin (license)

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