Guide to Surviving Christmas

if it's not fun then you're doing itIt’s ridiculous, isn’t it? But that’s the kind of headline you see all over the place – How to Survive Christmas/Thanksgiving/Half term. Newsflash – it’s a holiday! A celebration! There is nothing to survive. Christmas doesn’t involve crawling flat on your belly under barbed wire across a mine-strewn muddy field. It’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun then you’re doing it wrong. Same deal goes for weddings, by the way.

So I realised this week that I’ve basically not bought anything for my daughter yet. The only things she’s put down on her wishlist are a Furby (not going to happen) and a Kindle Fire (not going to happen.) Plus some clothes (okay) and the Twilight series of books (not going to happen.) Which meant I drove down to Glastonbury at the weekend to search out hippy shit for her. She loves crystals and it seemed likely that there would be clothes available and books that didn’t involve overly-controlling slut-shaming bloodsuckers. While there I got into conversation about Christmas with a shop owner in which I confessed that last year I didn’t send any cards. I ran out of time, I was knackered and the whole thing felt like a chore rather than something I was doing with genuine affection. If you can’t send them with genuine affection then why are you doing it? I had already ruthlessly culled the Christmas card list year by year – no cards to people I’m actually going to see over the festive season, no cards sent just to be polite to people who I’m not really that close to. This came about after realising that I was writing out a card to a friend of my husband who he hadn’t seen in fifteen years and had no intention of seeing at any point in the future – knowing that this guy’s wife was doing exactly the same. Umm… if the men want to send cards to each other then that’s one thing, but why are we doing it for them? Anyway, if you’ve got a close friend/relative who runs a certain shop in Glastonbury then I should probably apologize because I think I converted her. You ain’t getting a card this year.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas. I love it enough to do it my way though, rather than blindly following tradition. Christmas doesn’t have to look like a filmed Dickens novel or a Martha Stewart special. This year the tree went up for a few days without decorations to see whether the cats would attack it. When they showed no signs of interest, the kids decorated it. Despite me going out to buy another set of fairylights, there’s still no lights on the bottom third of the tree. I could take all the decorations off and fiddle with it to get it looking perfect, but I’d sooner embrace the imperfection of it. There are no glass ornaments on the tree because they’d definitely get broken, and the cats seem to think that anything hanging on the lower branches is fair game so the decorations are gradually working their way upwards. My tree would not be repinned to anyone’s Pinterest Board of Christmas Ideas, but it’s right for us and that’s what matters.

When the kids were small, neither of them particularly liked roast dinners. With the tiredness that accompanies having small children, Christmas dinner was looking like a lot of hard work. One of us looking after the kids while the other cooked, only to end up sitting at the table while the kids complained that they didn’t like it and have I eaten enough for pudding now? Screw that. After a brief discussion, we decided the only sensible solution was to head to Iceland for several boxes of party food, which on the day needed nothing more than to be taken from the freezer and lobbed into the oven for 20 mins. Job done and the kids loved it. That’s why Mum goes to Iceland. It worked so well  that we did that for several years, until we all liked the idea of a proper roast once more (chicken, not turkey. Seriously, unless you’re cooking for 10, stick with a chicken. Unless you’re veggie, in which case you’re on your own at this point. Happy Nut Roast.)

No doubt there will be some people out there who think I’m being half-assed about it. Not making enough effort. Christmas isn’t Christmas unless you’ve folded your napkins into neat star shapes that colour co-ordinate with the baubles on the tree and this year’s wrapping paper theme. Well, there’s been years in which I’ve handmade all my cards and knitted up a storm of gifts, made my mincemeat and mulled wine and invited all the neighbours round for drinks on Christmas Eve. And there’s years when I haven’t. Point being – do what works for you, in the present moment, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it. Nobody is going to die if you buy your Christmas cake instead of making it. Or even if you decide you don’t really like Christmas cake and buy a tiramisu instead. Whack a sprig of holly in it and drown out their complaints by playing Slade extra loud.

Mabel the Christmas fairy

Mabel the Christmas fairy

Make your own traditions. Don’t allow yourself to be dictated to by other people’s expectations. Think about how you’d like Christmas to be, and then follow your vision as far as possible. If that means scouring the internet for flights to Bahrain so as to get out of dinner with the inlaws and extended family, do it. Compromise when you can, stick to your guns if you know it’s going to make you miserable. If that means making apologies and not trekking 300 miles on Christmas Eve for the family get together, then so be it. They’ll get over it. Don’t argue that you have no choice but to do whatever it is – it’s always a choice. You could choose to do the letting everyone down option, as you see it, or you could choose to do the going along with what everyone else wants option, or you could choose the sod it, I’m doing it my way option. Know that they are choices, and whichever one you go with, do it with gladness or not at all.

See? Sometimes I make an effort...

See? Sometimes I make an effort…

Top Christmas tips;

  • Eat what you want to eat at the time that works for you. As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather have beans on toast served with love, than a 5 course meal that’s taken tears, arguments and gritted teeth to get on the table.
  • Have grown up conversations with your friends and relatives about cutting back on the number of gifts you have to buy. It’s ridiculous. Swap it for a secret Santa within the family, give token gifts such as homemade cookies, or agree to all save your pennies because it would be more fun to have some money left to spend on yourself in the sales.
  • Generally I avoid the sales like the plague, but it really does make sense to buy cards and wrapping paper at this point. Especially if you like feeling smug.
  • Don’t bother making Christmas cake unless everyone in the family really really loves Christmas cake and would rather eat Christmas cake than anything else. Personally I’m thinking after a big meal, the last thing you need is a cake so heavy that if you chucked it out the window you’d likely kill someone. Plus… you need more dried fruit? Mince pies not enough for you?
  • Also, don’t bother making Christmas cake unless you really enjoy making Christmas cake. Ditto mince pies, crackers, cards, gifts, all of it. The shops are there for a reason and will be glad of your custom. I love home made but if you’re a craftster, it can all get a bit out of hand and you wind up putting yourself under a ridiculous amount of pressure.
  • If you’re making things instead of buying them in order to save money then it’s not a bad idea to check whether it’s actually saving you money. Regrettably, sometimes it’s not. Just saying.
  • One tradition I’ve adopted is to buy, or more usually make a tree ornament for each of the kids every year. This gets opened on Christmas Eve, which helps with that desperate urge they’ve got to open presents once they’ve put their stockings out. It’s always themed according to what they’re into that year – so far we’ve had Christmas owls, cats, ballerinas, rainbows, daleks, and even a Medusa. I plan to keep going until they’re 18, at which point they’ll be handed a shoebox of special decorations to go on their own tree when they’ve left home. Probably with a note saying It’s time to leave home now. Love Mum.
Christmas Dalek. I wasn't kidding.

Christmas Dalek. I wasn’t kidding.

  • Stockings don’t get opened at 5am. They just don’t. I don’t care if it is only once a year, I’m not getting up and making merry at 5am. Back to bed until Mummy’s actually conscious.
  • You don’t have to put all the decorations out every year. I seem to have accumulated a ridiculous amount of decorations, which probably need a bit of a cull. This year, most of them are staying in a box in the loft. Do what feels good to you right now.
  • Having lit candles on your tree is a beautiful idea. The reality is that your house will burn down on Christmas Eve. Don’t go there.
  • Be honest with yourself and with others. This doesn’t mean yelling I fucking hate you at an ageing relative after a few glasses of eggnog. It means acknowledging that going to Grandma’s for the big family get together is going to make you utterly miserable and so not doing it. It means taking a nap to get some time alone if that’s what you need, or going for a solo walk. It means having the guts to explain to others that you’re not staying as long as they expected because the kids can’t manage it. Honesty doesn’t mean unkindness, but rather going gently with yourself and everyone else and doing what you need to do rather than over-compromising. Over-compromising is the root of all evil.
  • Inviting people round for a bring-and-share/mulled wine/mince pies on Christmas Eve isn’t as much work as you might think, and is a lovely way of building community. It’s the kind of thing that everyone would like to do but nobody actually does. Be the person who does it, at least once in your life.
  • If you’re a vicar, I really would like to come and sing carols at the midnight service, but have learned from bitter experience that you’re going to spend a good half hour trying to convert me. Give up and play Hark the Herald and O Little Town of Bethlehem and preferably a bit of White Christmas as well.
  • If you can remember Band Aid first time round, you don’t have to buy the single again. Just give your money directly to the charitable cause, it’s fine.
  • Christmas crackers are a waste of money. You knew that already. If you can bear it, crackers are one thing that are worth making yourself. Think outside the box and put together a paper-hat making kit inside the cracker. I had fairy-making kits in mine one year, with the resulting peg dolls making an appearance on the tree ever since. Or some after-dinner sweets might be an idea for a filling. Otherwise, John Lewis had the best range last time round, with cracker sets that formed a game or were generally less rubbish than the usual plastic tat.
  • If there’s nothing major gracing the wishlists of you and your significant other, spend the money on a big ticket item for the house instead and get each other a small, token gift. By big ticket item, I don’t mean a hoover, unless that really rocks your boat. Something that’s going to bring you both pleasure, like speakers for your Ipod, or a new TV. Or put it towards a holiday. Or a cleaner. Just don’t waste your money buying stuff for the sake of it when it’s not what you need/want.
  • Experiences can often make better gifts. Buy an evening class or workshop for someone, a massage, or tickets to see something.
  • If you must buy him socks, go with bamboo.
  • Nativity plays shouldn’t be longer than 30 minutes. Surprisingly, UKIP don’t seem to have put that on their manifesto yet, but I’d consider voting if they went with it.
  • I said “consider.” I was being facetious. I AM NOT GOING TO VOTE UKIP. Sheez.

[edited to add, coz hell let’s just keep going;]

  • If carol singers come to your door, you have every right to demand requests, especially if they interrupted dinner. I also ask them to give themselves marks out of 10. I get very few carol singers these days. I guess word gets around.
  • Elf. Elf. Elf. Elf. Just watch it. ELF. I wrote a post on how Elf is actually an insider’s guide to Aspergers, but I’m guessing it was on a former blog as I can’t find it. Maybe I’ll write it again.
  • Bin men are still contractually obliged to take your rubbish away even if you don’t give them a Christmas bonus.
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#VATMOSS

Feel free to use this image just link to www.rentvine.com

I’m an artist. Please don’t make me do numbers.

So there’s this thing that’s about to happen, and we’re calling it #VATMOSS. Or #VATMESS if you’re a bit more annoyed about it. Hint – you should probably be annoyed. It involves changes to the VAT laws across Europe, which probably shouldn’t affect any of us, except that the whole thing is a big fat unworkable mess. This article runs through it all better than I could. But basically, whereas before if you were selling ebooks or ecourses through your website you only needed to worry about VAT once you’d reached the UK VAT threshold, now you’ll be liable for all kinds of accountancy hassle and record-keeping if you make one sale outside the UK. Oh, and it’s up to you to prove where the buyer lives, even if you don’t have that information. And to keep the records for 10 years. And make quarterly VAT returns, as far as I can gather. All because one Belgian decided to pay 99p for your ebook.

Ostensibly this has been set up to try to prevent VAT-evasion by the big firms. It’s been put together by people who seem to have no idea of the scale of e-trading by solo writers/entrepeneurs, who are the ones who are really going to suffer as a result. Not only those within the UK, or even the EU, but worldwide. If you sell to Europe, you’re affected by this. And if you get it wrong, you can apparently be sued, fined or otherwise bollocksed. Ridiculously, it seems to have been set up around the area of automation; if you buy my ebook and it gets sent automatically via the click of a button, then I’m liable. If I’m crap at technology and therefore have to individually email each ebook to each customer, that seems to get around the issue. Duh?

If you’re happily thinking Nope, still doesn’t apply to me, I’m not selling anything, think again. Because this will undoubtedly affect people who you might want to buy from. A lot of e-courses and books are going to disappear or at least be put on hold until the mess is sorted out. There’s a lot of fear around the issue as the advice is confusing and contradictory in places. Some of it just isn’t possible, for example keeping records for 10 years to prove that your customer isn’t within the EU (you don’t necessarily have that info.) So, if there’s an e-product that you’ve been thinking about buying, now would be a very good time to do it. Ironically, it will drive a lot of independents towards Amazon and the like, as if you sell via a third party then it’s their responsibility, not yours. Whereas before you might buy a pdf direct from its creator, now it might only be available via Kindle.

In other words, if there’s an online course/program  you’ve been thinking of signing up to, you’d best get around to it quick. Put it on your Christmas list. I’m tempted by Lotte Lane’s book, personally. Having only just figured out the tech behind putting my own pdf up for sale (as well as plucking up the courage to do it,) I’m going to have to take it down from my site before 1st Jan unless I can get some kind of guarantee that I won’t be eligible. Independents don’t just live on the High St or on Etsy, there are countless individuals trying to create a business online, some small, some major. I’ve heard people complaining that they don’t know what they want for Christmas – firstly, stop bitching about it, you over-privileged Western dullard, and secondly, consider investing in an experience rather than a thing. There are some amazing e-courses out there, whether you want to learn how to draw, take better photographs, design websites, build a business or discover your inner Goddess. Whether as a gift for yourself or someone else, you’ll be supporting a creative independent and spreading the love, as well as trying out something new and potentially life-changing. For The Win, basically.

There’s a petition here, if you’d like to take 30 seconds to sign it. To clarify – this isn’t about tax-dodging, but about making the system fair for small businesses and individuals, who really shouldn’t be expected to rustle up the same kind of accountancy voodoo as major corporations. Some kind of threshold would be appropriate here.

photo credit: Dave Dugdale via photopin cc

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Illness and the art of asking

IMG_20140822_165831Lordy, I’ve been ill this week. Not only ill but without a car too. Being an ill single parent with a car… not great, but doable. Being an ill single parent without a car… well, in the style of the Royal Court Young Writers; It. Has. Been. A. Challenge. Fucking challenge, sorry. Obvs.

Still I’ve finally made it through the box set of The Office that a friend lent to me months ago. I’ve caught up on a lot of podcasts/audio courses that I’ve been meaning to listen to for ages. The hat that I started knitting so long ago that I can’t remember when it was, is finally taking shape. Or at least, it would be taking shape if one of my cats wasn’t quite so intent on destroying it as I go. And friends have kindly stepped in; my daughter’s piano teacher offering to pick her up and bring her back so I wouldn’t have to cancel her lesson, my neighbour taking her down to school on a morning when I’d spent all night coughing my lungs up and was exhausted. My daughter decided to heat me up some soup when I said I hadn’t eaten anything that day – there’s a joy in realising that your beloved offspring are now actually useful. The AA man who rescued me from my son’s school car park on Friday gave me a free bulb as my headlights had decided to conk out at the same time. The Ex promised to fit me a new starter motor. Small mercies can make a big difference.

Illness can bring a strange kind of clarity. Suddenly the superfluous is easily cut away. The thing you were supposed to be going to, you know, the thing you didn’t really want to go to but felt you should – nope, cancel it. Meals – well, we’re having this because it’s easy and/or it’s the only thing in the fridge right now. Priorities become easier to identify – okay, I’ve still got to do this, but screw that, I’m not up to it. Even things that you previously wanted to do, but now realise aren’t in your current best interests – the plan at the weekend was to go round to a friend’s with a bottle of wine, until I admitted that what I most needed was to give up on the idea of getting dressed and just go back to bed. It begs the question; what would life look like if we acted with this kind of clarity all the time, instead of waiting to be ill? Or, to go against the current O2 ads, if we decided to be more cat?

Think about it. Be more dog? Dogs are entirely at the mercy of their owners. We train dogs. They’re fed at certain times, taken for walks at certain times, taught to be as obedient and convenient as we can possibly make them. Cats come and go as they please, spend most of the day asleep, will find a way of sitting on you even though you’re frantically typing away on your laptop, and will walk past your carefully positioned scratching post in order to hone their claws on the sofa. Nobody even thinks of attempting to train a cat, other than by suggesting they might like to use a litter tray, which they will occasionally deign to do as long as it’s the right tray, with the right litter, in the right place and preferably freshly changed. Fail to meet any of these criteria and they will enact their divine feline right to shit in your airing cupboard. You would not find a cat getting up at 6 to make it into a much-hated job on time even though it’s sick and has been up half the night. A cat would not drag its weary ass across town to go to a rehearsed reading of a friend of a friend of a friend just to be polite. A cat fully expects its needs to be met and will let you know if it’s not happy. Generally by whacking you across the face with its paw. We could all learn a lot from cats.

Even in terms of asking for our needs to be met, we struggle. Needs isn’t exactly a trendy word. No one wants to be thought of as needy. Yet needs exist, we all have them. The basic Maslov criteria; shelter, food, warmth. Affection. Beyond that; meaningful work/role in life, respect, work/life balance, adequate rest. Keep going and we get to the personal particulars; one woman’s needs might be another’s mere wants. Honesty is important here, what do you truly need rather than just want? Start talking about designer shoes at this point and I’m going to walk away in disgust, but in truth a holiday can be a real need. The course I took last month was a need, albeit not necessarily one that Maslov would recognise. Creatively though, it fulfilled a deep yearning. Getting to it wasn’t easy, with concerns over the cost and about childcare, I had to make the decision to spend that money and then to ask my Ex to take care of the kids that week. Ask. Not cajole, or manipulate, or persuade, or threaten, or demand… ask. Sometimes it can be easier to give up before we’ve even started, convince ourselves that it’s fine as it is because we just can’t bring ourselves to ask. We’ve convinced ourselves that asking feels like begging, too demeaning, or asking will indebt us, or we’re not worth it, or what we want would be too good to be true…

Be clear about what your needs are. What do you need – right now/ in order to create/ in an ideal world? Once you know what you need, how/who can you ask? Think about reciprocity and exchange. Know that in order to give, someone has to receive. Life should be a blend of both. Become the hat as Amanda Palmer says in the clip below. Start asking for what you need. Stop thinking that you have to meet all of your needs yourself.

There was more here about artists, asking and the current economy, but WordPress has wiped the slate clean. Another time perhaps. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this. I may have linked to this before, I don’t remember. It’s worth watching twice, anyway.

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Does sharing your work make you a desperate egotist?

If you don't use a vintage typewriter then you're not a real writer. Sorry but there it is.

If you don’t use a vintage typewriter then you’re not a real writer. Sorry but there it is.

Firstly, this post by Tom Hirons. I should probably put in some kind of disclaimer at this point; no, I’m not stalking them. But listen to this:

Why do we tell stories? Why do we love them so much? Ach, we could go to the shelves and read the words of the clever people, and they are good words, full of one kind of truth, but I think we human beings tell stories and love them not for a reason, but because they are part of our essential nature. They are not maps; they are territory. They are not fingers pointing at the moon; they are moons, and planets, and stars. In the way that water flows, lovers love and children laugh and cry, we humans love stories. Integral, essential, woven into us, as much as breathing air or dreaming.

This is what I think. Stories are the way that the land talks to itself and its creatures: storytellers or story-carriers, whether they call themselves anything like that or not, are the agents by which these tendrils or tongues of rich magic move from one place to another, from one sacredly enchanted landscape to another, carrying the news of the wild and the soul of the world. When I think of stories like this, I see mycelia, the collection of fungal tendrils in the earth whose function is not entirely known but which seem essential to the rich life of the forest above and below the ground. All things that live, dream. Stories are to dreaming-life as mycelia are to the Earth. Both an essential part, and a message and messenger and a power of transformation. Without stories, communities die, just as we die somehow when we stop dreaming.

It’s tempting to end this post here, he’s said it far more poetically than I could. But I’d add that I think we’ve evolved to respond to stories, it’s encoded into our DNA somehow. Think of our Stone Age ancestors gathered around the fire. Stories would be told not only as entertainment but as history, as geography, as biological lineage. Stories would be told of the lands the tribe wandered and settled in, of the things that had happened in the past both to commemorate and to warn, to map the familial bonds and taboos of the people listening. We recognise when someone is about to tell us a story, whether a real life anecdote or fiction and settle in for the ride. And if the story is long and dull, a little part of us dies inside while a voice in our heads whispers fly! fly away my pretty!

The best stories stay with us though, whether it’s a book we’ve read, film or play we’ve sat through, or something we’ve been told. Stories are absorbed into our cells and carried around with us, the very best managing to somehow rearrange our internal landscapes. They give us wisdom, they give us understanding, they tell us about ourselves. They can give us a new metaphorical language with which to approach our lives. Ah, that’s why my marriage ended, he wasn’t willing to enter the forest. I have vivid memories of reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time and feeling the world around me change irrevocably. Of listening to Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword being read aloud by our teacher and being gripped by the adventures of the children in the middle of a brutal war. Do teachers still do that? We often ended the day with being read to, but I don’t think it happens much any more beyond the earliest years. Watching Star Wars at my Aunt’s house when it premiered on TV – she was the only one to have a colour set at the time – and recognising something archetypal about the characters and story, although I was too young to know what archetypal meant.

Meeting up with the play-reading group I attend, I felt gratified when a friend greeted me with “Yes, I hated that play too, for exactly the same reasons.” The discussion moved on to how we were fed up with the notion that women being terrified, tortured, raped, mutilated, killed, was considered to be entertainment on a nightly basis. Hello The Fall, I’m looking at you. Whether its CSI in its various settings, Ripper Street, Trial and Retribution, Above Suspicion… okay, I’m not going to list them all, the point being that at least 8 times out of 10, the murder victim is an attractive young woman and there’s usually a sexual element involved. Last year while working on attachment at Bristol Old Vic, one of my writing sessions coincided with fellow attachee, playwright Chino Odimba. We both admitted that neither of us could face turning the TV on at the time, as the News was full of celebrity rape trials, the trial of April Jones’s killer and various other cases which all involved violence against women, quickly followed by their fictional counterparts. Our psyches were being battered by it. Here’s the worrying thought; by showing so much violence against women in our fictional stories, are we not normalising it? Violence, killing, abuse, rape – it seems like they’ve lost their shock value (and hello soap operas, I’m now looking at you) and so writers and producers seek out ever more twisted and disturbing material in order to be original.

If you’re reading this, I suspect that writing and stories are part of who you are. Whether a paid profession or a hobby, it’s not something you can stop doing, not unless you want to run the equivalent psychic risk of chopping off an arm.  Not writing means not being yourself. Which is why it’s all the more frustrating when it feels like you’re not getting anywhere with it. What use is a story if it stays on your laptop? Over the last year or so, I’ve written several short pieces, most of which lived quiet lives on my laptop. A couple managed to burst out into public, at Come to Where I’m From, or Stroud Short Stories. But somehow it seemed egotistical to start pushing them on people. Increasingly though, when I’ve been part of a group in which someone has recited their poetry or performed one of their songs, I’ve felt like kicking myself for not bringing any of my stories to share while simultaneously telling myself that people would think I was a show-off. Then earlier this year I took my stories down to the women’s weekend I was going to and offered to read Holding On to the group when we were gathered in the lounge and not quite sure of how the evening should go. When I got to the end, half of the room was sobbing. That’s not something I’ve faced before and it was difficult to know quite how to hold that energy. I found myself apologising profusely, while everyone else dabbed their eyes and told me that no, it was good and you absolutely must do something with it.

Then at the Schumacher course we were required to write five minute poems (a poem written in five minutes, not one that lasts five minutes!) and asked to share them with the group. Martin Shaw insisted that sharing your work was an act of generosity. Hearing it in those terms helped to shift something within me. Whenever somebody else had performed their work, I didn’t think they were egotistical but enjoyed listening to them – so why was I being so shy about sharing my own work? And when I had performed my work, it had got a really positive reception. So, I’ve gathered my stories together into a pdf and I’m offering them for sale in my shop. I’ve decided I like the idea of having my own shop, it makes me feel like Emily in Bagpuss. But over the years I’ve met so many people (mainly women, it has to be said) who have whispered in a confessional tone that they quite enjoy writing but would never show it to anyone and I’ve done my best to urge them to keep writing and to share their work. If you’re someone with a pile of stories living in your laptop, or with notebooks crammed with words and hidden under the bed then maybe start to consider letting them out into the world as an act of generosity. Why else do we call it sharing our work? And as Shaw tells it, nobody ever said “The one thing I really can’t stand is a bloody good story.” Let’s get those stories out there, people. They can’t be worse than what’s currently passing for entertainment.

photo credit: Lívia Cristina via photopin cc

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The Handless Maiden, the Dead Baby and the Eyeball; is it time we all grew up?

medium_3447916581A week down the line from my course at Schumacher and I’m still deep in the land of story. We were warned that we would be bitten by particular stories and that images would keep welling up for a long time after our return. While there was one story that seemed to claim me during the listening, another seems to be resonating more strongly as I settle back into daily life, that of the Handless Maiden. I’ve searched for a link to the story, but all I can find are bloodless, Christianized versions or the barest bones of the story, or re-tellings packed full of their own psychology, none of which is what I want to say. The story I heard was vivid and earthy; I’m not going to insult it by attempting to set it down here, so I’ll stick with the relevant facts. A girl unwittingly sold to the devil by her father, who must then chop off her hands for the devil to be able to claim her. The girl evades the devil but chooses to leave the home where she was betrayed and sets out into the deep dark forest. After a series of adventures, including finding love and having a child, she must return to the forest, but this time she is sheltered and before her lover can find her again, she has found her own peace and grown back her hands. If you chase the story online, there’ll be much talk of God and angels whereas in the version I heard (more likely to be closer to its roots) we’re dealing with magic and one’s own innate powers. She grows her own hands back, dammit – get that image into your mind and keep it there.

I’m finding that I’m falling out of love with theatre. I’m falling out of love because I’m sick of leaping fifty feet into the air and turning three somersaults topped off with a double reverse pike to try and please somebody who is just not interested. I’m falling out of love because I’m tired of sitting through plays that just don’t speak to me. Plays that are clever or cool or violent or shocking or obscene but which have an echoing void where their heart should be. Plays that hold up the dark mirror and loudly announce Look how shit the world is, and leave it at that. Or worse, plays that shout Look how clever I am as if that’s worth the ticket price.

At this point in the proceedings, I’m struggling. I don’t normally tend to call out the names of plays I haven’t enjoyed, so I won’t give the title here, but if you saw it, you’ll recognise the description. It’s not my intention to offend the writer or anyone involved with the production; I’m using it as an example as I happened to see it, and I haven’t seen much this year. Firstly, it’s entirely subjective. My worst night out at the theatre might be the production that you’re praising to your grandchildren, years down the line.  But that particular production has niggled and niggled at my brain as an example of everything that I’m not loving about theatre at the moment. It has a well-known, well-respected writer behind it and was performed by an accomplished actress. Technically, it was brilliant, memorable writing and an incredible delivery.

I hated it.

Everyone else seemed to love it. So it’s perhaps just me. But. Where everyone else saw originality, I saw the same old story – what I’m coming to call the one-man Child Called It school of theatre. You know, the play in which the solo actor tells you how terrible their life has been in appallingly graphic detail. The End. And given that this was a girl’s story, I knew within seconds where we were going – why hello there sexual exploitation, I didn’t see you coming (NOT.) To sum up the bare facts of the story in the manner of the Handless Maiden – girl is emotionally neglected, cast out from the home too early, falls in love with the wrong man who then drugs her and pimps her out to his friends before abandoning her, pregnant and her mental/emotional state deteriorating rapidly. She lies her way into a family caring for a comatose, paraplegic soldier, performs sexual acts on him while everyone is out and convinces herself that he’s the father of her child. Once found out, she’s thrown out, ends up giving birth in the woods before ending the play with the baby having disappeared and claiming it was the foxes what done it. Cheery, huh?

To be honest, by the time we got to the foxes I was biting down on my hand to stop myself from laughing. I’m fairly sure that this was not the expected response. And to re-iterate, everyone else thought it was brilliant, so very probably it’s just me. Got to be said though, I found it melodramatic and more than a little insulting. Having spent a large portion of last year working on a project that involved speaking to women that had been victims of domestic violence, including a young girl who had been abused in much the same way as the character in the play, it felt as if I had no choice but to reject the play’s premise. In real life, rape and abuse are depressingly mundane. I know a ridiculous number of women who have experienced it. None of them have wound up finger-fucking comatose paraplegics or screaming that the foxes ate their baby. Perhaps I’m being too literal, perhaps I’m failing to understand the metaphor, perhaps I’ve got no real understanding of what a play should look like, but I spent most of the performance wanting to shout FUCK OFF, mainly because I’ve spent a a good couple of hours talking to a woman whose husband put an axe through her head and who told me her story without the merest hint of melodrama or self pity or baby-eating foxes.

The play annoyed me but it was nothing to do with the quality of the writing, the direction or the acting. The story of the Handless Maiden gave me a clearer picture as to why. It’s basically the same story. A young girl betrayed by those who should protect her, staggering out into the world maimed and alone. Here’s the rub – the Handless Maiden matures, evolves and learns to grow back her hands. In the play, the girl is left wandering the deep dark forest, entirely mad. There is no chance of redemption, no hope, no healing, only despair.

I don’t think this is healthy.

Equally, I’m not suggesting that all plays must have a happy ending.

Dr Martin Shaw talks about looking at whether stories have protein, whether they will sustain you through the Winter. So much of what passes for entertainment or even culture is merely candyfloss, a few wispy bites of sugar that will give you a quick high but will be instantly forgotten. Some stories however will be presented as a hearty bowl of stew… and yet the meat is rotten. Rather than sustaining you, it will slowly poison your soul. We have far too many stories like this, whether created with a deliberate urge to shock and provoke, or whether poured out in a confessional rush without too much thought about where it might be heading. I imagine the aim is to show that terrible things are taking place under our noses, to make us more aware. Thing is, I think we’re already pretty aware, aren’t we? I think we know that plenty of kids are served neglect rather than love, plenty of girls are groomed into the sex trade, hell we’re even aware about fossil fuels and climate change and the links between corporations and government, but not much is happening about any of it. Plays aren’t documentaries. They’re stories. And stories slip inside us and stay inside us and affect our thinking and our feeling. So we might want to check whether those stories are in fact toxic before we swallow them down.

Perhaps, most of all, this is why I’m falling out of love with theatre – that we seem to have lost sight of what is good for us. That the stories that are being told are ending in the wrong place, the characters still maimed and hurting and lost in the forest. That nobody is learning how to grow back their hands. Growing back her hands does not lessen the Maiden’s previous ordeal. It does not weaken the story, although I suspect that the arbiters of taste sitting in judgement as gatekeepers of the Literary Departments have been taught to believe that it does. Rather it shows a deepening of both story and character, and a natural conclusion. It shows the evolution of the psyche. Leaving the character lost in the forest does not create a more authentic experience, but rather an incomplete one; incompleteness is a hungry ghost in terms of the psyche.

Artistically, it’s a difficult quandary to solve – obviously we don’t want to sit through the same production of Pollyanna over and over again. But this is an industry in which happy ending is a dirty word, aesthetically displeasing to the powers that be, where domestic is seen as disgusting. An industry in which shock value or difficult subject matter will always win out over heart. An industry which increasingly feels like a bad case of The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which audience members stagger out into the night, wide-eyed and tormented while no one dares to ask Yes but what’s this about? Or even Yes, but is this helping? An industry in which, as with much of the world, youth is emphasized as a god in itself and writers are groomed for fame before they’ve ever truly lived in this world. It is difficult to be wise at twenty three. Perhaps this focus on youth is part of the problem – you can’t bring the Maiden out of the forest until you’re out of the forest yourself. And a lot of our writers have never even had the chance to enter the forest yet.

It seems that deep within myself sits a wrinkled old storyteller in a multi-coloured coat, sniffing at stories to see how they will taste to the soul. An instinctive understanding that something is not quite right with the food in the bowl that I’m being offered. And a feeling that as artists we maybe need to move on from the Dead Baby and the Eyeball* school of writing. A lot of the stories that we’re serving up are heartless, empty and unfulfilling. Or perhaps merely incomplete. There is room for tragedy, for shock, for questions that can’t be answered – but I for one am looking at the world outside my window and wondering how my work impacts it. Am I part of the problem or part of the solution? It’s a question I think we all need to ask.

photo credit: Medieval Karl via photopin cc

* I have a theory that it’s not New Writing unless it involves a dead baby and somebody loses an eye. And yes, the play in question had a dead/missing baby and the stated desire to gouge out a toddler’s eyeball. CAN WE PLEASE GET OVER THIS, WRITERS?

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Hedgespoken

 hedgespoken-by-starlight-fi

(artwork by Rima Staines)

I’ve been following Rima Staines’s beautiful blog The Hermitage for what seems like forever. A few of her prints have made it into my home, and a couple of years back I was lucky enough to see her and partner Tom Hirons storytelling at a festival, him masked and wild as he told the story while she provided the musical accompaniment. Despite it being after 10pm, and an event for adults rather than children, my kids sat and listened throughout, rapt.

Hedgespoken is the travelling puppet show/storytelling theatre they have devised and are trying to bring to fruition through crowdfunding.

It’s a beautiful idea, one that resonates somewhere deep within and recalls a long ago dream of being part of an itinerant vagabond theatre company that would travel around in its own hippy commune, delivering theatre and stories to places where theatre and stories don’t tend to go. Seeing someone else trying to bring to life a dream you once had is an odd thing – it could create toxic wells of jealousy and frustration, but in this case has brought merely a yearning to see it happen. Rima and Tom seem like the right people to pull this one off, and if you’re able to support them in any way – by pledging money (they’ve got some fantastic rewards listed) or by spreading the word, then please help them with the last push to achieving it. As Rima says in the Hedgespoken blog,

this is a word-of-mouth fundraiser, and A People’s Arts Council! By supporting us, you are choosing the kinds of arts you want to be brought to life!

Which makes me wonder what a crowd-funded Arts Council would look like, or at least what projects would emerge from an Arts Council that was a crowd-governed, grass roots organisation rather than a top-down establishment institution. Anyway – for entirely selfish reasons (I really want to turn up and watch one of their shows) – send them your best wishes and topmost luck, send them your money or be sweetly persuasive with your richest friends to support them. They are genuinely lovely people and this feels like something the world needs. Anything which inspires more imagination and creativity into our culture is a Very Good Thing.

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Descansos; a testament to life

medium_3431119812Descansos are little crosses, memorials to the fallen at the roadside. Apparently in some cultures they can also be representative of little deaths, a monument to the place where a choice was made at the crossroads and a road was not taken. A monument of something that was lost to us, something that was left behind. As our lives are full of crossroads, of leavings and loss, our internal landscapes are littered with descansos.

I’ve just returned from a 5 day course on myth and storytelling at Schumacher college, Dartington. With tutor Dr. Martin Shaw’s advice ringing in my ears, I’m aware of the notion of magical privacy, of not giving the gold away too soon. There is a need to allow the experience and teachings to gestate, to let things settle into my belly and not regurgitate it all the minute I get home. With that in mind – there have been stories. Songs. Incredible, beautiful people. Food. Wild twins. Trees. Rain. Deep truths. Soul. And a night in the bar that achieved such mystical, magical proportions that a blue plaque of commemoration will be placed on the door so that future generations may come and pay homage to the things that took place there, and weep that they were not part of them.

Shaw is a master storyteller and academic, but the truth is that he is a pirate, a gipsy king, a bard, an Irish bare-knuckle fighter, a magician, shaman and moss-covered forest spirit combined. If you get the chance to hear him perform then for the love of all that is holy, take it. I have come away from this week with stories swirling around my body, images and metaphors that are speaking to me and demanding attention. The deep feeling that my life has subtly changed, that I’m not going back in the same way that I left.

In terms of magical privacy, I’ve probably said too much already. I should just mutter Oh yeah, been away, some work thing I had to do before commenting on the weather and sniffing to see if the milk’s gone off. Wear the mundane like a cloak of invisibility. Yet I already know that my work can’t be the same. That I’m not prepared to go on doing what I was doing. More fuck this in other words. A change is on its way.

In the meantime, it feels as if descansos are being put up all over the place – my memories of the week are littered with tiny crosses of grief that this particular experience with these particular people in that particular place can’t happen again. We’ve been warned also of being sentimental about what has happened – to be excited and motivated about it rather than giving in to sentimentality. To carry these lessons and changes back home with us, unpack them from our luggage, find a place for them in our homes and lives and actually use them. All too often we store these experiences in a box of memories up in the attic, our good intentions never quite managing to keep pace with the demands of daily life and the routines we’ve fallen into. The descansos at the roadside speak of grief, but also carry a warning, lest the onlooker become one of the fallen. Look out. Don’t let this happen to you. Live. And so this blog post becomes a descanso – remember. Remember, and change.

Where in your life do you need to erect a descanso? Which lost pathway needs to be uncovered and tended to? What did you put in a box in the attic to play with later, and forgot all about? Which dream, which part of your soul needs dusting off and bringing back into the light?

Tomorrow morning, I have to head into London. It is likely to be stressful and tiring, and exactly what I don’t need while I try to mull over the week gone by. But that’s exactly how we forget, life crowding us out. And so on my return, I will be picking up sticks that have fallen in the lane, not to dry out for kindling but to bind together as testament to what went on and what needs to be remembered. There will be tiny crosses in the bathroom mirror and small altars set up inside the fridge. A cold, bony witch will sit in front of the television, the remote wedged up inside her arse where it is unlikely to be retrieved. A goat will be tethered to the back door, a giant will lay sleeping across the hearth. A large drum will take up residence on the sofa, while ravens roost in the airing cupboard. A hurdy-gurdy will provide the background music while I chop mandrakes into soup. Long dead relatives will be invited to sing the Blues, preferably to the small dragon living in the chimney. Strange pictures will appear on the walls, whisky will be drunk on the school run and obscene poetry will be recited to the chickens.

I can’t wait.

photo credit: Rrrodrigo via photopin cc

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Should “new writing” always be new?

We only take original submissions. Otherwise we boil your head.

So, continuing the theme of whether it’s okay to lie to get ahead. Another dilemma cropped up fairly recently. It’s long been a bugbear of writers that theatres generally insist on original work. Even if the piece in question played to three people for one rainy night in Skegness; it’s been produced, therefore it’s no longer original and they don’t want it. Despite the fact that their theatre is in the Outer Hebrides and we can pretty much guarantee that none of the Skegness audience will be present for the one night they want to show the work, it’s still a no.

It’s frustrating as hell. If you’ve put a lot of work into the piece and had a small run at a regional theatre, it can very much feel as though the play deserves a longer life, a wider audience. And let’s face it, if the play was shown in Plymouth, it’s highly unlikely that anyone in Newcastle saw it. Or Manchester. Or even London. So as far as the new audience is concerned, it’s all original work. And come on – the work is tried and tested, so it’s less of a risk for all involved. The play works! What’s not to like about it?

Even more frustrating – we want original work but we’re not going to pay you.

Oh really?

The dilemma; I’m approached to submit a short piece for a theatre event. It’s unpaid, but would mean getting a showing of my work in London, which feels worthwhile. There’s a theme. I have already written a short piece that fits the theme perfectly. It’s a piece that I believe in, that I’m pleased with. Despite being unpaid and invite-only, the opportunity is still competitive. There’s no guarantee that the piece will be chosen and performed. I scan the email. It doesn’t say that work has to be original/unproduced.

Hallelujah.

Job done.

I’m mightily relieved that I’ve got a strong piece that I can submit, and won’t have to risk spending the best part of a month crafting something new which might not get selected.

Two weeks later I get another email, which chirpily announces Don’t forget all work has to be original and unproduced. Apparently not even a previous reading is allowed.

Bugger.

It’s at this point that I begin to think about sending it in anyway. The original run was in a small pub theatre in Bristol. It’s not been seen in London. It’s a good piece. It fits the theme. We’re now halfway through the allotted writing period and I don’t have anything else. If I change the title and maybe the character names, would anyone actually know? And, quite frankly, I think they’re being a bit unreasonable. Not even a reading? When you’re not actually paying the writers? Plus the first email didn’t make it clear that it had to be original, it seems unfair to shift the goalposts halfway through the game.

Thing is, I’ve had conversations with other writers. Conversations in which the other writers have merrily confessed to sending out work that’s been previously produced. Giving it a new title, changing the character names, all that jazz. Why not? they say and talk about all the reasons already mentioned – it’s a totally different audience, it’s a good piece, it deserves another outing, it’s not like they’re paying me for a commission etc etc. It happens. Just – I’ve never done it. Was I prepared to do it now?

Sod it, I’m going to do it. It’s a good piece and I can’t afford to work for free any more.

But a couple of thoughts are nagging at me: I don’t lie. Is this the same as lying? There’s a writer I know who might also be involved in a judging capacity. Would that writer feel compelled to grass me up, essentially? What if one of the producers found out anyhow? What kind of awkward conversation would that be?

I ask a couple of other writers. Just send it in seems to be the consensus opinion.

And yet…

What it boils down to is this; my name is my reputation. If I get found out, it goes against me. If word goes round that I tried to scam them, it damages my reputation. And that bothers me. For sure I’m over-thinking it, I always do. But I realise that if I send in my not-new play and it gets selected, I’ll spend the entire time sweating and anxious for fear of being found out. And frankly, I don’t want the stress of that.

The day before the deadline, I start work on a new short play, just for them.

Fingers crossed.

photo credit: Arbron via photopin cc

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Should you lie to get ahead?

That's my real age right there.

That’s my real age right there.

Honesty. It’s a quality I often lay claim to, backed up by people telling me that my writing feels so honest. I’ve found myself pondering what it means to be honest recently, mainly as I’m coming up against a lack of it on dating sites. Guys shaving a few years off their age. Guys shaving ten years off their age. Height being somewhat overstated. Intentions not being made clear. Single not really meaning single but some weird kind of I’d like to act as if I’m single, even though I’m still living with my partner. Discussing this with friends, it became apparent that most people felt that knocking a few years off your age was perfectly legitimate on a dating site. In fact, one friend even did so at work, feeling the pressure to be young in the trendy media world in which she works. God, that’s depressing; skill and experience being seen as less valuable than merely having put in fewer years on the planet. In dating terms, the usual line is Well, everyone thinks I’m younger than I am so I just went with it. Okay. Well, most people think I’m younger than I am, so maybe I should knock five years or so off my age. Except that I’d then end up trawling through profiles of men wanting to settle down and start a family, which isn’t what I actually want so a little counter-productive, perhaps?

However on a recent application for a writing scheme, I was asked for my date of birth (and age. I’m not sure if they didn’t feel confident about doing the maths themselves, or whether it was a cunning ploy to catch people out.) I stared at the blank field for a while, really not wanting to do it. My intuition was screaming at me that I’d be passed over due to my age. There are schemes for young writers, and the Royal Court recently ran a scheme for elderly writers, but no one ever runs schemes for middle aged writers. Middle age smacks of tedium. You must be boring if you’re middle aged, runs the insinuation. Which of course is bollocks. I’ve got a hell of a lot more to say now than when I was young, and care less about what others might think. There’s considerable life experience stacked up behind me, more understanding, and – dare I say it – more compassion than my younger self had. So I really couldn’t see the relevance of the question. What does it matter how old I am? Perhaps I should have just left it blank, but I’m a tad over-conscientious when it comes to filling out forms. Guess what? I didn’t get it. Of course, there’s no way of knowing why – perhaps they were inundated with applicants and the competition ridiculously fierce… but I can’t help wondering whether I would have stood a better chance if I had knocked those five years off. Our qualities, skills and personalities have developed over the years, so why should we feel the need to lie about it?

The phenomenal success of the Royal Court’s Young Writers programme no doubt plays a part in all of this. For a while it has seemed as though the only new writers making it into the theatre industry are those who have passed through the scheme. Which really isn’t good news for anyone taking up writing after the age of 30. Under the current AD Vicky Featherstone the programme is in fact being scaled back, and perhaps the doors will be opened to a wider age range. But for a while there, the theatre seemed to pride itself on promoting work by ever-younger writers, some of whom were hyped beyond all reasonable expectation. Allowing young writers space to develop seems much more important and sustainable than exploiting their youth as a desperate means of selling more tickets. The reality; some of those teenage plays really did read like teenage plays. Would they have been produced if they’d been written by a 36 year old? Unlikely. If that 36 year old had pretended to be 15? Probably. Because by this point a recognisable house style had emerged and the writers’ youth had become a brand. Look at how young they are, how talented (how developed). The same talent in a 36 year old, a 45 year old, a 60 year old? Not quite as relevant, brand-wise. Not as ripe for developing.

 Which isn’t to denigrate the achievements of the young writers or the Royal Court, even though it probably sounds that way. Merely a frustration; a good play is a good play is a good play, regardless of the age of the writer. A play doesn’t suddenly become better because the writer is younger. Discovering that a young writer has potential is incredibly exciting. It doesn’t mean that they are ready. Similarly, discovering that a play or a writer has potential shouldn’t become less exciting on realising that they’re in their forties. The same development opportunities should still be available.

A recent article on Lane’s List further compounded my thinking. Playwright David Lane writes that;

I find myself challengingly stretched between five projects that ask five huge questions:
1.    what does the world do when all the oil runs out?

2.    how do you respond when your own government gasses your two-year old son?

3.    what can we do to return to a state of shared conscience with the Earth’s rhythms?

4.    why does one of the most affluent countries in the Western world need food banks?

5.    if you had just eight hours with your family after 50 years apart, what would you do?
[…]When I compare this to the premises of plays I wrote when I started out, there’s a stark difference:
  • Five male housemates all fancy the same woman and she tricks them all and they’re all vaguely based on my current university friends!
  • A man goes into a coma and can’t remember who his wife is and totally rips off the plot of that Harrison Ford movie!
  • A politician makes a rubber stamp of the Prime Minister’s signature and causes havoc in Westminster!
  • A young man takes a train and decides to dump his girlfriend because he’s all like philosophical and that and life has no meaning!
Yes, they are all real plays that I really wrote between the ages of 18 and 20.

While Lane asks “How big are you thinking?” I can’t help but feel that a lot of the shift in direction comes as a result of growing up. Of paying more attention to the world around you, of having direct experience of life’s woes and joys, of having loved and lost, triumphed and failed. Of having kids. Of having to remember important stuff like tax returns and car insurance. Of having to manage your money and worrying about bills. Of watching Newsnight. Of deciding who to vote for and seeing the outcome play out years down the line. And while in fact my twenty year old self had been through some fairly significant experiences, it was years before I had processed and dealt with them. Writing about them as I was still living through it all would have proved far too extreme to cope with. I’m not dissing young writers (although Roald Dahl may have had a point when he advised a Saturday morning TV audience to not bother trying to write anything before the age of 21) – it is of course important to support and nurture young talent, but why the obsession with youth? Why not a recognition that talent and voice are relevant no matter what the age of the writer? That in fact growing older might just mean that your writing becomes more relevant rather than less so?

So, should you lie about your age? There does seem to be a ridiculous bias towards the young in theatre and the media. It’s tempting to say suck it and see. I’d be curious to hear about anyone who has experimented with doing so, whether they thought they got different outcomes depending on how old they said they were. Ultimately, I don’t want to have to lie. I really hate lying. More than that, I want to challenge this stupid preconception that youth is somehow more relevant than any other stage of life. And that’s not going to happen if we all pretend to be 21.

photo credit: Jessica Watkins DeWinter via photopin cc

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Conversations: Bea Roberts

IP email 4Bea Roberts is a writer/playwright and all-round excellent person with a solo show Infinity Pool currently playing at Hamilton House, Bristol until Sat 8th Nov as part of Theatre West’s nomadic Autumn season. The show intrigued me; it’s an incredibly original approach to storytelling, while remaining funny, tender, well-observed and very human. Seeing as I’ve been meaning to have conversations on this blog, it seemed a good opportunity to start.

  • How did you get started doing what you do?
I’ve always written and performed in some way. When I was a kid I used to make up stories and learn entire Victoria Wood monologues off by heart then that progressed to short stories, awful teenage poetry and musicals. I loved doing all that but it was never the right fit; my prose was always full of dialogue and I loved comedy so I was always cast in boys’ roles or as old women. Then during my first year at uni in Bristol I ended up writing for the stage and playwriting seemed to have everything I loved; telling stories but in live performance, writing dialogue and the freedom to create whatever you want. 
 
I started writing and performing a lot at university and different things too; 24 hour plays, stand up comedy, sketches, writing for radio as well as one act plays. By the time I left, I’d taken two shows to the Edinburgh Fringe and knew I wanted to be a writer so I went on to do the Writing for Stage and Broadcast Media MA at the Central School of Speech and Drama. I had absolutely no idea if I’d actually get to be a writer but I loved it enough that it was worth at least trying for a few years to see if I could get anywhere. 
 
After I graduated, I was offered the position of Writer in Residence at the Canal Cafe Theatre which helped for people to take me a bit more seriously. That was in 2009 and the last 5 years have just been graft to try and get established; putting on work as much as I can, trying to meet people in the industry, meeting other writers, entering competitions, going to workshops and talks, getting feedback and trying to learn from it, pitching work to companies and theatres and accepting pretty much any writing work I was offered (generally unpaid). It’s starting to pay off, I think, but it’s a long road. 
  • What’s your creative process?
It always starts with a kernel of something I find interesting; a bit of a story someone’s told me, a little historical or scientific fact or overhearing an exchange – I once started a play with a line from ‘Come Dine With Me’ it was such a cracker I just started writing from there. Something little will suggest a scenario to me and then I keep thinking about it; who are those people? What would be interesting to watch? What could happen?
 
Over the years, I’ve learnt to be very anal about doing all the leg work before I start writing dialogue. I’ll have an initial R&D period where I try to find out as much as I can about the world and people I’m writing about, I’ll make a playlist on Spotify of the soundtrack of that world – even if it’s just sounds of the countryside or rain. Then I’ll go into the characters, try to write their backstories and get into the way they talk and think and feel. Giving them accents or key phrases are often really useful for that. Then I’ll spend ages on the plot and structure, working out what happens in every scene and only when I have a strong beat map (outlining the dramatic points of each scene) then I’ll start writing dialogue. I absolutely love writing dialogue so it’s like a treat at the end of all that hard structural work. 
 
Throughout all this I’m trying to put honest emotion into the journeys of the characters; to excavate bits of me when I’ve felt scared, angry, ashamed, joyful, relieved etc. so that there’s an honesty at the heart of it that hopefully, people will recognise. I can only write if I can locate a point of connection between me and that character where I feel I’ve got some insight into how they might be feeling – and I try to genuinely feel that emotion as I work. I’ve cried my eyes out writing sad scenes and felt really joyful writing happy ones. It makes me feel like a pretentious idiot to say that but I think there’s an alchemy where the audience feel your sincerity if it’s there. And that’s my job; to create something honest, identifiable and human. 
So I write the first draft, think it’s terrible, take a few days away from it to contemplate why I’m such a crap writer and why I even bother, then go back to it and try to be objective. I highlight the bits where it feels like it’s working and the bits I don’t like and try to work out where to go from there. Then I repeat the second half of that process over and over again… it is often like shitting a brick, I’m just very stubborn. 
 
I’m a really merciless re-drafter; I’ll lose entire characters and plot strands if they’re not working. “KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS” as William Faulkner says; yes, you may be in love with that line and that bit’s clever but if it’s not serving the story you have to chuck it out the window. 
 
Getting feedback from people you trust around the 2nd or 3rd draft stage is also vital because by that time you’re far too close to it to see where the problems are. 
 
Of course, that is how I would like to work but the realities of being commissioned mean that process has to be condensed and filtered through someone else’s schedule, criteria and vision. Learning to write for family audiences or for site specific pieces mean rewriting and learning on the hoof and then trying to write for TV and radio is an even more bizarre version of all that.  
 
  • How do you make it work in terms of time/money eg balancing other jobs, funding etc?
As 99% of writers will say; it’s really tough. For the first few years after I graduated I was writing all the time on various projects and probably earned about £200 a year from it. I essentially had two full time jobs and I’m amazed I still have any friends and family members still talking to me as I’ve missed a lot of social events. 
 
It’s been a case of trying to gradually shift my income so that more and more of it comes from writing but this year, for example, I have an agent, I wrote a TV pilot, a radio pilot, I had two theatre commissions for this year, two lined up for next year and a tour scheduled for 2015, a play under option and a commission from the BBC and I am still not close to making a living from writing. 
 
I work freelance doing a big collage of theatre-ish related freelance work; I work with children and adults doing Drama and English workshops for a few different companies, I work in science communication with Explorer Dome, I did some consultancy work, I led a walking tour… I’ve learnt to say ‘yes’ to freelance opportunities and read up on things quickly.  
 
I tend to work in an on/off pattern; a month dedicated to earning money like crazy so that I can take two weeks off to write. I’ve grown very protective about my writing time; if you’re not fierce about ring fencing time to write then no-one else will be and there will always be other stuff demanding your attention. 
 
Of course, what happens then is I spend a month flogging myself to death doing workshops all over the country, dreaming of the moment I’ll get to sit down at my desk to write. Then I sit down and think “bollocks, I forgot this was really hard work too…” 
 
I’ve found that setting deadlines is absolutely crucial for any of this to work. Even in the early days when no-one was commissioning me I would set a deadline by arranging a meeting with someone to discuss my first draft. Then I’d bloody have to write a first draft. 

 

  • What inspired the idea for Infinity Pool, not only the story itself but the idea of it being performed without actors and with you operating it?
I was at a writers’ workshop and someone mentioned a little writing exercise of doing a play entirely on powerpoint so you’re just reading dialogue. I couldn’t shake that as challenge and it just grew and grew. Dialogue is almost the entirety of how I communicate a story on the page so I wondered how much it could express without actors voicing it.
 
I knew that I wanted the story to be about how we live online and the identities we project of ourselves. Then I read Madam Bovary and it’s all about that; miscommunication, loneliness and fantasy. It also seemed an interesting way of adapting a novel; you never see or hear Emma Bovary so why should you see or hear my Emma in the show? The story is about an online affair so you see what she sees for the most part, you can imagine this mystery lover to be anyone just like she does. 
 
I felt like I had to operate it because to put it through someone else was having to filter it again and then I might as well just have an actor voicing it anyway. 
  • How did the presentation of the idea (and knowing you’d be performing it) affect the writing process?
Writing and knowing that it’s going to be read on a screen meant I had to be far more direct with exposition than I would usually. A comment I get a lot about my writing is that it’s economical and there’s a lot in the subtext; you can only play so much of that without an actor there to give it expression and to represent the emotion of the character when they’re not speaking. We also found that scenes that seemed fine on the page suddenly felt really long when you were reading them so we’ve edited and edited. 
  • I enjoyed the playfulness of how you were using the technical elements – did you have to “think” of all of these as you were writing, or were you able to explore/improvise these elements with a director?
Most of how we use the technology was worked out in R&D with the director and the designer. I entered the rehearsal room with ideas I was positive would work and they were terrible! Then one of us would be dicking about with something and a few seconds of it would look amazing so we’d develop it. There’s no template for what we were trying to make so it’s all trial and error!  
  • Ironically, given that we have the technology for Skype, Facetime and even old-school-type actually calling each other, we seem to be increasingly turning to text-based communication; emails, texts, IM etc. A friend of mine was aghast that I was having a text-conversation with a potential date “Why can’t he just call you?” …um… “Because that’s too much of a commitment?” It’s often a challenge for playwrights as to how to accurately portray this aspect of modern life, but in Infinity Pool, you unapologetically present it as written text. It felt incredibly accurate! Several questions come to mind; were you worried that the audience might switch off at having to read, or just wouldn’t get it?
Yes! Since the very beginning I was terrified it wouldn’t work and everyone would be either bored, confused or both. We had planned to do previews to get some feedback and then had so many technical problems that we had no time left to do them. It was such a relief after the first night that not only had the audience followed the story and not walked out but that they’d engaged emotionally with the characters, even though they weren’t actually there…
  • What other approaches did you consider, did you think of having it spoken by actors or were you sure from the start that you would do it this way? 
I knew from the beginning that I wanted people to be reading the dialogue, that was the whole challenge. We’ve mixed it up with some moments of spoken word and live elements but that was always the core of it for me. 
  • Why do you think we’re switching more and more to text rather than “real” communication as a society?
Blimey, I don’t pretend to be a sociologist or have any particular insight but I would guess it’s because it’s easier in some ways. I’m writing this to you and I look like crap, I’m spending time on it and I’ll be editing this text to try and make me sound eloquent and not like a knob. Talking to me in real life doesn’t afford all that; writing’s almost a cheat. I think that’s why it works so beautifully as a conduit for fantasy; it suggests things but it allows you to project onto the person whose words you’re reading. 
  • What advice would you give writers interested in exploring using technology in a piece?
Give yourself three times longer than you think you’ll need. It’s a capricious thing, it breaks at the worst possible moment and never has the effect you think it will so you have to keep testing things out. Sharon Clark has been dramaturg on Infinity Pool and all the way though she kept saying to me “Your job is to tell the story”. It’s easy to get swept up in doing something new but the technology has to be serving the story – and doing it well – otherwise you’re just being gimmicky and technology is too much of a pain in the arse to not earn its place!
  • You’re performing it in a non-theatre space, a conference room in Hamilton House in Bristol. It matches the setting of the play, but what challenges does that bring to the production? What advice would you give about working in a non-theatre space.
Time and practicalities are the big ones; it’s not a theatre space so if we want it dark we have to spend an hour blacking out the windows, the room is being used for other bookings so we have to spend an hour taking down all our equipment and putting it back up again, we have to supply all the equipment etc. Also you won’t necessarily have the sort of privacy you would expect in a conventional rehearsal room so you might have to try and establish that with people in the building. It goes both ways – we’ve tried to be good neighbours and not blast out music when we know people are working in the offices across the corridor. It’s been really fun though trying to make a show that is theatrical in a very un-theatrical space, we’ve had to pull some weird tricks out the bag!
  • Writing it, performing it/driving it yourself – that’s a lot of pressure! What has it taught you about approaching a show as a “maker?” Does thinking as a Maker need a different approach from thinking as a Playwright, or do you reject those kind of terms? Normally as a writer you can focus on getting the script as good as you can, you don’t have to worry about projections and sound levels because that’s someone else’s job. But you’re doing it all! Have you developed strategies for coping with the stress, wearing different hats etc or would you do some things differently next time? 

My whole goal has been to create a good show so I haven’t really thought about myself performing it that much. I don’t mind looking stupid or not being in it much, it’s been whatever serves the story emotionally that we’ve been focussing on. With this show I think of myself as a story teller. In many ways Infinity Pool is incredibly traditional; there’s one person on stage who presents you with a story and a host of characters who aren’t really there, you just imagine them. The difference is only in how I conjure up those characters for you but the bottom line is I’m still in the room, telling you a live story, that I’ve made up.  

 
It’s been a huge experiment and I feel incredibly lucky that people have let me have a go. I think people are intrigued by it and we’ve worked hard to create a good show and just tell a story that anyone will enjoy. We’ve tried to be warm and not off-putting! It might be an unusual way to tell a story but essentially it’s just a love story, with some jokes and some sad bits. I’ve been so thrilled when people come out and they’re talking about the characters, it means they’ve followed the story and cared about it. 
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