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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Bruntwood-along… what’s it about?

If you didn’t watch it live yesterday, head over to the Bruntwood website to catch the Simon Stephens workshop. It was a real examination of the fundamentals of what playwriting means; that we don’t write a play but wrought it. That playwriting is about having endless curiosity about what it means to be human, and that we’re about examining and mapping behaviour rather than creating lovely sentences. Go watch it – it’s two hours and includes writing exercises, so if you’re stuck it might jumpstart your inspiration and sow the seed of an idea.

Hopefully though we’ve all got ideas to work with. Time’s a ticking so we’ve not got the luxury of sitting around and waiting for the Muse to pay a visit. Carve out your writing time, preferably a minimum of an hour a day – the more you can put in now, the less of a last minute panic you’ll be in come June. If you’ve not got a firm idea then put in that time doing writing exercises and actively seeking material. Ideas don’t necessarily float in through the windows of your mind – sometimes you’ve got to grab a spade and go dig for them.

With an idea in place, the next question you need to ask is Why is this important? Put it this way; when I was a student I toyed with the idea of writing a play set in a student house, because me and my friends were all so witty and intelligent and entertaining and… meh. Say no more. But if you’re planning something loosely based on how darling you and your friends are then maybe stop and have another think. Why does this matter? A play needs to say something about the world we live in, about the human condition. It needs to go beyond fluffy entertainment and ask big questions. So if you’re creating something that’s quite small/domestic/personal then it’s a good idea to see how you can inject something of the wider world into it, the universal, the political.

On the other end of the scale, if you’re tackling a Big Theme then you need to find the personal angle to hang it on. No matter how Important your topic is, we tend to not care very much unless we engage with the characters on a personal level. What are the personal choices that the characters need to make? Remember to make the political personal as well as making the personal political.

Of course this is all very boring and traditional playwrightery and perhaps your idea takes a different form – perhaps you’re going to use only direct address, dismantle the fourth wall, not have characters, question the very idea of structure and act like Aristotle was a mere figment of a nightmarish imagination. Go get ‘em kiddo. But get writing. Get writing now.

This week’s question; what is the question lurking at the heart of your play? Hit the comments, not necessarily with the answer, but with your process and progress in finding that answer.

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Bruntwood-along 2015

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It’s every 2 years. It’s the biggest prize in playwriting, at least here in the UK. They fire the starting pistol in January, with a brilliant lead-in time, all the way until June. At least I think it’s June, but my laptop has decided to crash every time I try to Google something, so check it yourself. It’s ages, anyway. Or, it seems like ages, and then you realise that the deadline is a week and a half away and you’ve got nothing and is it really possible to write a Bruntwood-winning play in just 10 days? Because life gets in the way and the stuff we do for cash gets in the way, and maybe you’ve got a small commission you need to get to first…

Last week my youngest child peered at my screen while I was working.

“Oh, a new play! What’s it about?”

“It’s not mine, love, I’m helping someone else write theirs.”

“Oh. I thought you were supposed to be a writer.”

Later that same day, the exact same conversation, with my eldest.

“But Mum, I thought you were supposed to write plays.”

“Umm, yeah…” mumble mumble. I realised that I wasn’t, that I was so busy with script reports and dramaturgy that I wasn’t actually working on my own plays. Create first, dammit. So I’m reclaiming that first hour as my time. Time to create. Time to write.

We’ve got time, people. Okay, I looked it up. As I write this, we’ve got 86 days. Can we write a play in 86 days? Hell yes. So let’s make a commitment here and now, to write something Bruntwood-worthy. Let’s meet up right here on Wednesdays and let each other know how it’s going, cheer each other on or ruthlessly plot to out-psyche the rest of the pack. The rest of the internet is full of knit-alongs, sew-alongs and quite possibly bake-alongs (still not Googling it) so here we go – it’s Bruntwoodalong. Or Bruntwood Wednesdays. Or even Bruntwednesdays. Not of which sound very catchy. Write-along-Wednesdays? Too vague? Titles are hard, man.

If you’ve not yet checked out the Bruntwood website, then do so – it’s a mine of useful information, interviews, advice, workshops, including an upcoming live workshop with Simon Stephens on Tuesday 17th March.

Whatever we call it, make that commitment. It’s not going to happen unless you carve out the time to make it happen. An hour a day. Half an hour a day and more at weekends. Hit the comments and make a public commitment to doing it. Make writing that play a non-negotiable priority, to be done before you check Facebook, or watch Big Bang Theory, or tackle the pile of washing up. You can find thirty minutes. You can probably find an hour, if you commit to it. And by committing, you let the play know that you’re serious this time. You’re creating space for the Muse to arrive each day. There’s an important mind-shift from maybe to definitely, and that’s when the magic happens. Come on, you know you’ll regret not finding the time when June rolls along. Who’s in?

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Wild Comfort

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“What will Earth lose, when it loses human beings?” he challenged me. The question was genuine, and I took it seriously. I thought of joy first, but he wouldn’t give me that, arguing that animals feel joy, and I think that’s right, as anyone would who has watched young crows play in updrafts. Then I thought of music. But Earth is full of music, he said; and if I’m thinking of Bach, which I was, then the fugues are still there in vibrations sailing away from Earth, as they will sail forever, along with everything the Beatles sang and every baseball game.

It’s the awareness of these, I thought then. Not just joy, but the awareness of joy. Not just music, but that swelling response to music, the way it opens the heart. Humans are Earth’s way of knowing itself. With the tongue of a human being, Earth tastes itself. In a human’s search for meaning, it comes to know its own mysteries. In a human’s loving attention, Earth rejoices in its own beauty. It’s one thing to be. It’s quite another to know that and to pronounce it good. This is what a human brings to the world – the ability to take notice, to be grateful and glad, glad for the river swinging by, for the sun warming my shoulders, for the breeze lifting the hairs on a butterfly’s back.

Wild Comfort; The Solace of Nature, Kathleen Dean Moore.

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Reading: The Art of Asking

amandaI figured Amanda Palmer would prefer it if I bought her book from Stroud Bookshop rather than Amazon, so I did, claiming it as a birthday present to myself. To be fair, it took the best part of two weeks for it to arrive but I think that was the distributor’s fault rather than the bookshop. Anyway, it arrived at the perfect time, when I was feeling wounded and vulnerable due to the whole getting divorced experience. Here’s a fact; when you buy from Amazon you don’t get involved in a conversation with complete strangers at the till at the bookshop who are peering over your shoulder to see what book you’re buying, reading the title out loud and announcing “Ooh, that looks interesting.” Amanda would be proud.

Being in the middle of a rather shit day, I decided to treat myself to tea and cake in a local cafe. Well okay, my local Costa. Much as I love Stroud’s little cafes, a lot of them have very worthy cakes. You can only take a cake so far down the whole gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free road before it stops being a cake and becomes something else entirely. Something rather heavy and a bit chew-tastic. Anyway – tea, cake and a good book; the triptych of bliss.

The book details Amanda’s career journey, from her discovery that she could earn money from being a living statue to eventually forming her own bands and making a living from music. Moreover it’s a book about being an artist, and the tricky relationship artists have with money. About learning how to ask for money, having first created a relationship with the people who get you. Money and other stuff, like a bed to sleep in while touring, or a piano to practise on. It’s about building community and the exchange that takes place between artist and audience. Part-inspired by her TED talk on the same subject, and also by the controversy that erupted over her hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s a frank description of what it means to be an artist, what it means to hold onto your beliefs and integrity, and what it’s like when the haters start hating.

I devoured the book. There are moments when the right book finds you at exactly the right time, and this was one of them. It made me hungry for the kind of community she describes – a close knit tribe of strangers united by their appreciation of her music. So often the exchange that takes place around art is distant and commercial – you buy your ticket, you see the art, whether an exhibition of paintings, a concert, a play – you may or may not be able to queue at the stage door for signings, but that’s it. Home time. The conversation which Amanda describes is entirely missing. The exchange takes place at a distant, the art becomes rarefied, it’s never up close and personal. Layers of intermediaries start filling the increasing space between artist and audience, and even between artist and the actual art. Having to jump through hoops to please a record label, a curator, a literary manager can in fact distance you from the creative impulse, from the very art you’re trying to create, as well as from your intended audience.

The book is now on my recommended reading list for anyone who is trying to make a living as an artist. As well as plenty of people who aren’t trying to make a living as an artist. Oh just bloody read it, it’s good. I’m left with several questions to ponder:

  • How as artists can we create a sense of connection with our audience and build a feeling of community around our work? This is particularly pertinent to playwrights as you’re not necessarily even present when your work is shown, everything is delivered through other people in a space you generally have little control over.
  • How as artists can we take back control of our art so that we can deliver it directly to our audiences without relying on the permission of intermediaries? This becomes more complicated in the light of the Low Pay, No Pay campaign and I’ll Show You Mine debate – theatre is relatively expensive to produce at professional rates, but is it right to ask people to risk working for a profit-share or no pay? Is that an act of entrepeneurship or exploitation? How as a playwright can you take your work directly to the people when you need actors, a venue, or even a set and props and money for all of the above?
  • How comfortable are we with asking for what we need, whether as artists or just as people? To what extent are we putting up with shit because we’re just too embarrassed to ask for what we really want/need?

Too often in life we don’t ask – we hope that it will be offered without us having to ask, or we accept that we’ll have to go without, or battle with our feelings of who am I to dare to want this unworthiness. The image that comes to mind is Oliver standing with his bowl outstretched while the Beadle screeches MORE? at him.  A curious mixture of both shame and fear of being arrogant is attached to the notion of asking. Back when I was a member of Bristol Freecycle, I found myself asking who do these people think they are when the one request per day rule was blatantly ignored by people asking for widescreen TVs, laptops, cars and other such stuff I would never have dared to ask for. It felt greedy to me, and against the spirit of the list, which was to prevent items from going into landfill by providing a forum for people to offer things they no longer needed. I was wary of those who seemed to be takers rather than givers – yet in order to give, someone else needs to receive. A man called around to collect the mattress we were replacing – the exchange was mutual. Our mattress meant he no longer had to sleep on the floor, while he was doing us a favour by taking it away. Should there be a moral difference between offering a mattress and asking for one? Between asking for a mattress and asking for a television? How come something so straightforward as asking can bring up such awkwardness and push so many buttons?

This book encouraged me to question what I want my artistic practice to look like. It also made me examine aspects of my life that were unfolding in ways that I really didn’t want, that felt entirely out of kilter, and helped me to hold up my hands and say No. Actually, I want thisTo start asking for help when I need it, to allow myself to accept help when it’s offered. Ach, it’s late, I’m tired. Just go read the book.

Those who can ask without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with – rather than in competition with – the world.

Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me.

Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you.

But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other.

(Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking.)

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How to Get Started in Theatre

2015! Woo! Let’s get this party started. And this one’s going out to anyone and everyone who has dreams of being a playwright. Have you made a vow to yourself that 2015 will be the year you turn pro? The year that you finally make it as a playwright? Are you looking ahead with excitement, but some trepidation as to how you’re going to actually achieve it?

I know what it’s like to passionately want to see your work on stage, but not have a clue how to go about achieving it. Having been fortunate enough – and worked hard enough – to have had my plays produced, including hearing my work broadcast on BBC Radio 3&4, the question I get asked most often by would-be writers is “How do I get my work performed?”

In answer to that question, I sat down and started writing everything I’ve learned over the last few years about how to get started in theatre. I thought it might be a blog post, but it grew and grew until it was clear that it needed to be an entire ebook in itself. Words and wisdom poured out onto the pages until I had myself an ebook I felt proud of and was looking forward to launching.

And then came VATMOSS.

Sigh.

Suddenly, self-publishing ebooks was about to become a bureaucratic nightmare. As a freelancing single parent, there was no way I could cope with the new rules, which involve filing quarterly accounts, and holding 2 pieces of evidence as to customers’ addresses for 10 years, if you could manage to decipher their actual place of residence from their email address, that is. Sadly, I resigned myself to accepting that the book was just going to have to wait until the red tape had cleared up.

But then, as I journalled out my plans for 2015, I had a new idea. Why not turn the book into an e-course? After all, writing can feel like a lonely business and in the early days of trying to make a name for yourself, it would be amazing to feel as if there was someone out there reaching out to hold your hand and guide you through the process. It would mean I could take what I had learned and tailor it to help individual writers, including offering dramaturgical support to really get their scripts into shape. That would end up being even more useful than the book on its own.

So.

If you’ve ever sat in the audience and thought to yourself “I could do better.”

If you’ve got story ideas burning a hole in your brain…

If you’re just not sure how to make the leap from page to stage…

If you’re confused as to why your scripts aren’t being chosen…

If you don’t know what a dramaturg is and are too shy to admit it…

If you’d like someone to guide you through the whole process…

The Getting Started in Theatre course will take you by the hand and gently but firmly lead you through what you need to know and more importantly what you need to do to get your work on stage.

Includes;

  • Finding the right home for your work, and how to spot suitable opportunities.
  • Getting yourself up to speed in the theatre industry.
  • How to choose subject matter and what to avoid in your scripts.
  • The deadly playwriting sins that you need to steer clear of.
  • Hints and tips for improving your chances in competitions.
  • What is voice and how do you get it?
  • Where to find inspiration for a new short play, which you will write during the course.
  • Feedback on your play to give yourself the best chance in the next competition you enter. Not just on one, but on the two drafts that you’ll write and submit by the end of the course.
  • Turning professional – how to handle criticism, what to do in rehearsals, how to tackle a Q&A and other vital skills to stop you looking like a muppet in front of an audience.
  • The Getting Started in Theatre ebook – all 178 pages of it!

 Numbers will be strictly limited because of the high-level of feedback included on the course, so if you’re interested then don’t delay in signing up. The course lasts for 10 weeks and starts on Monday 19th January and costs £55 which includes 2 sets of feedback on your script. £55 is an introductory price – that’s only just over £5 per week, or £1 per day of playwriting goodness and if I repeat the course later in the year then it will be at a higher cost. Let 2015 be the year that your dreams started to come true – I’d love to be part of making that happen.

Getting Started in Theatre E-course £55

Buy Now

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