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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How was it for you?

medium_2041206281So 2014 has been a bit of a doozy. Writing-wise, it feels as if I not only fell off the wagon, but the wagon then reversed back over me before then continuing off into the sunset, leaving me lying in the gutter covered with horse-shoe prints and wheel ruts. In terms of my career, it has not been a great year. I created several pieces of street theatre for Bristol Bright Night. Otherwise it’s been lots of emails along the lines of yeah, we think your play is really really good but we’re not going to do anything with it. Or, yeah, you sound really really interesting but we’re going with someone else. Apparently I’m “too experienced” to be considered for most development schemes, while still being too unknown to actually get commissioned. A paranoia is developing that I’m not going to be hired because I’m over the age of 35, which is evidently a heinous sin in creative terms. I’ve also discovered that it’s really hard to think creatively when you’re panicking about money. Yet I’ve still managed to write a few cracking stories that have had an incredibly positive reaction from readers/listeners. And I’ve discovered a love of storytelling, and the inkling that it might be something I can actually do.

Here’s the thing; doing what I think I should do hasn’t got me anywhere. I feel completely and utterly stuck. I’m not in this game for money, but the reality is that I need to start earning some. I can’t afford to try to work in theatre any more. More than money though, the reality is that I can’t put myself through the despair of writing another play which isn’t going to be produced. I simply can’t do it to myself. My mind, body and soul have basically gone into rebellion and are now saying No. No, we’re not going to sweat it out for months, years on end trying to get a play into shape only for it to die a quiet, sad death on your laptop. No. I’m probably kidding myself though. It’s not as if I could ever really stop writing. More that I need to take back control of it.

I’ve met a lot of bitter playwrights over the years and I’ve always been determined not to go down that road. Let’s just say that this year I’ve got a much better understanding of how those playwrights became bitter. However, I’m not unhappy. I feel fairly strong in myself, and a recent conversation with an Artistic Director has left me a bit more optimistic that I might still find a home for my writing. Plus, despite the massive changes and challenges that have come my way this year, I’ve generally been happier than I have in a long time. Or at least I was until my Ex suddenly slashed my maintenance payment this month leaving me  really not knowing how I’m going to get by (yeah, Happy Christmas to you too.) Maybe it’s this strength-in-adversity that’s feeding my spirit of rebellion.

“Bitterness is taboo in this world. In the same way the ruling caste will accuse the disenfranchised of envy, without considering their own privilege, writers are often accused of self-pity or ego if they complain about the poor hand they have been dealt. Shame is heaped upon you if you dare to ask for payment for your work. You are supposed to do this for free!

However bitterness is a quality of the shadow heart. The heart demands we make a good deal. It is the superlative judge in all things that matter. The Earth is a complex matrix of exchange, and if our exchanges are not fair, then something is amiss. If you are bitter it is because your heart is telling you have been been tricked in some way.

The deal is not straight for writers or artists in this culture: the culture depends on our ability to see, feed back, transform, delight, inform, question, honour, celebrate and berate the world that is all around us, to transmit a hundred messages that arise from the deep void as colourful sentences at dawn. It depends on our feeling the urgency to create. If we can’t tell the real stories of our lives, it means there is no story. And a culture without a story is on its way out.”

Charlotte du Cann

http://charlotteducann.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/where-do-we-go-from-here.html

Doing what I should be doing isn’t working. It hasn’t worked in terms of my career, my finances, even my love life. I’m ditching that approach. As an experiment, next year I’m doing what I want. More specifically, doing what my Soul wants. Big word, Soul. No doubt there’ll be some people reading this who scoff at the very notion of its existence. Well, as we were told at the beginning of the Schumacher course, be willing to entertain the notion that you possess a soul. We’ll maybe have that conversation about whether or not it exists this time next year, depending on how it goes. In the meantime, that’s what I’ll be doing – whatever my Soul tells me. I’ve still got no idea what my career is going to look like or how to make it happen, or how to make money at anything, but at least this way I’ve got half a chance of being happy.

How about you? How was 2014? Did it meet your expectations? Exceed them? Shit on them from a great height? How do you want 2015 to look? To feel? How would it be to push to one side all notion of what you should be doing, and focus on what you want to be doing instead? Ridiculous? Irresponsible? Amazing? Like coming home? It’s just a thought. Allow yourself to think it. And while you’re thinking it, think also of what your word of the year will be. It’s a much better concept than resolutions. Pick a word that embodies a quality you want/need in your life over the next year and hold on tight to it for the next 12 months. Remind yourself of it daily and focus on acting that way, pulling it into your daily life.

By the time these last few weary days of December roll around, it feels as if we’re ready for a new year. The old one has been used up, we’ve generally had enough of it by now. A new year brings new possibilities in a shiny, exciting package, ready to be brought into the house as you trail the sagging binbag of 2014 to the kerb. Who knows what the next twelve months will bring? My plans for 2015 have had to be crumpled and tossed, given the new EU rulings on VAT. At any rate, this blog will likely be changing format. I’ve booked myself onto the School of Myth course, so there’ll likely be more about storytelling, archetypes and Dr Martin Shaw. The word Soul will maybe get repeated fairly often. I might post less frequently, or every day. I imagine I’ll still bang on about writing and creativity. I might resort to putting in more pictures of my cats. Or recipes. Or photos of my dinner. But probably not. Who knows? I’m not going to abandon my blog – I’ve enjoyed writing it, posting twice a week for most of the year and it’s kept me writing in some shape or another during a time of massive challenge, when my usual creative writing was too far a stretch. But it’s now time to focus on actually getting the real stuff written.

This video seems apt. Whatever else happens, let’s go make good art.

photo credit: quinn.anya via photopin cc

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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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