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Writing Rules

Yes, the title is ambiguous. Writing does rule. Getting into the flow of a good story, or poem, or article, and knowing the line on which it’s all going to come to a glorious intellectual climax, feels good. Very good. Despite having somewhat neglected my writing over the last year or so, I haven’t been able to forget that feeling, haven’t been able to forget the joy of creating my own version of the world, inhabiting it with characters, and narrating a past, present and future for it that has multiple possibilities. So, on this rare morning that I have all to myself I have been reading about the art of playwrighting in an attempt to work myself up to trying my pen at writing for the stage. One of the issues I have come across is the notion of writing rules – the other side of the title’s coin – and how important they are to creating a structure both to one’s writing discipline and also the quality and form of the writing itself. 

I will begin with this poster – one of my favourites – which was sent by a friend a couple of days back:

It’s a good place to begin, especially in its emphasis on writing ALL THE TIME and doing so in a routine that becomes habitual and dedicated. Rule 12 1/2 is by far the most important, and one that I am guilty of especially – I am totally procrastinating from writing a lot of the time by reading cool posters!

Arnold Wesker elaborates on some of the points mentioned above in an impassioned note on Writing for Performance, calling for the artist to continually renew his/herself in order to keep audiences on their toes, as well as to keep writing fresh:

You must develop

Never repeat yourself

Keep inventing

Keep your mind and imagination well-oiled by exposing yourself to all sorts of other artistic experiences. The best artists usually have the effect of reviving our batteries, revealing to ourselves what more we’ve got within ourselves – books, theatre, film, music; expose yourself to all sorts of people and experiences. You must know those you want to attack better than themselves.

Listen not only to what people say but the way they say it. Keep notes about those who interest you most, record dialogue whose vigour strikes you. Do not pursue what is absurd if what you’ve experienced does not call for the absurd. When it does call for it, use it. Nor engage irony when tenderness is called for, or lyricism if the mood requires harsh naturalism.

Life comes too multifaceted to make a fetish of only one aspect of it. Reality is too complex to re-create it in a singular style which then becomes a beloved “personal signature”. I worry about writers who straitjacket their material into personal mannerisms which are mistaken for their “voice”, or their “style”. Let your material dictate its own inherent style.

Nothing nothing nothing stands still.

Nor must you!

And, most importantly, he urges artists to be brutally honest, so that audiences trust them as someone who will speak their mind, rather than acting as a megaphone for the masses:

Artist’s must never be opportunists, but fiercely independent. Their talent is a unique gift given to them for safe-keeping, cherishing, nurturing, for handing on in a dependable condition to the next generation of artists. The individual vision is singular, the only hope for the future. The group may be needed for protection, co-operative physical endeavour, a sense of security to give the individual a sense of belonging. But – no group should ever be given the right to stifle the individual voice or the group itself will be doomed. Group decisions involve compromise. The group often finds it less trouble, less demanding to bless and support mediocrity. It has a tendency to become satisfied with the status quo and thus atrophy. For this reason it needs the voice of the independent artist. Such a voice is refreshing, often proving to be not the feared destroyer but the reviver of tradition, adding to it, even creating new ones.

To be an artist, then, requires patience to develop, enrich, hone your craft, and the courage to stand alone for what you’ve perceived and think about human beings and their condition.

If these words cover the rules of disciplining one’s self to write and to keep creating new work, then the next set of rules are in the structure of the writing itself. One of the most important ones, that remains with me still as one of the most powerful lessons of my creative writing degree, is:

1. SHOW don’t TELL – allow characters to show their feelings and dictate the plot through actions rather than dialogue which will end up explaining reality rather than allowing it to manifest naturally. An example provided by Jon Dorf is to show a character hiding under the bed rather than telling us she’s afraid. 

Other rules I have come across in my recent reading in writing for theatre are: 

2. Write for your reader, not for yourself – your reader must be in the room with you when you write; you must imagine them watching, participating and believing in the world that you’re creating on the page and also on stage. Especially with play scripts, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they must  be engaging reads as well as have a solid vision for what will happen on stage, because it is the script reader at a theatre who will make the first call on judging your work. Jon Dorf writes in Playwrighting 101:

One of the terms you’ll hear a lot from me is “your reader.” But plays are meant to be performed, not read – right? True, but before your play makes it to a stage, it will have to survive a small army of readers. For example, when I was reading for Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theatre, a play typically had to get through at least two script readers before it reached the head of new play development. If it got through him, it would go either to the literary manager or to the associate artistic director or perhaps to Brustein himself. That’s a lot of reads, so it’s crucial that you write not just to be performed, but to be read as well.

3. Distinguish between material that is the stuff of literature and material that is anecdote – again, Arnold Wesker:

The anecdote is slight, merely good for conversation. Trying to transform it into literature is like trying to make a wooden doll stand in the square instead of a statue. Yes, something can develop from a dinner-table anecdote, but it’s important to distinguish between what is heard and what it can become.

An important attribute of the writer is the ability to select. Life offers an enormous amount of material; add to it the riches of the imagination and what one confronts can be overwhelming. By what they chose shall you know them could be inscribed at the head of any writing course.

Distinguishing what will be powerful, what you can make powerful on the on the stage is essential. Distinctions: between meanings, between intentions, between material; sorting out what’s to be used, what’s to be dispensed with.

Example: I had a spinster aunt. She had to look after her mother, who died; then a sister, who died. She was hurt by the experience, but seemed content to live alone and busy herself with visits to the family. There is nothing remarkable in such an experience. Sitting round a dinner table, most guests could probably relate such a family story. My aunt’s history of lonely spinsterhood leaps ringing with resonance when it is revealed that she used to make crocheted bed coverings for members of the family, and one day, having made hundreds of squares for a grand-nephew and sewn up all of them except 30, she stopped. The last 20 remained unattached. She also stopped watering her plants, taking buses to visit us, washing herself. One day, her spirit wound down to a halt. Because in all of us there is a spirit waiting to give up, she enters, on that day, into the stuff of literature.

On that note, I depart to attempt to find that spirit waiting to give up… and in doing so begin to tell a story that will remember how and why forever.

Layering

Lately, when I am thinking about one thing or another – politics, for example – my brain decides to excavate the issue by visualising the layers beneath the issue I am superficially considering. I was considering Obama’s decision to discard plans for a missile bunker in Eastern Europe, and thinking of how the media portrayed and discussed the decision when in my minds eye a map emerged showing the layers and geology of the complex political structure and relationships that went into a decision such as this, and the different stages of the process for the idea to conceptualise and finally reach the public. My brain suddenly realised the complexity of the event and decided to draw a map for me to begin processing it. Only thing is, the map’s so fucking huge I have no idea with which element I should begin!

Is this something other people have experienced?

1984: 2009

Last night I had an Orwell night at home. We watched Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty Four, followed by the cartoon version of Animal Farm, the 1954 version which is still so watchable.

I love being reminded of Orwell’s brilliance in predicting, with such simple clarity, the gradual descent into totalitarianism that we are experiencing in the world. I did not, however, expect to find that the details of Orwell’s 1984 that seemed just a little too fantastical, the elements which we like to believe were truly only possible in Orwell’s imagination, that would never be permitted to exist in the free, experessive and opinionated society we live in, to become a stark reality.

Yes, surveillance is catching up with us. In fact, it’s being smuggled under our radar unnoticed and installed in our homes before we have the chance to say ‘wait a min…’. Those all-seeing screens in 1984, that peered down from the wall 24 hours a day in the private home to make sure the individual conformed to the party’s vision of life, are at present operating in 2,000 homes in the UK. OK, so they don’t talk back yet, but CCTV is being used in the private sphere now in ‘Family Intervention Projects’ to keep ‘trouble children’ in line to do their homework and go to bed on time, and parents are expected to sign contracts promising to raise their children well enough to stay out of drugs and crime and perform well academically. The government will be able to ‘intervene’ (whatever that means) if they feel that parents aren’t fulfilling their contracts. The best bit? It’s costing £400 million pounds. That’s right… we’re paying for this enterprise ourselves.

Don’t believe me? It’s all here… and here… and here… but what worries me is that I haven’t yet found it in any national papers… why is this not being covered beyond independent news sights?

Draft

it is summer but

leaves are browning

pools of sunlight gather around the last monumental buds, but

shadows form at the edges

inking the landscape until the sun is a blind spot

balancing on the cusp of silence

 

i open my book

.            .             .

the pages are blank.

whisperings tell me that i am to write the story

myself

or else history might forget

that it ever existed at all

Yes, this sounds like the title of one of my course books this year (in fact I’m sure it is), but it’s also something that fascinates me, both as a creative individual and as someone who cares about the things that nourish goodness in society

A degree in creative writing was ultimately a lot of fun. It was also a lot of hard work, and incredibly fulfilling. It was cathartic, self-challenging and revelatory. The writing we did was creative, was a product of creativity, and the creative process was something that was discussed in the commentaries we submitted alongside our portfolios for assessment. The commentary that complemented a portfolio was supposed to illuminate the process of writing: where the idea came from, how it was developed, what reading was done to supplement the subject and style, what research was done, and demonstrated one’s understanding of genre, style and command of language.

The finniest thing about these dissections of my writing was that they were usually written in hindsight, rather than being the true depiction of the conscious process i went through when writing the particular poem or story. I would appropriate things that I’d been reading to say that they’d contributed to my narrative style, and justify it too. For when I looked into the heart of what I’d written, of what often came seemingly “from nowhere,” I could see the effects of authors, poems, knowledge and my own experience embedded in the work. This was obviously not coincidence, it was the product of a process of which I was not always aware.

It was in my masters degree in Creative and Media Enterprise that this “process” of creativity was explored more thoroughly in our Theories of Creativity module. Here, my eyes were opened to the theory and scientific work that has gone into explaining, or attempting to explain, creativity as a concept and process. As a “writer” (for I’m still weary of awarding myself that title) I was fascinated by the almost mechanical workings of the creative process, and yet also its effervescence, evading any concrete cross-disciplinary explanation because of the “pixi dust,” “X-factor” or whatever else people call the “eureka” moment that occurs when a creative idea is born.

My interest in the subject broadened with the management literature, societal theory and views of guest speakers on the course, and my focus has shifted from how people attempt to explain creativity (for that, in my opinion, is a discussion which will never really end) to the purpose of creativity in its social context.

Why is creativity important? It is the seed of innovation, and the reason for development, both on a technological and natural level. It is also something within the possession of every man and woman. Why is it, then, that creativity is often perceived as being something bestowed upon certain people in society? There are many myths surrounding creativity, which have given way to stereotypes and alienated some people from perceiving themselves as creative. What effects has this had on our society? How does a lack of creativity manifest itself?

I hope to pursue this topic in my course dissertation, specifically looking at social groups who are deprived of creativity, whether it be through opportunity or self-perception, and the effect of an input of creativity into their community. Is creativity something that is necessary to the well-being of everybody?

My ideas, as I am sure you can tell, need firming up, but I hope that this research will lead me somewhere interesting. I hope it will lead me closer to the essence of creativity and the importance of it in our lives, whatever exactly “it” may be!

Hay-on-Wye

Well, I am on the mend from a bout of tonsilitis, which has forced me to take some rest – the first true break I’ve had since last summer. I have had holidays, yes, but they have either been sleepless family affairs, or I have had projects to pursue while on holiday. I suppose my body just gave up and said “F*^k you, I need time off!”

Its timing wasn’t brilliant – getting ill caused me to cut short my stay at the Hay Festival last thursday!

Until I became ill, Hay Festival had been a whirlwind of fun, hard work, learning, meeting some incredible people and listening to some top music. I didn’t see too many events during the day as I was interning for the festival press office, but I got to look after a couple of authors and sneak out every now and then to catch something I really wanted to see. Though I didn’t catch any of the huge festival headliner authors/speakers, I saw some events which I may not have otherwise seen but am glad to have attended. Eevnings off also meant I caught some incredible music, and overall (without listing everything) my personal festival highlights were:

Tinariwen

These desert Tuaregs from Mali put down their guns and picked up the electric guitar in the riots against the Mali government to use music to campaign for their equal rights. Music is more than just a pastime for Tinariwen, and it is a family affair: the whole tribe is involved in music making and this is reflected by the fact that the band changes a couple of members every time they tour. I’ve seen them four times now and each time, without doubt, there have been one or two new faces among the band members.

Their music sits somewhere between blues and African traditional melodies, in a unique, soulful and uplifting sound. Listen here.

International Fiction

Sasa Stanisic & Joseph O’Neil

This event was designed to be a cross-section of good international fiction. It turned out that both writers were preoccupied by the subject of identity, specifically identity negotiation between two, or more, cultures.

I had volunteered to cover this event on behalf of a friend (also interning), and it turned out to be of great interest as I am personally preoccupied also with the question of identity when caught between two cultures, places, traditions and languages. It’s something I’m trying to deal with in my current project and listening to these two accomplished authors speak on the subject was inspiring and encouraging. They have both dealt with the topic in different ways but there are common themes that lace their way through both novels. Storytelling, the importance of interests, food, and pastimes from the homeland feature heavily, conjuring memory and nostalgia.

I am yet to finish reading both books, but what I have read and heard rate them highly on my list!

Seckou Keita Quartet

Seckou Keita is a Senegalese griot master of the Kora, an African instrument akin to the western harp and lute, though it can have up to 25 strings. Keita appeared at Hay with his culturally diverse quartet – the double bass/electric bass of Davide Mantovani (Italy), the distinguished sound of the violin by Samy Bishai (Egypt), and the eclectic percussions of Surahata Susso and enchanting voice of the gracious Binta Suso, Seckou’s younger brother and sister.

Seckou’s music carries the flavour of traditional Senegalese music, but has a fresh kick with the influences brought to it by the western elements of violin and double-bass. The percussion is superb, and Binta’s voice is absolutely sublime, especially when she lets go at her full volume. Seckou’s own Kora playing is unique with his very own Kora tuning style, and it has earned him a place among the most innovative and creative African Kora masters alive today. His compositions incorporating the quartet are succinct, subtle, and new.

As a fan of fusion music, I was moved and inspired.

These don’t even scratch the surface of what Hay had to offer, and for more events and info visit the website where most of the events are available as podcasts. With everyone from Jimmy Carter to Jaimie Oliver, and Salman Rushdie to Karen Armstrong, this years festival was a cultural triumph.

Imagination

Taken in Shakespeare and Co Bookshop, Paris in July 2006.

This is a place where every lover of books must endeavor to visit.