a salutary tale

This article, by Tony Garnett, articulates my ongoing wariness of writing for television. But in a wider socio-political sense it’s about the world we’ve ended up in – where the money doesn’t trust the talent:


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season of fruitfulness

Here Come The Girls picSo pleased to see how well all the cast grew into their parts in Here Come The Girls.  ‘Parts’ not just written for them, but actually them, having said the words in the first place.

The composition, I think of it as this rather than being a play, went through several drafts. Each lighter and leaner. The piece’s unifying principle got stronger – what it is to be young and female right now and what those girls feel about becoming a woman.

Verbatim is a strange form and I suppose Here Come the Girls is that sub-category known as testament theatre. Each person telling their truth or their story. Here we had eight. But the piece must also have a shape, have light and shade, have humour as well as poignancy. These were the requirements, as well as making sure no-one got overshadowed, the best of each person was heard, no words added by the writer. A nerve-wracking puzzle in a different way from writing a play from scratch and making everything up.

The final draft had to shed a lot of well-loved text and I worried whether there was enough of each individual to let her light shine through but of course there was. In theatre, the fact and form of each figure just speaks volumes, all the more so perhaps that when the words do come they’re as subjective as they can possibly be.

Amy Golding the director produced one of the slickest, most graceful and joyous pieces of youth theatre that I’ve  ever seen. To think that the cast only met a couple of times a week was amazing. Each young woman looked so confident and stylish and the staging decisions had real flair and energy. The colourful chairs and ladders were used to brilliant effect – creating a sort of mood topography, conveying things physically as in the case when Rosanna sat halfway up a ladder downstage right to deliver a speech that started “I used to be a refugee..”

Seeing the ten-feet tall confidence of some of the girls was a text-book example of the power of youth theatre. Some had come along, mumbling and shy and now were telling their story with such sass and strength you knew they’d never look back.

Lovely to see things come to fruition, lovely to have been part of the process.

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Not a very alluring title, even if of a Stephen King best seller!  Come to think of it, that novel was about a writer, had a writer as main character who was writing a character called Misery, but that’s not what I want to talk about.  Read on – I promise no gloom and doom – or broken ankles…

When, just over 3 years ago, I started writing a novel I imagined the hardest thing would be to generate the amount of words necessary. My mind was on quantity. I ploughed on and on but once I tipped the 85, 000 mark, I actually wondered if I’d bring it in under 100,000 words, so involved was the story and it’s many many strands!

It was over 100,000. Some time elapsed, I had feedback and realised that because of the ‘toiling on and on’ ethic I’d used to generate it – the second half’s writing wasn’t up to the first. So then my mind was on quality. More toiling, but this time up close to the characters – all sense and sensuality.

A second draft was born. I had more time away, had new feedback, tweaked some, got more feedback and despite getting a fair degree of glowing praise for the writing, hit another realisation – though the quality now passed muster, there was too much going on. So I reminded myself of how streamlined novels are by reading a couple and knew I had to think leaner and meaner.

Mean – because I had to be merciless in stripping away lots of my lovely writing, however beautifully crafted. Mean – because in staying with the characters, I had to stay with their concerns and for the story to work their concerns had to be troubling, there had to be more at stake.

And this folks, means misery. Characters have to be unhappy for a novel to get off the ground. And getting up to close means wallowing in what ails them, not to put it right instantly but to see what they might try.

If compassion means the capacity to be ‘with suffering’ then novelists need a lot. I noticed how gloomy I was getting spending day after day with my characters this draft around, before I realised, I was really registering their misery now – which is actually a good thing, novelistically speaking.

So, I currently think the hardest thing about writing a novel is having to be cruel (to be kind) to your characters and staying with whatever is making them miserable because then you’ll truly want them to solve it while knowing it’s not that easy.

On the same note, I found this extract from a talk by Joyce Carol Oates, not sure the link will work but here goes:


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Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black resonates. The ‘fiends’ who plague the central character Alison are made dust by her determination. She still has access to ‘spirit’ without their foul-mouthed presence. They made me think of the ‘demons’ we say we fight with, who crop up when we start something – who we think are inevitable, part of us – ‘our’ demons.

Like Alison, writers like Hilary need to source the universal, not the ‘dearly departed’ but the unborn, the characters.

As I go back inside the story now, I have a sense of re-entering a world. A world where things aren’t inevitable but dependent on characters’ choices. I have to listen.

Spent a lot of last week trying to re-form; reform? my life. Trying to organise steady income as well as a different way of being. This in order, not only to support my writing but, to allow other possibilities to grow.  I seem to be changing.

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story, story, story

“Where a walking story goes, grows no grass”, quips Eckhart Tolle, mocking the thought-bound state of the life-blind preoccupied. But what of telling stories? More stories than we can live? Maybe this curse or capacity is to burst out of our mono-narrative and provide a fictive link, some salving connection, between all the hemmed in tales. Maybe it’s a way of exposing that our stories are all interchangeable.

Experienced two or three things lately on story. The first, the sublime Synecdoche, NY, by Charlie Kaufman, showing the many, many ways in which we tell ourselves and each other stories – how these are so often inaccurate, separate and partial but most of all made-up. The film showed how impossible it is to represent the experience of living and Charlie K said in an interview that in attempting to, Caden Cotard confuses literal truth with universal truth and that ‘he never really gets past that’…  Important to know what detail to choose.

Reading Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black; about a medium haunted by ghosts, who will be heard despite her efforts to shed them. Very evocative of the state of being a writer – all the characters.

Developing the novel, the characters are changing and I’m trying to listen and to change accordingly. New things occur everyday. I try not to panic or get too worried about money.

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the blossomest blossom

The adaptation written and performed for the dedication of Julia’s writing room flourished into being last week and has now disappeared. Theatre is like blossom, brief but captivating (at best). Despite its transience, it lifts our spirits, gives us hope and ideally contains fruits of future possibilities. Above all, it’s not purely decorative.

Dennis Potter famously talked about seeing the branches outside his writing room window, knowing them to be filled with the last spring blossom he’d see. He called it the ‘blossomest blossom’.  I have a blossom tree outside my window and my dad was a coal-miner but I’ll end the comparison there, if only for the sake of my modesty. My blossom tree, a commual one, is on the brink of bursting forth and reminds me of all I have to do now that March is marching on. Today I’m going to listen to some of the verbatim recordings for Here Come The Girls in prepartion for a meeting with my co-writer, Beth Coverdale. We’ll have the task of selecting and composing the young women’s words. Not all the interviews have been transcribed yet and not all the interviews done, so there’s text still to be generated. It’s strange to be waiting for words, rather than generating them ourselves. But like the blossom, we know they’ll come.

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spreading branches

Josie and Andrew in The Taxi Driver's Daughter Our little sapling of a show opened last night, having been hothoused with loving care by Tess and the rest of the team.  Tess’ notes have the deftness of a paring knife – clean, sharp and creative. I couldn’t have asked for a better director, particularly in the way she has worked with the  three younger members of the cast – all of whom make their professional debut with this.  Their enthusiam and concentration is astounding – three very promising performers. Hats off to Christina, Josie and Andrew! 

Yesterday morning was spent on what us thesps call the ‘tech’. The team had already dressed the space with a delightfully varied array of shoes suspended over the stage, evoking the motif of the book. Then after configuring the lighting states the operators set their cues, along with sound and music, to add the layers essential to a transporting piece of theatre. In a full production this process would take at least a day but, as we had hours, we kept to reasonable requirements. Jim Kitson’s musical skills have opened my ears to the unsuspected capacity of the amplified ukelele – which he plays to create an enchantedly haunting underscore  –  atmospherically perfect.

Three days rehearsal, even for a script in hand performance, is an incredibly short amount of time to achieve all one would like, but from the responses we got post-play I think there were glorious glimpses into what the piece has to offer potentially as a full production.  I know I already have thoughts about what I’d expand were I given that task, which characters I’d augment, how certain themes could better play out, even how I’d update it. But that’s for the future.

For now I’m hoping that audiences will enjoy this first theatrical foray into Julia’s story with its strong characters and richly recognisable setting.

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