Living Well is the Best Revenge…. Things I Wish I’d Known When Starting Out….

Books

I’m currently working as a dramaturg with the Intercultural Theatre Institute in Singapore, engaging with fascinating emerging practitioners from across the world – Malaysia, Bolivia, Italy, India, Hong Kong, and beyond. At a benefit evening earlier this week, I got into conversation about what advice I would give to the students about to graduate. This then broadened into a conversation about writing,  prompting me to go back to an essay I was commissioned to write for LiteratureTraining some years ago. So – as promised to my dear friends, about to emerge from their training into what I hope will be long careers – and for all other creatives who may stumble across this:

What I wish I’d known when I was starting out:

A career doesn’t have to be in one geographic location. A writer is mobile; our work doesn’t have to be tethered.

One of our main tasks is to find the people who love our work, as they will eventually make it.

We live in a large world, full of possibilities, so it’s essential to broaden our view and keep informed. This is not just about changes in personnel, funding, opportunities etc, in the business – it’s also about keeping alive and fresh as people and artists.

Directors won’t come knocking on your door, so get your work out there – go for every initiative and competition you can. Apart from providing useful deadlines and seeding new projects, it means there’s always something ‘out’ and therefore hope.

Keep as many irons in the fire as you can, it takes dexterity and good management, but some will eventually get hot.

Know your market.

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Imagine that you are creating a library of your work – enjoy it, be the best you can. It takes the same amount of time to make something good as something bad, so go for quality and longevity.

Evolve, grow, keep asking questions, keep learning.

Good writers work on their strengths, but great writers work on their weaknesses.

Keep alive your curiosity in styles, aesthetics and developments in the arts.

Know trends, but don’t follow them.

Take up new challenges and try not to always play it safe – fortune favours the brave.

Life, like food, can be sour or sweet, it depends on how you want to season the pot.

It is within your gift to live a good, happy, enjoyable life, despite the profession’s frustrations and unfairness.

Living well is the best revenge.

The above is from a longer essay, Fortune Favours the Brave, but Chance Favours the Prepared Mind, which I was commissioned to write for Literaturetraining as part of a wider series, HOW DID I GET HERE?

HOW DID I GET HERE? is a fantastic series of essays, with case histories and advice from a broad range of writers and literature professionals, from crime writers to publicists, poetry therapy to gameswriting.

Sadly, Literaturetraining has since bitten the dust, but the material, alongside The Writers’ Compass, a bulletin of opportunities and courses, is now available through NAWE, National Association of Writers in Education.

The essays are available as pdfs you can download at:

http://www.nawe.co.uk/the-writers-compass/resources/how-did-i-get-here.html

 

The writer’s mind is in conflict with itself….

‘The writer’s mind is in conflict with itself – there is a knowing technical side and a dreamy side. The technical side is endlessly censoring.’         Rose Tremain

This quotation came to me this week via Mslexia‘s ‘Little Ms’ – and chimed immediately with the content of the masterclass I was fortunate to attend with Paul Muldoon at the Singapore Writer’s Festival a fortnight ago.

Muldoon spoke about each individual being a ‘team’ – we are both the writer and the first reader; the creator and the critic; the unconscious mind and conscious mind; chemistry and physics. (For more about this workshop and Muldoon’s take on chemistry and physics in the process of writing, read my blog here). We have to separate out these elements, otherwise we will never progress, as each part is ultimately in contradiction and potentially conflict with the other. As Muldoon put it, we have to ‘be open to whatever comes down the line’ in the initial creative part – having a fussy critic picking at what ‘comes down’ won’t help anyone to get words on paper, never mind enjoy the process.

I think the same principle has shaped my decision to ask writers I am teaching or mentoring to try and do one thing at a time, and when creating raw material, to send that inner critic off on a tea break. If we are watchful or critical too soon, we can sabotage our thoughts and so abandon or destroy the seed which may be insignificant in itself, but when watered and cultivated, may lead to a bloom.

Schiller describes this process I feel, in his response to a friend complaining of a dry period in his creative process, saying it is not good for the intellect to examine too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates:

 “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude. You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.” Schiller

I’m taking on this advice myself as I continue to revise my first novel – trying to identify the moments when I need to be creative without judgement, and when to let the critic loose. My impulse is to try and do both at the same time – breaking my own advice. I know it is counterproductive to try and edit as I write, yet the impulse is hard to resist. Perhaps now after the Muldoon workshop and these timely reminders from Tremain and Schiller I will proceed with more ease. I’m reminded of the Taoist saying: ‘The teacher teaches what s/he most needs to learn.’ Time to learn, O’Reilly, what you preach…

 

 

Words from the Singapore Writer’s Festival 2014

I’m exhausted and exhilarated after a full weekend of workshops, panels, performances, readings, and discussions at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. Time is short, as I have work pending and things I should be doing other than writing a blog – so until I can reflect on the experience with more ease and depth, here’s a few comments from the past few days to get minds thinking and imagination igniting:

‘I don’t think people aspire to be an essayist, because there’s nothing ‘special’ about the essay. It’s the first form we’re taught at school when we’re about twelve or thirteen – it’s the first building block of education: we’re given facts and we write it up, as homework… And you have a career and now in middle age, you look back and go ‘Shit! It’s been thirty years of homework.’   Geoff Dyer.

On a panel about morality, Man Booker prize shortlisted novelist Karen Joy Fowler said:

‘The project of literature and art is to acknowledge other lives and extend tolerance and celebration about our differences….The project of art and literature is to extend the circle of empathy…’

In a masterclass I was fortunate to attend with Paul Muldoon (see previous blog), he concluded the session with:

‘What’s not possible if you honour the poem that wants to write itself, if you give it the chance? Allow it to have its way with you.’

There were many panels and discussions around the issue of gender and writing, and ‘Woman at the Crossroad’ – moments of profound change, after which nothing is the same again. Reflecting on such a moment in her own life, the novelist Lee Su Kim said, on giving up journalism to become a fiction writer:

‘I was a journalist and I realised I wanted to write paragraphs, not soundbites.’

On a sister panel, about the pleasures and burdens of being a female poet, Marilyn Chin woke up the audience in more ways than one with her statement:

‘I am not afraid of my womaness, nor the F word – Feminism. I am not afraid of race, or gender, or sexuality. I write the truth. I write with my bodily juices, because when I write, I should use everything I have, and it’s all woman.’

I will reflect more on the festival over future posts…. Meanwhile hope you enjoyed these morsels.

The Art of Unknowing – an afternoon with Paul Muldoon in Singapore

 

Paul Muldoon by Oliver Morris

Paul Muldoon by Oliver Morris

 

I didn’t know there would be just nine of us.

Perhaps those considered literary monoliths in one part of the world loom less mightily when viewed from another geographic area. A writer who is relevant and admired in the US, UK, and Ireland, may have less resonance and relevance to South East Asia. Or so I reasoned when facing the eight empty chairs facing the white board, perplexed at the lack of clamour, crush, and cacophony. Usually I’m twenty rows back in a hedge of pads and pens, lucky to have a question answered, not being invited to engage in the conversation which constitutes the workshop.

I’ve just discovered the pleasure and privilege of participating in a literary festival located outside Europe: Not only does it make you view the familiar and famous from different cultural and geographic standpoints, it enables you to discover a wealth of respected writers perhaps not even published in your own part of the globe.

Poet friends in the UK became visibly tremulous when I said I was taking a three hour masterclass with TS Eliot and Pulitzer prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. I promised faithfully to take notes and share all, expecting a massive marquee or Great Hall, with me squinting at a hazy figure in the far distance. I didn’t expect to be sharing a small seminar room with him and seven other participants, most of whom were unlike any workshop bunny I’ve encountered, before.

My fellow participants were in IT, data analysis, social work, and journalism, making the discussion often surprising, and less predictable than many of my previous experiences.  There was no ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Or ‘do you have a special pen to write with, or a ritual you have to do before starting in the morning?’ – the questions I’ve encountered most frequently as a regular literary festival junkie. Instead, the conversation turned on the value of knowledge and not knowing – a particularly resonant subject for commercial Singapore.

‘Ends that do not tie up is not attractive in the money culture, right?’ Muldoon asked – something the majority of my co-participants agreed with. They were expected to know everything, otherwise they would lose status and credibility, they said. For Muldoon, the value is in the opposite. He imagined a writer at her desk hopefully having a channel open through which she can appeal to the unconscious, ‘opening up to what comes down the pipe.’

The Art of Unknowing started with a definition of ‘poetry’ taken from the original Greek: constructing, making things. Therefore a poet is a maker, ‘one in the construction business,’ as Muldoon coined it.

He spoke of the physics of the poem, set by Wallace Stevens, where the sound of the poem creates a pressure within which is equal to the pressure without. ‘A poem therefore is constructed like a piece of engineering. Just as every bridge presents a different problem, so does the making of every poem and the physics brought to bear on solving that problem. This is the more active part.’

The second phrase he wanted us to consider was ‘troubadour’ – at the heart of which is someone who finds, who stumbles upon things. This he saw as the chemistry of the poem, where, when elements are put together, there may be a reaction. ‘The poem comes to find you – or you search for it.’

‘The art of unknowing’ comes from Keats and his notion of negative capability – a quality Keats ascribed to Shakespeare. ‘Shakespeare is great, as he doesn’t know what he is doing – that is, he gives himself over to doubts and uncertainties instead of the irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

This is not to criticise the search for fact and reason, nor to dismiss it. Muldoon believes we need both, but at different times in the process of making, and to leave the knowing side (physics) out of the equation at first, so the chemistry can work in this state of questioning and not knowing. The capacity to engage with the unknowing is negative capability.

‘How to get to the place none of us expect is what we want both as a writer and a reader,’ Muldoon believes. ‘Being sure of things is a problem. 500 years ago they’d figured out how the body works through the humours. Had we got it right? Things change.’

He spoke of us as individuals being divided into reader and writer, the critic and creator, the conscious and unconscious. Writing is a constant to-ing and fro-ing between these. ‘You’ve got to make your own team – the reader and the writer – there are two of you already.’

Writing a poem is something sometimes mysterious, and certainly beyond ourselves. It is something we shouldn’t know of in advance, or try, in these first stages, to control: ‘We are appealing in humility to something beyond ourselves and if we can, we may have a chance something interesting may turn up.’

‘What’s not possible if you honour the poem that wants to write itself and if you give it the chance? Allow it to have its way with you.’

 

 

 

Na-nu Na-nu. Writing resources for you.

HEMINGWAY

I’m not one for Nanowrimo – that’s National Novel Writing Month. In truth, it’s been a mystery to me for some time. I only got the acronym correct because I googled it, and previously to that I was confusing it with what Mork used to say to Mindy.

But in light of the feverish fecundity of what is often the dreariest month, I wanted to share some online resources I recently located and have been finding useful.

National Theatre’s Discover More section on their website have all sorts of lovely videos on a plethora of things. For dramatists they have Roy Williams on political   playwriting, with other videos giving advice on writing characters, building a plot and writing dialogue.

For those heading off into the month of furious novel writing, my old favourite Mslexia have reproduced some workshops originally featured in the magazine, including Jenny Newman’s ‘MA in Novel Writing.’

Writing, we know, is all about rewriting, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the choices writers make in redrafts. Mslexia’s Inspirations asks a writer to compare the first draft with the published version, and fascinating reading it makes, too, for literary geeks. Deborah Moggach discusses her prose editing choices here, whilst Wendy Cope compares poetry drafts here. Finally, in this little gift of interesting reading on process, poet Polly Clark is interviewed about a specific poem.

Whatever your preferred form, or your plans for November writing, I hope it’s a creative month and that these links prove stimulating. I’m off to teach Dramaturgy in Singapore and so escape this dark month, but I won’t be escaping the writing – as ever, I have a deadline to meet.

 

 

 

What is a dramaturg?

In preparation for my work teaching dramaturgy in Singapore at the Intercultural Theatre Institute next month, I’ve been collecting definitions of what is often, in the UK at least, a slippery customer….

My seminars will be part of four perspectives – the playwright’s, the director’s, the actor’s and designer/scenographer’s. I’m excited, as part of the time I will be co-teaching with collaborators from actual productions of my plays, or performances we have co-created. We will be deconstructing the text, roles, and decision-making process, as well as sharing play texts and video/documentation of those specific performances with the students. I hope this will demystify what can be a perplexing and opaque process, and is the most holistic and revealing approach I have yet to come across.

The role of the dramaturg and the definition of dramaturgy can vary hugely. The understanding of the role in the German state theatre context is immensely different from many examples in the US repertory theatre system – and different again in the UK. To kick us off on what I hope will be a regular feature on this blog is a definition culled from the RSC’s ‘Radical Mischief’, Issue 02 from May 2014, and the associate dramaturg for the RSC’s Midsummer Mischief Festival, Sarah Dickenson:

‘The term “dramaturgy” refers to the art or technique of dramatic composition and theatrical representation: the means by which a story can be shaped into a performable form. All performance works have a dramaturgy, mostly sharing a set of base principles but diversifying widely within that. This dramaturgy is first created by the playwright/ makers when they construct a story for the stage, is developed in rehearsal by the director, designers and actors and then comes to full fruition in the interaction the performance has with its audience. This process varies, particularly if the piece is devised or physical, but the key points remain.

A dramaturg is concerned with supporting this process at some or all of these stages. In practice, that job might involve many different tasks, from the identification of performable work, to working with a playwright through several drafts, to hands on support in the rehearsal room. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a cup of tea with a theatremaker as they wrangle with a particularly tricky aspect of their piece. However, always at the heart of the dramaturg’s role is the ability to constructively, clearly and sensitively question a piece of work towards making it the best it can be, without confusing, overwhelming or blocking those making it.”

Sarah Dickenson in RSC’s Radical Mischief. Issue 02. May 2014.   @sedickenson

I will be sharing further perspectives and experiences later on this blog.

 

20 Questions…. David Lane.

Continuing my series on the same 20 questions asked to creative professionals from across the spectrum – from Burlesque to Ballet, poetry to photography. Now as his latest play opens this week, David Laneshares his answers to my 20 Questions…

David Lane

David Lane

David Lane is a playwright and dramaturg. As a writer he has been commissioned by Half Moon Young People’s Theatre and Theatre Royal Plymouth, the egg and Engage programmes at Theatre Royal Bath, Chichester Festival Theatre, Forest Forge, Salisbury Playhouse, Theatre West, Travelling Light, Immediate Theatre, Proteus Theatre, Blue Brook Productions and The British School of Beijing. He is Artistic Associate of Part Exchange Co’s interdisciplinary R&D project The Engine House in Bristol and has worked as dramaturg with award-winning devising companies including Fine Chisel, Dirty Market, multistory and with rural touring producer Beaford Arts. He is author of the book Contemporary British Drama, has written published articles exploring dramaturgy and new play development in the UK and writes the weekly playwrights’ information bulletin Lane’s List. His new play Free is at Half Moon Young People’s Theatre from 15 – 18 Oct then on national tour including Plymouth, Bath, Bristol, Portsmouth, Norwich and Canterbury. Click here for a 2-min video preview.

 'Free' by David Lane

‘Free’ by David Lane

What first drew you to your particular practice?

The Drama degree I was doing at Exeter University started a dramaturgy module in my second year, and it was about adaptation and looking at how scripts worked: I was given an assignment to create a season of plays by Contemporary Women Dramatists that I would then have to justify and ‘sell’ to an executive producer and artistic director (competently played by my two lecturers at the time). I read about 40 plays in two weeks and got hooked on structure and composition and how plays talked about the times in which they were written: it was my first training in looking at all the different maps for crafting a text that could exist, how they could all be different but be equally effective on stage, and why they mattered to the audiences of the time. I then tried to put this sort of studying into practice by writing a one-person Greek tragedy at the end of my degree, slavishly following the dramaturgical principles of a tragic narrative. It was embarrassingly rushed, but that was the beginning of my to-and-fro relationship between the right-brain of craft and dramaturgy and the left-brain of playwriting and creativity.

What was your big breakthrough?

My first commission with Half Moon Young People’s Theatre for my play Begin/End in 2007. Getting paid to write and having a play on tour and reviewed in national press felt like validation and being a grown-up professional for the first time. It shifted my attitude towards what I was doing and I began designing (though I didn’t realise it at the time) my process as a playwright.

 What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

I find creating characters takes me more time than anything else. Structure and dialogue and language and a sense of the theatrical are all things that I find much easier, but getting inside somebody else’s head and making informed choices about their actions in a story takes me a long time. I’ll often do a lot of research and very often the characters will absorb that information into their dynamics. It can make writing a slow process and I’m trying to challenge myself at the moment by writing quickly, reaching more inside myself than outwards to other sources of inspiration.

 Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was something I read at university, didn’t completely understand, still don’t, but which did that thing that sometimes happens when you encounter a significant text or work of art, of overwhelming you with its complexity – the sheer heft of thought and the reach of its ideas was mesmerising. I’ve gone back to it countless times and would love to adapt it for the stage. It’s just been adapted for radio by Peter Flannery in fact, so I’m looking forward to listening to it.

What’s more important: form or content?

Content. Form can help the heart beat stronger, but if there isn’t a heart, it’ll never live.

How do you know when a project is finished?

When I’m happy to have conversations with the rest of a creative team about it without feeling the need to go back and fiddle and change things: when I can leave the rehearsal room knowing it can speak for itself.

 Do you read your reviews?

Yes. I think getting over bad reviews (I’ve had a couple) is a good way of strengthening your mettle and a healthy reminder that you will never please everybody.

What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

Create the space where you can practice being a writer: don’t wait for somebody else to give it to you.

 What work of art would you most like to own?

If you could resurrect Rachmaninov and have him in the corner of my room to play his third piano concerto on tap whenever I wanted, that’d be great.

 What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

That inspiration will get you everywhere.

What are you working on now?

I’ve a new play for teenagers called Free about to go on national tour, which is exciting. I’m working on an adaptation of a brilliant adventure novel for teenagers called The Savage Kingdom by Simon David Eden for Chichester Festival Theatre; on Earthed, a site-specific audio-story in four parts about man’s relationships with the Earth across 40,000 years for Part Exchange Co; a play about the time-limited annual reunions of South and North Korean family members separated by the war 50 years ago, with director Sita Calvert-Ennals; and a play which is a response to the alleged chemical attacks by Al-Assad against his own people in Syria in August 2013 – a story that has now been consumed by much bigger media noises about Islamic State, but which I want to explore further. It’s about grief, parenting, art, protest and politics: so just a small undertaking. I also continue to work with other writers and companies as a dramaturg and workshop leader.

 What is the piece of art/novel/collection you wish you’d created?

I hope I’ve still got time to create it myself!

 What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

What my writing process was.

 What’s your greatest ambition?

It would be hard to beat a play at the National at some point.

 How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

I talk to my wife who is still my best cheerleader and first-reader-of-drafts.

 What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

That it was narrow-minded, unfeasible, illogical and hard to swallow. It was a script-reader’s report on a play I wrote one day (as in, over the course of one day) whilst at university. It was a good lesson: they were right!

 And the best thing?

‘We’d like to commission it.’

 If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

Cooking. A passion to mix up what’s in the world and create something new from it. Trying to perfect a recipe. Some slow cooking, some fast cooking required. Various different sources of heat and energy available. Continually re-invented.

 What is your philosophy or life motto?

Whatever decision you make, make it the best decision you’ve made.

 What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

From David Eldridge: ‘at the end of the day, it’s just a fucking play.’

 What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

Nicolas Cage.

'Free' by David Lane.

‘Free’ by David Lane.