Continuing my occasional series on probing process and creativity with a wide range of artists, I’m delighted to introduce Paul Whittaker’s 20 Questions
Paul Whittaker is a Cardiff based Artist, Writer and Filmmaker. Having worked as a freelance Filmmaker for over a decade, Paul completed his Masters in Creative Writing at Swansea University achieving the grade of distinction. Since he was diagnosed with Bi-Polar Manic Depression whilst studying for his BA in Film Paul has spent his life exploring his own condition through the Arts and working with the Public Sector. Several of his projects made with Public Health Wales have received National and International recognition. Driven by a desire to continually expand his knowledge base Paul has exhibited as a digital artist, worked in theatre, television, dance as well as independent film. His numerous clients include – The Sherman Theatre, The Old Vic, Channel 4, Mind Cymru, The Kevin Spacey Foundation and Arts Council Wales. His play Gods and Kings opens at The Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, 6-9 September 2017, details below.
What first drew you to writing/directing/acting?
Ever since I could remember writing has been a way for me to purge my mind of thoughts that if left unexplored would become rules that limit my existence.
What was your big breakthrough?
As an 18 year old I worked for my father’s architectural practice and people used to come into the office to do photocopying. One day I noticed a man copying a script. It turned out that his name was Glenn Chandler and he was the creator of Taggart. One night I got the courage to buy him a pint and told him that I wanted to be a writer. He accepted the drink and told me to give him a sample of my writing and if he thought I showed promise then he would sit down and talk to me. After reading my work I had three years of weekly writing sessions until I left the village.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
Due to my mental condition I have often written for the wrong reasons. I have written through negativity, arrogance, revenge, contempt, ignorance – my words weighted to make my case in the firmest way possible; but I have only ever experienced success when I write from a place of openness and honesty.
Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?
Throughout my childhood I constantly read books of fantasy and adventure and every few years I still re-read The Swiss Family Robinson but the writing that changed me was Billy Bob Thorton’s screenplay Slingblade. I saw it after I had been diagnosed and it was the first honest voice about living with a mental illness that I encountered.
What’s more important: form or content?
For me content has to be first but choosing the correct form to write that content can make or break a project.
How do you know when a project is finished?
I don’t know when a project is finished. I have written to deadlines and had to accept that my time was up but, if I can, I like to let work sit and revisit it at a later date so I can read it with an emotional distance and a critical eye.
Do you read your reviews?
I am a man who does not do social media or google himself but reviews are different – but you have to know how to read them. The first play I wrote was in response to a lack of authentic characterizations of mental illness. Whilst the members of my audience with lived experience thanked me for my honesty, a reviewer, who generally liked the play, felt unconvinced by the portrayal of my condition thus proving my point.
What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?
This may seem against conventional wisdom but I believe you should read less and write more. Meaningful success only comes when you discover your voice and stop emulating the voices of your literary heroes. Writing is a craft and you must learn it through hard work, dedication and openness to criticism.
What work of art would you most like to own?
Though technically not a work of art I would like to own the carved edifice of Hamelin Cathedral in Germany.
What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?
I think the biggest myth is that people are out there looking to steal your ideas so you must hide them away under lock and key instead of talking them through with others.
What are you working on now?
I have my first solo art exhibition coming up in 2018 and I am collaborating on a number of theater and dance productions. Just like every writer I am also always working on a novel that may or may not ever see the light of day.
What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?
I think I would have liked to have created any of the works from the Old Masters simply because I cannot paint and I am in awe of their skill. I was so bad at drawing bowls of fruit at school my teacher let me sit in the corner and write to save us both the pain of my efforts.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
I wish I had known I had some ability. I have countless anecdotes of professionals that I respect telling me that I can write but even as I type this I am still unsure.
What’s your greatest ambition?
I’m not going to lie and not say – be financially secure. It is what we need to follow our dreams. In lieu of that I would be happy just to help someone understand themselves or others better.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?
The only way I have found to counter insecurity is to surround myself by people I respect and listen to their voices over mine.
What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?
It wasn’t honest.
And the best thing?
I still think about it.
If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?
In my case if I don’t give my mind something to nourish itself on then it starts to consume itself.
What is your philosophy or life motto?
Be a shepherd or a wolf but never a sheep.
What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?
People care and are willing to give of themselves greatly to ensure that a project succeeds.
What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?