Maybe it’s my greed for experience, but I’ve always wanted to lead several lives, a desire made manifest through my choice of projects and parallel careers. I have been a physical theatre performer, a chambermaid, a live art practitioner, and a relief aid worker in war zones. I have written librettos, radio drama, short film, prose; sold shoes, meat, and advertising copy; directed film and dance theatre; been a writer in residence and Creative Fellow; and supervised postgraduate degrees in writing for performance whilst participating in Deaf arts, disability culture and the mainstream.
I think one of the most important lessons I have learnt is never to perceive myself as one thing. This business will often try to label us, slap a convenient sticker on our forehead and file us away under a limiting, narrow definition. Although often seen as perverse, I pride myself on not being easy to define. I try to keep experimenting, taking on new challenges and developing my skills.
I’ve often found in the UK that diversity is seen as an anomaly, a vulgar excess to be treated with suspicion. Phrases like ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ damn the Renaissance wo/man. I know writers who have limited their careers and creativity by believing it’s inappropriate to try something new (‘stick to what you know. Why change a winning horse?’) or who believe that there are set patterns and processes to adhere to (if only they could decipher them), rather than inventing new ones.
When engaging with press to publicise a particular project, in my experience they will invariably do one of two things: simplify my career and back catalogue in order to focus the article, or make a feature of the fact I write for more than one medium – but not necessarily in a good way: ‘If it’s Tuesday, she’s writing a novel – the confusing life of playwright Kaite O’Reilly.’ This was the actual headline in a regional newspaper some years ago, which begged the question: confusing for whom?
Perhaps this is a cultural thing, but achievement or multiple skills aren’t embraced in the UK as they may be elsewhere – unless you’re also undermining your efforts by making a self-deprecating comment verging on self-loathing.
I personally love getting to know a writer through different genres or forms: The novelist who also writes award-winning screenplays and illustrates childrens’ books and sculpts and paints (http://www.markhaddon.com); the poet who is also a novelist (ee cummings and his harrowing novel of the First World War, The Enormous Room); the novelist who also writes and performs Haiku (listen to Jack Kerouac on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJdxJ5llh5A&feature=player_embedded).
I also think that this attitude is currently shifting – there seems to be more opportunity for practitioners to explore other form – or perhaps it’s becoming a financial or career imperative? Literary fiction writers changing form if not medium is considerably more common, with a host of ‘literary thrillers’ entering the market, and several scare stories of writers being dropped by their publisher and agent for not attracting enough readers, and so experimenting with a more commercial genre.
There are other more positive and nurturing projects aimed at extending the careers and broaden the opportunities for exceptional writers. I’m immensely excited in being one of the mentors on Y Labordy, a new tailored initiative for experienced Welsh language writers of theatre, film and TV, led by Literature Wales.
The objective of this ground-breaking initiative is to create a pool of contemporary writing talent with the capability of writing high calibre scripts for different media platforms and to broaden ability for writing from an international perspective. The tremendously talented team are Fflur Dafydd, Jon Gower, Dafydd James and Bethan Marlowe – and I’ve been fascinated and thoroughly engaged in conversations with Jon and Daf as we negotiate medium and cross form.
Such endeavours fill me with excitement and inspire me with possibility. Perhaps we’re back again to my greediness, but I just want more, more, more….
(This is revised from an earlier blog)