Category Archives: Writing

Due giorni a Roma – Comfort & Joy at TREND

24 hours ago I was in Rome, sitting on the floor at Ciampino airport and trying to ignore the ache in my feet. Now I’m back in Edinburgh, my feet hurt slightly less, and I can hardly believe that the past three days have happened.

 

The reason for the mad dash to Rome was that one of my plays was being performed there – my first play outside the UK! Comfort & Joy, my Christmas tragedy, was on the bill at the Trend Festival, part of a programme of British new writing.

 

I was delighted to see my play featured alongside work by established writers like Simon Stephens and David Greig, and very excited to see what would be done with it. The two actors, Elisabetta Scarano and Bianca Vanoni, proposed to translate it. That was daunting – it’s nerve-wracking enough handing a script over to a director, but giving my words to someone along with permission to turn them into other words was something else. I speak Italian and can translate from it into English, but I’m not nearly fluent enough to translate into it, so I knew I couldn’t tackle the task myself. I concluded that I could either breathe down Elisabetta and Bianca’s necks and demand approval of the text, or I could just put my trust in them and see what happened. I chose to do the latter and gave them carte blanche to cut and rearrange as they saw fit.

 

So, having handed the script over to a group of perfect strangers, I was quite nervous when I arrived at the beautiful Teatro Belli, tucked away in Trastevere, on Saturday night…

 

The first thing I saw was a blank stage, bare apart from two chairs and two microphones. I was intrigued. I wondered how handheld mics were going to fit into a play that draws heavily on Dickens and the dark side of festive Victoriana. When the house lights went down and Santa Claus is Coming to Town began blaring over the speakers, I wondered even more. Of one thing I was certain – this was not going to be a straightforward naturalistic production!

 

Although director Marcela Serli had never met me, she seemed to have had a good look into my gothy little mind. Her production was tight, sparse and monochrome. The two sisters, identically clad in black, were lit only by stark white spotlights, two pale ghost-faces trapped in darkness. Where the script called for them to sing or dance, the sisters would try and fail. Stage directions projected onto the wall would spell out their intentions while the characters found themselves unable to participate in their own story. I loved it.

 

I really appreciated seeing a director doing something so abstract with the script. Comfort & Joy lends itself to that more than my other plays, and I was keen to see the script treated as a starting point rather than a blueprint. What I saw drew on Brecht and Artaud. Where I had envisaged pain so suppressed that it can barely be expressed even in soliloquy, Marcela had seen pain that she could bring out with operatic intensity. The world she created was even smaller and more claustrophobic than the one I had imagined, which made the antagonism between the sisters feel sharper and more vicious. I felt more acutely aware of the presence of their domineering late mother than I did when I wrote the piece.

 

It’s hard to write this post without it simply turning into a love-in. Before I get any more caught up, suffice it to say that I was delighted with what I saw. This was the first time I’d seen a play of mine directed and performed by people who didn’t know me at all. Usually I’m directly involved – I write for specific actors, I come into rehearsals, or I give the piece to a director whose work I’m familiar with. They tend to know me fairly well. On those occasions when my work has been directed and performed by people I didn’t know, I haven’t been able to attend. So this was a new experience, and I’m very glad to have had it.

 

It was also amazing to hear the play in Italian. Bianca and Elisabetta, in addition to giving very fine performances, did a great job with the translation. Their cuts and amendments made sense, and the language added a new dimension. The rhythms and cadences of Italian suit the heightened feel of the play. The sisters are theatrical by instinct and upbringing. Their words, particularly their soliloquies, are lyrical even in English, so they work well in a language which, as someone once said to me, non si parla, si canta.

 

The company is keen to take the show further, and I sincerely hope that they will. I’d be very happy to see them doing more with it, and to extend it and tailor it to them now that I have some idea of their qualities. Brave, Elisabetta, Bianca e Marcela!

 

Now I’ve just about got time to let my blisters heal before I’m back into rehearsal for #SonsOfGod: Vox with Charioteer Theatre, which will open in Milan in April…

 

I was going to close this post with an embedded video, but since WordPress has changed everything and I don’t know how to do that any more, CLICK HERE TO SEE A LITTLE OF COMFORT & JOY!

(It’s not a rickroll, I promise.)


History, witchery and recurring themes…

A few years ago I found my Story Jotter from P1. I flicked through it, interested to see what I was writing about when I was four and a half. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to find a story about a witch, another about a ghost, and one about two children playing in a tree house that inexplicably burned down. Supernatural beings and subtext, two of my favourite things… for longer than I realised, apparently.

I was a spooky little child, it’s true. I spent my first ever book token on the Usborne Book of Ghosts, and I was constantly on the lookout for anything that might be evidence of ghosts in my house (and since I’ve always been prone to sleep paralysis/night terrors, this wasn’t in short supply). Hallowe’en was my favourite day of the year, outstripping my birthday and Christmas by a long way.

Where the initial interest came from, I don’t know. I’ve mentioned before that some of my earliest memories are of powerful hallucinations and magical thinking due to the wonders of Schizotypal Personality Disorder, so perhaps it’s just that these things made sense to my addled brain. No matter how it began, the fascination only grew as I got older. I hit my teens at that point in the 90s when all things paranormal and occult were in vogue.

I got myself a deck of tarot cards and a few crystals, but actually the popularity of these things dampened my enthusiasm. Contrary soul that I am, I didn’t want to be just another teenage girl toting a mass-produced Book of Shadows. I liked history. If I was going to dabble with the occult, I was going to find out how it was done before US Games ever produced a ouija board and do it that way. This, in my teenaged mind, constituted authenticity. I was going to be the most non-conformist non-conformist that ever refused to conform. Let my peers get their ideas from Buffy and Charmed, I was going to get mine straight from the Malleus Maleficarum.

My motives may have been daft, but the important thing was that I started reading. I began with stuff aimed squarely at tourists and teenagers, but I quickly worked my way towards more legitimate sources and discovered that the history of witchcraft belief was incredibly interesting. I took Joyce Miller’s OLL Course on Witchcraft Belief in Early Modern Scotland, which fuelled my interest further and led to my amassing a respectable collection of books on the subject… and of course, since I like to plunder history for plots, those books informed a couple of plays.

Creepie Stool, the play about Jenny Geddes and the riots over the Book of Common Prayer, is not specifically about witchcraft, but it gets a couple of mentions. One of the characters is viewed with suspicion because she comes from somewhere near North Berwick, and the memory of the witch trials there a generation earlier still casts its shadow. Jenny attributes the sudden death of her beloved elder brother to witchcraft because she has no other explanation for an apparently healthy man simply dropping dead. As far as I know, none of the characters in the play have ever attempted maleficium – but it’s a concept that exists in their world. They don’t all entertain it to the same extent as Jenny, but they’re all aware of it and the dangers of being thought to practice it. It’s also in there because the play is about religious tensions in Scotland in 1637, and witchcraft belief is all tangled up with the politics of the era.

My latest play, Heaven Burns, is set in 1662 – 1663. It’s less concerned with the wider political picture, and much more directly concerned with witchcraft. Again, none of the characters actually practice witchcraft. It’s based on the story of Christian Caddell, a woman who disguised herself as a man to become a witchpricker – and a particularly vicious one, at that. In my version of her life, she’s a woman with a lust for power that gets channelled through religious fanaticism. She’s an extremist who believes she has a direct line to God. She’s the kind of person who should be frightening in any time period.

One of the other characters in the play is Isobel Gowdie, who may or may not be the same Isobel Gowdie whose famous confession was so influential in shaping perceptions of how witchcraft was practiced. The historical Isobel lived near Nairn, and Christian’s territory ran from Elgin to Wardlaw (now Kirkhill) at least, so it’s possible that their paths crossed. However, Isobel’s long and detailed confession is believed to have been taken without the use of torture – unusual in witch trials, especially if Christian was involved. The play suggests a possible reason why Isobel might have self-accused so freely, and why her case might not have fallen to Christian. It’s pure speculation, of course, based on the little information available about these women and my own overwrought imagination… but I hope it’s not too far-fetched. My aim is to explore the fears and tensions of the time, and to steer clear of anything too fantastical.

I’ve been asked a few times recently why I base so much of my work on history. The simple answer is that it’s an incredible resource. History is a vast collection of lived lives in which nearly everything that could be done was done. It’s made up of stories told by countless people, each with their own bias and limitations, so it’s never truly knowable and is open to endless interpretations. It’s never what you think it’s going to be. It’s rarely pure and never simple. It’s fucking fascinating.

If I had set out to create Christian, I don’t know if I could have done it. The process would have gone something like this:

 

ME: Ok, so I want to write a play about a woman who passes herself off as a man to become a witchpricker.

VOICE OF REASON (VOR): That’s stupid. How would that even work?

ME: Well, she’d get men’s clothes and use a man’s name and… well… prick witches, I suppose.

VOR: Right. And nobody notices she’s a woman because everyone in The Past is simple and credulous, right? So let me get this straight, a woman decides to run the massive risk of pretending to be a man so that she can, for some unexplained reason, hunt witches. Without any kind of training or preparation, she is so convincing that no-one ever doubts that she’s a man. And she becomes a witchpricker despite her lack of papers, history, letters of recommendation, license… And then what? What’s the point of it?

ME: …I don’t know.

VOR: Didn’t think so. Sounds a bit shit and implausible. Are you perhaps letting your determination to write roles for women cloud your judgement?

ME: …maybe. You know what, you’re right, it’s ridiculous. I’m just going to write another play about ghosts now.

 

I needed Christian to exist already so that I wouldn’t get sidetracked by wondering whether her story is plausible. It doesn’t matter whether a woman pretending to be a man to become a witchpricker is plausible – it happened. She was eventually arrested and made her confession in the Tolbooth in Edinburgh on the 30th of August 1662. Even taking into account the fact that records are often full of inaccuracies, I’ve yet to come up with a solid argument suggesting that Christian didn’t exist, or didn’t fake her way into a brief but eventful witchpricking career. Try as I might, I can’t think of a reason why that accusation would have been levelled at her unless it was true, or at least thought to be true.

Knowing that Christian’s story did exist, I was able to use it as a lens through which I could examine the fears, tensions and power struggles that affect her and the other characters in her world, but which have parallels today. I think one of the greatest things about theatre is that it offers a means of creating and dismantling monsters. The world is full of people who do things that I find hard to understand, whose actions baffle my bleeding heart and liberal mind. I can either ignore them, clutch my non-existent pearls at the thoughts of such horrors, reduce them to caricatures, or try to understand what motivates thinking, feeling human beings to deliberately inflict suffering on others. Christian might be a historical figure, but people like her, as terrifying as her, are not confined to the past.

Heaven Burns has been an unsettling play to write. It’s darker than my previous work, and I find myself wanting to apologise to the other characters for putting them in the same world as Christian. There were scenes I put off writing until the very end because I didn’t want to think my way through them. I’m very excited to hear it read at Previously…, especially as I’m certain the cast will make a very fine job of it, but I’m also nervous at the prospect of developing it further and spending more time sharing my head with these characters. (I’m also nervous because there will be an actual historian at the reading to talk about the historical context, which means there’ll be someone qualified to catch all my errors and call me on my bullshit. This is an inexpert enthusiast’s dream and nightmare rolled into one.)

If you want to hear the play/watch me panic/ask awkward questions to which I don’t know the answer, it’s on at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the 21st of November. What happens with it after that is anyone’s guess, but I’m hoping that it’ll have a life beyond this reading. It’s no secret that I believe there’s an audience out there for new, lively history plays that focus on interesting women. Now I just hope I’m right…


Pre-Creepie Stool thoughts on strength and complexity

Creepie Stool opens tonight. My plans to attend a rehearsal were scuppered by hospital time (no Fringe flu for me, this year I went for full-on gastroenteritis and getting pumped full of IV fluids instead). Consequently, tonight’s performance will be almost entirely new to me. (I say almost because I’m still expecting to recognise the odd line here and there, but you never know, I suppose…)

Anyway, just in time for the opening of my play, this article starts doing the rounds on social media: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. Can’t be bothered clicking? It’s Sophia McDougall writing about the trope, primarily found in film but also prevalent in theatre, of the Strong Female Character. She dislikes Strong Female Characters because they are so seldom proper, rounded characters. Instead they are the same old weak, male-dependent figures except they also kick people (usually men) in the face. They still don’t get to have, y’know, personalities.

There are plenty of comments from people who think it’s not a problem because they can name a few female characters who are rounded, human and well-written. Many of them cite characters who are actually none of these things, but even if they were, the fact remains that we need more. There’s still a huge imbalance between male and female protagonists. We’re still defining particular films and shows and plays as being “for women”. It’s still tough for a female actor over 30 to find meaty roles.

I’ll admit that I had all of these things in mind when I wrote Creepie Stool. I had agreed that it would be a three-hander for a female cast before I had even chosen the subject matter, and both of those decisions were purely pragmatic. There was enough money in the budget to pay three actors. Women are more plentiful than men in the industry. On a personal level, I like to write roles with specific actors in mind and I know several excellent actors who happen to be both female and over 30. Writing for a particular actor can be an incredibly useful starting point, because then I can take that person’s qualities and think about what conflicts and secrets and challenges they could have… Basically, I sit down and think “how can I give this person a hard time?”

None of the characters in Creepie Stool are intended to be representative of all women, or of a particular section of society, or to be role models or good examples of any kind. I wanted them to be messy, fearful, just trying to get through life without everything collapsing around them. None of them is in a particularly great place – Jenny sees herself as a matriarch but she’s beholden to her son and to a daughter-in-law whom she protects and resents in equal measure, Marjory has married somewhat above her station and lives in fear of disappointing her exacting husband and/or her family, Christian has reached an age where she needs to get married or wind up a spinster with no security, and her choice of husband is severely limited by the secrets she carries around (one of which is never explicitly mentioned, and I wonder how many people will even notice it). They’re all aware that they have to keep other people happy if they want to have a roof over their heads. They’ve all got things they have to hide and public faces they have to show if they want to survive. They have things they love and want to protect, things they fear losing, things they’re proud of, things that upset them, things that interest them. Jenny has monologues because there are things she will only tell the audience, not the other characters in her world. Marjory doesn’t, because it would be bad manners to monopolise the conversation that way. Christian doesn’t, because there are things that are too private even for a soliloquy. Some things you don’t even tell the audience.

I hope, I desperately hope, that some of this will come across in the writing. More than anything else, I want people who see this play to find the characters believable. If I can go to bed tonight feeling that I wrote three layered, complex characters, I’ll be happy. They’re not “Strong”. None of them knows kung fu (that I’m aware of). The world they live in removes much of their agency. They all have to take a certain amount of shit from other people because, well, who doesn’t? They’re quite capable of being paralysed with fear and indecision, but no-one is coming to save them.

And they’re all on the poster.

 

Debbie Cannon as Marjory, Angela Milton as Jenny, Belle Jones as Christian


Writing Creepie Stool

Yes, it’s that time of year already… The Fringe is poised and ready to pounce, snapping us up in its five star fangs yet again. It’s no secret that I have a love/hate relationship (weighted in favour of love, but the hate can’t be ignored) with the theatrical behemoth that takes up residence on the Royal Mile every August. As it gets closer, no doubt there’ll be posts from me about its irritations and imperfections. However, at present I have reason to love it and to celebrate.

This year I wrote my first commissioned piece for the Fringe. It’s called Creepie Stool, and it’s part of the Festival of Spirituality and Peace. They commissioned two new plays from Edinburgh writers on the theme of sectarianism. I was one of those writers, Jen Adam was the other – her play is called Kiss, Cuddle, Torture. It’s a lovely feeling, being asked to write a play rather than starting by writing one and then shopping it around in the hope that you’ll find someone who wants to stage it, or producing it yourself. However, it’s really weird writing a play to a specific brief.

I’m used to writing to a brief in other styles. When I ghostwrite fiction, the briefs are often very specific. There are particular formulae I’m usually asked to use within the genres in which I specialise. They’re not the same stories that I choose to write when I have no-one to answer to but myself, and the characters don’t make the same choices that they would if their fictional world was governed only by me. My job is to put flesh on pre-existing bones.

When I write plays, on the other hand, there are no pre-existing bones. I create the skeleton myself. Plays happen when I have an idea that rattles around in my head for long enough that I can’t ignore it. I start writing for the same reason that oysters start coating bits of grit in mucus – not with the intention of creating a pearl that someone might someday value, but simply to get this fucking sharp thing to stop irritating me. I don’t go looking for bits of grit. They just find their way in.

Starting work on a play without the bit of grit was a strange experience. I knew I had to write a play, I knew it had to be about sectarianism and I knew I had to deliver it by a particular date. You would think that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, considering that I was brought up by a Glaswegian Protestant and a Glaswegian Catholic. But there are two problems with that. First, Singing I’m No A Billy, He’s A Tim has already been written. Second, this year marks the tenth anniversary of my Mum’s death and the ninth anniversary of my Dad’s. Anything that takes me too close to the world they grew up in… no. Not just now. That way madness lies.

I considered various other options. There’s sectarian violence and discrimination all over the world. You’d think that it would be easy to find some where other than Scotland and write about the situation there. I didn’t, because sectarian issues tend to be incredibly complex and I would need more than a couple of months to do sufficient research to write anything that did justice to the places and people involved. The best I could have done would have been something trite, shallow and general, the kind of play that can do nothing more than reassure my fellow Guardian-reading lefties that we all know that sectarian violence is A Bad Thing. I needed to start from a position of actually knowing something.

So I looked to history. I’ve been an amateur history nut for most of my life. I can date it back to my first trip to Linlithgow Palace, when my dad started telling me stories about Mary, Queen of Scots and I realised that “the past” was a massive repository of my favourite thing: stories.  As I grew up and began to think critically I realised that history was not something fixed and known, it was open to interpretation and revision. It wasn’t pretty and orderly, and it certainly wasn’t some kind of golden age where everyone was better behaved than they are now.

The “golden age” attitude to the past came to annoy me more and more. When I worked as a tour guide I began to see how many people thought that anything that happened before 1960 was a BBC costume drama, the kind where the good end happily and the bad unhappily (give or take the occasional tragedy, where the unhappy demise of someone good is ultimately redeemed by the dignity and beauty of their death). I listened to people bemoaning the stupidity and selfishness of people in the present with increasing vexation. You think that people were more intelligent, more faithful, more honourable a hundred years ago, or a thousand? READ MORE. THINK MORE. Check out the Greeks moaning about how stupid and selfish people had become. I came to the conclusion that people, collectively, remain more or less the same. Values and influences change, but I think we remain more or less the same bundles of chemicals and impulses no matter when or where we live. (Then again, most of the confusion in my life has been caused by thinking – hoping – that other people are more or less similar to me, so what do I know? Still, I have yet to see anything that convinces me that people living centuries ago were fundamentally different to people today, so I stand by it.)

So how did this generate an idea for the play? Well, I am particularly interested in people’s need for a common enemy. Some years ago I did a Lifelong Learning course studying witchcraft in early modern Scotland, where I learned how little the persecution of “witches” had to do with witchcraft and how much it had to do with anti-Catholic sentiments and tension between the old faith and the comparatively recent adoption of Calvinism. I found it interesting, but I didn’t dig into the details too deeply at that point.

When I went looking for the Sectarian conflict that would prompt the play, I began thinking about how little I knew about  Calvinism. It’s a religion that had a profound influence on the country I grew up in, and yet I couldn’t have explained its basic beliefs.  I knew far more about the Church of England than the Church of Scotland – score one for Religious Education in Scottish schools! I knew a little about the Covenanters’ War, enough to understand that 17th century Scottish people had issues with Charles I and it was something to do with religious strife,  but I couldn’t have told you how the whole thing got started. I wondered whether the play might be lurking somewhere in the depths of that conflict, so I started digging.

That’s what led me to Jenny Geddes. In 1637 she got quite upset at the introduction of a new Book of Common Prayer. Charles I had been advised that the Scots weren’t going to like it, but he wasn’t a great one for listening to advice. Jenny thought it sounded a bit too much like Mass, so she picked up the stool she was sitting on and threw it at the minister of St Giles. A three-day riot ensued. Shortly afterwards, the National Covenant was created and signed, and the Coventanters’ War began.I started exploring Jenny’s motives. What got her so angry that day? What was she afraid of? What were the influences that got her to the point where she felt so strongly about what she was hearing?

Then I needed to find some other characters for her to interact with. There’s not a lot to go on, historically. Jenny Geddes didn’t have a well documented life. So I imagined her employer, the woman whose seat Jenny was being paid to keep in church that day. And I gave her a maidservant, because I wanted three women with different social status. I made a few basic decisions about what they would be, engineering their characteristics to allow for conflicts of interest and personality, and off I went.

In terms of research, this was a very difficult play to write. Even now that it’s written, I still don’t feel like I’ve completely got my head round it. If I hadn’t had a deadline, it would probably have become one of those plays that I rework for years and never show to anyone because it’s not exactly right yet. I’ve done my damnedest to get the historical context right, but I know I set myself an impossible task. Which makes me quite glad that I didn’t try to write a play about a present day culture that I don’t understand from the inside. At least I know that I won’t accidentally make things worse for Jenny Geddes, upset 17th century Scots by misrepresenting them, or trivialise an ongoing conflict.

Does that mean the play isn’t relevant? I don’t think so. We have a hell of a lot to learn from history. We don’t, as a society, because we reduce history to a Sunday teatime drama or a narrowly focused and horribly dry subject at school. I’m well aware that some people will come to see this play, take one look at the costumes and decide that it can’t possibly have anything to say about the world we live in today. All I can do is hope they’ll spot the similarities between 17th century people attacking a church because they considered Catholics a threat and 21st century people attacking mosques because they consider Muslims a threat.

The play is being directed by Jasmin Egner and has a fantastic cast; Angela Milton, Debbie Cannon and Belle Jones. I can’t wait to see what they’ll make of it. They’re intelligent, sensitive people and I trust them, which is great because now I have to leave it in their hands. My only involvement now is to throw research resources their way and try not to pester them. In the meantime, I am off to write a play that no-one asked me to write, with no brief at all, about what will happen when social media eventually turns on us all…


Picking up from roughly where we left off…

Hello blog, it’s been a while. May is always a bit of a crazy month. I’m not sure whether this is to do with seasonal shift or whether it’s a pattern I learned at school when it was always exam season, but the anxiety and depression always seem to squeeze a little bit tighter in May. It was also the Month of Many Deadlines, so between one thing and another I didn’t get anywhere near WordPress. But here I am now. Hello again.

There are plenty of things I’ve been meaning to write about, but I’ve been in the grip of depressive thinking recently. I get to the stage where I can’t face writing about anything because I’ve got the Demon in my head telling me that no-one is remotely interested and there’s no point in writing. My energy diminishes, so the act of writing out my thoughts becomes considerably harder (I am eternally grateful that I had solid plans to work from for my freelance gigs). It’s a significant danger sign for me, because I am always in the mood to pick apart my own psyche unless I’m getting depressed, and I have to be quite far gone before I lose the will to write.

Which brings me, by means of a completely seamless and not at all clunky segue, to the subject of a quote I see doing the rounds on Facebook. It’s attributed to Dorothy Parker, but I have no idea whether this is accurate and I am being too lazy to check. It goes like this “I hate writing. I love having written.”

Apparently many of my writer/aspiring writer friends agree with this, at least to the point where they’ll re-post it. I see an extreme version of this sentiment in some of my ghostwriting clients, who want their name on a book without the hassle of actually writing it. For me, it’s the other way round. I love writing. I really enjoy the actual process of stringing words together and typing them into my laptop, watching the word count rack up. Writing longhand is even better. There is something so incredibly beautiful about putting ink on a page. I like the sensation of forming letters, I like watching the ink turn from wet to dry. I never write with cheap ballpoints if I can avoid it,  because it’s a waste of an experience. Gel pens, fountain pens, rollerballs – those are delicious to write with. When I learned that my husband had a favourite type of pen, my heart skipped a beat.

When I write, my brain calms down a bit. My head no longer feels like a browser window with dozens of tabs open. My focus narrows. I never get as far as a single tab, whether literally or metaphorically, unless I’m in hyperfocus, but I get closer than when I’m not writing. I create a playlist for each project or I put on a film or a series with the right voices to help me get absorbed in the task. I don’t answer the phone (any excuse). I feel more settled.

Then I finish whatever I’m writing. That’s when we ditch the calm and move onto the storm. Goodbye enjoyable act of crafting words, hello maelstrom of self-doubt and anxiety. That’s when I have to actually read whatever I’ve written and see all the flaws and clunky bits staring back at me. It’s horrible. It’s so much easier when you just don’t finish things, which is why I have a “Bits and Pieces” folder. All my favourite stuff is in there. The half-formed ideas that live in that folder are the best ideas, because I haven’t got round to destroying them yet.

I get over it, of course. When I’m writing for other people I don’t have the luxury of all this anxiety. When it comes to my own work, I freak out a bit more. Especially when I write plays, because then I have to hear what I’ve written at some point. Then I sit in the audience and second-guess the reactions of everyone around me. I do all the things I tell everyone else not to do, like measuring the reactions my piece gets against anything else I’ve seen recently and trying to work out whether I think audiences are the best people to assess my work or whether I think they’ll enjoy anything that’s dressed up the right way. It’s fun. My demons get some healthy (for them) exercise. I get to question the extent to which the demons really live in my head and to what extent they’re part of the tortured artist persona that I love and loathe in shifting measure. (Some days it feels like actual mental health torment, some days it just feels like I’m a bit of a wanker. Both statements are true. Sometimes concurrently. Like I said, fun.)

If I were able to skip straight to “having written” without the actual writing bit, I couldn’t do it. All the anguish and none of the good stuff where I spend days in front of the keyboard, wandering the internet to find the music and snippets that keep my brain ticking over, doing stuff with words? Hell no. The angst! I can only imagine.

The next post will be more upbeat. I wrote a play for the Fringe – my first commissioned play, I get paid for it and everything – and now that it’s had a couple of drafts and there are actors involved I’m starting to like it again.  There are things I’d like to say about it, and I should get in practise before August rolls around and I have to start telling people to go and see it.


Writing for Profit and Pleasure

Hello blog, I am sorry for ignoring you. I’ve been busy with a combination of Tightlaced stuff, end of winter craziness and freelancing. I’ve had an unusually long run of people paying me for writing, which is of course lovely and makes my bank account a happier place – but I’ve been noticing how it affects me in other ways.

 

I use a couple of websites to find my freelance gigs. Clients post jobs, freelancers put in proposals for them, clients make their selection. Once you’ve been selected you get full details and are often asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (which is why I won’t be talking about the specific details of the jobs I’ve done).

 

Most of my jobs have been ghostwriting fiction. There’s an element to ghostwriting that I love and fear in equal measure, and that’s the fact that This Is Not Mine. Some briefs are very specific and lay out exactly when and where the story should be set, perhaps a couple of key events, what you’re not allowed to do with the characters, whether they’re allowed to swear. Some are much looser, in which case I prefer to submit sample chapters as soon as I can just to reassure myself that I’m not completely misjudging the client’s requirements and that the story I am writing remains Not Mine.

 

There’s a certain freedom in writing things that won’t appear under my own name. Of course the work still has to be done to my usual high standards – it must be grammatically correct, properly spelled, neatly formatted, narratively cohesive and internally consistent. Characters must still be properly developed and the plot must make sense (for which I draw heavily on the things I learned on David S. Freeman’s screenwriting masterclass, Beyond Structure, which is well worth taking no matter what medium you write in). I find my freedom in the subject matter and the aspects of characters that I can explore when they are Not Mine.

 

Writing with the aim of being published or produced under your own name is exposing. Even if your work isn’t heavily autobiographical, the fact remains that it comes from you and that your work is a statement about what captures your interest and imagination. It is a statement about how your mind works and how you see the world. Your friends and family will see/read it and speculate about what it’s based on and how you get your ideas. (This is where dead parents actually become quite useful. I am somewhat relieved that I will never have to explain to my mother about the play featuring the accidental threesome or justify why some of my work has to feature the word “fuck” quite so heavily.)

 

Writing work that will be signed over to someone else and published under their name, on the other hand… That feels like being given the keys to the parts of my imagination that I don’t visit often.  Suddenly I have permission to play in the dormant bits of my psyche. My usual approach is to write characters who are either aware that they’re characters, or through whom I can explore what it is to be a character and construct an identity. Being paid to write straightforward fiction means I have an outlet for characters who simply are. I can plot without having to deconstruct the genre. Until I started taking on these jobs, I hadn’t realised how long it had been since I’d done that. It’s not only good fun and liberating, it’s also useful – I sometimes wonder if I get so caught up in picking characters apart and focusing in on detailed studies of tiny elements that I forget to enjoy the broad sweep. It’s nice to reconnect with that and to start thinking about why I work the way I do and my reasons for delving into or kicking against particular elements of storytelling. It’s also raising some interesting questions about how to balance the writing I do for money with the writing I do for art.

 

I’m sure I’ll be exploring this further, but right now I have deadlines to meet. Lots of deadlines. One novel, 23 short rhymes and a 60 minute script – it’ll be a doddle, right? See you on the other side…

 

(Oh yes, and come and see one of my short pieces, One Missed Call, at the Speakeasy next Tuesday. Unless it’s already sold out, which is quite likely because Speakeasy’s brilliant. But if it’s not sold out yet, come and see it!)


Unnamed Road

Well, happy New Year and all that kind of thing – was it a good one? I’m starting 2013 knackered. I can happily stay up until 2 or 3am on a regular basis, but apparently 5am still causes me to suffer through the following day. I might not drink, but you wouldn’t know if you saw me in the grip of a sleep hangover.

Anyway, now that January has started and the festive season is winding up, it’s time to start dragging myself back into some kind of routine. So here I am at 1.43am, avoiding editing by writing blog posts with Back to the Future on in the background.

Last October I had a play on at the Granary as part of Black Dingo’s launch season. Back then I mentioned that I would get round to telling the story behind Lost Love at some point, and since it’s going to be on again in a few weeks this seems like as  good a time as any. (Obligatory plug details: Lost Love is part of the line-up for this month’s Speakeasy, a spoken word event hosted by Jo Caulfield at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 22 January. Info about Speakeasy here. Booking for this particular event here. Booking is essential, people were getting turned away from the last event.)

Lost Love was the product of one of my mini-frenzies. I was supposed to be writing something else, of course – a deadline was looming large enough to make it necessary that I write, but not yet large enough to ensure that I wrote the thing I was actually supposed to be writing. The voice of the obsessed SatNav started chattering in my head and all of a sudden I had a ten minute play on my desktop.

When you write a play about a sentient electronic device and tell people it’s partly autobiographical they give you funny looks (and rightly so, I suspect) .But it’s true. As far as I know I  have not yet had a SatNav fall in love with me, nor have I been a SatNav. The SatNav-related bit comes from an epic drive through Central London. I was working on a show at the Rosemary Branch in Islington and one of the props required was a barrel. I tracked one down at the National Theatre prop store, which is near the Oval, and set off to collect it.

Driving in Central London for the first time is an experience. I had no idea how the congestion charge worked and didn’t really want to pay it, so I decided to avoid the charge zone. Unfortunately my SatNav was determined that we were going in a straight line, right through the charge zone, and I couldn’t find a way of programming it to go round the outskirts. Instead, whenever I reached a Congestion Charge sign I would just go in whichever direction felt right, causing my SatNav to tell me off in what I felt was an increasingly judgemental tone of voice. I spent about an hour of the journey yelling “you can’t make me” interspersed with various obscenities at the SatNav. I have since learned how to switch off the voice, meaning I can cheerfully ignore it without getting any backchat.

However, the autobiographical bit is actually to do with driving in winter. The SatNav in the play leads its owner into the middle of nowhere on a freezing cold day. When I say that it’s a black comedy, that’s not just a description of the humour but also of the ice. I don’t drive in winter if I can help it because I’m truly terrified of black ice. I’m nervous enough when I’m walking if it’s slippery out, having broken some bones in a fall a few years ago, but driving… No.

My first assistant directing job was in Forres, rehearsing in December. I was staying in a cottage just outside the town. On the second morning of rehearsals I woke up to find that it was snowing. I got in the car and set off for rehearsal. Less than ten minutes later my car was upside down in a ditch and I was lucky to be alive. I managed to get one of the windows open and climbed out, uninjured apart from whiplash. I counted my blessings and got back to driving as soon as the insurance cheque came through.

It wasn’t until the following year that the shock caught up with me. I had moved to London but was back in Edinburgh for Christmas when I got called in for an interview for a job I really wanted. I needed to be back in London by the next day. This happened at about 9pm, right around the time it began to snow… I slithered along the M8 and M77. The gritspitters weren’t out yet (because for some reason the authorities are always taken by surprise when it snows in winter) and the traffic was packing the fallen snow down.

That’s when I realised what a near miss I’d had up in Forres. Claustrophobia set in as I remembered being trapped in my wrecked car, my windscreen pulverised by rock that had narrowly missed my head. My phone had fallen out of my handbag and I couldn’t see it anywhere. As much as I wanted to find it and call for help, my priority was to find a way out. I didn’t let myself consider the possibility that I might not be able to get out. I didn’t consider that at all until that nightmare drive back to London. Then it all came rushing in, all those thoughts about how I could have been trapped on that quiet road, how wrecked cars can catch fire, how cold it was and how long I could have lasted in that cold, how no-one would have known exactly where to look for me when I didn’t show up, how easy it would have been to have got myself killed. Being cold, alone and having no control… I can’t even complete that sentence. When I try all I get is that squirming surge of anxiety, panic takes over and fills my brain with NO and I can’t say anything more coherent. And that’s after therapy.

Put the two together, my experience of using a SatNav and my unfortunately extensive knowledge of car crashes and icy roads, and you get Lost Love. Black humour and lots of Jen anxiety distilled into ten minutes.  At some point I’ll probably write something more serious about the car crashes, but collectively they’re amongst my greatest traumas. Lost Love let me scratch the surface. First I learn to laugh at it, then later I learn to be serious.

And that leads neatly on to the next future post promise. Sooner or later I’ll look at humour as a defence mechanism. But not tonight, because there has to be sleep at some point.