Tag Archives: Dead Parents

Decade

As the sporadic nature of my blog posts probably indicates, I’m not finding it easy to write about what’s going on in my head this summer. Writing fiction? Not a problem. The things that are going on in fictional people’s heads are just fine. But my own is another matter.

The trouble is the anniversaries. On October 23rd it’ll  be ten years since my Mum died, with the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death the following July (we’re just coming up on the 9th just now). I don’t know why the tenth anniversary should seem more significant than the 9th, but it does. Probably because it’s a decade and having a word for the amount of time that has passed makes it feel larger and more of a milestone.

Ten years ago I was 20 years old and living with my Mum and Dad. I’d moved back in after my first major depressive episode and was just gearing up to move out again. I had learned a hell of a lot from going through depression. I had been self-employed for the first time. I had arranged my first solo trip abroad. I had booked my first professional singing gig. My relationship with my parents had survived a pretty hellish time and we’d found our way back to solid ground. For the first time, I felt like we were three adults rather than two adults and a child. I felt like I was finally getting the hang of this life malarkey.

That lasted for one summer. Just one. I got back from Austria on the 18th of September. By the 3rd of October my Mum was in hospital. She had been having pains all year which had been dismissed as the menopause. The diagnosis suddenly shifted and became cancer. On the 14th we found out it was pancreatic. On the 23rd she died. I couldn’t believe how much things could change in the space of a month. Honestly, I still can’t.

Of course, the changes didn’t end there. My Dad’s death, the car crash, a good friend’s death, the two and a half years of being unable to move out of my dead parents’ house, all of that followed. It all took its toll and helped to shape my expectations for the future. Without realising it, I internalised the idea that if I love people they die, and if I value things they get taken from me in a painful way.

Being stuck in my parents’ house for so long was incredibly painful and I struggle to explain why, because I don’t know what frame of reference to appeal to when I’m talking to other people. It felt like being checkmated. The situation was completely out of my hands and there were no moves I could make. I couldn’t afford to buy, I had no rental history or guarantors, no-one I could move in with, and no idea how long the situation was going to drag on for. I couldn’t even redecorate and make the place mine, because that would have meant destroying something that was very special to my parents (that house and the way it was decorated were part of the long-term aspiration that got them out of their council estates and into the life they wanted). But more importantly, it would have meant conceding that I was going to be there for a while, and that was not an option. I might have had to tolerate the situation, but I did not have to give in to it.

However, there was another problem with being stuck there. It was completely the opposite of what I had wanted from life. I moved out at 17 because I couldn’t wait to get out and start my own life. Moving back when I was ill was galling, but I was determined that I would get myself back on my feet and start again. What I envisaged was a life of moving around a lot, working in different places, being ready to take off to somewhere new at short notice, underpinned by the security of knowing that I always had a home to go back to if I needed it. It’s the kind of life that I see most of my friends in their early to mid 20s living now. Instead, I found myself with a property to look after and legal issues to deal with. I was faced with the realisation that if I decided to freewheel my way around the world now, I would be doing it without anywhere or anyone to come back to. Perhaps there are people who can handle that kind of isolation, but I’m not one of them. I need a little bit of stability underpinning my chaos, so I had to rethink the kind of life I was going to build.

I began a complicated game of hide and seek with myself. I would let myself care about things, about ideas, about career options, about people – but never too much. I always had to be able to look at the thing in question and say “I would be sad if I lost this, perhaps it would stop me in my tracks for a while – but I would survive it, it wouldn’t break me”. That way I could reassure myself that I was still functioning, that I hadn’t cut myself off or shut my emotions down as a result of the loss I had suffered, but at the same time I wasn’t risking too much. Every new connection with another person took me out of my comfort zone a little bit, but I never set foot beyond my safety zone.

That continued until 2011, when I realised I couldn’t go on like that any longer and completely revamped my attitudes towards pretty much everything. The way I work underwent massive change and I finally found my feet as an artist. I moved back from London. I fell in love. We got together, moved in together, got a cat, got engaged and got married in a very short space of time. I had forgotten that I had it in me to be that impulsive and uncalculating. At this point, I am starting to feel like I’ve got the hang of life again – and that is fucking terrifying, because I remember what happened last time.

So I am spending this summer trying to silence the thoughts that tell me that I’m not allowed to feel happy or secure, and that it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops. It’s completely irrational to believe that I can bring harm to people just by loving them. I know that. But the little voice in my head that says “Yes, but look what happened last time” isn’t big on listening to reason, and it’s a pretty large dose of fear to live with. This is why I’m going back to therapy. I cannot let my life be governed by an irrational belief. I will not remain paralysed by fear of 2003 – 2005 happening again. I do not appreciate the last vestiges of schizotypal behaviour trying to re-establish their foothold and getting in my way.

It’s not 2003 any more. That’s the important thing. And that’s what I need to get into my head somehow.


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…


If I were a cat I would be in profound meditation

The fact that I’m married surprises no-one more than me. I was never the kind of woman who has had her wedding day planned out since primary school. Who wasted time thinking about getting married when there were imaginary monsters to be battled? I was never interested in playing house or being the princess waiting to bestow her favour on whoever showed up to rescue her. These were things that would interfere with my valuable adventuring time.

 

I should have realised that there are narrative rules governing the fates of girls like me. In strict accordance with the rules set down by Rogers & Hammerstein (amongst others), I fell hard and fast. I’d known my husband for a few years before I fell/realised I was in love with him, but things moved swiftly once we’d figured it out and within a few months of getting together we were planning our wedding.

 

So why get married? A couple of reasons. First and most important was the prospect of celebrating our relationship in the company of the people we care about. There is something really beautiful about looking at my husband and knowing that we feel strongly enough about each other to have said our vows in front of friends and family. I am surprised by how important that was to me, since it was something I had never felt the need of before Mark. I would always have thought that living together, having a cat together, building a life together was enough, but it turned out that I wanted to make that commitment in public.

 

There were also the practical, unromantic reasons. I still think marriage in its current form is a bit of an outdated institution, but society as a whole doesn’t really care about my views and continues to work on the assumption that marriage is the way to validate a relationship and make it official. I’ve always felt uneasy about not having a legal next of kin, or at least not one that I trust. My closest blood relative is someone I steer clear of for a number of compelling reasons, and I would hate to think of her tracking me down if I were in some way incapacitated and being permitted to make decisions about my wellbeing just because we share some genes. If those decisions ever need to be made, I want Mark to be the one making them and there’s only one way to make absolutely certain of that. Likewise, in the event of my death (because when you have a couple of near misses in early adulthood you think about these things) I want him to inherit whatever I have without paying any bullshit inheritance tax, assuming there was enough to incur any.

 

And there was a reason that’s technically practical but in many ways quite whimsical… I never have to wonder how to refer to him. I hate the term “boyfriend”. Lord knows I’m not a schoolgirl in the frenzy of her first affair, to quote a clever man – but “boyfriend” sounds so teenaged. “Partner” makes it sound like a business relationship. (I know some people also object to this one on the grounds that it connotes a same-sex partner. Not really something that bothers me – if people want to waste time speculating about my sexuality they can. You know I’m married to a man. The rest is supposition.) Being able to call him my husband removes the implication that he’s someone with whom I do business or someone whose name I scribble obsessively in the back of my maths jotter. That matters to me, probably because I’m quite nitpicky.

 

Which leads me on to the question of what I now call myself. I’m still surprised by the number of people I meet who can’t quite get their heads round the idea that I haven’t changed my name. Am I making some kind of feminist statement? Refusing to be my husband’s property? Well… not really. I think we are both quite clear about the fact that we’re not each other’s property. I just like my name. It’s mine. I’ve had it all my life. It’s a connection to my dead parents. It’s also on my business cards, my Equity card, my website, my Gmail and all my programme credits.

 

We considered various options. Mark could have taken my name, but with the exception of the dead parents, my reasons for keeping my name apply equally to him keeping his. We could have hyphenated, but both McGregor and Bolsover are long enough already, thanks. I don’t have the attention span for telling people my name is Jennifer McGregor-Bolsover (I can hardly even be doing with signing myself J McGregor). Some of my friends have taken to referring to us as the McGrovers, which I find very sweet but have no desire to adopt as an official moniker. So the simplest thing to do was for me to keep my name and Mark to keep his, since we are, after all, still the same people we were before we got married.

 

However, I still had to decide what to do about my title. I’ve always worn my Miss with pride, happy to display my status as an unmarried woman. Now, having married but kept my name, I find being Mrs an uncomfortable prospect. Mrs McGregor – specifically Mrs J McGregor – was my mum. Mrs Bolsover is Mark’s mum. So where does that leave me? Both of those options feel like a second-hand identity.

 

So on all those annoying forms that consider it their business, I am Ms McGregor. It’s not ideal. For a start, I don’t like the sound of the word. Mzzzz. But perhaps I’ll get used to it in time. I also find it a bit annoying that using Ms still marks you out as a lefty feminist type. Yes, I am a lefty feminist type but no more so than I was this time last year when I was still styling myself Miss. I think this is me kicking against people’s assumptions that they know everything about me based on the fact that I use Ms, kept my name and am happily childfree. Well, there’s an incentive to do a PhD someday… Mark can be Dr Bolsover and I’ll be Dr McGregor and we’ll both have identities that didn’t belong to anyone else in our families first. (Of course this would mean a return to academia for me, which is full of its own terrors. Oh, the agonies of being a first world woman with food, shelter, birth control and the time to worry about which version of my name I use and whether I’m already qualified to the point of being unemployable.) In the meantime I’ll continue to be Ms McGregor, still looking for the right configuration of my name and regularly mocking myself for being concerned about something so trivial when the important thing is that I’ve married a good man with whom I am very, very happy. And when people choose to make assumptions based on that name, perhaps I’ll simply hand them print-outs of this post.


Looking Back on a Lonely Christmas

The tree is up and lit, the flat smells of spiced biscuits and hot cider (testing new recipes on some friends ahead of this year’s Christmas party), there have been carols on the stereo for much of the day and my husband and I just finished watching one of my favourite Christmas films, The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. This will be our second Christmas together, so we’re still establishing our traditions – and I’m so glad that we are.

I love Christmas. I had a secular upbringing and have never been baptised into or practised any religion, but I’m quite happy to get in on other people’s religious festivities if it means a bit of light and merriment in darkest December (and my birthday is on the 20th, so it’s a time of year I’ve always associated with celebration anyway). However, as much as I love Christmas, for some time after my parents died I had no idea what to do about it. I feel like I’m finally finding my way back into it after a long gap.

The final Christmas with Mum and Dad was a lovely one. I remember they gave me a pair of red stiletto boots, which I still have, and for a joke they gave me some Brio (the wooden train set stuff). I had always wanted Brio when I was little  but it was beyond our budget back then, so instead I got it when  I was on the cusp of adulthood and the family’s finances were much healthier. They had planned to keep the joke for my 21st, but I’m glad they didn’t since only one of them would live to see it. There’s a photo somewhere of me and my Dad, both still in pyjamas, building a scene from Back to the Future III out of Brio. We went through to Linlithgow for lunch and to uphold the family tradition of feeding the ducks. I had made Christmas cake for the first time. The tree was the same tree that we have in our living room now.

Of course I didn’t know it would be our last Christmas together – at that point we had no idea anything was wrong. But the following year my dad and I spent Christmas wondering what to do with ourselves, not feeling right about honouring any of the traditions, not feeling right about ignoring them either. I had just turned 21, but we didn’t feel like celebrating when Mum had died just a couple of months before.

The year after that, when I had just turned 22, I spent my first Christmas as an orphan. I have no siblings, am not in touch with my extended family, and at that point I hadn’t made most of the friends I have now or grown close enough to impose myself on them for Christmas. On Christmas Day I went to see family friends. I was supposed to stay over, but I couldn’t – nothing to do with them, I just couldn’t stand being the recently bereaved guest at someone else’s family Christmas. I have never been good at being a guest. I like to be around the things and people that are mine, and ever since my parents died I have struggled to be around other people’s families, knowing that I won’t ever be around mine again. So I went home to find my central heating had broken down. 2004 was really not my year.

The thing is, Christmas is utterly miserable for the newly bereaved. Everything is geared towards family and togetherness. Everyone you know is getting ready to go home for the festive season, talking about their travel plans and bitching about their family’s traditions. There is no escape from adverts full of wide-eyed children watched over by a generation or two of smiling adults, all gathered together to rejoice in having everything you’ve just lost. You can’t set foot in a shop without seeing something you want to buy for your dead loved ones, and if you can find the energy to put up a tree there’s a conspicuous gap at the bottom where your gifts to one another would usually be.

But the worst thing of all is the music. Now That’s What I Call Everyone Else Having An Amazing Family Christmas Except You Because Everyone You Love Is Dead And You Are Alone 82! Logically you know that you can’t be the only bereaved person for whom Christmas is proving challenging, but that doesn’t help when you’re being bombarded with All I Want For Christmas Is You and all its horrifically cheerful counterparts whose lyrics take on a whole new meaning after a significant death. It’s a toss-up between those and more obviously melancholy tracks like Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas  and Stop the Cavalry for which is most likely to provoke floods of tears. And then you get to feel bad because no matter how sympathetic people are, you still know you’re bringing them down at Christmas.

So why am I writing this rather depressing post? Because it gets easier. As the years go by you find ways of coping. You find new people to spend Christmas with, and maybe one day it even feels right. You invent new traditions, you reach a stage where the old traditions are no longer too painful to observe. Perhaps some people get to the stage where they can join other people’s families for Christmas. I haven’t got there yet. I wonder if I ever will.

Most importantly, I wish I had found a post like this on 24.12.04 when I spent Christmas Eve staring at my computer screen trying to make the time pass, knowing that there must be people out there in same predicament but feeling the need for proof. Would it have helped? I don’t know, because I never found what I was looking for. Perhaps there wasn’t as much out there on the interwebs back then. Perhaps my google skills just weren’t as good. But at least I know that if there’s a Jen-equivalent out there this Christmas, desperate for a little comfort, this post will be out there. If it does nothing else, at least it confirms that she’s not the only one. I’ve always found that knowing I’m not the only one helps. I hope she feels the same.


A Right Stooshie and the Question of Excellence

So here’s what’s been happening:

  • An open letter signed by 100 artists was sent to Creative Scotland, expressing dismay at the way the organisation has been run so far and requesting a fresh start. Click here to read it.
  • Sir Sandy Crombie, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Creative Scotland, replied to the open letter. Some of it is reasonable, some of it is a bit disappointing, none of it is the end of the matter. Click here to read it.
  • In his State of the Arts blog for the Herald, Phil Miller shares his thoughts on Sir Sandy’s response. He suggests that some at Creative Scotland see current events as “the game-changer” and that the attitude of Holyrood towards Creative Scotland has altered drastically. Click here to read it.

If you’ve read my previous posts you’ll already know that I think Creative Scotland is troubled and in need of reform, particularly where their communication with artists is concerned. That’s why I set up Artists’ Open Space – it’s not just the fact that we talk that’s important, it’s how we do it. I’m pleased that most of Creative Scotland’s senior management team has agreed to attend, but it’s what they say and do at the meeting and afterwards that’s important, not just their attendance.

In all this back and forth between artists and CS, I see both sides laying claim to “success stories” and talking about “artistic excellence”. The thing is, I don’t see anyone defining these terms and it strikes me that this is where our communication difficulties lie.

What is “success”? Is it profit? Is it impact on people’s lives? Is it fulfilment of the artist’s goals? Is it meeting the brief set by the supplier of the funding (and if it is, is that not rife with the potential to be patronage at its most sinister?) A piece of art can be successful in many different ways, but I believe the most important function of art is to affect individuals.

It may seem very dramatic to say that a book, poem, sculpture, play, song or anything else has changed your life, but it’s not inaccurate. Mine’s been changed by very minor things, like having a song or a poem help me to make sense of events in my life, and in major ways, like seeing paintings or reading books that made me feel less alone after the double-whammy bereavement. (The latter might sound minor. It’s not. When you’re newly orphaned, anything that makes you feel less alone is a whopping great triumph.)

Numerous artforms contributed to my development not only as an artist myself, but as a person. From my first nursery rhyme onwards, the arts have helped to develop my literacy, numeracy, awareness of history, geography, science, society, empathy, identity and ethics. They played a major role in shaping me as a person and they continue to do so.

I’m not amazingly well-educated, but I’m fortunate enough to have been encouraged to think critically throughout my life. That’s why I can get this far with expressing the influence the arts have had on me. However, despite my postgraduate education and the unusually large amount of time I devote to thinking about these things, I don’t feel I’ll ever be able to tell the full story. How could I possibly disentangle my own mind to the point where I can tell you which of the many books, paintings, plays etc. gave rise to particular aspects of my thoughts, beliefs and personality? I feel ridiculously ill-equipped to figure it out. Yet due to the life and influences I’ve had, that doesn’t mean I won’t try.

When I see something for the first time, I don’t know what its long-term effect on me will be. Years ago I saw Donatello’s carving of Mary Magdalene and her face and body language have haunted me ever since – she’s a perfect picture of grief and loss, and seeing her made me feel that someone understood the magnitude of my own bereavement. Even though Donatello has been dead for centuries and I haven’t seen that carving again in almost a decade, the memory of it gives me comfort and perspective. I doubt that he knew as he created it that his work would be having such powerful effects on a young Scottish woman with dead parents so many centuries later. I certainly didn’t realise as I looked at it that it would stay with me for years to come.

Taking all of this into consideration, I would say that it’s the long-term impact of art that makes it successful. But how to measure that? If your audience is made up of people with decent critical thinking skills and an inclination towards blogging, they might continue to volunteer feedback in years to come. But what about the non-bloggers? Or, more crucially, the people who haven’t had the education or opportunity to become decent critical thinkers? It seems to me that a true measure of artistic success would require a massive change in education to enable people to  understand how the arts affect our lives, to analyse the effects and express them clearly.

Yes, it’s idealistic. There’s little point in trying to fix a problem by thinking small. Better to think of the ideal and then see how close you can get to it. That’s the bit I’ll think about in another post, since it’s going to take more energy than I currently have to start figuring it out.

Going back to the Creative Scotland stooshie, I think that if we’re going to improve communications between organisation and artists, a good first step would be to work on commonly-accepted definitions of our terms. There’s little point in talking if you’re always at cross-purposes and little point in funding criteria written in words that no-one really understands. Language reflects our ways of thinking, and before we do anything else we need to understand our own thoughts. Who would have thought that understanding your own thoughts and finding the most accurate words to express them would require such a lot of consideration and discipline? But it does, and if we haven’t done that then whatever we do next is built on shaky foundations.


Story time!

A couple of weeks ago I went to my first Outside Thoughts event. It’s a simple format. Short stories are selected and given performed readings which are then made available as podcasts. Very straightforward, very well done.

One of my stories, Old Woman with Masks, was selected for the September event. I was delighted by the reading (of which more below) and by seeing my story in such excellent company. The standard of the writing was very high (read: I frequently felt outclassed). Podcasts from the evening are being released one by one, and I’d really recommend following Outside Thoughts on Facebook so you get notified when they’re available. Especially because the next one that’s due to be released is a real cracker – one that you’ll identify with if you’ve ever been chatted to by some random weirdo on a bus…

Anyway, enough about other people. My story was written when I was 22 – I was still walking with a stick after the massive car crash, just past the first anniversary of my Dad’s death, coming up on the second of my Mum’s , still feeling like I was living on borrowed time because I was on cancer watch myself. It was a hell of a time. I wasn’t writing much, because, as I’ve discussed here before, I was too deeply submerged in the trauma to make much sense of it yet. I could write, by which I mean I could construct things competently,  but I couldn’t yet get anywhere near the things I needed to write, which meant that things didn’t quite ring true to me. When writing doesn’t ring true I quickly lose interest, whether as writer or as audience.

Old Woman with Masks was a breakthrough piece for me. It was the result of a writing exercise in a short story class – I was given a prompt to work from, a postcard showing James Ensor’s Old Woman with Masks. The figure in the painting began speaking to me straight away, and I’ve loved Ensor’s work ever since. He loved skeletons, I love skeletons, it’s a match made in… somewhere.

When I got to Outside Thoughts and saw the lady who had been cast to read my story, I was a bit concerned. Pam Tibbetts, I thought, looked too young, too stylish, too sophisticated for the humdrum, stifled character I had written.

And then she began to read, and I was instantly won over. By the time she got a few paragraphs in, I was utterly convinced that this was the way the character in the story looks and sounds in her own head. Pam did a fantastic job, and our chat afterwards was lovely. I love it when performers can take my view of a character and turn it on its head, especially when it’s a character originally of my creation.

You’ll find the story here if you’d like to have a listen: http://outsidethoughts.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Episode-Six.mp3

Old Woman with Masks – Ensor


On Emerging

I haven’t yet seen Sylvia Dow’s A Beginning, A Middle and an End. My tickets are booked and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it reaches the Traverse.

My reasons are twofold. First, I have fond memories of Sylvia. I’ve no idea whether she would remember me, but back when I was 16 and still suffering from delusions of wanting to be a singer, she gave me my first major role in an amateur production of Viva Mexico. (Seriously. This is my version of a misspent youth.) So when I saw that she’d written a play I was keen to see it and to hope it’s going well for her. 

Second, even if I’d never met Sylvia I would be intrigued by the publicity surrounding her as a playwright having her first play produced at 73. This fact attracts a great deal of comment in the reviews I’ve seen, and it got me thinking about the culture of “emerging artists” and the expectation that “emerging” should be synonymous with “young”. Take this review from Mark Fisher, for example: Click! The final sentence really interests me, describing this play as “an auspicious, if tardy, debut”.

‘Tardy’ is a really interesting choice of word. Dictionary.com offers the definitions late; behind time; not on time; moving or acting slowly; slow; sluggish; delaying through reluctance. All of these have rather negative connotations – possibly not Mr Fisher’s intention, and I chose his review rather than any other because it happened to be the last one I read. What intrigues me is not the attitude of an individual reviewr but  how the word choice might indicate that we’ve internalised the idea that making one’s debut should happen during youth.

I don’t know Sylvia’s circumstances. I’ve no idea why her playwriting career is just beginning now. Maybe she was happily prioritising other things. Maybe she was languishing in a job she hated and working up the nerve to send out her script. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to express herself in this particular medium until recently. I don’t know.

I would only consider this to be a truly tardy debut if for some reason it should have happened earlier. If, for some reason, some administrative error or some failure to recognise her ability or some dastardly plot to keep her work from being programmed were at fault – if the work was there and ready to go but being held back by some outside agency when it should have been out there – then I might use the same phrase. But if someone makes a series of choices which lead to their beginning a playwriting career at 73, I’d rather use language that applauds them.

The question of what constitutes an emerging artist comes up again and again. Many schemes for emerging playwrights have upper age limits. The Traverse Young Writers group is for 18 – 25s, likewise the Royal Court. Old Vic New Voices only recently opened widened its age range so that you can now make it to the grand old age of 30 before you cease to be eligible.

When I look at publicity concerning new playwrights there’s frequently a mention of their age. Look at Ella Hickson, Lucy Prebble, Katori Hall, Mike Bartlett – just a few off the top of my head, all of whom were in their early to mid twenties when they experienced their first major successes. I remember when Enron came out, for example, much was made in the media of Lucy Prebble’s youth and precocity. It’s understandable that people look for human interest and I suppose age is a part of that, but I think there’s a real danger in the idea that producing work young is automatically a good thing. Some of the work produced by young playwrights is amazing. Some is not. There’s a lot more to it than age.

18 – 25 were turbulent years for me. I had my first major depressive episode at 18 and could barely put my socks on, let alone write. Just after I got back on my feet, my mother died. The following year, my father died and I was being watched for signs of pancreatic cancer. Eight months after that I was badly injured in a car accident. I had to spend two years living in my dead parents’ house because I had nowhere else to go while the estate was being wound up. By the time I was in a position to start rebuilding my life and training as a director, I was 24.

I’m now a few months away from my 30th birthday. Going by many people’s definition of ’emerging’, I’m either already past it or I’m about to be. Yet it took me until a couple of years ago to be able to write anything I felt I could submit, so in many ways I still feel like an emerging writer.

On the one hand, I’ve got a ton of valuable life experience. On the other hand, I’ve got all the angst that goes with it. That kind of life experience isn’t necessarily something that you can put to use straight away. For a long time I found that it was just to painful to write anything truthful. Even if the subject matter wasn’t directly related to my own experiences, I couldn’t put my characters through anything really difficult because I couldn’t bear to subject anyone to the same levels of pain that I had been through, even if they were fictional. Writing plays where nothing too bad happens to anyone doesn’t really get you that far, since conflict drives drama.

Or I would go to the other extreme and write deeply tortured work, trying to understand why I had to go through so much, trying to make sense of my grief. I still have the things I wrote then. At this moment I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever share them, because some things are just too raw and too personal. There’s no way I could handle criticism on that stuff, especially not from anyone who hasn’t had similar experiences.  Perhaps I’ll change my mind someday, but I’m not convinced that that will ever be for public consumption.

The bits and pieces that I wrote during that time added up to nothing complete. My focus was too narrow – I would write scene after scene going over the same ideas, because my focus was on making sense of my experience rather than creating a narrative that could be understood from the outside. Working my way past that stage took time, so I didn’t have a completed play to my name until I was 28.

Sometimes that makes me feel ancient, slow, somehow less worthy than all these people who were produced playwrights before they turned 23. It makes me feel that if I had only worked harder, applied myself more, I could have done that too.

Realistically, I know I couldn’t. Being an only child dealing with the emotional and administrative nightmare of dying parents is… well, time-consuming, amongst other things. My dedication and application weren’t really the issue. At 21, my priority was making sure my dad’s final months were as painless as possible. My head was full of Power of Attorney and Do Not Resuscitate and morphine:sedative ratios. Shaping anything I wrote into something worth reading would have required energy I simply didn’t have. And as for being trapped in their house, surrounded by memories and devoid of other options… it’s creatively stifling, to say the least. If you can’t imagine why, think yourself lucky.

Anyway, all this is to say that for me, getting anywhere with my writing when I was under 25 was simply not on the cards. Even without my slightly melodramatic circumstances, it’s quite possible that for some people it simply takes a while to find their way onto that path. Priorities change. People change. Perhaps it would be healthy to respect and even celebrate that, rather than clinging to this slightly X-Factor-ish idea that people are “born” to do something and work towards it all their lives, never letting anything get in their way. Really, how many of us can honestly lay claim to that? Passion is no less true because you discover or acknowledge it later in life, and only a privileged few don’t encounter any major setbacks along the way.

I realise that in order for support for artists to exist there are always going to be categories and that most of the time these will be pretty arbitrary. It’s imperfect, but it’s part of life and all we can do is look for ways to keep improving things. That said, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on the tiny, subtle judgements and values that sneak their way into our thoughts, revealing themselves every so often in the words we use and the way we respond to things.

That’s a lot of words to say “Why can’t we just judge writers by their writing rather than their life stories?”, but I don’t write these posts just to throw questions out into the void. Nor do I write them thinking that I’ll reach an answer on the first attempt. I write this and leave it here, perhaps to be unpicked further after these current thoughts have percolated for a while. In the meantime, I’ll continue to look forward to seeing Sylvia’s show later this month.