Tag Archives: Overthinking

A Short Post on Artistic Recycling

I have always loved writing very short stories. I had been doing it for years before I found out that there was a name for the sort of thing I write (flash fiction, apparently).

My flash pieces and ten minute plays are usually inspired by paintings, songs, eavesdropping or news articles. For a long time I berated myself with the idea that my attachment to short pieces meant I didn’t have the stamina to write anything longer and that it was a sign of my inability to concentrate. Of course I now know that this is not true. I’ve written full-length  books and plays, proving to myself that I can do it.

I also used to berate myself with the fact that there was nothing I could do with my short pieces. Flash fiction, short stories, ten minute plays – they seemed a much harder sell than novels or longer plays. However, since I started ghostwriting I have  discovered that all those short pieces that I’ve been writing since 2006 are very useful portfolio material. They’re complete, they’re punchy and they demonstrate my technical skills.

I suppose the moral of this story is that you should never assume that anything you write is without purpose. You learn from everything you write, you get a sense of how much mileage there is in an idea, you improve your craft (or at least have the opportunity to do so), and you might be writing your own advertising copy unwittingly and a few years in advance.


A belated write-up of Creative Scotland’s Open Session in Edinburgh

It has been over a week since the Creative Scotland Open Session in Edinburgh. I’ve been meaning to write about it since then, but every time I start a draft I get exasperated and abandon it in favour of the work I actually get paid to do.

The official write-up of the day is here, just so you know: http://www.csopensessions.com/pat-kanes-blog/edinburgh/

The session was 4 hours long, 12 – 4, but nothing actually happened until 1pm. That was far too long to leave people sitting around. I understand the value of chat and know that there’s always a certain amount of time set aside for meet and greet, but 25% of the overall event time was too much. It might have been more useful to have this unstructured time at the end of the session rather than the beginning. That said, the catering was very nice…

The structure of the event was as follows: an hour of dithering, three speakers, a Q&A with the speakers, then 45 minutes of discussion at our tables and a short presentation of what we found. Apart from the first hour, it was all structured and guided in a way that served to kill off any spontaneity or organic discussion.

I’m not convinced by the idea of having three speakers at each event. This is partly because I get bored very easily if I’m watching people who lack public speaking skills. Only Hannah McGill was a particularly engaging speaker. I’m also sceptical about the selection of speakers. I can see that CS is trying hard to bring in voices from all areas of the arts (no, I’m not adding “and creative industries” because I don’t see them as separate entities, that’s an argument for another post) and has invited some outspoken critics of the organisation. However, the very fact that only selected speakers have a voice rankles with me. There are so many people within the arts who will speak not because they have something to say, but because a platform has been offered and god forbid they should ever pass up such an opportunity to be in the spotlight. (Actually, I’m not convinced that’s limited to the arts. I suspect that’s just a human thing.) Add in a fee and few people will turn it down.

One of the speakers, Ed Stack of indie music download company Ten Tracks, chose to show part of a TED talk by Amanda Palmer. Pat Kane, who was chairing the Open Session, describes her as “US indie rock goddess”. If you consider a goddess as an entity that demands endless amounts of attention and tribute from group of fanatical worshippers, that sounds about accurate. I watched that TED talk in its entirety when it came out, and it puts an extremely disingenuous spin on Ms Palmer’s exploitative behaviour towards her fellow artists (again, future post) and completely disregards the fact that her “art of asking” only works if you start from a position of considerable privilege. We should not be basing our ideas about being a working artist on the assumption that everyone has a typical middle-class support system in place. Showing videos made by people who donated their labour for free is all very nice, but it doesn’t help me as a working artist unless you tell me how they’re paying their bills while they give everything away.

Anyway, by the time the speakers had finished I had nearly worn out the battery on my phone by having Twitter conversations, many of which were with people who were actually in the room with me. Since there wasn’t a way for us to talk to each other as part of the event, we found out own damn way. I do hope CS is keeping a record of the Twitter conversations – they’ll find more in-depth discussions there than those that I was privy to in the room.

The Q&A with the speakers was derailed by the very first question. Apparently someone thought it necessary to ask “how Scottish” Creative Scotland should be, plunging us back into the pointless circular debate of the Alasdair Gray stooshie from last December. Suddenly everyone had to prove their Scottish credentials and how non-anti-English they are. Useful conversation ground to a halt. I had a sore tongue for two days from biting it really, really hard. I’m still not sure what the point of that question was.

Tim Licata from Plutot la Vie brought up an interesting point in his question about whether CS needs a “vision” or might be better off having a “purpose”. This is actually the kind of discussion that helps, because it lets us get closer to the fundamental problems that have to be addressed first in theoretical then in practical terms if we are ever to see genuine change. Alas, this was a Q&A with selected speakers, not a free-flowing discussion amongst equals, and the room was still suffused with the energy from the last question – not the kind of energy that encourages debate or diversity of opinion. Although Tim’s question may well have been the most important one asked that day, the response was little more than “hmm, yeah, suppose so”.

Arguing about language doesn’t feel like it should be difficult, but it is. When you actually start picking apart the things that people say (and the things that you say yourself), you start to make discoveries about the ways of thinking that underpin the language. It’s easy to dismiss it as semantics and claim that it’s not action, it’s not important. It is. You can’t change how people think unless you engage with it and attempt to understand it. You can’t do that without looking at how their behaviour is expressed in language, it’s like wanting to see the whole dinosaur skeleton while claiming that sweeping away the first layer of dirt is pointless. We should be prepared to have our words challenged and to defend out use of them. I’ve argued for this throughout my involvement in this conversation.

However, challenge really wasn’t a part of the Open Session format. After the Q&A we were shuffled into groups sitting round tables, being asked to discuss a central question. By the time the shuffling was done, no-one at my table could remember what the question was. We discussed what we’d like to see from the new, improved Creative Scotland and some points were written down on a large flipchart that had been left with a single pen in the centre of the table. So rather than a record of the diversity of ideas and opinions around the table, we had a sanitised version that said all the things you’d expect it to say. On the surface, it looked like consensus. In reality, it was the result of voices being stifled so that we could get some dinky phrases down on paper by the end of our 45 minutes, to be shared with the other groups as someone from each table got up and explained that they had reached more or less the same conclusion as everyone else.  CS should be nice and supportive and understand us and help us. It should nurture this delicate ecology. Pat Kane asked the question about whether Creative Scotland should resemble a gardener, trying to control said “ecology”. As he notes in his blog, someone piped up to say that trying to control ecology doesn’t make you a gardener, it makes you a god. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was me. Gardeners don’t control ecology, they understand it. They learn how to work within it to bring about change. That’s not the same as control. By all means, let Creative Scotland be a gardener, but it must not be a god. That’s how we got here in the first place.

Afterwards, on Twitter, there was a bit of a discussion about the word “ecology”. I don’t like it much, mostly because I hear it used in an attempt to sound scientific and intelligent and to conceal a lack of content or substance. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify the value of art – but I don’t believe we do ourselves any favours by borrowing the language of science (or business, or anything else) without being willing to interrogate it. Also, “ecology” and “ecosystem” are not quite the same thing, and they shouldn’t be used interchangeably just because “ecology” sounds a bit more natural and friendly than “ecosystem”.

Anyway… by the end of the Open Session I felt frustrated and angry. The discussions that we had there were discussions that have already been had, over and over again, online and off. Perhaps the fact that we needed to have them again is indicative of new people joining the conversation, in which case it’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a frustrating thing. But perhaps it’s indicative that while there has been some change at CS, it’s not going deep enough yet.

That same day, the advertisement for the new Chief Executive was posted. The language is more promising – at least it features the word “integrity” – and we know there will be artists involved in the decision-making process, including Vicky Featherstone who seems unlikely to refrain from speaking her mind. However, the salary appears unchanged, and I question the integrity of anyone willing to accept a salary more than ten times in excess of what most artists earn. I question what it means that Creative Scotland still sees that disparity as acceptable. (Someone at the Open Session tried to defend the salary to me on the grounds that being Chief Exec is a difficult job involving long hours. Want to talk about difficult jobs with long hours? My mother was a nurse. She was not on £120K/year. Even without the apples to oranges comparison of arts and medicine, I am a writer and director. I regularly do 16 hour days. I never get paid to sit in meetings. I have coffee with people on my own time and money. My skills have to be extremely sharp and constantly honed if I am to find work in a highly competitive environment. Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for the terribly hard life of a heftily-salaried arts exec.)

I believe in the need for the Open Sessions, but I think the purpose is currently incorrect. Artists need a forum through which they can talk to CS. It needs to be less structured. We don’t need to be talked at, we need to have conversations. We need to meet the people who make up the organisation, put faces to them, let them put faces to us. We need to see that they are people and let them see that we are people. This is how you build relationships. Give us something truly open, where we can bring our concerns (whether “we” are artists, CS, audience or other), meet each other, respond to issues as they come up. Basically, look at the Devoted & Disgruntled model and do that. Not just because it works, but also because it’s an exercise in humility – by relinquishing control and trusting to those present, you make an admission that you do not know best. If CS knew both what it needs to do and how to do it, change would be happening already. It doesn’t. Perhaps no individual or formal organisation does. That’s not going to change without people being brave enough to admit that they don’t know.

That said, I believe that Kenneth Fowler – CS’ head of communication and external relations – actually gets this. I’ve always felt quite hopeful after talking to him. He seemed aware that the format wasn’t quite working and was asking people directly for their thoughts at the end of the session. He said it would evolve. I believe it will, and that’s why I’ve taken the time to write all this. I have no desire simply to be negative about the whole thing. Everything that I’ve brought up in this post has been mentioned because I think there’s a possibility for change. I hope that the attitude that I see in Kenneth and believe to be present in some of the other CS employees will spread and eventually become normal within the organisation. Believe it or not, I don’t write these blog posts just to get things off my chest. I do it because I still believe that thing can change. More than that, in fact. I still believe they must. Which is why, in spite of everything, I’m glad I went.


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!)


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.


A bit of a rant about “Skivers and Strivers”

On my way to the studio this afternoon I was listening to the radio and heard something that really annoyed me. I’m not sure what it was, since it was a short journey and I didn’t hear the beginning or end of the programme, but it was someone on Radio 4 talking about “skivers and strivers”. I can’t help feeling that these terms are noxious Cameronite propaganda designed to make people who have recently been shafted by a double dip recession and subsequent high unemployment rates feel bad about themselves. Anyway, some middle-aged man was putting his perfect elocution to questionable use by attempting to describe the frustration experienced by commendable, hardworking “strivers” when they get up for work early in the morning and see curtains closed in houses across the road, where idle benefit-scrounging “skivers” are lolling around in bed. Much was made of an anecdote about a jobseeker who dared express a preference for jobs that started later in the morning, maybe after 9.30am.

I know you should never get too riled up by anything taken out of context, but I was angry. By the time I’d taught today’s session, got home and done some domestic bit and pieces, I was still annoyed. My computer doesn’t get along well enough with BBC iplayer to let me listen to the programme now – which is probably quite a good thing, since throwing things at people talking in my computer is not the greatest idea – so I am writing this blog post from a position of partial ignorance. Perhaps all the points I intend to make in this post were made later in the programme. I hope they were, although I doubt it. Either way, I’ll make them here.

What really infuriates me about that man’s attitude is how rigid and unrealistic his view of what constitutes a work ethic is. You have no idea who is behind those closed curtains. Ever heard of a night shift? The person you’re branding lazy and a “skiver” might very well have been up all night putting out fires or caring for the sick and dying. The people who do those jobs are already underpaid and undervalued – let’s at least do them the courtesy of allowing them to sleep when they’re not at work.

There are also plenty of people who might not be doing lifesaving work but whose hours are not 9 – 5 or any approximation thereof, and we don’t deserve Plummy Radio Man’s condemnation either. Personally, I tend to wake up some time between ten and eleven. I’m usually online within half an hour of getting up. I faff about on social media for a bit while the caffeine kicks in, but social media isn’t just a toy for me – in amongst the cat pictures and updates about lunch choices, there are links to all sorts of things that are important to a freelance theatremaker. I hear about companies, submission deadlines, development schemes and industry news this way.

Then as my brain wakes up, I start replying to emails, writing budgets, plans and applications and drafting articles and blog posts that I’ll revisit and shape properly later in the day. Some days I teach, in which case I head in to the studio. Some days I edit and feed back on other people’s scripts, in which case I stay at home and probably remain in my pyjamas and wrapped in blankets for warmth. Some days I have meetings to go to. Sometimes I have rehearsals.

In the evenings I might be teaching, rehearsing, in meetings, at the theatre or some other event where I can network and meet collaborators and keep an eye on what’s happening in my area of the industry. Or I might be in front of my laptop working on a plan, budget, article or script. If I’m out during the evening, I’ll be back on the computer when I get home. I keep working until shortly before I go to bed, usually between 2 and 3am.

Now, I’m not saying I have my nose to the grindstone from 11am until 3am. Of course I have breaks and slack times and sneaky reads of sites that are nothing to do with anything. I play with the cat, I antagonise my husband (who also works from home much of the time). What I am saying is that I don’t have much of a social life or straightforward non-working time. I’m mentally on call all day, every day (which is not a complaint, by the way, it’s one of the things I love about my life and work because it’s how my brain works anyway). I don’t have many friends who aren’t also collaborators, so although I spend a lot of time with my friends it’s rarely just social. We have work meetings and we cram our catch-ups into the gaps.

On Sundays, Jen rests. I don’t check email, I switch my phone off. If I’m online it’s for entertainment purposes. I avoid company other than cat and husband. I cook. I spend ages reading in the bath. I try not to write, although I don’t always succeed in this.

Like I said, I’m not complaining about what my work life involves. It’s busy, but it’s great. I wish it involved a little more actual earning of money – financially I’d be better off on benefits – but we get by. It might be a while before we can afford a holiday, but as you can see from the above, I don’t have a particularly healthy attitude towards time off. I’m quite happy to work long hours because I enjoy what I do and as Noel Coward said, work is so much more fun than fun.

Just don’t dare tell me I don’t have a work ethic simply because I don’t start work by 9am. I’ve lived my life for a long time and know I don’t function well in the mornings. Even when I was living in London and the alarm went off at 5:50am each day so I could be on the tube a little after 7, I was never on form in the mornings. I know when I work best and I make the most of being freelance to allow me to work during my most productive hours. Does this somehow make me a “skiver”? By Plummy Radio Man’s standards, probably, since apparently only jobs that require you to be in work by 9am count as respectable employment.

Well, I suppose theatre was never considered the most respectable of professions. I can live with that. It’s not so much that I feel personally offended by Plummy Radio Man’s views. It’s more that I find this ideology of “skivers and strivers” and the demonising of those on benefits deeply disturbing. If it’s irritating to be a self-employed freelancer facing criticism for not working at the correct times of day, it must be soul-destroying to be a chronically ill person who can’t work and perhaps sleeps more than the average eight hours due to high levels of pain or medication side-effects. Or to be someone who had a job until they lost it due to the lovely double dip recession that they didn’t cause, and who hasn’t been able to find another one. Or to be someone who has never had a job because they stepped straight from education into high youth unemployment, where some bright spark wants to swap jobs that didn’t pay a living wage to begin with for Workfare placements that don’t pay at all and where unpaid internships have become commonplace?

I must stop before I become too irate to be coherent. I hope Radio 4 had someone putting another point of view. This “one size fits all” way of thinking, this ridiculously naive idea that anyone who isn’t employed and wealthy just doesn’t want to work, is dangerous. It chips away at the confidence of everyone who doesn’t currently fit that image. It erodes our freedom to choose a path other than one that leads to a 9 – 5 job and diminishes our respect for those who do take those paths. If you want to be cared for in hospital, have emergency services available round the clock or even simply to have someone pour your pint when you go to the pub or write the play that you go to see after work, you should respect the fact that they might not work the same hours as you. They’re not “skivers”, and the fact that there’s a small number of people out there to whom that label could accurately be applied does not excuse its sloppy, inaccurate and degrading application to anyone who might have good reason to be asleep while others commute.


Being the Squeaky Wheel

I’m not going to assume that everyone knows the expression “the squeaky wheel gets  the grease”, since I actually got through the first 20 years of my life without encountering it. It’s a phrase used to encapsulate the idea that the people who make the most noise are the ones who get what they want.

This idea is completely opposed to what I was taught growing up. Over and over again I was told that you don’t get what you want by shouting or demanding or even just being politely explicit. You get what you want by working for it quietly (and methodically, which was the bit I always struggled with) and if what you do has sufficient merit you will get what you want. You don’t kick up a fuss about why you’re more deserving than anyone who might want the same thing, you just trust that if you’ve done what you need to do, you’ll get out what you put in.

Realising that life is not like that has been an ongoing process for the past 30 years, but it’s such a deeply-held belief of mine that I feel I am constantly locking horns with life because of it. Surely life should be like that? It should be possible? I can’t quite let go of that idea, even though I’ve been shown time and again that life actually favours the squeaky wheels. (Surely when you can see clearly that something you believe is wrong it should be possible to discard or even just adjust that belief? That would be the rational thing to do, and I get very frustrated when I can see the rational path before me and can’t allow myself to take it. I also get frustrated that I can never type the word ‘frustrated’ accurately on the first attempt.)

I see it to a certain extent in my professional life, but it’s a necessary evil there. It really isn’t enough for a writer, director or actor simply to do their work well and honestly and hope their merits will be recognised, because there are countless others out there who are just as meritorious and there aren’t enough opportunities to go round. In addition to having merit, you must also be good at publicising yourself (unless you’re born very well-connected or you get a particularly lucky break, in which case count your blessings). It’s a pretty common frustration, since few of us seem to like doing self-publicity and everyone seems to think that everyone else is better at it than they are.

However, at the moment it’s more of an issue in my domestic life than my professional one. I dread things going wrong around the house, because if it’s anything that necessitates dealing with insurance companies I know I’m going to have to be the squeaky wheel. Yesterday, while I was still in my pyjamas and considering going back to bed with a splitting headache, our downstairs neighbour came to let us know that there was a leak from our flat coming through his ceiling. A bit of searching revealed that the leak was coming from our combi boiler. We have insurance through Shield, so I called them and asked for an engineer.

Getting on for 5pm, I called again to ask where the engineer was. I know they have call-outs until 11pm, but I’ve also been through this often enough to know that if you don’t have the engineer on site before 6pm your chances of getting things fixed that day decrease considerably. I’m also still in a bad mood with Shield since the engineer they sent out to do a routine service last November told us we had a carbon monoxide leak and left us without heat or hot water for three days, only for a second engineer to come out to finish the job and tell us that there hadn’t actually been a leak in the first place and that the first engineer had misread his monitor. At least this time we can see there’s a leak, but I’m still not thrilled by having our heating and hot water cut off in January. I have spinal problems that cause me a lot of muscle tension and I rely on hot water to keep the pain under control, so the cold water thing gets old fast.

So the engineer comes out, does his thing, says that he has to order parts and will be back in the morning. He orders all the parts he could possibly need. His supervisor refuses to authorise the more expensive parts. I make it clear that I am not going to be happy if those turn out to be the parts we needed. This morning comes. No engineer. I phone up to find out what is happening. I’m told that the job isn’t booked in for today but they’ll try and get someone out this evening.

This is the difficult bit. On the one hand, this is completely unacceptable. We pay for this insurance – by the logic I grew up with, we have quietly and regularly fulfilled our end of the bargain. What should happen next is that Shield fulfils theirs, quickly and with minimum fuss, and this should require no more from me than calling the problem in. We certainly shouldn’t be facing another indefinite period without heat a mere two months after the last time, especially as the boiler was fine until we had it serviced and has been nothing but trouble ever since. Since I am obviously going to have to be the squeaky wheel, I would prefer not to do do it by halves. A nuclear loss of temper would be really, really satisfying.

On the other hand, I’m on the phone to some poor girl who is not being paid enough to deal with me raging at her. It is also not her fault. She’s just telling me what comes up on her screen. Losing my temper with her would hardly be fair. But what she is telling me is that this problem cannot be resolved quickly and without us spending days huddled round the halogen heater, and as long as I remain calm this is what she continues to tell me. Honey is not working. It is only when I become somewhat vinegary that she agrees to put me through to her manager. When I speak to the manager my tone is emphatic, not impolite but obviously angry. Suddenly it becomes possible to get an engineer out today.

By 16.30 we had heating and hot water again. I’m pleased about that. However, we only have it because I got angry and won an argument. I’m quite good at winning these arguments, but I don’t like myself afterwards. Getting angry is a loss of control and I’m not a fan of those. I’m not sure to what extent my frustration grows from disappointment in myself for letting myself give in to the rage and to what extent it comes from having to do this in order to obtain a service I’ve already paid for. If I hadn’t argued so vehemently we would still be waiting for the initial appointment, never mind having the boiler fixed. The squeaky wheel did indeed get the grease – but damn it, it shouldn’t be this way and I don’t know how to let go of that. Perhaps more on that way of thinking in a future post. Perhaps not. We’ll see. I’m exhausted and drained and not committing myself to anything I might later regret…

At least I can say this much – as miserable as the experience was, it was a hell of a lot easier going through it with my husband than on my own. We raged together, then later we laughed together and rejoiced in being able to have showers and baths again. Now we’re blowing off a bit of steam, in his case killing video game monsters and in my case telling the interwebs all about it. Time for tea, chocolate brownies and then bed, in the hope that tomorrow will be better than the last two days. This particular wheel has done enough squeaking for now.


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.


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.


Noting a Broken Pattern

Today (or yesterday, I suppose) I had a really useful meeting with Sandy Thomson, Artistic Director of Bell Rock (formerly Poorboy), in her role as a Cultural Enterprise advisor.

I had gone seeking advice regarding Tightlaced’s structure and legal status, as well as hoping to pick up some tips from an artist who successfully runs a theatre ensemble herself. She gave me lots of information and food for thought regarding company structure and how a co-operative model might work, and she referred me on to other Cultural Enterprise resources for anything she couldn’t help me with herself. (If you’re an artist who doesn’t already know about the Cultural Enterprise Office, READ THIS NOW. Then come back here and finish reading this.)

But just as important as her advice was her support. I don’t get many chances to talk to other artistic directors of methodology-led ensembles. Sandy and I spoke about the possibilities and pitfalls presented by ensemble work and she reminded me that considering my own needs and wants is not only allowed but actually essential.

We talked about the boom and bust patterns that seem so difficult to avoid in the leaders of groups who work this way, which led me to acknowledge a very important milestone that I had allowed to pass unnoticed – even by me.

I have not experienced physical burnout since April.

I know that probably sounds like nothing, but for me it’s major. For years I’ve run on 12-weekly cycles, working flat out for three months at a time and then collapsing with a monster cold/flu-type thing which seems to be the physical manifestation of my exhaustion. I’d take a day or two off if I could (by which I mean I’d keep working but I’d do it from home) then I’d drag myself back up to full speed as quickly as possible.

It was a ridiculously unhealthy attitude, don’t think I don’t know that. I once fractured my coccyx and destabilised a couple of joints and went straight from the ambulance to rehearsal with no time at all to rest. That’s one of the more extreme examples, but at the time I saw it as the obvious thing to do. I started behaving this way because I felt I had to, because there was never enough time to do everything I felt I should be doing, then I kept doing it because I was trapped in the pattern.

This time last year I figured out exactly how destructive my pattern was and made a promise that I would get better. I had just finished Romeo and Juliet and I was ill, yet again. I had been deteriorating for over a month, starting with the usual cold and culminating in a kidney infection. I’d like to say that was my last physical burnout, but despite my promises to myself there was one more to come. I completely overworked myself in March and had one last cold from hell to see me through April.

Since then, though, I’ve been doing well. Even though this has not been an easy year in terms of mental health, where physical health is concerned I’ve been a lot better at maintaining my equilibrium. Even if I’m knocked flat on my back by a cold tomorrow, the fact remains that I have come this far. I paced myself so that I didn’t succumb to Fringe Lurgy. I struggled mentally around the anniversary of my Mum’s death but stayed physically well. I was anticipating burnout after the double bill, but in spite of all the long days, late nights and endless energy being poured into the work, I was still standing afterwards.

As I said, this probably sounds like nothing, but do you know how long it’s been since I went more than twelve weeks without exhausting myself to the point of illness? The last time I can remember was 1995. Seventeen years ago. Something I hadn’t actually stopped and worked out until today. So it’s important to me – the footprint of the first tiny steps in the direction of a healthier approach to work and life.

Sandy talked to me about the importance of reward and recognition, and the fact that recognition is often of equal or greater importance than reward. It felt that was. Something in my mind feels lighter for realising this. Perhaps it’s just the feeling of letting up on myself after many years of berating myself for (ironically enough) being too hard on myself. (I’m sure that sentence could be better constructed and not contain the same word three times, but… welcome to nearly 2am.)

There’s more that came out of the session and I’ll write about that as I work through it. Some will be here, some on the Tightlaced blog. But for tonight, that was the big thing. Thank you Sandy. If nothing else had come out of the session, it would have been worth it for that alone.


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.