This has no meaningful title for a reason

I’ve taken a step back from writing recently – that’s what the pros call it, isn’t it? A break, a step back, focussed my energies elsewhere. This is what people call it when they have a handle on their life or at least pretend they have a handle on their life and believe in fake it till you make it.

I despised these people for a while. now I envy them.

A lot of this past year has left me feeling like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, in that bit when he’s spinning out and can hear the helicopter above him (massive para-remembering here) except my experience was not drug fuelled and the sound of the helicopter was the theme tune for Finding Nemo at 7.30 in the morning. But I sure did a lot of squinting, alternating big eye and little eye in an attempt to get a grip and at least think about getting out of my pyjamas.

I also did a lot of things that are already becoming cliched 2020 things – I homeschooled, I built a veg patch and thought about planting things. We got a dog. I’m very lucky.

But I also experienced other things that are already sadly becoming part of the cliched 2020 experience, thought it destroys me to think that such things become so commonplace that they already feel tired to write about. I tried to hold my family together with Zoom style pub quizzes, I watched older relatives suffer alone, fret about doctor’s appointments. I felt guilty about not being there, because that would be the boldest sacrifice to make, to fling a suitcase together and move in. But I didn’t. I grieved for a relative who couldn’t get the help they needed because of the ‘ongoing situation’ and died. I felt my asthma creep up again and again and grip hold of my lungs, uninvited. Not a good time to have an exacerbation.

I tried to hold it together. I specialise in writing characters who look as if they are holding it together and being very brave. This year, I became one of my characters.

And about three moths into trying to be good, a do my Duolingo, and my Yoga and writing, yes my writing! I stopped doing all of it.

And now the worlds has shifted ever so slightly again; my son is back at school (reluctantly) and I meditated this morning. Really badly, but I sat there for fifteen minutes waiting for my head to stop thinking about drag queens. I did a Spanish lesson. And then I thought about writing.

But what to write about when nothing has happened? Well, when so much has happened but none of it is what I want to write about? I’m trying to bizarro myself – my natural instinct would be to keep hurling myself at the page like a bird at a window until one of us breaks.

But this time I’m sitting it out. I will do my journalling. I am very slowly editing a piece of theatre – maybe two lines a day. And as soon as I get the inkling to do something else (which usually happens within the first five minutes of writing)I am walking as far away from it as I can. This year has sucked all the grit out of me and if my writing pace is geriatric as a result, so be it.

The veg patch out the back still contains no vegetables, just mud. But inevitably, there are weeds and things pushing through the surface.

Green shoots. Upwards. More cliches, but still.

Monologue Mayhem – Part Deux

So I’m trying to write more monologues at the moment for no apparent reason other than the world is tough and it can be hard to commit to something longer. Here’s one, anyway, called Mudslides.

Cassie (mid 20s) is sitting on the sofa with a remote control in her hand.

Cassie:  I got stuck in a mudslide once.  Yeah.  El Salvador.  I turned around and this .. just this wave of shit was cascading down the road. Anyhow – I mean I was wasted – but I did manage to scrabble away and then I lay down and I looked up at this big scab of a sky and I thought …

I’m going to write a blog post about this…

And I did.  It was called ‘Live It’ and it was about the mudslide and how exhilarating and rare these near death moments are.

I mean – I lost a flip flop that day, not my house.  But still – 3257 likes in two days – that says as much about you as it does me. So I kept pumping it out and then I got my first deal –  posing with vegan running shoes, then cork yoga mats, an an organic lip filler.  All in six months. 

And it means that 2 years later I’m now, well I was, the kind of woman who leaves her flat in the morning to go to another house that isn’t mine that has a beautiful bottle green kitchen so that I can pose holding a griddle pan like a newborn, extolling the powers of apple cider vinegar.  Or in down dog explaining the wellness of breath.  I tell nearly 1 million people how to be almost as good as me.

So you’re thinking that’s it then, the mudslide, that’s the moment that changed her, smug get. 

Nope.

The mudslide made me, but it didn’t change me. I was already a smug get.

The moment that changed me came about ten days ago. I’m standing in the garden of the hired house dressed in a white linen smock and I’m talking to the camera.

Talking about tea tree oil.  And how fulfilling it is to grow tea tree plants and then use them to distill your own oil and then to use this oil to tackle cellulite.

Now this, this is when I snapped to.  I could hear myself telling people to grow a plant, a beautiful and complex thing,  in order to destroy it,  in order to rub it on their own arse cheeks, just so that they could be their ‘best selves’ and by best I was definitely implying their thinnest, no question. And all the time the planet was shifting beneath me and there were probably mudslides going on somewhere so I – yeah just like that – I stopped talking and went home and I haven’t been out since.

I’ve got through three series of Law and Order since then.  Hashtag proud.  And the only post I’m interested in getting is the leaflets from pizza places or … no.  That is the only post I’m interested in getting.

There’s 20 seasons of Law and Order to watch.  In yesterday’s tracksuit.   And let’s face it –  no-one’s life is worse for me not telling them about tea tree oil and arse cheeks, is it?

Great, said the people

‘Great’, said the people, ‘shielding is terrible but at least you’ll be sealed in. you’ll be really able to ‘get stuff done’, you’ll be the shutterstock photo of productivity, scribbling away, steaming cup of coffee – no, turmeric tea – to hand. You’ll be wearing glasses, even!’

‘I don’t wear glasses.’

‘No, but in the photo you are,’ said the people, and by people I mean the idealistic voice in my head.

‘But I have a 5 year old to look after’

‘That’ll be great, too!’ said the people. ‘He’ll be acquainting himself with nature, independently making dens in the garden, exploring twigs. You’ll come together for meditation and a wholemeal muffin and he’ll put himself to bed. In the meantime – you’ll finish all the ideas floating around in your head and start new ones – podcasts, plays, poems, prose – you’ll generate all the pees!’

Great. Great.

Need I point out that the idealistic part of my mind was inaccurate in their prediction? I feel little sense of failure – more a battered pride, like a defeated rugby player, as I write this down before you. I did write some monologues and did a couple of fantastic workshops (more later). We did a little bit of home learning most days and on some days we only watched one film, which has become the seal of academic excellence in our house. My son has returned to school thinking that dollars are our national unit of currency from the amount of America he has imbibed, but that will be lost over time.

Childcare aside, I cannot avoid the image of the blank page which has loomed large during lockdown life. The blank white page is what writers have in common (along with crushing self doubt). And of course, the people (the idealistic voice) thinks that a blank white page is a brilliant bedsheet to doodle, to scrawl, to play on.

Now that my son is back at school, there is finally space to contemplate the blank white page – but there is nothing to fill it with. And now, when I need them most, the people are quiet, watchful, aware of the buzzing and droning of a million tiny other voices gaining momentum on my feeling of potential and positivity, ready to cut it off at the the legs. I walk away, think, and by think I mean watch Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for a bit.

Problem is that there’s been no stimulus for the LONGEST TIME. As a shielder, I’ve missed tuning into the overheard dialogue of the outside world; the initimate breathless chat of 2 joggers, the abrupt tone of an old man on a mobile phone that he doesn’t trust, the odd triangulated conversation outside the Pound Bakery. Not the stuff that’s already been turned into a line for an actor to say but the raw stuff, the fucking ridiculous things we say, I say, every day. I miss human contact as well of course – I’m not a psychopath – but I really miss the source material provided by being outside.

As one door closes, another one etc etc. I’ve been fortunate to have regular work coming in and I’ve taken proper advantage of the online goodies offered by great writers in the form of online workshops. A session with Jenn Ashworth organised by Arvon reminded me that, yes, now is weird, and yes, lowering one’s own expectations is also good. Also, as a substitute to those snatches of overheard dialogue, go on to messageboards for inspiration. Replace your ears with your eyes and trawl Reddit or Mumsnet for character ideas. You’ll miss the nuances of accent and emphasis, but you’ll have a pool of anecdotal inspiration as big as the universe.

From Anna Jordan’s fantastic workshop with Without a Paddle Theatre, I’ve thought about being a bit less precious about the blank page. It doesn’t have to be neat, it’s not a Personal Record of Achievement (Remember those, anyone?). It’s a living document, so fill it with notes, lists, automatic writing. It doesn’t have to be a script. As soon as you make a mark on it, you’ve made a mark.

And from a Q and A session with Simon Stephens, hosted by Up ‘Ere productions, I learnt a most reassuring thing. Writing is not just sitting at a desk, being the shutterstock photo. Writing is also thinking, walking around, reading, watching films that are relevant to my WIP or made by a creator that I admire or want to learn about. So even though my life over the past 4 months has been smaller and more compressed in scope, it has not been empty. that being said, I don’t think I can justify watching Minions as part of my research process.

Just. Leaving. This. Here.

Have a listen to this.

Being very lazy, I was kind of hoping someone would do a summary piece of the Hive experience, of developing a play, of being mentored, of sharing my work for the first time.  The opposite of striking while the iron is hot, on this occasion it worked! Mike Heath at the incredible Write for the Stage, Studio Salford interviewed me with Stephen Hornby for the podcast, which was brilliant fun as well as a terrific opportunity to reflect on what I have learnt.  The Greater Manchester Fringe is open again for business – if you have an idea, apply.  If you don’t have an idea, get one, then apply!

 

 

Development week -The Big Read (through)

This post relates to my debut play, Blue Lines, which has won the Hive Award 2019 and will be presented as part of Manchester Fringe.  Have a look here if you want to find out more about it:  

Wadda week.

World Book Day. International Women’s Day.  I got my mooncup in on first go.

It was a week of major wins.

It was also the week of the read through of my play, Blue Lines. The first time that I would hear it outside of my own head, read by other people.  In front of an audience of even more other people.

No wonder I’m still in my pyjamas today.

My play is super personal.  It’s based on my experiences of infertility – of being the woman who ‘is maybe leaving it a little bit late’.  People rarely see the feet pedalling frantically below the surface, do they?  I got sick of saying ‘we’re still trying’, which it would appear was the only acceptable response to enquiries about my lack of baby.  I digress – the play, yes the play – is an encounter between a teacher and student and the relationship that develops between them.  That’s all I’m saying.

Bearing in mind that it’s personal and it’s the first play that I’ve ever written, it’s a lot.  Oddly enough, I had no issue sending the piece off to my mentor, Tim Firth, to read and give me feedback.  He was reading it.  Somewhere else.  not loud enough for me to hear him.

Fate smiled on me though – the actors I worked with were intuitive and sensitive and despite having only a quick read through online the night before, did a great job of capturing the essence of both characters.  I obviously had to sit on my mouth (not a thing I know) to stop myself from interjecting, to ask them to try things out again, and over the course of the hour I produced the kind of fine, clinging sweat that I associate with wearing too many fine layers under an anorak.

But the feedback was what I wanted – it was positive but also constructively helpful, pointing me towards areas of plot and some dialogue that need clarifying, tightening, cutting or enhancing.

 

I just have to do it now.

BookLearning: Orphans by Dennis Kelly

I can’t help it – I get horribly ‘retired middle-class’ at Christmas.  I buy the Radio Times, listen to the Archers.  I attempt quizzes of the year in newspapers. I invest time and interest in entire episodes of Midsomer Murders.  The patina of glossy adverts for stairlifts and cruise – ships holds my gaze.  I can’t help it, and I love it.

 

So I needed some acid to cut through this muzzy, smuggy love in, and it came in the form of Orphans by Dennis Kelly, which was recommended to me to read for a piece of writing that I’m working on.  It reminded me of one thing and taught me another; firstly – reading plays for pleasure can be exhilarating.  I used to work in the bookshop at the National Theatre – my best ever job in retrospect and one that I only appreciate now, at a sorry distance of nearly twenty years.  I used to read plays all the time – it was encouraged for you to be seen reading plays at the counter, on the shop floor, on your breaks.  People would ask for recommendations and I could be learned and suave and theatrical (life goals, basically).  And I could also swan around backstage and pretend to be in stuff.

 

Now I don’t want to be in stuff anymore, but reading Orphans reminded me that actually reading a play can be more emotionally powerful than seeing it performed, where there’s always the risk that it can be a bit shit or indulgent or forced.  But a well written play plays in my head just as I want it to – and it turns out that I am an incredible director.

 

No, it’s the play.  And this is the thing that reading Orphans made me realise.  I think that playwriting has changed more than other written form, in terms of what is permissible and how it is expressed.  I couldn’t stop reading Orphans, which I am not going to spoil for you because you should just read it.  But, in brief, it’s the story of a brother and sister and her partner and how they deal with something that the brother has done.  Wow, vague, cool.  But you should read it, because it bites.  It really fucking bites.  And I think back to the plays that I read, including the classics, and I think about how ‘unreal’ they seem in comparison.  They’re polished, but they take a lot of craft from the actor to sound truthful a lot of the time.  With Orphans, you feel as if you are experiencing the dilemma with them, the godawful messiness of the situation, which is not to say it is written ‘off the cuff’.  Because when you’ve got through it and are lying in a sweaty fever dream, you’ll realise that each character had an arc, had something to say. It takes a really brilliant writer to put it together so subtly and effortlessly, so that you don’t see his hand in the writing of it until after you’re done.

So my booklearning is this: reading Orphans has taught me to spend longer on my structure and planning and less time ‘perfecting’ the words.  More at the front end, if you like, as much as it pains me.

 

And it’s given me a beautiful New Year’s Resolution: Read. More. Plays.

BookLearning – Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Tuesdays are my amazing days, my days when I shoot off the charts of Pinterest-esque productivity in the six child-free hours given to me.  It’s the day when I do yoga! Bake bread!  Tidy house!  Write! Write! Write!  Especially write write write!  At least this is how it plays out in my head , on the other side of my eyelids, just before I wake up.  It never really goes like this.  And especially so today.

 

As we’re approaching the winter solstice, I’m feeling the need to slow down and to genuinely immerse myself in the things that I so often do just to tick off the list (sorry, yoga and meditation – we really need to sort out our relationship in the new year).  And the same goes for writing; sometimes I’ll just write any old thing so that I can stand in front of the invisible gods who sit in judgement of me every day and say “see? I did some writing – I’m a good girl”  Who are these judges? And what’s the prize for my virtue?  What’s on the other side of that velvet curtain? In truth, my writing has been a bit thin recently.  I think that’s largely because I’m using the time to write while not doing enough to give me things to write about.  I need some fuel.  And so I did just that, or as much of that as I could do on a rainy day in Manchester.

 

I sat in the big grey chair  with the yellow throw next to the fire.  I raised the blinds so I could see the garden from where I sat.  And I finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

 

This book came out a few years ago, but I am only just reading it now because I have recently become aware (and subsequently very ashamed) of my blanket attitudes to racism.  I speak from a position of white privilege when I say that I have coasted on the very general, liberal opinion of  ‘all racism is bad’, which is kind of a pass on the issue itself, because if i just assume that general position, then I don’t have to think about it any further.  I’ve already chosen the right answer, so why keep learning?    Of course racism is bad, but I have, and still have very little understanding of the nuances of racism.  So, amongst other things I’m choosing books that can help me to understand, and gain a bit more clarity and insight on issues of race and oppression.  I’m a work in progress on this, so I’m not going to embarrass myself by drawing some nebulous conclusions here.   What I do feel more qualified to speak about is her words – and as a fundamentally selfish person, what did I learn from her writing style? What is my takeaway (to use nasty corporatespeak) for any writing I may get round to in future?

I think Americanah is incredible; it taught me things about the subtleties of racism that I wouldn’t have understood if they were presented to me in an essay or documentary, largely because Adichie’s characters felt real and the experiences that she describes were lived; they had unexpected detail, they contradicted themselves, they didn’t go where i expected them to.  Ifemelu’s inability to communicate with her lover was frustrating and irritating, yet her cojones in other situations was inspiring.  The description of the hair salon at the start of the novel was specific, unique and real, as was the moment when Ifemelu realises how much she missed the layer of oil on top of her mother’s stew (evocative and truthful).  The writer has incredible instinct and dwells on the ‘scenes’ that you want to know more about; like the hair salon, again, or the atmosphere in the magazine office, back in Nigeria.  I think this takes great confidence – some of these scenes are secondary to the straight surface plot of the novel (although they do reveal further insight into racial stereotyping and the experience of an African woman in America) but we want to see them, hear them – I’d love to know how much of the novel she cut, or whether she knew exactly what she wanted to include from the get go. (does anyone know that, when writing a novel?)   It’s a compelling read, one which covers so many different cultures and societal set ups without feeling didactic or preachy.  It’s bitter, heartfelt, romantic and grim.  It is also sensitively plotted and alive with texture and detail,  ‘takeaways’ (barf) for my next piece of writing, which I will write should I ever take leave of the grey chair next to the fire.

On a Man, Very Cross to Find that Prestwich Library is Closed Despite Being Advertised as Open on the Website

Huntsman, past Budget Saver, faster than my eyes blink

Hands not aloft, but grasping,

Clasping the smooth white of ‘documentation’

An impossible authority of forms –

His coat is unstitched, the quilting leaks from patch to patch

Like a field bereft of harvest.

 

Pramhanded,  I thrill when I sense his directionandintentionandmomentum

Towards me, in front of the library’s sealed lips.

I want the moment of a shared disappointment

I have the power of saying ‘It’s shut.  It didn’t say it would be on the website but it is’.

 

Sidelong still, the man tries the door.

Shadethrower.  Prick, just trust me.

‘But I needed to – bugger them – they’ll moan when they’re late

But I won’t bother then’.

He’s off now, because it’s half past ten and nothing tastes as good as a Tetley’s in the Orange Tree in the certainty that your forms will be late and it isn’t your fault.

 

Like Busses

I have a strange approach to memory.  I mean, I don’t know because I don’t really know how anyone else’s memory works, even when they say ‘oh my memory is terrible’.  It’s all approximation, baby.  But I’m going to go ahead and presume that mine is neither orthodox or particularly good.

 

I can’t remember dates, years, locations, events or even humans very well, but if I try to remember a very particular thing, like, when did I first hear the phrase, ‘Like busses, there’ll be two along at the same time’, what I see in my head is a wind swept playground in front of a low red brick primary school.  I don’t know if there’s any correlation between this phrase and the place, but it’s what I see in my head.

 

I am envious, in awe and suspicious of people who can recall moments with ease.  How the fuck does anyone write an autobriography?  ‘I first met Joaquin at a drinks party given by Sooki.  We were at a bar in Mayfair, The Chiselled Chimp’.  He was wearing a blue cashmere rollneck and initiated conversation by enquiring after my Chagalls.  We drank ‘Noisy Williams’ till dawn ..’  (Yes, this is my idea of glamour. No apologies.)

 

How do people remember to remember this detail? Or do people who write autobiographies have the self belief to think ‘I should probably note all this down because I’m the kind of important person who will have to write an autobiography one day’? Which is how and why they end up writing an autobiography.

 

So this is why I can pin down (or think I can pin down, in some way) the phrase, ‘Like Busses’ but not where I spent Christmas two years ago.  Oh and if you’re not familiar with the phrase, “Like Busses’, it basically refers to the idea that nothing will come along for ages and then two will come along at the same time and can refer to anything; job interviews, lottery wins, unsolicited travelling salespeople.  It’s kind of rueful and carries that sort of pissy British way of downplaying the hand of fate with it.  I recall hearing it a few times in it’s full form ‘Like Busses, you want it for ages and then two come along at once’) until finally I must have given off the air of being someone who understood the phrase at which point it was shortened to ‘Like Busses, isn’t it?’  With whom I shared this landmark moment remains a mystery of course, but when I think of this particular ‘Like Busses’ I see the shop front of a butchers in my hometown.  Memory, huh.

 

And I also wonder if the phrase ‘like busses’ is in itself, a bit ‘like busses’, because, after a long drought, I heard it twice yesterday in entirely separate contexts; I said it at exactly the same time as another woman in the post office queue and then we’d laughed at the very ‘like bussiness’ of it.  The second time was later, and with thanks, in my own head, when I opened my email to see that two piece of flash fiction had been accepted after a long and stomach churning silence.   Like Busses, I tell you.

Quick – Before the Monkeys Get Me!

It has been a while, hasn’t it?  And honestly, if I had to compile a ‘greatest hits of 2018’, even if i combined it with ‘wackiest nights out’ and the ‘memorable moments’ package, there wouldn’t be enough to fill an ad break.  For clarity, I should add that no one has actually approached me to put this together, so don’t worry, you won’t have to watch it.

 

So what happened this year?  Not a lot that is not solely attached to motherhood and while this is, yes, a big part of me and what I do, it is not the entirety of me.  And now, as we shudder and jolt into December, one eye glued to the screen for news of Britain’s impending Brexit shaped implosion, the other scoping out black Friday deals, is there time for all this distraction to get a good thing going?

 

And it would appear, yes.  I have momentum!  I am writing again, not as part of Nanowrimo (although I salute all brave souls who are) but I just picked up a pen, chose a title, thought ‘this will probably be a bit shit’ and started writing!  And you know what, it was a bit shit!  But it was writing!  And I have kept this going for the past two weeks.  I’ve submitted some flash and I’m working on an application for a mentoring programme.  I’ve become much less precious about what I’m working on.  Lightness of touch is everything, although a creeping doubt has started to set in .  My brain is run by a panel of monkeys in lab coats who throw out suggestions, instructions or queries at random – most often ‘You suck!’ ‘What even is this?’, ‘Why?’ or ‘Your kid hates you’.  Which I, for reasons unbeknownst, then take as gospel.  So, I am fully expecting the panel of monkeys in lab coats to wake up soon – I’ve never had such a long run without their toxic input – and my question is – how do I keep going?  I can’t get rid of them, so how can I circumvent their meddling and keep the pen on the page?  Writers, please let me know how you do this because I am sure that I’m not the only one out there.  All suggestions taken very seriously and will be followed to the tee.