Outside The Box

Regular readers will be aware that this blog covers all types of writing from short stories and poetry to screenplays and rap music. I believe there’s a lot we can learn from all these forms. Even watching Made in Chelsea is a great lesson in improv.

However, on moving into a new place last month, I took the decision not to own a TV. This was something I’d considered for a long time as I would either rarely watch it, or it would become a distraction when I could be doing something productive. Either way, it would more than counteract the benefits of having one.

The other factor swaying my decision is the matter of the TV licence. In the UK, you need to pay an annual fee if you have equipment that receives television broadcasts, if you watch live TV online, or if you use BBC iPlayer for any purpose. The money goes towards funding the BBC and there are heavy fines if you aren’t correctly licensed.

While it’s a difficult field to police, that’s enough of a disincentive for me not to have a telly. If there’s something I really want to see, I have other options. You can watch DVDs or most catch-up services without a licence, and you can also own a radio without charge. Even better, I’m fortunate enough to be within easy reach of two cinemas: one mainstream, the other independent.

With not having a TV, it’s an obvious question to ask what I have in its place. The answer:

 

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Vic Vic Hooray

Last night, I went to see a live screening of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by the National Theatre from the Old Vic in London.

It’s one of those plays that’s often referenced – particularly by Radio 4 types – but rarely seen performed, and it’s the one that placed Tom Stoppard squarely on the map when it was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1966. And that’s the bulk of what I knew about this icon until yesterday.

This performance was fronted by Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire as the eponymous men, while David Haig took the role of The Player. I found each of these to be perfectly cast: the former two respectively forming a straight-man-and-comic act, and the latter inhabiting the part without being tempted to overact.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the play, there are key scenes interpolated from Hamlet. While it isn’t necessary to have seen that play to enjoy this one, anyone who does would be at an advantage, as the speech in these interpolated scenes retains Shakespeare’s original words. Yet when we hear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak with each other, the dialogue is in 20th-century English, switching to a more Shakespearean cadence when they converse with outsiders. This technique shouldn’t work, but we’re so swept up in the action that the code switching barely matters.

I can’t pretend to have caught every word, owing to the dense wordplay with philosophical overtones, often delivered at a breakneck pace. I feel that a second viewing might fill the holes in my recollection.

There also appeared to be a different dynamic between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Hamlet. Whereas in the original play, Hamlet seems excited to meet his old friends despite his grief, this doesn’t come across in Stoppard’s version. What we see here is Hamlet largely uninterested in anyone else because of his grief.

Any playwright who borrows wholesale from Shakespeare has to understand what they’re doing, and it’s clear that Stoppard did. He doesn’t parody Hamlet, he expands upon it, creating what we might today call fanfiction. And it’s expanded past the point of a pen portrait or a short story to become a feature-length production that enhances our understanding of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as characters, as men and as friends.

I’ve now been to see several National Theatre broadcasts at the cinema. The experience has always been a positive one, but I can detect something of a reluctance. It’s as if a live transmission is something the National Theatre feels obliged to do to gain an audience, not a move they actively want to take.

There is also the uncanny disconnection between the cinema audience and the actors. Conventionally, a theatre audience will applaud at the end to show their appreciation. A cinema audience, on the other hand, will hardly ever applaud even when the showing isn’t pre-recorded – although I experienced one exception after I, Daniel Blake.

This should not be read as a criticism of the National Theatre, but as encouragement to keep up these broadcasts. I live many hundreds of miles from London; other than travelling there one weekend, this is the closest experience I’ll have to being at a West End production. It’s a jolly good show all round.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs at the Old Vic until 6 May 2017

I’m Falling Further Behind

It’s an implicit expectation from you, the reader, that I’ll post an entry every Monday at 5pm. This means you should have seen it here yesterday, and it wasn’t. Since yesterday was a public holiday, it felt like a Sunday and it slipped my mind until after the due time. But that’s an excuse rather than a reason.

To this end, I owe you an apology and an entry, and I think an appropriate punishment for missing the deadline would be to would be to whip my own back with a knotted rope. I have, however, settled for making a second entry of at least 500 words on Friday at 5pm. Then I’ll update as normal from Monday of next week.

Last time, I promised to make a little progress on each of my outstanding works. Let’s go through them all.

“I can’t remember the last time I sent something away to a publisher”

On checking my submissions tracker, I found it was 23 February, or nearly eight weeks ago when I last send something away. It was difficult to find a publisher who was accepting submissions; I looked right through my usual sources, and most of the reading periods were closed.

However, I did find one publisher who would accept up to five poems. By coincidence, I’d sent five poems to another publisher in December who had turned me down at the beginning of March. With only a few minor changes, I was able to send them to the new place. Even better: my aim is to send away an average of one piece per week, and this submission brought me bang up-to-date.

“I can’t remember the last time I typed up something from my notebook”

It’s virtually a truism that inspiration strikes in the most bizarre of places; in my case, in McDonalds at 9:30am on a Friday. I found myself able to finish two poems – one of which I’d been struggling with for a while – and I typed them up later that day.

“I’m tackling Camp NaNoWriMo. … I have around half as many words as I should”

I’m not up-to-date with this, plus I’d increased my word target from 10,000 words to 11,000 as an extra challenge. I intended to write a series of interlinked stories, but I changed my project name to Any old nonsense to reflect the diverse pieces I’ve actually written. Despite this, there is now a ray of hope as I’ve figured out a structure for one of the stories that I was finding difficult to write, and it’s practically pulling itself along.

During Camp, you can enter an online virtual cabin with up to 11 other participants to help and encourage each other. I have only one other person in our regional cabin, and an honourable mention must go to them. I relayed the thoughts I expressed in last week’s entry and they helped me to regain my focus and perspective.

“I need to finish a stage play I’d like to bring to the Edinburgh Festival or Fringe in 2018”

Last week, I happened to meet the university tutor who was going to help me bring this to the stage. Unfortunately, the theatre he wants to use was undergoing a change of management and he was uncertain when we would have a chance to go there.

The play is a one-woman sequence of monologues that looks back over her university days. The running length is currently around 30 minutes to give a potential test audience a flavour of its content. To reduce it to that length, I had to cut out the poetry supposedly written by the character. I’d like to extend it to between 50 and 55 minutes by reintroducing the poetry and unpacking it in other areas. Having looked at the manuscript again a few days ago, I now have an idea how I’m going to achieve the expansion.

Tonight, after this entry should have been published, I received an e-mail from another tutor who wants to include a brief excerpt in a promotional leaflet for the MLitt course I studied. I’m more than happy to give that permission.

“I need to rewrite that novel I’ve been working on since 2010.”

The bad news is that there’s a scene in the novel which simply isn’t working, and it’s a pivotal scene because the main character needs to be left in an unknown location to fend for himself. I’m probably finding it difficult as I’ve never experienced this myself, so maybe I’ll need to go on a training weekend.

The good news is that I’ve finally fixed an annoyance. When I first wrote Fifty Million Nicker, the novel Fifty Shades of Grey was released a little while later. It was a coincidence, of course, but the number has become so iconic that I wanted to end the association. So I’ve now gone through the manuscript and changed it to Sixty Million Nicker to reflect that the main character is now competing for £60,000,000.

“I’d rather like to put together a poetry collection around a single theme”

I have been working on a few poems along the same theme, and they do fit well together. I’m still working on one of them, and I took it along to a new poetry group that a friend is starting. I received useful feedback, particularly on one point, and I implemented the relevant change.

If I hadn’t gone along, I might not have met the tutor who’s helping me with the play. And one of the pieces I finished in McDonalds was the homework for the next meeting.

 

And thus, I’ve done what I set out to do in the last entry, albeit 24 hours later than scheduled. Whatever happens between now and my next one on Friday, I promise you the title will not be I’m Falling Even Further Behind.

I’m Falling Behind

I’m falling behind with my writing. I can’t remember the last time I sent something away to a publisher; I can’t remember the last time I typed up something from my notebook.

Train wreck at Montparnasse Station, at Place ...
Train wreck at Montparnasse Station, at Place de Rennes side (now Place du 18 Juin 1940), Paris, France, 1895. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the same time, I’m tackling Camp NaNoWriMo. Camp is a spin-off of the main November contest, but with your own flexible goal rather than a 50,000-word challenge. Since I lead the group, I should be setting an example and keeping up with my daily word count, yet I have around half as many words as I should.

On top of all this. I need to finish a stage play I’d like to bring to the Edinburgh Festival or Fringe in 2018. I need to rewrite that novel I’ve been working on since 2010. And I’d rather like to put together a poetry collection around a single theme; I can never seem to stick to one topic for any length of time.

I’ve even been struggling to catch up with my blog entries. Last Monday’s entry was still being edited at 2pm – three hours before it was due to be published. That might sound like a long time, but when you’re a writer who writes about writing, you need to make sure the spelling and grammar are correct, and that it’s structured in a coherent way.

Speaking of structure, I drafted this entry in a single 15-minute session starting at 11pm on Saturday night. It was more than 300 words long with no paragraph breaks, but some rather raw emotion. My initial plan was to leave it as a wall of text with the minimum of editing. On waking up Sunday morning, however, I elected to extract the best parts and construct a more user-friendly entry.

The main reason I’ve fallen behind is that I’ve moved house over the last couple of weeks. Yet I’ve completed the vast majority of the move now, so I need to pull my finger out and start the aforementioned tasks.

So I’m harnessing the power of peer pressure by posting my to-do list in a public place. By next week, I want to have looked at everything I’ve mentioned above and made a tiny fragment of progress on it, even if it’s only a sentence of two. I consider this an almost embarrassingly achievable goal.

If there’s one good thing that can come from falling behind, it’s the thought that there’s only one way to go from here: forward.

Public Liability

I’m watching the acclaimed TV series The West Wing at the moment. The characters frequently have to change their plans or meet earlier deadlines at short notice. Similarly, I’ve recently had to make tough decisions about what to tell an audience.

A week ago, I attended a poetry event called Interconnected Issues jointly run by the University of Dundee’s LGBT+ Society, Feminist Society, and Mental Health Society. I expected simply to be a punter watching a line-up of poets, but the organiser called on people to stand up and read. Regular readers know I’m a big fan of performing my work, so I didn’t wish to pass up the opportunity. On the other hand, I hadn’t prepared anything, plus I’d already finished a red wine and my first rule is never to drink before a performance.

With encouragement from my friend Ana Hine, I stood up to read Sir Madam. Although it fitted the theme of the evening, I was scared to read this one because it tells the life story of a character who is either intersex or transgender – it isn’t made explicit. As I’m neither of these, I was worried that an LGBT audience might take offence at my portrayal.

However, I’d tested it out at last year’s Dundee Literary Festival where it received a positive response from the general public. If there was any anger at Interconnected Issues, I didn’t hear it. Encouraged by this, I cobbled together three other pieces that were not as risky to be read later that evening. One was from memory, one was a draft from a notebook, and one was read hipster-like from a phone screen.

As I’d already broken my no-alcohol rule, I decided to order another wine. This led to me peppering the rest of my performance with a little more personal detail than I intended, albeit related to the content of the poems. Yet it’s also rewarding to leave yourself figuratively exposed on stage and let it be infused into your work. I’ve heard it described as making the personal into the political.

Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK
Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first time I heard that phrase was at a weekend poetry workshop in Edinburgh. On the final day, I climbed Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise and came down with the idea for a short poem about a character on a cliff who intends to jump but changes their plans when they’re captivated by the sunrise.

I was looking for a title and I’d just heard about the suicide prevention charity The Semicolon Project, so it was named Semicolon. In a poignant parallel, it was reported last week that its founder Amy Bleuel had died.

I have no mental health conditions myself, but Semicolon is one of a few pieces where I’ve found the subject creeping into the narrative, particularly where I’m looking in from the outside. In February, for instance, I took part in a Q&A with Dundee Contemporary Arts after making a poetic response to one of the artworks on display.

My piece, called Surprise Attack, had already been written. The artwork was a pastiche of the Commando comic books but with Army mental health policy in place of the dialogue. Studying the pastiche helped me to finalise my poem after well over a year of redrafting.

I’m finally pleased with Surprise Attack, while I believe Sir Madam needs more testing, Yet both pieces have shown me that a little personal exposure can bring a rich reward.