The Art of the Anecdote

On Thursday, I went to see the new Gyles Brandreth show Break a Leg, which is running at the Edinburgh Fringe until Sunday 26 August.

In his career as a writer, broadcaster and former Member of Parliament, he’s become friends with a number of people in the worlds of entertainment and politics. The show talks about his acquaintance with a few of them, from June Whitfield to Frankie Howard.

The show is listed in the Comedy section of the brochure as there are a lot of laughs. Yet it isn’t stand-up, nor is it bragging. Rather, he uses his privileged access to these well-known figures and tells humorous anecdotes about them in his slightly camp fashion.

By User of Waffle TV YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/waffIeTvUK/) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gyles Brandreth in 2013
As such, his material is strong. The show could run for two hours and there would still be more to tell, and the audience would probably lap it up. But not everyone has such great anecdotes.

In 2007, I went to an event featuring Clive Swift, who played Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. He specifically didn’t want to discuss his sitcom days. Instead, he was there to tell us about his theatre career and how he’d worked with prominent stage actors such as Peter O’Toole.

It quickly became apparent, however, that he’d worked with these notable thespians only in supporting roles and that he was trying to turn minor episodes into a big deal. He was certainly never friends with them. One anecdote, for example, involved meeting Sir Laurence Olivier by chance in a theatre bathroom and hearing some worldly advice from him.

The only factor that saved Swift’s show from being a total train wreck was his skill on the trombone, accompanied by a pianist called Claire Greenway. Had it been a musical event with those minor stories peppered between songs, it might have worked well.

A review from the Scotsman newspaper very much captures the essence of the performance; scroll down past the review of Pete Firman to read it.

The lesson here is to make sure your material stands up to some scrutiny. Many performers – especially comedians – like to arrange preview shows, often to an audience who have paid a special reduced price for a ticket. This approach is invaluable for ironing out any kinks in the material and a useful guideline for how listeners will react at different parts of the script.

Additionally, there’s a lot to be said for having an honest friend or professional who can listen to your show to tell you what works and which parts need strengthening.

On Roles and Pigeonholes

In 2016, I graduated with an MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree from the University of Dundee. At the time, I was in the mindset that I wanted to write in as many different styles and formats as possible.

This wasn’t a problem until it was time to pull together all my work into what the syllabus described as a ‘unified dissertation’. In other words, the whole document had to flow, but my pieces were too dissimilar to achieve this easily. With the help of two tutors, we eventually solved the problem, but I still didn’t like having to adopt one role or to be pushed into one pigeonhole.

I only began to change my stance earlier this year when a friend posted a video of a TED talk about sugar addiction, which inspired me to start writing a spoken-word show about the struggles I’ve had with my weight. And for the first time, I felt as though I’d found a niche that I enjoyed occupying, and that I had plenty of material to fill.

That said, I’ve lost a lot of weight since starting to write that show. This is an achievement, but I feel as though it’s defeating the point of the narrative.

Notebook in which I log my weight every week
Notebook in which I log my weight every week

On Saturday, I went to my first Edinburgh Fringe shows of the season, all of which reinforced my dedication to sticking with my niche for as long as it takes.

The first two were by people I know, and could only have been written by them. John McCann has a deep understanding of politics in Northern Ireland and has penned a monologue called DUPed, all about the Democratic Unionist Party. Meanwhile, Amy Gilbrook in Nutshells touches upon her experience of not fitting in. And while I don’t know Alan Bissett personally, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else emulating Moira Bell in The Moira Monologues or More Moira Monologues.

These shows are playing on selected dates throughout August.

Despite my promise to stay in a niche for the foreseeable future, I realised this week that some of my favourite novels have one thing in common. I’m attracted to those one-off stories where a sequel is unlikely because the story is so self-contained, such as A Clockwork Orange or The Bell Jar.

Busy Bee

Last week, I learnt that the venue we use for Hotchpotch – the spoken-word open-mike night – will be closed for refurbishment until the end of August or the beginning of September.

By Texas State Archives from Austin, Texas, USA (2001078_009_70_132_002ac) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
By Texas State Archives from Austin, Texas, USA (2001078_009_70_132_002ac) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
You might remember three weeks ago, I spoke about the importance of keeping a kind of Cabinet office when there are difficult decisions to be made. The system definitely worked in this instance, with regular members making good suggestions about what to do next.

Within 24 hours, we’d managed to secure another bar in the city centre for this month, and potentially next. We even had an offer from another venue that we can investigate if we need to. The next Hotchpotch will now take place in the Westport Bar in Dundee on Monday 16 July at 7pm.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on my Make / Share presentation on the subject of impostor syndrome, as touched upon in last week’s entry. If you’re local to Dundee, this happens tomorrow at The Beer Kitchen from 7pm.

When to Stop; When to Start

In April, I began to redraft a novel that I originally wrote in 2011. In the intervening years, I’ve learnt a lot more about the principles of structure and how to raise the stakes in a narrative, so I was pleased with the way the redraft was turning out.

By Tom Murphy VII [ GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
By Tom Murphy VII [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/) ] from Wikimedia Commons
However, there came a point where I’d pushed the main character through as many hoops as I could conceive until he’d achieved his goal. At that point, there wasn’t much to keep him from doing anything he wanted without resistance, so the narrative began to stall. At around the same time, I began to pull together a spoken-word show. I therefore made the decision to leave aside the novel, so for the last month, I’ve been concentrating on the show.

When I stop thinking about a work in progress, I find that’s the time to leave it. The novel is currently handwritten, so I’ll start typing that up once I’m finished with the show, then see where we can take the main character from there.

Other highlights this week include performing at Inky Fingers in Edinburgh on Tuesday and listening to some cracking poets, including the featured Rachel Plummer.

And on Thursday, I heard Caroline Bird performing from In These Days of Prohibition. This is the second time I’ve heard her on stage, and it was again a wonderfully absurdist experience.

Gibson and Goodfellow

On Wednesday, I saw one of my idols at The Mash House in Edinburgh. Andrea Gibson is a non-binary poet who uses the singular ‘they’ pronoun. This was the very city where I’d been introduced to their work.

It seemed to be the convention that the audience sat on the floor, so I was battling with needles and pins for much of the evening, not to mention a wet patch where someone had accidentally kicked over my wine.

Image result for mash house edinburgh

But in spite of the setbacks, the gig itself was amazing. I enjoyed Gibson’s often dense wordplay and imagery, which engaged and touched us in equal measure. Many of the poems were accompanied by recorded music.

Just about everyone in the audience queued up to have merchandise signed after the gig. I didn’t, but I wanted to tell them how much their work had helped me write mine. From nowhere, I found myself ready to cry as I spoke. They seemed to be genuinely appreciative of the thought.

The support act was Suky Goodfellow. I’d heard of her before but this was the first time I’d encountered her poetry. She commanded the stage as she spoke about wealth creators and why swear words shouldn’t be rude.

If I have the opportunity to see Gibson and/or Goodfellow again, I shall definitely take it.

Passing the Microphone

I feel as though I’m giving you a cop-out entry this week because it exists only to link to other posts.

This is partly because I haven’t had much time; I’ve spent a lot of it on a new long-form piece. And it’s partly because another poet has put together some excellent advice that I’d like to share.

A microphone
A microphone. It seemed like the best picture to illustrate this entry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Blair asked his friends what advice they wish they’d known before taking part in their first open-mike night. The advice he received – including mine – appear in his entry So…you want to do an open mic night.

Additionally, this seems a prime opportunity to dust off my own advice for speaking in front of an audience from earlier this year.

In With the Old

Over the last week, I’ve been revising two pieces of prose.

The first piece was a 1500-word short story about a female soldier returning home after conscription into an unnamed war. I first wrote this in 2013, but I’ve periodically returned to it, most recently to submit it to a publisher who might appreciate the sentiment.

File:Colouring pencils.jpg

The second is an overhaul of the piece I wrote for my Masters dissertation in 2016. I subsequently turned it into a one-woman play, but the last revision didn’t reach the 60-minute mark. Over the weekend, I’ve been lengthening the script by unpacking and exploring some of the plot points that the original doesn’t address. In two weeks’ time, I have the opportunity to have an extract read by an actor at a new playwriting evening.

When I read back over those two pieces, there were no major problems, but I could find a number of minor ones. Perhaps I’d used a clause too many in the sentence; perhaps a vital piece of information could be shown rather than told.

Whatever the problem, I’ve enjoyed fixing them. I feel the two pieces are better overall now. I keep all my drafts, so I was able to look back at previous versions and I can see that my writing has improved over the years. It’s entirely possible that I’ll revisit these pieces in the future with more experience and be able to improve them in ways I can’t imagine right now.