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.

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… and be counted.

This Friday coming, I’m going to try my hand at stand-up comedy. I’m quite comfortable with reading prose and poetry out loud, and I tell jokes on Twitter. However, this’ll be the first time I’ve combined these two skills, and it’ll be in front of an audience comprising students and academics. If you’re in Dundee, Bright Club starts at 8:30pm at The Braes on the Perth Road. At the time of writing, there were still tickets available.

Stand-up is a stream of consciousness art form and needs to be delivered from memory. I don’t have a great track record with memorised pieces. If you’ve been a long-term subscriber, you might recall the time I crashed and burned when trying to recite my opening piece:

But Bright Club looks after its comics. I attended a four-hour training session with Susan Morrison from The Stand and came away with a book titled Be a Great Stand-Up. There is also a rehearsal session tonight.

At first, I had some difficulty writing enough material for the eight-minute slot, but by using the techniques imparted in the training, I’ve added parts and cut others, and more or less made it the correct length. And I’m not having as much difficulty recalling it as I thought I might.

I sometimes forget not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of an audience; this was brought home to me during a discussion with classmates on the MLitt course I’m taking. I’d like to share with you, therefore, three great pieces of advice about posture, emotion, and focus. I’ve learnt two of these from experts, while the other is from me.

  • Posture, Giles Brandreth. In his Edinburgh fringe show Word Power!, former MP Brandreth imparts a wealth of advice. My favourite tip was a rather rude one to help you assume correct posture on stage: nipples leading. In other words, make sure they’re pointing straight forward and your posture will look after itself.
  • Emotion, Jenny Lindsay. During the summer, I attended a session run by one half of Rally & Broad. She related a story about a writer who was becoming upset every time she reached a certain part in a monologue. She asked the rest of the cast to write positive messages on the paper to help her through it. This is an extreme case but it is a useful way to remember everyone else wants you to succeed.
  • Focus, Gavin Cameron. This is general advice, so I’m hijacking it and sticking my own name upon it. For most of the time, I avoid looking at individual members of the audience. Instead, I pick a point of focus beyond the back row of the audience and address it. For a change in focus, I look between two audience members; the person on the left assumes you’re looking at the person on the right, and vice-versa. This allows you to concentrate on the words without being distracted by the listeners.

The only real way to improve is to keep doing it. I often ask to have my pieces videoed – as Bright Club will be – and watch it back. I’ve long reached the stage when I’m able to watch and listen back to myself without wanting to turn away. From doing this, I’ve learnt I say ‘um’ a lot without me even realising it, and that’ll be the next fault I work on.

I’d like to leave you with a video of me reading my poem Textbook. It’s one I had difficulty writing, but has proved so popular that it was used to promote the MLitt course along with the work of my contemporaries. I was most pleased I managed it in one take, and I hope Friday’s gig goes just as smoothly.

 

The N-Word.

I’ve a feeling you’re getting sick of me talking about National Novel Writing Month, so I’ll devote only one paragraph to it. To date, my total is 48,711 words, meaning less than 1,300 to go until I hit the target. I have until Saturday to complete it, leaving plenty of time.

I’ve been going to two other classes at the same time, and I seem to be going through a rather philosophical patch as I complete their respective homework.

Class one is Life Writing at the University of Dundee. Our homework is to write a short passage about our lives each week, all focussing on a particular aspect of writing, which might be the use of the child or adult voice, or employing the past or present tense. This week was a little different, where we were asked to choose an abstract noun and write a piece around that theme. Mine was On Solitude, arguing that this is not the same as loneliness.

Number two is my regular writing class with Zöe Venditozzi, held at a new, secret location. One of the prompts led me to write about a floating island and the ideological arguments its inhabitants had when setting up their community. The other is about twins with wildly different reactions: one is always brutally honest, while the other goes into denial when he hears bad news.

Also, my second published story is currently being launched in Australia as part of the FourW Twenty-Four anthology. The Wagga Wagga and Melbourne events have taken place, but the Sydney launch happens this Saturday 30 November. It’s impractical for me to attend as I’m halfway around the world, but if you live there, pop along and let me know what it’s like.

The Shock of The New.

Even although I’ve had stories published, I’m very keen to keep expanding my horizons. DamyantiWrites made this very point in her recent entry Do You Swim Free?, where she discusses authors who are happy to sit on the well-worn cushions of their comfort zone, rehashing the same ideas for years.

To this end, I’ve joined a Life Writing (LW) class at the University of Dundee. Thus far, the vast majority of my scribing has been about fictional characters in fictional situations, but LW is all about the self: memoirs of a specific event you experienced, an autobiography of your entire life, or a biography of someone else’s.

In last week’s class, we wrote a passage about a recent holiday; in my case a boat trip up the River Forth in Edinburgh. Part of our homework involved rewriting the passage using reference material such as photographs, maps and articles. The next class is on Tuesday, when we’ll be discussing the LW we have enjoyed and/or disliked.

I hope to expand my horizons in other ways too, such as poetry, and the performance type in particular; I intend to come back to that subject in the future. I’ve also written a stage play and I’m kicking about an idea for a screenplay.

There are authors who can carry off taking the same path over and over again. Read almost anything by Agatha Christie and it follows a familiar pattern where everyone ends up in the drawing room while Poirot or Miss Marple whittles them down to reveal the murderer. And I dislike Dan Brown’s style, but looking past that, he is another good example. Historical facts, symbolic minutiae and conspiracies spill out onto every page of every book, and the public lap it up.

I really yearn to pull something unexpected out of the bag. P D James is one author who did just that. For years, she penned detective books, then at the age of 72, wrote the science fiction novel Children of Men. And Roald Dahl is famous for his children’s books, but additionally wrote macabre short stories for adults, and the script for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. That’s like Cliff Richard releasing a hip-hop album.

To that end, I’ll attempt to wring every possible benefit out of the LW course, and not just from the teaching in class. Being a student allows me into the university library, where I’m writing this, and into the cheap campus bar. And that means it’s easier to take Ernest Hemingway’s slightly dubious advice to, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

But I’ll need to squeeze it all in before December, when the course ends and I’ll lose these privileges.