Monday, 21 February 2011

The Inspiration Hook.

Apologies for the lapse in posting, I’ve been wading my way through Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Mallory since the beginning of the month and only just finished it (keep an eye on Vulpes Libris).

But I haven’t just been holed up in my room, feverishly turning pages and untangling archaic language with a furrowed brow. Oh no. I’m ever so much cooler than that, my friends. In the last few weeks I’ve taken advantage of A Night Less Ordinary (a special thanks here to my “sis” who arranged the tickets on both occasions). For those that haven’t heard of it ANLO offers free theatre tickets for the under 26s. I’ve seen several plays thanks to this scheme and I recently saw Tiger Country at the Hampstead Theatre and Twisted Tales at the Hammersmith Lyric. 

Tiger_Country_home-300x137 I enjoyed Tiger Country while I was sat there watching it. I was engaged, but once we started talking about it on the way home, when I started thinking about in the days after, I realised that I was a little disappointed. Why? Because as an avid viewer of Holby City and an occasional viewer of Casualty, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before. We had the bossy female registrar, determined to succeed in spite of her race and her sex, ready to give up anything for it, ultimately redeemed by family love and loyalty. Then the good doctor, struck down by cancer, forced to become a patient. And of course, the idealistic junior, determined never to lose a patient, slowly coming to realise that her handsome boyfriend is not all she hoped, her head turned by her grumpy superior who is repressing his love for her. In long-running serials these clichés can be well-done, events, character and the sheer luxury of time can elevate them. But Tiger Country didn’t have the luxury of time and scuppered itself further by including too many characters, too many narrative threads. Yes, it gave a good sense of the fragmented life of a doctor, the unsociable hours, the hard work, the need for someone to understand. But I just felt that too much was going on and therefore it had to rely on stereotypes to tell the story. There were moments though that caught my attention – that snagged the part of my brain that stores away inspiration. It’s thanks to this play that a few more pages in my ideas notebook was filled.

Twisted Tales I loved from start, finish and homeward-bound dissection. The arrival of a chatty stranger into the daily commute ofRoald-Dahl three reserved men sparks the play as he tells them several odd stories. It’s a strange piece, much as the stories themselves are. There’s the man who bets a young American that he can’t light his trusty lighter ten items in a row – he’ll wager his car if the young American will bet the little finger of his left hand. There’s the woman who receives a mink coat as a parting present from her lover and comes up with an elaborate ploy to keep it from her husband. Each story has a little twist that you don't always see coming. Nearly all of them make you squirm, laugh and slide to the edge of your seat. I think of all the stories there was only one where I knew what the twist would be. The staging, the company, all did a wonderful job at producing these savage little tales. I loved every single minute and determined to dive back into Dahl’s short stories which I haven’t read in years and can hardly remember.

While we left the Hammersmith Lyric bubbling with praise and chatter about the stories, my inspiration hook snoozed. It could not be tempted awake by murderous old ladies or bullying public schoolboys. Why? Why did something I think was bloody brilliant not inspire me the way something I thought was pretty flawed did?

Because there was no moment where I thought I could take it and run off in another direction with it. There was nothing I felt ought to have been done another way, a different road taken. Twisted Tales was such a complete piece, so neatly finished that it demanded to be admired, not improved. Tiger Country, with its mad spill of characters and half-finished scenarios presented more possibility for my discerning inspiration hook.

So you see, anything can be of benefit to you, nothing is ever wasted. Do I think that I could have written Tiger Country better? Certainly not. However, my brain cannot stop ticking over the tangent that I spotted that was left fluttering and unexplored, my inspiration hook demanded that I hang something on it…

[Sadly, ANLO is coming to an end very soon, due to cuts I believe. So I would urge everyone that is eligible to take advantage while they can.]

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The vital ingredient.

Talent + Self-Belief x Hard Work (+ Luck) = SUCCESS.

We’re all agree that those are major components in the ongoing search for success, yes? And not just in writing, the same could be said of any industry from journalism to acting. It’s all pretty obvious – talent is nothing if you don’t put the work in and everyone could do with the good luck of being in the right place at the right time. But it’s the self-belief that actually makes you sit down day after day after day and face that blank screen or page.

But what makes self-belief? Where does it come from? Some people are just born with it, others have to acquire it along the way. Here’s what I think it is:

Support + Optimism.

Without optimism, that cheerful hope that one day it will all be worth it, why would you do it? If you sit down thinking “Well, this will never see the light of day,” why are you wasting your time? If it’s for sheer love of writing then I applaud you because although I love to write, I write with a view to sharing it. Even if it’s only ever seen by a family member or friend I work in the hope that something I write will make someone grin and say “I loved it!” Making it the best that it can possibly be for that shadowy future reader is what keeps me going. That and knowing that it’d smart to hear that something I’ve written is crap.

And then there’s self-belief, that tricky little bugger. When you stall at 10,000 words because you’ve written yourself into a corner or have happened across the single most clichéd line in the history of the written language (and ye gods, you’ve written it!) you have to have the gumption to open your eyes and face it. The “I can’t do this” attitude leads to Googling funny pictures of kittens (been there) instead of figuring out how to get your character out of that locked toilet.

If you write, you probably read a lot. I know I do. Perhaps your self-belief comes from having read something awful and just knowing that you can do better. The “If they can do it, so can I!” attitude. Or perhaps someone else believed in you so much that you thought that maybe then were onto something and that grew into believing in yourself and your own abilities. The latter is how it happened for me….

I always went crazy for writing in school. Especially when we got fountain pens. At least half the pleasure for me was the act of writing itself. Creating neat blue curly writing on smooth white paper. That’s something I still enjoy, the simple, sensual pleasure of writing something down.

But I also loved stories. As an only child I would chatter away to myself when I was playing. I once managed to convince myself there were wolves in the little wood next to the top field where our weekend caravan was. I’ve never run home so fast and I’ve never enjoyed gossip as much as I enjoyed describing that wild chase to my rapt family. Writing down my tall tales was just natural progression and sometimes I went a little overboard:

Year 7 History homework – Write a short story about how Mary Stuart felt after Darney’s death. Cue an 8pg response from me about her wig, her accent and – oh yes – her feelings.

Year 8 English homework – Write a short story about homelessness. A holiday project, which meant I produced a front cover, illustrations, the whole she-bang. A crush on the teacher probably helped that one along…

But then there was Year 9, which was the turning point for me. Our half-term project was to write our own whodunit. I wrote a story about a crime of passion in which you were supposed to side with the killer. I vividly remember the first Friday after half-term. English was the last lesson before lunch and everyone tore out to get their hands on chips, but I was asked to stay behind. I assumed the teacher had noticed me smuggling fingerfuls of muffin out of my bag. But apparently not. She said, “I read your story. I loved it. I’d like to put it in the school magazine.” Once more I’d made it up into a book, complete with illustrated front cover and here was my teacher, hugging it to her chest and telling me she wanted to publish it. None of my friends really got why that was a big deal for me, but I was lucky that my family always thought writing was a good thing. Not something that ought to make way for a proper job – like being an palaeontologist, which was my first ambition (I was going to write the seminal work on what wiped out the dinosaurs).

My Grandad was a stickler for spelling and grammar, to the extent that he bought be a pocket spell-checker. Because if you’re going to do something – do it properly. Mum just thinks everything I write it totally brilliant, which is great for when I need a boost. And Nan isn’t afraid to ask awkward questions or say if she thinks something doesn’t work.

So many times in this post I’ve started to write “I’m not published, but I think…” or “I’m not that good, but…” but why should I qualify my opinions? No, I’m not published, I’m not the world’s greatest, number one writer – these are just the facts. But I do write. But I do know what got me started and what keeps me going.

If you’re finding it a struggle to face the blank page, have a think about what you’re missing. It could just be the vital ingredient.

[Also, at the moment, Egypt is in the midst of a great turning point. The people are determined to see the back of Mubarak. You might want to read this post about it. Thanks.]