Goodbye to all that. (And to them.....)

Yesterday morning at 6am one of the most draconian anti-smoking laws in the world came into force here in Scotland, a wee country that has more experience than most of the appalling effects of tobacco on public health. There have been a great many whinging articles from addicts, not least David Hockney, who may be a superb artist, but is a poor advertisement for the effects of a lifelong tobacco habit on the brain cells. Personally speaking, I'm delighted. One of my favourite cafes (good coffee in pleasant surroundings at an affordable price) has suddenly become unpolluted. My husband, who has a genuine allergy to cigarette smoke, can go to the pub again. And yesterday a young friend said "won't it be nice to be able to go out clubbing without having to wash everything when you get home!"
Interestingly enough, it seems to be the older generation who are doing the lion's share of the moaning. The kids don't seem all that bothered. But maybe it's because the oldies have been addicted for longer. Sadly, you get to an age when all the chickens start to come home to roost at once. You notice that people who used to be good looking have taken on that wrinkly, kippered appearance. It would be nice if that was the only problem, but I know dozens of people who have been killed by their smoking, people I loved and admired, people I miss with the added ache of knowing that since so many of them came from essentially long lived stock, they would probably still be here now, if it wasn't for the bloody fags.
One slightly bizarre side effect of the legislation has been to ban all cigarettes (even herbal alternatives) from the stage. Wormwood, my play about Chernobyl,has a character who smokes, and yes, it's part of the plot. There has also been a fair bit of moaning about "censorship" from people who should know better. However the consensus among younger actors and directors seems to be that since we are in the business of creating illusions, sometimes of a very extreme sort, (nuclear reactors in melt-down for instance) managing to convey the idea of somebody smoking should be a piece of cake!

The People's Friend

My copy of the People's Friend arrived today, with the first part of The Curiosity Cabinet which has been abridged for the magazine in a number episodes.
There is a wonderful two page illustration, with all the characters: Alys, Donal (very handsome) Manus (not so handsome) and Henrietta. It has a real period feel and it reminds me of those magazines I used to look at in the doctor's waiting room when I was a little girl. (I was an asthmatic child, and spent rather a lot of my time in doctors' waiting rooms.) In fact it took me straight back to those days with an astonishing vividness of touch, taste and smell. And I wished that my dear late mum could have been around to share the moment. Magic.
Incidentally, I wonder if anyone else is terminally bored by some of today's waiting room offerings. And is it a sign of encroaching middle age that I invariably find myself asking for Country Living or Homes and Gardens in the hairdresser's, instead of Hello which everyone else seems to be fighting over?
Anyway, I digress. The mag arrived from the book publisher, Polygon, with an unsigned compliments slip. I don't think the People's Friend sits very well with their image of themselves as publishers of cutting edge crime fiction, and reprints of Scottish classics, but I am delirious, and if it sells some more copies of the novel, I will be even more pleased. There was just something about the juxtaposition of this fabulously traditional magazine, and the meaningfully silent compliments slip that made me roar with laughter. I am so sick of literary snobbery. If I can write something that a Whitbread prizewinning poet, whose work I admire, finds to be a "powerful novel about love and obligation" which at the same time appeals to the vast readership of People's Friend (and believe me, it is vast) then I feel I might just be doing something worthwhile. I spent as much time honing every last bit of The Curiosity Cabinet as - in a previous incarnation - I would have spent on a poem. Then spent much too long feeling apologetic about it because it's a love story. But everything about it was meant. Considered. Sometimes, when people talk to me or email me, I find that they have tapped into that intention. But if they simply think it's a good read, about real people, with a modicum of emotional truth, then that's fine by me.
All this reminded me about the worst thing anyone ever said about the book, long before it was shortlisted for a prize, praised by a poet and thus found a (slightly embarrassed) publisher. This was a comment by a jaundiced male agent, (of which more in a future post about "Finding an Agent") who wrote to me to the effect that it was merely a "library" novel, aimed only at "housewives", thus managing to insult not just me, but stay-at-home mums, libraries, Andrew Carnegie and all. As a friend of mine is fond of saying "It would bust you, wouldn't it?"

Getting Stuff Out There

Stuart Hepburn,whose screen credits include Taggart, Monarch of the Glen, Rebus and a dramatisation of Quite Ugly one Morning, delivered a brilliant lecture on scriptwriting, and writing for television, at the Ayr Campus of Paisley University, earlier this week. He managed to be both inspiring, and realistic in that he told it like it is to a group of students, among whom were many aspiring writers. People always assume that once you have had one success, everything will be easy after that. It couldn't be further from the truth. Most writing careers are an uneasy and messy switchback of rejection followed by success followed by rejection. Even hugely distinguished and popular writers can suddenly fall out of favour for no very obvious reason. But for those of us wrestling with the middle ground, every step forward, every acceptance, or successful production, or publication, seems to be followed inevitably by a whole clutch of knock-backs. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it and it is probably the single most depressing thing about a writing career.
Stuart managed to convey this cheerfully, and without recrimination, although he did make us laugh in the process. He recommended a book I am always telling creative writing students about - Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman, a wise and wonderful book full of anecdotes and insights, and genuinely useful to aspiring writers everywhere. And if even the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can be denied access to one of his own premieres, because he isn't on the guest list, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Stuart gave many excellent pieces of advice among which were: get your work out there because it's not doing any good sitting at the bottom of a drawer, grasp every opportunity that comes your way and finally, be nice to people, because not only will it make you feel good about yourself, but you never know when the Third Assistant Director on a project is going to turn up somewhere else as the Head of Drama!
Grasping opportunities, and getting your work out there, I sometimes think, are what make the difference between comparative success and absolute lack of it. Well, that and realising that if you wait until you have "time" to write, you will never write anything. Aspiring writers are surprisingly diffident about their own skills, and consequently run away from opportunities. We find excuses, because we're scared. And we all have unsatisfactory stuff lying around in drawers - I have plenty of it myself - but it's like the lottery. Small as your chances are, if you don't buy a ticket, you're never going to win. If you don't send your work out, once you feel that it is as good as you can make it, you are never going to get feedback on it.
If you are writing only for your own pleasure it doesn't matter. But if you have ambitions to be published or produced, you have to be amazingly proactive.
So don't file things away and forget about them. Send them out into the world and make them work for you. As Stuart suggested, this doesn't have to be in the more formal world of theatre/publishing etc. You can do it for yourself. Get together with like-minded friends, amateur actors, local theatre groups, develop your script and "do the show right here". Write a blog. If you have the capability, make yourself a website. Think laterally. Search out literary or poetry or drama competitions of which there are many, and submit your work to these. (You will often get feedback which can be useful). Join a club. Submit your stories and poems, not just to the big players, who will be inundated with work, but to the smaller magazines who won't. They won't pay much, if anything, but you will start to build up a body of published or produced work. In other words, as with any product, it's no earthly use complaining about your lack of sales if you aren't prepared to work at
getting your stuff out there!

Wuthering Heights

I've always been unashamedly obsessed by this book. When I was a little girl (named for the heroine, of course) my mother and father trundled me across Haworth Moors in my push chair, to see the old ruined farmhouse called Top Withins, which was believed to be the inspiration behind the name and the situation, if not the actual building. Mum was something of a romantic. Why else would she have married a dark and handsome Pole, who kissed her hand when they first met. Mind you, dad was no Heathcliff. He was much too kind for that.
I liked Jane Eyre well enough, but I was passionate about Wuthering Heights, with its mad, bad and dangerous pair of lovers. Actually, there is nothing romantic about the book at all. It is a whirlwind of thwarted passion, the single minded passion of youth, and it has a deeply disturbing vein of intense (and intensely rural) cruelty running through it just as the descriptions of the brightly burning fire at the heart of the farmhouse run through the heart of the novel.
But really, I adore all of it, find that my friends fall neatly into those who love it and those who loathe it, and return to it again and again. This weekend, I see that the excellent Sally Wainwright (of Sparkhouse fame) has written a radio play about a possible source of inspiration behind the book: a forbidden love affair between Emily and a local weaver's son. He died young, and she wrote Wuthering Heights. Women's Hour had a slightly outraged academic quibbling with Sarah Fermi's research which inspired the play, but it seems feasible enough to me (and of course completely unprovable, either way.)
"But she wouldn't had had anything to do with a weaver" said Emily's biographer. "They were from completely different stations in life."
Which is, of course, exactly the point. From time immemorial, people have been forming inadvisable relationships. Such things are the stuff of a million works of literature, film and theatre, Wuthering Heights included. I, for one, and speaking as someone who has also written her own obsessive homage to Wuthering Heights (this time with a Scottish setting) will be listening with interest.

The Earth According to Google

Our son came home last weekend, and downloaded Google Earth for me. This was a big mistake. The sheer magical joy of being able to fly around the world and home in on familiar and unfamiliar places in great detail is compellingly and completely addictive. Arguably, the places you know well are even more intriguing than foreign lands, for the simple reason that looking down on anything from above like this adds a strange glamour to it all. I found the site of the house where I lived when I was a little girl in Leeds - now an area of major development, like so many old industrial areas that are about to become highly desirable. Suddenly, I could see exactly how it sat in relation to everything else round about it. Curiously, it brought back all kinds of memories and made me feel quite emotional. I could have looked at it for hours. I've always loved maps, but this goes one better. Obviously on a roll, my son then went on to show me Google Video. Soon I was enthusing over the Beatles singing Revolution.
"So who's that then?" he said.
"John Lennon. It's John Lennon. And it's wonderful... Go away. I want to see what else I can find!"
He sighed and went back to his maths.
This is displacement activity of the very highest order. I can't recommend it highly enough. Just don't expect to get anything done in the meantime, that's all.

Soap Opera

Why would anyone use such a gloriously varied, universally popular and participatory art as soap opera in a perjorative sense? Except maybe the Beeb who, when River City was in development, allegedly insisted on everyone referring to it as a "continuing drama" lest anyone should imagine that what they were creating was a soap!
In 1982 one Dorothy Hobson conducted a fascinating study into the relationship between Crossroads and its viewers. This is extensively reported in John Carey's iconoclastic "What Good Are the Arts?" (Buy it, read it and rejoice, Faber and Faber, 2005) He says "Taste is so bound up with self esteem, particularly among devotees of high art, that a sense of superiority to those with 'lower tastes' is almost impossible to relinquish without the risk of identity crisis."
Hobson researched audience response to the soap and found - unsurprisingly - that its viewers had a high level of critical awareness and that the soap was essentially a "popular art with communal participation which provoked a straightforward clash of cultures." The critics hated it purely because it offended their own cultural values.
Not so very long ago there was a scene in Corrie (My soap of choice) in which Emily, Audrey, Norris, Rita and - I think - Fred, sat around a dining table eating Sunday lunch and talking. It was a scene of such breathtaking skill (any playwright will tell you that dining tables can be death to drama) that I watched it in gobsmacked envy of the team that had created it. Each of these characters had his or her own densely woven back story. Each of them had a complex relationship with the others. And for all of them, something was also happening right now. Every character was being played by a fine actor, using a script to die for, with inspired direction that placed every member of the audience firmly at the table with them.
Not only that but they were all older characters, and yet they weren't being treated as figures of fun, or also-rans, but as real, three dimensional people, central to the drama. In short it was a dazzling tour de force.
Once upon a time, when a wandering poet arrived in a small Highland or Island community he would be asked "Do you know anything of the Fianna?" When the reply was in the affirmative, he would be invited to a village gathering to relate the next episode in the popular soap that was the story of Finn MacCumhaill,his warriors and their strong, dauntless women. So what is the difference between this ancient craving for story, and the animated discussions about the latest episode of this or that soap in the pub or the canteen? And why should one be intrinsically more valuable, or more culturally significant than the other?
The answer is, of course, that it isn't. But don't tell the elitists that. The shock to their self image might be disastrous. I often think they they are like the exclusive religious sect in the old joke - you know, the one where St Peter lets the newcomer climb up the ladder to peer quietly over the high wall of their heavenly enclosure because "they think they are the only ones in here!"

The Aftermath

There is nothing quite like the let-down after a stage play, unless its the let-down after you've finished writing a book. But I think the let-down after a play is worse, for the very good reason that writing is essentially a lonely business. You sit in your room, with the radio and your own imagination for company, and write what you want to see. Then, for a few short weeks, you work with other people, people who are taking this piece of work seriously. You collaborate. You discuss, and watch and listen and marvel as your work takes on a life of its own. And you meet people. You meet them during rehearsals, and during the production. Friends come and see it. Colleagues come and see it. Complete strangers come up to you and tell you how much they enjoyed it. Let's face it, it gives you such a buzz and not just because it's nice to be appreciated (which it is) but simply because it's good to know that you are communicating with other human beings. And then all of a sudden, it's over, finished, and everyone has moved onto the next thing, and so must you. But there's a space, and suddenly everyday life seems a bit humdrum and a bit boring. You feel spaced out and slightly depressed.
The play was pretty much a success. The reviews were good, the people involved with the production seemed to like the play, and the audiences were appreciative. After the last performance, on saturday, there was one of those rare moments when the whole audience (and the place was packed) falls silent, and then gives a little collective sigh, before bursting into applause. THAT was good.
But now it's back to reality, which in my case means the desk, the endless pots of tea (made with real leaves of course) and the next big project.

Production Diary (5)

Which should be subtitled "I LOVE Neil Cooper." Because he liked it. Not only that but - writing in the Herald - he liked the actors, the music, the direction, the lot. He liked it and - more to the point - he "got" it. I have maligned the guy elsewhere in this blog by assuming that he might not like it. Now I find that he is a man of taste and sound judgement. He is a wonderful man, and a fine critic. (Why do we always tend to believe the bad reviews and disbelieve the good ones?) Right now, I'm happy, not just for myself, but for everyone involved because as the director pointed out at one point, it was also, in many ways a "joyful" experience and I think it shows in the finished product. Sending actors out onto a stage in your own play is a bit like sending a child to school for the first time. You can't go with them, you can't do anything to help, they've got to go through it, but my how you worry. You do more than that. You pray.
I won't see the play again till later in the week but, when I could stop worrying and concentrate, I too thought that they did a great job on monday. Working on a play is a very strange experience for the playwright. By the time the performance is happening, the play is already sliding away from you. I know that this week will pass by in a blurr, and it's touch and go whether the play will have another life beyond this time - except in the minds and memories of those who have seen it. I wonder.

Production Diary (4)

Couldn't believe just how much the play had "gelled" yesterday. There are two more days of rehearsals, friday and saturday, as well as a run through before the performance on monday, but I will be leaving them to it now. I think at this late stage the writer can be a hindrance rather than a help. I have answered every question I can possibly answer about Rab and his relationship with Jean. I've watched a couple of runs from beginning to end, and although I am now in that state of panic that all writers get into at this stage, it is all to do with my own insecurities about the play and nothing to do with this production. You get so close to something that you just can't see the wood for the trees. Then you start to see things you would have done differently. Or you start to notice all the things that the play doesn't address, rather than what it does address. Then you remember that this is a 50 minute show, so what else can you do? On the other hand, I love writing for this length and this space. It concentrates the mind wonderfully. And there is no reason at all why a shorter play shouldn't be as complex and emotive as a longer piece. More so in fact. The discipline involved in fitting it all into a restricted time slot, and a simple space means that you can't be over indulgent. Something has to happen. It has to happen soon. And it has to go somewhere pretty quickly.
The piece is potentially controversial for a number of reasons. There are scenes in there that - when I actually saw them on stage - brought me up short. There are interpretations of the poet and his life that might be deemed provocative. I haven't written any of this just to provoke a reaction however. It was simply that I wanted to explore some aspects of the relationship between Rab and Jean that are all too often glossed over. It helps enormously that the cast are so young. Their attitude to the poet is refreshingly down to earth. And because of that I hope that both Burns and Jean begins to emerge as a living, breathing people.

Production Diary (3)

Second week of a two week rehearsal period and the play is shaping up nicely. Actually that sounds glib. Two weeks is a horribly short length of time for what - from a purely practical point of view - is a "big learn." Lots of words. Also, this is a very physical and very visual play, which has to be carefully choreographed if it's going to make sense, and both actors and director are doing a great job. I wanted it to have something of the quality of a country dance about it - and I think that's what it will have. Whether the audience will appreciate it or not is another matter. I predict right now that the Herald's Neil Cooper won't like it - may as well acknowledge that and get on with it! (Not his sort of play I think. He may damn it with faint praise though...)The musician, an astounding young woman from Glasgow called Celine Donoghue, is proving to be such an asset. The music is an integral part of this play, interwoven with action and dialogue, but it takes a special sort of skill to improvise around this and she is amazing - quite magical in fact. (Working with a fiddle from the early 1700s, as well.) Besides that, I think Burns is charismatic, deeply sympathetic and exasperating all at once - as he should be - while Jean is poignant, perceptive - and with a singing voice to die for - again, as she should.

Production Diary (2)

The first read-through is invariably nerve racking for the playwright. Mainly because it's where you spot all the shortcomings in your script - the things that you thought you had fixed, the infelicities, the words that you hadn't realised were so bloody hard to pronounce, and the ideas that you thought were as clear as day, but now you are not so sure.
I love my cast, I love my director, I love my designer, and - glory be - they've found me a professional fiddler. I'm happy with all of them. Right now though, I'm not sure about the play. But then, I think that's pretty much condition normal, for any writer. You find that you expose so much of yourself in writing. You work away at something, and see it and hear it in your head in a very definite way, but at the point were it begins to go public, you always get cold feet.
The thing to remember at this stage, though, is that there is a long long way to go.For the actors, and director, it must be the equivalent of somebody looking at a writer's very first draft, and judging it. Can't be done. All you can say is - yes, it feels right, it's heading the right way, and then let them get on with it for a bit. There is, too, something of the feeling of sending your child to school on the first day. That nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach!
I hadn't realised how much I knew about Robert Burns: anecdotes, stories, opinions, relationships. And places. And the language of the time. My task was to communicate that time and place to the cast as clearly and vividly as I could. You can read books till they are coming out of your ears, but they are no substitute for a human enthusiast, and that was my role. The informed enthusiast.
More later.

Production Diary (1)

Whenever I talk to a writers' group, or do a workshop, I am usually asked about the process of writing for the stage. What is involved with a production? How do these things work?
So - without going into many personal details - I thought it might be interesting to follow a small production through from beginning to end, from the point of view of the writer.
I have already touched on the process of writing, and submitting plays in previous posts, but now, here I am on the eve of rehearsals for Burns on the Solway, with a director, a cast and a musician in place. I've re-read the script, and spotted the typos (two of them, biggies, that I should have noticed several drafts ago. ) I've gone through the usual angst. What will the actors and the director - professional, sympathetic and inspirational - make of it? How will the play evolve? We'll see.
The production process varies, which is why it is so hard to be exact, when explaining it to people. Some directors like the writer to be there all the time. Some would prefer it if the writer never showed at all. (Best avoided, in my experience!) Some like the writer to "dip in and out" giving the actors time to experiment, make mistakes, thrash things out in the intervening periods without a looming writer. On the whole, I think this is probably best, although I have had at least one production where the director simply downed tools if I couldn't be there. I learned a vast amount in the course of that production, but it also involved a huge commitment in terms of time - and it was quite stressful. Good though. I'm glad I did it. I think on this occasion, and by mutual agreement, I will be "dipping in and out."
We have two weeks of rehearsal, and the play is approximately 45 minutes long. That's a lot to fit into a couple of weeks. The work will be intense.
There's one piece of advice which I always give to aspiring playwrights - if you don't like collaboration, then theatre isn't for you. Quite probably drama isn't for you. A play begins in the mind of the writer, but by the time it hits the stage it has gone through this magical process involving the talents of many other people, and what emerges, if you are lucky, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, is something you could barely even imagine. That's the reason you do it though. When it works, it's wonderful.
What's my main worry, at this point? That's easy. Doubts about my own writing.
Burns on the Solway is a play about Robert Burns. The sacred bard of Scottish imagination. There have been so many plays about Burns. And films. And books. Books upon books. How could I dare to do it? I have loved this poet and his work since - as a teenager with a romantic imagination - I traced his footsteps around Ayrshire, and then beyond. But the years have deepened my understanding until the urge to write about the poet and his wife became an ache inside - something I went back to again and again.
What have I written though? And have I even begun to say what I set out to say?
More later.....

Sending Stuff Out

In the days when I was tutor to a Writers' Group, I was forever going on at the members about sending out their work. They would invariably have poems, stories and articles, languishing in drawers and folders. "Send it off" I would say. "You can't hope to win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket" - and similar terms of encouragement.
Now, some years later, here I sit with drawers full of the stuff, and although certain manuscripts are, in fact, "out there" with my agent, so much of it is languishing still.
Perhaps most frustrating among the "languishees"though, is a full length stage play called The Locker Room. So much of what sits in drawers is there because you know, deep in your heart, that it is garbage. The Locker Room is different. I think that the Locker Room is a good play. I first drafted it out some years ago, but have done many rewrites and revisions since then, pushing the dialogue as far as I could, experimenting with it, paring it and pruning it until it reflected exactly what I wanted to say. It is a hard hitting play, not a bundle of laughs for sure, in that it tackles the thorny subject of abuse in sports coaching within the ever-so-masculine sport of ice hockey.
For the past ten years - as well as writing novels - I have written drama for radio and for the stage. My play Wormwood, about the Chernobyl disaster, was lovingly nurtured by the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and produced to excellent reviews. The play was published in an anthology called "Scotland Plays" and is now a set text for the Scottish "Higher Still" drama exam. A further play for the Traverse, Quartz, about themes of magic and religion, was also beautifully produced and well reviewed. Then I sent them The Locker Room, but they didn't like it. Actually, that's not strictly true. One of their readers loved it. That's what the artistic director told me on the phone. But for various reasons which I won't go into here, he himself didn't really want to do it. And no, he didn't think it needed workshopping, because it didn't need rewriting. There was nothing wrong with it as a play. He just didn't like what I was saying and the angle I was taking.
Fair enough. There's no reason why he should. These things are very personal and we simply agreed to differ.
Since then, though, I have sent the play to every theatre in Scotland that I can think of that accepts new writing. Sometimes I have emailed beforehand to ask about submissions and have received encouraging noises. I know I'm the woman with the funny foreign name - but it should be a reasonably familiar foreign name in Scottish theatre. After my new short play The Price of a Fish Supper was produced in Glasgow last spring, I wondered if I should try to do something with the Locker Room - again. And the result? As before, as always, complete, utter, dead silence. I don't mean that the play was turned down. The only theatre to have turned it down was the Traverse. I mean nothing, zilch, nada. Not an email, not a phonecall, not an acknowledgement, nothing. The script has just disappeared into this great, silent, black hole.
Actually, I suspect I know all too well what the problem is. In theatre, you have to polish your profile. You have to go to events, and opening nights and previews and workshops. You have to sit in the bar and be seen. You have to chat to people and remind them of your very existence. You have to be part of the "in-crowd". And, woe is me, I live in deepest rural Scotland, and spend most of my week struggling to earn a living, which kind of limits my networking possibilities.
But it gnaws away at me, it really does.
Increasingly now, I think that more time in Glasgow, which I love, is probably the answer. I have to be bold and elbow my way in, somehow. I'm working on it.
Meanwhile, if anyone out there is interested in a full length well polished and "provocative" (buzz word) play with believable characters, written in a taut, almost poetic, but ultimately realistic style.... well, just let me know, would you?

Displacement Activity.

I have taken this to new heights (or should that be depths) within the past few weeks. Here I am, with a full length book to finish. By the end of May. Actually, preferably, say the publishers who commissioned this a while ago, by the end of April. Please?
It's non-fiction. It will be called "God's Islanders"and it will be a history of the people of the Island of Gigha (just off the Kintyre Peninsula, on the west coast of Scotland, in case you don't know....) But not a big academic tome. Just an average sized, very personal and slightly poetic account of the history of this tiny (and most southerly) of the true Hebridean islands and the people who have lived there over the years. I want it to be accurate, but lyrical and evocative as well. The island has been an inspiration to me in fiction and plays, so I want something of that in the book. It can't be dry, it might sometimes be funny, but by the end of it, the reader has to know something of the island and its people. And I have been working on it, on and off, for a good while now. So not one of those quick inspirations then.
I am swamped with research and reference books. I have some thousands of words already written. Pages of notes and letters from people, and photocopies of interesting old documents. I even know what I want the cover to look like for God's sake. I have spent weeks and months of my life on this. But for ages I just haven't been able to get my head (and, face it, my body) round the idea of assembling it all into something readable.
I have ditched an old PC and acquired a new one. I have signed up to broadband. I have listed items on eBay. I have cleaned the kitchen, and changed the beds. I have watered the plants and written emails, and Googled for a million interesting items, all connected, of course, with my book. Or not, as the case may be. I have drunk tea, coffee, wine and (the last desperate recourse of the afflicted) whisky. Not much whisky, true, and it was Laphroaig, in the vain hope that the taste of the Hebrides would inspire me to get going. I have phoned friends. I have cleaned the cockatiels' cage. I have phoned my student son. I have chatted to my husband who is working on the floor of our new bathroom, and cursing quietly. I have made a fish pie. I have gone shopping. I have tidied my desk, and thrown away a heap of old papers and magazines. I have sharpened a pencil. I have figured out how to use the CD player my family bought me for Christmas, and played Bob Dylan endlessly.
But today, having exhausted every last possibility, I have sat down at my computer, and written 5000 words, the first chapter, pulling together some of that great multitude of notes and ideas as I went. And you know what? Suddenly, I thought, I can do this. Like riding a bike, or swimming in deep water. It's all there. Suddenly I know what I'm doing and how I should do it. Oddly enough, I don't think I could have done it till now. It's as though all this time, something was working away in my head, and now it's shuffled itself more or less into the right pattern, and...
Tomorrow, I will write the chapter about the Well of the Winds. And then I'll be absolutely certain that today wasn't just some kind of fluke....

A Play A Pie and a Pint

Getting a stage play from an idea in the mind of the playwright to performance on stage is - like all kinds of writing - a long and frequently harrowing process. I've just had a phone conversation with the director of Burns on the Solway, which will be staged at Glasgow's Oran Mor Centre during the week beginning 20th February and is consequently about to go into rehearsal. It was a huge relief, because we instinctively seemed to be agreeing about everything - but he had his own exciting ideas about the look of the piece which filled me with enthusiasm. Also, he seems to like the play - a major prerequisite for a happy production! A lot of this is to do with the wonderful David McLennan, and his facility for pairing up people who might work well together - certainly it's one of the factors behind the success of his "A Play, A Pie and a Pint" season, sponsored by Orange.
David organises a series of short lunchtime plays, each lasting about 45 minutes. The price of the ticket includes a pie (literally - meat or veggie options are available) and a drink, alcoholic or otherwise. There are rows of seats with tables. The audience come in, eat, drink, talk, and then, once most of the dishes are cleared away, settle back to watch the play.
The first time I contributed a play, (The Price of a Fish Supper, spring 2005) I couldn't believe the size of the audience. It opened on a holiday monday, the university students were away and Glasgow's West End looked deserted. I had misgivings. But then, quite suddenly, the place filled up. And I mean filled. This is a big venue, but it's congenial and people like it. They also like the fact that they can fit it in around other things. A significant number of retired people enjoy coming out in daylight, people on flexi time come along from the BBC, and the surrounding hospitals and businesses - they even like the pies! They were a mixed, interesting, receptive audience.
This year's play - mind you - is quite different from the last one. So we'll see. In my experience, critics and reviewers often expect you to write more of the same, and sometimes get quite shirty when you don't, reviewing what something is not rather than what it is! Or maybe that's just my usual writer's paranoia surfacing ...
The play takes a fresh look at the relationship between Robert Burns and his wife Jean. I've always been more interested in Jean than in any of his other loves. Maybe because she so often gets a bad press. Miscellaneous academics down the years (mostly male) have gone on at length about Burns marrying someone whose intellectual capacity couldn't match his own. As if teasing Nancy McLehose was the last word in intelligence. One writer labels Jean "glaikit" a Scots word meaning stupid. They even manage to turn her own virtues against her. Because she uncomplainingly agreed to take on the upbringing of Anna Park's daughter, (she of the "gowden locks", the barmaid Burns bedded at the Globe Inn, Dumfries,while Jean was visiting Mauchline) one commentator pointed out that this compliance would have been a constant reproach to the poet and was possibly the reason for his unhappiness! Can't win, can you?
When you search Google for Robert Burns, you get about nineteen million hits. When you search Google for Jean Armour, you get just over one million, and that includes one or two high profile descendents. Highland Mary, on the other hand, gets a whopping three and a half million hits. Wouldn't you just know that the mistress gets more fame than the wife? Particularly when she dies before she can make any trouble!
So I've always had a soft spot for Jean, as well as a huge affection for the poet. I know he put it about a bit, but he was a man who genuinely liked the company of women. You need only read songs like "My Tocher's the Jewel" to know that here was a man unlike most other men of his time. To put such words into the mouth of a woman takes an amount of insight that few writers could match - now or then! And the real words to "Green Grow the Rashes" are not, "the sweetest hours that e'er I spent" - an old rake looking back on past love affairs - but a much more immediate, and quite different "the sweetest hours that e'er I spend are spent amang the lassies oh..." with a final, telling reference to Jesus Christ, usually omitted when the song is sung. "The wisest man the warld e'er knew, he dearly lo'ed the lassies oh."
So, Robert and Jean. That's what I wanted to write about. It's a love story - of course.
It's a short play about endings (and perhaps beginnings). It's a play about loss. And about inspiration. And about the complexities of the relationship between a husband and wife. But by the time it's on stage, I'll know more about it. That's what happens when actors and a director get their hands on your work. It's also one of the things that make theatre so exciting - and keeps this writer in particular coming back for more.

Of Plays and Things

Some time ago I conceived the idea of writing a play about the last few weeks in the life of Robert Burns. He was sent to a sort of “poor man’s spa” at The Brow Well, down on the Solway where his doctors advised him to try seabathing. The man was dying, but struggled to walk through the shallow waters to the point where they reached his waist. It seemed a dramatic and curiously neglected time of his life. I drafted out the play, but felt that it was a horrible mish mash of too many ideas. I kept shelving it, going back to it and shelving it all over again.

Then, last year, I had a play accepted for David McLennan’s inspired “A Play, a Pie and a Pint” season of lunchtime dramas at the Oran Mor centre in Glasgow’s West End. The Price of a Fish Supper was a dramatic monologue, about – among many other things – the state of the Scottish fishing industry, as seen through the eyes of an ex fisherman. It was beautifully directed by Gerda Stevenson and brilliantly performed by Paul Morrow in a tour de force of memory and interpretation: 45 minutes on stage, no breaks, a moving and magical performance. I counted my blessings because theatre is such a collaborative effort and I sometimes think that the writing is the least of it! It went down well with audiences, and the reviews were good. Enthused all over again about theatre, I thought about writing another play.

During November and December last year, as respite from another project which is proving a bit of a struggle (of which more, much more, in a later blog) , I got out my meandering Burns on the Solway, and had a look at it again. This time, though, I came to it knowing that I had to cut characters, knowing that I had to write within definite time and space and budget constraints. It suddenly struck me what the play was really about - the relationship between Burns and Jean as perceived through the eyes of a dying man, and the wife who has soldiered on with him through thick and thin. I began to cut away all the rubbish – and found that I had a viable play on my hands. It’s scheduled for the new Oran Mor season, some time in February, it goes into production soon, and I’ll let you know what happens next. But I write this mostly to point out that essential constraints can be amazingly liberating. Sometimes too much time and space can be a curse. Sometimes, the need to write to a particular brief can be more rewarding than you would ever have anticipated.

Dawkins Shmawkins

I wanted to write something about this farrago of nonsense, but the incomparable A A Gill trashed the programme (and incidentally its presenter) so comprehensively in the Sunday Times that I needn't bother. The brilliant thing about Gill was that he instantly made the bizarre connection I had been struggling to put my finger on for two weeks: Malcolm Muggeridge. We expect a dramatic Dawkins conversion before too long, and believe me he'll be fierce. In the Catholic church people used to (and still do for all I know, though I'm not what you might call a regular churchgoer) talk in hushed tones about the intensity of the converted. Not long after little Malcolm saw the light, as then rector of Edinburgh University, he made students' lives a misery by his prolonged opposition, on moral grounds, to the installation of contraceptive machines in the union lavatories. I know it sounds a bit far fetched now, but back then it was AN ISSUE.
You know what bothers me most ? (About Dawkins. Though Muggeridge had the same besetting sin. ) It's his woolly thinking. And his complete lack of academic precision. Coming from a young male undergraduate it might be interesting; from a mature scientist and presumed expert in his field, it's unforgiveable. But then maybe - dare I say it? - that's biology for you.

Fighting the Good Fight.

When I was first going out with my husband - and we lived on opposite sides of the country - he turned up at my flat one weekend, en route to a tournament in full fencing get-up. (He never did make the competition, but that's another story.) The fact that he still maintains an interest in what he says is an art, rather than a sport, may serve to explain why he devoted two precious hours of his life, the other night, to watching something advertised as a British Drama on Hallmark. I was present but, after the first half hour, I buried my nose in a book and contented myself with the occasional peep - mostly at Robson. The premise was that our hero, fleeing the police, assorted criminals and his past, took on the coaching of a girls' fencing team at a posh boarding school somewhere near Oban. (Culzean Castle, as it turned out. Not THAT near Oban, really. You could see Ailsa Craig in some of the shots.) He had been offered the job after a gratuitous bonk with the headmistress, in a hotel room. Unlikely, but you never know your luck in a raffle...
The fact that the whole production was truly, deeply awful, should in no way be blamed on the actors who struggled manfully, and womanfully, with both script and fencing. It was when the credits rolled that I guessed the awful truth. There, but for the grace of God, went yours truly.
Once upon a time, after one of my stage plays had been well reviewed, I was approached by a script editor, bearing enticements. It was just after Ballykissangel, and they were looking for an idea for a Scottish rural drama. From my extensive experience of deepest rural Scotland, I obliged. In the meantime, however, a blistering drama called The Lakes (remember that one?) was doing rather well, so back came my outline, with the suggestion that I make it "darker." Perhaps they wanted The Lochs. I reckon my modified idea was a little too dark, because at the next meeting the editor suggested that I pitch it somewhere in the middle. More work, more meetings, more discussions. No money though. "They seem to think" said the script editor, apologetically, at what turned out to be our last meeting. "That it falls between two stools."
Beware of script editors or development executives or whatever they are calling themselves nowadays, bearing promises of jam tomorrow, if only you can "get it right."
You have to remember that in television, script editors may be only one step ahead of the writer in terms of experience. Or, come to think of it, some way behind the writer. Development is their job, their raison d'etre, the way they earn their living. The company must be seen to have various projects "in development." Mostly, as a writer, you won't be paid anything for that development work but the script editor will often be employed by the company. It stands to reason, therefore, that the development process will be lengthy, while the writer wastes weeks, months, nay years of his or her life on rewrites and revisions, always pursuing that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, until the initial idea crumbles away into dross. A few dried leaves. Just occasionally though, one of these productions actually makes it onto the screen. To encourage the others, perhaps? The fencing fiasco had the despairing air of something concocted by a committee of script editors and development executives. Somewhere in there was an excellent and original idea, twitching feebly, as it expired before our very eyes.
After a bit, you get wise to this process. But not before you have wasted far too much time, and far too many ideas. Every time I have had a reasonably successful stage play, somebody has approached me about television. The last person I spoke to was refreshingly honest about the whole business. If you want to get into television, you begin by writing for the soaps. You send in sample scripts, and if they are good enough, you get to serve an apprenticeship, learning your trade the hard way. That's how it's done. If you don't want to do that, then you don't want to write for television badly enough. So don't do it. Write what you want to write instead.
PS They were holding their "back hands" wrong in the fencing scenes as well. So said my husband . "They'd have got their fingers chopped off!" he muttered darkly, as he went to bed.


What will I do with my wednesday nights, now that Rome has ended? I know critical reaction to this has been mixed, but I've been hooked right from the start. And I managed to see every single episode, which is something of a miracle for me. There have been criticisms that the language was too modern. So what did they want? Ben Hur? That it was too violent. It was violent - horribly, realistically so, and I was sometimes reduced to watching it from behind a cushion, the way I used to watch Dr Who. Especially the last gladiatorial fight, which was - I'm sure - completely realistic! That it was too sexy. Well, it was jaw droppingly explicit. And you knew where it would all end (in tears of course). But none of that mattered. It was all endlessly entertaining. I loved the way Servilia turned into the villain. I loved the way Atia suddenly became (marginally) sympathetic. I loved the way Mark Antony managed to be both louche and honourable at the same time. I loved the look of it all. The shots that you just knew the director had been drooling over.
Besides, it had Kevin McKidd in it, who is one of the best actors to come out of Scotland in a long long time. I used to fantasise about writing a play for him to be in. Now, sadly, I expect he's too starry for the stage. I'll miss the Vorenus/Pullo double act. I'll miss all of it. Wednesday nights will never be the same.
My son's girlfriend (a classicist) has just reminded me what happens next. Ooh, I remember now. Can't wait for the next series....


Was anyone else, I wonder, disappointed by last night's "Rebus" incarnation - apart from the invariably watchable, and never disappointing Ken Stott? I love the books, but haven't read this particular volume. Rankin always weaves a skilful and involving tale, with Edinburgh as well as Rebus emerging as superbly multi-faceted in every novel. (Mind you, I must admit to having a soft spot for Mr Rankin because he was one of the judges who shortlisted my novel The Curiosity Cabinet for the Dundee Book Prize - a man of excellent judgement, of course!)
But this dramatisation didn't live up to expectations. I guessed whodunnit almost as soon as the character appeared onscreen - there were far too many loud clangers of clues, far too early in the programme. The director seems to have taken the decision to characterise the city by means of authentic but intrusive FX (traffic and street musicians). They were so loud that sometimes you had to strain to hear what the characters were saying. I kept comparing it in my own mind (perhaps unfairly) with Richard Jobson's amazing "16 Years of Alcohol" where the city manages to be only obliquely recognisable, enchanting, and hugely threatening all at the same time. Rebus and Edinburgh both seemed to have lost some of their beautifully written vulnerability in the transition to the small screen. Meanwhile, my grumpy husband complained about the plethora of long haired blondes. Too sunk in post festive malaise to appreciate the eye candy, he reckoned he couldn't tell which was which, so pretty much lost the plot within the first half hour.

To Tutor or not to Tutor

few days ago, there was the usual seasonal piece on a Scottish news programme about exam results and the fact that, at this time of the year, parents suddenly start looking for tutors for their children (“ totally unregulated” was the shock horror addition.) There was the usual brisk young spokesman for the department of education, firmly toeing the party line about how schools can teach kids everything they need to know, while tutors only cause children stress. Well I have news for that rather smug young man. In an ideal world, schools would teach kids all they need to know. But this is a far from ideal world, and so many schools in Scotland are struggling with a multitude of problems. I know, because I was once chair of our local secondary school board. Frankly, it was a nightmare.
Not the least of our many problems was that the school was smaller than average. Teachers, not surprisingly, would use it as a stepping stone to somewhere better. Especially good teachers. Having applied for and gained a new job, many of them had to leave immediately, leaving whole classes of children in the lurch, mid term. The comparatively small size of the school also meant that subjects and, perhaps more importantly, combinations of subjects were very limited. But classes were generally crowded because the school could never afford, or even attract, enough teachers.
Our son found quite early on in his school career that he simply couldn’t cope with maths. And neither my husband, nor myself, knew enough to help him. His maths teacher was excellent – I have nothing but praise for him, as a clever, dedicated, respected man - but the class was full of people for whom primary school maths had proved something of a mystery, and he was invariably struggling to bring them all up to the required standard at once while wrestling with the discipline problems involved in “inclusion” policies, which basically meant disruption.
Since our son was a bright kid, and also no trouble in class, everyone assumed he was managing. He wasn’t. We visited the school and talked to his teacher, who was hugely sympathetic, but nothing improved. I suspect the teacher simply didn’t have enough time to cope with the volume of work needed. I bought books, and struggled to stay ahead of the game, but I couldn’t seem to sort it out for him either. There were sleepless nights, panics, tears. Only those who have gone through something similar will understand the stress involved for all concerned.
“Once I leave school” he said, “I will never, ever do any maths again.”
In despair, I contacted a friend, a school teacher whose son had had similar problems. He seemed to be doing OK now. She gave me the phone number of an elderly retired engineer who tutored schoolkids in maths and physics. We couldn’t really afford the fees, but we had been left a little money by my parents, and decided to invest some of it in tutorials. After the first session, the tutor chatted to us over tea and biscuits. “No wonder he’s struggling” he told us. “There’s a big gap in his knowledge. It makes everything difficult for him.”
At his otherwise excellent village primary school, our son had been a little slow at maths. It was the way he worked. He liked to have everything explained, and take his time, but once he understood a concept, it was firmly embedded. He was in a class of eight. Three or four of them seemed to have a natural ability with numbers. He was placed in that group, but couldn’t keep up. His teacher suggested placing him with the other little group, where he would always be top, in order to improve his confidence. It improved no end, but unfortunately he also missed out on whole chunks of knowledge. Like most kids, he needed what neither of his schools seemed able to provide –a friend who is a distinguished educationalist calls it “teaching the child, not the subject.”
During his second session with the tutor, a strange and unfamiliar sound emerged from the room where they were working. It was the sound our son laughing. Laughing over maths. Astonishing. He had never laughed over maths in his life before. At that point, I realised that whatever it took, we would carry on with the lessons.
That was some six years ago. He passed his standard grade with flying colours and got an “A” at Higher, with very little trouble, and almost no stress. The tutorials dovetailed very nicely with what he was doing at school, where his sympathetic maths teacher – fortunately – didn’t disapprove of the tutor’s methods. His tutor simply gave him the tools to enjoy his school maths. One of the high points of this time was when he was heard to say “Oh the joy of numbers!”
So whenever I hear whizz kid educational authority spokesmen firmly toeing the party line on tutoring, I reach for my pen. Don’t tell me things would have got better, because they were heading for disaster. The only sadness is that schools can’t find some way of incorporating one to one extra tutorial time into the school schedule. Teaching the kids, not the subjects. Fat chance.
As for our son, he’s in his second year at Glasgow University. What is he studying? Maths. As I watch him happily working away at sheet after sheet of numbers, symbols, equations, I remember the wee boy who vowed that he would never take maths again, and wonder just how many other people have been lost to this fascinating, but largely unsung discpline. But of course, that’s a whole other issue, and probably not one for this blog!

What's in a Name?

All my life, I've had a surname that the average English Language speaker finds horribly difficult: Czerkawska. The trouble started when everyone else at school was learning to spell Smith and Jones, whereas I was wrestling with that difficult juxtaposition of ten letters.
To be fair, I eventually married a man with a very simple surname, but by that stage, I had been writing professionally under my own name for so long that changing it seemed like madness. (Or that's what my agent at the time told me.) Besides, I like my name. It has a long and interesting history. And I learned to spell it years ago. But the problem is that although people remember it, kind of, they don't remember exactly what it is. So they say "you know, that Polish writer. The one with the funny name."
In late 2004, having written for BBC radio, television and theatre for many years I learned that my novel The Curiosity Cabinet had been shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, and was to be published by Polygon in 2005. My (new) agent and I agreed that a name change might be in order at last, and I was prepared to go along with anything reasonable. But Polygon were dismayed. We've done the publicity, they said. And we've done it under your own name. So there I was, stuck with it. I could almost hear my dear late dad chuckling. He wouldn't have approved of the change anyway.
Now, with a new year on the way, and the novel published to a certain amount of success, I've finally decided to stay with Czerkawska for the time being - although I'm well aware that there are many writers who publish under a string of different "identities". I sometimes feel like the original europerson. My father was Polish with a little bit of Hungarian thrown in, my mother was half English and half Irish. I was born in England but moved to Scotland when I was twelve. Now I'm married to a Scottish Liverpudlian, and - having travelled about a bit - still live and work in Scotland. As a full time freelance writer, I've tried my hand at all kinds of work from poems to plays and novels, always pursuing that elusive thing "my own voice". I've won the odd prize along the way. I've done quite a lot of commercial writing, working to a company brief. And of course I've taught creative writing as well. One thing I've learned, over the years, is that in searching for your own unique voice, you also have to want to communicate - and to have something reasonably interesting to say...
So all this is by way of an introduction. I'll often be writing about writing: sometimes my own and sometimes offering a bit of advice for other aspiring writers from the depths of my experience (I almost wrote "despair".)
I make no apology for the fact that my writing often has a Scottish flavour. After all, I've lived in deepest rural Scotland for many years now. But struggling to make a living in this wonderful, difficult, frustrating profession, has also given me a certain cynical perspective on all kinds of things. So I make no apology for being opinionated, and occasionally provocative. And if I can entertain a handful of people, and start a debate or two, so much the better. More later!