The Director from Hell

Last week, in Glasgow's Oran Mor, I met one of Scotland's most distinguished actors, who greeted me with tremendous enthusiasm, and the words 'Oh God, that awful play....' He was talking about an early stage play of mine, called Heroes and Others, written for the then Scottish Theatre Company, a play in which he was unfortunate enough to be cast. I could see my lovely young director blench at the words, but both of us hastened to reassure her that neither of us (because I had been nodding in vigorous agreement) meant the actual script. Nor did we mean the performances, because the production in question had involved a number of equally talented actors. No, we meant that the play had been comprehensively mauled, as had writer, and actors, by the Director from Hell. The man is dead now. I can't help but be rather glad about that, I'm ashamed to say! He was an actor of some talent. But he was a really crap director. I was young and inexperienced and he rewrote my script.
Day after day, I would try to reinstate my dialogue, and he would compromise a bit, and then go away and rewrite my script again. It was the single most hideous theatrical experience of my life. Added to that, we were rehearsing in a derelict theatre, ice cold and dusty, and what with the dust and the stress, I had the worst asthma attack of my life. Looking back on it, I realise, queasily, that I could have died. Killed by my own play.
I was simply too young, and too inexperienced to fight him, and the person who should have been on my side - the artistic director of the company - was far too chicken to back me up. I remember bursting into tears on a number of occasions. I also remember encountering other weeping cast members in the loo. They too had been humiliated by the director. Now, whenever I meet anyone who was remotely involved with Heroes and Others, they say 'Dear God, that play!' It has become the benchmark for horror, for all of them.
It put me off writing for theatre for years. In fact it wasn't till I got the chance to work with Philip Howard, at the Traverse, that I tried again. I couldn't bear to look at the reviews of Heroes and Others, and indeed, filed them away. A few years ago, I read them properly, and realised that they weren't half bad. Well, not as far as I was concerned. What they were all saying was 'This is a good play, struggling to get out of a terrible production.' And they were right.
It wasn't until earlier this week, though, meeting that splendid actor, that I realised the full extent of the damage done to me by the Director from Hell. Somewhere inside me, all these years, had been the sneaking suspicion that the play was not a very good play. Or not good enough. It was about Solidarity in its early days, and was a subject that was very close to my heart. So it was doubly hard to see it so utterly changed. But I still had the sneaking suspicion that he might have been right and I might have been wrong.
'We all knew' said the actor 'that this was a wonderful, warm, thoughtful, family drama. What he turned it into was crass political polemic. He ruined it.'
I've been thinking about it ever since. And I'm sure the actor is right. It has - I suppose -given me what they call 'closure'! One thing I do remember, about the whole experience, is that I was under immense pressure from the company NOT TO TALK TO THE PRESS. I still don't know why I didn't talk to the press. I was, I seem to remember, interviewed very kindly by Joyce MacMillan. I'm sure she knew that it was not a happy production. Word gets about and she couldn't help but see the stress on my face. But I didn't break ranks, didn't tell her the full story. And I should have done. I was young, and inexperienced, and I didn't know any better. So I kept quiet.
Of course, when you are involved with a production, your first loyalty is always to your fellow performers, your director, actors, the people with whom you are working, and about whom you care. But this was different. Nobody was happy on that production. Not me, not the actors, not anybody who was struggling to cope behind the scenes. What was going on amounted, I now realise, to serious bullying. It should have been outed. I should have taken my script and walked. But I didn't. And it has taken me all these years to realise that - back then - I had written what might have been a perfectly good first professional play. If I had been brave enough to speak out. Which perhaps explains why I now tend to stick my head above the parapet rather too often for my own good.

Rehearsals and other complicated things

Have realised, over the past week - as I realise every time I'm involved with a new play - just how poorly understood is the process of developing and rehearsing a play, especially a new play.
This was brought home to me a few years ago, when I happened to be talking to a young performance student who clearly couldn't understand why she was being asked to analyse texts, when all she wanted to do was - well - perform. It was obvious that, having come from an amateur dramatic background, she seemed to think that professional performance involved being told where to stand and where to go, while learning the lines and making them sound natural. Similarly, somebody just asked me if rehearsals involved me 'making sure that the actor said the lines the way you want them said.'
Well, there is, of course, a sense in which all these things are true. Playwright David Mamet, famously, only asks of his actors that they read the lines the way they are written. But he IS David Mamet! There is also a sense in which all these things are only the tip of a much more difficult, but much more interesting iceberg. It is impossible to underestimate just how much rehearsal time (and pre-rehearsal time, with whoever is directing the play) is spent in analysing the script, discussing what it means, who these characters are, why they speak and behave the way they do - and what are the complex emotions underlying the words on the page. If director and actors bring a fine emotional intelligence to the project, the whole experience can be truly rewarding. But however rewarding, the process is never simple or easy, for any of those involved.

The Secret Commonwealth

Play rehearsals well under way now for The Secret Commonwealth, which will be opening the new Oran Mor 'A Play, A Pie and a Pint' lunchtime theatre season. Spent Monday and Tuesday in Glasgow - then came home and left them to get on with it for a bit. This is a single hander, so 'them' consists of the director, Jennifer Hainey (young and brilliant) and the actor Liam Brennan (a bit older, and also brilliant.) I've worked with Liam before both for stage and radio, and it is always a pleasure - he's such an intelligent, thoughtful and compelling actor with a huge breadth of experience, including a spell at the Globe, in London. There is also going to be music in the play, provided by young Gaelic singer and musician Deirdre Graham. Rehearsals are both stimulating and scary, in that all those involved ask difficult questions, and you had better be able to answer them! I always find myself stressing this to beginning writers when I'm doing workshops or courses in writing drama. Actors and directors will inevitably want to know all kinds of things about the text - and the person who has to have the answers is you. The buck stops fairly and squarely in your lap. No question, it's difficult, because quite often we do write instinctively, and find out why and how we've structured things afterwards. So sometimes, in answering these questions, you find yourself having to think on your feet - but mostly, you actually find out things about the play that were there all the time - just that you hadn't fully articulated them yet, even to yourself. If cuts are to be made, they are frequently to be found in sections that don't quite fit in. And it's during rehearsals that these sections will probably become self evident. All in all, an interesting and rewarding process - but always collaborative. If you don't like collaboration, the answer is simple. Don't write plays!

Wuthering Heights - again

Got up very early to watch the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights on TCM, with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. I have a long and loving relationship, not just with the novel, which I adore, but with this particular movie - although I'd be the first to admit that the film and the novel are very different. On the other hand, there has been such a procession of horrible dramatisations of this book, that the Olivier version always seems like the benchmark against which all others fail miserably. At least this version looks good and - praise the Lord - actually uses some of the dialogue from the novel. Most of the versions I've seen (and I've seen a lot) seem to involve the relentless imposition of somebody else's vision on a book that people clearly obsess about! Me too, me too...
The reason I'm so fond of the Olivier film is that it was my dear late mum's favourite movie. I grew up knowing about it, and was actually named for Catherine. I was trundled over the Howarth moors in my pushchair as far as Top Withins, the ruin that was supposed to be the site, if not the model, for Wuthering Heights itself. But, beyond all that, my mum's Yorkshire family were great readers, so I was also introduced to the novel itself at quite a young age.
Olivier looks right as Heathcliff, and, although the film relentlessly excludes the satisfying second half of the novel, in which the younger generation in some sense manage to resolve the intractable problems of the older set of characters, it still does less violence to the original than any of the others. On the other hand, Oberon is just petulant and irritating. It's actually very hard to find a Cathy who isn't irritating, and yet I only ever find the character in the novel fascinating, a brilliant portrait of selfish self destruction which seems absolutely true. Let's face it, this is a novel which is hugely resistant to dramatisation, and yet people seem to want to carry on trying.
The problem everyone encounters is the sheer, relentlessly violent sadism of Heathcliff. However you look at it, the novel is an exploration of cruelty as well as love, of nature red in tooth and claw. Olivier's portrayal spawned many thousands of romantic novels, with an equal number of tall, dark, handsomely brooding heroes. Olivier can brood romantically for England. But as far as I am aware, nobody - not even Olivier - has ever managed to capture the demonic nature of Heathcliff on screen. I don't think it's possible.
My latest novel, The Summer Visitor is, in a way, a homage to Wuthering Heights. The original is lodged so firmly in that part of my brain from which my creative inspiration comes that from time to time, I find myself returning to it. So The Summer Visitor is a story of a damaged soul, and an obsessive love in a rural setting. But I had to tread very carefully. Inspiration is fine. But imitations tend to be pale and invariably fall short of the incomparable original.

Resolutions 2010

Made fewer resolutions this year, but ones I might stand a chance of keeping. Mostly to do with writing. Focus. Stop prevaricating. Have a bit more confidence in myself - after all these years, all these plays, all these publications, and quite a lot of awards, I need to have the courage of my own experience. Is this a problem for women, I wonder? It shouldn't be, but maybe it is. Especially in Scotland where male writing is - with one or two notable exceptions - still taken more seriously than female writing. But I have a new agent for the new year and a good many interesting ideas, so - with a little invocation to the publishing angel (after all, it works for parking, so why not publishing?!) - here's hoping for better things in 2010 for all of us. I'm beginning with rehearsals for my new play, The Secret Commonwealth, starting on 18th January.

Round Robin Newsletters

This year, we sent the concoction below to selected friends:

Well, it’s that time of the year again folks!
Our year began with the news that Alan’s great aunt Charlotte, a silver surfer if ever there was one, had placed an ad on the Hearts R Us website, the success of which was something of a suprise to us all, as Rodney was forty years her junior. An even bigger surprise, a month later, was that Rodney’s other partner, Claude, had also moved in. All three live happily together, doing their bit for the planet by growing their own brand of herbal tobacco in the loft. Aunt Charlotte writes that she occasionally sprinkles some of it on her scones and says they’re very nice. She’s planning to send us a home made Christmas cake this year so we may manage to sample some too.
Meanwhile, Catherine’s cousin Vladek, from Romania, reports that he has moved into a new home, a derelict castle, which he plans to renovate over the next few years. A Place in the Country indeed! This is very exciting news, especially since he also tells us that he is determined to visit us here in the UK. He says he’d love to experience the night life in Scotland, and – what an enterprising young man he is – is making his way to the Baltic coast, from where he plans to sail to Whitby. Why Whitby, you ask? We don’t know, except that he seems to have discovered a link with a great great great grandfather – the joys of genealogy, eh? We’ll let you know when he arrives. We’ve never met Vladek, but he posted some pics on Facebook– he looks like a very handsome young man, so he’ll probably break a few hearts when he’s here!
Aunty Alice, that’s the lady from Pendle we told you about last year, for those of you who haven’t ever met her, reports that she has been enjoying her new evening classes and is about to graduate from necromancy to summoning demons. What fun!!!
This was the year that our great nephew Franklin – that’s the boy who was admitted to Miss Smither’s alternative academy for really really gifted children at the age of three (a record we believe) - graduated from Edinburgh University with a first class BSc Honours degree in Nuclear Physics at the tender age of eleven. His tutors admitted that they had never encountered anything quite like him although, sadly, his advanced male pattern baldness continues to trouble him. All gifts of woolly hats gratefully received!
Franklin’s cousin, Madonna Jordan, has won the Miss Teeny Tiny Jam Tarty Pageant in Texas for the third year running. She has a bedroom absolutely stuffed with trophies. Her mother, Balenciaga, tells us that she is thrilled with her daughter, whose special talent involves twirling a vast number of fiery batons around her head. She practises in the front garden of their wee house in Nitshill, attracting a great deal of attention, most of it very welcome!
Alan is still recovering from those five operations on his finger. He finds to his astonishment that he can now play the piano, and has already received an invitation to play at Carnegie Hall next year. Book your tickets soon because a full house is expected. We only wonder what else he will discover that he is able to do in 2010!
Best wishes to everyone for a Merry Christmas, and a Happy (and funny) New Year
Catherine, Alan and Charles.
PS The five operations really happened!!!!

So far, so funny.
But you want to know the really funny (or should that be worrying?) thing? It was just how many people - men, they were all men - read it as far as Franklin and beyond - and took it seriously. Even the graduation at 11 didn't phase them, and evening classes in Necromancy must be perfectly acceptable in some quarters. It was only Madonna Jordan and her fiery batons that made them suspect the spoof. Well, that or the fact that their wives read it too, and pointed out the joke...

Away with the Fairies

Which is not the name of my upcoming play, but a reasonably apt description of it. Except that it is more serious than that. Much more serious. Ever since I first read Robert Kirk's The Secret Commonwealth, many years ago, I have wanted to write a play about it. A couple of years ago, I actually submitted this as a potential radio play. The (independent) producer liked the idea very much and badly wanted to do it, but the BBC - unsurprisingly - didn't.
Then, earlier this year, David McLennan at the Oran Mor in Glasgow decided that he too loved the idea and commissioned a play for the new A Play, A Pie and a Pint season, 2010. This suited me much better, since I soon realised that The Secret Commonwealth was crying out to be a stage play. What I didn't realise at the time was that the play was going to open the new season, on 1st February. However, all those years of working on the story, albeit sporadically, must have paid off because both David, and the director, Jennifer Hainey, approve of the finished play.
Robert Kirk was a seventeenth century minister of Aberfoyle. He was well educated and obviously intelligent. He also believed in fairies and wrote a treatise about them, a sort of natural history of the supernatural world, at a time when witchcraft was still a capital offence in Scotland. He would wander up the Doon Hill, listening to the music which he swore that he could hear, coming from below the ground. He died up there, ostensibly from a heart attack, but then he appeared to a cousin and said that he would reappear at the baptism of his posthumously born child. The cousin must throw a dagger over the apparition's head and shout 'cauld iron' - this metal being anathema to the fairies - whereupon Kirk would be released from his enchantment. He duly appeared, but the cousin was so gobsmacked that he forgot to throw the dagger, and poor old Kirk was doomed to live in the supernatural world for ever. Or so the stories go.
The play, though, is about more than that. It is, I think, a play about two cultures, about one culture replacing another, about a set of beliefs and customs which are in the process of being banished - sent underground if you like - and about the possibility that what Kirk was writing was not so much a treatise about fairies, as a subversive text. It is also, I hope, constructed like a poem. As ever, I find myself walking along the boundaries between poetry, drama and prose and enjoying the sense of experiment, the sense of trying to get at things that lie just below the surface - bit like Kirk himself really. The play is going to be a single hander, with music. It is still to some extent, 'in development'. New drama always is, until it has been through the production process. But I think it's just about there. And I hope it says something interesting, in an unusual way. More as it happens!

Word Fatigue and New Plays

I've had my head down finishing (a) quite extensive rewrites of a new novel and (b) a first draft of a completely new play, which is scheduled for a lunchtime theatre production in Glasgow, early in 2010. I'm a writer who hates first drafts but loves to rewrite. My first drafts are always remarkably chaotic, and I don't usually let anyone see them but me. But then, as soon as I actually have something on the screen, the process of playing with the words and the structure, of rewriting many times, of printing it out and looking at it on the page, of correcting and rewriting all over again, is one which I find infinitely pleasurable. In fact I usually have to stop myself from doing yet another draft. Sooner or later, you have to write 'The End' and let somebody see it!
So working on the novel, which has been through more incarnations than Doctor Who, has been a pleasure. But working on the play has been hard. In the normal course of events, I would have written this, let it sit till after Christmas, gone back to it with a fresh eye - spent some time reworking it over the holiday period, let it lie again - and perhaps produced the finished article in time for Easter. I'd have been working on other things, of course. But time is always a factor in what I do. However, this is a play, and it has a schedule. The director has to see it. It has to be sent to actors. Music has to be considered. And all this has meant that the pressure on me to produce - not just my usual slapdash first draft - but something that I am reasonably happy for other people to see - has been a nightmare.
It's finished, after a fashion and it's sent. I worked on it day and night for a spell, until I was - frankly - sick of the sight of it. I had word fatigue. And I'm still not sure that it's any good or that it says what I want it to say, in dramatic enough fashion. Increasingly these days, I find myself walking along the boundaries between poetry, prose and drama.
I've made it clear that it is a working draft only. I haven't looked at it for a few days, and I don't intend to look at it for another week. Then I'll go back to it and wonder what the hell I was thinking about!

Points of View

Still working on major fiction editing job, hence the woeful lack of posts on here. Most of the time, I have my head down over the laptop and only crawl downstairs occasionally for food and tea and - at the end of the day - alcohol! I love this process, but it is very difficult in that it involves a certain amount of wrestling with the tricky business of 'point of view.' This is something that most readers don't think about. It is also something that many writers don't actually think about either until hit with the problem of how to tell a story. Exactly whose point of view is the story being told from - and what difference will that make to the finished piece of writing?
Now I'm aware that there are lots of highly prescriptive websites out there, listing all kinds of 'rules' about this. I'm also aware that, wearing my other hat, as a playwright, it's something I tend to forget about as well, for the simple reason that when you are writing a play, you have to get inside the heads of ALL your characters. This is because actors have an alarming habit of asking you why their particular character is behaving in a certain way - and woe betide you if you don't know the answer, for even the most minor characters. It's extremely good for the writer, though, in that you can't get away with anything less than a comprehensive understanding of what you are writing about!
For this particular project, a novel, I thought I was telling the story - which is in the third person - from a particular character's point of view, but I see that I'm not. I'm telling it from the points of view of two characters with the odd digression into a third - which I believe is something called 'limited omniscient' - the writer is God, but only with regard to a handful of characters! Now, I am trying to introduce a body of material which is known in its entirety only to one particular character - and it's difficult, although it is also essential, in that I was short-changing one of my characters by deciding not to explore his background. Now, I know what happened to him. And he certainly knows it. But how should that knowledge be 'stitched in' to the story. Should I write it as a 'found' account - a device often used by writers - and one that isn't unknown even in non-fiction, witness an excellent and rivetting book called The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale in which a letter from Constance Kent goes a long way towards clarifying previous events, but also includes its own element of mystery.
Should I - on the other hand - have him tell his tale to one of the other characters - something he has done to some extent in a previous version?
Should I go the whole hog and access his knowledge within the body of the book, thus making the whole thing more dense and rich. Or should I attempt some combination of all three - and see what happens.
It is, in a sense, a little like unpicking a complicated garment, retaining the fabric, but stitching it up again in a slightly different way, and any seamstress will tell you that this is actually a more difficult process than starting from scratch! I'm feeling my way into it, and - as it turns out - I'm working in layers. I don't make drastic changes all at once. I go over and over and over it, and feel my way into making the additions, and do nothing too major until I can see how the previous draft has worked. It is time consuming and tiring, but hugely interesting and - so far at least - it seems to be working.

Editing and Other Necessary Frustrations

Head down and working away on major rewrites of the 'work in progress'. Actually, this work has been in progress for some time. I wrote the first 'incarnation' - it has undergone so many changes that I hesitate to call it a draft - some years ago. Editorial comments were mixed and I was a bit miffed. Over the years, though, I realised that they had been quite right. There were all kinds of things wrong with it, and although I had been equally right to wait, and ponder, the book essentially needed such major rewrites that it is now a completely different novel! Cue forward some years to my new agent, who has given me additional feedback, of such an interesting and inspirational nature that I'm busy with more rewrites. These are in the nature of additions, a whole new dimension added to a character - which means that other sections can go, and yet others can be changed accordingly. The process is fascinating because it doesn't so much involve change as interrogating what was already there to find out what else I need to know. I was right about this particular character - but only as far as it went, and it didn't go half far enough. It's like turning a casual acquaintance into a close friend.
It is a precarious process and in undertaking it, you are queasily aware that one false move could result in an implosion and the whole project could disintegrate. On the other hand it's very exciting - and besides, I have the previous draft, so nothing is lost. But it's part of what makes the whole process of creative writing so fascinating. You're never quite sure where it's going, and if you did know, from day one, that process would become so boring that you wouldn't need to write at all. I think above all else, you write to find out. If you don't want to find out, then there's no point in writing at all.

Criminal Justice

What a fine actor Maxine Peake is! She can do more with a look than most people can do with a flood of words - it must be wonderful to write for such an actor, because you could allow yourself to be understated, knowing that she wouldn't need everything to be made too explicit. She seems to have gone from strength to strength over the years - not always a 'pleasure' to watch because she goes unerringly for roles which are demanding, of the viewer, as well as the actor. But always admirable, always real, always moving. Criminal Justice - five hours, five nights, finished last night and for a wonder, I managed to see every episode. I can't say I would ever want to watch it again. And I think if I had had a young child (remembering how vulnerable one feels on their behalf) I would never have managed to stay the pace. Too distressing. But none of that is to say that it wasn't categorically the best thing on TV for a very very long time. Everything else pales beside it. When it was finished, the now familiar announcement came on - 'If you were affected by any of the issues in this drama...' etc and we chorused 'who the hell wouldn't be?'

Of Mobiles and Reading

I did a reading last week - a very short short story, but one that depends heavily on atmosphere - so as reader, concentration is important. I don't usually have too much trouble - I enjoy public readings, like the opportunity to be ... well, theatrical. This was in a small but very congenial gathering in a room in a hotel. And all was going well, until a mobile rang and the middle aged professional man (old enough to know better) sitting to the right of my eyeline, proceeded not only to answer it, but also to have quite a long, if muted, conversation!
Of course what I should have done - when I thought about it with all the benefit of hindsight! - was to stop the reading, ask him if he wanted to take the call outside the room, give him a moment to go - and then carry on. But a combination of extreme surprise (oddly enough, this has never happened to me before) and innate politeness made me soldier on. It was alright, but only just. My concentration had a wobble, and the rest of the audience was clearly outraged but too polite to say anything. Now that it has happened once, I think I'd react more swiftly next time. I'd ask for mobiles to be switched off first, and then if one did happen to ring, I would almost certainly stop. But in my experience to date it has become habitual for most people to switch off their phones before a reading or performance of any sort. And as somebody said to me afterwards - lots of us have had the embarrassing experience of forgetting, but if the phone rings under those circumstances, there's a mad scramble to switch it off. You don't answer the thing unless your wife is about to go into labour, and even then, you take it outside the room!
A friend, pointedly, asked him afterwards, if he had been 'on call'. He hadn't and he did apologise, saying that he thought the person would ring off, but frankly, that's not good enough.
It's getting to the point now where younger people have better 'mobile phone etiquette' than the middle aged. I sat next to a pair of women in a cafe the other day, friends sharing a coffee. One of them took three long and essentially unimportant (I know, because I could hear every stupid word) phonecalls, while her friend sat there, staring out of the window, drinking her coffee, and mentally, I have no doubt, drumming her fingers on the table. I have a 'friend' who sometimes does it too, usually moving outside the cafe to take the call. It drives me nuts. Even my son, who might be expected to take a few liberties with his mum, never does it when we are sharing a coffee and a chat. He switches his phone off, and says if it's anything urgent they'll text him or leave a message. The oldies really should know better.

Playing About

Went to Glasgow at the weekend, to see a director about a play. It's an idea I've been mulling over for a while - in those moments between trying to earn a living - thinking - as you do - 'I want to write about that, that person, that situation, that time and place, and those ideas' - but not quite sure how to find a way into it. The director is young, and that's good too: uncynical, full of imagination and enthusiasm. I love writing for theatre, but periodically become disillusioned, mostly because finding outlets for drama is quite hard, even with a track record. But there's a part of me that adores collaboration, that loves the process - you work away at something in the privacy of your room, in the privacy of your head, and then you take a deep breath and dive into the development/rehearsal process. What emerges is - often - somewhat different from your original intentions - but if you're lucky, it's better! I love that precarious sense of holding on, and then letting go - the sense that it could all go horribly wrong, but usually doesn't, the sense of something growing and changing which is what theatre is all about. But I couldn't work like that all the time - I confess. Which is why I spend a lot of time writing prose as well. And then I get sick of my room, the blank screen, the loneliness - and have a sudden hankering for plays and players, for looking at interesting spaces and faces, and listening to words - for the sheer excitement of working in theatre all over again.

Transitions and other things.

Couldn't keep away, could I? Back at the beginning of August, I had decided to wind down Wordarts, and concentrate a bit more on The Scottish Home. Well, I took a break, did a lot of thinking, read a few books, talked to a few friends working in other artforms, did rather a lot of work on The Scottish Home in general - and my antique textile business in particular - and now feel ready to reactivate Wordarts again, a bit sooner than I had expected, even though I'm still in what I now realise is something of a transitional phase between one way of working - and another.
Two of the books I read were recommended by The Sunday Times Style Magazine's 'Aunt Sally' - so thanks to her for Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck. It's very funny, and very wise and for those who like lots of little 'exercises' to do, it will be ideal.
But even better from my point of view - and for creative individuals everywhere - is Transitions - Making Sense of Life's Changes, by William Bridges. This is an easy book to manage - it doesn't demand very much of you except thoughtful reading - but it gives a huge amount back, perhaps because its author rewrote his original book in the light of all that he had learned in the thirty years between his forties and his seventies - and it shows! It's a book full of poetry, wit and wisdom and I was a lot happier with myself at the end of it than I was at the beginning. It helped to explain me to myself - and I'm rereading it again right now.
Both of these books seem to have helped to get me back on track with my writing. Bridges in particular offers no glib solutions. But he does offer the distilled wisdom and reassurance of his own considerable experience. As a result, the book is full of profound insights and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is in the middle of one of those phases of change and confusion that beset all of us from time to time.

Taking a Break

As of today, I'm taking a break from Wordarts, and will be concentrating on developing the Scottish Home into a bigger and better blog over the next few months.
There are a number of reasons for this.

First and foremost is the fact that I have been spreading myself too thinly and crunch time has come. I need to cut down on the demands I'm making on myself. This has forced me to focus and prioritise and I'm in the process of trying to organise my time in more profitable ways.
One of those ways is to concentrate much more on my own creative writing. Its the activity I love more than anything else, but there are too many days on which I find myself squeezing it into the late hours at the expense of my own health and happiness. One way of resolving that is to spend much more time on my writing and much less time writing about writing. I've become so sick of opinionated people - but the opinionated person I'm most sick of is probably myself!

When I ask myself who or what I am, the answer seems to be that I'm a creative writer with a passion for history. The Scottish Home began as a companion blog to my online shop which deals in gorgeous vintage and antique textiles - 'upcycling' of the nicest sort. Quite often the items I sell have a fascinating history and I like to blog about them to give people extra information. Now, it strikes me that there's scope for developing The Scottish Home even further - for writing not just about textile history but about garden history, and all kinds of interesting artefacts.

I'm not saying I'll never come back to Wordarts, because I'm sure I will. But if you've been following this blog, I think you'll find plenty to interest you on The Scottish Home instead.

Brilliant blog post about second hand bookshops.

Have a read here:
Love it, but particularly all the previous stuff about bees. Bees and books is a stunning combination.

Creative Pay

Every so often, for the writer or artist or other creative individual, the thorny issue of payment for services rendered, will arise. In fact, it has arisen on this blog more than once! Most of us so called ‘creatives’ – i.e. people who in one way or another, make things up for a living – are quite willing to work for nothing, so long as they feel that the enterprise is worthwhile, and nobody else is making a killing. Will I write for a small literary magazine for nothing? Of course. Will I work for a large company for nothing? I don’t think so.

Somewhere on You Tube is a clip of film of a Hollywood writer called Harlan Ellison. It’s called Paying the Writer, and it is angry, funny, scurrilous: a tirade against the idea that writers should work for nothing ‘for the publicity’. I don’t mean promotional events – nobody expects to be paid for punting their own work. Even as I write that, I realised that actually, lots of people do expect to be paid for punting their own work – mostly celebrities, with a fair sprinkling of politicians. But if you are promoting my book or my play, I’m not going to quibble about coming along and talking about it and/or reading from it as excitingly as I possibly can for as long as you like - for free.

No, I mean those occasions when somebody from a major broadcasting organisation or newspaper phones you up and asks if you will devote a large chunk of your time and expertise to them – but they are very sorry, there is no money in the budget to pay you. Will you be credited for your work? Only indirectly. So will anybody know about you? Doubtful. In short, they are asking you to act as unpaid consultant for precisely zero benefit to yourself.

My other beef – while I’m in money mode – is fellowships. Once again, some clarification is needed. There is a school of thought – and there is a part of me that acknowledges it as true – which says that nobody should be paid just for being a writer or being an artist. Grants and bursaries should not be awarded, so the thinking goes. They are self indulgent and people should just be left to get on with it. This is a perfectly valid point of view, and I have writer and theatrical friends who adhere to it, never apply for any kind of public funding, and manage at least as well as those of us who do. Speaking personally, I’ve received occasional grants and bursaries over the years, and they have been in the nature of godsends, buying me time to finish work which would probably never have been completed without it. Niche projects may be worthwhile but aren’t always commercially viable, so it’s occasionally very helpful to be awarded some money towards buying the time involved – and believe me, most writers can make a little extra money go a very long way indeed.

There is another, even better option and that is the kind of fellowship which I’ve just (very regretfully) finished. The Royal Literary Fund pays writers for a fixed term, to spend one or two days per week in universities all over the UK, helping students with their academic writing. The host institution provides a room, IT support, and a friendly co-ordinator who acts as a facilitator. Essentially, the professional writer spends two days a week in the university, doing one-to-one appointments with students. It doesn’t involve copy editing or rewriting. What it does involve is what writers have to do all the time –teaching students to structure their work properly, to edit what they have written and to produce better, more coherent pieces of writing in a multitude of different academic disciplines. Most of us are amazed and moved by the improvement that this kind of teaching can generate, especially in adult returners to education, who may not have written anything for years. The RLF pay writers as self employed people and they pay only for the one or two days per week during which the writer is expected to be present in the university, with an additional few hours’ reading time at home. The money is good, but there is no sense in which the RLF claim to be paying for anything more than half a working week. The rest of the week is entirely the writer’s own, although in practice most of us try hard to use it for creative work.

Which leads me to my final beef of the week. The initial idea of a Writer’s Fellowship back in the late sixties and early seventies, was a good one. It involved a host of some kind – a library, a university, a council – sponsoring a writer for approximately forty hours per week, of which roughly half was to be spent on one-to-one advice sessions, a few workshops, school visits if appropriate, and a handful of other writerly jobs, while the sponsoring body would generously allow the writer to get on with his or her work for the rest of the week. The stipend was deemed to cover a full working week.

I don’t remember when it first occurred to me that something had gone wrong with this system – whether it was a change in my own perceptions, or whether it was simply that such fellowships had all too obviously ceased to keep up with professional wages. I do remember a friend complaining that while she was Writer in Residence for a region which had better remain nameless, she had written almost nothing of her own, because the work - which didn’t just involve workshops and advice sessions, but also demanded a large measure of what seemed very like ‘social work’ for which she didn’t consider herself really qualified - had expanded from twenty hours to fill the whole week and more. Quite apart from the increasingly therapeutic demands made of creative professionals – a whole other can of worms and something which I plan to write about at a later date – the main problem is that the payments for these fellowships are now too low. I’ve made a few comparisons over the years, but it was brought home to me recently by an advert for a fellowship where the stipend was £17,000. Sounds like a lot of money and for most writers, it is, indeed, a fortune. Digging deeper into the ad, however, revealed that the payment was for a full forty hour week, for a year, (i.e. not pro rata) with half the week to be spent on the writer’s own work and half on various admittedly interesting community projects. They were also looking for an experienced, and well published writer, not a beginner. At the same time, I was shown an advert for an arts lectureship in a Scottish university, based on a salary of around £40,000 per annum -and this wasn’t even a senior lectureship.

It struck me then – and I’m still of the same mind – that you can hardly blame the councils or other bodies involved for whittling down the fees, since times are hard for everyone. But hosting organisations can’t have it both ways. They are congratulating themselves on their selfless support of the arts, and reaping the positive publicity while only paying for the actual time devoted to the fellowship. I would have no problem whatsoever with this, if they came clean and said that was what they were doing. In the case of the RLF, it is a wholly admirable arrangement, supplying something the student body badly needs, while leaving the writer free to do whatever he or she wants with the remaining days of the week: usually a mixture of different sorts of writing. I have no idea why more sponsoring bodies don’t do this, instead of conspiring in the fiction that they are paying a seasoned professional for a full forty hour week. It would be more honest, they would get exactly what they were paying for, which would be fairer - and I reckon they would get more applications. Me for one! I can think of only two reasons why they wouldn’t do this. The first is that they want to cling on to the belief that they are giving something away for free. The second is that they want the possibility of gaining a little more than their pound of flesh. A writer ‘on call’ for forty hours a week, is a writer who is probably going to be accessible for more than twenty. But that couldn’t possibly be the reason. Could it?

Alison Bell - Textile Artist

My friend and wonderful textile artist Alison Bell had a residency at a local secondary school last year and you can see some of the results here. The first thing to leap out at you is the fabulous use of colour. It may seem at first glance rather un-Scottish - this is after all, perceived to be a country of subtle landscapes, misty hills, grey skies. But then Scotland isn't all subtleties, as anyone who has witnessed gorse bushes in full bloom, marching foxgloves or a heathery hillside can testify. The eye can be dazzled here, as well as lulled.

Have a look at Alison's own website. I find her work exciting, original, but most of all inspiring. While I'm never tempted to interpret it in words - the pieces surely speak for themselves - it always, somehow, makes me want to go away, reflect and write. Which is one of the reasons why these loose collaborations between people involved in various artforms interest me so much - not that you have to be working together - because creative people are so often people who value their solitude - but that in freely responding to another person's work you may be lucky enough to find the insights gained influencing your own practice, whatever that may be.

Three Cheers for Philip Pullman

and the other children's writers, in their stand against the proposal to vet them before they are allowed to undertake schools visits. Read about it here although it was all over our media yesterday - part of a growing tendancy to see all adults as potential paedophiles. Visiting writers usually work with large groups of children. Since most of them are not qualified teachers, they should not be left alone the kids - the teachers are meant to stay in the classroom, not slide out to do a bit of marking. I do very few schools visits - and when I do, because of what I write, I tend to be working with sixth years, so it's no big deal if the teacher occasionally leaves me alone to get on with it. But on the other hand, it's not good practice either - the best classes have been well prepared by an interested teacher, who knows the kids well, and can prompt questions or participation if things go a little slowly. That way the visit is beneficial for all concerned.
But why writers - who, as Pullman is quick to point out, mostly earn much less than he does - should be expected to pay yet another stealth tax, inspired by little more than irrational panic is beyond me. On a scale of risk, the possibility of being abused by a visiting writer, who usually spends his or her short session in the school working with large groups of children in very public places, must be on a par with the possibility of being struck by a meteor while waiting for a bus.
At this rate, they'll be telling us that our kids should never be allowed outside the door - you never know who might be watching.

I'd write a book if I had the time...

Fabulous post by Nicola Morgan about 'Things not to say to writers' here
The same probably applies to artists as well!

Back Again

Apologies to any regular readers for the long silence from Wordarts! Family ill health has played its part, but it is also because I've been coming to the end of my Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the University of the West of Scotland, with all that that implies in terms of winding things up, clearing my much loved little room, writing a long report and saying sad goodbyes. These fellowships, which are time limited, involve employing full time professional writers to help students on a one to one basis with their academic writing. The work - which general involves two days a week spent in the university, with another half day's 'reading time' at home - is demanding, but hugely interesting. And I think it has improved my own editing skills enormously, so I have a great deal to thank the RLF for - and when a few years have elapsed, I will probably apply for a fellowship again.
I met one of my students in a nearby small town recently. She ran after me, to tell me that not only had she got an excellent mark for her dissertation, but she had also done extremely well in her exams. I wasn't at all surprised, because she had worked very hard, but it was more proof, if proof were needed, that the knock on effect of a small amount of intensive tuition (and it has to be quite small because of the considerable demands on the fellow's time) can influence everything for the better. If you focus on improving one area of your writing, absolutely everything else will improve too - which is, I suppose, a good lesson for all writers, myself included.
It may not be possible to teach talent, but you can teach somebody how to self edit, to rewrite and polish. By the same token, we can all improve our own editing skills. Anyone who has ever been involved with judging writing competitions, will be able to relate horror stories of careless submissions, in which the writer has obviously not taken the trouble even to reread, never mind correct, those first rapturous outpourings. The result is invariably garbage but such writers can get quite cross with you, when you suggest that a little rewriting (well, actually, a lot of rewriting!) wouldn't go amiss.

Professional Development

Some years ago, a mixed group of writers, artists, craftspeople - myself included - attended a series of business development workshops laid on by - I dimly remember, it was a long time ago - Scottish Enterprise. They were fun days and opportunity to do a little networking with like minded people was very welcome. The problem was that the sessions were aimed at developing creativity. And when we talked about it afterwards over the excellent free lunches, we all agreed that developing creativity was not what we needed. Creativity, we had in spades. What we didn't have, however, was the ability to take our undoubted skills and talents and use them in a commercial setting. The buzz word according to Blogger is 'monetise'. And let's face it, people who work in what have come to be called the 'Creative Industries' have little idea of monetising their own expertise.
Last week, on the advice of a friend, I booked a two hour Professional Development session with the Cultural Enterprise Office in Glasgow. At the end of the afternoon I staggered into a cafe with my head fairly buzzing with ideas and insights. I had been challenged, I had been inspired, and I had been forced to look at my working life from a dozen perspectives that might not have occurred to me.
The session consisted of exactly what was lacking in those earlier workshops - the creativity was taken for granted. Instead, the advisor focussed on where I consider myself to be, where I want to be and how I might get there. She acted as a facilitator. I did most of the talking but she asked difficult questions, challenging my perceptions of what I did and what I might be able to do, offering inspirational suggestions, not about the work itself, so much as about ways of organising my time, ways of getting to where I want to be, ways of 'seeing' who I am and what I do. Most of the time she was prompting me to think differently and it was very exhilarating.
Frankly, the session threw up so many exciting ideas and insights that I'm still thinking about it all. I can't speak too highly of this organisation, or my advisor. It was exactly what I needed. It remains to be seen whether I can act upon the findings over the coming months and years - but I'm certainly going to give it a go.