What Is … Writing?

Last night (Wednesday March 8) I was involved in an event called What Is … Light? I wrote the following for inclusion in a zine we produced for the night, but we didn’t have room for it. So here you go. A polemic, a diatribe, an opinion piece, some thinking out loud.

The act of writing is a lonely pursuit. You sit, alone, and think thoughts, alone, dream stories, alone, and write them down, alone. You can, of course, do this lonely work in very crowded places. But the presence of others is no real concern of yours. You are still alone with your thoughts, ideas and stories and whatever and wherever that mysterious place is that you go to in order to combine the necessary ingredients in order to create a finished product.

I’m sure chefs are the same when they’re revamping a menu. They have a great idea for a dish but daren’t tell anyone for fear of being labelled stupid, at best, or mad, at worst. Yet something drives them to combine flavours and foodstuffs that aren’t served up in any other restaurant or in any other cookbook. And they wake in the middle of the night, head back to the kitchen, and try and get things beyond the stage of exotic ingredients, strange brews and broths. Ultimately, those dishes are destined for someone to salivate over, feast on and devour. Which, if you’re lucky, is the same with writing. No writer wants to write anything that remains in a notebook, or in a folder on the computer, or buried deep within a slush pile. All writers want to send their babies into the world for a hug. No writer wants to be alone ad infinitum. All writers want to connect with people at some point down the line.

I have spent around five years attempting to work out what irks me about working in and writing for theatre. And being involved with projects outside of theatre has enabled me to galvanise my thoughts.

In theatre, a scarily collaborative medium, writers are forced to let people in to their lonely place when they are ill-prepared for it. Theatre is not currently a place where writers sit at the heart. Collaboration is certainly no bad thing but the current vogue for R&D, workshopping and developing work in public thrusts writers into a position of taking on board the ideas of others at the very point when they want to curl up and die because they have no idea that what they have scribbled down in drafts 1, 2 and 3 or beyond is any good, and they are in fear of being labelled stupid, at best, or mad, at worst.

Writers are still working out what it is they are trying to say when others are asking them why they are saying what they are saying because it isn’t clear in the text. Actors, like tourists in St Mark’s Square carelessly tossing bird food at pigeons, hurl ideas around about character when writers are still getting to know characters.

Directors are intent on deleting lines that may or may not be pivotal to the very meaning of a play, and at the very least want to delete lines that have callbacks 20 pages later, thus rendering said callbacks as incomprehensible non-sequiturs that will also be deleted in due course. And marketing want to know what it is they should be selling to an audience. And suits want to know how any of us will make money out of this. Many people talk about return on investment. All of which just is what it is. Leave them to it. Let them make their own work. They know best. It’s a broken medium, for writers, and maybe theatre is all the better for that, but I don’t know.

In many other mediums, too, writers often find themselves involved in a distillation process, or maybe I mean a dilution process. A decreasing amount of writers are allowed to claim authorship of any finished product and even those that are have seen their work and words bent out of shape. Their initial ideas are contorted in the name of collaboration as those involved vie for the mantle of auteurship. Too many voices shouting loudly, albeit creatively and the anxious writer, told that, “well, you have to make compromises along the way, that’s how we do it,” retreating, like a tortoise into its shell. Again, this isn’t a bad thing and there are many examples of massive mainstream successes that suggest that this approach is exactly the right thing to do.

But it does nothing for the writer, chiselling away at the granite that an empty page presents to anyone bold enough to think that they can fill it. I know I’m not alone. The other day, a highly reputable, yet ‘notorious’ artist that has worked to international acclaim said to me on the phone that he thought it was a good idea to write plays but had no idea of the amount of people that would get involved that seemed intent on doing everything in their power to derail what was, at the start, a very simple idea. We’ve created a factory production system, a machine, and an unwieldy one at that. Yet writers are not machines, they’re individuals trying to make sense of the world.

Poets and novelists – and I am neither – still, income aside, retain a certain position of power and respect that is enviable and a level of purity of vision that one would never get in, say, a writers’ room or rehearsal room. Those writers – as we all should -–are clinging on to their vital societal role. Writers, making stuff up but operating as purveyors of truth, creating work in order to share important lessons; moral, intellectual and idealistic. Writers are not entertainers, although their work is entertaining and, for some poets and novelists, so is a reading or performance.

Yet it is the writing that is everything; writing so that their voices, and unheard voices and untold stories, can be heard both by an audience who desire that message but also for those that didn’t know they wanted to hear or read that message until it smacked them in the face. So, currently clinging on, even in this era where ‘celebrity’ and an aesthetically pleasing face threaten to usurp words in importance. Clinging on. Yet someone, somewhere, will no doubt be plotting how to change all that. Writers threaten power, the status quo, are imprisoned for their uncomfortable truths. They’re worth clinging on to. And we should fight for their power to fight power.

Writers should be proud of their nomenclature. It’s a powerful job title. Or it should be. Yet the above thoughts underline that the role of writer is one that is being undermined. Perhaps there needs to be a semantic leap. There are many writers that I know that are uncomfortable to claim that they are artists, when they are very clearly creating works of art. Come out, writers, make that declaration.

This would all confuse the little boy that lurks within me that spent much of his childhood bashing away on an old Imperial typewriter (made in Hull) attempting to emulate his heroes of the day (mostly Edward Lear, René Goscinny, Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Eric Thompson, Peter Cook and Michael Palin and Terry Jones). That little boy thought there was nothing better than filling up a blank page with nonsense and then pairing it down – for all writing is editing, really – to something that his heroes might produce (it very rarely got anywhere near that) and that made him very, very happy. He didn’t know, at the time, that he was cursed, as all writers are.

When we unfussily, and with very little attention and zero expectation of what we’d make, got together to create the first What Is? event – All Will Flow – it was a reminder that, sometimes, one can write without giving a shit about what people think and that, as a result, you hit a sweet spot that is very much about writing about those very things that people give a shit about. Emancipated from the negative nature of meddlers and energy depleting theatricals and those that want to tell you what story is without having any idea themselves of what story is takes you to a creative place that we are all trying to get to; one of universal truths and connectivity with fellow human beings. What Is? is a collaborative effort but one that allows its artists to just get on with it. It is one of those projects outside of theatre that has enabled me to not only galvanise my thoughts but get back to the business of writing. It makes me very, very happy to be involved in such a venture.

Writing is a lonely pursuit. Yet writers are content with that and it’s part of the appeal. That’s the lesson that was reinforced at the first event, when writing pieces of work in response to a theme and to the work of a visual artist. Forging collaborations with like-minded spirits, a reminder that what we do as writers is art and that the time spent alone thinking, dreaming and eventually flooding the page with words is crucial, not only to us but to the rest of the world. A curse worth living with. That’s what writing is.

#whatiscollective

#whatislight

@whatiscollectiv

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