I could’ve sworn I saw a light coming on

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  • Radiohead — I Might Be Wrong

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve written lately; to wit: two plays, both for children, both to some degree based on Shakespeare plays, over the course of the last year and a half. The first, The Magic Island, was pretty much an abridged version of The Tempest, with more of a focus on the two young adults (Ferdinand and Miranda), which I thought would appeal to a school-age audience. It was pretty successful as a play, but leaned heavily on the source material, and on the presence of a professional editor-cum-director-cum-dramaturg, who had herself directed The Tempest several times.

The new play, The Comedy Of Whiskers, has turned out to be much more its own beast, both in terms of the material and the way in which it was written. If The Comedy of Errors is, at heart, about twin masters with twin servants, then my script doesn’t even have that much in common: I’ve flipped the statuses over, so that one twin is a master while the other is a servant, and vice versa for the other pair, which I thought would be interesting dramatically and thematically (a kind of ‘how the other half lives’ tale at its most literal), but which has meant that the more I wrote, the less of the ‘original’ survived. It seems to be going pretty well so far, but because I didn’t do nearly as much editing as I did on Island, and mostly because it’s much more my own work, I’m very nervous about how it will be received when it opens in (quick check) sixteen days.

Looking at the two objectively, I can definitely see certain thematic similarities: restlessness under parental or societal authority, learning to be nicer to those around you, getting out to explore the world for the first time, and so on; and I wonder what those say about me, or at least the current version of me.

Then I wonder why I write for children. In an interview last week for Radio New Zealand (which they’ll helpfully air after the play has closed), I said that I didn’t like the way a lot of children’s theatre talks down to children, and that I thought theatre for children could and should be a lot more exciting and complex and engaging than we might expect from reading a typical script. And I definitely believe that’s true: watching children watch The Magic Island (even very young children), I got the sense that they really got what was going on, more even than I thought when I first thought about whether I could retell Shakespeare for that age group. But also, this makes me think about the alternative: writing for adults.

Writing for children, even if my goal is to give them real theatre with real characters, I feel pretty safe: I don’t have time for a very complex plot in 40 minutes, and the themes are gentle and familiar, like an old favourite sweatshirt I wear to write in. But when I think about writing for adults, I think about other plays I’ve seen that address serious, complex issues through layers of metaphor and hidden meaning, and I cringe a little, because when I start to think in that direction, I feel trite and hollow, like at my stage of life I don’t have much to offer in that regard, or I’m not ‘qualified’ to write about stuff like that.

I realise that this is (a) melodramatic, and (b) cliché; also, I am not for a second saying that writing for children is automatically easier or less valid: just that I find it easier. I would like to write something more substantial, something challenging both to me as a writer, and, hopefully, eventually, to an audience. But I have no idea, really, where to start, or what I could write about that I feel qualified to address. I think that’s really what’s bugging me: that of the three plays I’ve written so far, two plots have been lifted, at least in part, from somebody else’s work, and the third didn’t really have a plot to speak of: I just kind of wrote until I stopped, and bolted on a plot in the editing phase. It also turned out that I hadn’t written a play so much as a short film, but that’s by the by.

So, pretty much, I’m casting about for ideas: some unturned corner of my experience that lends itself nicely to a neat, concise warm-up of a play that I can stick out and not cringe at the way that I cringed at the bits of Till Death that weren’t just stalling, stationary banter: I like to think that it was at least well-written, funny banter, but the fact remains that I kind of focused on that side of things and somehow expected the plot to take care of itself. At the same time, I don’t want to just wrap myself in a thin veneer of character and put myself on a stage: I get this image of splitting off a part of your soul and putting it into a play like a Horcrux, and each time you’re a little depleted, but hey, there’s another script. Mostly, I guess I just need to write more, and more often, and more honestly.

OK, now I am rambling, which, although I haven’t rambled on here for a long time, is still bad news. Plus, I have an opera rehearsal to get to, and then I am going to see Cairo Knife Fight at the Dux (which I recommend as the first New Zealand music I’ve actually enjoyed in quite some time). Um, hullo internet!

mattmatt reads from your letters

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Enid W
But I have no idea, really, where to start, or what I could write about that I feel qualified to address.
Isn't that why writers have traditionally put themselves in strange and unusual circumstances? Like Hemingway. It's somewhat different from yours, but I do a lot of writing. The best of my writing comes from creating a bizarre situation and from the inside watching it develop. It's also easier when there's an identifiable someone I want to tell about the experience - but that doesn't happen often.
...when I start to think in that direction, I feel trite and hollow, like at my stage of life I don’t have much to offer in that regard, or I’m not ‘qualified’ to write about stuff like that.

This really strikes a chord with me, because I've had these kind of thoughts about the artist's comfort zone a lot. One the one hand I'm a firm believer of pushing your skills as an artist and always aiming for improvement, and step out of that comfort zone with brute force. It's scary and tedious, but you know that staying ín the comfort zone isn't getting you anywhere either.

On the other hand I hate people creating complex things for the image of 'serious art' without any heart or soul behind it, and the result is too often an empty copy of other serious art they try to imitate. And then there are people reaching for the skies in a thousand fields at the same time, but not excelling in any of them. So there might be something to say for sticking to your specialties, and your real passions.

I like your metaphor of the horcrux, and what you're saying about the struggle to remain honest in your creations. Honesty to me is sometimes being brutally critical to my own work, and other times accepting that what I really like to make is sometimes nót 'serious art', and getting my heart back into what I do.

Edited at 2010-01-17 02:14 pm (UTC)
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