Writing. Huh. What is it good for.


It’s November. It’s Sunday morning and I’m in bed listening to the church bells, contemplating putting gloves on because really my flat is bloody cold and re-reading Shaun Tan when I should be writing.

Though actually I am writing.

Strike that. Reverse it.

(Then get a copy of The Arrival, because it’s gorgeous and glorious and painful and true.)

I set myself an eloquently parsed challenge at the end of October; “Just fucking write something every fucking day.” Not as elaborate as the aims of NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t want to write a novel, I just wanted to write… more. More regularly, with more variety. Just more.

Because it seems to me that we – yes, the great big collective, creative, amorphous, struggling, striving we – constantly put roadblocks in front of ourselves. Or certainly I do. Sometimes it’s the temptation of a Twitter feed when a deadline is looming, or the 20 pages of a book you find yourself reading when you were “just looking for that quote.” It took years (and years and years) for me to start calling myself a writer. I still flinch now when I try. Yet I have written since I first could and I think I will probably go on writing as long as I have thoughts to collect somewhere. I’m intimately attached to processing the world in this way; words have given me everything I’ve ever cared about.

But calling myself a writer? Noooo; I’d need to be published somewhere. Or performed. Or recorded. Or have the existence of my work in some way justified as “broadly speaking not entirely shit” by a reputable third party. I’d have to craft some huge Thing and actually finish it. But I’ve always written for the sake of writing; because there were stories (and, as I grew older, opinions) inside that just had to come out. Being ‘A Writer’ was something that other people did. People who lived in big houses and strolled in London parks and travelled the world and weren’t working their way through the library of a small Irish town from A to Z (skipping Maeve Binchy). They were the makers of the worlds I put myself in for safe keeping, the gatekeepers of something sacred…

When my first computer arrived (I was 11 and divided my time between Lord of the Rings forums and a basic HTML site called Horseland. Auspicious beginnings), what had for years felt to me like an ivory tower actually turned out to have some very cleverly disguised steps set into it. There was an audience living in this contraption. I could reach someone other than my English teacher and see what happened. I wrote poems on DeviantArt (I know. I KNOW.) But I was 15 then and though it’s tempting, I think it’s important not to trash everything we do or have ever done. There’s value in the learning. I’m with Sondheim’s “You don’t touch up a baby picture – you’re a baby!” Doesn’t mean you don’t keep them in an album at the bottom of a box under the stairs, mind…

I kept a LiveJournal for 9 years. NINE. Jesus. But it made me write and think about my writing as being for other people. I got a copywriting job (let’s be honest here; I got paid to write about Star Wars.) Still not a writer though. Then I went to 66 Books at the Bush and, much like when the stories couldn’t stay in, not writing about theatre very suddenly wasn’t an option. So I wrote about theatre. Still do. And now I’m a writer. Not because I became one, or because I believe I am one; but because if I say it enough times and to enough people, maybe I will be one. Because nine times out of ten I am spending my Saturday and/or Sunday like this; sitting up in bed, communing with my laptop for several hours, panicking about whether anyone will think it’s even worth reading and, as we get closer to winter, starting to have very cold fingers indeed.

I mean if I’m not a writer then what on earth is this? What am I even doing?

It’s December. It’s Monday evening and I’m curled up on my sofa typing by candlelight and drinking whiskey to keep warm. Because really my flat is bloody cold and I’m writing this when I should be writing something else.

So, writing for a month taught me a few new things that writing on and off for 15 years didn’t. There are days when I can’t write. At all. I can’t make the words work. Those days are terrifying – like those dreams where you can’t scream. My Mr. Hyde is a fearsome creature – so silent. But this I already knew – as did anyone who has been the unfortunate recipient of a review that was due on just one such of these days and to whom I truly apologise. What I didn’t know, was that it’s actually alright. What makes it feel less alright are deadlines and structures and the tiny shards of free time into which creativity is crammed, making me all the more aware of when they aren’t being used with utmost efficiency; when I’m staring blankly at a screen and end up writing nonsense.

Treating writing as a product is actually a problem. It’s something Meg Vaughan is really quite right about (I don’t have a particular link for this – can I interest you in half a dozen Twitter conversations?), and that Andrew Haydon touched on yesterday when he started blogging again after a break. A rest. How nice that sounds when 90% of what you’re committing to paper (/screen) is actually for someone else. I genuinely spend more of my life worrying about writing and its associated deadlines than actually getting any done for the joy of it or the work I’m writing about. This time, on the days that I couldn’t write, I simply did something else. I took pictures. I read books. I watched Netflix. I went to see a play just to see a play, and talked to other people about it. I walked around graveyards. All of this informed the days when I could write. Then came poems, letters, essays, responses to work I’d seen, article pitches, and even an entirely new creative project that I’ve started collecting real stories for.

Writing every day is also a very full on look at who you are and how you’re doing. It’s your natural, reactive response to everything that’s happening – not the video compilation of your most popular statuses that Facebook will send you on December 31st. Below are a few of the entries I made (it’s an app called Day One – would highly recommend. Infinitely better than Notes) – some I have context for, others I have weirdly no recollection of writing at all. I have been keeping this thing with shifting regularity  for about 2 years now, and I swear the entries that managed to bookend the month are the only two that mention squirrels.

Nov 30:
We have neighbourhood squirrels

Nov 25:
When you’re holding on to something
so tight you let go.

Nov 22:
Performance is a contract – but it’s not a
promise to tell the truth, or necessarily
even to tell. Sometimes it’s a therapy
session and it’s unclear who it’s for.
What it does is ask something of the
performer, so what happens when they
in turn ask something of us? Ask us to
walk out of that space and leave part of
ourselves in it.

Nov 16:
I’m not sure I like sunny places. I like
dark corners and secrets and snowy hills
and windswept moors where the fog
enfolds you without warning. Forests
where bare trees claw at winter skies
and you can see your breath as you kick
ochre leaves about. I like mossy
gravestones and the brash halogen
smudge of streetlamps on damp winter
evenings. I like soft candlelight and
hard rain, clouds rolling in across the
sunset and crisp, clear, freeze you alive
nights where the crunch of snow and
the brush of stars are like tiny electrical
currents on your skin.

Nov 9:
Anti-theatre. Cheap shoes.
Remembrance Sunday – something we
must say again and again. Carbon
footprint of perf. Dispassion. Why this
form? Projection more art than
information. Emotional investment?
2071 payoff. Do we give a shit? I was
made in a star billions of years ago,
your granddaughter will breathe in this
carbon, so fucking what.

Nov 2:
Poem new line breaks interject Chris
my qs not important distraction squirrel
language is dead we’re all about to die
a little death

This probably all feels vaingloriously self indulgent, and also blindingly obvious to anyone who has written creatively on an ongoing basis, but actually the most precious thing I discovered is that I think I’d like to write less.

Much less.

And mean more. And engage more with the work that I’m seeing, take more time to think about it, worry less about a theatre company or PR expecting a certain form of response. I don’t want to only see work that I like, but if at all possible to only write about work that I want to write about – love or loathe or just need to puzzle through. Andrew’s point that the “Meh. It happened. It was fine” review is the most godawful thing to have to write could not be more true, and those have taken me longer than anything I’ve raved or ranted about for 1,500 plus words. Then submitted and dealt with the creeping guilt for an hour or so, vowing never to look at it again. Because I’m sorry, but sometimes your show could be dispensed with in about two sentences. And I know, I really do, that you’ve spent months making it. I’ve made work and I know how that feels. But it hasn’t touched me, I don’t have anything to say, and I know that we can all tell that I’m name checking the lighting designer by the second paragraph. I mean who is that serving? Your show is simply for someone else. I don’t think factory floor criticism benefits anyone. It’s like getting a Good Luck card at work that someone’s accidentally written Happy Birthday in.

Also; I don’t want to be a writer. Having spent years chasing after the title, I realise it doesn’t describe what I do. I’m not having a love affair with words in a Parisian hotel room with sweeping white curtains and rose petals on the bed, summoning some liminal muse. I’m bashing the words out in my East London bedroom, and then re-shaping them. And shaping them again. And again. Wordsmithing. And it’s not something I fell out of the womb doing – I have to work hard at it and it’s not mystical (Amy Poehler’s right on the money – hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver sometimes), often it’s frankly not even very good. But it feels like something I can learn.

Lastly; that my initial idea was the right one if I ever want to make my own work. Just fucking write. Don’t think, talk, complain, blog (oh..) or wonder about it – just sit down and make some words come out. Then show them to someone. Be scared. Here’s the most fun part; everyone is scared. Everyone. For anyone making anything they give half a damn about, it’s still like holding your heart out in your hands as a line of people slowly walk by and inspect it from all angles, and all you can hear is the slow drip, drip, drip of blood between your fingers as you hold your breath and your smile gutters until someone, anyone, says something. Because, and I’m very rare to issue absolutes when it comes to making anything, but this feels fair; if you’re not giving a little grain of yourself, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

I started writing here a year ago because I had So Many Thoughts about the Almeida’s American Psycho that I had to spew them forth somewhere. It looks awful now, as I hope this will look awful to me in another 12 months; I want it to (though it doesn’t look perfect now.) Baby pictures. Keep growing.

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