Thursday, 27 March 2014

Twelve Steps into Insanity and Acceptance - a writer's journey

I'm on the cusp of starting a new play and I've been blankly staring at my screen for two weeks. 

I know the trajectory of the piece, I know the characters, I know that it's titled “Rebecca Hall Saves the World”, it's satire ( though not on Ms Hall as I happen to have a major crush on her ), I know that every single day something new and funny hits me, a new situation or idea – I'm walking home from Tesco and something hits, something so funny to me that I'll crack a smile in front of strangers. I rarely smile in front of people I know, let alone strangers. This will really work, I silently state in absolute confidence. I smiled in front of strangers.

Then I get home and stare at my screen. It's not block. It's fear, a weird kind of buyer's remorse, a terror that even though no one will see this until I am thrillingly happy with it, everyone already hates it and by extension me.

I think every writer goes through this at some stage. Usually half way through a piece. Toward the end, when suddenly you realise that your arcs aren't arcy enough, your characters all sound the same, and worst of all – no one speaks like this! I haven't even started yet and I've become crippled by a peculiar panic. A cold sweat, a hovering, shaking hand, the knowledge that I could go and play Tetris Battle or Angry Birds instead. I can't write, I tell myself, because it's already written in my head. I can't write because people won't find it funny. They'll hate it. I can't write because I have to get past Hero Level 48 in Tetris. I have to.

In the spirit then of compromise, I've decided to challenge myself. I've decided to take part in a set of exercises guaranteed to keep me away from starting my play while simultaneously allowing me the pretense that I'm doing this to help me rid myself of the fear and finally start what will no doubt turn into my masterpiece. While diddling around on the interweb last week, I discovered a near-tongue-in-cheek, twelve-day set of writing exercises I have decided to indulge, and document.

As this is my first real blog, however, I'm kind of flailing in the blogosphere darkness. So I've sought guidance in writing this from a set of twelve blogging Do's and Don'ts I also found online. I'll try to adhere to them as I work.

Oh yes, and I'm working through the original twelve steps for addiction, too. Partly because it amuses me to mock, and partly because I recognise I'm suffering a kind of subversive addiction, that of beating myself up for not being able to write. I am indulging in a painful self-loathing which I have come to regard as my pal. I now place myself in front of the computer simply so I can hate myself, so I can tell myself I'm useless and agree. Will the addiction steps work? Help? No, probably not, but why not give them a whirl all the same...

“Number one do when writing a blog - find your focus. To do this, you must first ask yourself this question: Who are your target readers? Once that’s settled, you can home in on a niche category and be the expert on it.”

Writing exercise Day 1 – write ten potential titles of books you would like to write.

I'm not sure how this can help me, you or Dan Brown to write but I'm trying to hang my cynicism on the hat rack for now. It'll still be there on my way out to the pub.

The fun of this particular step should be, not in sitting down and studiously furrowing my face at a blank piece of paper until titles come - that won't work – but in taking my time. There's a reason this is a day-long exercise; and the fun of it is taking the day to take part and allowing your sub-conscious to do the work for you. The thrill is in the creation, the spark, the spontaneous collision of creativity and pretentiousness that comes with it. So I'm keeping a piece of blank paper on the dining table, next to my laptop, and only when an idea comes to my mind will I make the trek from the couch to write something down. Only when the spark ignites.

This exercise starts off as relatively fun and self-informative, and quickly descends into hell. Ten titles. Easy. Right? To start off with, sure. The first three titles kind of make sense in context, and though the exercise does not ask you to come up with plots, notions or ideas for each title, I decide at the start to see what I can come up to contextualise it. You never know...

1. Rebecca Hall Saves the World - 9.00am, this was always going to be my first title. Rebecca
    Hall is an actress I admire, who has graced some decent enough movies, most notably The
    Prestige, The Town and Iron Man 3. Generally speaking she does not play action heroes so my
    conceit for this play is simple – have her caught up in a situation, in this case a zombie-
    apocalypse – whereby she must become an action hero despite only being an actress. Not an
    original conceit but one rich with potential for satire and broad comedy-horror. Can't wait to get
    started on this one but I have a list to complete first.

2. The Worm That Turned - 9.35am, I don't know, I was watching the end of Star Trek into
    Darkness and it came to me. Possibly a play or a story, a put upon fellow who finally snaps. This
    one appeals to me as a male, something that could allow me to explore self-loathing and yet
    allow me to rant at the world in the same breath; a have Taxi Driver and eat it situation.

Shit. This is piss-easy this exercise. This'll be done in no time. I'm awesome. I start thinking about my target audience; who am I aiming these pieces for? What kind of audience? Then I stall. Who would want to read my crap?

3. Um. Okay so despite myself I'm actually concentrating now on the titles even though I should be
enjoying Fantastic Four:Rise of the Silver Surfer. Relax. Stop thinking, allow your subconscious
to do the work for you. Yeah, that's just like you isn't it you lazy prick. Let someone else do the
work for you. Don't actually sit down and work on something yourself! Nah, that would be too
much like work, you unemployed bum, you long-haired greasy oik. You just sit and watch a
kid's movie and wait until someone else does the work. 10.30am, come up with “101 films I
Hate and you Should Too.” A light hearted book about movies I hate that everyone else loves,
like Schindler's List. Hmm. Could work. Maybe. It's very negative though. Still, three down!

4.1 The Sting – 11.15am, at first I think, YES! That's a damn good title, that could be really cool,
      that could be about a heist or, like it could be a sort of Reservoir Dogs after the heist kind thing,
      or it could -

4.2. 11.20am, I realise my mistake. I am annoyed. I think okay, but it could be a play or a book
       about a swarm of killer bees that attack a small town like Wexford, the swarm could – shit. 
       It's already a movie, a disastrous Irwin Allen disaster movie. Called The Swarm. I come up 
       with “Acid Trax,” because I'm listening to a rave music compendium. I don't know, this 
       could be an Irvine Welsh thing about Irish clubbers, or drugs, or it could be a poem or 
       something. Shit, this is hard. This is stupid and hard. I'm hungry but I can't have lunch yet 
       because despite three years of redundancy, I'm still locked into the work-day mentality. 
       That means I have to wait until 1.00pm precisely before I eat.

So 12:00pm comes around and I only have five titles and I'm thinking well Jesus five titles in three hours isn't bad. Four, actually. The Sting is that movie with the tinkly Marvin Hamlisch score. Right, right, but four titles in three hours man! I don't know, is Acid Trax REALLY a good title? For a poem it is, sure, why not? The poem could be about anything and everyone will just think it's about drugs. It's layered. Job done. Move on.

But already I'm beginning to flounder. I decide to put my mind off the exercise until after lunch. I'll have a tuna sandwich at 1.00pm and maybe a packet of crisps and a yoghurt and by then something will have come to mind. I'll watch Rise of Silver Surfer, no that's a kid's movie, I should watch something a bit more adult-oriented. Irreversible maybe.

By 12.30 I'm staring at the blank piece of paper on my kitchen table with a studiously furrowed face, chewing the pen lid ( fun fact, did you know the hole at the top of pen lid is to stop you choking should you swallow it? Totally true ) and desperately thinking about titles to plays, books, poems, articles, anything just to get this stupid exercise over and done with before lunch. I've forgotten that the whole point of this exercise is simply to come up with titles for things I'd like to write. Focus damn it, focus on what you're doing. Stop furrowing and start focussing. What's the difference? I don't know. I decide to check what I look like in the mirror, furrowing, and then focussing. I can't tell the difference, mostly my expression is somewhat neanderthal, creased brow and over-arching eyebrows stretching forward on a lug-like forehead. Also I cross my eyes when I concentrate and I press my tongue into my upper lip which makes a wet splurch noise. Weird. No wonder I'm lazy. And vain.

As lunch edges ever closer I begin to feel stupid, frustrated, and increasingly angry. I feel like someone is constantly poking at the bottom of my spine. I don't like it. I feel trapped.

5. The Chair – 12.45pm. I mean, you know – this could be some kind of Beckettian thing about a
    clown and the chair he practices with, and how it gets the best of him in some kind of
    psychological, surreal and mind-numbingly stupid way. Audiences would love it because it's
    ambiguous and makes them think and has no real ending. The Chair. Good title, great catch-all
    title. The Chair! Shit, we're back on the right road now! We're trucking now!!!! We're god damn
    flying through space now!!!!!!!!

6. Ostrich Man – 12.55pm. Not proud of this one. But it's a title. I can eat lunch now. It's about a
    man who wakes up one morning and he's an ostrich.

At 2 pm I catch myself looking around the room for something, some object, some shard of light or speckled, foxtrotting pieces of dust to bring me inspiration. Nothing. Nothing. I decide to watch the rest of Rise of the Silver Surfer. Maybe I should write a book entitled “101 Films I like and You Should Too”. Seems very non-commital. Won't bother.

7. Shard of Light – 2.10pm. This is a play about something. With characters.

8. Blackjack – 3.30pm, I'm doing the washing up and this one comes to mind. I write it down.

I am on my second old-school compendium of rave music now. I make coffee, eat a second packet of crisps and then chew a rennie and do some sit-ups because I feel fat. I have to heat dinner up soon. Why did I eat those crisps? I'm fat. I'm old and I'm fat and my stomach hurts because I over-did the sit-ups.

9. The Crematorium - 4.52pm . Don't know, could be about a guy who works there. Might have
    to research this one though. Whatever.

10. Twelve steps – 5.00pm it's an article. I'm done. I did it. I came up with ten titles. Yes. I rule.

“We admitted we were powerless over addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.
    Step 1 : We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

I'm still none the wiser after this first writing exercise, I'll be honest. It was a slog. It enveloped my day so that, even when I was watching movies, doing the housework ( I do the housework ), listening to rave music, or just scouring pornography sites for celebrity sex tapes ( don't be fooled, most of them are lookalikes, and not even that close ), my mind was speeding furiously through possible titles, hoping that between the working-day hours of 9am and 5pm I could come up with ten. Just ten. I forgot in the end why I was even doing it. I just was. There was no feeling of elation when I'd finished, just a deflated sense that I had worn away a day and had only ten titles to show for it.

I think the idea is this : when you're stuck, go to your title list and work from there. I'm sure it works for some people. Stephen King seems to operate singularly on this premise. I understand U2 often come up with titles to their songs first. Producer Brian Eno has his whole Oblique Strategies set-up for the creation of music and art so there has to be some merit to this idea. But not alone. For me it's just not enough. It just doesn't seem that creative. For me the title is often the final piece of the puzzle. You choose a title to sell your play, sure, for commercial reasons – you choose a title that seems somehow original yet recognisable so that people will come and see your play, or read your book, or attribute meaning to your otherwise obscure poem. You choose a title that you hope describes the piece you've created, and as such sells it to an audience.

As it happens, and probably ironically I came up with the title “Rebecca Hall Saves the Day” before the idea for the play. It tickled me and I expanded it on paper. This will be the piece I'll be working on, and the other titles I'll most likely discard because they were created in an unrealistic and contrived manner as part of an exercise. They'll go nowhere. What did I get from this exercise then? A wasted day? No, I wrote this piece throughout the day. If no one reads it so what? It got me writing. Isn't that the point? I got something from it, so it was worth doing. But I don't think it's a worth-while exercise, ultimately, if you truly are stuck. It's contrived and will not help you create. It may even hinder you, it may even drive you insane if like me you're obsessive ( and isn't every writer? ). I'm still institutionalised into those working-day hours so luckily I only went insane nine to five. I'm all right now. Swearsies. I have discovered my niche, though – discovered what I'm an expert in. Writing about myself.

Oh, and that greater power that might just restore me to sanity – I've started my play. First three lines already written :

Dave : Have you ever noticed how sad Rave music is? I don't mean sad as in lame but sad, sad as in lonely, as in melancholic. Are you Rebecca Hall?

Rebecca : Yes and I have a boyfriend so please don't spend your evening trying to chat me up. Thanks for recognising me though.

Dave : Welcome. I'm not chatting you up, I swear. My ex-girlfriend just walked in and sat down and I needed to jump up and make it seem natural and you happened to be Rebecca Hall which helped. Can you sign something for me?

Tomorrow, writing exercise two - “Create a character with personality traits of someone you love, but the physical characteristics of someone you don’t care for.”

Something tells me this blog will be shorter...


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