Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Tell me a story...

It’s Tuesday afternoon and the ‘phones have gone quiet. Conversation has turned to odd topics (kinky-sounding abbreviated names, intra-species breastfeeding…). I’m looking at a picture of a very strange object which someone has sent in – a sort of hollow terracotta tube with a dish-shaped foot – and wondering who at Kew would know what the flipping heck it is. Various theories were voiced as the picture was passed round the office, varying from the possible through the facetious to the downright rude, but so far it remains a mystery. We’ll see what Stewart Henchie makes of it.

Got some more writing done last night. There’s nothing quite like getting on with it to kick-start the solving of what have earlier appeared really knotty problems. After being beaten at University Challenge (admittedly by Corpus Christi, who I think are going to win overall, with something like 350 to my puny 235) I needed some light relief. Writing and playing “Renaissance of the Celtic Harp” repeatedly did the job perfectly. I think I’ve got to the end of chapter two. Whoo-hoo!

I’m very happy to be finding as I write that the whole thing is taking shape in ways I hadn’t envisaged. This is a story I conceived years ago, as a fairly straightforward space-opera, when I was a “Star Trek”~ and “Star Wars”-mad teenager. It had sat quiet in the back of my mind ever since, much as “Gabriel Yeats” did, simply because I liked the principal characters and felt they interacted well. Frankly, I thought the story was the weakest part, but now I’m actually having a go at it I’m pleasantly surprised to find that there is more to it than I’d originally thought. That sounds terribly self-aggrandising – embarrassingly so. At bottom this is still a western set in outer space, a pretty standardised genre which I make no pretension of revitalising. Far better writers than I will ever be already have that task in hand, anyway…

I’m just happy that when I lifted this particular pot from back-burner to main-burner, it turned out to have a bit more thematic substance than I’d expected. Why is the “alien” alien? – and why do we develop, and hold to, the loyalties we do, and let others go?

There’s a large back-burner in my mind where this story was sitting, and others still sit today; the oldest dates from my teens, the most recent from last autumn. They need to sit on a very low hob and brew for a while, like decoctions.

Back in the late summer of 2005, when I was trying to get my new life in London and my new job at Kew back on track after the chaos and unhappiness of my father’s death, I began working through some of the exercises in a self-help book called “The Artist’s Way” that I had bought shortly before he was diagnosed, and had never had time to start reading. The author, Julia Cameron, has written a lot of this sort of thing; I’ve read several of her books. At times she’s a little too breezily Californian for my tastes, and I feel myself getting all British and stiffened in the upper lip in response; and at times her huge self-confidence astounds (and slightly repels) me. But she’s very good on tips and tricks and ways to keep your creative juices flowing. I remember a cold, damp autumnal day when I was on duty at Lion Gate all day (boringboringboring) when I was reading this book and decided to do one of the exercises; it was like opening the back door and suddenly seeing that far from living in an inner city I had the South Downs out there. That was the exercise that got me writing again, after what was by then ten years of solid, dedicated focus on my visual art work. I had forgotten I’d ever had any other creative dreams; in fact in reading the book I was hoping to kick-start myself into some painting after a fallow period.

This was the exercise I did that day. IT WORKS; so if you don’t want to uncover your lost creative dreams, look away now.

Imagine you are a filmmaker, and you have been asked to make a film and given a generous budget, with no strings attached, by an independent film production company. Their only stipulation is that you make work that really matters to you. What film do you make?

Don’t think about it too much, just make notes. If you find yourself thinking about more than one project, make notes on all of them. If you know who you want to cast, note that down, too, together with why you want those particular actors (& don’t worry, “because he/she is hot” is a perfectly adequate answer to that question!). If you know why this or that project matters to you, write that down too. When you’ve made all the notes you can, then and only then do you start to look at them dispassionately and try to analyse what you’ve come up with. What have you written, and why? Why is this the film you want to make? – why is this what really matters to you?

It’s weird; it disarms all those inner restraints that kick in going “you can’t, it won’t happen, that’s just a silly daydream” and so forth. After all, it’s just a game, isn’t it? – you know you aren’t going to make a film. It’s like saying “What would you do if you had eighty million pounds?” Because the exercise is fantasy it frees you to think about things that otherwise you might have buried under a thick layer of muffling insulation. Mind you, if you want to make films in the first place it may work slightly differently…

In my case, I didn’t hesitate for even a second; I instantly began listing stories I wanted to tell. They varied enormously in subject matter. The one obvious connecting factor was that these stories mattered to me; not their content or their meaning or their message, or any idea of their supposed literary merit, just them as stories. All of them were stories I’d “always meant to get around to writing”. I sat and looked at my three pages of notes and thought “So why aren’t I writing them, then?” And the next day, I began to write “Gabriel Yeats”.

Very sincere and heartfelt thanks, then, to Julia Cameron, for that one. For more of the same, see “The Artist’s Way”.
It's worth the look...

No comments: