Friday, 18 May 2012

The Emotion Worm

On the 28th of June I’m starting a weeklong residency at West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

Getting to do this residency feels like a turning point,  a huge creative opportunity but also a real responsibility.  Part of my role is to mentor another writer during the week.  I want to make sure I do a good job all around. 

So, as is my way, I’ve been doing a good deal of thinking as the start date gets nearer.

For me thinking is writing.  The habit I tend towards is to spend ages working out my why, what and how before I begin to put anything on the page… This is partly because I’m dyslexic and need to order my plans carefully before they all collapse in on me. But, I think it’s also to do with the fact that I trust thought. I trust detail and logic, I’m not always convinced my first emotional response is the best one. And besides, as an audience member, I really dislike stories that wheedle like a tapeworm inside my gut until they find and chew on my ‘emotion button’.  I can’t tell you how offended I am by work that unleashes these 'Emotion Worms' to make me  ‘feel’ something without earning it.

OK so hold that thought / image… Because, before I go on I need to pop in a bit of context:  

While I’m resident at WYP, I’ll be using the time to research and develop a new idea for a play, which has the working title of ‘The 360 Degrees of Hope’.  I’ll be doing research in and around the theatre and out into the city of Leeds and every day I’ll be putting my thoughts down in a piece of writing.  I’ll also be mentoring writer Lee Sutton.  Plus, I’ll be doing a writing workshop with the ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ group, and then of course there is the prospect of seeing the new work season , meeting and picking the great brains of my fellow Writer in Residence Fin Kennedy and engaging with the hugely exciting debate Alex Chisholm has raised with the writing / theatre making community in her blog: The End of ‘New Writing’? … It's clear the week is going to be massively full on. It’s going to be a kind of fun-boot-camp for my brain…

Only, it's struck me, this residency week isn't just going to be about expanding my thinking...

Last week I began talking to Lee about our mentor / mentee time together and what he might want to focus on during the week?  In a bid to aide our discussion I asked him to try and consider what he thinks he is really great at doing as a writer, and conversely what feels more like a struggle or a weakness… Having set him this task I began to feel very excited about the conversation that would follow, until it dawned on me, you cannot ask someone to do something scary like that if you are not prepared to do it yourself. 

It turns out; it’s not so easy to look at these questions honestly… Writers don’t often articulate what they think they’re good at.  It’s not done, we are meant to be demure and grateful when it comes to our own talent / craft… Equally, its not easy to really engage with our weaknesses / the areas we don’t feel confident about. Why highlight a weakness that you hope people won’t notice in the first place? You’re asking for trouble right? Only, for the reasons explained, I now feel obliged to pull my finger out:

So... I am good at finding laughter in some very dark unexpected places.  I’m good at creating unlikely friendships between chalk and cheese characters and I’m good at permitting myself to write ' impossible' stage directions that create magic in performance…  Those are all things I feel quite confident about. So here’s the difficult 'but'... when I’m writing, I’ve realised I’m quite frightened of unleashing my Emotion Worm on my audience.  I’m nervous that if I let my emotions lead what I write, that somehow my work will be weakened. Sometimes I worry about this less. When the story I’m creating is for or about children I usually let my heart lead, but generally this is true.  For me, thought must rule... Only I'm now questioning this because, it has finally struck me that the writers I consider to be truly great, by and large engage my heart just as much as my mind.

To dare to try and be as good as your heros... That's the bar... I'm not sure what ‘The 360 Degrees of Hope’ will be yet.  I want to ask every question I can think of about the subject to find out... What is hope?  What is it for?  Where do we find it?  What do we do with it?  What happens when it is gone? Can we live without it? Or is it an opiate?  Some recent Tweets from @HarryGiles, a really interesting political theatre maker I follow on twitter, suggest that he feels this is the case. On the 11th of May he wrote,
“I don't want my anger exorcised and replaced with hope; I think anger is a way more positive and useful emotion than hope.” Is he right? If not, why has our government brought in measures to report on our well being? It appears that hope and happiness in our troubled present are becoming bones of contention. So, what stories of hope do we need to be telling ourselves at a time like the one we are in?   I’m going to be discussing, thinking and writing about all of this as I go through my residency.  But I’ve also decided that I’m going to be playing and feeling around it too.  I’m going to revisit the playful creative ideas of Lynda Barry , in an attempt to bypass the bit of my brain that fears letting the emotion worm out. I’m not sure where this will all lead, but what I am certain of is this; to be able to write about hope in a meaningful way, I’m going to have to dare to engage fully with my head and my heart.

Or as Maurice Sendak far more succinctly put it in Where The Wild Things Are "Let the wild rumpus begin."

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