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22 Feb

I received an email yesterday from someone I’m honoured to call a friend. He has encouraged my writing career since I was around 14 – publishing my poetry, and later editing my novels, and still later publishing my play, and coming to my opening nights, and bringing constant wisdom to my life. Honestly though, Robin Malan is a friend to everyone who loves words and books and writing. He is dedicated to producing, promoting, and protecting words. Is it any wonder then that he thought up a scheme like this?

“Would you like to help me celebrate my fifth rebirthday?

Let me explain. It was on palindromic 29.2.92 (that’s the 29th of February 1992, for those of you calendarly challenged), it was on that leap-year day …

that my heart ♥

very nearly stopped ♥

me dead

in my tracks

… but – happily – it decided: ‘Not Yet.’ ♥

I was nursed back to health by a loving sister and cardiologists and dieticians and friends. I’m very glad that happened, because I’ve been able to do a whole whack of work in these 20 years that I wouldn’t have done otherwise! For instance, there wouldn’t have been any of the post-1992 Robin books! And there wouldn’t have been any Robin involvement in any of the following: No Triangle Project! No GABYS (Gay and Bisexual Youngmen’s Support-group)! No Gay & Lesbian Helpline! No Young Gay Guys column in Exit! No editing of English Alive! No Siyagruva Series! No IBBY SA! No Cape 300 Foundation! No Arts & Culture Trust! No Junkets Publisher! No Playscript Series! No Collected Series! …

So each leap year I sort-of celebrate my rebirthday. And 29 February 2012 will be my fifth rebirthday, 20 years after the heart attack.

I’m not having a party – that could be tempting fate!

Instead, you can help me celebrate this way:

§         Take a book – any book of any sort – that you’ve read and leave it in some public place for someone to pick up and read.

§         Before you do that, write this inside the book:

Pick me up

and read me.

Then drop me

for someone else

to pick me up

and read me.

If you feel like doing that, that would be good!”

I want to take Robin’s appeal wider. Such a simple one.  So I want to declare the 29th  #pickmeupandreadme day.  Won’t you do just as Robin says, and then send me a tweet with #pickmeupandreadme or write a comment about where you’ve dropped your book – you could send a photo, or a title, or make it cryptic. Let’s give books legs this Leap Day, the same way Robin was given legs 20 years ago.


My new favourite grammar book

13 Jul

Yes, I just said that. Because I am that nerdy. But “The Elements of F*cking Style” is not merely a book, I believe it to be a way of life.

Mark my words, I am going to be carrying this book around with me wherever I go. And before the faint  of heart and purists out there get all silly about how unnecessary the swearing, references to sex, and general excessiveness of the book is: that’s the fucking point of it. As the authors point out in their “Introduction, or How I Learned to Stop Writing Like a Three-Year-Old and Love Grammar”, the book works because it is attention grabbing, and therefore memorable.

From the correct use of semicolons to advice about paragraph structure, EFS (as my twitter followers and I like to call it) will give you the answers in ways that will be permanently seared into your brain. And if you think you don’t need it, remember that “Even the clinically insane make sense to themselves”.

This book brings grammar to the masses, and boy do the masses need it. So what are you waiting for? Just remember “Don’t use this knowledge for evil.”

Blood Pressure vs Grammar Errors

9 Mar

I found this on Morning Glory‘s blog, and it SPOKE to me, in a grammatically correct and thus pleasing fashion.

This made my day

30 Apr


The Conjuror’s Profession

12 Mar

Thanks to Marianne Tham for this phenomenal piece – Auden on writing. What a way to start a Monday!
“So, strange young man, – it is at his command, remember, that I say this to you: whether I agree with it or not is neither here nor there – you have decided on the conjurer’s profession. Somewhere, in the middle of a saltmarsh or at the bottom of a kitchen garden or on top of a bus, you heard imprisoned Ariel call for help, and it is now a liberator’s face that congratulates you from your shaving mirror every morning. As you walk the cold streets hatless, or sit over coffee and doughnuts in the corner of a cheap restaurant, your secret has already set you apart from the howling merchant and transacting multitudes to watch with fascinated distaste the bellowing barging banging passage of the awkward profit-seeking elbow, the dazed eye of the gregarious acquisitive condition. Lying awake at night in your single bed you are conscious of a power by which you will survive the wallpaper of your boardinghouse or the expense bourgeois horrors of your home. Yes, Ariel, is grateful; He does come when you call, He does tell you all the gossip He overhears on the stairs, all the goings-on He observes through the keyhole, He really is willing to arrange anything you are to ask for, and you are rapidly finding out the right orders to give – who should be killed in the hunting accident, which couple to send into the cast-iron shelter, what scent will arouse a Norwegian engineer, how to get the young hero from the country lawyer’s office to the Princess’ reception, when to mislay the letter, where the cabinet minister should be reminded of his mother, why the dishonest valet must be a martyr to indigestion but immune from the common cold.
As the gay productive months slip by, in spite of fretful discouraged days, of awkward moments of misunderstanding or rather, seen retrospectively as happily cleared up and got over, verily because of them, you are definitely getting the hang of this, at first so novel and bewildering, relationship between magician and familiar, whose deity it is to sustain your infinite conceptual appetite with vivid concrete experiences. And, as the months turn into years, your wonder-working romance into an economic habit, the encountered case of good or evil in our wide world of property and boredom which leaves you confessedly and unsympathetically at a loss, the aberrant phrase in the whole human cycle of ecstasy and exhaustion with which you are imperfectly familiar, become increasingly rare.
No perception however petite, no notion however subtle, escapes your attention or baffles your understanding; on entering any room you immediately distinguish the wasters who throw away their fruit half-eaten from the preservers who bottle all summer; as the passengers file down the ship’s gangway you unerringly guess which suitcase contains indecent novels; a five-minute chat about the weather or the coming elections is all you require to diagnose any distemper, however self-assured, for by then your eye has already spotted the tremor of the lips in that infinitesimal moment while the lie was getting its balance, your ear already picked up the heart’s low whimper which the capering legs were determined to stifle, your nose detected on love’s breath the trace of ennui which foretells his early death, or the despair just starting to smoulder at the base of the scholar’s brain which years hence will suddenly blow it up with one appalling laugh: in every case you can prescribe the saving treatment called for, knowing at once when it may be gentle and remedial, when all that is needed is soft music and a pretty girl, and when it must be drastic and surgical, when nothing will do any good but political disgrace or financial and erotic failure.”

Don’t Be Boring

12 Mar

This sums up pretty much everything I feel about what theatre should, or rather shouldn’t be doing. Whenever I read it or share it with other writers I get rousing cheers. This is important stuff here folks.

Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog – theatre
A message to young playwrights: don’t be so boring
Anthony Neilson
March 21, 2007 9:17  AM
I was part of a theatrical movement once. As with most movements, no one who
was a part of it noticed anything moving at the time. I still wouldn’t know if a journalist hadn’t told me. “In-Yer-Face”, it was called, which offended the more famous of my fellow movementarians, but I was just glad someone had noticed I was alive. As far as I can tell, In-Yer-Face was all about being horrid and writing about shit and buggery. I thought I was writing love stories.
Fifteen years on, there doesn’t seem to have been another movement, so I thought I’d try to start one. Unfortunately, despite being pretty sure the next movement will be absurdist in nature, I couldn’t think of a snappy name for it so I gave up on that. Then I thought I’d write a provocative Dogme-style manifesto, but I only came up with four rules, and I’ve already broken two of them in my new show. Then I thought I’d write Ten Commandments for young writers but a) that’s a little pompous, and b) there’s only one commandment worth a damn, and it’s this:  THOU SHALT NOT BORE.
Boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre. We’ve been boring audiences for decades now, and they’ve responded by slowly withdrawing their patronage. I don’t care that the recent production of The Seagull at the Royal Court was sold out. To 95% of the population, the theatre  (musicals aside for now) is an irrelevance. Of that 95%, we have managed to lure in maybe 10% at some point in their lives, and we’ve so swiftly and thoroughly bored them that they’ve never returned. They’re not the ones who broke the contract. They paid their money and expected entertainment; we sent them back into the night feeling bored, bullied and baffled. So what are we doing wrong?
The most depressing response I encounter when I’m chatting someone up and I ask them if they ever go to the theatre is this: “I should go but I don’t.” That emphatic “should” tells you all you need to know. Imagine it in other contexts: “I should play Grand Theft Auto”; “I should watch Strictly Come Dancing.” That “should” tells you that people see theatre-going not as entertainment but as self-improvement, and the critical/ academic establishment have to take some blame for that.
Many critics still believe theatre has a quasi-educational/political role; that a play posits an argument that the playwright then proves or disproves. It is in a critic’s interest to propagate this idea because it makes criticism easier; one can agree or disagree with what they perceive to be the author’s conclusion. It is not that a play cannot be quasi-educational, or even overtly political – just that debate should organically arise out of narrative.
But this reductive notion persists and has infected playwriting root and branch.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve asked an aspiring writer what they’re working on, and they reply with something like:  “I’m writing a play about racism.” On further investigation, you find that this play has no story and they’ve been stuck on page 10 for the past year; yet they’re still hell-bent on writing it. You can be fairly sure the play, should it ever be finished, will conclude that racism is a bad thing. The writer is not interested in exploring the traces of racism that may lie dormant within their psyche, nor in making the case for selective racism (just to be “provocative”).
This is the writer using the play to project their preferred image of themselves; the ego intruding on art; the kind of literary posing that is fed by the idea of debate-led theatre. And if you think that example sounds naive, substitute the word “racism” with “George Bush” or “Iraq” or “New Labour”. Sound familiar?
Newspapers, or news programmes, are the places for debates, not the theatre.
The general public don’t think: “Should I go to the theatre Friday, or that socio-political theory class?” Further education is not the competition. The pub is the competition, the cinema, a night in with a curry and a DVD. We are entertainers. What we do is not as important to society as brain surgery, or even refuse collection. But when the brain surgeon and the refuse collector finish work, they come to us and it is our job to entertain them – not necessarily just to distract them, but to stimulate, to refresh, to engage them.
That’s our place in the scheme of things, and it’s a responsibility we should take seriously. To let our egos intrude is like the brain surgeon writing “Jake Was Here” on your frontal lobe before he puts your scalp back. The way to circumvent ego (and thus reduces the risk of boring) is to make story our god.  Find a story that interests you and tell it. Don’t ask yourself why a story interests you; we can no more choose this than who we fall in love with. You may not be what you think you are – not as kind, as liberal, as original as you ought to be – and yes, the story (if you are true to it) will find that out. But while your attention is taken up with its mechanics, some truth may seep out, and that is the lifeblood of good, exciting art.
I’m not saying we should all be Terence Rattigan. The story you tell can be about anything, told in whatever form is most effective. But that brings me to my next point: accessibility.
To this day, I still leave plays wondering what on earth they were about. I used to feel stupid for not “getting it”, but not any more, because this I know: it’s the artist’s failure, not mine. It’s not necessary that every audience member gets every level on which a play works (several, if it’s good), but it’s important that they’ve understood it, from moment to moment, while watching it. Little Red Riding Hood is completely understandable to five-year olds and yet academics are still writing papers on its deeper meanings. This profound simplicity is what all playwrights should aspire to. Not only does it render a play accessible (on at least a narrative level) to an inexperienced theatregoer, it also encourages the widest possible scope for interpretation. Much as it depresses me, as a living writer, that the theatre business is still so in thrall to dead playwrights, this narrative clarity is key to the classics’ longevity.
So tell your story as you wish – but for God’s sake, if it plays best as a linear narrative, don’t tart it up for the sake of feeling innovative. There’s no shame in a good story, well told. Contrary to the popular maxim, do think about your audience. Ask yourself if your non-theatre-going friends or relatives would at least get the gist of it. If they wouldn’t, your work is not yet done. (That said, never compromise on the grounds of what they may be offended by. Truth is not always comfortable but a dishonest play is usually dull.)
Two asides. One, dialogue: there’s a lot of poetic dialogue around.
Sometimes a play is narratively accessible but the dialogue is mannered to the point of incomprehensibility. Some people like it, but I’m suspicious. Poetic dialogue, done badly, leaves no room for subtext. A lack of subtext is fundamentally undramatic. And boring.
And two, duration: many plays are far too long. All writers should be made to visit the venue where their play is to be performed and sit in the seats with a stopwatch. When your arse and spine start to sing, check the watch. That’s your running time. Exceed it at your peril.
Now – musicals. Much as the synopsis of We Will Rock You sounds abysmal, it’s pulling in more punters a night than some “serious” shows attract in a week. There’s a dangerously dismissive response to this uncomfortable truth among many of my fellow practitioners, but it’s not hard to figure out why this might be. Musical theatre offers song and dance, of course; a certain unpretentiousness; a tangible sense of “liveness”; magic; and, most importantly, spectacle.
It is time the “serious” theatre learns this lesson.  We have to give the audiences what they can’t get anywhere else. Debate they can get in a newspaper. Reality – well, they can get that on TV. We can offer them  “liveness”, but few plays, or productions, take advantage of this. Too many screenplays masquerading as plays and an over-reliance on mixed media have imbued the theatre with a heaviness it’s not best suited to. Some may argue that technology is the key to spectacle, but most theatres can’t compete with the West End technologically. The spectacle we can offer is the spectacle of imagination in flight. I’ve heard audiences gasp at turns of plot, at a location conjured by actors, at the shock of a truth being spoken, at the audacity of a moment. There is nothing more magical and nothing – nothing – less boring.
Oh, and if you can get a song or two in there, all the better. My show has three.

My favourite quote on playwrighting

12 Mar

“I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.” Harold Pinter