Experimentalism for Beginners

Napier University is launching a new MA in Creative Writing and to promote the course they ran two free writing workshops in Edinburgh. I went along to the Experimentalism for Beginners workshop, led by Sam Kelly.

I think everyone present couldn’t help but feel relaxed and happy as Sam Kelly stood before us, radiating positive energy. Then she announced that she was going to hypnotise us. We instantly tensed up. Was she joking? “Oh, I’m sorry. Wasn’t that in the flier?” she asked. Apparently not.

It turned out, however, to be a very pleasant meditative experience and nothing at all to worry about. That was the second time I have been hypnotised in the space of a week, having been in the audience of Derren Brown‘s Enigma tour last Thursday.  I was much less apprehensive about being hypnotised the second time around since I was pretty sure Sam Kelly was not going to make me drink a glass of vinegar or balance me stiff as a plank across two trestles while I was under. Instead she got us all to try some automatic writing.

Before we started we were advised to think of a letter and then if we got stuck, to write any word beginning with that letter. I’ve got quite a lot of “apples” in my piece of automatic writing, which led on to some random stuff about Snow White, followed by my thoughts on the role of stepmothers in fairytales and then right at the end I think my unconscious finally kicked in and I scrawled “He hears it in her voice like the cut of 1000 razorblades.”

We selected a sentence from our automatic writing and made a lipogram. That is, we rewrote the sentence with the letter “e” ommitted. It was very very difficult. My sentence became “But it is in C’s words, sounds as a thousand razors cutting.”  Yeah, I know, it’s not very good. And can you imagine some people have written whole novels that are lipograms? Those crazy Oulipians!

Another exercise we tried was the cut-up technique. We took a page of text (an extract from Schopenhauer’s On Women), chopped it up, rearranged the pieces to make a new text then glued them down onto card. In the beginning I was just randomly cutting up the text and not really thinking about it too much. After I had read a few of the isolated sentences, I adopted a more targeted approach and began to cut out all the negative adjectives applied to women. A flutter of “weaker”s and “inferior”s fell to the ground. It was really exciting to completely turn around the meaning of a text like that.

I’m wondering now if I should cut up a bundle of my rejected short stories and rearrange them to make something shiny and new.  I think that would be a fun way to turn something with negative associations into a positive experience. If I don’t get a story or a poem out of it, at least I will have a quirky collage to pin to my noticeboard.

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Geneva Writers’ Conference – Philip Graham

I am going on holiday to St Petersburg and Moscow in a few days so I thought it would be appropriate to dig out some notes I made on travel writing at the 2008 Geneva Writers’ Conference. I love travelling and I love writing so learning how to combine the two in the workshop led by Philip Graham was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. You can get a taste of Philip Graham’s travel writing here, where he describes the time he spent living in Lisbon.

Graham’s philosophy of writing is that “writers need to be humble, not pretentious. They have to recognise their own failings and empathise with the failings of others.” I thought this was a very important point, especially in travel writing where you have to be sensitive to the beliefs and the culture of the country you are describing.  As Graham pointed out, “you have to be humble ten times a day when you travel.”

He advised us to “capture the country and your feelings about it while you are there by making notes, writing letters to friends and taking photographs.” If you want to write about a country that you visited a long time ago, Graham suggested writing down your dreams as an exercise to help you recall details from past travels and write about them. (I have tried this exercise but it has resulted in some pretty gruesome reading. Last night, for example, I dreamed that I took out my own eyeball and ate it. I remember being surprised by the texture and also wondering idly if my eyeball would grow back. Just out of curiosity, I consulted an online dream dictionary and apparently, dreaming that you have only one eye symbolises your refusal to accept another viewpoint. This is obviously rubbish. I am very open to other viewpoints and anyone who believes this dream symbolism crap is an idiot.)

Once you have gathered together all your notes and materials, you need to be selective about what makes it into the final article. “Keep in the stuff that is important to you, that helped you on your inward journey. Good travel writing is about where you’ve been on the outside and where that takes you inside.” A reader who has not been to the country you are writing about will still be able to identify with what you have written if you make the piece personal and talk about how your experience affected you.   A lot of factual information makes for dry reading and will become dated but “people’s deep and profound reactions to the world will always be topical.”

Before I attended this workshop, I had been planning on writing a travel article for Hello Zurich magazine about a trip I had made to Liechtenstein. I was going to write a ‘straight’ article (take bus number 37 to the main square, climb the 42 stairs to your left to reach the castle…) but after attending the workshop, I took on board Graham’s advice and wrote a completely different piece interwoven with anecdotes about a friend who once plotted (not seriously, it was just a joke) to take over the tiny country. The article was much more interesting as a result and got published.

I’m preparing everything I need to pack for going to Russia now. I’m going to take two writing books with me so that I can make loads of notes while I’m there. I guess you may not hear from me for a couple of weeks but when I come back I will post a fantastic article about my travels so that you know what I have been up to!

Premises, Premises

Last weekend I attended another screenwriting course, this time from Screen Academy Scotland. It’s different from Screen Lab in that the focus is on the actual writing process, rather than on breaking into the industry. Our homework after the first day was to write a premise for a 10 minute film. (A premise consists of one or two sentences that capture the essential elements of the screenplay).

I had already been writing a short film script and decided to write a premise for that, which meant less work than if I had thought up the idea for a film and planned out the narrative from scratch. Nevertheless, the exercise still took me a couple of hours because we were given a strict limit of 35 words and I spent a lot of time trying to whittle down my sentences to get to the core idea of the film.

Here’s what I came up with:

Rebellious teenager, Alana, plans to escape from her controlling mother by running away with an unsuitable boy. A stumble stops Alana in her tracks but pushes her relationship with her mother in a new direction.

On the second day of the course we got into groups of four to workshop our premises, which was really helpful. In general we found in our group that the first sentences of the premises were bang-on in giving an idea of the protagonist, goal and antagonist. The second sentences were a bit vague because I think we were all unsure about how much of the story to give away. In my premise, “stumble” and “new direction” were highlighted as not being very clear.

An interesting bit of feedback that I got was that because my characters were recognisable (rebellious teenager and controlling mother), I would need less set up in the script to establish them, which is great for a short film.

The premises written by the other people in my group all had their own particular strong points and reading them helped me to see which elements were missing from my premise. One had a striking visual image, another a good sense of tone and character and the third had nailed the genre.

My short film is set in a seaside village and I wanted to use images of the open sea and fishing net to contrast the ideas of freedom and being trapped. I have not managed to convey this in the premise, nor have I given any hint of the humorous elements in the script. I don’t have a clue what the genre of my film is so I was never going to squeeze that in.

According to the handout we got in class, a good premise should contain information on genre, form, characters, antagonistic force, location and time and should raise an active question. Hard work to find the potent 35 word combination that will cover all of those points, but I think with practice you can get pretty close.

Our homework for the next course day is to write an outline for our short films. (The outline is a prose version of the screen narrative). Now that I am sitting down to do it, I have realised that with all the tweaking I did on the premise, it has departed a bit from the script that I was writing. I think the best thing to do now is to develop the outline from the premise, rather than use the script as my starting point. The characters I described in the premise are stronger and better defined than in the script anyway and by continually returning to my two sentence premise while writing the outline, I can keep the focus where it should be, on the mother/daughter conflict.