A journey

So, I haven't written for a while. Actually, that's not true. I'm always writing (see post about my OCD) but I haven't posted anything. I've been pretty busy. Teaching, marking, plotting, scribbling, collaborating and lots of other busy 'ing' ending words...plus I've dyed my hair which I think makes me look more interesting but has wreaked havoc on my bedding and clothing. This summer, I will be mostly wearing magenta!

I've also been taking the opportunity afforded by the long summer break to meet up with my brother to hash out some ideas around community film and theatre, and get some performing tips. It's been fun trying some new stuff and also reflecting on some old pieces. The video clip above is of me reading an excerpt from a poem I wrote a couple years back shortly after I arrived in Bristol. I used to work in Southmead and Lockleaze and would get the bus through St Paul's. It was quite a lonely time in my life and in an attempt to entertain myself and lift my mood, I would listen to the conversations of other travelers and spy on them from the back of the bus. I would try and imagine what their lives were like, and create mini dramas around them in my head. Sorry, that's just the way my mind works...so beware! I loved listening to these snippets, and with many of the participants hailing from the Caribbean, I would draw a strange comfort from their familiar tones, even when the dialogue was seemingly negative. I wrote 16 poems based on those journeys and I've promised myself I will publish them this year in some form.

Anyway, it was interesting to visit Muller Road last week again with Marcus and to reflect on how much has changed in my personal and professional life in the past 4 years. It was telling that I introduced the area to him as one now familiar with its streets. I can't say that I'm fully fledged Bristolian, but I am definitely less Bradfordian than I used to be. 

Happy Birthday

So today it's my birthday. Right now, I'm sat in a cafe, bowl of tomato soup cooling to my left, iPhone on charge (please work!) to my right, chocolate delights blocking my eye line, calling me, calling me. 

This morning, my son threw a wobbly when it was suggested that he might want to sing 'Happy Birthday' to me. He didn't. After all, his birthday is coming soon and he's not one to share the limelight. But if you can't stamp your feet and act like a two year old when you're two, then you're not really maximising your opportunities I say. Stomp away, son. 

I'm at home for a whole week now before I return to Coventry to see the final four performances of Red Snapper. I got home yesterday morning and kicked off my shoes, laying under a blanket for most of the day. My body is so tired and yet my mind is buzzing, as are my fingers, keen to write lists, form dialogue and sketch out some of the images that have taken residence in my head over the past couple of days. Here's a snapshot of my thoughts and diary:

Sat 5th March – Yes, it's arrived – the first preview of Red Snapper! I can't stop shaking. Why am I shaking? Can't change anything now. And wouldn't anyway even if I could. Just need Bruce back with me now. 

Sun 6th March – I feel like I'm floating. So pleased! It's pretty surreal to watch something that I've been carrying for two years actually being played out. I mouthed every word during the preview – I know the story so well (obviously) but it's a different thing completely to hear those words on someone else's lips. Just written an outline for a new play... need to reconnect with my South Asian buddies up in Bradford before I go off on a tangent on this one...but feel free to message me if you have any stories to share around forced marriage.

Mon 7th March, 9am – In Bradford with my precious Mum. Just done a mini tour of Canterbury, the council estate where I lived as a child. Wow, it hurt me to see how it looked, after decades of investment and supposed progress. We really need to help each other, people. Mum and I left to visit the elders at the Mary Secole Centre. Saw my Auntie Amy along with several other beloved elders and had some interesting conversations about pain medication, feisty pickney, the punishing rain up north and immigration. Told them about a storytelling project I want to do this summer and arranged to return in May with my Mum, camera and mic. 

7.45pm – Second preview about to start and I feel excited and nervous at the same time. Shouldn't have eaten all that food yesterday...Bruce!!!! So much for being a vegan ally! Time to undo a button and enjoy the performance. 

12 midnight – Getting into bed and feeling satisfied, but thinking about how many stories still need to be told... Red Snapper could have been several shows, truth be told. Am I fixated on the Caribbean? Someone asked me earlier if I only want to write black stories. Hmmm... I just think of them as stories. Is Jane Eyre a white story?

3am – Yes I do have a fixation with the Caribbean. I'm dreaming of Jamaica. I can smell it, I feel high.

Tue 8th – Press night is over and I'm good. Met so many great people tonight and the selfies I took were pretty well focussed! Plus I looked awesome in my new shirt and kicks... no really, I did. Hope people enjoyed the play – initial feedback seems positive and my own measure of success has been satisfied – people started sharing their own stories with me and with each other. Love it when theatre is more than entertainment, when it causes the audience to explore their own thoughts and lives and bias and pain. Love it when people start to confess (one guy told me tonight that his family were slave owners in the past and he feels so bad about it) and create their own endings – the 'what if' scenario. Lots of eff words used to sum up the emotion people were feeling. One guy from Birmingham just shook my hand and shouted 'Fierce!' Loads of people asking about my next piece, Back Home, which is about sexuality and human rights in Jamaica. Again contact me if you have stories to share.

Wed 9th – Arrived back in Bristol and kicked off my shoes. Picked up my notebook and read. Five fresh ideas for plays. One new project started. Loads of emails to respond to. New friends and allies to appreciate and link up with. 

Finished my soup now. Phone still flat. Off to buy some notebooks. And chocolate. It's the right thing to do.

 

Liberated

Today was hard core. I had to face the prospect of editing my beloved script. I felt borderline traumatised at the start of the process and exhausted by the end. But now that it’s done, I feel strangely liberated. 

Words are important. We know that. Every word I wrote in my script meant something to me. And today made me realise how important it is to remember who the words were written for. The words that get spoken on the stage are for the audience. I want them to get the story, to enjoy it, to mull it over. If it’s not too audacious to say so, I want them to leave changed, if only in some small way.  If something can be said with fewer words, without losing the message, then so be it. But the script in its various drafts was also written for me, to empty myself of certain thoughts, unvoiced conversations, anxieties and blows. There are words of affection, brutality and connivance that will not be seen now following my hatchet job. However, nothing is wasted. I wrote the words and discharged a burden in the process. The final version of the script is better for the cull and I’ve learnt an important lesson about letting go and choosing when to fight and when to submit to greater experience.

The cuts will now star in a future work.  

The learning curve

What I’ve learnt about myself in the past 12 months. And what I’ve learnt about writing.

Whenever I sit down to write, I’m aware that I’m wearing two hats…that of playwright and the one I put on when I’m teaching. Even as I type this, I’m thinking, ‘Is my grammar correct? Will people be judging me on my sentence structure, use of vocabulary, my punctuation?’ The truth is, I’m quite a lazy writer by nature. Scratch that, lazy is wrong – I’m pretty damn industrious but in terms of approach, you could say I’m laid back. Yep, that’s better. And add scatty. But it’s never hindered me. Let me explain.

Some people know that I’ve got OCD. Not in the ‘Oh man, I’m really OCD about cleaning,  can’t stand to go to bed without washing up’ kind of way. I mean the real one, that makes you worry about routines and rituals and what will happen if you break them. It’s not fun, but after 30 years, I know how to manage my life in way that avoids meltdowns. Most of the time. I like to think of myself as a high-functioning basket case, an image I love. Baskets are woven from stiff material and are great at carrying all manner of things. That’s me.

But I never realised how much my struggles with health would inform not just the content of my writing, but also my approach. People sometimes talk about how cathartic writing can be, which I definitely agree with. I started writing aged 8 at the start of my journey with anxiety. I used to express my feelings in rambling poems and stories, finding comfort in the solid structure of rhyme. I enjoyed reading fantasy novels (I loved the Hobbit and first read the Lord of the Rings when I was 9) and would spend hours alone with a pad and pen creating my own fantastical characters and worlds. At other times, I would just write lists – my favourite songs, places I wanted to visit, words that made me feel happy. This is a habit I continue today and have notebook upon notebook of lists and ideas. I’ll have to share some of them one day.

Some of the lines from Red Snapper came from these notebooks. The Patois Manifesto came from a poem I’d started writing about human rights, back in early 2013. One of Myrtle’s rants is almost word for word one of my own rants, scribbled in pencil during a difficult time in late 2014, when I was particularly unwell and walking on crutches for several weeks. And some of the silly food references were brain-dumps I did when I was having crazy thoughts just before I started Critical Mass. Now they’re lines in the mouths of some brilliant characters and I chuckle whenever I hear them read. 

So what have a learnt in the past 12 months, that I perhaps didn’t know or believe before?

  • I can finish things
  • My words can make a difference
  • Beauty can emerge from chaos
  • Every draft has a purpose
  • Notes are as important as the finished piece
  • Criticism can be an awesome tool for growth
  • A play is still a play even if it’s not performed
  • Editing can be fun
  • Editing with cake is more funner
  • It’s okay to make words up