OPINION Kaite O’Reilly

NWR Issue r1

Shape-shifting and Skin-walking

Writers are shape-shifters and skin-walkers. We’re liars, able to take on stories, dialects, eras, perspectives, genders and species not our own and convincingly put words to it, credibly clothe the experience. We tell stories, raise questions, and hopefully provoke reactions. Writing, as psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker thrillingly describes it, is ‘a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind.’

Quite how this might be done effectively has generated thousands of books, courses, and an expanding industry. There are shared principles of storytelling, acknowledged commonalities in modes of verbal communication and even competitors on The X Factor seem cognoscente with their narrative arc or ‘journey so far’. So given all that, how easy is it to change form?

Artistically, I’m not cut out to be a monogamist. As a dramatist, I’ve found it fairly easy to change medium from live performance to radio to small screen. It’s a gear change, a flick of a sensorial switch to lead with a different faculty – storytelling in visuals or sound. But this is still a particular kind of storytelling, and one that failed when I first attempted to write long prose. What a complex, alien territory! I was praised for my dialogue (I’m a playwright, go figure…), but one reader said my prose was like being in a fog, a strange, undefined universe filled with richly animated voices and characters they understood, even if they didn’t know much about their appearance.

All this made me wonder if the form we become fluent in or are drawn to is intrinsically linked to the kind of person we are, and the perspective or view we take on the world.

I hated descriptions. I was bored with having to imagine what a character looked like (‘character is revealed by action,’ my inner dramaturg hissed) and I was far more interested in the dynamics and interactions in a room than noting its dimensions and interior décor. More importantly, I had no idea how novelists managed to keep control of the vastness of their material, while also somehow pushing the narrative along. The novel was a great continent, but I was of an island race. I struggled with the unwieldiness of 100 thousand words, used to holding an entire play in my head and mentally checking its throughlines, (in)consistencies and dramatic temperature by running through it, scene by scene, projected on the black box studio of my mind. This was impossible for the novel. New techniques, approaches, attitudes, and understanding were required. Changing form fascinated me.

As I started to get serious about other genres, I noticed writers established in one form were also embarking on experiments. Novelist and former broadcaster Clive James was writing poetry, poets Gillian Clark and Carol Ann Duffy were writing for theatre (although the poet laureate was brisk about this enterprise in an interview with The Guardian: 'I’m no playwright… my heart was always elsewhere....’) I was also surprised to find poets and novelists cropping up in my masterclasses in writing for live performance. Whilst working with them, dramaturgically I started seeing patterns emerge – the same areas of difficulty seeming to arise for exponents of the same form.

For novelists, this has invariably been ‘show, don’t tell’, to edit and seek economy, ensuring every word works hard for its right to be there, and contributes to the whole. ‘After writing a few novels, where the bagginess and capaciousness of the form allows you to include pretty much anything you like, turning to plays and screenplays has been about learning to be lean and seeing structure as your friend (a lesson I have learned reluctantly, and not without putting up a struggle),’ Jon Gower admitted.

As he was ‘learning to be lean,’ I was encouraging poets to ‘fatten-up’ – to expand and create more content, plot (ie ‘story’), and inner/outer action. Their scripts frequently focused on the immediate moment rather than the dynamics of cause and effect, and were observational if not philosophical in tone, more about inner shifts and dilemmas than external events.

This reflection seemed to chime with poet and translator George Szirtes’ assertion that there are two essential instincts in engaging with the world through language: ‘The first is the cry of encounter linked to the desire to name; the second is the evaluation of options as a result of the encounter.’ Or in other words: poem and story. In his essay Szirtes contrasts Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ with Kipling’s story ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ The poem doesn’t tell a story but ignites the imagination, placing a burning presence there, whereas the story doesn’t linger on presence except as an aspect of consequence.

For drama, consequential action is key – as is change, and conflict – elements some of the poets I have worked with find challenging in their scripts. To them I quote the old GB Shaw adage: ‘no conflict: no drama.’

All this made me wonder if the form we become fluent in or are drawn to is intrinsically linked to the kind of person we are, and the perspective or view we take on the world. I asked poet Chris Kinsey why the dramatic imperative of conflict appeared to come less immediately to her than me when writing for performance. ‘I think I always tend to look for connections, commonalities, similarities, sympathies rather than difference and discord,’ she told me. ‘I don't like anything that comes across as manipulative or over-determined or "has designs" in the sense of wants to put over a 'message'. Messages are usually crass… I love happenstance, found things, chance meetings and sightings and am invigorated by them…. Poetry is about energy exchange between writer and reader/listener. Good art is symbiotic and synergistic.’

I agree, and would apply Kinsey’s definition of what poetry is about to live performance: Theatre is about the relationship between the spectacle and the spectator. It is a communal act, ephemeral, ever-changing.

Again, we have shared principles and agreements, but with the alterations necessary for the form and its audience (an audience of one for the novel, radio drama, and printed poetry; for live performance, an audience of many). We all make our work with the same tools, and perhaps we change form to explore these new audiences or markets, or to extend our repertoire and specialism. Occasionally, too, we experiment for what it may tell us about our original form.

Earlier this year Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch participated in a Writing for Theatre and Performance masterclass I led at Tŷ Newydd, in preparation for her ACW Creative Wales Award. The experience, she writes, ‘changed my relationship both to how I write and how I read… I wanted to challenge myself, to see how working with a group of playwrights for a week might impact on my own work, to see the writing of poetry through new eyes, the eyes of the playwright.’ The experience made her question her practice. ‘I had to reassess the boundaries of the text I was writing: was this a poem or was it something else? If it was a poem, what made it a poem? I started to analyse what the line-break is for: what is its function? What is it restraining and why? What is it signposting? By day five of the course I found myself writing to the end of the line. It’s a place I’ve never reached (and I’ve no idea if I’ll ever get back there again). It was a scary experience, to find myself walking, tiptoeing that bit further along the page without anything to hold onto, no scaffolding, no stabilisers: what happens if I fall? Where will I fall to?’

By experimenting with form, Wynne-Rhydderch is in the process of reinvigorating her own practice. Although daunting, she is confident ‘this journey of exploration will be every bit as exciting as the destination.’

My own began when I won the third Ted Hughes Award for new works in poetry. Aside from my initial disbelief (‘But I can’t win. I’m a playwright, not a poet.’), it challenged me to reconsider the text I create and its form. Since then I have been on a voyage reevaluating the relationship between what we write, its structures, audience, reception, and what it reveals about writing, an obsession which will continue beyond the necessary limits for this article.

Kaite O’Reilly writes across form, but identifies most keenly as a playwright and dramaturg. @kaiteoreilly website


previous opinion: Alastair Reid, Fiction Fiesta and 'a species of make-believe'
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