Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted

It’s been a strange year. The break up of a relationship for which I had reasonably high hopes. A dose of medication (for a seemingly innocuous nasal complaint) that sent me hurtling into my darkness, brakes off, no handrails. Work pressure and deadlines that kept me awake at night despite the nature of the job itself; certainly no lives were being saved. And worse than any of this – horribly, terrifyingly worse – the news that a friend’s cancer had returned and that her life would be over sooner than any of us – least of all her husband and their young daughters – were expecting.*

But amidst those fierce flames, there was something, planted by my dying friend. The realisation that I need to keep reminding myself that whatever life has thrown at me, I am still here. And the ‘here’ that I inhabit isn’t at all bad.

Sure, I’m not  anybody’s favourite – no one loves me best – but I still have wonderful friends with whom to grab a spontaneous drink, or spend a well-planned evening or short break. Sure, my job can be stressful but it’s interesting, and it pays me pretty well; and because I’m not saving lives, just editing words, I’ve adjusted my reactions to the stresses that the job brings. I try to remember the mantra I have used on and off for years when managing colleagues’ own stresses and worries: Nobody dies.

Instead of retreating to my default position of sadness and self-pity when thinking about parts of my life, I now concentrate on what I do have. It’s simple enough. It’s what many people do every day and yet my tendency to depression has often made this a challenge. But now I make a conscious effort to hoodwink the negative sides of my mental health; I work on reducing the doubts and the sadnesses, acknowledging their existence and then replacing them with an open laptop, a book, music, a film, a play, a gig, and human diversion if it’s possible and available.

So, I cherish my rented flat more than ever, planning ways to make it even nicer than it is. I curl up on the sofa or in my armchair and I read like it’s the last day that books will be on earth.

I visit the park near my home. I’ve done this a lot – it’s on my doorstep and is great for showing off the dinosaurs and the lake and the little zoo to visitors. But I realise that although I look at it, I rarely see it. So of late I have taken to immersing myself in Private Passions or Desert Island Discs or Witness, and walking and running around the park, stopping to see my surroundings, eyes open, head up. If it’s a quiet weekend, I might do this more than once a day. It gives me exercise, fresh air and hope. It takes me out of my head, a place I tend to spend more time than is always good for me.

I go on holidays – alone and with friends, for writing or resting or sightseeing; in July I travelled three times in the space of two weeks. I  went shopping and pub-crawling and walking in Dublin with a friend; swimming and reading alone in Dubrovnik. I ended the month with friends in their village near Dusseldorf, playing with their brilliant and boisterous six-year-old. And in between these trips, at home in London, I wrote the second draft of my screenplay. And then I booked a boutique B&B in Howarth for the day after my September birthday, in readiness for draft three.

‘My producer’ – R – and I met the week before my birthday to go over draft two. I knew I had achieved a lot of what he had suggested during discussions of the previous draft. I’d developed some scenes and characters, clarified the plot. I had formatted the script using the proper software. I was behaving like a Professional Screenwriter. But I had ignored other pieces of advice in favour of my original scenes; I thought I had failed to consider properly some minor elements of structure and the role of some of the characters.

And then there we were, outside Nike Town, Oxford Circus. We hugged hello. Then he gave me another hug, because ‘you have an excellent screenplay. One more pass and it’s ready.’ I was speechless. We went to a nearby bar for celebratory cocktails. I drank a Martini Royale, because it seemed apt for the period in which the film is set – the mid-1960s. He fired up a fancy piece of equipment and we went through his script notes. It was mostly positive: some great women characters; I’m apparently good with voices and have a gift for dialogue; the script is moving and funny.

I allowed myself then, as I do here, a semi-humble glow. Semi-humble because I was and still am genuinely surprised and thrilled, but also really, really pleased to be validated by someone who knows what he’s talking about, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t sing about that.

Whilst contemplating our cocktails we looked over the PDF of the screenplay for his comments, and he developed his criticisms. I have an occasional tendency for clumsy exposition; I’ve written ‘the worst scene header’ he has ever read (I’m oddly proud of that); there are ‘too many scenes of DD in nightclubs’ (what? There can never be enough scenes of DD in nightclubs, in my view). He gave me advice, the kind a writer can really act on – to do a series of different ‘passes’ through the script, reading it for different reasons. I have to do a DD pass (resituating this particular character, an act that will also allow me to develop her relationship with the central character and therefore illuminate more aspects of his life). Then there’s the KA pass, making sure that a previously tricky character, one that I had finally ‘got right’, was serving a significant part of the plot. I must do the DB and AF pass, to check that their relationship is cemented, not by adding extra scenes but by ensuring that what does take place between them tells us what we need to know about their life together, and helps to explain the actions of DB.

There are a couple of structural issues to deal with. I rarely find this kind of thing easy, but this time I have a solid base upon which to work, with a currently successful approach to the interweaving of the current and the past.

And so here I am, in Haworth by way of Leeds and Keighley. I have a view of the Bronte parsonage from my window; the moors upon which I take a morning run and an afternoon walk spread out before me like butter, as far as the eye can see. On my first run I listened to Joan Bakewell’s Desert Island Discs. Harold Pinter makes a brief appearance in my screenplay, so listening to Bakewell discuss her affair with him was useful and interesting. She also spoke with passion about ageing and being open to ‘friendships’ (in response to a question about romantic relationships). I’ve always liked her but she became a beacon to me during the course of the show: smart, wise, sensible; a life of the brain and the emotions, lived fully. Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy accompanied me to and from Hebden Bridge. I took the bus up to Heptonstall with the obvious intention of finding Sylvia Plath’s grave. My first mistake was going into the wrong cemetery. I could have looked it up before I visited, but part of me was cherishing the idea of walking amongst the graves and happening upon Sylvia like a longed-for accident.

Instead of relying on the internet, I spoke to my friend Kellye, who visited the grave earlier this year, and she sent photos to guide me. This led me to the correct location, and from there it was easy to find Sylvia. I gasped a little, let a few tears fall, thought about Sylvia and what drove her to this tiny, overgrown grave, with its long dead bunch of red roses strewn across it, at the position where I imagined her belly would be. I thought about my mum and my dad, the dead in my own life. And I let my hand move over the name and the inscription and I let the words seep into my head.

And I came back to Haworth – and I’ll go back to London – to live again in my writing. And it’s where I’ll stay, because it’s something I will always have. Something permanent amongst the necessary and inevitable temporariness of sylvialife.

 

*Updated on 9 January 2016. Isabelle made it through a low-key but lovely Christmas at home with her husband, their twin girls and her parents. They were all there when Isabelle died on 3 January.

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What we love

CUT TO:

Montage:

INT – VARIOUS HOTEL ROOMS – DAY/EVENING:

A woman in her mid-40s. She looks surprisingly youthful for her age, and immediately we recognise her as someone we want to be or be with: aside from her obvious beauty, we just know, we can tell, that she is clever and funny and kind. This is JACKIE. She is shown in a variety of hotel rooms. In an armchair, on a sofa, on a bed, at a desk. Laptop open, sometimes tapping away, sometimes staring out of the window at the sea or a river, notebooks strewn, half-empty glasses of wine in some shots. Walking around, distracted, looking at Facebook, emails, texts. She examines her face in the mirror. She paints her toenails.

JACKIE (V/O)

I love my writing retreats. For the last couple of years I’ve been heading to British cities to write – mostly to work on my short story collection, but of late to work on the screenplay based on the short story I wrote about Dirk Bogarde.

I’d had the thrill of the original request to write the screenplay; the wine-fuelled, excited meetings, me and Robert, our words tumbling over each other as we imagined it, talking about meaning and inner life, and subtext and themes, considering our dream cast.

I’d had the slightly more prosaic schedule of what to do, and when to do it.

CUT TO:

INT – LIVING ROOM – DAY

JACKIE sits staring at the schedule. We can see a picture of Dirk Bogarde on the top. JACKIE is smiling. We can make out the words in one column: January – write screenplay. We can see out of the window and can tell from the weather that it’s summer.

CUT TO:

INT – LIVING ROOM – DAY

JACKIE sits staring at the schedule. She is no longer smiling. We can see out of the window and can see from the weather that it’s winter.

 JACKIE (V/O)

Looking at that schedule months after receiving it, I was faced with how little I’d done. How I’d struggled with the first set of tasks that preceded the writing of the script. And this was because I was thinking too far ahead, too much in the future; seeing the bigger picture rather than trying to focus on how to get to that; trying to take that massive leap to the end rather than the necessary small steps that comprised the journey.

In the end it came down to this: if I don’t do it, if I let this chance pass me by, if I let another year come and go…

I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself.

CUT TO:

 INT- LIVERPOOL HOTEL ROOM – NIGHT

JACKIE is hunched over her laptop. It’s not going well.

JACKIE (V/O)

Last December, I spent a few days in Liverpool struggling with the film treatment. It’s supposed to demonstrate the structure of the film, scene by scene. I sent something to my producer, and met with him to discuss it.

CUT TO:

INT – MEXICAN RESTAURANT – EVENING

JACKIE and ROBERT are downing mojitos and gorging on tacos and guacamole. A pen and notebook lay between them on the crowded table.

ROBERT

I get the sense that plot isn’t your strong point.

JACKIE

Oh, that’s brutal.

ROBERT

It’s true though, isn’t it?

JACKIE (nods)

Yeah. Yeah. At least you said it with kindness.

ROBERT

So, this is what I’m going to do…

CUT TO:

INT- TRAIN – NIGHT

ROBERT is on the train to Manchester, scribbling away, occasionally looking at his reflection in the train window. Every now and then he looks at JACKIE’s treatment and  sighs.

JACKIE (V/O)

Robert went away with my story and my ideas and what passed for my treatment, and he created a structure to the film that made sense of what I wanted to do. This strucure, based in part on what I had started, but going much further than that, helped me to solve the problem of how to turn this little story into a feature film, with all its necessary character and plot developments and changes.

CUT TO:

Montage of red carpet ceremonies in LA and London. JACKIE appears on red carpet at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAS and the Oscars. We see her laughing with Brad Pitt, who looks clearly besotted with her. George Clooney tries to get her attention. Mark Ruffalo clearly finds her hilarious. She is seen locked in intense coversation with Cate Blanchett and Todd Haynes. We see her rejecting the mani-cam with a withering look. Lipreaders can tell that in answer to ‘Who are you wearing?’ she replies, ‘I’m not wearing a person. I’m wearing a dress. I also wrote a whole screenplay, although I did have some help from a man. Do you want to ask about him?’

JACKIE (V/O)

Yes – awards season came around and I spent too long planning my Oscar/Bafta/Golden Globes acceptance speeches, and not enough time writing. And so I thought, if I don’t do this, if I let this chance pass me by, if I let another year come and go….

CUT TO:

INT- HOTEL ROOM – MORNING

JACKIE sits at a table in her hotel room. There’s a real difference to her approach here. She is focused. There’s no internet action. She is looking at notes, scribbling things out, typing them into a screenplay, consulting one of the many pages marked with notes in one of Dirk’s autobiographies. She drinks water and eats fruit.

JACKIE (V/O)

It’s Easter weekend and I’m in Glasgow. A bafflingly sunny Easter. A swim in the hotel pool, breakfast, and then writing like it was My Job. Several hours of ‘INT – PUB – EVE’ and ‘EXT – PARK – DAY’ before walking and sightseeing and eating and more writing. Yes, like it was My Job.

I had notes, I had the treatment, I had the pages I’d already worked on. I went through the story again, through Robert’s notes, through my own. Whenever I added a scene from the treatment, it was crossed off one of the many pages I was working from. I’d start writing something based on a single line of description, sometimes not sure where it was going or what I wanted to achieve. Then I’d give Dirk a line to say. Then someone else would speak. Dirk would reply. I was writing the conversations and scenes required to illuminate the plot and characters; fleshing out the situations; taking the parallel plots forward. But there was more to it than that. I was creating and developing these characters through how they acted, what they said and – importantly – what they didn’t say.

For other scenes I’d know exactly what I needed to achieve. Sometimes it was as straightforward as the requirement to produce a plot point, get us from A to B, show something that was essential to a later part of the film. Other times it was the more abstract necessity to demonstrate sub-textual feelings, metaphor, the less tangible elements of character and situation.

I had a system to show me where the structure was unbalanced, where to add a  scene, how to make links between situations and feelings from the past and those occuring in the present.

I left Glasgow with over 60 pages of script and nearly every scene crossed off my treatment. Then back home in London I made it to just over 70 pages. And then I sent it off. And I waited. And I waited.

CUT TO:

INT – FLAT – EVENING

JACKIE looks at her phone. There’s an email from Robert: ‘Received screenplay. Will read as soon as possible….’

CUT TO:

INT – FLAT – DAY

JACKIE looks at her phone. There’s a text from Robert: ‘Sorry I haven’t finished reading it yet, I’ve been preparing for Cannes.’

CUT TO:

INT – FLAT – DAY

Another text. This one lights up her face at first, and then she clearly starts to worry: ‘Speak to you tomorrow evening about DIRK? Would 8 be ok?’

JACKIE (V/O)

And then. And then…

CUT TO:

INT – OFFICE – MORNING

JACKIE is at her day job, the morning after ROBERT has arranged to talk to her about the screenplay. Her desk is a mess. She looks at her computer, at the work for the day ahead. Her phone flashes. There’s another message from Robert. It says: ‘You’ve done a great job. Looking fwd to speaking later.’ The relief washes over her face.

JACKIE (V/O)

And we did speak. We talked for an hour and a half. He started with the good stuff – his positive views on the characterisation, on some particularly good scenes, on the dialogue. We talked about who might play the main roles and we got excited and spirited (and yet again I refused even to consider Oscar Isaac). And then we talked about the strucure (still too much of a mosaic in places, leaving scenes too early); about a character whose part in the film is more significant than in the story, and who needs to have his role more defined; about some of the good stuff that needs to be made very good, brilliant, in fact. He thinks I can do that. He’s still cheerleading for me.

I was with him on all of it. There were no suprises in the criticisms. Just some very constructive, very useful advice on how to improve individual scenes, reveal characters, foreshadow events. Some homework to help me solve a key problem. The promise of more detailed feedback and help with formatting. Practical stuff. And the quote of the night: “Jackie, it’s very clear from reading this script that you’ve never seen ‘Our Mother’s House’.”

FIN

Credits: Images and text reveal what the characters are up to now.

Image of Jackie sitting at her desk, laptop open, index cards of scenes stuck on the wall in front of her.

Text: Jackie is currently avoiding working on the second draft until she ‘gets, like, some more detailed written feedback’. But she has clarified some stuff about this newly significant character.

Image of Robert on a yacht in Cannes.

Text: Robert has been in Cannes where he’s been pitching the idea and ignoring Jackie’s advice to look down the back of a millionaire’s sofa for the loose change that would finance the film. He knows best. That sounds sarcastic and it’s not meant to be. He really does know best.

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My old man

I first came across Ted Kessler’s My Old Man in July 2013 when my friend Jude Rogers was asked to write about her father. It seemed like something I’d be interested in doing. Those of you who read this blog are mostly people who know me, and know about my dad. Know how it’s shaped me. Know how it informs a lot of what I write.

I contacted Ted who replied that I should send something whenever I was ready. ‘Just make it honest and clear,’ he wrote to me.

In December 2014, prompted by Jude’s lovely piece about her own dad, I finally got around to it. ‘If you think it’s got potential,’ I wrote to Ted, ‘let me know and I can edit it. If not, at least I’ve written it for myself, and that’s a good thing.’ It was stuff I’d written about before, anyway, in various guises, both fictional and non-fictional, but it felt good to focus on him again.

Ted’s reply was swift and encouraging: ‘Good things come to those who wait. That’s tremendous. Not a dry eye in the house. No changes or edits required, of course. I’d be very glad to run it.’

And so he did.

When it appeared it made me gasp, laugh and then have a little weep at my desk. My dad died well before the age of the Internet. Seeing his face so large on a computer screen,  smiling in that ridiculous bonnet, was both joyful and moving.

Within hours of it going up, Ted was telling me that his followers on Twitter were commenting on it, that the editor of Time Out New York, herself the author of a tremendous entry on the site, had tweeted, ‘I can’t really breathe after reading this piece’, and that comment was followed by others, all flattering and  positive. Even a Guardian journalist was tweeting about it. Ted’s Facebook page, where he posted a link to the site, was accompanied by compliments that made me catch my breath. Strangers from across the world were reading about my dad, were moved by my dad’s story, were saying lovely things about him and my writing. ‘They’re all heartfelt,’ Ted assured me. ‘These people don’t always comment. And two of them are writers.’

Writers know how much that means to other writers.

It’s bittersweet, that feeling of pride about my dad and my work, knowing that the only reason I could write what I wrote in the way that I did was because he left my life when I was so young. So Ted’s site is an amazing gift to people like me. It offers a place for people to share their memories of their fathers: absent fathers, lost fathers, dead fathers, present fathers. Fathers in all their glory and all their bad behaviour. Fathers who tried and failed, or tried and succeeded. Fathers who didn’t try at all. Fathers who are loved or hated, celebrated or condemned. We’ve all got one or had one, even if we didn’t know him; even if he didn’t deserve being called a dad.

My dad did deserve the title, and if you read what I wrote I hope you can see that shining through. It was tempting to make a point at the end about how I try not to back out of emotional relationships because of fear of loss, how I’ve struggled with that, how he managed to keep putting himself back out there despite what he went through and so should I. But I knew that would make it all about me, and it’s not all about me.

It’s his story. I just told it, is all.

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On my Wavelength

Lycra cycling shorts not shown.

Lycra cycling shorts not shown.

This is an unusual post for this site. It’s not about me reading, and it’s not really about me writing, unless you count a mini-obituary in this category. And why not?

On August 10th, Jim Hillier died. He was one of the first proper film scholars of the latter half of the 20th century. He wrote and edited a huge volume of books and articles. He brought film education into the mainstream as he helped to make it a subject to be taken seriously in schools, colleges and universities. And he taught me for the last two years of my undergraduate degree, where he famously wore cycling shorts to lectures, seminars and tutorials (where several pairs could be found hanging over the backs of chairs in his office). He taught me about Independent American Cinema of the 1960s onwards.  He taught me that cinema was of the world, not just Hollywood (although he did have a soft spot for musicals and film noir). He taught me about avant-garde and experimental cinema –  how artists use film, how stories can be told in non-traditional ways. But most of all he taught me to open my eyes, to look up and out, to embrace a different cinematic experience.

He helped me to get a place on a post-grad film course at Goldsmiths, which I couldn’t take up due to my poverty, but his generosity in providing me with films and talking through ideas to help shape them into something of my own, and watching over me as I edited material into an alternative narrative of women in film, is still astonishing to me, all these years later. He was less kind when trying to foist peppermint tea on me during discussions in his office. He turned up to a 1970s-themed party held by me and my housemates in cycling shorts and white t-shirt. We made him wear a kipper tie. The photographic evidence still makes me smile.

Most of the films he screened have stayed with me, for reasons both good and bad. Some were brilliant. Some were, er, challenging. I was bewitched by Celine and Julie Go Boating (storming out of the screening because NO ONE else liked it and people were HAVING CONVERSATIONS ACROSS ME; I had to wait years to see it again in its entirety) and Daisies – these alternative expressions of women in cinema unlike pretty much anything I had ever seen. My eyes have not yet recovered, more than twenty years on, from seeing Stan Brakhage’s wife give birth to her first and third children, or from Carolee Schneemann and her lover getting it on. With added cat. [Warning: most of this stuff is Not Safe for Work. And yet it was considered Safe for Study, although within a couple of years of me seeing it, the Schneemann film was held hostage at customs.] I saw my first Warhol (and cherished a favourite story from my mum: in the early 1970s the BBC screened one of Warhol’s films, and it came with a stark warning about its sexually explicit content. My mum and dad tuned in and pretty much immediately turned off. Having seen Couch, I can see why). I was introduced to Claudia Weill, Sally Potter and Chantal Akerman. The Bruces Bailey and Connor. Sam Peckinpah and Bob Rafelson and Jonathan Demme. I saw Adebar and Schwechater, both alienating and absorbing. I watched seagulls fly in and out, in and out, in and out of the frame (a piece of work the Internet appears to be unaware of). I watched a film wherein 45 of the 79 minutes of running time is made up of someone baking a strudel. Man, I’ve seen it all.

When I started teaching Jim gave me a copy of A Question of Silence to see me through a Women and Cinema module. That opened a lot of eyes. It’s one of the things I am proudest of and most grateful for in the whole of my teaching career.

But there are two filmmakers and their works that I most associate with Jim. The first is John Cassavetes. I accidentally saw A Woman Under the Influence on TV one holiday period during my studies. My mum watched it with me (as a fan of Peter Falk’s Columbo and of Cassavetes as actor). We followed it with Husbands when it was screened as part of the same season. On talking to Jim about this he lent me a documentary on the director, which I also watched with my mum – one of the few non-Hitchcock pieces of art that we could share. (This is the woman who fell asleep at the theatre when I forced her to see Uncle Vanya, after all.) Cassavetes has remained one of my favourite directors, and I spent much of the summer of 1992, when I first moved back to London and independence, watching his films at the ICA and lying in St James’s Park writing love letters on the back of Cassavetes postcards to my then boyfriend.

The other filmmaker is Michael Snow. We watched only one of his films (though we were told about others by former students, specifically <—>, also known as Back and Forth, infamous for causing nausea in its viewers). Wavelength is a 45-minute zoom into a far wall. Nothing much happens. A man appears in the frame some way ahead and drops to the floor. There might be a woman with long hair. I can’t remember and I don’t want YouTube to interfere with the purity of my memory of the experience of that film. The soundtrack is a cacophony of ear-assaulting industrial noise. People walked out. It caused uproar in seminar discussions. Someone said to Jim, ‘I thought that when it got to the wall it was going to zoom out again for 45 minutes.’

Jim said, ‘Then it would have been my perfect film.’

At his funeral last week I said to my old head of department, ‘I can’t help wishing the ceremony was 45 minutes long, then they could have just shown Wavelength’. It was the first of many laughs we had that day remembering Jim Hillier.

I’ve remembered him some more here. Or below, if you don’t want to read what everyone else is saying, too.

So, maybe it is still me reading – reading films, reading their scratches and found footage, and alternative editing systems and different ways of telling stories. And writing – about this brilliant and kind and inspirational man. It’s easy to say someone changed your life. It gets said so often that it seems like a disposable phrase. But your time at university is life-changing. Or it should be. I recently told a friend that I was a different person when I left university, but that wasn’t quite what I meant. Thinking about Jim I realise that for many reasons, Jim Hillier among them, what was inside me waiting to be released was given an outlet at university. I was the same person when I left. I was still me, only more so.

When I first encountered Jim Hillier I had hardly seen anything other than mainstream Hollywood films and a handful of Wajda (not that there’s anything wrong with that). By the end of my time with him I’d  watched someone spend 45 minutes baking a strudel; seen a camera lens zoom into a far wall over the course of 45 minutes accompanied by a ghastly whining soundtrack; blushed my way through Carolee Schneemann and her lover, and Stan Brakhage’s wife and her newborns. I’d seen films as short as 30 seconds and as long as three-plus hours. Films made from found footage, scratched and personalised by their makers; films where women floated on boats for hours. I’d also seen Sam Peckinpah, Claudia Weill, Sally Potter, Andy Warhol, Jonathan Demme. Jim opened my eyes to the way cinema  could work when it didn’t want to tell its stories in traditional ways, when it wanted to wear its artfulness on its sleeve.

The range of material Jim exposed his students to was legendary. He once came out of his office to beg me to stop telling innocent first years that they had Un chant d’amour (and all that that entailed) waiting for them in Year 3. But it was his excitement for the films, his passion for them, his knowledge of them and the way he encouraged us to confront such a different cinematic experience that was more legendary. And the sharing did not stop in class. He loaned me his precious VHS copy of a John Cassavetes documentary when he learned that I had seen one of his films on TV and been bewitched by it. I watched it with my mum, who knew Cassavetes only as an actor, but became fascinated with how he worked with his team (including her beloved Columbo!) during the course of watching the documentary. She’s no longer with me, but the memory of Jim’s part in one of the few cultural events my mum and I could share has never gone.

I began teaching A Level Film Studies a year after graduating, and Jim was the Chief Examiner (later becoming my centre’s moderator). As a result, he had a handle on exactly how I was doing in the classroom. We met regularly at INSET days; I tapped him for film resources and advice on whether I could really teach this film under that specification. At no point did he ever make me feel like I couldn’t do the job. He treated this rookie with the greatest professional respect, as if I was his equal. For someone who didn’t expect to do A Levels, or go to university, let alone become a lecturer, this was the greatest and most generous gift he could have given me.

The last time I saw him was at a book launch in Oxford. I spent the time before he got there looking over my shoulder for him and ran squealing towards him when he arrived. We talked and talked until he had to leave. We had the most fun of anyone there, I’ll bet.

Thanks Jim.

 

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The Lone Surfer

Ventnor. The Wellington Hotel. High above the shore. A room with a balcony facing the sea, rocky coastline either side of me. It’s Sunday morning, a little after 8. I’m standing at the balcony windows contemplating the slate-coloured sky, the waves bashing the stony beach, the wind screaming, the rain tipping then stopping, tipping then stopping.

Then I see him, or her. I can’t tell. Face down on a surf board towards the open waves, riding and crashing into them, arms paddling and scooping water.  Is s/he having fun? It’s impossible to tell. But they’re not giving up. I watch for a good ten or so minutes before I venture out. I can’t tear my eyes from the sea and the surfer. Another few minutes pass before I go inside, away from the wind and the rain. I get back into bed, my gaze regularly moving away from the computer screen, returning to the angry, mesmerising sea.

I came here to write. Initially, it was to work on my short story collection. Then this whole ‘let’s turn your story into a film‘ thing happened, and I knew I would have to put some thought into that.

On Friday, after a morning of swimming and reading and writing, as the afternoon slid away from me and pre-dinner drinks curved a finger in my direction, I sent my producer three character descriptions: Dirk’s lover Julian, Dirk’s driver Terry, and Gemma – the girl who is mentioned in one line of the story but whose significance in that one line takes Dirk down. In being forced to think more closely about these characters I discovered the beginnings of their stories. The lover, I decided, had come from just outside of a major northern city, brought to London by a boy. The producer, of course, wants to know what happened to the boy, how they met, how it turned out. I have also given Julian a slight limp: ‘he won’t say how he got it. Won’t ever say’. I’m looking forward to deciding how and why (although I have a pretty good idea already of course); how the screenplay can incorporate this, if it even needs to, or if its visualisation will be enough.

Gemma, I’ve decided, is ‘good at maths and smiling’. There is more to her than that and I’m fleshing out how she looks and what she thinks and feels. She has to have more to her in the film,  and already I’ve been at work answering the producer’s initial questions about her  (‘Where did she meet Julian? Who introduced them?’). I know how things will end for Gemma and Julian: it’s all in the beginning of the film; or, more accurately, in my head at the moment.

Terry has been fun – from nicking cars to driving them, a good relationship with his ex-wife, a daughter he adores. ‘And he might not be Terrence, but he’s not Tel either. Show some respect.’ I cannot wait to start writing the relationship that develops between this driver and his movie star boss. The producer wants to know what Terry thinks of Julian, too. And I’m working that one out.

The producer has other useful advice regarding my answers to his questions: ‘Don’t feel you have to write them out –  it may be better to explore those things when the characters collide in the screenplay. Sometimes it’s better to bottle the feelings so they can be let out fresh in the scriptwriting.’

On Saturday, after an early morning swim, I was back on the balcony, with James Salter’s Collected  Stories and a notebook. I’d rushed up from a patio breakdfast with a phrase in my head that needed to be written down; something that would make a story knowable to me. It’s one I’ve been working on very sporadically since just before Christmas, when a seal rescue in Whitstable put me on the path to exploring the better times between a mother and son from an existing story in my collection. That’s how it works for me –  an image, an event, a line – any of these things can light a fire under an existing story that’s gone cold with neglect.

This story needs to be nurtured. I know I need to bring the mother’s youth into existence, give her something to have been happy about once. The timeline of the linked stories dictates that this woman, Karen, is coming of age, working, ready to leave home, in the very early 1970s. Out of nowhere – or out of somewhere but I can’t remember where –  came this line: ‘I’ve been dancing since I was 12.’ Cosmic Dancer. T-Rex. An internet search of the lyric brought up two beautiful and fitting gems: ‘I danced myself right out the womb/ I danced myself into the tomb’. And this brought with it the story’s unexpected turn into other territory, a new branch for the central character to crawl out on and cling to. And to me it brought the joy of finally working out what the story was about. After a morning of battling with timelines and plot, dialogue and character, I had much more of a draft, more to work with and on, and the happiness that comes with knowing that a story is finally warming up.

And that brings me back to the lone surfer. They were out there, throwing themselves into the waves, abandoning themselves to whatever the sea threw their way, with their board and their body as the only tools to get them through it. And here am I. Pen, laptop, notebook; using whatever stimulus is around me, seeing what my imagination allows to seep through. Working alone. Under the waves. Head up again. Pushing my way through my own stormy sea.

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The Walls of Others

Sometimes I hate Facebook. I hate it because it reminds me that I am capable of neediness and insecurity. I wish I was more at ease with (more than) occasionally needing that validation from real friends and virtual friends, but I guess I’m not. I know the problem is really mine, not Facebook’s. I need to get over it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t all like my new hair/that I had two teas and one of them was composed entirely of fishfingers/that writing group is really drinking group/that I’m at a gig with Jane/that I have a new job/that I wrote a new story. Because in the real world I know that many of you like most of that stuff (for some of you, the fishfingers will be the highlight, and rightly so. They were delicious). So, really. It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter.

But I also love Facebook. I love that it allows me to be around some of the people I don’t get to see as much as I want because time and geography is in the way. I love that I can see children grow, achievements attained, lives flourish. I love that someone else’s photos will show me a different side to an event I attended. That a gap will be filled. I love that friends I miss dearly remind me of their presence and my place in their affections when they post on my wall. There are few greater modern indications that someone knows you – really knows you – than the posting of a song, a film trailer, an article they are sure you’ll love/be enraged by/laugh at. They are always right about this.

I also love that it has brought a whole raft of fascinating and lovely people into my life; people I haven’t even met, but have engaged with on the walls of others. Some months ago a film producer friend of one of my closest real-life friends befriended me. His posts are always interesting and insightful and a recent post of his gave me the title of my latest story, which I’ve written about before.

Having allowed me to steal his thoughts for my title, he asked me to send the story over when it was done. I did. He read it and loved it. My response was as follows:

*cough* buy the film rights then *cough*

That was in April. Cut to July, and we are in the BFI Southbank’s upstairs bar, falling further back into our armchairs, on our third carafe of rosé (because apparently that’s what we’d be drinking in Cannes) and casting Dirk, his lover, the cameos of Pinter, Losey and Clayton.

So, what brought me here?

The producer guy. He really does love the story, thinks it would make a great film. He read it with care and attention, and he pointed out the parts that he loved the most, the bits that he felt visually represented the characters. He articulated a theme so effectively, so passionately, that it brought this story that I know so well back to me in a new way. Just as his title had helped me to see what the story was really about, so this theme helped me to extend its meaning. It’s in my head now. And my job is to send it out into the world in images.

The plan for me to write the screenplay of the story was hatched in the first few minutes of our meeting. ‘I’m serious about this,’ he said as I took my first sip of wine. We were some way into the third carafe before I plucked up the courage to hack away at the excitement and voice the fear: ‘What if I can’t write the script?’

‘Then we’ll get someone else, but you can write it. You wrote the story.’

But I know they are two different things; different skills. My story is mostly told in the first person; it relies on the arch, sardonic, articulate, filthy voice I’ve given to its narrator, the actor Dirk Bogarde. Any depth it has comes from what my Bogarde says about Diana Dors, Harold Pinter, his driver, his lover, and what this reveals about himself. I’m all about the words. And now I have to be all about the images. But apparently this producer isn’t just the money-man; he’s part-cheerleader, part-shrink. He pointed out a line in the story that proved to him that I could write visually. One line. One image that gave him confidence in what I could do.

Five-and-a-half hours of non-stop talking later – the best kind of first date between a short story and a film producer, chaperoned by the story’s writer – and we had a plan. A day later, it was followed up in writing –  a clear, step-by-step account of what we both had to do next. A couple of weeks later and I have all this in a timetable, with dates. A timetable that begins, encouragingly, with: ‘Write the story: Done’ and ends with ‘Pitch the film, raise the money etc’. That casual ‘etc’ is one of the loveliest and most inspiring words I’ve ever seen. Like it’s going to be that easy.

I know it won’t be that easy – we’ll get money, we’ll lose it, someone will agree to be in it and we’ll get money because of that, then they’ll have to drop out and we’ll lose the money that came with them. But that’s the producer’s problem, not mine. My problem comes at Step 6 of 7 in the timetable: ‘Write screenplay.’

Like it’s going to be that easy.

But maybe it’ll be easier than I think. The producer has my back, and he believes in me. One of my best friends, a screenwriter, firmly told me I could do it; wouldn’t hear anything to the contrary. Another friend, who’s also written scipts, offered to help out. When I said to another couple of writer friends, my eyes still wide open, mouth still twisted in the biggest of grins, that this had ‘fallen into my lap’, one of them replied: ‘No it didn’t. You wrote the story. You worked for it.’ If I stumble, if I fall backwards, as I have no doubt I will, it seems as though there are plenty of arms outstretched, hands waiting to push me up.

So, if writing the story was Step 1 and writing the screenplay is Step 6, what’s in between? What comes next? Here’s what comes next: another of my beloved writing retreats. Five days in Ventnor, in a Victorian hotel overlooking the sea. Private balcony, armchair and writing desk. A playwright friend who’ll listen and advise, suggest and support, as I submit myself to the dream of the imagination – developing the central characters; fleshing out the smaller ones; extending elements of the existing plot and introducing new ones in order to work out how this short story can become a full-length feature film. Figuring out how to visualise the story of this man who loved outside the law; a man who built up the walls he needed to protect himself and continued to live inside them even when a change came.

I have walls of my own, of course. I still can’t believe I have to do this. I still can’t believe I have a dated to-do list. I still can’t believe that I can take the trip from short story to full-length screenplay. But  I do, I have and I will.

I can’t say I won’t occasionally get lost in daydreams of casting, five-star reviews, whether I really would wear jeans to the Oscars. But in between that I promise to daydream about the really important stuff: about this famous actor who really came to Crystal Palace, and what I pretend happened to him there. About film, art, friendship, betrayal, finding love, losing love, living with a lie that kills you bit by bit every day that you don’t or can’t speak about it. I promise exactly what my producer has promised:

‘We love you Dirk, and we will honour your story with our film.’Dirk

 

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The Trip

As I write this bit, it’s February and I am in Grasmere, in the Lake District. It’s raining and has been for much, but not all, of my stay here so far. At times the sun has broken through the clouds (and it’s Wordsworth country so I’ll leave any description of that to the experts) and revealed the peaks of hills in their isolated beauty.

sunny hills

The weather hasn’t stopped me exploring the daffodil park, the Wordsworth family graves, the narrow lanes, the hills, the edge of Grasmere itself, in my search for a clearer head and a calmer heart. And when I’m not out in the wind and the rain and the occasional sun, I’m in a beautiful hotel room, sleeping in a four-poster bed, or I’m in the jacuzzi in my bathroom (really. No, really) with a glass of wine, reading E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime and Julie Orringer’s astonishing short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater.

Doctorow has crept up on me to become one of my favourite writers. Ragtime is only the third novel of his that I’ve read, Homer and Langley and The Book of Daniel being the others. These three novels take as their starting points the landscape that characterises America in the 20th century (the jazz age, the McCarthy trials, racial tension, personal retreat from the actual and perceived terrors of this new world), and weave real people (the Collyers, the Rosenbergs, Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman) into historical fictions that are so close to where we are now that their themes and subtexts can easily stretch out to tap us on the shoulder; remind us of who we really are while we are pretending to be someone else.

The short stories are patchier, but the best ones are as dark and complex and as full of psychological insight as the novels. In ‘Wakefield’, a man leaves home for work and instead takes root in the apartment above the family garage where he stays, unknown to his wife and child, while they try to learn to live with his disappearance. In ‘Edgemont Drive’, a man visits his childhood home in order to commit suicide there. Life, Doctorow shows us, is precarious and messy. And the world he shows to us is not always worth living in. At his best, Doctorow leans into me and whispers knowingly in my ear.

I’ve also been editing some of my own stories: going line by line through feedback and suggestions, adding and expanding, or removing and reducing. A word here; a sentence there; description, characterisation. Spotting errors in plotting (such as it is). I’ve done the laborious work of transcribing my handwritten drafts of new stories written on previous trips, editing as I go, working through the links to my collection, working out how characters that are peripheral in other stories could move centre stage to star in their own. To this end, I created a story about David McIntyre, the boy who is set on fire in ‘10.17 pm’. Whilst one could argue that McIntyre is a central character, providing as he does the focal point of the plot, that story is, of course, about its unnamed narrator – not just because it is told in the first person from her point of view, but because it is about her actions, their long-lasting, seemingly hidden effects, as they continue their increasingly relentless rampage through her memories.  But McIntyre is one of many characters in my growing collection who deserves his own voice, and I let him speak in a (still untitled) draft. We learn more about him, and in doing so we learn more about his tormentors, specifically the ringleader from ‘10.17 pm’, now given a name – Jane M. Bailey.

Nearly two months later and I am reading that draft to my writing group. As usual they are full of useful things to say. One is unsure about the point of view of the story – the opening seems more omniscient than the rest of it. This may not be a problem, of course, but it is something to look into as the story goes through more drafts. Another didn’t quite believe the Marc Bolan vest worn by Jane. I countered with a link to ‘10.17 pm’: she wears it in that story and mentions it in relation to David McIntyre. And in discussing that I easily solve it – it can be a hand-me-down from an older sibling. This narrative explanation also functions to add detail to the character’s working-class background and precocious behaviour. As I was reading the draft out loud, I realised that once again I had relied too much on reported speech rather than dialogue, and knew that I needed to have David and Jane talk to each other, directly. They also needed to do more together, stuff that demonstrated a burgeoning friendship. When I come to write this dialogue and the scenes of action, it is important to me that I normalise them and avoid writing anything that could give Jane an obvious and potentially crass motive for her actions in ‘10.17 pm’.

One of the group asked about the fire in that story: ‘Why does she do it?’ Her motives are never clear to the reader and that was a deliberate decision. Jane has ideas about why she did it, of course, and the truth is she has probably grown to know exactly why, for all her claims to the contrary.

The follow up question was interesting to me: ‘Do you know why she does it?’

Is it important for a writer to know why a character does something, even if the character  doesn’t know, or even if that motivation is never revealed to the reader? I do have an idea of why Jane did what she did, because in writing what I hoped was an emotionally truthful account of her memories and the way those memories crawl insistently to the forefront of her mind, I had to have some idea of why she might have lit a match that started a fire that changed some lives. At the same time, though, I am fascinated by the idea of ‘why not?’; of there being no obviously understandable reason, no easily identifiable purpose that would help us to pin down an individual’s complex psychology. And it is that balance that I tried to communicate in Jane’s story and must be careful to consider when working on David’s.

There will be more editing of something different to come, soon, too. A new piece of work – a love story set in Crystal Palace Park in the late-1960s – has been accepted for the next book to be published by Smoke: A London Peculiar. The book’s co-editor, Matt Haynes, will have something to say beyond his initial, ‘Lovely, and not what I expected – in a good way’, when he returns to London and back to work. He’ll definitely sort out my tenses. He’s a careful editor, and he won’t let any old sentence through. But if something in a story is worth fighting for, I’ll stand up for it, fists as clenched as they have to be. And as this new story has more swearing than anything I have ever written before, I figure there might be a lot to stand up for. Like the McIntryre piece, the story remained untitled for some time; an unusual problem for me. Titles are of great significance when I begin a story; it’s once I have a title that I truly know what the story is about. An example is one of my older pieces: I knew what I wanted to do with the story; I knew it was about the betrayal of a friend and lover, by her friend and lover; I knew that there was something in the messy entwining of the three characters’ limbs and lies that I was grasping at but couldn’t quite articulate. But it wasn’t until I read a Paul Morley piece about Howard Devoto, wherein Morley takes the meaning of the musician’s adopted surname to the extreme of being ‘bewitched’, that I had my title – Devoto – and, as a result, could work through the problems I was having with the story. I knew, finally, what the story was really about.

And now it’s April, and because this year is all about short writing trips, I am currently in Bristol. I’ve had an early morning swim in the hotel pool, drunk tea overlooking the harbour and watched the crows hop about on the grass next to the cathedral, the sun sparking off their beaks. I have some Bristol Tips courtesy of friends and family and a well-planned long weekend ahead. It’s important that I spend some time writing and editing, giving a life to other characters in the existing collection of stories; showing that moments of happiness, of contentment, of hope, existed in them all at some time, for however long, before life – and the difficulty of living in the world – snatched it all away.

Could have been written by Jane M Bailey. It's as good a reason as any for her actions. Ot at least that's what she would tell herself.

Could have been written by Jane M. Bailey. It’s as good a reason as any for her actions. Ot at least that’s what she would tell herself.

 

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