Category: Creative Writing

What we learn in sorrow

What we learn in sorrow

In Australia at the moment many are grieving. Bushfires have swept our country, taking out huge tracts of land, homes, and many, many lives, both human and wildlife. I have stopped looking at the news because the images are too distressing. My heart grieves at so much loss. And now I have learned that a friend passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly. This year weighs on us all, bringing deep sorrow. It’s hard to see a way forward.

The sorrow of losing a friend

A dear friend, Wendy Dunn, introduced me to Elizabeth Jane Corbett, in 2016. We had both recently signed with the same publisher and Wendy thought it would be good if we could get to know each other and support each other through the journey to becoming published authors. My first impression of Elizabeth was that she was incredibly striking – very tall, with strong, beautiful features. Red was her signature colour. She had a direct way of speaking – you always knew where you stood with her. Over the next three years we spent time together at various writerly events. We shared market stalls at the Mythic Market and Supanova. We shared a room at Conflux in 2017, both newbie authors feeling imposter syndrome big time. Our late night chats were deep and insightful. And we reconnected at the Historical Novel Society conferences.

Elizabeth was an extraordinary writer. Her debut novel, The Tides Between, was shortlisted by the CBCA. It is a migration story, and a coming of age story, but to categorise it as that would be to fall far short. Woven through its tapestry of beautiful, beautiful writing are also Welsh myths and tales, which help young Bridie come to understand the world. At times devastating, Elizabeth’s book is one of those rare ones that I will take with me, in my heart and on my bookshelf, wherever I go. I interviewed Elizabeth on this blog in 2017 – you can read the interview here: An Interview with Elizabeth Corbett.

Living with passion

As I sit in sorrow, the thing I remember most about Elizabeth is her passion. It was a passion that seemed to have crept up on her unexpectedly. Elizabeth started learning Welsh as research for The Tides Between.  But when the book was finished, her learning didn’t, and it reached the point where she was actually teaching Welsh herself, and travelling to Wales regularly. Incredibly, she was interviewed about her book in Welsh on BBC Wales! That’s dedication to research. Next she started researching her second book, the story of Margret Glyn Dŵr, wife of the last Welsh Prince of Wales. And it turned into an obsession that led her to a Masters degree. It was on the verge of leading into a PhD. You can read all about it in her own words here.

I was in awe of Elizabeth’s passion. She found what she loved and she was completely true to it, pursuing it as far as she possibly could. When I look back now, and contemplate the loss of someone like Elizabeth, my sorrow arises as much from the loss of her friendship as from what she would have contributed in the future as a writer, historian and passionate Welshophile. I hope that her pursuit of her passion can inspire me to embrace my own, because in the end, a passionate life is one that is true to yourself. And that is one way to honour the life and legacy of someone like Elizabeth.

Time and what you do with it

Time and what you do with it

Destiny by Christian Waller, 1916.

About this time last year I went to an exhibition of prints, paintings and stained glass by Christian Waller, an art nouveau artist from Castlemaine, Victoria. The artworks were incredible. Absolute artistry: technique combined with expression. Each work had mythical underpinnings as Waller was interested in theosophy and expressed her studies in what she created. I found the exhibition moving and inspiring. But I also felt a deep well of frustration that sits inside me.

What I saw in those artworks was the expression of time. The exhibition reminded me making good art is a full-time job. To reach that level of technical mastery, as well as to have the ability to move people many, many years after she created her art, Waller needed the time to become excellent at her craft. These were the works of someone who had given much time to her creative gifts.

Finding Time to Create

I have spent many years fitting my writing around real life. Raising children, earning an income, the mundanities of every day living such as doing the washing. These are all things I have given priority to over my writing, my entire life.

But whatever I have done over the years, there’s always been a part of me burning to create. To write stories, to draw and paint, to express myself in creative ways. I was trained as a social worker and worked in social work for many years, but it never felt like my vocation. Then I had children and spent years raising them, including a long period of home-schooling them. Once my children were becoming independent, I went back to study because I’d been out of the workforce so long. This led me to become an academic editor, which was enormously helpful in becoming a better writer. But it was another task to add to my time.

The Creative Flame

Throughout all those years the creative drive was burning inside me. And I was barely fuelling the flame. My writing always came last, fitted around everything else that needed to be done. When I was published, I had a major dose of imposter syndrome because I felt I had barely given any time to writing. In reality, that’s not true – you don’t end up with six novels, a musical, various plays and any number of short stories if you haven’t spent time writing. But it was always peripheral. Creative time squeezed in around the edges of living time.

As you get older, this issue becomes more pressing. As more of my family pass away, my awareness that we all only have a limited span becomes more acute. I have health issues that may restrict my ability to sit and type in the future. At some point, writing stories may become more difficult. Often people don’t do things they want to do, because they think there’s always time. Our days pile up behind us, filled with a lot of the things we have to do, and less of the things we love to do. But time isn’t an endless resource. So feed your creative flame. Bring beautiful things into the world. Make people think and feel with your words and songs and art. Remind us we are human.

 

 

Who has the right to be a writer?

Who has the right to be a writer?

CLIFF’S NOTES: Since there seems to be some misreading of this post, here’s the short version. I don’t like marketing. I recognise it is necessary. But authors telling other authors they shouldn’t be authors if they don’t like marketing are behaving horribly, and silencing or hurting people for whom writing is their chance to have a voice.

* * * * * * *

When I surveyed authors about their experiences of marketing, I asked for their advice. One of the comments I received was:  “If you want to be successful you have to spend time and money marketing, if you don’t want to, then don’t bother writing.”

I don’t enjoy marketing. There is no secret about that. My personality is fundamentally unsuited to it. And from two and a half years of research I believe that a very large proportion of marketing strategies don’t actually work (this conclusion is NOT just based on my experiences). Yet we are constantly told as authors we have to do it. And that if we don’t throw ourselves into it, writing isn’t the right profession for us. I’ve come across this attitude, in different forms, a fair bit in the last few years. When you unpack the sentiment, the message is: only those who have the particular skill set for marketing have a right to publish books. Really?

The Right to be Heard

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels.

There are several reasons why I find it very hard to express myself. One is that I am highly introverted. Another is that I am an Aspie. Growing up, I frequently found myself misunderstood and misinterpreted. I was just not on the same wavelength as most people. Aspies learn to mask their differences. One way of doing that is to keep your thoughts to yourself. Finally, I grew up in an abusive household. I was not allowed to express my thoughts or needs, and I quickly learned it was far safer not to try.  It took me a long time and a LOT of work to realise that I have a right to be heard. But I do. And it makes me extremely angry that people feel they have the right to tell others they’re not cut out to be a writer because they are introverted, neurodiverse or highly sensitive.

In fact, this is a form of victim blaming and discrimination. In the age of #ownvoices surely the neurodiverse and sensitive should be allowed to speak their truths and experiences too? And saying we can’t handle the system so we shouldn’t bother implies it’s our own fault. But why can’t the system be made more friendly to those who don’t fit a certain personality mould? (But that’s a huge issue for discussion another time…)

Does Being Good at Marketing make you a Good Writer?

Do I need to write a paragraph on this? Because essentially the answer is ‘no’, isn’t it? The way algorithms work, there are ‘bestselling authors’ out there who are in that position purely because they know how to maximise keywords, do lots of 99c deals, or are good at ‘branding’ themselves. I went along to a self-publishing workshop several years ago. The first thing we were told was, to be successful, we didn’t need to be good writers. We just needed to brand ourselves well. ‘The writing isn’t important. Just have something to sell.’ Instantly I knew I was in the wrong place.

I guess I’m extremely old fashioned, because I think good writing matters. When I read a book, I’m looking for quality writing and engaging story telling. There are books out now that tell you to make a living as an author you need to bring out a new book every three months. There is a growing churn mentality in publishing. Maybe this works in the short term. If you have one good book people might buy the next one. But if I read a second or third book, and it’s completely unmemorable or formulaic, that’s going to turn me off that author for good. And I am reading more and more books that are unmemorable. How many thrillers can be the most unputdownable book you’ve ever read with totally unexpected twists? Big claims with little return in many, many instances*.

Nobody expected Ursula Le Guin or JRR Tolkien to be good at marketing. It’s only been a ‘job requirement’ for authors very, very recently. And it’s a pretty flawed requirement.

The Extrovert Bias

Photo by Min An from Pexels.

Marketing and writing are different skill sets. I’ve talked about this before, in my post The Introvert Paradox. My point then was that the qualities of introverts – empathy, observation and listening – can make them excellent writers. Yet in Western society extroverts are rewarded and recognised. Marketing is definitely for extroverts. Introverts find it difficult to put themselves out there. But that doesn’t mean what they have to say isn’t important. The social bias against introverts is barely acknowledged. We’re not even close to beginning to address it yet.

Marketing can also require a degree of ‘gilding the lily’. Making things sound as special as they can. As an Aspie, this is the absolute hardest thing I face. It’s important to me to be as factual as possible. Years back I worked in online communications for a shop and typing in product descriptions used to make me cringe because of the exaggerations required to make the copy ‘pop’. I will never be a successful copy writer!

Back to the Idea of ‘Rights’

Ok, this has been a somewhat roundabout journey. But essentially what I’m saying is that there is no law that says being a published author is limited to one personality type, the ‘marketeer’. We’re in an era where a lot of people express their opinions vociferously. But they don’t always think about the damage they’re doing to others by doing so. Telling people they shouldn’t be an author because they struggle with marketing is so wrong. It silences their voices. It says extroverts who love marketing have more right to be heard than anyone else.

I won’t accept anyone else telling me I don’t have the right to be an author because I don’t have the ‘marketing’ skill set or the right extrovert personality. My right to tell my stories is hard won. Authors who write with sensitivity and empathy are desperately needed. Our stories matter.

 

 

Footnote

* Here’s a word of advice – if someone is telling you they’re a best-selling author, and you haven’t heard of them, look at their list. What I’ve discovered is that those who say they’re marketing experts and getting great sales usually have a book for sale on marketing your novel. It’s all spin.

A flash of fiction

A flash of fiction

Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, talks about writing morning pages. Dumping everything from your mind onto the page first thing in the morning. It’s meant to be uncensored, as a way of turning off your inner critic. I went through a period of doing this every day, but I had this weird thing going through my head. Because my life was so busy, I felt like I was throwing away precious creative writing time by writing blah random thoughts. So I started writing really short creative pieces instead. These might grow into something else, or they might not. But they kept my writing muscles exercised. It was only later that I discovered the name for these pieces was flash fiction.

I thought I’d share one of those today.

* * * * * *

Confusion reigned supreme. Never had such a cliched phrase been so apt. There were hats and ties and socks hanging, well and truly dead, from every doorknob, lamp and window latch. Empty boxes of ex-food peeked out from under dresser drawers, nervous that they might have their insides torn out once more if they ventured into the full light of day. Said drawers were at multiple degrees of openness, their contents desperately clawing their way out before some sort of explosion scattered them to the winds, although it appeared to be too late.

There was a funky smell that only served to confirm something had crawled under a bed and expired, probably about a week ago. Little light penetrated the room. Those windows that weren’t in various degrees of undress, curtains crumpled on the floor like fainting debutantes, had been smeared with some sort of soapy substance. A tinny, distant sound, that of hidden musicians playing for their lives, wafted from under a pillow that appeared to be trying to crawl out of its cover. Every object in the room spoke of the horrors it had endured, and its pathetic dream of escape from this terrible place.

‘Welcome to the girls’ dormitory,’ the headmistress said.

A world of choices and a choice of worlds

A world of choices and a choice of worlds

This is a strange week. I’ve sent off the third book in my fantasy trilogy to beta-readers. Once I get it back from them I will do the final edits before I send it to my publisher. And that, aside from proofreading the final version, will be that. The Tales of Tarya will be finished. I’ve lived with this world and these characters for a very long time, and I’m about to say farewell to them. Which means I have to decide what to do next. I have quite a few choices.

No spoilers…

I’m going to speak in general terms because, like a lot of authors, I’m superstitious about putting story ideas into the world before they’re properly brewed. So don’t expect any big spoilers about what I might produce next.

Too many choices

One option is to write a full length play based on a ten-minute play I wrote a while back. It’s an intriguing story based on an historical event, and I think it’s extremely relevant to world events. It’s funny how, if you look back through history, you see patterns repeating themselves. I love writing plays. My writing brain thinks in terms of visual images and dialogue, so plays feel very comfortable for me. So this has a lot of appeal.

Another option is to tell the back story related to The Tales of Tarya. As I wrote the third book, Pierrot’s Song, two characters kept appearing at the edge of my thoughts. I could see them very clearly, and they were starting to come to life. Which I think is always a sign that their story might need to be told. They’re figures from Mina’s past, and the events they lived through are vital to my trilogy. The question is, do I want to remain immersed in that world?

The next option is a new YA trilogy set in Australia. I wrote the first book for my PhD. I’m nervous about this one, because since I wrote it, the ‘own voices’ movement has surged. This makes me question whether I have the right to present characters with particular issues that are not (necessarily) my lived experience.

Then I have the first book I ever wrote. Normally these sorts of things should, I think, stay firmly in a bottom drawer, never to see the light of day. Beginner writers make a lot of mistakes. To pursue this choice would take a lot of work. But I think the bones of the story are good. And I think it fits the zeitgeist nicely.

How to choose?

At the moment what I’m doing is dipping my toes in to each of the choices. I’m going back and reading over anything I’ve written so far for each of the projects. I’m also looking at the research I’ve already done for each one. But I don’t think my choice is going to be based on logic. I should probably be asking ‘which one is the most marketable?’ But I don’t think my creativity works that way. Ultimately I’m pretty sure my choice will be based on instinct. Which characters are speaking to me? Which story feels like it is closest to being fully formed? What will engage my passion?

Writing is hard work. Plotting, planning, getting words on the page, editing… it takes time and care. I’m going to have to love this project if I’m going to have the energy and motivation to see it through. So, to throw in another metaphor, I’ll dance with each of these stories for a while, and see which one I’d like to spend more time with. I’m in a strange space of uncertainty, but at the same time it’s exciting. Let’s see where the music leads.

 

The world needs stories

The world needs stories

I never dreamed of writing the “Great Australian Novel” or selling enormous amounts of books. I just wanted to tell stories. The world needs them. It always has.

Photo from Pexels by Suzy Hazelwood

Stories reach people when all the arguments and debates don’t. There can be understanding and connection on an intuitive level. Points can be made without anyone feeling they’re being beaten over the head. And stories stay with us. We may not remember all the detail, but a story we’ve loved will stay in our heart. Who doesn’t hold on to the memory of a book they loved as a child? I can’t remember the details of many of the books I read as an adult. But my early adventures in reading stay with me, with amazing clarity.

Sometimes we revisit the tales that moved us. We know how they made us feel, the realisations they gave us, the way they sparked our imagination. A good story can reach out to people. Unlike other forms of writing that are located in a specific time and place, they can be, in a way, eternal. Enduring.

We are narrative beings.

Something about tales speaks to a spark that lies within all of us. Children who are denied stories are denied a chance for a garden to grown in their soul. Perhaps what we learn through books needs to become more nuanced as we grow to adulthood. The world is not divided into good and evil. But the tales we encounter early on give us a framework to start with.

In fact, we could understand the world better if we questioned the stories that underpin it. Every society has its own narratives. In Western society the enduring story is that everything must be done in service of the economy. We are told this so often we don’t even realise it’s just a story. Nobody questions whether there is another way to conceive the world. What would our society look like if the underpinning narrative, the story we all believed in, was that everything should be done in service of humanity? What if the cultural stories placed living beings at their heart?

Fiction writers use their imagination to create worlds that are underpinned by different stories. They show us other possibilities. We need that now, more than ever. To change the world, we need to see how it can be different.  And we need to care. We need our hearts and minds engaged. Stories can do all of that.

Dreams of story telling

This is why I chose at a young age to be a story teller. Not a ‘writer’. I didn’t have visions of sitting in a garret starving while I carved out some masterpiece from blood and suffering. I didn’t picture myself appearing at writers festivals, exchanging words of wisdom for book sales. No – I just wanted to tell stories, because they seemed magical.

I’ve been told I’m naiive for imagining writers can change the world. But all it takes is for one idea to light a spark that grows into a flame, and change can happen. I suppose that belief is why my central character in The Tales of Tarya, Mina, is a story teller who changes her world with her stories. Art and imagination are tools for doing magic in the world.

 

Sometimes an ending comes as a surprise

Sometimes an ending comes as a surprise

Sometimes writers play games with their own minds. They set up little rules. They have superstitions. As I came close to writing the ending of Pierrot’s Song I made a decision. I would write everything but the epilogue. Then I would go back and read all three books again. Only then would I think about writing the epilogue. I wanted to do it justice, and to make sure I wrapped up everything properly.

Photo by ATUL MAURYA from Pexels

Clearly my mind had other ideas. I woke up this morning, far too early, and I could hear the voice of one of my characters in my head. The three books of the Tales of Tarya series are written in the third person. Only the prologue to each book is in the first person. Normally when my characters speak, it is in scenes and dialogue. But this was different. This character had something to say, and I had to get out of bed and write it down immediately.

Avoiding the ending

I’ve been reluctant to write the end of this series. Writing three books is a long journey to undertake. You immerse yourself in a world of your own creation for a long time. It starts to feel as familiar as the real world. My characters are as alive to me as my friends. I know them in that intuitive way where I understand how they will act, without having to think too hard about it.

So I didn’t want to leave them. Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do in this life. Especially when you know it is permanent. I remember the agony of farewelling a friend I had met while travelling, not knowing if I would ever see her again since we lived on opposite sides of the world. Of leaving my father’s hospital room for the last time to fly home and go back to work, knowing there wouldn’t be time to come back before he passed away.

I could see the end of my series, drawing closer and closer. And I didn’t want it to arrive.

The unexpected magic of writing

I’m definitely a plotter, not a pantser. Mina’s story is one where secrets are uncovered. There is a puzzle at the heart of Mina’s quest, and only when she solves that can she do what she must. To create a puzzle, you need to plan in advance, planting seeds throughout the books. To uncover secrets you need to hide them, sometimes in plain sight. So I have always known where my final book would end. But writing is not entirely a logical process. Sometimes, perhaps the best of times, the intuitive brain kicks in. You may know what needs to happen, but not the fine detail of how it will happen. I love it when this occurs. But not at 6am!

But there is a story within a story in my trilogy. This is the tale of muses – the inspiration for all creative types. So when the muse tapped me on the shoulder and told me to wake up, I couldn’t really say no.

Finding flow and finding the ending

Photo by Monica Silvestre from Pexels.

So I sat down with a notebook and pen. I didn’t even grab a coffee, because I wanted to capture the words before they dissolved in the morning light. And I wrote. The words ran across the page, paragraph after paragraph. It felt like magic. I knew what I needed to say. I didn’t have to give it any thought. And the ending of my series wrote itself. The voice in my head kept speaking until I had everything I needed written down. And then I was able to get up and start my day.

By doing this I broke my own rule. I still have two scenes left to write in the lead up to the epilogue. But maybe it’s better this way. Because if I had written these words after everything else was complete, I think I’d be feeling terribly bereft now. This is the end of the story after all. The curtain is about to close on the travelling players. But when your central character is a storyteller, I guess you learn some things about storytelling. And one of those things is that a story is a living thing. Sometimes it chooses how it should be told.

 

 

Light in the darkness

Light in the darkness

We live in interesting times. Some would say dark times. It can be hard to see the light in the face of climate change and rising hatred. As a writer, or an artist of any type, it can be difficult to feel that what you do matters. Many of my creative friends seem to regularly experience waves of doubt about continuing with their art. Partly this doubt arises because of the economic narratives that favour makers of money over makers of art, as I’ve spoken of before. We are told we don’t matter if what we do isn’t financially successful It can also be because it’s easy to feel like a tiny voice in a great sea of voices, failing miserably to be noticed. And it can arise because there are those who take delight in telling writers and artists that they are being self-indulgent.

It’s ‘just’ entertainment

Attacks from the self-righteous take a couple of forms. The one I’ve personally been attacked for, that I’ve written about before, is that if you’re a woman over 40 you should only be reading feminist tomes. Not fantasy, or anything that’s ‘just entertainment’. As if we can make the world a better place be placing restrictions on our reading and thinking.

The other side of this coin is that as writers we should only be writing serious essays. Not genre fiction or anything that’s a light read.  Some take the view that in the current climate we should all be addressing difficult issues all the time. I’ve actually tried that. For my PhD I wrote about how fiction writing could help us address climate change by changing our relationship with the earth. My ideas were torn apart as naiive. And no one was interested in what I had to say. So I’m done with serious. I’m going to write the stories I want to write. And I think that’s okay.

My view of the world

When you grow up reading a lot of fantasy, as I did, you are taught there is good, and there is evil. As you grow older, your understanding of this becomes more nuanced. My thinking now is that there are forces of creation, and there are forces of destruction. Some people live their lives being creative, in whatever form. This might be through the arts, or caring for others, animals or the environment. They contribute to the world we live in, in a positive way. Others live lives that destroy: they destroy the world around them, and they destroy the lives of others. (It’s not always as dramatic as that sounds, but people can do an awful lot of harm without much effort!)

Everyone has the ability to live both ways, of course, and lives are a mix of creative and destructive acts. The question is, on balance, what do you bring to the world? Are you led to create, or to destroy? The writers and artists I know feel their creativity as an urge they must follow. Yet they doubt themselves. As if creativity were not a force for good in the world. As if creativity doesn’t make things better, in ways you can’t see.

Being the light

Creative practice brings light into the world. I think it shifts the balance. Maybe the world hovers like a seesaw, sometimes veering towards the darkness, sometimes towards the light. What if each act of creativity counteracts an act of destruction? Imagine if you could step back, far into the void of space, and look at the earth, and see puddles of darkness interspersed with brilliant stars. Who wouldn’t want to see more light? It brings illumination, understanding, beauty. Without it we fumble in the dark, and fear grows.

If your creative act brings one more spark of light to the world, it matters. It may matter to only one person, or it may matter on a scale you can’t see right now, because you can’t stand far enough away to understand the need for balance. But the darkness is spreading. We feel it. So don’t let doubt win. Continue to create, and to be the light.

 

 

 

 

 

How I (accidentally) wrote a musical*

How I (accidentally) wrote a musical*

In May this year I will travel to Auckland to attend the world premiere of a musical I created with brilliant composer Andrew Perkins. It is a musical re-telling of The Birds, a classical Greek play by Aristophanes. The original play is witty, biting and has themes that are more relevant today than ever.

An abbreviated concert version of the full musical will be performed by Bach Musica at the Auckland Town Hall, in a double bill with Beethoven, which is some pretty cool company. To be honest, I can’t believe I’m going to see my work performed live with an orchestra, soloists and a full choir. It will definitely be a night to treasure. And it feels somewhat surreal. You see, the musical was written around the edges of my life. So it almost feels like I completed it by accident.

Would you like to write a musical?

I began working on this musical just after I finished my PhD. It was a very welcome distraction from the post-PhD slump that hits many people. Like any big project, when you finish a PhD it can leave you exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Having something to move on to helped me drag my way out of the slump. The idea for the musical was Andrew’s. He approached me and asked if I’d be interested in writing the book and lyrics for a work based on an ancient Greek play. The idea was an exciting one and I jumped at the opportunity. I particularly loved Andrew’s aim, which was to create something schools could perform that had great educational underpinnings. The Birds gives schools the scope to explore classical Greek theatre, complex musical forms and socio-historical issues.

We began by reviewing classical plays. Some plays quickly dropped off our list as they were… rather inappropriate for a high school production. Once we had a shortlist of possibilities we soon decided on The Birds, because it encompassed so many of the social and political issues we currently face. The story is about building a wall to keep out undesirable visitors, an event with particular resonance now. But The Birds also tackles themes of environmental degradation and the untrustworthiness of politicians and other power-brokers.

What’s it all About?

To begin the process I went through the play and created an extensive synopsis, which gave us our structure. Andrew then went through and suggested where songs might go. We also discussed key themes and which ones we wanted to highlight. I think we were both staggered by how relevant the themes remain now.  The synopsis was my scaffolding and from that point I worked my way through it, fleshing out dialogue and actions.

Writing the Book

Although Aristophane’s play was first performed in 414BC, so you would think it would be out of copyright, some recent translations do have copyright over them. This meant I had to be careful which version to select as the basis for the book. My aim was to rewrite all the dialogue, but adaptations are always tricky – some phrase might slip through by accident. For this reason I chose the Project Gutenberg version as my starting point, checking the copyright restrictions carefully.

I followed the structure of the original, which is dialogue interspersed with songs. The original play is full of witty in-jokes, but many don’t work if the audience isn’t from ancient Athens. So I searched for new ways of playing old jokes. For example, I brought in plays-on-words related to 20th century pop culture, such as referencing the Beatles. Andrew and I also worked out how to update the characters so they were more recognisable to a current audience. One of the characters had a bit of a Trumpian makeover. I used linguistic elements such as repetition and non-sequiturs to create a speech for them that would feel familiar to anyone following US news.

Writing for Schools

I have an extensive background in theatre, so I’m very aware of the gender imbalance that usually exists. For most productions you can guarantee there’ll be a lot more females wanting to be involved. At the same time the majority of plays and, to a lesser extent, musicals, are written with more male roles. I really wanted to address this, especially as we aimed for The Birds to be suitable for all schools, whether co-educational or single sex. Andrew and I agreed that the best way to approach this was to write as many roles as possible gender neutral.

Since many of the characters in the play are birds, this was actually very easy to achieve. Even the two leads, both male humans in the original, could be played by anyone, regardless of gender.

Andrew also wanted the musical to offer a different kind of challenge to students than traditional Broadway shows do. Whilst he kept the orchestration simple as schools don’t often have access to a lot of instruments and performers, he didn’t shy away from complexity in the music. The Birds draws on both ancient and modern musical forms, including Arabic modes, jazz, Greek and Latin American danceforms and church music.

Words and Music

When it came to writing lyrics for the songs, Andrew went through the synopsis and the play, pulling out keywords that he thought encapsulated the message or meaning of each song. He also identified the sort of music he wanted for that song. These varied greatly, from liturgical chants to a tango. At times he would provide me with a song in the style he wanted to write so I had music in my head to help me capture the write rhythms and style.

Writing the lyrics was a real challenge. Each song had to have its own clear scan, an internal rhythm that would work musically. But it also needed to explore the key themes we wanted to bring out, and capture the wittiness of the original play. It was an amazing process though – I would send what was essentially a poem to Andrew, and it would come back to me with a full musical background, as a song. Most of the time the process worked really well. The liturgical chant required a number of revisions as I had different music playing in my head than Andrew did in his. But the Latin American songs practically wrote themselves and were a lot of fun.

Setting The Birds Free

To paraphrase John Lennon, a musical is what happens while you’re busy doing other things. Much of The Birds was written around the edges of a severe attack of real life due to a major health issue for a family member. It was almost an accidental surprise to discover we had a full musical at the end of the process. But retreating into the witty, fantastical world of Aristophanes was not only a great adventure, it also let me play with words and music, which is always therapeutic. And now, in a few months, I will get to see it come to life.

*or, why my writing is going to the birds….

MORE ABOUT WHO IS INVOLVED:

Andrew Perkins, composer, has written many works, including symphonies, choral works and solo pieces. You can find out about him on Wikipedia or on his personal website.

Bach Musica is an Auckland-based choir and professional orchestra who perform four concerts a year.

Why art matters

Why art matters

Last week I sat reading the back of a bathroom door, as you do. Someone who know doubt thought they were extraordinarily clever had scrawled next to the toilet roll holder, ‘arts degrees, please take one’. Now, if I have the chance to overthink, I will. So I sat there, pondering how creative artists are underpaid, undervalued and under-represented in the structures of power. Western culture values those who have money and make money. It gives them power and recognition. For me this is entirely backwards. Here are some of the reasons why I think art matters more than money:

Reading improves your brain power:

According to research by Emory University, reading a narrative increases the connections in your brain. Not only that, but the effects continue for several days after you put the book down. Reading has also been found to improve memory and even to rewire your brain, forming new connections and brain matter.  In fact, the cognitive gains are so important that they can even improve longevity, according to a study done by Yale University.

The arts can reduce stress and improve health:

Research at the University of Sussex found that reading for only six minutes reduced stress levels by 68%, while listening to music was a close second, reducing stress levels by 61%. One of the researchers noted that “losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book” takes you into the author’s imagination and away from the stress of the real world. A review of numerous research projects concluded “there are clear indications that artistic engagement has significantly positive effects on health”. This research looked at studies focused on expressive movement, creative writing, visual arts and music. The value of the arts for health improvements is beginning to become accepted in the mainstream. A recent article noted that social prescribing will become part of doctors’ practice in Britain from 2023. Patients may be offered dancing lessons, social activities and visits to concerts to combat both physical and mental health issues.

Stories can shift attitudes towards climate change:

In my own PhD I argue that stories can help shift broad cultural stories that define our relationship with the earth. One such story is that the health of the economy is more important than anything else. We need an alternative story that teaches us the environment is vastly more important. Such a story needs to spread widely so it needs to find a place in all kinds of arts. The arts show us alternative visions. If those visions teach us about connecting and caring for the earth and each other, rather than exploiting them to be successful capitalists, then we can begin to see a new way forward. In the transition movement, whose focus is the shift towards a sustainable future, stories are a key tool for envisioning and inspiring change.

Art matters because it shows us alternatives

I’ve only touched on some of what art can do here. There’s lots more. What all of these things have in common is that they help us see the world differently. We tap into someone else’s imagination or vision, and we leave our own headspace for a while. This is the gift of the artist: to create a vision of the world and to share it. It is not just a gift in terms of talent, but a gift that is sent out into the world. It can make us feel better about ourselves, it can allow us to escape the darkness and it can inspire us to make change. That’s why art matters.