It's only words... by Cally Phillips
When I was Writer in Residence for DGAA this was the quotation I used most frequently to open the discussion regarding that perennial question:why write?It came back into my head recently as I was trying to find answers to our guest blogger’s post at the end of March. She raised a number of questions which I found worth revisiting. Not least of these was the power of words to confuse through their non-specificity. Wittgenstein said ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world,’ and while I’m not sure I wholeheartedly agree with Wittgenstein as regards his ‘private language’ argument (he argues there isn’t one) I do think it’s worth noting that the communicative act under discussion (writing) leaves much to be desired. People understand each other inadequately, people pre-judge or misinterpret each other’s statements and all that this proves is that communication is a difficult thing. As writers this has to concern us, because as words are our primary tool.
Is writing a communicative act? For me the answer to this is yes. For others it may be yes and/or no. I totally understand the concept and value of writing as therapy but in that case I think there is still a communicative act going on between the writer and the reader (even when they are one and the same) Reading something written down allows a kind of reflective stance.
This is an area which is of special interest to me at the moment as I am deep into writing a trilogy of novels which deal with the very nature of narrative: exploring narrative psychology and the way people ‘create’ each other’s lives and truths (in fiction and in life.)
One part of the trilogy exists, having started life as a 'blog' novel and progressed to paperback. The 'narrative' has already mutated or evolved through a number of stages and is currently being revised with the wacky (yet serious) intention that it will be possible to read it a number of ways -chronologically or episodically – in order to explore how one’s perceptions affect one’s understanding. But until ‘the whole’ (which is all three novels) is completed next year, you’ll have to remain in suspense, unless you want to become a BETA reader.. I’m looking for people willing to ‘try’ the various structural possibilities and give me their considered feedback… warning.. you will have to read ‘the same’ words twice.. but if you can see beyond this and understand it’s not the same ‘story’ twice, then get in touch and I’ll send you a digital copy. firstname.lastname@example.org
I have a notebook and I’m not sure if this is just funny or extremely profound. It's certainly very orange and I'm deeply suspicious of anything orange. Otherwise I'd be Buddhist. I digress...
On one level it’s obvious. You think things. That’s your internal world. Your ‘self, if you will. You write things down and you have at least started to accept an external world beyond the self. (Even if you are Orwell's Winston Smith!) This might be either your own self as ‘critic’ or ‘recipient’ or a potential ‘other’ reader. Then you publish (however you do that) and you have to take the consequences. Is that what ‘publish and be damned’ really means? Is publishing inevitably a communicative act? It surely has to be. I can write for myself but as soon as I put my work out in the public domain, I’m doing it to engage with ‘the’ reader in some form.
I acknowledge that the ‘process’ of writing can be therapeutic, requiring neither a public end result or an obvious desire to communicate to others. Such creative therapeutic acts have much value. I myself used to want to sing. I learned to play guitar (badly). I spent many unhappy years because I couldn’t/wouldn’t / didn’t think I was good enough to perform in public. Because I mistakenly believed this was the point of playing music. Then I changed my attitude and took a ‘professional’ attitude to learning songs and playing; like practising regularly and learning more about writing music and lyrics. Result a) I got better and b) I started enjoying it in and of itself. But if I recorded myself and put it on YouTube I wouldn’t expect people to think of me as professional. I would, however,be changing from my own ‘therapeutic’ act to a ‘communicative’ one, and if I made an album
I still have some sympathy with the ‘I’m not writing for the reader,’ stance our guest blogger stated. After all, one of my great writer heroines is Emily Bronte and she wrote primarily for herself. Although I’d argue that much of the Bronte’s writing from childhood on, was at least a communicative act between them as siblings – this is the premise of my first play We Wove A Web in Childhood. (20th anniversary edition to be epublished in 2013). I think there may be a confusion between 'reader' and 'marketplace.' for our guest blogger. I think I once had this problem. But I may simply have misunderstood her. (See, words are tricky communicative tools.)
At many points through my playwriting career/journey, I confess I used to say ‘I’m not writing for an audience.’ (Meaning, I think, I'm not writing for the market-driven, plush seat, middle-class 'audience' sector/profile.) It seldom drew a good response from directors. Or audiences. And I grew to realise that unless you are thinking about the communicative act between the play and the 'appropriate' audience, you don’t achieve much in conventional theatre. Audiences, like readers, are entitled to their ‘expectations’ whether you charge them or not. Even if they’re not paying, they’re giving you their time (a far more precious commodity than money I think) and they are entitled not to be sold short or let down. They may ‘feel’ let down, you can’t help that.. that’s why one adopts a ‘professional’ attitude to the creative communicative act. You do the best you can and then you let them make up their own minds. You cannot control the responses of others. You can’t MAKE people like you, or understand you in everyday life. Even less in the creative communicative act of writing.
My personal dissatisfaction led to a re-evaluation of my relationship with theatre and as a result, I actually moved towards more ‘processual’ drama (yes, there is a distinction between drama and theatre, but that’s for another time) and I have adopted an adapted Boalian style in the last ten years, where those ‘taking part’ are the communicative partners. But it’s still an act of communication. In fact, it’s been an extremely liberating communicative experience for many adults labelled with ‘learning disabilities’ which really means people with ‘communicative problems.’ (or non standard ways of communicating.) www.abcdrama.co.uk .
People who cannot read/write and have difficult expressing themselves communicatively have learned new skills and found new joys in communicating. As have I. My most enjoyable creative and communicative experiences have been played out in this arena. I’ve also learned a lot about communication and taking ‘others’ into account in the creative process. I’ve learned about myself and about other people and I like to think, something of the nature of creative communication as a power for good. Still, with this group if/when we/they ‘perform’ to an audience we explain the unusual process we adopt, reassure in what we are doing and why. Otherwise the audience might be confused because this is not what they are used to. You have to manage expectations in communicative acts. I am no longer a 'professional' playwright, in that I don't write plays for conventional theatre. I still use my playwriting skills to write plays though - I might be defined as a 'drama professional' or a writer of non conventional drama.... or.... the list may be endless.
A loose definition of the word ‘professional’ can cause problems. What defines a professional? A confusion that often arises here is that between a definition of professional as in ‘making money from doing a job’ – in our case writing/publishing – or having a ‘professional’ attitude. Having the second is not a necessary or sufficient condition for the first. And vice versa. A professional writer, in my opinion, is one who works in (as in actively engages with) ‘the industry’ or ‘the business’. I was a professional screenwriter for over 10 years. I no longer consider myself a ‘professional’ screenwriter, because I don’t actively engage in that business (attending meetings, making pitches, getting depressed about the lack of opportunities and the like). If I wrote a screenplay now, it would be of professional standard (once I rehoned my skills) but unless I re-engaged with the ‘business’ I would have no right to call myself a working, professional screenwriter. Money is another issue. I certainly have never enjoyed writing for money as much as I have writing purely as a communicative act. That’s because when others have an investment in what you write, they have effectively ‘bought’ the right to change things, or at least question things. It’s at least partially a financial transaction. One can be ‘professional’ in terms of standards without engaging in the money side of things (most writers make so little money this is just as well) but to be ‘a’ professional writer implies that you are engaged in a ‘deal’ of some sort with others. If you agree to play in a game, you have to accept the rules of the game. There’s football, there’s rugby football (league and union) and Aussie Rules and American football.. they stem from the same root but they each have unique rules that are only relevant to the game. The sports of Shinty and Hurling come together from time to time but Shinty-Hurling is a hybrid which adopts a set of rules specifically for the occasion and is thus a ‘game’ in its own right [okay, enough sporting analogy]
For me, epublishing offers a ‘new’ version of an old game. (Actually just a new platform for an already established old game.. we might call it WRITER RULES publishing.) It allows writers to take the means of production into their own hands and become publishers. But make no mistake, if you are a publisher, self or otherwise you need to adopt a ‘professional’ attitude and when you make the communicative act known as publishing, you have to acknowledge there are some expectations on the part of the ‘other’ party (the reader). For me, the definition of ‘vanity’ publisher, is someone who publishes solely for themselves. There is no shame in the self, but as we all know, vanity is a sin (both secular and religious). I would defend anyone's right to write ‘for themselves’, there’s no such thing as a ‘vanity writer’ but when you publish, you do take on a responsibility to manage expectations of someone other than yourself.