Fictions or…? by Bill Kirton
Apart from scribbling stories and stuff as a kid (to which I probably subjected my poor siblings), and then doing essays at school and university, writing wasn't ever really part of my grand scheme of who I intended to be or how I'd spend my time. (To tell the truth, I had no scheme.)
I graduated, got a job, started a family and was already in my thirties before I started 'writing' and, even then, there was no burning ambition or seeming purpose about it. It certainly didn't earn me a living. I suppose most of it I did just for myself, to try to understand things. Putting stuff into words, filling foolscap pages with spidery ink marks made stuff manageable, creating characters made them accessible, understandable, perhaps helped me to understand why 'real' people said and did the things they did.
I’m not certain about that; it's just speculation.
In retrospect, though, that's what happened. (Not that I pretend to 'understand' people now, but I'm getting closer to it some of the time.) I've no idea why the genre I chose was radio drama. I think I had some idea that relying entirely on words (rather than the gestures, facial expressions, attractiveness or otherwise of individuals) was somehow more 'pure', more 'basic'. Then, of course, there was the fact that the good old BBC accepted submissions of mine.
What is true, however, is that my experiences with the professionals – actors, directors, engineers – who turned my words into real experiences for listeners taught me a lot not just about words and their combinations but their power and the responsibility they demand of those who use them. Conversations with these people also opened my eyes to the fact that many of the 'subtleties' I tried to introduce into what I was (or, rather, what my characters were) saying had little to do with me anyway.
There were the brutal lessons, such as the review of one of my plays (in The Listener) whose opening sentence was 'This is a tiresome play about tiresome people'. I read and re-read the review and the play and eventually had to agree with the reviewer because I realised that, for the first time ever, rather than just write down what the characters said, I'd tried to do 'writerly' things. I'd used what I thought was a clever dramatic structure, which depended on a particular type of contrasting imagery. That meant that the dialogue carried all sorts of stuff in it about expansion and contraction – but it wasn't the characters talking, it was me, the writer. I wasn't letting them have their usual autonomy so they weren't being themselves. They were making 'fine', 'significant' speeches rather than interacting spontaneously with one another.
(In my defence, I need however to report that an ex-student of mine, who'd been given a recording of the same play by a friend, came to thank me and say that she wished she'd known how well I understood female homosexuality because she'd had to spend her whole university career hiding her own sexual preferences. She found the characters totally believable.)
Another example has, I think, a wider significance. It concerns a play about a friendship between Sally, a student, and Maudie, a reclusive old lady. When Sally goes to collect a questionnaire she'd posted through Maudie's letter box, she discovers that Maudie is blind so the questionnaire is discarded. It transpires that Maudie has a reputation in the neighbourhood for eccentricity but the two of them get on well. They form a close relationship, each surprising the other with their very different perspectives. Maudie tells a story of her missing daughter, which involves a grandson, Billy, who never appears in the play. She claims that he's a well-known photographer and sends her cards (which, of course, she can't see) from all the interesting places in the world that he visits. Sally goes to (no, not Google but a thing called a library) to check on the existence of this famous photographer, finds that there's no such person, but maintains the pretence that there is, and she and Maudie remain close friends.
I've included this bare outline because it produced (for me, anyway) an excellent example of the gap between the needs of writers and those of actors. At rehearsals, the actor who played Maudie asked me whether the much-spoken-of grandson, Billy, actually existed. She thought that knowing the answer to that question would help her to understand her character and some of her responses to Sally's questions about him a little better. My reply, which wasn't really welcome, was that I didn't know. As far as I was concerned, Maudie believed a fiction she'd created about a famous grandson who lived a life she'd never be able to lead. There may have been a spur for the fiction (Billy – if he existed – may have started taking photographs and talking to her about them, for example), but its importance was that it was part of the fabric of Maudie's life, one of the Inside Stories (the play’s title) we all tell to give our lives substance.
My reply wasn't ingenuous or deliberately provocative but my inability to give a straight response to an honest question was revealing (for me, at least). I genuinely feel that there is always a part of the characters we create that resists analysis, that maintains their individuality and their secrets. We don't know the whole truth about ourselves or those we interact with every day, so why should we know everything about people in a play or a novel?