Direct it Yourself

Warning: This Post May Contain Traces of Nuts

Heeeey… so you’re a writer? You’ve been sitting in front of a computer screen, hunched over and away from natural light or maybe you’ve been sterilizing your baby-maker by perching a humming laptop on, obviously, your lap. I can tell these things. You’ve probably spent a couple of weeks or years working on your script. You’ve revised it, rewritten it, thrown it away and started over a couple of times. But now it’s ready. What do you do now?

Direct it yourself.

No, no, no! That’s what everyone tells writers not to do! You need another mind on it, you need a trained director to shape and mould it – someone who has experience, or a degree, or something.

And they’re right. A good script does need all of that to reach its potential.

But …

Have you ever heard a director say he has an idea for a production and get this advice: “Great idea, go find someone to write it for you. You need another mind on it, you need a trained writer to shape and mould it – someone who has experience, or a degree, or something.” I haven’t.

Writing is regarded as an innate skill in the Cape Town theatre industry. Everyone has it. While overseas the writer/director is a rarity, here it is almost impossible not find a director who is also a writer. And it requires very little to bring out this wonderful storytelling ability that lurks in the heart of talented people. You don’t need to study a degree or even read a book on it; after all you’ve read/watched /listened to stories your whole life. What if I was to say the same about directing or acting? UCT has 4 year long programmes for each of these. But not for playwriting, that’s something you’re meant to have picked up along the way.

When a person is a writer first they create opportunities for actors and directors. They often take on the role of producer too. Look around: Nicholas Spagnoletti and his play London Road; Duncan Bulwalda and Dream, Brother; Louis Viljoen just finished a run of his new script The Verbalists at the Arena; Amy Jeptha who is too prolific to cite only one example;  and, yes, me.

Directors generate jobs often – for actors, designers, techies and musos. Actors generate jobs too. But in all my wracking of my brain the only independent production I could think of where a writer was approached to write something is Damage Control. Well played Lauren Steyn.

Independent theatre doesn’t generate jobs for writers but writers generate jobs for independent theatre all the time.

This is an absurd situation.

All My Myths are Copyrighted

I wrote the following article a while back and it was posted on my old blog and the Mixtape Blog . I’m putting it up here because I like it and don’t want to forget it.

Hasbro. DC. Marvel. Disney. They’ve got them all locked down. Every childhood legend and league of disproportioned heroes and villains. Back when people told stories around firepits and under stars no one could tell you the real story. Pretty often some wise guy who thought he could top the last tale might claim to have the real story – but he’s just a showboating sonovabitch. He knows about as much as any other guy. The teller who gets to be right isn’t the one closest to what came before, but closest to what comes after. The story that gets repeated is the story that gets to be real. And that was the way it was for a very long time.

Stories keep evolving – survival of the fittest. But there’s no place for evolution in a production line. Take chickens for example. The humble chicken, by virtue of being tasty, flightless, easily domesticated, nutritious and easy to breed, has been kept in more or less the same state for hundreds of years. The only changes to the chicken have been to bulk it up to produce more meat and breed better egg layers. Change is not evolution – evolution can be surprising. So we now have battery farmed chickens, have done for just under a century. The chickens are controlled and bred selectively – some are even copyrighted. And we all can have access to the same fowl feast.

My mythology – the heroes I dreamt about when I built worlds out of stones and sticks – are battery chickens. Bloated and making some investors happy. The stories I got don’t belong to me, I don’t even think they were rented out to me. If this was around a firepit under stars and Hasbro had just finished telling a story about Optimus Prime and the All Spark, I would get up and say, wait a minute, listen here because I’ve got the real story – see the All Spark wasn’t the real creator, somebody made it. A bazillion years a–


That Hasbro – he’s a dick. And he’s locked up all the dreams in battery farms. And just like in battery farms, more productive is the goal, not better. Legally who ever tells a story owns the characters that are created through it – as long as those characters are distinct enough. And, as in any case of ownership, the rights to that character can be transferred. Fair enough that you tell a story and people who make money from retelling that story owe you something, and fair enough that people shouldn’t be allowed to stop you making money from telling your story. But there comes a point of cultural saturation when that character must take on a life of its own. By which I mean a return to the firepit nights of old. May the best story win. This is the way it is for Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, Robin Hood and King Arthur – why not for Superman, Snake-Eyes and Optimus Prime?


I have more legal right to use Jesus in a story than Superman. Corporations are more powerful than church. Maybe.

What childhood looked like from inside my head.

Breaking Blocks

Writer’s Block and a Writer’s Workout

Too often I can’t write. I stare at the screen. I stare at my keyboard. I stare at my sandwich. I decide I need to clip my fingernails, vacuum the carpet, and bake a complicated supper I only have one ingredient for.

Writer’s block is the single biggest reason I don’t often think of myself as a writer. If I was really a writer, surely writing would be easier? But I’ve fought this battle before, quite a number of times. People who know me well can tell when I’m in a slump because I stare at nothing, get up and wander around and open the fridge without taking anything out. Also I look depressed. I am. But it’s the flip side of the beautiful moment when you are on a roll, when the words just flow. And not just any words – submerged themes surface and become clear, motivations and solutions to plot problems are as obvious and imminent as the end of this sentence.

But I’m not preaching that writer’s block should just be accepted, I think it’s a time for you to grow by trying different things. Writer’s block can be the hesitation when I’m about to finish a sentence with a cliché or it can be the days spent reading while a character hangs over the chasm between point A and B. The most basic thing writer’s block teaches you is humility. Writing isn’t easy. Yet of all the arts it’s the one that people take up with the least preparation. Writer’s block is the cramp you get because you didn’t stretch before you hit the mat, the canvas you wasted because you didn’t do any pre-sketches.

This is how I deal with writer’s block when it happens and before it happens. Most of these things are obvious and I probably got them from any of the hundreds of books, articles and blogs on writing I’ve read. I know they work because I’ve been doing this for a decade and I’ve spent most of that time not writing. That I can work consistently now is not a result of a change in my timetable, it’s because I prepare before I write.

1.)    Keep a journal

Don’t worry about being profound; don’t even worry about being accurate. Just write every day about what has happened to you, about what you did. It gets you in the habit of writing even when you have no projects on the go, or you can’t stand the thought of being creative. I always carry around an A5 notebook; a day is usually 2 pages and takes me less than 15 minutes. I do it while I wait for food to cook. In Cape Town, if you’re punctual you’re in the minority with me – but that’s fine. In those ten or fifteen minutes spent waiting every day I have all the time I need to keep my journal up to date. Beyond its help with your writing, keeping a journal will be the best investment you ever made. Don’t lose all those memories and experiences. I only started 2 years ago and I kick myself I didn’t start sooner.

2.)    Build good habits, vary them

This is just good advice for everyone who wants to be productive and creative. The key is not to start with your dream timetable. You wouldn’t make a resolution to do a hundred pushups everyday and start there, would you? No, if your goal is to be writing for 5 hours every day, or 3000 words, or ten pages, then you set your short term goal at half an hour, 500 words or half a page. Make it stick, and then build it up. So you’ve got your goals, now fit them into your timetable.  So simple! It’s like… wow. The catch is to make the schedule flexible enough that you can try new things out. I like to write in different places, not just on my home PC. I often write in coffee shops, galleries, parks – places that offer a change of scenery and thus a different perspective. A favourite of mine is the Natural History Museum. Also try to figure out what time is your best time for writing, not in terms of convenience but in terms of your energy, your creativity. Now take risk and try a different time. The results can be surprising.

3.)    Free write: Use the Cards

OK, here are some resources for you. You’re going to need a pack of cards to use them. This is the core of my writing work out. Deal yourself 3 cards, one for each of the tables.

Now start writing about these. I like to remember the TheatreSports™ adage: “When you get a horror, start with two grannies knitting.” Meaning, don’t start with a character holding a shoe, standing in a cupboard, talking about loss. Actually, you can. Do it. It sounds like it could be great. I keep writing for at least an hour for this exercise. If the scene gets stale, if you start slowing down, then start over with 3 new cards (you don’t have to start the clock again). These scenes aren’t important. They don’t have to connect to anything. They don’t even have to be any good or make sense. They are lifting writing weights so your endurance and clarity get stronger.

4.)    Read about Writing, Write about Reading

I assume you’re already reading prose, poetry, scripts and news reports. (If you’re not why exactly do you write?) Read books about writing too. Most of them are crap – only good enough to be short articles on a blog. But there’s always something useful, some tip, an exercise or a quote that makes it worthwhile. Frequently they have recommended reading lists at the back that point you to better, wiser gurus. I’d recommend Story by Robert McKee, 3 Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and On Writing by Stephen King.

Keep track of what you read and what you learn. Like a quote? Write it down. Summarise, review and preserve what you read. Memory is fallible, that’s why writing was invented.

5.)    Try different styles

With your wide reading you should be exposing yourself to different genres and eras. And not just fiction – read reports, academic treatises and biographies. Try text books and encyclopaedias. Dip into letters and poetry. Right now I’m going through H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain and the tone and sweep of the prose is fascinating. Try writing something in one of these styles.

A project I’ve been working on the background for quite a while is a science fiction novel. It requires a lot of notes to track the invented cultures, histories and geography. Instead of keeping these as bits and pieces I’ve been writing ‘academic’ articles and fragments of journals and letters. It works for me because I’m a geek and a big fan of Borges. But try it out next time you’re doing a plot summary or a character sketch. It’s all about finding a voice.

6.)    Skip ahead

Sometimes I can’t get characters from point A to point B. The plot seems to make sense but there’s a gap of action that sinks my best efforts. Mostly it’s because I don’t know enough about where the story is, geographically, or I haven’t spent enough time with the characters. It can be tempting to solve every problem as it comes up while you’re writing but the most important thing is momentum. The first 30 minutes of writing are the hardest, stick to it though and you’ll see the reward when you really get in the groove. Stopping to google a map of the city or the history of the cardigan is not going solve the greatest concern, the story.

7.)    Never be afraid of starting over

Last year I had a hard drive crash and my back up failed in a series of unlikely events. I lost 90% of 3 years of writing. But it might as well have not existed. Nobody is poorer for its loss. In fact, I may be better. I think that this world tells us that work that produces nothing tangible is wasted; I think that’s wrong. Whenever we have to start over we’re never really starting from scratch, even if we have no words or materials. If you continue to build something up on unsound foundations your finished product will be unsound, that is real wasted effort. Stopping half way and then starting over to create your best work takes patience and effort, but I believe it is the only worthwhile way to create art. I was forced to look at the foundations of my work, the hardcopy notes I first made of the stories. I had to ask myself in each case what was worth rebuilding, and why.