A Writer’s Diary# 21: Coal into Diamonds

Co-dramaturging (with Rikki Beadle-Blair) our five-minute play festival AmBush! (at the legendary Bush theatre), and also contributing a play to the festival myself, (the sharp-tongued urban comedy Yemi and Femi go the Chemist), has been fascinating, and has made me reflect on my craft as a playwright.

My usual experience of these sort of short-form events (and I suspect most people’s) is: the organizers put the call out for material, people scribble something off in a desultory spirit at the last minute, thinking that being so short it doesn’t much matter if it’s fairly crappy and barely makes sense, and the result is chucked on stage in a rush with a minimum of reflection and rewriting by the panicky event organisers, yielding usually mediocre (if not actually dreadful) results. By contrast, as I’m sure our playwrights would testify, Rikki and I really put them through the wringer, demanding one draft after another until all the diamonds were cut, and so (I think) our two evenings of short plays will be of a uniquely high standard.

Truman Capote said of writing short stories that it was ‘the most difficult and demanding prose form of all’ but that since most writers ‘don’t do it properly’ it ‘doesn’t matter’ most of the time. We wanted our playwrights to reach up for that higher level of writing Capote talks about. We were keen to avoid excerpts or sketches (sketches in this context being narratives with no character progression or development), and we banned what would be the obvious default for most writers – monologues. We wanted real plays – two or three acts somehow achieved in just five short pages. But how?

If there’s one thing such a short form emphasizes it’s that you have to hit the ground running – a rule that’s good to apply to pretty much all drama anyway (Joe Orton: ‘Most plays would benefit from being cut’) – and tends to be powerfully demonstrated by good TV series. How little preamble you need in order to be understood by the audience and get going! Then this revelation arrives: when a set-up is concise it’s surprising how much plot you need to fill up even five pages; and it’s also a revelation how many engaging plot reversals can be achieved through (virtually) single exchanges of dialogue.

Another challenge for the writer is to understand (and therefore effectively convey) his or her own world-view; to express, in short, what one’s morality is. If you deploy shocking images or acts, why and to what end? What are you saying about the human condition? This requires as much clarity, both intellectual and emotional, as a full-length play; indeed perhaps more, as there’s no time to traipse down all the highways and byways that in a longer piece may have room to eventually loop back and rejoin and inform the writer’s central theme or overarching purpose. A common note I gave people early on was, ‘What are you saying with this?’ What’s being said needn’t, indeed shouldn’t, of course, be basic or clod-hopping, but on a deep level it needs to be clear to the writer him/herself or it won’t enrich the audience: the work will feel thin.

Perhaps the final (and in its way most enjoyable) transition for the playwright - however long or short the play - is to reflect deeply on what the actors (under the director’s watchful eye) will be able to convey with their performances. The writer should then him or herself perform that final liberating excision of all those lines that redundantly state what will be written on the actors’ faces and shown in their movements, in their simple physical presence before the audience.

A Writer’s Diary #20: action! (part one)

There’s a really great quote by Truman Capote about how he was constructing his latest book (ironically the never-completed Answered Prayers) like a gun: ‘There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and, finally, the bullet. And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it’s going to come out with a speed and power like you’ve never seen—wham!

Increasingly that’s how I try to write, both structurally and at the sentence level. The metaphor particularly suits my current novel, Souljah, about a gay former child soldier caught up in a gang conflict in South London, but I’ve come to believe it stands for most effective story-telling (including the documentary).

The key is that the action must embody the meaning. When it doesn’t, however garish it is, it immediately feels surplus, and the work, however skillfully written, becomes less than the sum of its parts. Another variant of this is the old adage, ‘character is action’. The dynamics between the characters in the now are what draw the reader/audience in, not the backstory. This is why worthy plays where the characters sit there telling us about how awful their lives have been are (to the viewer’s guilty embarrassment) so often uninvolving, even boring: because nothing at all is happening right now. In other words, ‘direct’ can’t simply be, ‘blabbed out directly’.

This is, of course, a huge challenge for the socially-committed artist who is seeking to expose suffering and injustice in as straightforward a way as possible.

It can be extremely difficult for a writer to achieve a dynamic embodiment of meaning through action because his/her motivations for beginning a story are often so scattershot and purely based in an emotional response: a striking image here, a social observation there, the sense of a scene or setting that might be dramatic, the eruption of a haunting memory, a theory about the meaning of life – or its lack of meaning. All these things may refuse to pull together.

In my short asylum-seeker play, Green for the Land Africa, the drama comes not out of a grim, lengthy victim-statement from the protagonist about what happened to him back in Nigeria, but from the desperate interplay between him and the interrogators who want to send him back. His past – in this context – is dramatic first and foremost as a gambling chip that may help his case, not as a heartbreaking bit of speechifying in and of itself (though of course it had to be strongly-written).

A more concrete example of action embodying meaning and theme is one of the core elements of my novel Faggamuffin. Here a macho and extremely closeted Jamaican man is put on trial for the rape of a young woman and is psychologically unable to alibi and exonerate himself by revealing that he is, in fact, gay. Just stating this sequence of events conveys the content and meaning without any internal examination of the character at all.

This crystallization, which I feel I’m now starting to achieve in my writing quite concretely, allows for the deepest and most direct engagement by the writer with his or her themes. It’s a particular sort of work - often rather hard work - that involves honest self-investigation in order to reach clarity. In order to get the bullet in the chamber.

To take off the safety-catch and – wham!

My 2014 Royal College of Art ‘Secrets’ card - a tribute to the martyrs…

'Gishiri Pariah' - a poem for lgbt Nigerians by John R Gordon

Gishiri where they

Drive gay men from their homes

Like cattle

Like dogs

Like the scape-

Goat: ‘Take our sins and go into the wilderness and die’

Gishiri where neighbours once

Tolerated neighbours who had

Too much sugar in the tank;

Tolerated what they didn’t even have to see

In private homes behind closed doors.

Something filled their blind minds’

Eyes

Cataract-callous Bible declamations

Loud with hate.

Tolerance, such a delicate thread

So easily snapped.

Gishiri pariahs

Stripped of everything

Driven out into the wilderness Know

There is no kindness here: the stones

Are kinder

In the wilderness: they lie still

They do not leap

Into neighbours’ hands

And to Christ’s admonition

Love they neighbor as thyself

There comes no answer from Gishiri

Just a fierce and proud

Refusal.

A Writer’s Diary #19: failure is part of the journey.

My new - and longest and I strongly feel best - novel Souljah (currently being prepared for publication) came out of failure: I had tried to turn my (very successful) short film of the same name (viewable on Team Angelica’s website here) into a full-length screenplay, and failed.  I’d always felt there was a fuller narrative in there; a further journey to take the characters on, of which the events of the short film would form a rough first act.  I wrote various drafts of this full-length screenplay but none of them were satisfactory.  There were powerful scenes and images in there, but the whole thing felt somehow pointless, and lacked that odd alchemy which makes the various elements of a story add up to more than a mere functional narrative.

While slumping about in a resentful depression I realised two things. One, I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to say.  And two, my decisions were being overdetermined by the reality that the film would have to be low-budget, and so I was shutting down in advance all sorts of narrative options - in particular representing highly dramatic events back in the (unnamed) West African country the protagonist came from, where a civil war was happening. I also found myself – entirely unbidden – feeling that I had first and foremost to please my director, as he would be the main motor in getting the film made, rather than myself.  These were by no means stupid thoughts, but they weren’t artistically stimulating ones, and my self-esteem caved in.

I needed both to liberate myself from these inadvertent mechanisms of dominance and to take responsibility for realising my vision. And so I turned to prose, in which one is writer, director, producer, designer and all of the cast.

A Writer’s Diary #18: refusing cheap kicks

Recently wrestling with conceptualizing a short play about a gay asylum-seeker I was invited to write for an lgbt theatre event, I was struck by the supreme importance of aiming for truth in both utterance and psychology, as well as, of course its corollary: avoiding merely conventional presentations of motivation and perception.

Whether it’s comedy or drama, theatre, film or prose, interplay between characters is most dynamic when what each person says is true, regardless of the position they’re speaking from. It’s what jolts the viewer/reader out of complacency, and stops him or her from just nodding along with the (usually liberal) line the piece espouses. Whatever politics emerges from it will then reflect the real world, and so be of use, rather than merely representing some ideological position or other - the sort of political theatre people tend to find unsatisfying even when it’s their own viewpoint that is being shown because they know, even if they can’t analyse quite why, that it somehow isn’t real.

My play, Green for the Land Africa, began to lift off when I made a reactionary Christian character also an incisive truth-teller. Interactions between him and the other characters immediately gained far greater weight and complexity, and the piece became honest.

To reach this point I had to excise from myself the desire to create an essentially liberal narrative of reasonable compassionate reassurance, and – while refusing the other cheap kick of treating of despair despairingly – follow human truth wherever it led. To assert the human in all its complexity, which seems to me the proper business of writing.

"You Should Wear Skulls" - a poem about homophobia on the world stage by John R Gordon

To all the real decent people

Of Arizona Nigeria Uganda Jamaica Russia

With your bible tract hearts

Does it feel good

To turn off the feelings?

To flick that switch inside that says

Who’s human

Who is not.

Are you proud

When the mob beats defenceless

Men bloody with spiked clubs

Drags them from their homes strips them

Naked hacks them to death?

This is you.

This is you.

Do your eyes brighten,

Does your pulse race?

Don’t be ashamed of your excitement:

Didn’t you used to go to church on Sundays

After a lynching party the night before?

Didn’t you take photographs

Of charred flesh of bulging

Eyes hacked-off genitals? Make postcards

You real decent people who wouldn’t swear

Before a lady. Who talked of

Values.

Soldiers of Christ

Who fight the Good Fight

With dollars and lies

Turn on your Youtube.

Are you proud? It’s your work they’re doing.

You should wear skulls

Around your necks.

A Writer’s Diary # 17: resist all hostile programming.

This is the deep shit, the necessary journey within to set your work free to better serve humanity. This is the way you use your suffering to connect you with other human beings, which is perhaps the only point of suffering, to the extent anything has a point in a universe where we must constantly construct the meanings of our lives.

We all, it is true, receive hostile programming on multiple levels every day, and we are all damaged by it; but the hostility is infinitely more blatant and sharper-edged if you are in any way a minority, more obviously internally devastating.

Hostile programming tells us that if we are gay, of colour, gender-nonconforming, even simply poor, then our stories cannot be universal; that if our narratives matter at all, still we can never hope to stand centre-stage and be applauded.

As is intended, we internalise this programming and become our own jailors. This is the ultimate liberation of those who set oppressive forces in motion, who benefit from them: they no longer even have to be there.

When I was in my late teens I became fascinated by the writers of the U.S. prison movement – ecstatic radicals like George Jackson, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Huey P. Newton, H. Rap Brown, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Geronimo Pratt – and devoured their works, disintegrating copies of which I often had to hunt down in second-hand bookshops, eagerly.

But why? My own circumstances were comfortable: I was receiving a private education in a prosperous suburb that exuded well-to-do conservatism as its default; and yet somehow this model of the world as prison, this disemboweling of the mechanisms of oppression, revealed to me something I instinctively understood was true.

I was responding, I now know, to the weight of hostile programming.

Well.  What to do? You can put on a mask and stew and moulder inside as it fuses to your skin.  You can Cyberman-like convert your mentality to the dominant mentality, prick out your eyes and erase your own spirit. Or you can try, day by day, to dig the parasites out. This is a life’s work, as they constantly reproduce, down there in the dark, as parasites do.

I believe art – literature - can be a form of resistance, a form of deprogramming, when it models and presents different ways of being. When it offers visions that help open the mind to possibilities that might otherwise remain unseen, unspoken, even unspeakable.

This is the offering I try to make.

"Open Sore On My Conscience" - a poem for LGBT Nigerians by John R Gordon

Iron-strong hearts

Beaten by hammers on anvils

Enduring gilt-edged cruelties

Disgorged from throats of Rolls-Royce pastors

Gay Nigerians

Enduring beatings

Chafing at bonds of British laws

Abandoned in the white grey motherland

Sharpened scrap-iron poison

Imperial rust and dust

Mixed and masked as tradition. Masks for lies

Not spirit representatives. A purged past

Retro-purified by Bible fire

Erased

Replaced

A fake.

My brothers sisters same-gender-loving others

Suffer manufactured hells

Warped mirrors of what rots inside

Their authors’ minds

Eyes weep bones break beneath the boots

Of those without love

Who hate love

Who hate truth

It takes faith to believe lies.

Notes and drafts of the half-hour screenplay I’m currently working on, Yemi and Femi’s Fun Night Out…

Notes and drafts of the half-hour screenplay I’m currently working on, Yemi and Femi’s Fun Night Out