What does that even mean?
For me, there are certain behaviours that seem to come instinctively: caring for other people, being busy, working all hours of the day and night, maximising every single moment so there isn’t even so much as a minute being wasted. That’s all well and good, except it means I so often forget to spend time doing things just for me.
I am aware there are one or two overdue posts now, but this feels the most relevant one to start with, as I am currently on my homeward journey from a wonderful week away doing something that most certainly was just for me. It has prompted some serious self-reflection and a great deal of resolutions have been made, but more about those a little later. First, let me tell you where I’ve been….
I have spent the week at The Hurst in the Shropshire Hills, where an Arvon Play Writing course has just drawn to a close. I worked out that the last time I actually did something which wasn’t directly work-related just for me, was in January 2012, when I signed up for the Donisthorpe fund-raiser and learnt to figure skate. That’s almost 5 and a half years since I ranked top on my list of priorities. I don’t mean to sound the violins for myself, and I am sure I’m not alone in this type of self-neglect, but it is a little alarming. How can we expect to be on our best form, or even just be able to cope with the trials and tribulations thrown at us, if we don’t give ourselves a little TLC from time to time?
Anyway, I had found the Arvon courses at the end of last year, and began looking into the possibility of attending one of them. I knew my schools’ project was due to finish at the end of April, so this particular course was perfect timing-wise. Given that I have been writing children’s community plays for a number of years now, I thought it was about time I actually indulged in some specialist training. After all, I have more in me than just children’s fantasy Drama. Plus the fact that a Play Writing course would be likely to be full of people from similar career trajectories as me – creatively minded in a Theatrical way. Sometimes it’s great to be surrounded by like-minded individuals, especially as a break from the norm.
The location of this particular course was also a huge draw. Held in the late John Osborne’s house, surrounded by forest, fields and endless landscapes, how could anyone fail to be inspired? The story goes that John moved there at a time in his life where depression had all but paralysed him. In a creative sense, he had been stopped in his tracks and couldn’t see a way forward. When he arrived at The Hurst, he began drinking in his surroundings. He found places where he could reconnect with nature and the world around him, which led him directly back to his imagination. All of a sudden, the door had been unlocked. He then wrote some of his best work from various nooks and crannies in and around the house. I liked the idea of being somewhere with such a legacy of creative success.
Too good to be true?
The only downside was the cost. These courses are taught by top practitioners of the craft and all bed and board is included in the price, meaning they don’t come cheap. Just when I was about to abandon the notion as suddenly as I had embraced it, I spotted the bursary application form. It is always worth reading the eligibility criteria for such things (not that I was holding out any hope of being successful) just in case. Immediately before flying off to Gran Canaria in January, I threw my application pack together, along with a covering letter, a personal statement and an outline of how I intended to use the course to further my creative career. I made sure it went as a signed for package, so I was certain they would receive it, then I thought no more about it. In fact, if I’m really honest, I can tell you that as soon as we went away, I completely forgot I’d even applied.
You can imagine my surprise when, a couple of days after we returned home, I received an email declaring me successful in [my] application. I actually squealed. I can’t remember a more exciting email landing in my inbox for a long time. All I had to do now, was confirm my booking, which I did only moments later. It felt like such a big step to be taking: to have something in place as a positive time-out to look forward to.
So, there’s the background. Now I suppose I ought to fill you in on the course itself.
In short, it was incredible. It was an added bonus that Lovelyman and I had managed to squeeze in a weekend in a nearby Shropshire village beforehand, so I had just about managed to unwind from the enormity of the Schools’ Project by the time I arrived at The Hurst on Bank Holiday Monday. That meant my head was a little clearer than it might otherwise have been.
Within minutes of arriving and being shown to my room, any anxieties I had felt about going with Nelly, seemed to evaporate. I was immediately at ease in my surroundings. The house itself was gorgeous, and the rooms, although very nicely done, boasted a refreshing simplicity. This went hand in hand with the lifestyle at The Hurst: cut off from 21st century technological interruptions. We would have no wifi, no mobile phone signal and nothing to distract us from our own creativity. We each had our own en-suite shower room, giving us privacy and space. On first glance, it was perfect.
Next came the introductions and the getting to know each other part. That, too, went with ease. The first person I chatted to was so refreshingly forward that, as soon as we had exchanged names, she asked me what my NG tube was for. I explained and that was that. The point is, she had helped me to normalise it instantly. It wasn’t until that point that I realised something – these people were all meeting me, for the first time, with Nelly. Instead of needing to adjust and adapt to the idea of my having a tube, they would simply accept the tube as a part of me. In some ways, that was quite liberating. I didn’t have to challenge any preconceived ideas or prove anything to anyone, as they had no expectations of me in the first place.
This acceptance from everyone else somehow made it easier for me to accept myself. I could be me without any pressure or anticipation of who me is. In other words, I could be myself.
I am obviously not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of every single moment of the course, or we would be here for rather a long while, so I will paint a picture and give you an overview. We were to be trained by Evan Placey and Elinor Cook, both of whom are incredibly successful playwrights. I have used Evan’s texts with students in the past, so am familiar with his style of writing. I had bought his other works, along with some of Elinor’s plays, to read before the course, so I knew we were likely to be in for some great lessons.
I wasn’t disappointed. There was a huge amount of time given over to technique and skills and generally honing our craft, but one of the most valuable lessons for me, was the feeling of being a writer. We were welcomed as writers. We were introduced to each other and to Evan and Elinor, as writers. We were given constant validation by one another, without ever needing justification.
What’s in a name?
It got me thinking about why I don’t already call myself a writer. I wrote my first show for public performance eleven years ago, and have written countless stage plays, monologues and short scenes since. Yet somehow, I see those as separate from being a writer. Is it because they’ve all been for education and community projects I wonder? Or does it really all boil down to fear?
One thing I became very accustomed to when I was acting, was a person’s response to the answer, ‘I’m an Actor.’ It was almost always followed by an intake of breath, an exclamation of some sort of excitement, then the question: ‘What have I seen you in?’ I then felt like such a disappointment when I explained that unless they were into regional Theatre, probably nothing. Writing is no different. The moment we say, ‘I’m a playwright’ people want to know what we have written and where it has been performed and yada yada yada ya. It all becomes a little overwhelming.
This week, however, we have all been writers. We have been working on our craft and developing ideas. We spent time experimenting and exploring our style. We had the chance to share material and draw inspiration from those around us. We discovered that we are all telling stories; stories that we are the most qualified people to tell because they are ours. The most important thing, is that we have been writers doing all of these things. It is not the body of work that makes a writer, but the act of writing.
What happens next?
So what now? It is easy to do anything whilst in a bubble that abstracts us from our reality, but how do I make those lessons sustainable? How do I continue with the positive foundations laid last week? This is where we come to the resolutions made. I intend to factor specific writing time into my working weeks, treating those hours with the same importance with which I would treat project planning. I have set myself a deadline so I know the writing of this particular play has an end. I have set myself a goal, a few goals actually, and I intend to follow through with each of them. I will stop apologising for this story I want to tell, so I can get on with telling it. The biggest change, though, will be in how I refer to myself. I am not giving up on any of the things I do; I certainly don’t intend to stop being a Creative Practitioner or working with young people. I am simply adding another hat into the mix.
For a few hours every week, I will wear my writer’s hat. When I wear it, I will do so just for me.