11 April 2012
Posted in Books and Poetry
Zoë Fairbairns on writing a ‘Teach Yourself’ guide for short story authors
I was about nine when they first caught my eye: a row of compact little hardbacks, shelved neatly together in the public library, with distinctive blue and yellow jackets, and commanding titles: Teach Yourself French. Teach Yourself Science. Teach Yourself Art. Teach Yourself History.
The optimism of the titles made me wonder why I had to go to school — if you could teach yourself, who needed teachers? Surely if I just borrowed the books one by one and read them at home, I would soon know everything.
My parents were not convinced, and my education continued along conventional lines. But when, several decades later, Hodder Education asked me to write a Teach Yourself book on short story writing, I remembered the early impression that I had formed of the Teach Yourself series: these were books that aim to make themselves unnecessary, because by the time the reader has got to the end, s/he will have taught her/himself.
This is true of many approaches to teaching, and is the answer to those who question whether creative writing can be taught. As professional writers, we have all learned from others — formally or informally — and we have all taught ourselves. The teacher of writing has skills to share but, more importantly, sets out to create an environment in which the student who wants to be a published writer, and has the right combination of talent, determination and good luck, will develop the confidence that this may be possible. That confidence will energise the student to teach her/himself
This environment can be created in a classroom, or — as I have set out to do — on the pages of a book.
Teach Yourself books have a fixed format which includes, at the start of every chapter, a list of learning outcomes (‘In this chapter you will learn…’) and, at the end ‘10 things to keep in mind,’ a point-by-point summary of what has gone before. In between, interspersed with text, you are expected to include bullet points, text boxes, flashes of insight, lists, quotations and writing exercises.
This isn’t my usual writing style, but I found it quite exhilarating. It reminded me of what I had learned on a teacher-training course about varying your teaching methods: don’t just sit and talk until your students nod off, or you do — instead, get up, walk around, move your students around, write things on the flipchart or the whiteboard or Post-it notes. On the pages of Write Short Stories And Get Them Published - Teach Yourself (the word order in the titles in the series is now reversed), I eschew long blocks of unbroken text in favour of typographical distractions and changes of pace, in the hope that this will keep readers on their toes. Writing that way certainly kept me on mine, reminding me to teach, rather than just sound off.
I was less comfortable with another aspect of the Teach Yourself format: the requirement to begin the book with a short introductory section called ‘Only Got A Minute?’ The person who has ‘only got a minute’ to learn to write short stories and get them published is surely a close relative of the one who ‘could write a book if only I had the time’. It’s an attitude with which I, like most professional writers, have very little patience. But impatience is not a helpful quality in a teacher, or the author of a Teach Yourself book. So I used my one-minute introduction to try to convince those aspiring short story writers who reckon they’ve only got a minute that they had better get cracking.
By setting a writing task right at the beginning (on page 3, to be exact) and making gentle fun of the many excuses I guessed some readers would make for not doing it (‘Weren’t you supposed to be polishing the soup spoons today, filling in your tax return, changing the batteries in your toothbrush, painting the bathroom, defragmenting your hard disk or phoning the builder?… It‘s amazing how domesticated some of us become, when the alternative is writing’) I hoped to convince readers to adopt the Nike approach: just do it.
Another thing they need to ‘just do’ is read short stories. My book does not claim to offer a definitive guide to the genre, or to identify a canon; instead, it urges the aspiring writer of short stories to read widely, even randomly, for pleasure, asking themselves such questions as, which eight short stories would you take with you to your desert island? Which ones embody V.S. Pritchett’s wise words: ‘The novel tends to tell us everything; the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely’? Which ones have brought you up short by targeting, with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile, something private and intense within yourself, something that you have never told anybody but which this author seems to know about? Which published short stories display writing skills that you would like to make your own? Which ones tell you what to avoid?
10 April 2012
Posted in Theatre
Richard Crane and Faynia Williams on a memorable trip to Los Angeles
(Tim Robbins working for the Actors' Gang at the prison at Norco in Los Angeles - photo by Steven Cuevas)
We’re waiting for our driver at the Ivy Substation in Culver City. Encircled by traffic, this little island of calm with its 1907 building set in a small leafy park was once a power house for transforming AC into DC for the pioneering Los Angeles Pacific Railway. Now, after a period of disuse, it’s a power house again, pioneering and transforming the theatre scene in Los Angeles, as the home since 2006 of the Actors’ Gang, run by its founder Tim Robbins.
The Lexus pulls up. Silver-haired, six foot five, the Oscar-winning star of Shawshank Redemption, and director of Dead Man Walking, gets out, buys take-aways from Starbucks – his is a black Americano with extra shots of espresso – and we’re off. He is taking us to prison.
As we bomb along the highway, he is talking about the Gang, about Satan’s Ball and about Sabra Williams. The Gang was founded in 1981, when he was fresh out of college. It grew up alongside his film career, initially as a kind of resistance movement against the mighty hand of Hollywood. Helen Hunt, John C Reilly, John Cusack and Jack Black have all been Gang members over the years, along with Tim’s sister Adele and brother David (the Gang’s Musical Director). It’s a family of renegade theatre artists, who leave their egos at the door, train together, question, argue, provoke and create ‘bold, original works for the stage and daring reinterpretations of the classics’.
Originally in Theater Row on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Actors’ Gang is now at the Ivy Substation, with its jumble of dressing-rooms, offices, wardrobe store, a bare-brick auditorium, and a foyer bar flowing out into the cool of the park. They create shows either from scratch or from a known text, pooling skills, ideas, political passions and research, then feeding in the Gang ‘style’, which shapes, assembles and fires up the show.
The ‘style’ is all. Unique to the Gang, it springs from commedia, and the dynamic of the ensemble. Emotions are worn like masks, indicating the ‘state’ to be conveyed – HAPPY, ANGRY, AFRAID or SAD – and instantly engaging the audience as in pantomime or circus. It can seem like a strait-jacket on a less experienced actor, but once learnt and practised, it becomes an instinctive theatre language, bonding the actors into an elastic, interdependent troupe, delivering raucous entertainment and at the same, in James Baldwin’s words: ‘laying bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers’.
The Lexus glides into the forecourt of a roadside restaurant and we take a pit-stop for an early lunch. ‘We’ are Sabra Williams, actor and director of the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, Richard Crane and Faynia Williams, author and director of Satan’s Ball which had a reading at the Gang yesterday.
We have been here four days, seen the final performance of their epic production of Red Noses by Peter Barnes, attended a fundraising event for Get Lit, an education programme where kids at risk from gangs perform poetry alongside Helen Mirren and Tim Robbins. We have taken part in the first exploratory workshop for a new show on the American Revolution, where each actor brings research into a particular character, then becomes that character, gets costumed, made up, is interrogated, and has to argue and interact with other characters until scenes emerge.
And we have had a Gang reading of Satan’s Ball. That is the main reason we are here. Based on The Master and Margarita, Satan’s Ball is a passion play/political satire/rock musical about demonic rout in Moscow and political turmoil in Jerusalem. Provocative, disturbing, moving and hilarious, the play calls up all the ‘states’ and exactly fits the ethos of the Gang. The actors, some new to the ‘style’, some with years of experience, tapped straight into the play’s magic, Robbins himself playing three parts. ‘The next step is to try and schedule in the full production,’ says Tim.