The inner life of a book

TheManWhoWasThursdaySo. For the last two days I have been in a writing workshop run by Northumberland Theatre Company in the labyrinth of Alnwick Playhouse. The first day, with Ann Coburn was about structure, layering, subtext and dialogue, the second, with Stewart Howson was all about adaptation.

The primary point of the morning was the importance of being true to the inner life of the original in the new medium. That is much more important than slavishly following the original structure and order of narrative (I have ranted about this sort of thing previously, but Stewart got the point across much more strongly).

We then did an exercise (of course). We each had to chose a book, identify the inner life and then, using newspaper and string, express that inner life in an installation. We also had to produce a one line pitch, a sentence summary and paragraph summary of the book. The process of taking the inner life from the medium of words to the sculptural-conceptual newpaper was weird, but strangely fulfilling: just what was at the heart of the book, and how could that be expressed in paper and string?

When every one was finished, we went round look at each installation in turn, trying to guess the book from just the newspaper. If we didn’t get that (which was the usual result) we got the one line pitch, then the sentence summary and finally the paragraph. We got a few quite quickly (Henry James, Portrait of a Lady), others were obscure books no one other than the adaptor had read.

Now you can join in the fun. The picture at the top of this post is my installation (ignore the rectangular white lines: those are just markings on the floor). So: can you identify the book?

If not, here’s the pitch:

It’s not paranoia if they are watching you

Got to it yet? If not, then here’s the longer phrase:

When your enemies turn out to be your friends, who is the last enemy?

Still not got it? OK. Here’s the paragraph:

At the end of the nineteenth century the forces of anarchy and law are warring over the body and soul of humanity. On man embarks on a suicidal mission to uncover the heart of disorder, only to find himself anointed as the messenger of chaos. Unable to avoid the task, he struggles to identify his friends and his enemies.

Of course, it’s G K Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday.

I don’t really want to say much more about the book – spoilers – but a key theme is about unfolding knowledge, hence the spiral of gradually unfolding pieces of paper.

Now, that was just an exercise, but I continued to think about the book as we did the next section on holding frames or framing devices. By the end of the afternoon I knew exactly how I would adapt the book for the stage. So, if anyone wants an adaptation of The Man who was Thursday for a small touring company, get in touch, I’m ready to write it.

99% perspiration

So. Here I am in a field (fortunately in a tent as well), reflecting on today’s writing workshop at Catalyst Festival. I wanted to do something on the necessary disciplines of editing and revising: we are still too tied to the romantic and spiritual ideal of inspiration. We spend a lot of time thinking about how the initial process of creation happens, when we push back against the void, whether white page or blank screen, to make something, but we spend less time thinking about what happens next, when that formless, unshaped thing needs to be licked into shape. (And licking into shape is a very appropriate image: remember that a bear cub, newborn, has no form until its mother, by repeated application of her tongue, creates limbs, torso and head.)

I wanted to give experience of critiquing, to start to build those editorial instincts that can be used to turn the ‘all right’ into the extra-ordinary. What better way to begin than by offering one of my own poems for study?

I chose a recent piece which is still in its early stages, here it is:

Acacia Baileyana
or Under it all a seed

Disorder is reduced
To a more rational register
Noise flares
Shift to silence
Branches burst
The marks and symptoms of disease
are disinfected as they run
Tongues of satisfaction
offer the warmed sky simplified matter
then subside to harder contènt
After bitter resistance
unruly colour
settles down to grey

What would they make of it?

First, the basic question of ‘what is it about?’ A surprise for me there: turns out I must have had my obscurity dial set to high when I gave this a title, as only one out of the nine people round the table said ‘fire’. Acacia Baileyana is an Australian tree, the seed of which only germinates after it has been heated by a forest fire. It turns out not many people know that.

Once I gave the hints they started to make sense of it a little more, and I received useful comments: the first two lines might fit better at the end, the marks and symptoms of disease need to be clarified, the pairing of long and short lines could be tightened. All good stuff, which I will ponder.

But the best thing is that those nine people have spent time analysing someone else’s work, and are beginning to develop some of the skills needed to analyse their own.