October 24, 2010

Turning a novel into a play

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , at 2:40 pm by Susan

Sebastian Faulks once remarked that transposing a novel to another medium is like trying to turn a painting into sculpture.

It’s an image I’ve been thinking about this summer as I’ve watched Vanessa and Virginia transform into a stage play.

What first struck me on reading Elizabeth Wright’s script was the drastic scissoring away of words. Anything not absolutely essential to moving the story forward had been ruthlessly cut. Probably I should have expected this: a play script is after all considerably shorter than a novel.

What I could not have anticipated, though, was the economy with which words were used in rehearsal. I vividly remember director Emma Gersch encouraging the actors to play games together as they searched for a way to perform the childhood scenes. They were asked to chase and mimic each other, to compete against each other, to explore the walls and furniture with their hands – but not to speak. Eventually they were allowed to include one line from the script in their games.

This different emphasis – on physical and emotional exploration rather than words – continued through the rehearsal process. One afternoon designer Kate Unwin returned from a shopping expedition with a pair of round-framed spectacles she had found in a local charity shop. Immediately, Sarah Fullager (who plays Virginia) began working with the spectacles in an attempt to locate a point of empathy with the older Woolf. Watching the alterations the spectacles occasioned in her demeanour was riveting.

All this makes me wonder if Sebastian Faulks’ metaphor is the right one. What defines sculpture as a medium is its stillness: a viewer must move round it to see all its angles. A play, on the other hand, is anything but still. As I learned from watching the rehearsals for Vanessa and Virginia, in the theatre everything – from the actors’ bodies to lighting – is there to bring the characters and their stories to life.  

I’m trying to think of a better analogy….

October 16, 2010

My perfect writing day

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , at 9:56 am by Susan


Woolf's writing hut


There’s a fascinating discussion going on at She Writes about what constitutes the perfect writing day.

Here’s mine.

I wake up having had enough sleep. This is important – if I’ve had one of those nights where it feels as if the world’s traffic has been using my brain as a concourse I can forget about writing.

The day will be with one with nothing else in it. The ‘to do’ list I revise each evening and leave for myself in the centre of my desk will have one word on it: writing.

Tea (strong, with a little milk), a bowl of high-energy cereal, then a brief venture outside. I walk the few steps to the garden gate and peer over it. Two giant Ash trees grow opposite and I watch them for a moment, thinking how Virginia Woolf described taking ideas to her writing hut each morning like a delicately balanced basket of eggs.

If whatever I am writing is already well advanced I start as soon as I get to my desk. If it isn’t – if I am still feeling my way in to the characters and their story – then the process of beginning takes longer. Sometimes all I achieve are notes.

I force myself to exercise at the end of the morning: yoga, aerobics, if the weather is good a walk or run. My reward is lunch which I eat listening to the words in my head, outside if I can.

Unlike most writers I know, I always do my best work in the afternoons, beginning about 2 and working through to 4 or sometimes 5. After this, no matter how well the writing is going, I come to a natural stop. I look forward to my son returning from school, to switching on email and letting the world flood in.

Oh, and my perfect writing day ends with the knowledge that tomorrow will be exactly the same.

October 9, 2010

Displacement before writing

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , at 10:45 am by Susan

Why is it so difficult to start a piece of writing? This week I cleared space to begin working on a new novel but for some reason I have managed to fritter away the time, persuading myself that I really should send  that reference/keep on top of my inbox/clean out the fridge/take that picture I’ve had since Christmas to the framer.

It isn’t fear of the blank page that’s stopping me. I have my characters, the setting, I even know some of the things that are going to happen in my story. I am eager to fill in the gaps. But for some reason I keep putting off the start.

Writing a novel is often compared to a journey, full of lows as well as highs, and some of my prevarication is perhaps analogous to what I imagine a long-distance swimmer might feel before diving in. Part of me longs to be in the water again, while another part is reluctant to leave dry land. It’s a question of preparedness too – to write you have to accept that for months to come you won’t be available to attend to all life’s details and that some things, frankly, will slip by the way. At least some of the postponement is practical. References do after all have to be sent, fridges cleaned.

I’ve just looked up the word displacement in the dictionary. One of its meanings is ‘the transfer of emotion to a less threatening source’. This is helpful. There is a fear of failure in delaying writing. While my new novel exists only in my head, it is possible it will convey more exactly than my last one that shadowy but compelling vision I  can see bobbing somewhere far ahead of me.

And towards which I know I must swim.

To share your displacement stories, please leave a comment