One of my favourite writing maxims is: “swing hard, in case you hit the ball.”
I love a bad sports metaphor. This one sums up the elements of chance and difficulty which constitute good writing. The number of articles I have spent days working on, researching and redrafting, only to strike out time after time… I’ve lost count.
This question of how I write comes at a time when I’ve been thinking about the spaces in which I write and the conditions under which I write. The first refers to how I change my writing – and the pools I draw from – depending on whether or not I’m The Academic, The Blogger or The Reviewer for a Publication. It also suggests the literal spaces (at home; in public; on transport) that my writing unfolds in. The second refers to the filters, language and visibility I have accessed through my education and opportunities, and the degrees of time, pay and creative license which govern my rhythm, periodicity, readership and connection to whatever it is I’m writing about. It also indicates the pressures of geography [I’m based in Newcastle and regional venues want local critics to write for national publications to give them exposure], under which critics fulfil basic PR duties. I therefore want to spend my essay talking about this idea of “changing” how I write, something which I never really stop to think about because it’s subconscious, instantaneous and trite to most people.
I always write by accumulation, adding bits and pieces over a period of days or weeks. Often, the grand total of these writing sessions is complete trash, which I purge from my laptop and my brain. Sometimes, I publish the trash, wincing as it goes out into the world. The discomfort then eases as it fades into the fog of the Web. In all honesty, I must only publish an article once or twice a year which doesn’t resemble a leaking bin bag. I look over to the prolific and brilliant Vile Arts or the stunningly thoughtful and considered Deliq in awe.
I write in an unstructured way, which I imagine is frustrating to read. Typically, I write lots of notes in transitional spaces. On trains and buses. Walking around cities. Jotting things down in between day job assignments. So my writing feels turbulent, transitory, cursory, site-specific, liminal, all those things, I don’t know. I seldom binge or write as a stream of consciousness. There are times when I’ve tried to do this but I can’t maintain it. So my writing accumulates in many different environments and seeps in through the cracks, which confirms my view that writing is just as much a spatial practice as it is literary.
I always try to find links between notes, but they’re usually apparent: a particular show I’ve seen, my thoughts about the industry, my locality and so on. On the one hand, it’s chaotic and disjointed, a muddle which I then try to unscramble by sitting down to write it all up as a blog post. On the other, it’s all-consuming, of which the published post is merely a public iteration, the “seen” version of my thought process.
I purposely try to steer clear of evaluative terms when I’m making notes on a show, as I’m wary of how they contribute to confirmation bias. My notes instead tend to describe simple plot lines and physiological feelings at precise moments of a performance, which I’m then terrible at resurrecting later in a review. I’ve realised that I rarely make notes at all any more, and attempt to recall the show without prompts, which is, in itself, a peculiar thing. The definite place-ness of theatre melts away during my process of writing, as it ceases to be site-bound. How I write is as much about splurging everything onto the page in an attempt to simply remember what happened.
Now that I think about it, I hardly ever write by hand. Perhaps, for me, it’s a generational/nerd synthesis thing where I’ve just grown up with computers, and typing has become synonymous with writing. I usually key in a thought on my phone and send it to myself to pick up at a later date. I go away and research theories or “evidence” for that specific thought, hoping to open up new angles of vision into what it is I’m trying to say. This fails a lot of the time or I end up explaining things rather than simply describing them. This has always been my problem, part of an unending task to liberate my blogging from my essay writing. That process gets wrapped up in procrastination, as I cycle through Twitter, Facebook and news websites, taking in rolling headlines and pop culture references which either distort, refract or strengthen my theme [which also leads me to think that all my articles are basically just products of crowdsourcing, meaning that same hive-mind becomes my envisioned readership: a homogenised mass as opposed to individual readers].
It’s important to underline that I only use this fissured methodology for my blogging. I’m never worried about not updating my blog. Nor am I worried about posting something awful. There are no editors, I’m not getting paid and I’m explicit with readers about how I use it as a space for arbitrary ideas as well as “polished” criticism. In this sense, I think of it more like a playground of opinions, which can be both private and public or heaving and derelict, as opposed to a factory. The freedoms I enjoy when writing on my blog allow me to edit, erase or accept ideas on a more fluid (and less judgemental) basis. Basically, there’s less pressure. I regulate my own schedule and the outcomes of my labour. I used to write with the sole intention of making puns but I failed miserably in 2015.
That being said, how I write is also how I edit. I am a serial re-writer. I wouldn’t mention this but it’s such a fundamental procedure in my writing, whether or not it’s deleting and starting over, chopping and changing sections of a blog post or meticulously checking the spelling and grammar. [Again, most likely an occupational hazard from academia.] For all I write in different spaces, I’d guess that 50% of what I write is a product of re-writing. I try to add in Sublime Gags when I think the text is drying out, but it just comes across as either clumsy or creepy, like now.
My blog is a self-fulfilling space. Even if no-one read it, I would still find it useful as a canvas to explore ideas and art. For me, writing and thinking are co-constituted. I don’t try to express an idea when I write but summon, narrate, interrogate, chisel and then either store, discard or publish it – a belief I’ve tried to explore in my ‘writing as hope’ series. That’s why I have ten times as many drafts on WordPress as I do published posts. Because I use writing as a way of composing a thought, I usually publish something before it’s actually “finished”. By the time I publish, I’m just sick of looking at it. Nevertheless, I obviously want people to read it – and this desire to be read is, most likely, what motivates me.
This is when I don’t have a publication or editor to worry about. When those things come into play, an extra set of considerations fold into the way I write. They usually orbit deadlines (the same goes for academia), which are bizarre constructs, paired with the synchronisation of other people’s schedules, the mechanisation of publishing practices, the co-opting of creativity by neoliberalism, and the hangover from print media. Even on the occasions when I’m not getting paid, which, to be honest, is too often, I think of writing for a publication as more like “real work”. The idea that I’m writing “for” the publication as well as “their” readership (as opposed to writing for myself and my readership on my blog) often looms pretty large. I don’t know if it’s about ownership or about feeling more closely tied to what I’m writing about and who it is I’m writing for.
This subtle shift, however, invades my writing practices with all kinds of self-censorship or doubts about the quality of the final product. I think this doubt is connected to freedom and control. My blog is a space in which I want to write, where I always consider my work to be “unfinished”, and publications are places I feel like I should or must write for to “gain exposure” or get paid. I feel like I’m not “in conversation” with a reader as I am on my blog. Perhaps it’s because tightly controlled environments are also, classically, restrictive ones. They replicate state/institutional power or geographic biases which create false systems of hierarchical value and clumsy binaries of good and bad. They also conceive of “centrality” as meaning anything beyond it is “fringe”. Or it might be down to the strangeness of an article coexisting with hundreds of others by people you’ve never even met or spoken to.
If I review for Exeunt, I start to write the full piece in one session, to a word limit, attempting to strike off the critical checklist (acknowledging cast, creative team, venue). Even though Exeunt is considered one of the more radical websites, it still obeys the laws of print media and the industry it critiques. Some of the structures, like having an editor and a word limit, are useful: they allow a writer to discuss an ongoing draft and sculpt something which won’t bore a reader to death (even though editors are also sometimes censors). And when long-form is called for, they’re open to that, too.
I am awful at writing with personality, and this is something that Exeunt mercifully tries to encourage because God knows I need the encouragement. Yet I feel like I write with a greater primacy of rhythm on my blog, which is, again, connected to the idea of total freedom. My words are chattier and more academic at the same time on my blog, and so hopefully more… real? Whilst I appreciate how Exeunt editors work with writers, I often wonder how that could be turned into co-authorship or collaboration even more; probably through an obliteration of print laws. This is even more urgent (but less practical) in super-regulated environments, like writing for Fest during the Edinburgh Fringe.
I also write for Exeunt for added exposure, which means I am trying to appeal to a wider audience, which means I reify my language. Even though the reader I imagine may also be the same reader who follows my blog, I must abide by the publication’s standards that dictate where a piece of critical writing is “allowed” to go. Critical writing isn’t the only manifestation of critical thinking. But since I’m so caught up in trying to become a “better” writer, I haven’t found myself experimenting with form in the ways Tim Bano, Meg Vaughan, Gareth K. Vile and James Varney do. At times, I feel like Exeunt has branded creative reviewing itself, which is alienating to me as a fairly orthodox writer. And it’s what makes independent blogging all the more important.
Exeunt is hugely London-serving, both in terms of the live performance discussed on the website and where its writers are based geographically. Admittedly, Bristol has grown in representation and the odd thing from the Midlands, the North West and the North East. I don’t actually mind this because there are great writers working on it and there is, without doubt, more immediate art to write about in London. But I don’t think Exeunt is the ideal of online theatre criticism, because its function is to industrialise and homogenise diverse voices, thus establishing a monopoly. This is always the consequence of snapping up talent and lumping it in one place. If I write for Exeunt, I think “where is my writing going?” and “with what/whom is it coexisting?”
I think this idea of destination is important because it’s about asking who is accessing my words. When I send a review off to Exeunt, it feels like it has travelled some extra distance before it gets published, which estranges me from my own work. Whereas when I publish on my blog, I am physically closer to the article and the reader. This might just be a psycho-spatial quirk of writing in Newcastle, but my blog feels exclusive in a good way whereas Exeunt feels exclusive in a bad way. I don’t know if exclusivity is ever beneficial but there’s some personal commitment/solidarity thing about reading a blogger, as if you’ll understand an in-joke about an article they wrote the month beforehand or simply resonate with who they are. Granted, you can just as easily follow a columnist writing for a publication, but this takes us back to obstructive print structures.
I also think it’s important because, largely, MSM still conceptualise the Internet as a top-down space, where certain voices are not only privileged over others, they are defended as being necessary to “rise above the noise”. It is easier (but lazy) for us to think of the Internet as a noisy place instead of a forum in which we think out loud, where we might appreciate that arguments are part of one big conversation rather than hundreds of little ones. For me, I write shapelessly to add to the noise, to deepen its tone and enrich its melody, not to shout over the top of it (he says, with unavoidable hubris).
I guess then it becomes difficult to talk about how I write without thinking about why I write. My race (white), gender (cis male), language (English), age (25), sexual preference (hetero), education (postgraduate) and geographical place in the world (UK) all inform the orthodox decisions I make and words I wield. This privilege gives me access to everything, including a critical register which I constantly take for granted. I worry that my writing then serves to reproduce structures of oppression on the page, whether or not that includes the silencing of other writers or the duplication of racist and colonial ideologies. That’s why I choose to write outside the vision of the MSM, and from the starting point of living in the North East of England, in order to think about the architectures of coexisting, collaborative or disruptive spaces.