The challenge of difference

Maddy Costa

I write this sitting on a train to Birmingham which, as opening sentences go, is so many leagues below “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” that already I’m frustrated. I’ve started writing this in a week when I will publish four pieces on four different web sites: my blog, a collaborative space that I co-curate with Mary Paterson, the blog shared by Chris Goode & Company, and the online magazine Exeunt. So it’s a good time to be thinking about how I write, not just physically, as a body sitting on trains, in hotel beds, at my desk, very rarely in cafes because unbearable cliche, but how I shape words for the spaces that will hold them; or, how the perception of the container makes me reconsider the liquid – water or rum? milk or mercury? – I want to pour into them.

I’m writing this now on the invitation of Andrew Latimer, but it’s a constant preoccupation, this question of how I write, or rather, how to write. That list of blog sites represents about half of the places I (self-) publish on a regular basis; there are other incidental writing projects, too. The latter tend to feel most difficult: I struggle to adapt to the tone of academic journals, for instance; my writing feels stilted, and takes significantly longer to assemble. I need a sense of context when I write, more than a sense of readership, which is so disparate and abstract as to feel meaningless. Reading other pieces in the publication helps but doesn’t solve the essential problem that my writing voice doesn’t know how to speak into a space until it’s already spoken in it.

But I’m running ahead of myself: as an avid reader of “how I write” columns (despite them provoking a tremor of shame, that what I’m doing is scanning between the lines for the magic spell to make me a writer of note, or value, or profundity), I know I’m skating over mechanics. I write this sitting on a train to Birmingham, facing forwards to avoid travel sickness, occasionally distracted by the cartwheel of wind turbines, the gurgle of river, scolding myself for every glance at twitter. I love writing on trains: perhaps it’s the time constraint, its concentration; perhaps it’s the scud of imagery outside the window, like a personal trainer jogging alongside, encouraging my brain to keep lively, keep moving. When travelling, I write on a notebook computer that was my consolation prize for turning 35 and is, along with a thesaurus, my near-constant companion (I keep the thesaurus handy because words can be unbearably elusive; I check meanings before settling on a synonym, and would travel everywhere with the double-volume Oxford English Dictionary if I could. Apps are a poor substitute for the shuffle of paper between fingertips). Apart from the fact that my arms and back are in the wrong position and often I end a train journey with the twinges of repetitive strain injury (RSI), this is probably how I’d like to write all the time, propelling forward through the outer world while absorbed in my inner one.

Instead, most of my writing is done in a small room in my house, painted duck-egg blue, with maps of London on the walls and a window looking over the tatty back garden, at a desk always cluttered with books and receipts and reusable paper, with a pull-out shelf for the keyboard that keeps my elbows at the correct angle, and an ergonomic chair that supports my back, despite which two years ago I had such bad RSI in my right arm that I needed physiotherapy. Bodies are boring and not fit for purpose. I use an old-fashioned desktop computer; across the top of the monitor I’ve written in red pen two lines encountered via Rajni Shah: “The question is not, ‘How can I, one person, make a difference?’ The question is, ‘What kind of difference do I want to make?’” The dictionaries stand guard on a shelf behind me. When the sun shines full through the window I have to squint at the screen but feel warmed; when winds squall and rains lash the room’s size (if not temperature) becomes even cosier. This sense of protection is important because increasingly I’m interested in what it means to be unprotected as a writer. To strip away layers of ego and pretence, to be truthful to the point of abasement: not self-deprecating for the sake of modesty, self-critical as a subterfuge for attracting compliments, but recognising the rawness of what it is to be human, the smallness of what it is that differentiates us from animals, the abject bloodiness of existence. To dig ever deeper into what it means to love the changing colours of the sky, the science of baking, laughing with children, while silently wishing you were dead.

I’ve been at the same desk over the course of nine years in which I stopped working in an office, became a mum, and started publishing primarily online. The first of those opened time up in ways that felt magic, as I discovered how much it’s possible to get done when not caught up in office chitchat; the second closed it down again, requiring that I squeeze work around childcare; the third presented a conundrum that I’m nowhere near solving. If I’m going to write online, then I want to write in a way that wouldn’t be possible on paper. Even if I knew what that writing looked like, I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, because I can’t code. I love the way Megan Vaughan uses twine and emoji in her reviews, but there is a degree to which even that writing could be printed out on sheets of paper and function in the same way. I’m interested in the writing that can’t be printed out without fundamentally changing its character. Writing that stretches like a cat, breathes like an accordion, drifts through time like a bottle in the ocean. Every now and then I re-read this review of the game Infinity Blade (I’m hoping it hasn’t been withdrawn) and yowl with envy: writing that rewrites itself before your eyes, becoming more complex, political and emotional with every pulse? That holy grail is now my life quest.

The closest I’ve come so far – and it’s a meagre achievement, by comparison – is integrating youtube videos of songs whose lyrics or mood in some way exemplify a point, or offer additional context, or a different kind of reflection, or amplify the writing’s own atmosphere of performance. It makes sense that music should be a tool I use to reinvent my writing, because it’s what got me writing in the first place: reading music magazines and wanting to join the garrulous pack of NME. Writing about music for the Guardian, which I rarely have the privilege to do any more, still feels like a challenge in a way that writing about theatre for them stopped being years ago (except in the dismal period when I was writing for an editor who would only accept my work if it read as though he’d written it). After 18 years of practice, I still have no idea how to write about music: I lean on borrowed notions of synaesthesia, have fun with metaphor, but it’s all inadequate for expressing the internal chemical reactions music can provoke.

Writing about theatre for the Guardian (and, before that, Time Out) used to be similarly challenging; but, after a decade, I realised that my brain had locked in place a series of synapses dedicated to the 300- or 400-word review, and that made the job easier. The structure became a blueprint: the shell of a house, into which I slotted furniture suited to the show. About a year ago, I started writing reviews for Exeunt, and each time I start one I feel those synapses crackle. It would make sense for me to write neat 400-word reviews for them: this is unpaid work. But where’s the challenge, the risk, the excitement in that? Sometimes I frame that challenge as an attempt to honour the form of the work I’ve seen, to convey within the structure or dramaturgy of my writing something of the structure or dramaturgy of the performance. Sometimes I describe it in opposition to an argument of Matt Trueman‘s: each show has a distinctive code at its heart, and once you’ve cracked it, you’ve got your review. Rather than a single code, I prefer to think that for each show there is a set of keys, and each one opens a different way in. My writing will describe one journey through – and I attempt to do so as vividly as possible – and if it’s not a journey you recognise, that’s fine: the door you unlocked was different.

Exeunt is at one end of the spectrum of writing I do about theatre; my blog is at the other. In the middle is the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood site, which I’ve curated for Fuel for the past three years. Whenever I get a journalism itch, this is where I scratch it: I use that blog for campaigning, cheerleading, questioning, prodding. I write faster there, and in a chattier tone: NTiYN is an outreach project, and I don’t want anyone coming to it to feel alienated by language or disruptive grammar. Underlying that is an awareness of how my writing is affected by money: Fuel pay me £100 per day to work on NTiYN, and I want that to travel as far as possible. A year ago, producer Ric Watts began to work a similar (slightly higher) day rate for me into his budgets for Chris Goode & Company; I’d already been with them for over three years, unpaid, and find it bewildering that a change so beneficial to me has caused me so much consternation. Instead of recognising that being paid something is better than being paid nothing, I keep attempting to hold the writing within an answerable, invoiceable, hourly time limit, when usually what it wants is to unfold over weeks.

Of anything in my life, working with Chris Goode has had the most radical effect on how I write. Not just for the obvious reasons (for starters, here’s the listing from the 2016 Stage 100 power list, where Chris is number 86: “one of the most interesting and surprising theatremakers in the British theatre industry”), but for something more selfish, personal, even spiritual: I feel like I now have a reader. That phrase has a specific root: in 2014 I read a novel by Patricia Duncker, Hallucinating Foucault, about a French queer novelist with bipolar disorder, and in her description of the fictional relationships between him, Foucault, and the narrator, I felt a shock of recognition. There’s the bit on page 75, quoting one of his unsent letters to Foucault: “You ask me what I fear most. You know already or you would not ask. It is the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write. My greatest fear is that one day, unexpectedly, suddenly, I will lose you.” The bit on page 152, where he says: “You are always listening, I think, when you write, for the voice which answers.” And the bit on page 107, where the narrator admits: “I felt unadventurous, prim and middle class.” At the time, I had recently published my thoughts on Chris’ show God/Head, one of the hardest things I’ve ever written, and the book landed bomb-like: the relationships Duncker shapes are not at all the same, but in that love glowing with veneration, I discovered the words for my regard for Chris. Everything I write attempts to answer his challenge: not in the way that I once attempted to please an editor, but in the striving always to be brave and push harder. It means I have to trick myself sometimes that no one else is reading: occasionally a member of my family mentions the blog and I balk, because in no way is it intended for them.

Though all-consuming, the change has been gradual. I look back at the earliest posts on my blog and find the voice in them strange and constrained. I started it partly knowing I needed a home for the writing I would do alongside Chris, but also to answer a frustration in myself: that I had been soaking up theatre like a sponge and had nowhere to squeeze the thoughts out; that the space available to me in the Guardian was too constricted; that there were theatre-makers whose work wasn’t being championed (at the time, I was one of eight people and a dust mote who loved Kneehigh’s production of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) or even noticed, to whom I could give some attention. But the writing this initially produced – breezy, shallow, limited to 1000 words; an outpost of my journalism – wasn’t a solution but a restatement of the problem. The more I read other writers – Matt Trueman’s blog reviews of Constellations and Chris’ production of 9 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse were particularly influential; as was Megan Vaughan on Three Kingdoms; as is pretty much everything by Andy Field and Mary Paterson – the more I felt I had to up my game.

When I write for the blog now, which isn’t often, it goes one of two ways: a piece will emerge in a passionate explosion, like a lava spill from a volcano, relentless, messy and scorching; or I work on it painstakingly, like a sculptor with wood, attempting to follow the grain of the words to shape something unique and with heart-snagging beauty. Those longer, crafted posts might take me several weeks, not consecutively but returned to over time: they are as much rewritten as written, because I want the rhythms to be inexorable and every word essential. Rhythm is important to me; so much so that over the past year (again influenced by Andy Field) I’ve made tentative moves towards the rhythms of poetry – and with that, the compression, and something of the elliptical resistance. I don’t know where that’s going, but it’s another way of answering my restless desire for challenge. (Although, right after that “sitting in the kitchen sink” line, the narrator of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle notes that “I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it”: conceivably where it’s going is a crashing dead end.)

Writing over a long span of time can be useful: often in that period when a blog post is in progress I’ll read a book or hear a song that makes my thoughts flare. I’m interested in the ways that words assemble themselves in a space between conscious and subconscious thought: often I will sit up with a piece of writing until 3am, getting nowhere, only for it to flow out smoothly after I’ve done the school run, as though the thing wrote itself in my sleep. I never write by hand any more because a pen can’t keep pace; it’s reached the point, with typing, where I wonder whether it’s my fingers doing the thinking. But memory becomes an issue: I rarely take notes now when watching theatre (the influence of Andrew Haydon meeting the admission that you can’t truly pay attention to what you’re watching if you’re simultaneously preoccupied with documenting it), which opens up a risk of writing unintentional falsehoods. Nor do I jot down thoughts or phrases as they occur to me, in the mistaken belief that if the idea is strong enough, it’ll stick; usually when I publish a piece, even one that has taken several weeks, I’ll remember within the hour four sentences I’d intended to include but forgotten.

I keep using this word “pieces” to describe what I write: it’s vague enough to apply to any kind of writing for any kind of publication, and allows me to avoid the academic pose of “essay”. (I’m wary to the point of rudeness about academic writing, partly because I have a pathetic sense of inferiority for not having even an MA, partly because words like “epistemology” bring me out in hives.) But it reminds me of a speech Chris gave at the Bush theatre in 2012: he was talking about making theatre, but it’s part of the challenge of working with him that I relate to it, too. He asked: “If what we make are ‘pieces’, then what’s the whole of which each of those pieces is a piece? And how can I make the work that I share with audiences, and with my fellow artists, representative in every case of the whole of what I want?” Working with Chris, I’ve become bolder about the extent to which, as a writer, I don’t want to embody or re-enact the oppressive systems in place in our society: the hierarchical systems that judge, categorise and sustain the conditions in which inequality – including that expressed as racism, homophobia or misogyny – thrives. I realise that some people will find that ridiculous; that to most people the work I do looks indulgent, unnecessary, and small. But the radical shift in how I write has been to see in criticism the potential for a political endeavour, one that attempts to shape within the world that exists a world that exists not yet. This phrase, borrowed from the book Crack Capitalism by anti-capitalist writer John Holloway, denotes the potential society not just fought for by activists but that already surrounds us, inhabited through ongoing acts of thoughtful resistance. What another writer, Ann Cvetkovich, in Depression: A Public Feeling, calls a “utopia of ordinary habit”, finding within the scope of everyday living the tools we need to build alternatives to neoliberalism.

In times of self-loathing, I berate myself as someone who vanity-publishes blog posts because I haven’t the talent or stamina for the more sustained and creative task of writing fiction. But when I’m being kinder to myself, I acknowledge that this way of writing about or from theatre is a sustained and creative task, too, one that requires absolute commitment in the absence of recognised or legitimising structures, and imagination in creating new, horizontal structures for it to inhabit. I finish this sitting back at my desk, where the monitor now has a new phrase written on it, words once spoken by David Bowie: “What I do is simple. I just make different choices to other people.” It’s there because I want this to be how I write: with simplicity – but a whole lot of difference.

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