This is the second instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here.
I’ve spoken before, always with a sense of mumbling embarrassment, about the project that followed Windmills in my final year of high school and first years of uni; a lengthy, rambling, novelised retelling of my teenage years. While writing it I would insist that this was either a no-holds-barred examination of growing up in Generation Y or else a Kerouac-esque act of artistic self-reflection, but let’s be real; it was a gigantic exercise in self-indulgence. I wanted to turn myself into the literal hero of my own story, so I did. I spent over two years on this and I am not proud of it.
I’ve always seen the clear importance of my early projects in moving me forward. The autobiographical thing, not so much. The only value I could see in it, apart from being a cautionary tale about self-involved wankerism, was as an object of personal nostalgia, the chance to read my teenage self’s account of being a teenager. But thinking back on it the other day, a different understanding started to emerge.
When you’re a teenager you tend to think good writing is having as many big words and pseudo-philosophical reflections as possible. This was absolutely true of the first versions of Windmills and Boone Shepard. But I couldn’t write my own story that way because that style wasn’t reflective of who I was (the lesson here is very obvious in hindsight). So instead, trying as best as I could to be true to real events and my feelings about them, I wrote something that was roughly in the territory of how actual teenagers think and speak.
And my entire writing style changed.
Not long after that project, I tried to write a kind of parallel sequel to Windmills, telling much of the same story from a side character’s perspective. Realising fast that this book did not work as its own narrative, I resolved to merge it with the original. But the new material was just too different to the old; in that the characters and narration sounded somewhat grounded as opposed to the work of an arts major clinging to a thesaurus. For all its apparent redundancy, the autobiographical project had killed my previous writing style and in its place left me with something far better – a naturalistic voice.
The shift was clear in my first play written exclusively for the stage; One Year Ago, a kind of comedic spin on The Butterfly Effect. Characters bantered. They swore a lot. They acted stupidly. They stumbled over their words and said the wrong things. When I decided in late 2011 to rewrite the entirety of the Windmills story I continued that approach; telling the same dark tale but with more humour and humanity. It still didn’t entirely work, but it showed that I could take an old piece of writing and apply new skills to improve it. Something I then attempted to repeat with absolutely no success by novelising Phoenix, a bad attempt at a generic post-apocalyptic web series I’d made just out of high school. For all its issues, Windmills had merit and meaning that could be built on. Phoenix, not so much. All the skills in the world don’t matter a lot if there isn’t any you in your stories.
Of course, it’s a balancing act. Around the same time I wrote a couple of plays that had the opposite problem. Hometown was a melancholic examination of my relationship with the town where I grew up, while Reunion was a frothy comedy that doubled as an expression of how much I missed my high school friends. Both were deeply personal. Neither offered a lot to audiences who weren’t, well, me. That said, there’s a lot I like about them. Hometown is a structural mess, but it’s also an occasionally nuanced exploration of how different people navigate the complicated relationship we all have with where we come from. But beyond its central themes, it represented the first major instance of what’s become a recurring element of my writing.
I needed a character to illustrate to my protagonist, the neurotic and pathologically nostalgic Charlie, the dangers of remaining fixated on the past. And given I’d just finished another version of Windmills in which a major subplot involved co-lead character Lucy Nicholson hiding out in a small town, it made sense that Lucy and Charlie could meet. Lucy has a significant role in Hometown, but the details of her vaguely alluded-to dark past would only be clear to the five people who read the self-published Windmills. Still, this was somewhat deliberate. I realised early on that as much as I enjoyed the extra time spent with Lucy, this was not her story. Her role here had to further Charlie’s arc rather than that of a totally different work.
In the context of Hometown, the specifics of Lucy’s past mattered less than the fact she was grappling with it. But if you were familiar with both Hometown and Windmills they’d enrich each other. The former would give more insight into Lucy’s choices in the latter, which in turn would give you the whole of her arc. It’s something I’ve basically been doing ever since, including rogue ex-cop Jack Carlin’s central appearances in The Pact, The Inheritance and The Consequence – which also features Windmills villain Dominic Ford.
There are a couple of reasons I do this. One is that I like the idea of multiple stories elevating each other even if they are fundamentally standalone (which I try to ensure they are). The other is more a matter of convenience – if I need a ruthless crime lord character, why come up with a new one when I can just borrow Dominic Ford? Hometown kicked off that logic for me and it immediately carried on into Reunion – Charlie was the central character of both.
For its part, Reunion felt almost embarrassing. I was ashamed of the fact that I had struggled to move on from my high school life and friends. I was ashamed that I was an ostensible adult still obsessing over my teenage years. I was, on some level, ashamed of the fact that those things ate at me enough to write a play about them, which made then directing said play a weird experience.
I was alternately defensive and dismissive of the script. I tried to act as though it was entirely fiction, as if anybody without Reunion’s exact themes on their mind would choose to write about them.
But late in the day something changed. Finn, one of the cast members, asked me outright why an audience should care about our characters. My initial response was a cavalier ‘they shouldn’t’ (because obviously the play was just a silly one note comedy not touching on anything more personal and anyone who believed otherwise was mistaken). But as I sat on the question, I started to see it less as an implicit insult and more as a challenge I was capable of meeting. I had an inkling that intense nostalgia bolstered by a conviction that you were happier in the past was not exclusive to me. What the characters were experiencing was, I suspected, universal enough that people might care.
At the next rehearsal I told the cast exactly that. I stopped writing the play off as something meaningless and saw it through to production with a newfound belief in it.
None of that is to suggest Reunion worked. I will always have a soft spot for it, but it very much belonged to the trial-and-error period of my writing life. More than anything it taught me that writing is a vulnerable vocation. If a story is worth telling it will almost always be because it’s raw and uncomfortable and you. Before Reunion, I was terrified of exposing anything too personal in my writing. Post Reunion – well, I’m still terrified, but I’m a little better at managing that terror.
Writing words about writing words.