Friday, 11 November 2011

Getting it Right : The Art of Taking Notes

Anna (not her real name) (so I could I call her Pallas Athene. Jocasta. Ankehesanamun [queen of Egypt BC 1348]) (yeah, I could, but it’s £$** hard to type)  is not only a dear friend she is my first reader.

She receives my scripts as they appear, freshly lasered, or pixelated into early drafts on the screen. She is the source of the best comments and editorial suggestions. She confirms Christine’s opinions and, as a writer herself, translates them into equations I can solve technically.

Equations that can begin ‘I hate Gladys’ if, say, I had written a script about someone called Gladys. ‘I hate Gladys,’ she would write, and at that point I would know where she stood.

Once I was writing a mildly autobiographical piece and the sentence was ‘I hate Stephanie.’ Very bracing let-me-tell-you. And she was right. Fictional Stephanie was hateful. So I changed her name (and pretty much everything else).

And she always begins with praise. What works and why. What she enjoys, what moves and amuses her, what engages her. She then examines, with surgical precision, what doesn’t work. Sometimes it is a very simple note with far-reaching consequences – ‘What motivates her?’ or ‘You haven’t earned this’; sometimes it’s just simple: ‘Cut that.’

But sometimes, as in the ‘I hate Stephanie’ moment, she is inspired to comments with a full-bodied energy and passion ‘ I wanted to slap her, who would date THAT? She’s ungenerous and unkind’ – that, trusting her wholly, she knows I will ride as an expert surfer does the high wave to the pacific beauty of a Much Better Draft.

I don’t mind the passion.

What I dread is the quiet.

The small sentence.

The blood-chilling phrase  - ‘Shall we meet?’

Then I know I’m fucked.

When I was at university I lived with a girl called Maureen, the only daughter in a tribe of older brothers. She described, with remarkable good nature, the abuse she underwent on a daily basis – kneed in the chest, drooled over, used for Nerf ball target practise, and, generally, the focus of casual assault whenever one of her five siblings was around.

‘My brothers tackled me. All the time. Because I would do something – like, spit in their milkshakes – no, believe me, they had it coming – and I’d take off down the lawn and one of them would be behind me. And I’d be ripping, I’d be tearing down the grass, heading for the fence, I’d hear him behind me. I’d hear him running and I’d be running and he’d be running, thump thump thump, and that’s fine. The running is fine. The bad moment was when the running stopped. Because I know where he is. He’s in the air. And he’s in the air because he’s leaping and I know where he’s going to land…’

This is the dread I feel in the quiet of Anna’s brief email response. No passion, no hatred;  just something in the air and I know where it’s going to land.

Last month I met Anna on a hot Saturday afternoon in her local park to get notes on the rest of the pilot episode of HOME MOVIES – the 21 minutes that follow the seven minutes we have filmed. The dread had receded and I was beginning to look forward to the relief I knew her comments would inspire. I have always said that, in art, you cross the bridge of poo to get to the grassy knoll of truth (‘Grassy knoll?’ Chris said once. ‘Do you have to evoke murder in Dallas?’), and Anna was leading me across that bridge.

We sat on our favourite hillside overlooking a verdant playing field, leaves falling weirdly in the 27 degree October heat. She glanced around nervously.

‘Who are you looking for?’ I said, following her gaze.

‘You know who,’ she said. ‘He lives – somewhere - here.’

‘Ah!’ I said, understanding. And panicking, myself. I looked down the paths for the familiar, well-built shape of Stretch Williams [not his real name].

Stretch Williams is the only person in my whole life to whom I have ever said ‘I do not want to see or hear from you again.’ He dated my friend Carol and when she ended it, he couldn’t. He called her mates, he arranged coffees. To talk about her.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love to talk about her. I just also like to think at some point in the conversation someone is going to realise they are talking to me. Even if it is about her.

After three such coffees when Stretch rang I said I didn’t think things were working out and I ended it. 

I now run into Stretch as though he is some messenger from an Underworld, the kind your mother threatened you with if you didn’t accept dates from the lanky, greasy, Star Trek enthusiast who fancied you when no one else would. ‘Sell when you can, you are not for all markets!’ my mother shouted – or would have if she had known Shakespeare said it best.

(Lanky Tom Buskard went on to a hugely prolific publishing career as a science fiction writer. So. You know. Who’s laughing now.)

I’ve run into Stretch so often it’s become a kind of parallel social reality – as though we really are friends and have planned to meet. He is always gracious but, after ten minutes, he can see the flecks of foam forming around the sides of my mouth and lets me go.

I cursed myself for choosing this patch of ground. I wondered if we should skulk off to a café when Anna, with remarkable focus given the potential for imminent social danger, turned and looked at me. Steadily.

‘So,’ she said. Her voice resonant.

The air whistled, birds sang.

‘So,’ I muttered.

She kept my gaze.

And, as full awareness descended, eyes-wide and heart-pounding I was able to say ‘I have to re-write the whole thing,’ and feel Anna nod before I heard her voice, half-strangled, half-desperate, announce ‘Stretch.’

And I knew this wasn’t a spiritual suggestion.

I looked up and there was the pleasant face of the gym-visiting, yoga-practising, ex-girlfriend-obsessed Stretch Williams.

Swiftly, before standing, Anna turned and whispered, intensely ‘It has to get much more real, there has to be something else between the women that accounts for their relationship, you can’t sustain a half-hour with the tone you’ve set up in the first scene, you need separate motives for what they do that keeps them connected and then we realise somewhere that’s all they’ve ever had.’

I memorised her words as you would directions from the Troll indicating the Way Out of the Forest of Death, saw her turn to Stretch, kiss his cheek and suggest a walk.

She took the bullet.

I transcribed the notes.

I’ve said it before. Writing is a collaborative process, informed by the wisdom that a plurality of hearts applied to a question reveals an answer the single perspective would not have seen. You need your friends/editors/directors/ producers – even, or perhaps especially, if they hate what you’ve done and can tell you why.

Anna returned without Stretch.  She sat down. My pen was raised for the next string of pearls but she wasn’t thinking about me.

‘He’s publishing a novel. Faber and Faber.  He’s got a big deal in the States.’ She paused. ‘He didn’t mention Carol.’

I reeled. I was full of a begrudging admiration and thought about this unfortunate tendency I have to repel men who later become hugely successful. But, even in my regret, I awarded top marks to Stretch.

He’d obviously, somewhere inside, taken notes.

1 comment:

  1. I laughed out loud at "Sell when you can. You are not for all markets." Very funny and wise piece.