Jerilderie and John Safran: Staying out of the Way

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So it’s nearly Christmas. I don’t have much to say about Christmas; my kids love it so it’s good to make them happy but mostly I find it all a bit crass. So let’s move on.

This morning I finished reading John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi, a true crime account of the murder of a white supremacist named Richard Barrett by a black man, Vincent McGee. The book is an exhaustive account of Safran’s efforts to get to the bottom of what happened and, if you like Safran’s “nerdy enfant terrible” routine, it’s a ripper. He befriends McGee and ‘buys’ a good deal of his story after the man has been incarcerated for at least three decades. If you aren’t a Safran fan or are not familiar with his television work, you might find it something of a chore. However, what carries the book (I think) is his boyish excitement at getting caught up in both the investigation of the main players in the story, and the writing of the book. He makes no attempt, it should be noted, to keep himself out of the story.

Recently I completed preparing a unit of work for English teachers, as part of the Reading Australia project, on Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter. This text eluded me for some time– I had no idea how it approach the task of developing teaching or learning experiences evolving from it. It would seem to be written down more or less as it was dictated by Ned–most experts seem to agree that Kelly Gangmate Joe Byrne was the scribe–so it lacks formal sentence structure, grammar, punctuation. It is, as a text, somewhat chaotic for this reason. However, it is Ned’s story (or at least his version of events) in his own words, and for that reason it has a clearly defined cultural and historical significance.

Not long after I finished the Unit I picked up a Kelly hatchet job, The Kelly Gang Unmasked by Ian Macfarlane. I’ve read about five pages of this book and already it bugs the shit out of me. Why? Because it seems clear that Macfarlane made up his mind about Ned long before he wrote the book, so everything in it is therefore filtered through that prejudice. It’s laden with value judgements and therefore does not represent either good historical writing, or an interesting ‘true crime’ account. From the top of page 9: “Of course, Ned was fibbing as usual.” It’s the ‘as usual’ that I have a problem with, and goes to the heart of what I fear will be a tedious problem with this book. I may persevere with it. Of course, the Ned Kelly is open to different interpretations along the “Hero or Villain?” line so I’m okay with Macfarlane telling he wasn’t saint; I wish he’d been a bit more objective about it.

So how does all this come together? I’m interested in writers putting themselves in the way of their work, I suppose; placing themselves in the middle of their own stories. Without giving too much away, Safran directly involves himself in McGee’s personal affairs at the end of his book. Arguably, Ned Kelly reinvents himself somewhat in The Jerilderie Letter; he seeks in it to exonerate himself, especially, from the murders of the three policemen at Stringybark Creek in 1878. Macfarlane would seem happy to allow his biases to inform the presentation of his subject. Each writer is, in his own way, seeking to arrive at one or more truths. I am interested also in the difference between truth and fact. The rather dull cliche is that the facts should never get in the way of a good story, and certainly a writer’s role may involve either inventing or manipulating facts to suit narrative purposes.

It’s interesting to consider, perhaps, the innate relationship between narrative and truth, then. It is relatively easy to determine the facts of a situation (although some contest here is still possible, especially with regard to Ned Kelly) but facts only really become worthwhile when we imbue them with some sort of truth (which is usually subjective). On their own, facts are somewhat forensic, clinical; they need writers to give them shape and colour.

We might not necessarily like those shapes or colours, as readers; but that doesn’t make them any less interesting.

 

 

 

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One Day: Coda

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I’m still processing the experience of participating in One Day Ten; the performances on Saturday night were interesting for their diversity and the variations in voice, style, genre. As I’d hoped, Catch Me was lifted to another level in performance; my script became something else again, not quite unexpected perhaps but different and better for it.

I may one day actually throw myself out of a plane with a parachute on my back, and after counting to ten I might pull the ripcord; I will hope, no doubt, that when I do the chute will open and all will be well. So the other night I climbed to some altitude and threw myself out of the plane and, thankfully, the parachute seems to have opened. It was exhilarating. I described it to someone as a rush; I think the fact of knowing that an audience would be seeing my play added somehow to the adrenalin. I love writing letters to the editor for exactly the same reason–someone might read it! Someone will actually Read My Words!

In hindsight, I mused to myself yesterday, I think I tried to do a bit too much with the script; it covered an awful lot of ground in barely ten minutes. I’ll chalk that up as a rookie’s mistake, the result of a kid at Christmas waking before his parents and getting to open all his presents in something of a frenzy.

On the way out of the theatre the other night, a friend of mine asked me: “Where did that come from?” This is a question that real writers probably hate, I think; I’m tempted to say, somewhat facetiously, “Well, the ideas shop had a sale on…” It’s like asking a doctor–gee, how do you make people better? It’s just so clever! The truth is (and this is the Big Secret, folks) that I really don’t know where it came from. It emerged from a synthesis of experiences, ideas, questions, emotions, Ave Maria, passions, toast and a few cups of coffee. And a love of writing dialogue. And the Sartre quote I cited in my previous post. All of that and the fact that the clock was ticking, ever louder.

When I emailed the script in I commented that it wasn’t the most cheerful piece of theatre One Day will ever stage, or has ever staged; I blamed Christos Tsiolkas for this, as I finished reading Barracuda last week. A difficult book to enjoy for lots of reasons, but I was captivated by it in that voyeuristic way; writers like Tsiolkas hold up the mirror and defy you to look away. What’s in the mirror is very often unpleasant.

I tried to do that with Catch Me. I hoped get to do it again next year. I’ve already started thinking…

One Day on the Island, Part Two

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This post follows on from one I wrote almost exactly twelve months ago, where I railed against those who denigrate The Island as a backwater without recognising the depth and diversity of artistic talent that exists here. This year, to my delight, Mudlark Theatre (in the person of the utterly fabulous Stuart Loone) invited me to write for One Day Ten and I thought I would document the process.

9.04pm

So the countdown began just over an hour ago. I have a stimulus, a director (Nicole Lewis), an item of set and a cast of three–Matt Taylor, Caitlin McCarthy and Natalie Reid.

One Day Ten the stimulus

This is the stimulus; a Rorschach inkblot. Everyone I have shown it to thinks it looks like a vagina. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to think when you see these things? I’ve actually decided that this leaves the wrting brief fairly open; anything could be read into this. That’s a good thing.

My set item is a mannequin, painted stark white, which can come into two pieces or (apparently) together as a humanoid shape. Without a head.

So I have to beaver away now and have a ten-minute script for three actors finished by about 5 am in the morning. Ideas are coming…

One Day script beginning

9.59 pm

Listening to Ave Maria. My play has three characters: the Man, the Child and The Mother. It is about grief and it is not about grief; grief is something of motif in my work. It underscores, perhaps subtly, my novel The Blue Cathedral and I explore it in poems like ‘Cigarette’ and ‘What is a Road’. Grief is fascinating.

Sartre: “A cry of grief is a sign of the grief which provokes it, but a song of grief is both grief itself and something else.”

10.20 pm

Okay–listened to Ave Maria twice and most of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor. Hooray for YouTube. Probably edging into procrastination territory now though. Time to knuckle down.

11.49 pm

Catch me first draft

About half way through the first draft. Not gone quite where I thought it would but it’s shaping up very nicely. The challenge with such a short script–only ten minutes of performance–is to serve the twin masters of economy and clarity while somehow retaining a sense of the throughline. So I have three characters and there has been a death, but of whom we are not sure, and the cause of the death also remains a mystery. An original intention was to replay the same scene three times with different emphases or from a different character’s point of view; I’ve rejected this idea I think, because I think it’s too unwieldy given the ten-minute time frame. So instead I have gone with an idea drawn from the movie Memento, which begins right at the end (or just before the end) of the story and then unfolds in reverse chronology. I have started with the end of the story and I am trying to work back from there. I don’t know how it will work…I suppose that’s why we have drafts! And the Delete key.

1.23 am

Just finished the first draft. Not happy with the ending: too much of a blatant yank on the heartstrings. Time for a break and a stretch and a wee and another coffee and a think. I’ve drawn some inspiration from what I’m doing from Augusto Boal, founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, who in his book of that name mentions that Brecht, as a Marxist, believed that theatre “must show the ways in which society loses its equilibrium”. I may have lost sight of that a bit towards the end of this draft.

1.58 am

At a rough read, my masterpiece is eight minutes long, which is good. Stuart would rather it be under than over the time limit. Also good to know I have a couple of minutes to play with, in tweaking and fiddling, which is what I’m up to now; although, with stage business, I wouldn’t be surprised if I fill out the ten minutes pretty closely. So there’s no scope for major revision. Also I have to write out a white sheet I wanted to use in the opening scene; no extra props! Damn it. I think I’m still being allowed to use some blank sheets of A4 paper, so that’s okay.

2.54 am

I think it might be done. I am not sure what else I can do with it. Have spent the last hour fixing the structure of the last scene (of three) which I simply couldn’t get to work but I think I’ve cracked it. I am sure–in fact, I hope–that even though I have this sense of finality about it now, the director and the actors will surprise me with how they deliver the script to performance. I’ll read it again and try for a rough timing and then, if it really does seem that I should stop tinkering, I’ll email it in.

3.58 pm

And it’s gone. Emailed to Stuart and Nicole, the director I’m working with. The second timed reading clocked in at 8 mins 50 seconds, so with dramatic pauses and stage business that should almost certainly push ten minutes in performance. I think I have regained a sense of the Brechtian notion I referred to earlier, about equilibrium. It’s not a completely cheerful piece of theatre but I think that ‘kick in the guts’ stories have their place. I vividly recall films like Once were Warriors and Trainspotting for that reason.

And so it’s done. It was exhilarating–I have crafted and more or less perfected something that didn’t exist, except as an inkblot, a few hours ago. I have to let go now–something I’m not really used to, since with fiction and poetry I retain the Last Word, as it were. Not this time. So let’s see where my baby–it’s called Catch Me by the way–is taken by the talented and interesting people into whose care it is now trusted.

And with that, it’s probably time for some sleep. Good night. Or morning, as the case may be.