Guest Blog - Helen Duff on Foolish Writing
Jan 28 2020
Hello dear reader,
It brings me great pleasure to present a guest blog from performer / writer and long-term collaborator, Helen Duff. Helen has been applying some of the techniques she learned in my performance workshops to her writing, with fascinating results... Over to you, Helen!
How I used Holly Stoppit’s fooling techniques to submit a script to the BBC Drama Writersroom 2020.
I’ve been putting off writing this. Surprise, surprise.
It’s 8am on a Sunday morning and I’ve gotten straight out of bed, bleary eyed and full bladdered, shrugged on my boyfriend’s jumper, back to front and inside out, and started writing. Alright, I dealt with the full bladder first. I’m not a complete tyrant. But to get myself to the page takes some discipline; if I don’t catch myself before the day starts, it might never happen.
Perfect is in the room. Procrastination too. Which seems a good, catch-all term for - ‘not now darling, it’s somehow both too late and too early! You’ve been working hard all week recording audiobooks, hours spent speaking other people’s words, exhausting your own voice in service to someone else’s creative spirit…It’s no surprise you’ve got none left of your own!’. The voice of letting you off the hook. The voice that conveniently protects you from putting something horrendously awful on the page. Procrastination is the good cop to Perfect’s bad. They are strange but symbiotic bed fellows, and recognising their relationship has been extremely helpful when it comes to getting any writing done.
Quick disclaimer / explainer - I’m treating this like an exercise in fooling. I’ve learned from the best. Holly Stoppit. Holly is a fooling maestro/mistress/midwife and describes it as:
“a solo form of improvisation, where you walk into the empty space and discover various parts of yourself (known as 'masks'), waiting to come out and be seen. Some of your cast of internal characters may have important things to say, some may want to dance, some may want to sing, some may want to lie around doing absolutely nothing…Sometimes Fooling is hilarious, sometimes it's tragic, sometimes it's simple, sometimes it's complex; the Fool's mission is to speak the truth, which means you can take whatever form is required to say what must be said, so that the audience can hear it…”
I’ve trained with Holly in one-on-one sessions during solo show development, and as a participant on her fooling courses - Assembling Your Inner Cast - and - Fools Retreat- I can whole heartedly recommend both. When mentioning a mask - like the Critic or Perfect- I will italicise them.
I’m going to use fooling to tell you this story because the techniques I’ve learned were essential when it came to getting my drama script submitted to the BBC Writersroom. Also, because it’s 8am on a Sunday and I’ve not yet had breakfast, so it’s either what comes out this minute or putting it off in the name of porridge. Which I have made bold to remind me it would be the perfect title for my memoirs, if I ever get around to writing them.
The story begins (if you can believe it hasn’t already!) in a similar fashion. Surprise, surprise…
I had been thinking about entering a script for the BBC Drama Writersroom, which opens for a short submission window once a year and asks for a script, at least 30 pages long, that you’re properly proud of. That’s made really clear. Not a first draft they say. Please don’t dash off any old thing and send it in. I’d written the deadline in my diary months ago. 6th of January 2020. That’s right, over Christmas. What are these people like? Did they assume you had a script ready beforehand, as is definitely suggested in the guidelines by the sentence ‘a script you’re properly proud of’? Or perhaps Proper Writers could bash one out in that lull that happens around 5pm on the 25th, when pass the parcel’s done and Gavin and Stacey hasn’t yet begun? Either way, I had nothing worthy written. Due to aforementioned Perfectand Procrastination, inextricably linked by the umbilical cord of - it’s just not the right time! - wound invisibly around my neck, ready and waiting to put me in a choke hold should I deign to unveil my horrifying lack of talent.
Just then - my instinct was to write - my horribleness - rather than horrifying lack of talent. But Literary Standards, a close companion to Perfect, thought it too brash. Literary Standards is a snooty bitch to be sure! Her judgement knows no bounds. Despite having written not a word, she looks down on the prolific, page turning, published authors whose audiobooks I record as being of low literary birth - she’s the spinster at the back of every Jane Austen dance, strangled by the tight bow of her self-tied bonnet, who believes women ought to marry for money alone and has, subsequently, never experienced joy.
Back to Memory. We like her. She’s clever, and curious, and can weave meaning and entertainment out of things that held neither at the time.
So, it’s Christmas and of course I *can’t* get it written because there’s turkey, and talking and torture, ahem, sorry, I mean Celebrity Sewing Bee, to endure. Then it’s post Christmas, post Boxing Day, pre New Year, that funny, wonderful, unscheduled space of time that’s perfect for writing! You’d think.
We go away to Northern Ireland, my boyfriend and I. Portstewart to be precise. A beautiful bit of the world, with Giant’s Causeway just around the bend, big stretches of beach, and even bigger skies. Plenty of stunning locations for us to suck in the grand majesty of the shoreline, process the big year that’s been, and for me to observe, not once but three times reader, that were my boyfriend thinking of proposing, this would be the perfect spot. Knowing full well that, having discussed it months ago, we’re not doing marriage. Yet. Probably ever. I’ll tell you more about that at my comedy show, Helen Duff is The Tits - which you are more than welcome to book tickets to on 12/13th February at the Wardrobe Theatre…
But I digress! Back to getting the script submitted.
Despite leaving the laptop at home, there’s plenty of time for talking about the script I might write and submit to the BBC. My boyfriend is brilliantly encouraging, no doubt because it provides a creative and genuinely engaging distraction from discussing the state of our relationship - a conversational void couples fall into when faced with an unprecedented stretch of time alone together, on holiday, when having fun becomes an existential obligation
I tell him about an idea I’ve had for a long time, somewhat related to my 2015/16 comedy show Come With Me; expanding a scene from the live show into a full script, set at a female-only ejaculation workshop in East London (of course) I attended by accident (hmmmm) some time around 2014. As we talked, I remembered all sorts of funny moments, characters and themes associated with that time, and realised I’d relish the challenge to bring it to life on screen. It’s hilarious and dramatic and never been done before! Curiosity and Optimism are in full sing. My boyfriend, a film maker, says brilliant things like “it sounds great! I’d want to work on that!”. Seeing my suddenly stricken face, he clarifies “by which I mean, it’s an exciting area for TV to explore!”. Because for reasons I feel I haven’t fully displayed here, he loves me, and as such knows even the kindest of encouragements can be turned into an insurmountable pressure by my ever present Fear of Failure.
I start scribbling down ideas in my notebook. No pressure when it’s a line of dialogue in the margin here, a character called A telling another called B some home truths there. Inspiration and Creativity are free to roam. We’re staying in an empty BnB, run by a friend’s family who are off seeing cousins in Belfast and have very kindly given us a room, free rein with their massive AGA, and a freezer full of home made scones. There’s a chaise lounge looking out over the sea, plenty of gin, and I’ve emotionally exhausted us both. Everything’s to play for!
In between scribbling, I go for long walks along Portstewart sands (my boyfriend wisely reserving himself some time alone, reading on the chaise lounge). Buffeted by the blustering winds, waves swirling black beside me, I listen to podcasts about the creative process and cooking. Meryl Streep on why Margaret Thatcher could express an idea on a single breath while Julia Childs required several; a programme about the dying art of the dinner party and the explosion of communal dining; an episode of Magic Talk with Elizabeth Gilbert which stated, in no uncertain terms, there is no right way to write, but nothing can be written without writing. A statement that struck right through me when set against the raging rocks and shivering shocks of the Irish Sea.
We fly back to London on the 1st of January, raring to get back into the swing of things after an exhilarating New Year’s Day swim and a touch and go moment where we drove to the wrong Belfast airport. I book a workspace that’s free for the first week of January to write. I have 5 days until the deadline. My boyfriend books in several pints with friends.
The workspace was virtually empty for the first few days, it being a weekend and barely the beginning of the New Year. Just me and some high quality communal coffee. The dream! For the first day at least. I felt Grounded and Focused, happy to be committing to my task at last. The notes I’d scribbled suddenly seemed childish, pitifully basic, my Critic just waking up, but Optimism and Curiosity were still in full swing; the world I wanted to explore still exciting. I wrote 10 pages in a stream, starting with a monologue that then cycled its way into the workshop. I felt positive about its potential for development. That night, I shared it with my boyfriend, who I will be referring to from this point onwards as the Saint.
Sharing my tiny, new, not even a real script yet piece of writing with another person, who asked helpful questions such as - ‘who is this person?’ and ‘what does she do for the rest of the weekend when she’s not at this workshop?’, I crumbled. You mean my pithy dialogue required such things as context and fully fleshed out characters?! As soon as he started reading the screen, I felt my shoulders tense and my stomach tighten. I was going into full physical Lock Down. My system, so stressed by the looming deadline, and the apparent enormity of the task, was protecting itself from attack. It could not handle advice, helpful or otherwise, because in this place of almost primal fear, other people’s thoughts seemed like an insufferable burden on my basic operating system.
The next day, alone in the workspace, two coffees down within the first 30 minutes, having slept with my shoulders on the same plain as my eyebrows all night, I was fully blocked. I now had context for what a successful writing day looked like - yesterday, with my stream of 10 pages sailing out unchecked. My Inner Critic was gleefully reminding me that by Comparison, today was an outright failure.
I looked to the internet for escape and solace, both of which, surprisingly, I found on Facebook. Funny how, when you’re actively trying to make something, social media can become a genuinely helpful space, with people offering advice, support, shared experience. Holly was one - suggesting this blog she’d written on procrastination. I’m such a procrastinating pro, I’d already read it! Several people suggested turning off the internet for chunks at a time. Acknowledging that this was a common phenomena, this feeling of - I can’t possibly do it and I was absurd to think I could! - happening to everyone, made me feel far less alone. I think camaraderie, even if only virtual, is vital to placating the Inner Critic. Like all bullies, Critics work best in isolation. They like you to feel utterly alone in your awfulness. There can be an addictive quality to that, too. The masochistic urge to be the very worst of the worst, so terrible that no one else can rival your tragic waste of space-ness and justifying the fact that you have no choice but to just give up. Checking in with others helps you realise - you’re not unique in this experience. Thank goodness!
The timed chunks without internet, combined with turning up at the workspace every day, running it through with the Saint every night, exploring a story arch that didn’t make it into the final pilot script but might appear in another episode, the virtual validation of my ‘plea for help’ post - meant I produced another 10 pages. We were up to 20. I needed 10 more to submit.
It was the night before the deadline. By this point the actual submission process had become absurd - I so clearly wasn’t going to be turning in the fully developed masterpiece they seemed to describe online, and yet I was determined to turn in something. My mum had come for lunch to celebrate her birthday, because, like the fun loving fool I had been a few weeks before, I’d asked her for to! Within the time it took for my mum and step dad to hang up their coats and coo admiringly at our (furiously cleaned that morning) flat, I’d whipped together a surprisingly delicious Thai Green curry. That podcast on communal dining paid off! It felt like a mini-break from the locked down focus of writing alone. I was tempted to cry for help - making it all about the script I wasn’t writing, and the fact I couldn’t complete it. But we were having such a nice time, I let myself enjoy the moment.
That night, safe in the knowledge that my boyfriend was watching a Truffaut classic in the living room, I got into bed and cried. For 30 minutes. I’d set a timer, having had every intention to meditate. For the first 20 minutes, I positively wailed. The voices I’d been gently placating all week had turned up to full volume:
The Judge wanted me to understand that I was a failure, that this was a simple task, and I would never get on in the world if I made everything so emotional.
Grief stressed that this all stemmed from my childhood, wanting me to relive a skin crawling, throat stopping, formative experience of feeling bad that cut to my very core.
Loneliness lamented that if I couldn’t finish this script, then I would never be a part of a writer’s room, and would forever be isolated, alone with these vicious thoughts.
The Critic crowed that it’s all very well understanding the roots of ones issues, but getting so worked up wasn’t going to make my shit writing any better!
Vulnerability bowed down before them, letting their cries come crashing in, like the roiling waves at Portstewart sands, holding a hand to my heart in solidarity.
And eventually, once they’d all screamed themselves out, Exhaustion won the day. Perspective and Compassion gained some space to breathe.Helping me to realise that all these voices were rooted in the same soul sucking swamp: Fear. With this understanding, that Fear and Shame were working together to block my head and cut my heart, I had an idea. Why not make it less personal? Make the main character someone else. In my less respectable moments of reading the internet, I’d been mainlining Billie Eillish videos. I find the image she’s built for herself mesmerising, and I knew that a younger version of myself would have, too. A new protagonist was born, a mother-daughter dynamic developed, along with a comic subplot, and the potential for friends, events, even a father! I rewrote the beginning of the script entirely and chopped up the rest until it was barely recognisable. The next morning, I wrote solidly for 8 hours without checking the internet once. By 3pm I had 27 pages. The deadline was 5pm. I sent the script to the Saint who replied with 15 WhatsApp suggestions for additional material. I had time to action 3 before my agent called. It was good news, I’d been booked for another audio book which would more than pay for the workspace rental. A brilliant sign! But can I call you back in an hour I’m on a bit of a deadline…
At 4.40pm I started the submission process. Pure Adrenaline by this point. My 27 pages read like 30 - in the blurb online they’d definitely said that was a thing. They’d also said that of the approx 4,000 entries they’d received last year, only about 50 made it past the first 10 page read / cull. By this point, I really didn’t care. I had to set up an account, write a bio, add a log line. It was 4.53pm. The website was taking an age to load, weighed down by other writers submitting last minute.I had to verify my email address, was given the option to upload an additional break down for the full series - good joke - then click enter. It was 4.59pm. I crossed my fingers and braced for the error screen to tell me I’d missed my chance. But instead…
My application had been successful.
I was over the moon! Of course I went straight to Facebook to declare my triumph in the face of my own, entirely self imposed, adversity. I couldn’t believe the positive adulation - and quickly had to clarify, at my Critic’s insistence, that the submission was full of schoolgirl errors and would likely never make it past the first read. But I’d got the bloody thing done alright! And the next day, I kept working on it. It continues to interest me, both in terms of character development and the dynamics of making several interwoven story arcs work. Rather than an insurmountable pressure, it’s become a fun puzzle and the characters lives are becoming clearer as they walk alongside my other work. Speaking of which, my respect for the authors whose books I record has increased no end. The fact that they get a novel finished, let alone write something fully fleshed out and commercially successful, astounds and inspires me. I hope this story will help someone else have the confidence to put pen to paper and explore their Many Masks. It doesn’t need to be as dramatic as I’ve made it here. But it could be, if the Storyteller in you secretly adores that kind of thing!
Helen Duff is a comedian and writer and is performing her WIP show Helen Duff Is The Tits at The Wardrobe Theatre on the 12-13th February 7.30pm.