The retreats began modestly a long time ago, before I came to Oxford. These days they're so popular that the poor host has to run two separate weeks every holiday in order to sate demand.
My first Big Project for the week was a radio play called The Fear Diary, which is about an out-of-control psychology experiment on fear. This was my main project during the week, and everything else was procrastination. Especially my second Big Project, a novel about Oxford's underground prostitution scene called The Tragedy of Magpie Lane.*
Both Big Projects are still in the plotting phase, so working on them was, and remains, very tiring. A lot of time was spent choosing suitably symbolic names for characters and answering the Proust questionnaire over and over again. Graphs were drawn, subplots were dreamed up and discarded, character arts were inspected for excessive similarity to each other, and my insistence that becoming a management consultant is a suitably dreadful fate for my villain was questioned by the group on multiple occasions. No significant progress was made.
I also spent a lot of time studying Story by Robert McKee, and wondering whether his dilemma triangle actually makes sense. One of the other Failed Novelists had brought a copy too, so we were able to have a right old bitch about it.
Much head was wracked as to how storys can be best structured. Should one plot beforehand, or "do a McKee" as we called it, or simply written to see what happens?
Writing Writing Writing
Each evening at Failed Retreats, the inmates (as they are called) gather to share and comment on each other's work. Highlights this week included some cuneiform poetry, the memoir of a Communist grandmother and a horror story about creating monsters in a lab.
The lab monster was a response to my "horror challenge", which demanded that everyone wrote a horror story by midnight on the first night for a firelight reading. (I confess this idea was nicked off Byron. Perhaps The Fear Diary will be the next Frankenstein? Somehow I doubt it.)
This horror theme continued throughout the week, no doubt fueled by me going on about The Fear Diary. One of the other inmates actually write a fan poem based on my play, although, as the host cruelly pointed out, I can't really copyright the concept of "fear" for my own work.
Pigs on a Plane
By far my most successful contribution to the evening workshops was a television short called Pigs on a Plane, inspired by some real life pork prancing we witnessed on a blueberry-picking ramble. In it, Churchill and Athquith, two pigs in need of affection, escaped from their farm and started stalking some writers, in the hopes of a hug. The humans don't understand the pigs' good intentions, of course, and hilarious complications ensue.
As you can imagine, I started writing straight away and didn't bother with plotting or character development or anything like that. It's just a joke, I told myself. Curiously, imagining Winston Churchill and Herbert Asquith as pigs resulted in quite well-developed characters. The simplicity of the story made structuring of the plot very natural. And the stilted formality of television script formatting made its rather silly content even more gigglesome.
|Athquith the pig ("Asquith" with a lisp) taught me that all pigs really want is to be loved. Photo source.|
Or perhaps not taking the plotting too seriously freed me up just to write something enjoyable?
We'll never know. And no, the dilemma triangle does not make sense, no matter what else you may think of McKee.
* Magpie Lane is a real street in Oxford famed for its rather rude history.