Jenni Fagan: Writing In Different Forms
I won an interview with a well-respected theatre company in London to write a play/film. They said my play was completely unique and distinctive in voice compared to every other one submitted however they had been arguing all morning about whether I was a playwright or a novelist. On the train home I watched the landscape whizz by and admitted to myself that I had been accruing skills so I could write novels. I quit writing plays that day.
Writing is the only artistic medium that takes place entirely in the writer’s and reader’s head. We see plays or films, listen to songs, go to art exhibitions. Novels, stories, poems take place wholly inside a person. They bring their own memories and emotions to the experience so they can never be read entirely the same way twice. I find this fascinating.
In poetry I allow discord in syntax, I go left ten times in a row then drop four floors just to get a better view. Only when the poem demands to be written do I put the words down.
Poems are a pure form. I don't go after a poem, club it over the head and make it work, I don't even look it straight in the eye. It's also the only medium I always write by hand. Sometimes it feels like learning to walk on snow without leaving a footprint, impossible but somehow poems can do that, the best ones reconnect me to life and the world in a vital way.
With novels I sit down day after day and work on them. I work when it's raining, when I'm ill, when it's sunny, when I should be elsewhere, or when I want to do anything else but type. I turn up to write when I don't know what is happening, when I am freaked out, when I'm tired, or happy, or lonely, or sad. Whatever else is going on in my life I will sit down each day and work on that novel. Each novel can take years. I might rewrite the opening literally a hundred times. A novel needs time to become clear, to grow into itself, to feel real.
I am writing the screenplay adaptation of my debut novel. I work closely with Sixteen Films who are making the film. We have long meetings in a little attic room in Soho where each line and every piece of dialogue or description is taken apart by a small core of people. We rigorously argue, debate, or discuss each line or action. I have really enjoyed testing the boundaries of adaptation and as the only screenwriter working on it I've learnt so much. I was also able to draw upon my earlier experiences in screenwriting and playwriting and that helped a lot.
Flash fiction is the poetry of the prose world, it is so generous and precise. I experiment with POV, tense, character, voice or subvert all my original intentions to really try out new ideas and skills.
Prose and poetry are the forms I have been writing for most of my life and I am still really excited by them. I will gladly commit three or four years to a new novel if it needs it. I am about to write one that will take at least three years as it is a vast, ambitious book. I have so much research to do and I love that part of the process, to meet interesting people and get my geek on.
When you edit, put your ego aside and be as critical as you can be, don't write the life out of something but don't indulge yourself with over attachment, just because you like it, it has to serve the novel or poem or screenplay and if it doesn't then cut it out, pin it up somewhere, and use it for something else later.
All truly great writing comes from a place of truth. If it is authentic then someone else will connect to it. If it is superficial, no matter how pretty the prose is, or how clever the poem is, it won't get anyone else in the gut or heart so it won't stay with them.
You have to trust your instincts and be respectful of your imagination — give it free reign, don't limit yourself. If it is scaring you then write it, if you are daunted then you absolutely have to try it, if you are struggling then you might just be writing the piece that will elevate your work to the next level.
I can't do monogamy with words. Each form gives me something different, they strengthen the others and I never get bored.
For the real writer there is no full stop. Be truthful, take risks, challenge yourself.