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Chicken crossing the road

I had a reading of my show a few weeks ago, which is about a tailor who joins in the Prague Uprising of 1848, and one of the actors asked a devastating question:

Why does Jaroslav join the revolution? Why? He seems to have a comfortable life. Why not just stay at home?

It was devastating because I didn’t have a good answer. I mean, it fits the protagonist’s character that he joined in the revolution — he’s politically-conscious, impulsive, and lives in an unjust society — but that doesn’t quite explain why he’d risk life and limb to join a revolution when his own position in society is pretty comfortable.

It made me realise that I’d done a good job of being able to answer the clichéd actor’s question, What’s my motivation?, in that it was clear that the characters did what they did to get what they want, but that I obviously hadn’t done a good enough job of working out why the characters want what they want — what I’ll call the motivation behind the motivation.

I’d done a better job for some characters more than others. For instance, if I kept on asking Why? of Epstein’s motivation I could answer the question easily:

What does Epstein want?

To get paid.


Because he wants to pay off his debts.


Because he doesn’t want to go bust.


Because he wants to be able to support his family.


Because he loves them, and wants to provide them with security, which he never had growing up.


Because his parents emigrated from Russia.


Because of anti-Semitism.

The fact that I kept on being able to answer the Why? questions so easily for that character probably explains why I find him so easy to write.

And it might seem like overkill — surely I could have stopped at Because he wants to pay off his debts, because doesn’t everyone want to pay off their debts? But being able to answer the Why? questions to such depth is useful because it allowed me to put in a throwaway joke when Epstein’s getting out of a dress the protagonist made him wear (it’s a very silly play in many ways): I can’t believe my parents emigrated from Russia for this. It adds depth and tragedy to a comic moment, making it funnier and giving the feeling of the play existing in a complete universe rather than a hermetically-sealed box.

(Of course, just because I know the answers to these questions doesn’t mean that I have to put that information in the script. I just think it’s important for me to know the answers. If a character feels inferior because their parents were peasants whereas their girlfriend’s were middle class, it affects how they ask for a cup of tea.)

So for the latest redraft I’ve kept on asking Why? for every character in every scene, and already answering those questions is solving structural problems.

Keep on asking Why?.


This has caused me to spot another parallel between playwriting and composing:

Sometimes people say to me, I think I’m really musical, I hear symphonies in my head, and they probably are musically-inclined, but I want to say, Really? How many different notes are in the 2nd chord? Can you hum the bass under the 3rd phrase?. These questions are hard to answer. A large part of the process of becoming a composer is training yourself to imagine in high-definition.

With each significant rewrite of my show I feel like I become a better writer, and part of that process is training myself to imagine in higher resolution. I can picture the farce in my head. Really? How would the protagonist persuade his girlfriend to get a cake? How would he phrase it? Why would she comply?

I’m a cat in a dog show

Bengal cat

I saw a newspaper headline today announcing that, for the first time in the competition’s history, a cat was going to compete in the Westminster Dog Show.

Now, I didn’t read the article because I really don’t care about the Westminster Dog Show, or any dog show, for that matter. I also don’t see the point in a cat competing in one. It’s a cat. A dog’s show’s a dog show. I don’t think I need to labour this point. The cat’s clearly going to lose. What appealed to me about the headline is that I’d finally found a good analogy for my experience of life.

I’m surrounded by dogs, jumping through hoops, in competition with each other for some prize that their owner’s going to get rather than them. Most of the dogs are going to lose, and all that the winner’s going to get is further enslavement. But at least dogs don’t have to think.

I’m not going to win the competition because I’m a cat and this is a dog show, and a cat can’t win a dog show because it’s not a dog. I’m not going to jump through the hoops because why bother? I didn’t ask to be in this fucking show anyway and I don’t like dog biscuits. My lack of cooperation is going to piss off both my deluded trainer and the idiot audience who gave up valuable time and money to watch this fiasco.

But there will be one or two people in the audience who are cat people, and for those people it really doesn’t matter what I do because I’m going to win in their eyes by virtue of being a cat, so all I have to do is be myself. Miaow.

Life with a cat


Some time in the middle of the night.

Woken up by the sound of my cat crashing around the house.

A few minutes later.


A few minutes later.

Woken up by my cat miaowing loudly to announce that she’s dumped a dead animal by my bed. I kick her out of my room.

A few minutes later.

Woken up by the sound of bones crunching outside my door.

A few minutes later.

Woken up by the sound of my cat throwing up.

Time to get up.

I repeatedly hit the snooze button, knowing that when I step out of my room I’ll encounter the site of a massacre and a failed dinner party.

On why writers are nuts


girlfriend: Hey, it’s Friday night! Let’s go out and catch up with some friends.

writer: No, I don’t want to talk to people, I want to make imaginary people talk to each other.

girlfriend: But the conversations with friends will be unpredictable and exciting, and you might learn something from them.

writer: No, I want to control all the conversations, and only learn about myself.

Go through the cat flap

My cat is currently standing outside next to a new cat flap that she hasn’t yet worked out she can open by herself. I wonder how often we don’t go through doors because we think we think that they’re locked.

Clockwork mouse

I could just let that title stand but I should probably elaborate.

There are many aspects to playwriting, of course, and this is just one of them, but it’s an important one, to do with character. It’s a rule I came up with when writing my first play, that I still find useful to follow:

You have a bunch of clockwork mice. You know how they all behave – maybe some go faster than others, maybe one of them veers to the left, maybe one goes round in circles – and you want them to collide in an interesting way. So you wind them up and put them on a table. YOU CANNOT TOUCH THE MICE ONCE THEY ARE ON THE TABLE.

And that is how playwriting works. You have a bunch of characters and you know how they’ll behave, because that’s what character is: a predisposition to behave in a certain way. You want them to collide in an interesting way in order to create drama, so you put them in a certain situation. The point is, once a bunch of characters are in a situation you have no control over what happens: the characters will just act the way they would in that situation. So if you don’t like the way a scene is playing out you can either change the characters (make one a little more assertive, or paranoid, or whatever) or change the situation (make one of them arrive earlier, put a bomb under the table, whatever). You cannot change the trajectory of a character once they are in a scene. That’s called acting out of character. And that is the Clockwork Mice Rule. You can always tell when a writer breaks the Clockwork Mice Rule because suddenly the scene feels implausible, even if the audience can’t work out why.

Don’t touch the mice once they’re on the table.

Art and money

Van Gogh iPhone

Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, I’ve only ever sold one painting, therefore I’m as good as van Gogh.

Stupid logic, but it seems to be quite widespread. Hell, I haven’t even sold one painting so I must be even better than Van Gogh. It’s the dangerous Myth of the Starving Artist.

There are plenty of examples. Critics thought Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was the ravings of a lunatic. They thought Anna Karenina was just a load of words and Citizen Kane was bullshit. (Okay, I made those up. Beethoven’s 9th, Anna Karenina, and Citizen Kane actually all got rave reviews when they came out, in spite of our attraction to triumph-over-Philistines narratives.) This is the related Misunderstood Artist Fallacy:

Beethoven was misunderstood in his time, I’m misunderstood in my time, therefore I’m as good as Beethoven.

Except in this case the logical fallacy is taking place a step earlier, because the problem of most starving artists is not that they’re misunderstood in their time but that they’re actually only too well understood, as the mediocre egomaniacs that they are.

Because the truth is (trigger warning) that while capitalism is not a perfect system, money is still a pretty good indicator of value. And that is why – and this is the thing that I’ve never seen written before – good artists tend to make their money back. I’m not arguing for crass commercialism here, but I don’t need to appeal to crass commercialism to prove my point.

Take Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It took Beethoven a while to write it, and someone had to pay for his time while he did it. It took a lot of musicians to perform it and didn’t get many performances on its first run, so the whole escapade probably lost money. But Beethoven’s 9th Symphony made a shit ton of money after his death, in record sales, subsequent live performances, licensing rights, and sheet music sales.

Same with Schubert. He never made much money while he was alive (although he actually made more than people think), but his work generated a ton of revenue after his death. If only he hadn’t died at 33.

People who subscribe to the Myth of the Starving Artist or Misunderstood Artist Fallacy should instead ask themselves this:

Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, but one of his paintings sold for $100 million 100 years after his death. I’ve only sold one painting during my lifetime, but will one of my paintings sell for $100 million 100 years after my death?

Lee Alexander McQueen

Lee McQueen’s success is pretty baffling at first sight. (Note: Lee McQueen is the person, Alexander McQueen is the brand.) A self described East-London yob, he became the most successful British designer of haute couture of his generation. But he was the son of a cab driver and a teacher, and had no fashion mentors during his upbringing. So how the hell did he do it?

As I was reading his biography – Andrew Wilson’s excellent Blood Beneath the Skin – a pattern started to emerge:

According to McQueen, one afternoon in 1986 he was at home in Biggerstaff Road when he saw a programme on television about how the art of tailoring was dying out. There was, said the report, a shortage of apprentice tailors on Savile Row and his mother said to him, Why don’t you go down there, give it a go? … Lee took the tube to Bond Street and walked through the smart streets of Mayfair until he came to 30 Savile Row, the headquarters of Anderson & Sheppard. … He wasn’t a timid person, said John Hitchcock [his boss] … It was obvious when he first came that he did not know anything. (pp.46-47)

(McQueen’s lack of timidity was verified by his schoolfriend Peter Bowes, who remembered that Lee was quite a tough guy – he wasn’t scared of people. (p.39))

A couple of years later, McQueen was ready to move from tailoring into fashion:

After Lee saw a magazine article about the Tokyo-born, London-based designer Koji Tatsuno, he turned up at Tatsuno’s studio looking for a job. (p.53)

But then Tatsuno went bust:

Lee, with a spontaneity that never left him, wanted to fly to Italy … [he] went to see his sister Tracy, who then worked for a travel agency and booked him a one-way ticket to Milan. … [McQueen] arrived in Italy’s fashion capital with a plan. Although he was prepared to work for any designer, at the top of his list was one name: Romeo Gigli. … McQueen made his way from Porta Garibaldi metro stop down Corso Como to Gigli’s studio. He did not have an appointment … (p.59)

But he got a job all the same. McQueen’s disinclination to make appointments stood him in good stead when he wanted to go to Central St Martins:

Lee knew that, if he secured a place at St Martins, his life would change. … Carrying an armful of clothes, Lee made his way down the long, rather shabby corridor towards the office of Bobby Hillson. He knocked on the door and waited. Booby, described by one fashion writer as patrician and old school, opened the door to see a young man she thought must be a messenger.
     Can I help you? she asked. Who are you here to see?
     You, Lee replied.
     But I don’t have an appointment with anyone. (p.67)

Hillson said that she couldn’t give him a job because he was too young and the students wouldn’t take him seriously, but offered for him to join the Masters course, despite the fact that he didn’t have a degree.

He was relatively charmless, had nothing really going for him, but I thought if he cares this much he’s got to be given a chance. (pp.68-69)

So far from being a fashion genius straight out of the box, McQueen was actually really bad at fashion for many years, but was willing to knock on doors and work for next to nothing until he had some skills.

The result? By the time of his graduate collection he was handcrafting pieces like this:

A sceptic’s guide to Kanye West

Kanye West shutter shades

Kanye West is an idiot.

This is the most common response if I bring up the subject of Kanye West with friends. It was also my opinion of Kanye West a few years ago when all I knew him for was for producing sampled music and interrupting Taylor Swift at the Grammys, which I thought was fairly terrible. (I somehow overlooked the fact that in doing so, Kanye West gave Taylor Swift millions of dollars of free publicity, which is still paying off today, as well as giving publicity to Beyoncé, the Grammys, and their sponsors, creating value all round.)

I wasn’t the only one who thought Kanye West was an idiot, of course. Barack Obama called him a jackass. Jimmy Carter said that Kanye West’s behaviour at the 2009 Video Music Awards was completely uncalled for. George Bush wrote that Kanye West saying George Bush doesn’t care about black people was an all-time low in his presidency.

Wait a minute, Kanye West has been dissed by three US presidents? He must be doing something right.

My own Kanye West conversion occured when I accidentally listened to the lyrics of American Boy, a track I aways loved due to John Legend’s harmonies. At one point West raps:

Dressed smart like a London bloke,
Before he speak his suit be spoke.

Wha – wha – what? That’s a clever pun. Of course, Kanye West has many others, which I’ve since discovered:

Couldn’t afford a car so she called daughter Alexis.

If you fall on concrete that’s your ass fault.

And it’s not a pun, but I love:

There are leaders and there are followers,
But I’d rather be a dick than swallower.

And if you want evidence of his producing skills, listen to We Don’t Dare from The College Dropout or POWER from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Of course, Kanye West is still an idiot, as he admits on American Boy:

I always act the fool

But he’s a very interesting, talented, hard-working idiot.

Breaking the rule of rules


A lot of people argue about rules in culture. The cliché is you need to know the rules in order to break them. The tagline for Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop stated, “in a world with no rules, one man broke them all”. Students don’t know whether to follow the rules or not.

I think the terminology is wrong. We shouldn’t be talking about rules, we should be talking about cause and effect. Ifthen.

Take storytelling. A fundamental rule of storytelling is that the protagonist should desperately want something at the beginning that they then either get (comedy) or are forced to give up trying to get (tragedy) at the end. Should you follow this rule or not? It depends. If you use that device then you have a powerful tool to maintain the audience’s interest. If you don’t then you’ll need another equally powerful tool to make up for its absence. There’s no right or wrong, just cause and effect.

Or music. A fundamental rule of composition is that you should finish a melody on the tonic. Should you follow this rule or not? If you finish on the tonic then the melody will sound comparatively resolved, if you don’t then it’ll sound comparatively unresolved. Whether you choose to follow the rule or not depends on what effect you want. Choose the right cause to achieve the desired effect.

Or photography. In photography you have the rule of thirds: the idea that you should place significant objects a third of the way into the frame. But Stanley Kubrick often framed his shots symmetrically, placing significant objects on the halfway point. He wanted a different effect, and so chose a different cause.

If we stop talking about rules then we’ll stop feeling constricted by them. If instead we talk about cause and effect then we’ll see cause and effect as the powerful tool that it is.

This has applications in real life too. Because the rule is never a compelling reason to do something. Ifthen is much more convincing. Compare:

Why can’t I play with matches?
Because the rule.


If you play with matches then we’ll lock you in the box again.

Much more convincing.

If you stop talking about rules then you’ll be liberated from them.