When the Irish Writers’ Centre asked me to pen a review of the playwriting course with Jimmy Murphy, I was delighted to oblige them. As someone who has wrestled with a career in freelance journalism for more time than I care to recall (well, it’s only been a few years but the black lines under my eyes tell a different story), the chance to write a first-person review was too good an opportunity to ignore. I didn’t ask them to put a profile picture beside my by-line, with me looking out a window posing; wearing glasses that I don’t have a prescription for and chewing on the neck of a pen with one hand while stroking my chin with the other. I didn’t ask them to do that, but I have dropped several subtle hints. Unfortunately, I now regret that I agreed to write it.
It has been a few weeks since I said my goodbyes to my fellow classmates and shared a firm handshake with Jimmy Murphy thanking him for the two-day course. When I got home I started rewriting a one-act I have been jousting with for two years – you’ll notice a common theme of combat when I discuss my relationship with writing. I have not left its side since: forsaking sleep, food, drink and other things. Regrettably my obligation to the IWC has dragged me away from my brilliant script and for that I thank them. Really though, I’m very glad to have the chance to recommend such a course to people who might otherwise not have considered it.
Firstly, the Centre is one of the most beautiful, intimate places I have visited in Dublin City for some time. From the moment you walk through the door to the sad but inevitable moment when you leave it, you cannot help but feel inspired. I arrived on Saturday morning with all my many anxieties about playwriting and left them all behind me on Sunday evening. The class consisted of people who wanted to write something but needed to relieve themselves of the inhibitions which led them to do the workshop. In the morning we gathered in the reception area and had a chance to meet and greet over tea and coffee. I found that I wasn’t the only participant in the workshop who suffers from what I call ‘Manhattan syndrome’. The opening scene from Woody Allen’s 1979 comedy/drama features a writer struggling with the opening lines of his novel, which he rewrites a couple of dozen times. Some people have trouble finishing their novel, but a more common problem is starting it.
It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous. You stand up and say: “My name’s Mark and I cannot finish a play!” And then someone else gets up and, patting you on the back, tells you they have the same problem. And then the tutor, in this case Jimmy Murphy, tells you what you need to hear. Jimmy, in the first half hour of the course, illustrated the importance of finishing work before getting all perfectionist with it. You can’t, after all, fix a car unless you have a car to fix. When you start a play – and this is the part that holds many people back – you need to finish it. Jimmy put us into groups to work on a play together. This allowed the chance to share ideas with one another and see how we all deal with the writing process. A good gender and age balance in the group gave the class the insight to get different perspectives on characters from colloquialisms to mannerisms.
“How do you deal with this character’s feelings towards that character?”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I like your idea.”
This is a great way of learning the fundamental skills of playwriting.
Gathering around a table and listening to someone who has been writing plays for over two decades was an invaluable experience. Jimmy spoke candidly about problems which have arisen in his writing and exhibited the techniques he used to correct them. Using his own play, the engaging Hen Night Epiphany, he went through the entire writing process from early drafts to the final published piece. He detailed how he first envisaged the story; how some characters were nearly removed from the final draft, down to vital scenes from the script so that all of us could apply his techniques to our own work. Nothing instils a young writer with greater confidence than hearing a published author discuss the transition from original idea to published work. Jimmy said he simply had the idea for the play and got to work writing it.
Jimmy introduced techniques he used when certain characters were giving him trouble. He showed us a scene from his play done two ways: as a conversation between characters and as a monologue. Both told the story but it was obvious which did so more effectively. This served to show how there are so many ways to advance your characters and, indeed, get a better insight into their relationship with the other characters. He encouraged us to take characters that proved troublesome out, put them by themselves and write out what they want to say. Then bring what they have to say back into the play, turning monologue into dialogue. This practice advances the characters; who and what they are and exactly how they are feeling about the situation they find themselves in.
When we broke for coffee I found that other classmates were gaining confidence and had a better understanding of the writing process. We all agreed that if the class was to end prematurely we could at least take comfort from being able to get home and work on our respective plays. A weekend course might sound like very little time to learn anything of significance but the pace of the course, the constant, confident nature of its structure proved enlightening. It reignited excitement, an enthusiasm which informs the greatest creative thinking and leads to better creative writing. It’s all constructed in such a way that you go home with the confidence to say, “Wow, I know what I’m doing now. It makes sense.” In my case I realised what was getting in my way was myself and my own anxieties. Others realised that they were on the right track. Some brought in work to be read out aloud as the class acted as an audience. When you hear other people react to your work it helps you see where you might be going wrong.
If you do take a course in the IWC try to show up early for class as the collection of books in the reception might take your attention as does the art scattered around the building, it’s well worth a good look around. I will be making a point of dropping in for a cup of tea and a goo at the shelves more often. I texted a friend when I left the centre that Sunday. He had recommended the course to me and I had to sum up my thoughts to fit a text: “Just home after what was an excellent weekend. Very enjoyable, informative and most beneficial. Thanks a million.”
Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’m going back to my baby and I might not be out until summer.
**Mark works in communications and PR. He is involved in local dramatics, is a keen theatre-goer and blogger of unpopular, serially-contrarian opinion. He also likes to read and write and basically do anything that doesn’t involve lifting heavy things.