Kill the house lights

June 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

I’ve been thinking  a lot about audiences recently – not the sort you find in a theatre, but a more general concept of audience: the kind that responds to whatever it is you put out there for public consumption.

One of the things I teach my writing students is always to consider their audience, and it’s a very useful tool in transactional writing. But I’ve started wondering recently whether it’s such a good idea to consider your audience when involved with creative pursuits. When I think back on my creative writing history – which includes poetry and songwriting many moons ago, and recently, my first novel – I realise that considering my audience has severely hamstrung me.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I recently wrote my first song after a 14 year hiatus. Part of that was a sense of loss after my songwriting buddy died of cancer. Most of it, however,  was the result of me thinking about the kind of songs I’d like to write, comparing them to the songs that are played on the radio and thinking – who the hell would ever listen to my stuff? I don’t write songs about who’s doing who at the club (yo) and they’re not always about love. And that kinda cuts me out of 99% of the market.

And then my friends and I went to see Wendy Oldfield and Lionel Bastos at the Radium Beer Hall in Johannesburg. And as they began to play and sing, it was like a light went on in my head – because both of them not only have talent in bucketfuls, but they write songs. Real songs, and real music about life and love and betrayal and the world we live in and the insecurities we feel – not just who’s doing who at the club (yo).

But I think the reason I reacted so viscerally to their music, and went home beaming from ear to ear, was that I suddenly realised that not everyone is writing about who ‘s doing who… okay, I won’t say it again, but you know what I mean. There are people out there who do what they do ‘simply’ because they are artists and they are born to create. It’s not about the audience – it’s about their own need to create. (Yes, yes, I know art has to be paid for so the artist can eat, so we need audiences for that, but this is a reflection on the creative process, so allow me some airy-fairiness, please.)

In the weeks that followed, my thoughts turned to my novel, which took about three years to get to the point where I finally typed those two little words: “The End” – I’m currently working slowly on the rewrite and hope to finish before another three years pass. It should not have taken so long – there was a lot of procrastination involved. And as much as my writing teachers, Jo-Anne Richards and Richard Beynon of Allaboutwriting cajoled and persuaded and set deadlines for me, it took huge amounts of courage for me to sit down and write the damn thing. Because the thing is, whenever I considered that someone might read my novel, I froze. And the what ifs began.

What if my parents read it? There’s that sex scene… What will my husband think? My children? What if my friends don’t like it? What if no publisher ever wants to publish it? What if a publisher does publish it and it’s a flop… What if, what if, what if? But then I’d sit down, and finally start to write, and the words would just flow and I wouldn’t want to stop writing or do anything else instead of writing ever again.

And now that I’ve given myself ‘permission’ to write my songs, I don’t want to stop doing that either. Lyrics assail me in the middle of the night, or while I’m driving to fetch my kids from school; my life has become one of hastily jotted down notes and voice-noted melodies that I sing into my phone while I’m in the car. And when I finish a verse, or a chorus, or even a whole song, and I’m happy with it, the feeling is one of “of course.” I feel like I’m finally doing something I was born to do.

But  then I catch myself worrying again – it’s a constant push-pull. The lovely 88 Kilos of Sunshine has generously offered to help me make a simple recording of the song I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, and I start to panic because I can sing in tune, but I am no Singer with a capital S. And why I am worrying? Because of the people who might hear it… what if, what if, what if… The audience is encroaching on my creative process again.

And so I’ve decided to try to do what they do in theatres all around the world – seconds before the show starts, they turn off the ‘house lights’ – the lights that illuminate the theatre seating – and engulf the audience in darkness. The actors, for the most part, can’t see the audience at all. They simply create and perform in their own little bubble, in that box of light of that is the stage. And if they are good actors, they lose themselves in their roles and the plot of the play, and only remember that the audience is there when there’s applause.

That’s a metaphor that could work for me, I think. Kill the house lights please!


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