The Many Forms of Form

Literature and philosophy have been inseparably entwined in the thoughts of humankind since we first had such thoughts about such things. Almost all our modern thinking about narrative structure and form has its foundations, at least in part, in Aristotle’s famous examination of story, Poetics, which itself was a product of centuries of development of dramatic art and narrative experimentation.

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The stories we tell have impact far beyond narrative content and plot elements such as character, place and time. Indeed the way we say something is just as important as what we are saying when it comes to the influence and interpretation of meaning in narrative art.

Form is a many-faceted concept for just this reason. When we try to list form or define it in some way, we inevitably find a myriad of cross-overs between other literary elements, most particularly structure and genre (even Wikipedia has trouble). These techniques and concepts become indelibly linked in our cultural consciousness as a byproduct of the way we develop certain constructions around certain types of stories.

Literature can be said to be divided into the grand dichotomy of poetry and prose. But even there we have problems when we start to identify the way in which these two literary metrics can be presented.

Then we may try to list the grand narrative media in an exhaustive and mutually exclusive list of constructs, from longer narratives:

  • Novel
  • Epic poem
  • Drama

To shorter narratives:

  • Poem
  • Novella
  • Short story
  • Vignette
  • Legend
  • Myth
  • Folk tale

And then we should consider the performative arts who often have their own distinct formal constructs:

  • Theatre
  • Film
  • Song

And then we ask, should dance be included or is it non-literary, even though it is also a narrative form?

Then consider informative texts. Do they have their own structural conceits? Do they classify as separate forms of writing?

  • Historical novels
  • Literary non-fiction
  • Biography and autobiography
  • Documentary
  • News
  • Persuasive arguments
  • Thesis & analysis

What about functionality and purpose? Does that play into the divisions of form?

  • Fairy tales
  • Morality tales
  • Teaching parables
  • Analogy & symbology

And of course broad-spectrum genre is a major form qualifier:

  • Fantasy
  • Epic
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Drama
  • Quest

And the many derivative narrative structures that have sprung up over the most recent decades as technology plays into the way we communicate our stories to each other:

  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Music videos
  • Short films
  • Tweets
  • Status updates
  • Flash fiction
  • Vines

All of these forms, from the grand multi-volume works to the one-hundred and forty characters, have intricately linked cultural associations attached to the way they are presented. A play in the Shakespearean style may have five acts, employ poetic metre, follow the conventions of tragedy or comedy, and even include songs and musical numbers. A fantasy narrative may take the form of either a multi-volume novel or an epic poem, media themselves bound in pre-conceived structural nuance, employing well-rehearsed act-divisions and conventional literary techniques such as catalogue, dialogue, monologue, and even deeper formative layers of allusion to legend and myth.

Narrative form as a classifiable entity came under specific academic study in the 1950s, after the great revolutions of the Modernist period threw all previous conventional understandings of form into flux. Since then several schools of thought have sought to demystify the question of form for philosophical and technical reasons, in aid of both the audience and the auteur.

Clearly this is a topic too vast for one discussion, or even one series of discussions. So over the coming weeks we will explore the modern concepts of form and structure and how they apply to narrative art in contemporary practice, examining the theories of narrative form developed since the 1950s. We will touch briefly on the works of structuralists such as Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, to that of post-strcuturalists like Michel Foucault and then on into the most recent decades where the advent of screen culture has brought about the revival of the oldest known form of story-telling, the ubiquitous and oft-bemoaned three-act narrative.

To get yourself started, have a look at the seasonal myth theory of Northrop Frye and then this brilliant introduction to Joseph Campbell’s hero narrative.

Look close enough and you will see these monomythic stories everywhere, leaving us to wonder whether there are a myriad of different forms as diverse and nuanced as life itself, or if there is really only one true story, told over and over again in many different guises, tracing back over all narratives since the beginning of time.

 

Elise Janes

 

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Writing is Work (and other things you need to get over)

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Let’s get down to it. If you want to be a writer chances are you’ve wanted to be a writer since you read your first book/poem/play (probably a book, not many infants learn their ABC’s with Samuel Beckett).

Actually, revise that. You’ve probably wanted to be a writer since you experienced your first really good story, you know, the moment when all the hairs on your arms stood up, and you forgot where you were and who was with you, and you got the feeling that there was a lot more to this grand old life than most people realised.

And chances are that this feeling never left you. In fact as you chose your subjects at school and went on to study medicine and then became a doctor and settled down and had kids and bought a house and took out the rubbish bins and made dinner at night, that feeling followed you everywhere. It never went away.

Most people will never write so much as a tweet in their whole lives and still manage to live an extremely satisfied existence. But that’s not you. And whether or not you come to it late in life after a long career in something else, or you wrote your first play when you were five and never stopped, there are some things that you will need to get over in order to make your writing dream a reality.

  1. Yourself

The first thing to die must be your own insecurities. Easier said than done. And this is something you will have to battle every day for the rest of your writing career, because unless you have the unshakeable ego of, say, Napoleon Bonaparte, those doubts will niggle you every waking moment.

The thing is if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will. Don’t apologise for wanting to be a writer. Don’t apologise for thinking that you can be a writer. Don’t mumble when people ask you what you’re working on. If they don’t get it, who cares. You get it. That’s all that matters.

  1. Other people

Just to be clear, no one is going to fully understand your work except you. No one is going to care about your work like you do. When people ask how your weekend was and you say “So busy, I wrote 10 000 words, stayed up all night, so exhausted.” Not only will they mentally roll their eyes, they will immediately compare your sitting on your butt in front of a computer screen all weekend to the fact that they had to take their 8yo to three different birthday parties, their 5yo to soccer, have ten people over for dinner, walk the dog, mow the lawn, get root canal and paint the house.

They don’t give a shit and they probably never will. In fact many of them will resent you for having the courage to try and do something creative. Don’t look for encouragement in others, even in your close friends and family, because many of them will just not get it. And that’s the way it is.

  1. Time

Writing is one of the most time-consuming activities in the known universe. Even if you write 3 000 words a day (which takes most people about 5-6 hours), it will take you thirty days straight to write a 90 000 word manuscript. That’s if you literally do nothing else for a whole month. Add to that full-time work, family, weddings, funerals, sickness, appointments, birthday parties, holidays, and actually having a life (so maybe 1 hour of writing a day if you’re lucky) and it will take you around six to eight months. Add to that research, frequent slow periods, and some moments of despair/writer’s block/questioning the meaning of life, you’re looking at twelve months. Absolute minimum. For a first draft. Then comes the rewrite, editing, reworking, burning it in the backyard and starting all over again, blah blah bah.

The point is it requires serious dedication and deliberate effort to even get a first draft on paper. It will require you to stay home when everyone else is going out. You will have to miss birthdays, dinners, events, holidays, usually to the great offence of everyone around you. No one will understand because the deadline is self-directed, and people rarely respect a self-directed deadline. But if you want to write, you have to actually write. And that takes real time.

  1. Where you came from

Some people are born into artistic families. Most people aren’t. Some people are born into culturally fortunate locations where inspiration and opportunities and contacts abound. Most people aren’t. Some people get recognised in their formative years and get useful legs-up in the creative world. Most people aren’t. These are things you have little control over. But it doesn’t mean they have to stay that way.

If you need to move to a more conducive artistic environment, then do it. If you need to change who you hang around so you can get inspired, then do it. If you need to remodel so you have a useful writing space, then do it. If you need to change jobs, degrees or fields of study in order to get the input you need, then do it. Most people don’t. But you should.

  1. IMG_0512Conventions

The rules state that you have to go to school then go to uni then get a job so you have money to buy a car, get married, buy a house, have a family, go on family holidays, invest in superannuation and retire.

Thing is, you don’t.

Spending two years of your life writing a novel goes against all rational conventions. Do it anyway. You may have to delay other things in your life to get it done. Do it anyway. You may decide that you need to drop out of uni, postpone a life event, or turn down a great job to get done. Do it anyway.

Just don’t get to the end of your life never having tried.

  1. Work

Most writers will actually have to work for money for a long time before they are able to live off their writing. Some writers will never live off their writing. Work will always get in the way. You need to manage it. If you need to get a different job so that you have more time/energy/brain space to write, then do it.

Writing is work. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a fun idea to kill some time. It’s not a phase. It’s not a therapeutic exercise. It’s damn hard work and it’s no less worthy of respect than any other job.

  1. Expectations

If you write always worrying about what other people will think about this or that then you will never put a word on paper.

In order to be true to your genre, characters, story, whatever, you may need to write graphic sex scenes, violence, abuse, morally shocking behavior, drugs, mental and physical illnesses, gosh you may even have to use a four-letter word or two.

Yes, your granny might be offended. Or your colleagues/parents/friends/family. Know what? Too bad. Hey, everyone watches Game of Thrones. Even if they say they don’t.

  1. Security

There may come a time when you decide you need to spend a solid three months on your book. You may need to take unpaid leave. You may even need to quit your job. Again, no one else will understand or care. They will tell you that you’re crazy because a promotion is just around the corner, or that you’re leaving the team in the lurch, or that certain projects won’t happen if you’re not there. In the end, this is your life and your future, not theirs. Work out which one matters most.

  1. Genre

So when you decided to be a writer you thought you would be the next James Joyce. Then you started writing and you realised that all you wanted to write about was guns and car chases. Does that make you a second-rate writer? HELL. NO.

Write what you want to write. Don’t write to win the Booker prize or the Nobel prize or to be the next J.K. Rowling. There are plenty of authors out there who are writing from ambition and I can guarantee that deep down they know they’re not being honest with themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our most lauded literary minds will lie on their deathbeds wishing they had created the next James Bond instead of ten award-winning lyrical masterpieces.

  1. Other writers

The great thing about finally owning up to your dirty little secret is that you will start to find some like-minded people. You will find workshops, seminars, competitions, writing groups, writing centres, literary fetsivals. You will find beta readers and crit partners and people who just love sharing your work and talking about it. And then you will also find people who are just plain rude or ridiculously elitist or want nothing to do with anyone else because they are the ultimate lone wolf.

In the end, writing, like any creative pursuit, is a small and competitive field and some people are in it to win and don’t care about anything else. They will resent your success and then smugly rub their success in your face. They will use you for a profile boost and then clamber over you up the literary social ladder. So find the good ones and don’t let them go. The rest? Forget them.

  1. What you could have been

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. People tell me I could have been a singer. I could have been a performer. I could have been a great music director. I could have been a great educator. I could have been a principal. I could have been an actress. I could have been an academic. That’s all great. But I have only one life. And I’m at least going to try to do what I really want to do.

And you should too.

 

Elise Janes

Kiss & Cry

Guest contributor Frances Chapman reviews Kiss & Cry, a live-art performance from the Sydney Festival that pushes the boundaries of staged artistic work.

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Kiss & Cry is a sweeping cinematic romance with a twist: its stars are a duo of dexterous, dancing hands, moving with grace and precision onscreen through a series of miniature landscapes. Shot and projected onscreen simultaneously, a sensual small-scale ballet comes to life before your eyes.

From prize-winning filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael and choreographer Michèle Anne De Mey, a founding member of Rosas dance company, this story of forgotten love, told from a beautiful tiny world, has charmed audiences of all ages.

A moving love story – and a showcase for some seriously inspired handiwork – Kiss & Cryis a gorgeous intertwining of film and dance, as nimble of finger as it is nimble of imagination.

– from the Sydney Festival

It is unusual to see a truly original piece of theatre. Live audio visual hook-ups, meta “re-imaginings”, a guy painted red and shouting grandly into the abyss – we’ve seen it all. But Kiss and Cry, the darling of this year’s Sydney Festival, is truly something new.

Part dance piece, part movie, part small-scale puppet show, Belgium’s Charleroi Danses’ Kiss and Cry is hard to categorise. Choreographed by Michele Anne de Mey, of the Rosas dance company, and co-directed by filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael, Kiss and Cry is a simple and meditative love story. Looking back over her life, an old woman waits at a station and remembers her five great loves: the first, so brief, a boy in a train carriage when she was twelve, right up to the humdrum long relationship of her late adulthood.

Carriageworks’ Bay 17 is transformed into a movie studio, complete with miniature sets and an array of cameras capturing a range of creative angles. The story is told through poetic pre-recorded narration from British actor Tony Regbo, whose Jude Law-esque enunciation lends a whimsical tone, and brought to life by two hands (one de May’s, the other of dancer Gregory Grosjean), which dance together and apart, their small intimacies projected onto a large screen. A tiny ballet unfolds, the camerawork seamlessly capturing the precision of the dancers’ hands.

15305388158_ca106ac98b_bThere is plenty to watch: the dancers, the simultaneous film onscreen, and the backstage crew who comprise an ensemble themselves as they go about creating visual effects: blowing cigarette smoke across a dancefloor, moving dolls with great delicacy, working in unison to bring the finished product to the screen above. This is a theatre piece which shows the great beauty in the process of making art, as well as in the art itself.

Kiss and Cry takes our most used appendages, the taken-for-granted, humble hands, and projects them, naked and huge, onto the screen for micro-examination. Its ruminations on lost love are simple and poignant, but the spectacle of the minute is truly extraordinary.

Frances Chapman

Shakespeare, Spacey, and the Sublime

A review of documentary Now: In the Wings on a World Stage

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At first the idea of Hollywood denizen Kevin Spacey helming a world Shakespearean tour seems slightly self-indulgent, if not rather absurd. And few besides Spacey would have the audacity to film the whole experience for a limited-release feature-length documentary. However the result, Now: In the Wings on a World Stage, is more than surprisingly fresh, it’s a moving and, dare I say it, inspirational reminder of why theatre is one of the oldest and most enduring art forms.

Many critics of the film have majored on the self-congratulatory nature of such a project for Spacey, or the lack of focus on audience response and the small amount of live performance included in the final screening. These reviewers have wildly missed the point of the whole endeavor (ahem, Mike McCahill), which was never to be a screened version of the play, nor a sociological examination of the reception of Shakespeare throughout different cultures. The film exists to demonstrate the human quality of bringing an ancient text to life and at this it exceeds magnificently.

In an age when it’s easy to roll your eyes at the excessive celebrity and attention-seeking antics of those in the acting profession, this film serves as a reminder that actors essentially love their craft, surely a human right to which we are all entitled. Away from the glimmering screen realm, theatre throws performance back into the raw essential nature that makes it such a vulnerable exposé of human experience. A touring production is one of the most intimate and exhilarating collaborative experiences an artist can have, and it is the wide-eyed wonder seen on even the most weathered of faces in this film that reminds us of the simple, unifying power of doing something great together.

NOW-DVDI quickly found myself desperately wishing to have been amongst the fortunate audience able to share the Bridge Project Company’s ambitious production. The documentary, directed by Jeremy Whelehan, follows the trans-continental cast and crew of Sam Mendes’s Richard III production as it tours from London’s Old Vic Theatre, across Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, finally landing for its closing week in Brooklyn’s BAM theatre. Revealing beautiful moments of cast and crew interaction, the complex mechanics of hosting a world tour, and the magnificence of Richard III itself, the film is both intimate and grand; a fitting tribute to what must have been an incomparably unique performance.

The cast is a surprising mélange of well- and lesser-known thespians. A particular delight is English screen monarch Gemma Jones in the role of the murderous king’s mother, Queen Margaret. The documentary reveals her not only to be the esteemed matriarchal veteran of the tour, but also one of its most risqué party girls, at one point referring to actor Isaiah Johnson: “…a magnificent piece of manhood. I’d like to see him without his clothes on.”

These backstage antics enhance our wonder at the actors’ onstage transformation in the small glimpses of performance that Whelehan includes in the film, providing just the right amount of detail to demonstrate the tone and impact of the live production. The diversity of the cast is particularly exposed through the bold decision for actors to maintain native accents. While the idea of Shakespeare through a North American twang is mildly offensive to any English-speaker, the resultant blend actually creates a strange sort of dialectic harmony that enhances characterisation and stage chemistry.

And the chemistry is surprisingly taut, as the actors bring to stage deep reserves of anger, fear, lust and desperation. While Spacey flits back and forth throughout the film like a benevolent omnipresent deity, it is refreshing to see Whelehan focus on some of the more obscure tour members, extracting personal anecdotes and demonstrating without much effort the vast emotional impact the production is having on all members of cast and crew.

Spacey has more than proved his mettle in an array of screen triumphs, further cemented by his Best Actor Oscar for 1999’s American Beauty (also directed by Sam Mendes who likewise received an Oscar). While his eccentric oeuvre lacks the consistent brilliance of actors such as Gary Oldman and Dustin Hoffman, he has nonetheless brought vibrant life to some of the most unique and captivating roles, notably in LA Confidential and The Usual Suspects.

Lately his work on the acclaimed Netflix show House of Cards has reinvigorated his silvering career, and it is the same beguiling barefaced ruthlessness seen in Francis Underwood that suffuses his portrayal of the crippled King Richard with breathtaking aggression. Critics of the production were unanimously impressed, though the more astute noted the absence of that particular shade of self-exposure that truly masterful Shakespearean actors bring to such roles. Despite the brilliant savagery of his delivery there was still that underlying Kevin Spacey-ness in his performance. But you do forgive him for that every time he smiles his trademark conspiratorial twinkle at the audience.

Theater The Bridge ProjectThe production makes creative use of live-filmed screening, stark lighting and a bare stage that both imitates the brutality of the play and also throws its lush characterisations into sharp relief. When the lights fall and Spacey, costumed like a deranged groomsman, bursts through the central door hunch-backed and lurching violently on a cane, the first word of text explodes forth from his twisted scowl rendering the performance space at once silent and yet alive with a fervor of expectation and wonder: Now! It’s hard not to feel tingles up your spine, even second-hand through the movie screen, when we hear that most venerated of first-lines and we know the true master, the bard himself, has arrived.

The blunt immediacy of theatre makes it tangibly powerful. Almost as soon as that line is spoken it’s gone again and we are left somewhat stunned in the wake of its poetry, savagery and beauty. “It can only exist there,” as actor Jeremy Bobb says, “The fact that you can miss it – is pretty awesome.” This onrush of hyper-awareness is what brings adrenalin to theatrical experience, and this weighty responsibility grows in the cast throughout the world tour as they sense the vast impact such a magical experience is having on all of them. That the tour is now over, that the production no longer exists except in documentary form, makes viewing it through these excerpts that much more rare and wondrous.

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Whelehan wields some magnificent travel scapes, taking us from the peaceful spiritualism of Buddhist temples to the Great Wall of China and the expansive beauty of a desert sunset. One particular highlight, which is tracked parallel throughout the documentary, is the performance in the Epidavros amphitheatre, an awe-filled experience for both cast and audience alike. As night falls and golden lights illuminate ancient stone tiers in an ethereal glow, we see the time-lapse blossoming of the stage area and an immense anticipation arises. After following several of the actors through make-up and preparation, we see the audience begin to fill, eliciting expressions of humility and wonder, and whispers of disbelief from cast and crew. A voice-over from Mendes observes the suspended exhilaration that only live theatre can bring: “It’s like feeling the heart-beat of the world.” This is what Whelehan’s film sets out to capture, and this is what it delivers, with precision, honesty, and a little stage magic.

 

Now: In the Wings on a World Stage can be downloaded from iTunes or streamed online.

 

Elise Janes