I received an email from my guest today which made me realise yet again why I love Irish Writers. There is an honesty and a wit that just gets me every time!!
The writer in question is Lisa Harding and I am thrilled to welcome her onto Swirl & Thread today with a wonderful post entitled ‘Improvisational writing – Letting your characters do the work’
Lisa is the author of the acclaimed novel Harvesting, shortlisted for best newcomer in the Irish Book Awards, chosen as a Unesco City of Lit read and shortlisted for Kate O’Brien awards.
I do hope you enjoy Lisa’s post…
Improvisational writing – Letting your characters do the work.
by Lisa Harding
Last year, I attended an event with George Saunders in conversation with Sinead Gleeson, where he spoke of his ‘improvisational’ approach: getting to that place of ‘no mind’ where the unconscious impulse can be freed up, without any controlling or censoring on the part of the conscious mind. I thought, that’s exactly how I work, which is why it’s so hard to lock it down in words. My own approach comes from my training and work as a professional actress where I spent years stepping inside other people’s skins. As a writer, I bring the same freedom to bear on my process, which basically involves inhabiting a character’s psyche so completely that they push me around on the page, and not the other way around.
I’m always fascinated when reading about different writers’ approaches. Some plan everything, write diagrams, know exactly where their characters will end up when they set out to write, others are somewhere in between with a loose outline and remain open to being surprised along the way, and some, like me, write completely in the dark. It’s an exciting and exhilarating process but can end up with a great big messy outpouring! I have written five plays this way and seemed to somehow intuitively ‘get’ structure, but I think that’s because of my immersion in the world of theatre from a young age. I then progressed to writing short stories, effectively dramatic inner monologues, and then moved on to the novel form.
The novel has long intimidated me. I have often thought it is the domain only of brilliantly skilled technicians (the novels that I love anyway, written by the likes of Tim Winton and Elizabeth Strout). But then again, last year I heard Tim Winton speak about his process and he seems to be somewhere between the two extremes of ‘improvisational’ and ‘strictly structured’. I was surprised because of the breath and scope of his worlds, the numbers of characters he deals with, his handling of time and landscape. Again, he spoke of remaining open to the delight of allowing his characters to surprise him.
For my first novel, Harvesting, which tells the story of two teenage girls from vastly different backgrounds who become embroiled in the world of sex trafficking in Dublin today, I allowed both girls’ voices to fully inhabit me before I started to write at all. I guess a form of ‘method writing’ here. The novel was inspired by true life testimonies of girls whose stories were given to me during my involvement in a campaign called Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People, spearheaded by The Children’s Rights Alliance. I had initially been invited in as an actress to read and interpret these accounts, and it was only some years later that I allowed myself to write about them. Their stories had burrowed down inside me and haunted me. They just wouldn’t let go, despite me writing another play and many short stories on different topics.
Initially I thought Harvesting would be a play as there was a vast cast of characters, but I soon knew that only two of them were really fully inhabited: the Irish girl, Sammy and the Moldovan girl, Nico. Both these voices lived inside me for as long as it took to write the novel. I didn’t even know it would be a novel; I thought perhaps a series of interlinked short stories. I think had I told myself this was a novel at the outset, I would have become frozen with fear. This freedom of approach allowed me to just write. Effectively the novel is structured as a series of internal monologues, each alternate chapter told from the perspective of each girl. I didn’t know how their lives would collide, or when. I just knew that somehow their friendship would be central to the novel.
I’ve just finished writing a first draft of my second novel in this manner. Again it was a topic that compelled me to write it: the generational impact of alcoholism, and again, I let the characters possess me. It has just gone out to my new agent. She asked to see the first raw, messy, instinctive impulse, and this is exactly what she got! Hopefully, along the way, this will transform into something coherent, cohesive, while maintaining the vital energy of the initial improvisation.
Thank you so much Lisa for such a fantastic piece of writing. You can read more about Lisa and her debut Harvesting below
Who is Lisa Harding?
Lisa Harding is an actress, playwright and writer. She has performed at the Abbey, the Gate, the Lyric theatres among others and on RTE. Plays have been performed at the Project, Battersea Arts Centre and Theatre 503 in London. Short stories have been widely published and anthologised. She was a winner in the inaugural Doolin short story prize in 2014. Other stories have been published in the Dublin Review, The Bath Short Story Anthology, The Broken Spiral, Reading the Future: New writing form Ireland, Hodges Figgis 250th Anthology and Headstuff. Others have been shortlisted for Cuirt, Listowel, RTE Guide/ Penguin Ireland, Fish, Bath and Over The Edge.
Harvesting is her first critically acclaimed novel. It was nominated for best newcomer at the Irish Book Awards 2017, shortlisted for the Kate O’Brien award 2018 and was chosen as a Unesco Dublin city of literature pick of 2017. It has been picked up by one of France’s leading publishing houses, Gallimard Press in Paris, and is being read by publishers in the UK and other European countries.
It is currently under consideration with one of Ireland’s leading film producers and a BAFTA nominated director.
She has just been awarded an arts council bursary for her next novel, OVERSPILL.
Roddy Doyle said of Harvesting (blurb on book): ‘Harvesting is shocking – and shockingly good. It is thought-provoking, anger-provoking, guilt-provoking, and most importantly – It’s a brilliantly written novel.’
Twitter ~ @LisaHarding10
Sammy is a spiky, quick-witted and sharp teenager living in Dublin; Nico is a warm and conscientious girl from Moldova. When they are thrown together in a Dublin brothel in a horrific twist of fate, a peculiar and important bond is formed . . .
This is a novel about a flourishing but hidden world, thinly concealed beneath a veneer of normality. It’s about the failings of polite society, the cruelty that can exist in apparently homely surroundings, the bluster of youth and the often appalling weakness of adults.
Harvesting is heartbreaking and funny, gritty, raw and breathtakingly beautiful, where redemption is found in friendship and unexpected acts of kindness.
Purchase Link ~ Harvesting
Harvesting was inspired by Harding’s involvement with a campaign against sex trafficking run by the Children’s Rights Alliance. Although it is a fictionalised account, the text has been read and approved of by representatives for NGOs in both Moldova and Dublin.
Loved reading this – it’s so interesting to read how writers approach writing. And it makes sense that coming from an acting background, Lisa would inhabit the characters or the characters would inhabit her as the case may be.
Thanks Andrea. It’s always fascinating as a reader to see how a writer approaches the characters mindsets…