The Arts Access Podcast is available on Spotify and iHeart Radio. Below, you can also listen to the fifth episode with Helen Vivienne Fletcher, called Writing through a disability lens. For more information about her writing visit Helen's website.
Writing through a disability lens
Sam: Kia ora, welcome back to The Arts Access Podcast. Today’s episode features an interview with the Wellington playwright, spoken-word poet, and creative writing tutor, Helen Vivienne Fletcher. Helen speaks to me about being a writer, and what she’s been up to.
Sam: So what led you to writing?
Helen: So I actually found it really difficult to learn to write as a child. So it was not a natural choice, I guess, but I guess what I found difficult was the mechanics of writing, but I'd always told myself stories, that was how I fell asleep at night. I've always had sleep problems, so lying awake at night, I would make up these long adventures.
And eventually the mechanics of writing got easier. I actually, after leaving school, I thought I would be going into something like acting or filmmaking. And I went off to study that and around the same time, that was when I started getting sick and disability stuff started becoming more of a problem.
So I think it was kind of a natural progression of the two things that in studying acting and filmmaking, I realised it maybe wasn't really what I wanted to do. And also because that was a much more physical road to go down. I was looking for something that met that creative need but didn't require me to be throwing myself around a stage or, you know, carrying heavy equipment and things like that.
So yeah, I guess it was just a natural progression, that more and more I was choosing writing opportunities than acting opportunities. And then eventually I just realised I didn't want to do the acting anymore, and I was loving what I'd found instead.
[Helen reads her poem Stick-abled. You can watch the captioned video online]
Sam: We’ve just had a little listen to Stick-abled and there's a line in it: “A stick is just a tool. It does not make me a cripple anymore than a fork makes me a salad”. What inspired that poem?
Helen: Yeah, so that particular line was one I had written in the middle of the night and forgotten about, and then later found it in my notebook. And initially I thought it was a bit silly but I put it on Facebook and I found that, you know, the friends who were commenting, the ones who didn't write, were going, “oh, yes, that's ridiculous”. And the poets were all going, “no, you should absolutely use that”. But the poem itself, generally when I'm writing spoken word poems, I tend to have a few anecdotes in mind that I think are in some way meaningful or funny or, you know, sort of say something that I want to explore. And I had had a few times where someone had called me a cripple, usually a stranger, sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes aggressively, and I was quite conscious that when I told people about these stories that a lot of people were really surprised. They just didn't think that kind of thing happened. And so I wanted to do something with that. And I thought spoken word poetry would be an accessible way to explore that.
And then a friend was setting up a poetry show, which had the theme of adornment. I started thinking about, you know, you kind of end up with medical jewellery, you know, medic alert bracelets, or I've got a medical alarm, and walking with a stick. It all kind of becomes this adornment to your body in a different way to how an able-bodied person might adorn their body.
So that seemed kind of a good way to bring it all together and, and I ummed and aahed for a long time about putting the salad line in. But I think it ties the piece together really nicely. It kind of brings back the humour.
Sam: Yeah, you kind of have to be humorous at times, I think, dealing with those disabilities.
Helen: Yeah, definitely.
Sam: How do your disabilities impact your writing?
Helen: I think it changes the way I write a lot. Definitely impacts the themes that I explore but in terms of the physical writing, I think a lot of writers tend to fall into a routine; that they work at the same desk; they, you know, they might have a strict routine.
They might not ... there might be long gaps between writing but often it is a very similar process each time. But for me, I haven't been able to do that. You know, I have arthritis in my hands and, well, in all of my body, but in terms of writing, the arthritis in my shoulders, elbow and hands can affect my ability to use a computer.
It can affect whether I can use a pen. So it just depends from day to day how I'm able to work. Sometimes it has to be lying in bed with, you know, the laptop propped up so I can see it. Sometimes it has to be standing, sometimes I dictate instead, though of course I've got problems with my vocal cords, so sometimes I can't dictate and then I have to change the process again.
So I guess it's a much more fluid process. I think that's a good thing though, cos it means that, you know, some people, if their laptop's broken, they just go, oh well, I can't write. Whereas for me, I'll go, oh well, I'll use my phone, I'll use a pen and paper, I'll dictate something.
It does mean that it can take me longer to produce a piece, and it does also mean I have to balance fatigue and, you know, days where I just can't really do anything because I'm too sick. So, yeah, I guess it affects my writing process in a lot of ways, but not all of them are bad.
Sam: So do your disabilities inspire your writing a bit?
Helen: They definitely come into it sometimes in unexpected ways. I'm not necessarily setting out to write something about disability but you know, that's really all I know. I mean, it's not all I know, but it is the life I know.
So things like, I got asked to write a piece for an anthology of circus-themed things. And initially I nearly said no because I went, “What do I know about the circus?” And then I went, “Well, hang on. What does disability look like at the circus?” So I ended up with a main character who was a trapeze artist and had fallen and become disabled.
And a blind fortune-teller. And then, because I find the circus creepy, I added in some ghosts and creepy things happening. So yeah, I guess it impacts in that way; that whether or not I set out to write something about disability, I am coming at everything with the lens of disability, just naturally.
Sam: So you received a commission from Tahi Festival to do a new play. What did you want to achieve with Confessions of a Sleepwalking Insomniac?
Helen: So the play is about my sleep disorder but it's also about my journey to getting an assistance dog. And it was something that I'd wanted to write about for a long time. I wasn't quite sure what form it was going to take. I had thought about doing maybe a poetry show or something akin to stand-up but after trying stand-up, I decided that was not for me. But I guess the heart of it really was for me, the day before I got the call to say I was getting an assistant dog was one of the lowest points I'd ever experienced.
And I'd heard that from so, so many other people with assistance dogs that things were just really at breaking point. And I thought there was something quite interesting in that and something kind of hopeful in it. That you can be at your lowest point when this “miracle”, in quotation marks, very much in quotation marks, occurs.
I guess I wanted to portray something that could portray that hope. And I'd also been quite interested in the fact that with the imagery in my sleep disorder, I had often told people stories about it. And I thought that it wouldn't really mean anything to them, other than kind of a funny story, but often other people found meaning in them.
Or they'd say, “oh, you know, that's exactly what I needed to hear today”. And so I thought, well, okay, I think there's something in this, more than a story just of a funny sleep disorder or a horrifying sleep disorder, depending on the day. There was kind of this story of hope and meaning that I wanted to be able to share.
Sam: There’s definitely that feeling of hope when I watched it anyway.
Helen: Fantastic. I'm glad that's coming through.
Sam: With a lot of humour on the way. Can you tell us more about the process from its inception to the opening night?
Helen: So, Tahi put out a call for two commissions. One was for an hour long show by a disabled playwright, and the other was for 10-minute pieces by female and non-binary writers on the theme of joy.
So I actually applied for both, thinking the same story, but told very differently, could work for either. So initially it was just a pitch and I had misunderstood. I thought that you had to perform it yourself. And so I came very close to not applying because I didn't think I could do an hour, perform an hour-long show myself.
But a friend encouraged me to try anyway. And it was kind of a relief when I realised I didn't actually have to perform it. And we had a fantastic performer, Pauline Ward, come in, and I'm so thankful for that. I think Pauline did a much better job than I would've been able to.
From there, so I was selected for the hour-long commission and wrote the first draft, which … I've written plays before but I'd never written a solo play. And so the initial play did come out a bit more like stand-up, not terribly funny stand-up, just kind of live stories. But as a part of the process, I had a dramaturg working with me, Angie Farrow, who was absolutely amazing.
So her feedback on my first draft was, “This is not a play.” Which was very, very helpful. And, um, so the next few drafts, we were working on bringing the story more into the present so that it felt like it was happening rather then telling about something that had happened a few years ago, and then during the process we had two workshops where fortunately Pauline was able to come in for those.
And yeah, so this is something that I would say to anyone who wants to write any type of performance piece or theatre, that there are things that you just can't see on the page. So having someone read it, having someone perform it is just invaluable. So being able to see Pauline work with the script and get feedback on it, that was just an amazing process. And after each workshop there were more drafts and feedback from Angie to get to the final draft, which was the one that was performed at BATS.
Sam: It’s great to see it all. Like, I wouldn't know where to begin with something like that.
Helen: I think that's the thing. When people are setting out to write something, we often forget that what we see is someone's sixth draft. And so comparing your first draft to a play that goes on will sometimes leave you feeling a little bit lost as to where to go and, and also realising that with any type of theatre, there are a lot of people involved. Even with a solo show, it's not just the performer and the writer. There's a whole team producing it.
Sam: So you're a spoken word poet, a novelist, and a playwright. What's your favourite genre?
Helen: I think I tend to gravitate more towards novels, simply because I find them easier. I think … I love writing plays and I love writing poems, but I find that for a play, I have to think about it for a lot longer before I start writing.
With a novel, I do need to do some planning, but I can figure out a lot of it on the page. Whereas a play needs to be, at least for me, a lot more fully formed. And with poetry, it's actually kind of the opposite. I can write the first half of a poem pretty quickly and then it takes me months to finish it. Like I actually performed something just recently that I started four years ago and it only just finished a couple of weeks ago.
Sam: What is the kind of, like, cherry-on-the-top for a poem?
Helen: It's an interesting one cos I think I get irritated if a poem is too conclusiony. But at the same time, sometimes poems just stop. And that doesn't feel right either. So I don't know. Maybe that's why it takes so long because it's just this undefinable thing that feels like a payoff without feeling like a forced conclusion.
Sam: Yeah. I remember talking with someone about my favourite novelist who's Haruki Murakami. And they said, “Oh, I just hate, like, none of his stories feel like they end”. And then I kind of said, “That's why I love them” because it leaves you to figure out the ending and figure it out yourself.
Helen: There's a line in, um, oh, I actually can't remember which book it is, but I think it's a Stephen King novella and he says, you need one mystery and one must have been so you can leave a mystery, but the reader has to be able to go “It must have been this.” And they won't necessarily all come, not every reader will come to the same conclusion, but you have to give enough so that people can come to a conclusion for themselves.
It's if you leave it with a mystery that you're then like, “I actually have no idea what's happening”. That's really frustrating. But if you sold everything completely, then that can be frustrating as well. So it's interesting.
Sam: Do you have a favourite project or one you are most proud of?
Helen: So, the circus novella that I was talking about earlier, that is, is one of my favourites.
It's called We All Fall, and something I've just finished recently, has been a bit of a favourite. It's a short story called The Library in an anthology that's just come out this week called The Art of Being Human, which is about a library and the future in a world where paper is quite scarce and technology is … everything's sort of broken down cause of the atmosphere …
So libraries consist of living books who tell oral histories and pass on skills and things like that. So I'm quite proud of that story.
Sam: Yeah, that sounds like a great one, I’ll have to get a hand on it. So what are you working on at the moment? Are you allowed to talk about it?
Helen: I am, yes. So I've been working on a series of books for the last few years called the Reactive Magic Series, which is kind of a, a creepy magic school that goes wrong.
So the third book in the series comes out this month, and then I'm working on the final book in the series, which will come out sometime next year. So the one coming out this month is called Volatile, and the next one title isn't a hundred percent set, but it's probably going to be Explosive.
Sam: Do you have any advice for someone who's starting off in a writing career? Maybe someone who has health conditions or disabilities or just in general?
Helen: So the advice that people or writers often give when asked this question is just to write. And I do think that's really good advice but I think it is a bit too broad. So one thing that I did when I was starting out was just to enter competitions and to submit to things when opportunities come up.
And the purpose of this I don't think is to try and win the competition. It's to get someone other than you to give you a deadline. So having a deadline and some parameters. Whether it's a word length or a theme or anything like that can be really helpful just for getting a finished product out there.
Because the thing that can be quite hard when you're starting out is, is it doesn't really feel like an end product. You are writing and that's great. But there can be a point like, where do you stop? So having some kind of deadline where you can go, okay, it has to be done by this date. I'll send it off and I'll have achieved something. Whether or not it gets published, whether or not it wins the competition, you've still achieved something by sending it off. And yeah, I think the first few years of me starting to take writing seriously, that's what I did and I think I learned so much from it.
You know, I look back at a lot of the stories that I entered and cringe but that's okay because it just shows what I've learned in the meantime.
Sam: That’s it for today’s episode. A huge thank you to Helen for coming on today’s podcast, and also to the College of Creative Arts at Massey University for letting us use their fully-accessible recording studios. Thank you for listening. Mā te wā.
Read Helen Vivienne Fletcher's blog, Saying “no” in theatre.