It was a sunny day in Sydney yesterday, spectacular actually if you happened to head to the Quay and see the brilliant trilogy of the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and some God awfully huge passenger liner moored to the passenger terminal. The icons were surrounded by thousands of people intent on recreating in all manner of traditionally accepted forms: sight seeing, spending time with the fam, eating and drinking and conviving with similarly minded friendly folk, and the whole scene was bathed in a brilliantly tepid amber afternoon light.
I had come not for the rays or the views or even the caramelised onion and goat's cheese tart devoured with relish, but for the opportunity to witness a hero. Granted, he hadn't saved anyone from a firey inferno or flooded causeway lately (as far as I know), but he had certainly contributed to my literary salvation.
Tom Stoppard was a figure of primacy in my formative days as a writer. It's no accident my two earliest plays explored figures already existent in literature (Biggles and Juliet - and possibly there's a future play title there for an aspiring post-post-post modernist). His own writing trajectory had followed a similar path with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Travesties.
Tom (should I say 'Sir Tom'? It is his title afterall. Or am I betraying my republican ideals?) went on to create a bunch of plays which ensured his position as a writer of importance back when contemporaries like Osborne and Pinter were also breaking through. Stoppard writes with intelligence and wit and with a practically unparalleled capacity to manipute the English language to within, of its creative capacity, a split infinitive. He also won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love.
In many ways he appeared a reticent intervieee. I'm sure he was paid the metric equivalent of a shitload to be there, and was as willing and intent and obliging as someone who accepts such a gig should be, but he was, dare I say it, humble. Not something we're particularly used to seeing these days. Fake humility, sure, You can't get out the door these days without wading through a small lake of fake humility. But the actual stuff is much harder to find.
Over the course of the hour a well-audienced Concert Hall learned something of his working habits (still uses a pen, writes pyrimidacally in that he does many drafts of the first page of a play, then tapers as he goes until he hopes that the end page will be so logically arrived at that it will require little in the way of revision), and we saw his passion for human rights doesn't seem to have diminished. We were also told one other, possibly very important, thing.
Tom claims that his works he feels are the most successful are those he has managed to 'write lucky.' He explained, I think, that this means there are some pieces that he felt very clever about when they were finished, and others which he allowed to develop and to inform themselves as he underwent the creative writing process. In other words, he allowed the work to find its own truth rather than the impose on it his own intentions and expectations.
Let's get one thing straight: I've seen a lot of theatrical crappola which I suspect has been created using exactly this methodology. All exploration and no structure. Some writers who work from the 'take the idea and run' viewpoint don't always produce good things. However someone like Stoppard, who has learned more than enough of the rules to be confident about breaking them, has the capacity to conceive brilliance and see it emerge on the page, all the stronger for its own veracity. It's a bit like jumping into the deep end of the pool without knowing how many sharks, stingrays, piranhas and other assorted aquatic carnivores lie waiting below... but feeling confident you can outswim the lot of them.
So where does this leave my next project? I'm normally a plotter and a planner. I like to know where I'm going. I've always preferred to fully research before commencing writing rather than begin with an idea and see where it takes me. This time, though, I think I'd like to try it. I think it's time to write with luck. What could possibly go wrong?