My Writing Story & How Saluting Magpies Came To Be

Whenever I need to make sense of my life, or the world, then I turn to writing it down. Some people do it through music, painting, or dance… me through writing. I express myself through dance, but make sense through writing.

Over the years I’d only written privately. I had written diaries, unsent letters, poems, and two short stories, never sharing anything publicly… all because a teacher ridiculed my writing when I was a teenager and had put me off. I could write in exams for an anonymous examiner, but found it extremely difficult for anyone I knew in real life.

However, in August 2016 I started blogging at the age of 57, due to the encouragement of an online journalist on Twitter. And that boosted my confidence, which led to playwriting the following year. It was the start of me feeling vulnerable yet doing it. As Brene Brown says, vulnerability is showing courage, rather than weakness… although I walk the fine line with my feelings around it. I write publicly when the need to write and share it, overcomes the fear of doing it.

I now need to record my public writing story, for my own benefit.

This is a long form post and if you are interested it will take about 20 mins to read. The link to my audio play, Saluting Magpies (produced by Coracle Productions, in assoc with Alphabetti Theatre) can be found at: Write Longer.

At age 61 I’m proud of what I’ve achieved; I’ve had a lot of rejections too (some that hurt quite a bit) but I’ve had six successes. The world of writing and theatre feeds me! I have made some great new friendships too because of this new world. And I also want to thank people who have encouraged me with regards my writing – I want to use this post to thank writing schemes/courses, theatres, companies, facilitators, producers, actors and directors – I will name organisations and people.

I would love to name every person who has crossed my path over the past four years… but I’m too nervous that I’ll miss someone out… if you are in my life, then know you are one of those encouraging people with regards my writing… and my life. Every exchange, conversation, and positive feedback have all meant something. Thank you so much.

There is one person though who has been my steadfast champion and who I will name… my lovely daughter Megan. I always put writing stuff by Megan.. and if she goes… it’s shit-hot Mam… then I know I’m on the right track. I’ve come to learn that my writing won’t be to everyone’s liking, it’s not meant to be, but if I like it and Megan likes it lots, then I’m satisfied.

2011

I’m going to go back to 2011. I was driving the car one day round a roundabout (I can see the exact one just outside of Morpeth) and I spotted a lonesome magpie – and saluted him – and the thought crossed my mind, how ironical if I had an accident in the car, all because I took one hand off the steering wheel to salute a magpie – for good luck.

Later that day I sat at my laptop and a story of 4k words poured out. All about a woman who told her life story using the whole rhyme – One for sorrow, two for joy, etc. It was loosely based on my life, with embellishments of course. For the first time I dared to share my writing with a few friends. And then it sat in my documents folder for five years till 2017.

Two other things happened in 2011 too… I was not long back from living in Athens and two dear friends, Angela & Ged, started inviting me to Live Theatre in Newcastle. I’d only ever been once, and Lee Hall’s Cooking with Elvis blew my socks off. It was the dark humour, the structure, the twist, and the fact only four people were on stage with minimal set and no curtain, no side wings, and we were so close to the action.

And for the first time I thought, I want a play on a stage one day. Friends have asked if I’ve always wanted to be a writer, not until that day. Looking back though I now realise that all those children’s books I had read to my children & in school; all those films I had watched; and those puppet shows I did as a child… had planted seeds.

I enrolled on an online playwriting course, but it didn’t really click for me. And by the next year I was hit by a severe depression and anxiety.

Even though I recovered, I decided to take early retirement from full time work in 2014, sell my house, and go into rented. For all this was not ideal and felt scary, I do acknowledge that I was privileged to be able to do this and not end up homeless, and that in turn this gave me the time and energy to write further down the line.

Now jump five years to…

2016

Autumn of 2016 I did three things that were to kick me into gear…I started my own blog, I blogged for Live Theatre, and I enrolled on two writing courses.     

Live Theatre – Autumn season 2016

My blog about things in my life was favourably received; I reviewed plays at Live for a month, which opened my eyes to four plays I wouldn’t have normally seen; I enrolled on a day’s photography/poetry workshop in Hexham; and I applied to do a free weekend playwriting course at Live Theatre, with the laid-back, wise Gez Casey.

The playwriting course was an introductory one and I started to grasp about needs/ wants and obstacles with regards playwriting. I was so nervous the first day that I only took things in on the Sunday. Think this was my first visceral, fully-aware experience of imposter syndrome – a heavy cloak that I’ve never really shaken off.

One of the plays I reviewed at Live was Spine – a monologue by Clara Brennan. If Lee Hall had whetted my appetite, then this play set me off in a certain direction. It was a monologue with multiple voices. I bought the playscript (my daughter and I to this day still recite the opening bit – it’s so darkly funny) and now finally in late 2016 the fire was properly lit.

2017

January 2017 I enrolled on the Theatre Royal’s ten-week playwriting course for £60 (One of the few courses I’ve paid for, there’s some bloody good stuff out there for free) – run by the brilliant Roxana Freeman.

And eventually the penny dropped about dialogue – about it driving the action forward, and about sub text, and about each line deserving its place.

She also said something that has stayed with me: successful playwriting is 90% hard work, 10% talent – and I thought, I can do hard work!

As it became clear that we would have to share our work, people began dropping out. It took all my courage to stay the course.

By the March of 2017 I decided to get over myself, and write a short monologue for a call-out.

I studied Spine above to see how it was laid out. My three minute monologue was called “Off to see a man about a dog” and gorgeous Vik Kay of NE Script Space picked it up, and it was performed at Theatre Space NE in Sunderland, by the fab Dale Jewitt.

I was so green though – at the first rehearsal Dale did a read-through and I thought that was him properly acting – I was bowled over – but even more so when he stood up and did it properly.

My piece was part of Corinne Kilvington’s launch of her new space and it was such a special evening. And I was hooked.

Running order of launch evening at Theatre Space NE – 2017

In the April I was submitting to Live Theatre’s Ten Mins To. Well, I was trying to. I had to maroon myself on St Mary’s Island to get my bum into a seat and write – and I turned the One For Sorrow, above in my short story, into a monologue with multiple voices, called Fragile Clouds.

I had procrastinated so much though that I had to submit the first draft, which I only completed within ten minutes of the deadline. I’ve never flown so near to a deadline again… ok, maybe I have a few times.

St Mary’s Lighthouse, Whitley Bay

When Fragile Clouds was performed I was in awe at what Bex Bowsher the director, and Caroline Liversidge who performed it, had created. My ten year old self was heard by an audience for the first time, and I realised I had connected with people through my writing… a potent feeling.  

Programme for Live Theatre’s Ten Mins To – Reach Inside – April 2017

Throughout April/June 2017 I tried to turn all of my short story into a play – but it just wasn’t happening. I had the idea to have it as a two-hander with a younger and older self on stage… but I was stuck; Saluting Magpies – the play – just wasn’t happening.

However, if I was hooked before, then I was well and truly smitten now, and knew I had to try and write some other playscript.

Minimal set for Ten Mins To – April 2017

Next up was a call-out for a project, Hear Her Roar, in the Autumn of 2017… for JoJo Kirtley’s Workie Ticket Theatre Company.

Time for me to step back from personal writing to writing about an issue I knew a lot about, but also had to do a lot of research on too, plus I needed to ok the story I was telling with the people involved.

My monologue was called Rocking The Boat. All about me sitting in the Durham Miner’s Hall at a rally, for the teaching assistants, who were in dispute with Durham County Council.

My path crossed again with the fab Corinne Kilvington, this time as director, and the wonderful Jackie Lye who performed it.

Act One of Hear Her Roar held at the Bridge Hotel Pub, Newcastle – 2017

If you have stayed with me this long, then thank you. I thought I’d have written this blog post by now.

2018

Quite a few rejections under my belt from that Autumn 2017 until the next May in 2018 and I was losing confidence, so I knew I had to be proactive and I booked the five-week playwriting course at Alphabetti, with a showcase at the end of it (costing £20).

This was me meeting Ben Dickenson, their literary manager, for the first time. The third facilitator to be encouraging and inspiring… I sent him an email early on asking a question, saying… sorry, feel a bit dim… and him saying… what a perfectly sensible question, cos in his experience, some of the best theatre grows from asking the obvious, there’s genius to be found in that moment of: “eh? what?”

It meant I could take a risk with what I was about to write… I felt safe. A feeling that doesn’t come easily, but one that frees me up.  

For the showcase I wrote a multiple voice two-hander called Beyond The Yellow Brick Road… where a daughter had reached an impasse with her mam, with regards her moving abroad for work.

It was a script-in hand night… another new experience for me. And my five minute piece was on stage with 12 other pieces, this time in the very capable hands of Paula Penman and Caroline Liversidge – with the comic addition of Adam Jordan Donaldson.

I was.. back in the room.

What happened next has to be a proper dream come true.

A week later Ben emailed me saying that Alphabetti would like to offer me a commission – to write a 15 minute play (max two actors, minimal set) for an Alphabetti Soup Night. And I could write on any theme…. yikes, problem… I’d never had carte blanche before. And so the mind-mapping began. I often use snippets of a conversation or an image to get the ball rolling – this time I could see a set of step ladders, and a girl who wasn’t allowed to read (me) and an older version of that child who used superstition to get through life (bits of me)… at last I could use the image of me saluting magpies, and the idea from 2017 of a younger and older character on stage began to take form.

For the very first time I hit the deadline a month early… in case Ben didn’t like my play… he did.. and the play went through about five edits with him.

The first play version of Saluting Magpies took place that Autumn of 2018… with the dream team of Ruby Shrimpton (dir) and Tash Haws as older Ruby and Rebecca Graham as younger Ruby.

Since Fragile Clouds I’ve had this perverse need to have an audience cry… and that night I could hear stifled crying around the auditorium… result.

Also in that Autumn I applied to Live’s free ten-week playwriting course. I wanted to gather more insight and skills – playwriting books weren’t doing it for me as my concentration was diminished after the severe depression.

But that imposter syndrome was back with bells on… I think I was the oldest person on the course and felt I was only there to fulfil some ticky-box exercise.

The course was run by Chinonyrerem Odimba – who put me at ease, even though she didn’t know about my self-doubting. She speaks with vulnerability, and with such passion about plays – it’s infectious.

We had an informal show-back at the end and Chino said my writing made her want to lean in and hear more… uplifting feedback.

Along with the course above I also started FOH at The Exchange in North Shields.

Plus I applied to do the free reviewing workshop with Lyn Gardner at Northern Stage, and I began a working relationship with the lovely Helen Fussell.

This all meant I could see as many plays as possible for free, and I could keep interrogating which plays I liked and didn’t like, and why, while also keeping the machinery oiled by blogging again, and contributing in a small way to theatre discourse in the north east.

2019

From 2016 to 2018 I had soaked up as much about plays as I could (for now, there’s always more to learn) and I stepped into 2019 with lots of optimism.

Three opportunities came my way in the Spring… Saluting Magpies was performed at a scratch night at ARC Stockton, by Northumbria Uni MA theatre students; Alphabetti announced their Write Longer scheme, and Coracle Productions did a call-out for response audio plays to Down To Zero, a play by Lizi Patch.

Programme for Northumbria Uni’s Scratch Night – Jan 2018

I’d never written anything longer than 10-15 minutes… and Alphabetti were asking for plays of about 30 mins or longer to be workshopped and developed.

I could still see a younger and older Ruby and I had the idea to chop up and weave together: A Prologue, with Fragile Clouds, with Saluting Magpies, with Beyond The Yellow Brick Road and An Epilogue – they all had elements of ritual and superstition – and I called the whole thing Saluting Magpies.

I was chuffed to bits when it was chosen to be workshopped (performed again by the fantastic Tash Haws and Caroline Liversidge) along with lots of other plays, and then even more chuffed when Alphabetti’s Write Longer scheme chose it in Oct 2019 to be directed and produced by Matt Jamie of Coracle, to be performed in April 2020. Along with two other plays, one directed by Melanie Rashbrooke of The Six Twenty, and the other by Ben Dickenson of Alphabetti.

And this was the start of me working with Matt… like other facilitators he was very good at making me feel safe to develop ideas. Saluting Magpies – the 30 min version – went through about six edits with him. He is so patient… I’d send an edit then usually follow it with an email entitled: PS (like Detective Columbo saying… erm, just one more thing)

The above was happening while I had also been successful with Coracle’s response play call-out. My audio play was called Great Expectations – A love story of sorts. It can be found on Coracle’s podcast – Playstream – directed & produced for audio by Matt and performed by the lush Hannah Walker and Arabella Arnott. Down to Zero was about a woman feeling invisible and my play was too. This was my first attempt at writing an audio play.

On the final stretch now… thank you for staying this long. This post has taken me four weeks to write – as I said, my concentration is not very good – but it has been useful for me to reminisce and put this together though. I also know I’ve been avoiding this next chapter.

2020

And so to 2020 … the longer version of Saluting Magpies was to be performed in the April at Alphabetti, at the Write Longer Festival, with the two other plays. But of course Covid-19 put a stop to that.

However, it was decided that Coracle Productions/Matt Jamie would put it out as an audio play, in association with Alphabetti Theatre/Ben Dickenson, supported by Arts Council England. Which is what happened on 29th June. (As I said, you can find it at www.writelonger.co.uk or on Coracle’s podcast Playstream)

Matt brilliantly re-formatted it for audio by stripping it of my stage directions, and by adding music and sound FX. And the two characters who were to multi-role on stage, were now to be joined by five other NE voices.

I heard a preview on the 28th June and loved it…. Lucy Curry and Janine Leigh did a beautiful job of younger and older Ruby, and the other five spot-on women were Jacqueline Phillips, Katie Powell, Sam Neale, Arabella Arnott & Amelia Loulli. Matt had got them all to record their parts in their own homes, on their phones, and he wove it all together – some feat. I’ll be forever grateful. Dream no 2 came true.

I have had lots of positive feedback online and privately. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to do that. And Tracey Sinclair, who writes for Exeunt & The Stage, wrote a lovely post Write Longer – online plays, on her personal blog prodigalgeordie; even if she did admit to being a biased friend.

However I wasn’t able to savour the moment… some of you know my granddaughter was in a fatal incident in March this year, and it has overridden my play… and lockdown. I’m heartbroken. However, I’ve come to realise that writing was my saviour back in 2016 and hopefully it will carry on being so. Writing publicly may bare my soul, but it mends stronger. So for now I’m back to writing a blog post because that’s where I started. (I’ve written 56 posts since 2016) It grounds me and I feel I’m creating. And, as there is always something new to learn, I have done two zoom playwriting workshops recently… with Bryony Kimmings and Gill Greer – felt I had to get my bum in a seat again! Both fab women and insights, but oh how I dislike zoom!

Anyway… playwriting-wise what’s next? One day I would like to write a children’s play to dedicate to Betsy… a play to bring joy to children. When I’ll be ready to do that who knows and when/if theatres can re open who knows. I also may develop Saluting Magpies – I would like it to be longer; I would like to play around with the structure of it; I would like it to be realised on stage one day. One day.

The other week I was in the cemetery laying flowers and I asked for a sign that Betsy was near, and a magpie flew out of a nearby tree. So, I’ll forever be saluting magpies. Go well Mr Magpie… rest in peace dear Betsy.

Love these words, even if there is a typo!

(If you can afford to, then Alphabetti, Northern Stage and Live Theatre all have ways to support them financially through these dire times on their websites. If you like my writing or my blog posts then you may like to support me if you can, at my new Ko-fi page https://ko-fi.com/wendyerrington And if not, then shares of my play are very welcome. Thank you)

MoMA – New York – my photo taken Feb 2018

2 thoughts on “My Writing Story & How Saluting Magpies Came To Be

  1. So beautifully written and so inspirational – so proud of you Wendy and all your amazing achievements. Wow!

    Last year I was working in our old classroom and could not help but have frequent flashbacks to the laughs we had shared together and the honour of observing your unforgettable teaching and pastoral care first hand.

    You may not at the time, have been aware of the ripples of learning, light and love that you were sending out – that will never be forgotten by all of us lucky enough to have been in your class.

    So glad you have taken up your pen again- you have such a gift to touch and inspire others-

    Big hugs 🤗 and much love –

    From one of those xxx

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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