When I was a genuine (occasional) playwright (when plays were wrought in my atelier at a rate of more than one a decade), people, upon learning that I wrote plays, would ask, invariably, ‘What sort of plays do you write?’, to which my answer was, inevitably, a shambles. This was partly because a general lack of awareness of theatre history means I am unsure of precisely what terms like ‘naturalism’, ‘realism’ and ‘surrealism’ mean in this context; partly (I have perhaps retrospectively decided) it is not for artists to define their own work (and if they do, they risk limiting themselves within a particular definition); and partly because I just plain didn’t know.
Often my struggling answers would include the word’ intellectual’, with all the hesitant apologia that I have attempted to articulate here recently as well. But I think the word I really wanted was ‘abstract’ – not abstract in the sense of having nothing much to do with the real world, but abstract in the sense of having been abstracted from the real world in order to create a theatrical artifice. So while some playwrights will use a cast of four or five to enact a realistic family scenario, I often used four or five actors to present a town (ie a society), but there was no pretence at any characters existing beyond those visible on stage. I don’t know if that is either big or clever, but I found it interesting.
Years ago, a combination of reading and research allowed me to convince myself that the word ‘theatre’ meant, or at least derived from a meaning of, ‘a place where things are seen’. Alternatively, it was ‘a place where miracles were seen’. A middle ground might be ‘a place where spectacle occurs’. This implicit element of the visual was obviously inherently important to early theatre, and it lives on particularly in theatre’s younger sibling, cinema. For me, it was more significant to consider that theatre required the physical presence of the audience in the same place as the performers.
And then, of course, there was the intellectual element, meaning only that I was interested in theatre as a medium through which to rehearse arguments or to reason out problems rather than to encourage catharsis per se. I tried to make it entertaining, and to give my characters a degree of emotional sophistication but, at its heart, everything I wrote was a cipher, a metaphor for an idea I wanted to explore.
So if there is a word whose meaning approximates to an abstract, intellectual spectacle, then that is what I was aiming for when I wrote plays – whether I achieved it ever is not for me to say.
My writing tutor at the Central School of Speech and Drama described my style as ‘urbane’, which I was very pleased with until I started wondering if it was a fancy way of saying ‘bland’. A review in the Guardian described one of my plays as drier than an autumn leaf, which I interpreted as meaning boring but a charitable spin might suggest dry wit…? And a Time Out review (about a different play) indeed described my writing as “witty”, but the writing in question was done by me in collaboration with five other fantastic actor/writer/performers.
Of course, these days I’m officially a Science Writer, so don’t have to worry about definitions so much, you might think. In fact, last week, I gave a talk to the shortlisted entrants for this year’s Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in which I offered a definition of science writing. I do this rather tongue-in-cheek, which is some indication that I believe in it, as I often tend towards a joking manner when at my most serious.
“Science writing is,” my slide suggested, “writing about science … for an audience of non-scientists … or scientists whose area of expertise is not the field of science being written about … in order to inform … or explain … and entertain … without compromising the accuracy of the science….” [Some of the words may have been different (I am doing this from memory) but the gist was along those lines.]
That’s all very well, and certainly the title Science Writer clears up what I am writing about in my job, but it doesn’t define the nature of what I write. For example, down at the Association for British Science Writers, the definition of ‘science writer’ seems to overlap mostly with ‘science journalist’, and yet I don’t think of myself as a journalist and I have never harboured any ambition to be one. There are also science writers who write books about science and that definition does not – to date – include me.
In my most relevant role, I write features (whatever they are) about biomedical science, or sometimes the history of biomedical science. This is something that is only going to increase as changes take place at work, pushing us more towards long-form explanatory science writing. But I also write (for the moment, at least) short(-ish) blog posts, news items, corporate publications, and – on occasion – words for other people. Most of that output is also based on biomedical science too but the corporate stuff – or even the interesting stuff that is about scientists funded by my employers – would seem to sit more comfortably within a definition of an in-house science writer as a sort of PR person, selling the good points of their employer without any possibility of covering something negative.
Much is spoken (and written) among science writer types about definitions – what is a science writer? What is a science journalist? What is a science blogger? What is a you-name-it? I don’t really care, although part of me would like the title of science writer to have some sort of cachet attached to it (otherwise what’s the point of having it as a job title?), which suggests a degree of definition or perhaps limitation on what counts.
How much does all this concern about definition really matter? Well, happy as I am with my job title, I also don’t want to lose the other aspects of my writerly life that are not science-related, so I guess I really think of myself as a writer. Science writer is my day job; other forms of writing (in theory) occupy my free time.
Of course, I am also (in part) defined as a father and husband, which positions stop there being quite so much free time for my other writing to be written.
I have no conclusions today, except that the definition of a playwright would seem to exclude me at the moment, since I am not writing (or even wrighting) any plays, even taking into account my insertion of the word “occasional” into my self-description. So I am left with writer as a nondescript definition of what I do and how I go about it. But “writer” is as open to interpretation as any other agent noun, which leaves us no clearer than when I struggled to define the sort of plays I wrote back in the day. But I have, of course, just written down the circular argument that rotates around my head whenever I enter this reflective mood.
That’s what I do: I’m a writer.