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Notes From Inbetween Girl

Not another rhapsody on Hamilton

On big stories and small stories

I've thought about Lucy Prebble's A Very Expensive Poison almost daily since I saw it last autumn. I love 'political thriller' as a genre, but I couldn’t imagine how what happened to Alexander Litvinenko would translate to the stage, so as soon as I read about it, I knew I had to see it for myself. And I left the theatre afterwards convinced that Prebble is a living, breathing genius. Because really, it shouldn't have worked in the way that it did. Or rather: it would have been forgiven for being A Very Dry And Worthy Theatre Experience – but it wasn't at all. It was heartbreaking, naturally, but also deeply funny, angry, silly, and surreal. 

I finally saw Hamilton: An American Musical a few weeks ago, thanks to a friend's Disney Plus subscription. Once a teenager with hipster pretensions, forever a teenager with hipster pretensions, I was wary of watching something that had been so wildly hyped, but of course – of course – I loved it. And spent the next ten days listening to, discussing, and thinking about very little else.

I don’t want to be accused of Hamsplaining (I’m fully aware I’m five years behind everyone else here) but it’s the ambition of it I can’t stop thinking about. Like A Very Expensive Poison, what struck me about it was that it almost shouldn’t work – a musical about a lesser-known Founding Father does not immediately suggest Broadway gold – and yet it does, and I think that’s because it’s got, well, everything. “You’ll love it,” the friend I watched it with has been telling me for months. “It’s about writing your way out of things”. And yes, Hamilton’s small story is about a man who was, among many things, a writer (and a terrifyingly prolific one at that). But its ‘big’ story is about almost anything else you care to name: ambition, power, hubris, grief and loss, the way society treats immigrants, the idea of what a nation could and should be, and the necessity of hope. But it starts with a man who writes.

Back to A Very Expensive Poison, then: its big story is about global politics, espionage, and what happens when power machinations are at their murkiest. But its small story – our way in to all of that – is about a woman watching her beloved husband die. Its small story is a love story.

One of the best bits of writing advice I’ve ever got is this: when a piece isn’t working, ask yourself, are you trying to do too much? It mostly applies to non-fiction and comedy – make one argument or one joke at a time, and if something’s not coming together, it’s likely because you’re trying to do two things at once – but I’m finding it useful when it comes to thinking about The Cursèd Novel Draft™. There are subplots and sideline action I want to weave in, and having to write it all down remains incredibly intimidating, but its small story is about a woman who wants something. (I mean, of course it’s about a woman wanting something; we’ve met, right?) Every time I get overwhelmed by what I’ve got left to write – which is every time I open the document, to be honest – I ask myself what the small story is, and go from there.

And small stories – tales of love, relationships, the ebb and flow of family life, for example – have historically been dismissed as being of insufficient literary merit, or dramatically lacking somehow, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these are often the stories that women tell. It’s heartening – not to mention a massive fucking relief – to see the balance being righted; all your favourite shows right now have at their core women being brutally honest about their lives. At last.

Because there are no big stories without small ones. The sheer scope of Hamilton and A Very Expensive Poison takes your breath away, but they only work as well as they do because the entry points for both are so clearly defined. The man who decides that writing will be his ticket to a better life is the fulcrum around which an altogether larger story unfolds. The love between a woman and her dying husband makes a much darker, more complex series of events hit us right in the heart. When you find an emotional truth in a cacophony of perspectives, a tiny pure flame in a roomful of shadows, stay close to it. Everything else can, and inevitably does, follow.

So look for the small stories, and the big stories will take care of themselves.


Fiction: Boy Parts, Eliza Clark 

Oh, this book is delicious – I had to try really hard not to down it in one feverish hit. Photographer Irina specialises in explicit images of young men she scouts from the streets of Newcastle, and in between shoots, she parties hard, spends too much time with her best friend/ex-partner Flo, and flirts wildly with self-destruction. Thrillingly unlikeable, Irina is compelling company, and Boy Parts is grotesque, subversive and genuinely funny. Clark is clearly exceptionally talented; there are shades of American Psycho and John Niven here, and frankly that’s outrageous from someone who’s still well under thirty. But you can be envious of talent or inspired by it, and I’m choosing the latter. Anyway, it’s a riot, get it in your eyes.


Non-fiction: My Own Devices, Dessa


Dessa – rapper, singer, and member of the Doomtree hip hop collective – is a nerd, and that is why I love her. But it’s testament to her skill as a writer that you don’t need to know her music to find this essay collection incredibly engaging. She’s on particularly brilliant form when detailing life as a travelling performer who’s yet to really break through, and no one writes about heartbreak quite like Dessa. The essay in which she recounts how she literally tried to cure herself of a love gone bad using neuroscience is fascinating, and I’ve included the TEDx talk she did on it below.

And bringing us neatly back to how we began: Dessa was asked by Lin-Manuel Miranda to record ‘Congratulations’ for The Hamilton Mixtape. She notes wryly in My Own Devices:
[the song] is sung from the perspective of a woman who has spent many years in love with a man she can’t have… It seemed I was destined to sing torch songs to difficult men, even at 250-year remove. I did a convincing cover."

Can we choose to fall out of love? | Dessa

The awful self-promotion bit

Other stuff you should read / listen to

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