Writing for Radio

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I’ve never written for radio before. I am a short story writer and novelist. I spend most of my days in coffee shops, headphones on, ignoring the world around me as I hack away at my next story. When I get to perform my work it’s almost always just me, up there behind the microphone, knees knocking as I try to do my writing justice. Writing is often a lonely game but at least I only have myself to blame when a piece works or falls flat on its face. I’ve been writing for about fifteen years now. In the last few years I’ve been particularly drawn to collaborative projects: working with other writers, with musicians and theatre makers to produce something new and intriguing together. Though each experience has had its challenges, (creative clashes, last minute deadlines, general chaos), I’ve found the opportunity to create with other people an absolutely liberating and inspiring process. When I saw the call to pitch for a monologue piece for World Music Day appear on the BBC Writers’ Room website I was a little daunted, but I thought it might be a new challenge in the best sense. I was excited about the possibility of working, well outside my comfort zone, with a team of other creatives.

Writing for radio has proven to be an incredibly collaborative experience. From the very outset this was a group project. We met with other shortlisted writers in London to bounce ideas around and think about how our themes could be realised within the context of a radio piece. I didn’t know anything about formatting for radio, but there was plenty of good advice available and I never felt overwhelmed by all the new techniques I was learning. Once selected I worked closely with Justine, Keith, Usman and the fabulous team at the BBC Writers’ Room to develop my script, tweak issues and select the correct pieces of music in order to best enhance the story line. I also took advice from musicians and friends who listened to me reading the piece and offered critique and suggestions, honing the monologue over a period of six weeks until we were completely happy with the final result.

I’ve been working in literature for a long time and I’m no stranger to the editing process. It can be painful and frustrating. However, it was a joy to work with Justine and her team. All critique was offered alongside incredibly generous encouragement and I’ve felt fully supported throughout the whole process of getting my script from idea all the way through to airing. It’s also been great to feel the team are genuinely excited for you to have your piece developed. There have been quite a few text messages and emails littered with exclamation marks flying backwards and forwards across the pond as we’ve celebrated every little step of the development process. As collaborative experiences go, writing my first radio piece has felt like exactly the right mix of maintaining artistic control and also enjoying the benefits of being part of a super creative, enthusiastic team of people who are passionate about making great radio.

Perhaps, the most exciting part of the journey over the last few months was the moment I discovered that Liam Neeson had agreed to read my monologue. Liam is from the same small town in Northern Ireland as me. I’ve long been an admirer of his work and I’m still reeling that he actually agreed to record my piece. It’s an incredible boost for my artistic career and it feels particularly special to be supported by an artist who’s emerged from a similar background, to achieve incredible and deserved success in his career. I don’t know how Justine managed to pull this one off but she’s clearly a miracle-maker and I am incredibly grateful for all her hard work and appreciate how lucky I am to have been given such a great opportunity.

I’m also particularly delighted to have an actor of Liam Neeson’s caliber voice my monologue because the piece engages with such an important, and often ignored topic. My monologue focuses on a concert pianist who has developed Dementia as he attempts, and ultimately struggles, to play a piece by Ravel. Over the last six years I have spent a lot of time working in the arena of arts development for older people, particularly those living with Dementia. I often see how frustrating life can be for people as they face limitations and restrictions on performing tasks which might have seemed simple before diagnosis. The composer Ravel actually suffered from Aphasia, (a linguistic disorder often associated with Dementia), during the last years of his life and struggled to do his own work justice and this impacted our choice of music (Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G). I wanted to honestly reflect the struggles, the triumphs and the incredible dignity of many of the people I work with in this piece and it is an incredible honour, and hopefully a small gift to them, to have the monologue so significantly featured on Radio 3 and read by such a well-loved voice. Thank you BBC Writers’ Room for taking a risk on new writing and new writers. Opportunities like this are the stuff of dreams.

(This piece will be airing on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 15th June 2017 as part of BBC’s Music Day and will be available on IPlayer for approximately a month).

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