Starting From Nothing
by Sahlan Diver
I never possessed the desire to be a writer. I was not even a reader, my limited literary recreation advancing no further than Sherlock Holmes. If, in my youth, a fortune-teller had predicted not only that one day I would write novels, but also novels enjoying a certain amount of critical acclaim, I would have considered that person a very bad fortune-teller.
In fact, my entrée into writing came about through a sort of accident. As a long-time but increasingly disgruntled member of a spiritual movement I would describe as a “benign cult”, I made the decision to express my dissatisfaction through the medium of a stage play.
But how to write such a play? My knowledge of the stage was even more non-existent than my knowledge of literature. The lack of personal resources for the task seemingly confirmed by my first attempt – a long (and very boring) inconsequential dialogue between two players. If I were to succeed, I needed dramatic foils. In fact, effective structures on which to hang the ideas to be expressed would be ideal.
My first breakthrough was to hit upon the idea of making the play’s scenario a party. Members of an obscure religious movement would meet at a private house for a celebration. The claustrophobia of the one-room setting, the under-the-surface dislikes, the nascent rivalries, gave the perfect opportunity for dramatic tension. And there would be archetypes: the de-facto group leader, always wanting to be top-dog, wary of potential challengers; the long-suffering wife who goes along with everything for the sake of a quiet life; the younger person minded to challenge the stuffiness of the elders, and so on.
Fleshing out these new ideas, I experienced a “light-bulb moment”.
In truth, I was writing not about problems confined to a specific spiritual group, but about problems rampant in human nature in particular.
Thus, I could write a play with the potential to entertain a wide audience.
Yet religious esotericism is by its nature an esoteric subject! How was I to make it palatable? A crazy idea – add a parallel storyline in the form of a murder mystery!
The final breakthrough came about when I encountered a huge, derelict, brick-built Victorian church that seemed to be “in the middle of nowhere”. Way out of town. An area of former parkland redeveloped as a science park. When somebody told me the church had once been the chapel of the largest mental hospital in the north of England, I realised I had been gifted the perfect back-story for my play.
So “The Chapel in The Middle of Nowhere”, the former chapel of a hospital for the criminally insane, now converted to a private house, will host a party for members of an obscure religious movement. But there’s a problem. A former mental-asylum patient has infiltrated the party. It won’t be clear, either to the party-goers or to the audience, which character is the one with sinister designs upon the evening. While the participants wax lyrical on their destiny to deliver to Almighty God the ultimate success and world-wide fame of their religion, the audience observes a growing undercurrent suggesting one or more party guest may not survive the evening.
I am aware of Agatha Christie’s play, “The Mousetrap”, similarly claustrophobic, which delivers a massive twist in the final moments. My play aims to out-Mousetrap “The Mousetrap” with an equally jaw-dropping twist. I can’t promise the play is coming to a theatre near you any time soon. No matter. It provided me with the means to start from nothing, without which I cannot conceive of ever wanting to get into writing.