That’s the question of the day. That and the other one …. ‘What makes a writer?’
Dunno. What makes me a writer and you an artist? Me a writer and you an accountant? It’s a bit like asking someone why they like the taste of fish. There ain’t a reason, they just do. There isn’t a reason for me being a writer. I just am.
And ideas, well, they’re part of the weft and weave of our thoughts, our lives are the loom and you can have the most wonderful wool, silk and cashmere tumbling at your feet in a glorious pile of amazing colours, but until they are put to the loom, until they are woven in and out of each other, all you have is a jumble of odds and ends. The secret is in the loom, the work, the concentration. If you watch a weaver, you’ll see their feet working on the pedals in a mad sort of dance, and their hands darting back and forth, their eyes always on the shuttle. It’s work, concentrated, focussed, hard work.
So the first thing that makes me a writer is my willingness to work. You can have the most wonderful story to tell, but if you aren’t ready to put the hours in, the years even, the story will be untold. When I have a story that’s itching to be told I can go a day and a night at the script. I used to be able to work through three nights on the trot, nodding off and drooling on the keyboard for an hour or two and then waking with a startle to pound away on the key board again. And I do mean ‘pounding away’! When we were filming Soldier,Soldier in Hong Kong (and I was writing the next episodes in Derby) I would get rewrite requests for rain cover or location changes or re-casting gastro-enteritis actors, at 3am in the morning and I’d fall out of bed, stumble through to the computer and pound away with vigour. I am not a touch typist. I’m a heavy handed two finger typist. My poor script editor and dear friend Harriet was asleep in the next room and I remember her coming to the door, plaintive in pj’s and tousle haired, wailing pathetically ‘Why don’t you just take a hammer to the keyboard and be done?’
So, a willingness to work is foremost if you’re looking for the ingredients of a writer.
The second thing? I have not the faintest idea. It’s a bleedin’ mystery, mate.
So, that’s all I can say. Work. Oh and learn! Be teachable. Oh, and take notes with grace and humility. They will make your work better. Oh, and don’t be up yourself. Understand that while others may not understand you, this doesn’t make you cleverer or better in any way. It just makes you you. Oh, and be humble. Oh, and know when not to be humble. Know that you’ll be wrong as often as you’re right and learn to tell the difference. Easy, innit? Do all that, my son, and you’ll be a writer. Maybe.
I have a friend who edits what I write. Well, the important things I write anyway, the things that matter to me, things that involve God. And now everything involves God. My editor sometimes ends his email with ‘but you’re the writer’. I am . But I can also be the wronger. The great thing about our work relationship is that we both know this. He doesn’t expect me to be right all the time and neither do I. I don’t expect him to be right all the time but, annoyingly, he always is. If you have an editor who ‘gets’ your writing, that’s a real gift. A good editor will improve your work without diminishing you.
There’s an assumption that to be a writer you have to have had it rough. I’m not sure that’s true, but I know that my childhood gave me a rich and vivid and adrenalin filled internal world. Maybe if I’d had a secure and loving environment I would have been a different writer, or not a writer at all. Who knows? If we are to see the writer as an observer of the world around them, then yes, my childhood definitely developed my ability (or my need) to gauge the moods and tensions around me. I lived as if on egg shells. I lived at the edge of the room, or outside the door, or alone. And so now I can’t help but read sub-text, and see the under currents of relationships, I detect resentments and recognise the games people play. It’s not a comfortable way to live – it’s a bit like having a really sensitive sense of smell and having to live near a sewer. You’d be better off with no sense of smell at all.
And you have to be honest. Not stupidly opening yourself to the world, making yourself defenceless, but not hiding either. No pretence. Writing with no integrity is bad writing. If you’re writing just to earn money, forget it. You’ll churn out crap. If you’re writing because your head is full of hearty characters, people you can reach out and touch, walk around, laugh at, cry with…. if you explore their situations and understand their lives and are desperate to tell their stories, to give them their voice, then you’re a writer.
This is going on a bit, isn’t it? I’ll end now. I’ll just say one more thing and then I’ll vamoose for a couple of days: writing is a great great privilege. I don’t know why some can write and some can’t, I know it’s nothing to do with how clever or worthy we are. I don’t know where the ideas come from, but I know that the work is a gift from God. So, don’t abuse it. Value it. Love it. Be grateful for it.