What’s it like, being a dramatist?

A young friend has asked me to help her with a school project. She’s a great writer – at the moment. Whether she will turn out to be a great writer in the end is up to her, and to the life she leads, but at the moment she has a shining talent, the like of which I’ve seen only once before.

I should qualify that – she’s 17 so she has no insight or experience, but she’s just great with words, the rhythm of speech and clarity of thought and flights of fancy. I know that doesn’t make her a  writer, but it’s as near as she can come at her tender age of 17. I’ve read many other scripts from people who have attended writing course after creative writing course, and they’ve left me cold, while hers makes me excited, wondering where she’ll go, what she’ll do, what sort of writer she might become.

I’ve been a reader for broadcasters, producers, and for London Theatres, hoping to discover new talents, and I’ve come across only one other ‘natural’ talent like hers. Unfortunately, although that writer sent me fifteen wonderful pages of one script, and about thirty of another, she was great at writing but never became a writer… because she could never find a story.

This is what I sent to my young friend, in answer to her questions:

How did you get into writing?

I was nearly 40, and had never written anything before, or even thought of writing anything. Life was busy and hadn’t been easy, I left school early and had only been to the theatre only twice, once at school and once as an adult.

We had come back to the UK from South Africa and Canada and we were broke, George had no job, we were down on our uppers.

The BBC wanted to commemorate Richard Burton’s life and career and so they sponsored, along with his widow Sally, The Richard Burton Drama Award, a one-off award for new writers.  Because we were so broke I was doing every damn competition that came along, from Fairy Liquid to Spot-The-Ball and when I heard about this  writing award and saw that the prize was £2000, boy! Was I interested!  I don’t think I’d ever seen a script, apart from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at school, so I didn’t know where to start. I used a library book as a sort of template, to see how dialogue was set out, and I borrowed a typewriter, and I would take it into work with me. I worked 24 hour shifts, starting at 1pm one day and finishing at 1pm the next, in a hostel for people with learning and physical difficulties. At night I was on sleep-in duty, so that junior night staff could call on me if needed. Instead of sleeping, I wrote my first play.

It was called ‘Keeping Tom Nice’ and it won the award, and I became the first ever writer-in-residence at the RSC.

I loved the whole process of writing, once I had started I forgot the award, the money, everything. All that mattered was writing. It was as if I had woken up with a whole new language on my tongue. It excited me, and fulfilled me, and by the time the award was made I had already written my second play and was onto my third.  I was married, we had a child, and a dog and a cat… I just couldn’t do it all so I gave up work and became a full time writer. Quite a gamble! In the first two years I had three plays produced, started my first TV series and saw my first TV film made (it won the Prix Europa).

 

How did you stand out compared to other writers?

‘Standing out’ in drama is nothing to do with the writer really, some of the best writers I know are unrecognised and struggle to make enough to live on, while others who are mediocre and who think lazily make a good living and have job security in a soap or long running series. Sometimes these ‘good enough’ writers strike a seam of gold and are part of a hugely successful project, and are then regarded as ‘good’ writers. It’s not necessarily so!

Writers shouldn’t compare themselves to other writers. Our voices and interests, passions and drive should be ours and ours only. To compare one writer to another is like comparing a baker to a house builder.

Like every industry or community, there are those who find the spotlight on them, while others struggle. There isn’t any justice to this, it’s just how it is, and I always understood that one day the spotlight would move, from me to someone else, and that this would have little to do with the work I was doing right then, because popularity doesn’t mean quality. Some of my worst writing has been the most popular and created the biggest splash, some of my best has had a relatively small audience and caused no ripple at all. Some recent ‘hit’ dramas are dishonest, manipulative, lazy, cliché ridden and trite. Some great recent dramas have slipped past barely noticed.

 

What is the hardest aspect of being a writer? 

The hardest aspect of my job, in practical day-to-day life, for ANY writer, is lack of security. A writer has to do a great deal of work before he or she gets even a penny, and often I’ve worked on something for months on end and everything’s been looking great and hopeful, only to have the Head of Drama move to another job, and the new guy to dump everything on his slate and start again, or the we-want of a broadcaster shifting from one genre to the next, or.. well, anything. The production company can go bust, your producer can die…. anything. If any of the above happens, regardless of the work done, promises made, scripts being  ‘accepted’….. lean times. An hour of TV drama can cost up to a million pounds, and the funding is almost as difficult for TV now as it always was for film. Your agent is your very best friend (and mine really have been) but even he or she may struggle to get you a fair deal.

Of course, theatre drama is a more immediate medium – get commissioned, write a script, and if the producer likes it, it gets made. Simple. But theatre rates won’t keep you or your family in bread and butter for long. You may strike it lucky and get a transfer to the West End (big big bucks) but that’s really out of your hands.

The other ‘hard aspects’ of the job will differ from writer to writer. These are the ones I have experienced;

On the personal and private side of my writing life, I’ve experienced loneliness, and some of that loneliness is the blank screen, or empty page. The cold fact is that the writer starts with nothing and no one, just their own idea, their own internal world and that’s a lonely thing. The writer can’t turn to anyone else for support. You’re on your own, big time. Writing can be painful as well as wonderful.

The writer has to face hard truths without looking away. That’s a hard aspect.

What is the best aspect of your writing life?

That’s easy – the joy of creating character, exploring motive, understanding sub-text, reaching out to the reader or audience and touching another heart, saying ‘You and me, we’re the same under the skin, you are not alone.’

Let me tell you about the single most exciting moment of my career – forget all the awards and hoo-haa, and parties and stuff… this is the moment that for me sums up the joy and thrill of writing:

I was on the short list for the Richard Burton Drama Award and we had to go to the RSC for a weekend of filming, followed by an awards ceremony in which  a scene from each of the 5 finalists would be performed, to be broadcast on BBC TV. It was a very very exciting weekend. But remember, I wasn’t a theatre person so it was all very strange to me. We drove down and parked where we were told to on the little map the Beeb had sent us. But it didn’t seem like we were in the right place… the building we looked up at was nothing like a theatre – it was just a sort of warehouse as far as we could see. “Never mind” said George, ”We’ll go for a little wander and see what’s what” so we strolled towards the river and the huge and recognisable RSC theatre… and we saw a rack of clothes waiting to be loaded onto a van…. And  I noticed little labels on the clothes “Charlotte’, “Tom” “Winnie”.

It floored me. These were the names of my characters in the play! These clothes were the clothes my characters would wear! It was amazing. I remember standing there, just dazed. My characters were going to walk and talk and breathe and laugh…. I had created people!

Does that sound blasphemous? Can’t help it, if it does. That’s what happened. I had created people where none existed before! And it’s the nearest sinful man can get to playing god. Not God (capital G), because that really would be blasphemous.

For me, that moment, standing in a car park, by a big tin building, stunned and a little tearful, with my husband’s arms around me, will always illustrate the joy of writing drama.

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