Many years ago, when I was the writer-in-residence at The Bush theatre, I had the great job of reading unsolicited scripts which came from all sorts of people, from all over the world. I remember one writer in particular, a woman from the UK, who sent us about 15 pages of her first play. They were absolutely thrilling. I can still remember the scene she described, the flow and richness of the language, and the imagery her character conjured up. Just magical. I phoned the writer and encouraged her, not giving notes because the piece wasn’t developed enough for that, but saying “Yes! Yes! More! More!”. Weeks went by and she sent nothing so I called her again and she said she would be sending something soon. Then it arrived; another 15 pages, absolutely wonderful writing, so exciting… but it was the start of another completely different play. This went on for months, one play after another, half an act each time, intriguing vivid characters with lively believable dialogue and fabulous scene setting…. but she just couldn’t come up with a story. She had the beginnings of a dozen stories but the middle and the end of none.
Man, that was so frustrating both for her and for me. She was a young mum, with two children under three, so I’m sure that she was so busy and distracted that she never had more than a few snatched moments to think about her writing. I can’t remember her name now, but I think of her often, and wonder if she ever found a tale to tell, if she ever finished a play, if she ever discovered the thrill of hearing her characters voiced, seeing them walk, incarnated by actors. I hope she did. To see your imagined world created on stage, or on set, and to see and hear your characters living out your story… well, I can imagine few things more satisfying, giddying. It’s been the greatest reward for me.
Today I had a lovely long Skype call with another writer, a lovely friend, and this woman is a story teller from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. Her every conversation is a funny, surprising story unfolding, just rolling out, bung full of incident and twists, inviting me (her audience) to exclaim and become involved, so that when her lively face vanishes from the screen I sit for a moment, in silence, thinking about the story, how would she write it? How would I write it? Who would be cast as the hero or the villain? And the stories she tells are about her life, the vibrant interesting people she’s met, the world she lives in. There are no murders, or kidnappings, no spying or ghosts or … any of that nonsense. She takes the strands of every day, the delicate threads of our emotional lives, and she spins them into the most gorgeous fabric, fabric crying out to be cut and joined and shaped into drama.
What makes one person a story teller and another just someone who’s ‘good with words’? Talent. It’s the mysterious gift, the alchemy of the mind, and just like the alchemists of old, my writerly friend takes base metals – a trip to the shops or a pair of red knickers – and turns those mundane things into gold.
And she doesn’t know how wonderful that talent is. She has no idea what a wonder she is.
I was on set on a warm summer’s day with a very successful and quite famous old actor, a lonely and troubled man whose consolation was the bottle, and we were watching three lovely youngsters as they fooled around, gorgeous and unselfconscious, with the bouncy energy of all young animals. The old chap was wistful. He nodded towards one young, long-limbed lovely, in her flowing dress with her hair tumbling around her shoulders and he said “Why were girls never like that when I was young, Luce?” But of course, I knew (and so did he) that when he was young the girls were just as beautiful and desirable, but then they were attainable. Obtainable. And he wanted work and fame more than he wanted them.
We long for what we can’t have, and so what we cannot have takes on a greater allure and a greater value than ever it had when we could just reach out and take it. And we are so busy looking to the future and to the past, and yes, to other people, that we don’t appreciate what we have right now.
In her story today, my writer friend described herself at 30, “Beautiful, and – you know – gorgeous like you are when you’re young.”
I looked at her on my screen. She’s beautiful now, gorgeous now. Shiny black hair, twinkling eyes, a laugh as light as wind chimes, perfect skin…. and I want to shout “You’re gorgeous now!” but she’s telling me her story so I don’t interrupt and she builds it to its natural crescendo and that climax is funny and awful and heartfelt and memorable, so that we end up laughing and laughing… her in London and me in Wales.
If the young mum who wrote so many first scenes so many years ago, had really understood how talented she was, she would have lived on the mountain top. If my wistful actor friend had known, when he was young and ambitious, that love was his for the asking, he would have found peace. If my friend in London saw that she is beautiful now, not in the past, and talented now, not in the future, she would soar with the angels. Right now.
She would soar and glide and dip with the angels, with her mouth the perfect ‘O’ of delight…