A cut and paste jobbie

Some of you have pointed out that it’s over a week since I posted here. Sorry. There’s a whole to going on in my life at the moment – both in the physical world and in my head, in life and in real life (prayer life). But you are so insistent….

I know that if I told you all the thoughts buzzing around in my scatterbrain brain, you’d be puzzled and also – because I’m still in the process of clarifying these thoughts – you’d very soon be bored and disengage. So, I’m not going to tell you about my thoughts on Genesis (a little more developed than my last blog) or a sudden memory I had that illuminated God’s trustworthiness, or a step of faith I’m taking with a great sense of wonder that so much trust is possible… and I’m not going to tell you about a heart ache and a loss because you have your own…. and I bet you’re all fed up with photos of the beach…. so what will I do in this blog? I’ll cheat. That’s what I’ll do.

This is a writing blog, stolen from my editing website, lucygannon.com

It comes with a warning – don’t bother with it if you have no intention to write, ever! But some of you may be mildly interested, so here goes:

Is there anything new under the sun?

There really isn’t.

That’s quite a short blog, isn’t it? But there really isn’t. Yesterday a would-be script writer asked me how she could be sure she was writing something new. My answer was ‘You can’t.’ The Book of Ecclesiastes, written over two thousand years ago, was spot on… there really is nothing new under the sun. They didn’t know about the internet then, or phones, or powered flight, or the combustion engine, or nuclear power, or even pedal power, but that ancient writer wasn’t talking about things, he was talking about emotions. And none of them are new. Ever. 

Good writing, and certainly good drama, encompasses more than the narrative of experience or event, it explores the emotions springing from that event, and so yes, every story that could ever be told has already been told. Every emotion that could ever be felt has already been felt. That might seem disheartening to the aspiring writer and there are moments when I, too, feel a bit glum – especially now when every home is able to access dozens, maybe hundreds of TV and YouTube channels, with podcasts and blogs and radio and Ted Talks and all the rest of it. It can be daunting to consider a world already full of clamour – a million people blogging at any one time (I’m gaily making up the numbers), another million tweeting and posting images or videos, a thousand gurus and teachers and rabbis and philosophers peddling their wares on the internet – and none of it new. 

Some numbers people will tell you that there are seven basic stories, others put it at seventy, Aristotle said there were only two, but the important truth for any writer is that whether there are ten or a thousand stories is irrelevant because mankind’s appetite for engaging narrative is insatiable. The danger of an insatiable appetite, however, is that we begin to eat any damn thing, producing all sorts of low value ballast to fill bellies, we create a marketplace that values indulgence over nutrition – to strangle the metaphor a bit more, we fill our kitchens with quick and easy-to-eat rubbish. Our problem is not a lack of drama, it’s a lack of good drama. The new young writer should not have been asking ‘How can I be sure I’m writing something new?’ but ‘How can I be sure I’m writing something good?’ 

(this is a new thought, for you and not from the writing blog) Maybe there’s an ever present danger with our appetites. Give us a room and we will fill it with the things we want around us. They seem adequate and the space is acceptable. Give us a bigger room and we’ll soon have that filled too, and then if we have a house we’ll fill every room, and look for a bigger house, and so it goes on. The principle seems to extend to time as well as space; We had two main TV channels and they transmitted for a few hours every evening, it was OK. Then we had afternoon broadcasts too, and then lunchtime news, and morning TV…. and we found enough ‘stuff’ to fill all those hours. We realised that we could fill another channel and another and another…. and then we had the internet and multi-channel broadcasts…. and still we are looking for more, caring less about the quality and more about the quantity. Maybe that’s one of the things the church is struggling with- centuries of Sunday morning and Sunday evening sermons, hours that had to be filled, and so they were, week after week, year after year, and if the sermons weren’t seeming to nourish the church, never mind, keep on filling them hours, them pews….never mind the quality, feel the width (an old British joke)

Sorry. Back to writing:

The first question I would ask any writer, as they set out on the first scene of a script, or the first page of their book, is “Do you feel compelled to write this?” If you have a story that’s intriguing you, and exciting you, one that you’re desperate to tell, then your reader or audience will be equally desperate to hear it. If you just have a vague notion of ‘wanting to be a writer’ but don’t yet have a story bubbling under, the time is not yet right for you. Chill. Think. Develop the story. Explore the characters. Spin the possible outcomes. Live a little. When you can’t keep the story to yourself any longer, that’s the time to start writing. Until then, it’s just yet more words in a world already too full of them. Until then, you will be frustrated and dissatisfied, maybe spending hours at your screen or notebook, working, working, working, but at the end of the day, when you read back all you’ve written, you’ll find that it bores even you. That’s when writing is a slog. That’s why so many people give up.

Timing matters. Don’t start until you’re ready to dive in, don’t start until you’re bursting with the story, until you can walk around your characters and see them from every angle, don’t start until you believe in them. Then, then, you’ll discover the joy of writing. Don’t rush to the screen or the notebook, savour the prospect, the theme. Discover why you want to write. Write notes, jot down ideas in the middle of the night, talk it over with your friends, notice behaviours and store them up, delight in all the possibilities.

I didn’t start writing until I was 39. By then I had death and loss and life, adventure and stupidity, a pile of bad decisions, a whole load of unhealthy friendships, a failed marriage and a few abandoned jobs behind me. I had seen life. The stories were all there. A play writing competition was announced with a prize of £2,000 and we really needed £2,000! I was going to give it a shot. At the time I was a support worker for people with learning disabilities, and once a month we would travel to my father’s home in Norfolk. On the way we passed a small bungalow, and several times I had seen a young man in the window or the garden, sitting in a high chair, with a fixed table, the sort of chair I was familiar with from my nursing days. Seeing this strapping youngster I recognised how little mobility he had, and that he was intellectually impaired, and I would think about his life in that cramped home, and the lives of his parents – who could sometimes be seen tending the garden, or as shadowy figures in his room. My life and my work had already given me the insight I needed to spin a story out of those brief glimpses, to create characters and then to explore their love and their commitment, the strains and griefs and joys of their lives. I was intrigued by this young man and his family. Desperate to tell ‘their’ story. The time was right for me to start writing. Would I have been ready as a twenty year old, in the thick of all my mistakes and nonsense? Maybe I would have had a great vocabulary and could have turned a phrase or two to keep the reader engaged for a while…. but what would I have written about? Where would the reader find insight when I had none? 

What I wrote in that first play, ‘Keeping Tom Nice’ was nothing new. It was the age old conflict of love and loss, man’s kindness and selfishness and compassion alongside his cruelty. Nothing new. It wasn’t well crafted and beautifully presented because I’m not the end product of film schools and creative writing classes. I’m not educated beyond the old ‘O’level GCE stage. But the one thing I had to my advantage, the thing that interested the judges and then the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company, was a story with a ring of truth, a story bursting to be told.

First things first. Find your story. Care about it. Eat it, breathe it, sleep it. When you’re bursting to tell it, tell it. It won’t be new. But make it true.

There. That’s plagiarised from me by me. If you stuck with it to the end, well done. If you’re thinking of writing, think about the greatest story ever told before you think of anything else. Will you echo that great story? Will your words add to the fund of human kindness? Will they reveal some truth about man and maybe even about God? Is that where your passion lies? If so, write. Write and write. Never stop.

2 thoughts on “A cut and paste jobbie

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