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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Don’t roll your eyes. It’s another scattergun blog.

A few years ago, when I lived in Wirksworth, a Head of Drama was staying with me and he was fascinated by my stories of all the people who lived around me, sometimes complete small narratives, sometimes just descriptions of their personalities. He wanted me to write a series, a warm and (hopefully) funny look at the odd characters we/they all were.  I refused. He nagged. I kept on refusing; I wanted to live in that town for a little while longer, with neighbours who accepted me, not with neighbours crowding around my gate with burning torches and pitchforks shouting “Kill the writer!”

But the idea of a village drama has stayed with me over the years, and wherever I go, of course, there are interesting, likeable, intriguing, challenging, bloody annoying people. People who somehow enter my subconscious, blended, mashed-up, mucked about with until they dissolve only to reform, like the beamed-up crew members in Star Trek, into ‘my’ characters.

When the BBC told me a couple of weeks ago that they were in a fix, with a writer failing to deliver, and there was just a month or so to write a two part radio play and deliver it in a state ready to produce, I remembered Wirksworth and I knew I could write 90 minutes of drama in four weeks and have it edited and cleared by legal etc, and ready for casting.  When you’re my age, people don’t challenge you often, and I miss the excitement. Oh, yess!

I already had the story in my head, a simple but satisfying tale of an enigmatic character who swans into a tight little community and creates mayhem… but is it in a good way or in a destructive way? That’s the question posed in the play.

I’m on track, time wise. The first episode whizzed off to them yesterday. But here’s the thing – it isn’t the story I sold them. This happens. Characters have a life of their own and when you write one scene you can discover that the next planned scene doesn’t sit in honesty with the first….  I thought that one of my characters would lead an old man to his death…. I was wrong. This character is weak and mean and self centred, she’s amoral and lives only in the moment with no consideration of consequence or the feelings of others, but she isn’t (damn it!) a murderer.

So, my black comedy is a charcoal grey comedy at best.

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Normally, not a problem. You sit down with the producer and director (both the same person in radio) and explain why it’s morphed into something unexpected and everyone says ‘Jolly good!’ or ‘Are you mad’ or ‘You’re sacked’ and we go on from there. But this time there’s no time for discussion. The director is in the studio recording another play so I can’t talk to her, and by the time she emerges from that recording and gets my script, our slot will be already booked. If they don’t like what I’ve done, no time for a second draft,  they’ll just have to fish something out of the archives to fill those 90 minutes.

Will they like it? Watch this space. I’m onto episode two now so they’d better tell me quick-quick!

See that cartoon? I love it. Here’s the story; I did a couple of years on two very very long running UK soaps. I was pretty duff at both of them, because I am no good at plot or structure, while soaps gobble up plot lines, and structure’s essential when there are  four story strands running through a 26 minute episode. It all comes down to maths and being able to keep four or five plates spinning at the same time. They pretty soon discovered how useless I was, and I would be given the death episodes, the pathos episodes and the comedy episodes, when the build-up to the big scene is all sub text, words unspoken, conflicting emotion. Or jokes. But mostly they said things like “All you have to do, Luce, is kill Vera Duckworth” and that’s easy peasy,  so I survived. Just.

But the soap monster takes no prisoners and onto the team came a middle aged man who was relatively inexperienced. Soap writers can be brutal and on this particular team there was a group of not everso pleasant men, some of whom had been there for many many cosy snug years. They formed a horrible little clique that barely tolerated the women writers on the team and they gave new members a really hard time. This newest writer was a bright, interesting man, with an unusual mind, untainted by their years of slogging away at plot twist after plot twist,  an unconventional and creative talent, and so they gave him a really rough ride. A mixture of male aggression, jealousy, tribal loyalty and spite. They didn’t care that he was a father, with a family to support – they were out to get him, to drive him away. Sadly, they succeeded. On his last team meeting, he gamely tried to introduce a new storyline to the group and yet again he was knocked back macho-style, diminished. That’s when he drew that little cartoon. I grabbed it and it sits in a frame by my desk.

When I look at it, I remember him, and I’m touched, because it shows his resilience, his wry humour, and somehow I just know that he will have thrived, in spite of the small and mean minds. He was a lovely bloke.

That little clique of men had just been there too long, propping each other up too long, maintaining the establishment too long, walking along the road of well-worn precedent for too long, cosy and secure for too long. Unchallenged for far too long.  They  were suffering from a stenosis of the mind. An unnatural and unhealthy narrowing.  In every walk of life and institution, frightened people cling to what they know, and club together in their weakness and uncertainty to resist the new.

Woodrow Wilson said “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

I’m 70. I don’t want my thoughts and ideas to be the ones I had 50 years ago, or five years ago. Man, I certainly don’t want them to be the same ones I had 5 years ago. God changes things, illuminates life, transforms and mends. He heals hearts. I don’t want to stop changing. I believe that I will, by the grace of God, change and transform and mature right up to the moment of my death. I hope so, cos I’ve still got one hell of a long way to go before I’m properly cooked.

Here’s one more quote I love – it’s from an American engineer and industrialist, Alfred Perlman  ‘After you’ve done a thing the same way for two years, look it over carefully. After five years, look at it with suspicion. And after ten years, throw it away and start all over. ‘

I throw stuff away all the time. One of my favourite places is the town tip.

Those thoughts remind me that change is challenging and difficult, but how we need it! The church needs it. We need the flexibility of mind to change streams, to admit wrong, to try new things, to dare. To risk failing. Today two friends came to pray with me, and as we prayed for the courage to change, to step forward into whatever God has prepared for us, I found myself saying “When our feet grow, we need bigger shoes.”  both men laughed aloud, and so did I –  Mrs Obvious at it again.

I wonder if it made God smile. Or maybe he just rolled his eyes.