29 Jun 2015
dave's picture

"Jealousy and envy - the only two reasons I write," a friend posted on Facebook recently.
 
It's not often you read something on Facebook that forces you to stop and think, a change from the more familar posts of friends' breakfasts and acquaintances' amusing cat pictures. Quite apart from having to remind myself why those words described two different emotions, reading such a brutally honest definition of being a writer made me consider my own reasons and, because this is a blog about wanting to be a writer, yours.
 
I'd already been wondering about this subject after a recent YouGov poll asking more than 15,000 people what their dream job would be, found that 60 per cent said they would like to be writers. 
 
I'm still struggling to make sense of that figure. When I was a kid there were only three professions any of us would have considered as 'dream' - footballer, pop star or train driver. No one ever wanted to be a writer. Maybe it's because nowadays so many of them are on Twitter, and they all seem such fabulous fun people. The fact that they write such witty things to each other helps disguise the truth which is that most of us writers are, in real life, socially and emotionally dysfunctional.
 
And now there are thousands of adults out there, millions maybe, who look at people like me with an envy and jealousy of their own. Perhaps they've seen my biog on Twitter, read my tweets and thought 'calls himself a comedy writer? Those endless tweets plugging his latest blog or Horrible Histories song aren't funny. I could do better than that.'
 
Of course what most of these people were saying was "I've read some books, watched some narratives on TV, it doesn't look that hard. Not only that, you get to sit in a cafe with your laptop and skinny latte, creating movie screenplays (look, I'm typing in Courier font, it even looks like a movie screenplay), novels, maybe toss off the odd sitcom in your spare time."  Perhaps the YouGov question should have been phrased realistically, 'would you like to earn a living staring, panic stricken, at a blank screen, constantly distracted by Twitter and grim news from abroad and realising that BBC payment you're waiting for to cover next month's bills has already been spent'?
 
People think they want to be writers for the same reason they think they want to be movie stars - because the ones who do it so well have worked incredibly hard to make it look easy. Negative emotions like jealousy and envy can take you a long way but unless you're prepared to work really really hard at it then stop now and develop a new dream.
 
If you want to be a comedy writer, or any kind of writer, I recommend you watch anything that has Paul Abbott's name attached. I didn't catch the whole of 'No Offence', which has just finished on Channel 4, but what I did see reminded me what a brilliant writer he is. 
 
Even if you don't like his shows, as a writer you should appreciate the complexity of his stories, big and bold yet always firmly rooted in character. There's a reason for this, which is that Paul Abbott, as well as being so talented, also works incredibly hard. I remember watching him once address a roomful of professional writers, and the collective gasp of shock when he explained that every script he works on goes through between 15 and 18 rewrites.
 
One writer even heckled him. "What's the point of that?" was the consensus. He virtually lost the room at that point. Afterwards I saw professional writers gathered in small groups, earnestly reassuring themselves that their half dozen or so rewrites were always more than enough. And I thought 'no, you're wrong, he's right.' 
 
From that day I resolved to do at least 15 rewrites of every script. And guess what - I've never managed it. But I have noticed one thing, which is the harder I work the better the results. Whatever your reasons for wanting to be a writer, if you want to make a living at it, you're going to have to give up paying Costa coffee prices, sit down in your bedroom or wherever and write, write, re-write, keep writing, write on through the procrastination, switch off the internet after three hours meandering through Facebook and Twitter full of self-loathing, and get back to that script. Remember Shakespeare was rewriting his plays right up to the point when the audiences were coming in. You can always do more. 
 
I'd always thought my own reasons for writing were honourable. When I'd been a stand-up for three or four years I remember a conversation a group of us had, where everyone apart from me admitted that hearing of a contemporary's success always annoyed them.
 
Not me, oh no, I was so pure back then, I even remember arguing that in those pioneering days of stand-up, every comic's individual success was lifting the whole profession. And I still think I was right - although five years later, when my own career was stalling and people who started before me were becoming more successful, my own jealousy and resentment began to kick in. Career-wise I was going nowhere, and jealousy and envy speeded up the process of my decision to quit.
 
Professional jealousy is not good, is it? According to Van Morrison's eponymous song, "Professional jealousy, can bring down a nation, and personal invasion can ruin a man." He sings of how it "can make a man bitter and angry if they think someone is going to win" and... "makes people crazy, when they think you've got something they don't have". I don't think Van is being ironically autobiographical here, even though two of the most common words used to describe the notoriously interview-shy star are 'bitter' and 'angry'. 
 
One of the main reasons I write is because I like to show off. When I was five I knew that I wanted to 'be a writer', without any idea why. Then I saw Tommy Cooper on the telly and thought 'actually that's what I want to do'. And I picked up pretty quickly that if I wanted to perform I'd have to write stuff.
 
When I became a teenager I got angry, because I was a teenager and that's what they do, and that anger spurred me on to want to change the world, and that was when I made the biggest error of my life, when I believed that the best way I could change the world would be by writing hilarious comedy. You'd all laugh so much at my anti-fascist anger that you'd want to join me on the barricades (actually I've always been a bit of a coward, join me at the ballot box) and sweep away the nasty people and replace them with lovely people like what we are.
 
The anger continued beyond those teenage years and the showing off never went away, so it was lucky for me that the post-punk comedy scene, which is where virtually my entire generation of comedy writers and performers came from, was founded principally on anger and showing off.
 
When I began to make a living at writing, paying the bills became a major reason. A lot of people say this is the only reason they write. These people are paraphrasing Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest writers this country has known, who said "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." But no writer ever starts out making money - and it wouldn't surprise me if that literary giant Ian Dury called his band 'The Blockheads' as a deliberate nod to Johnson - you have to spend a hell of a lot of time working for free, as Dury surely did, before you can become a paid writer.
 
With the arrival of the internet, and its preponderance of largely irrelevant blogs such as these posing massively over-generalised questions such as 'why write?', I came to realise that there was (and is) a strong element of self-obsession. I sometimes re-read my blogs to check that I'm not writing something I've already said, but often find myself distracted, re-reading favourite articles and saying to the walls around me 'ooh that was a nice phrase'. Thanks to the internet I can now add 'narcissism' to my list. Immortality of course, that's another. As if that's any use to me in this world, but I think all writers want that. And if possible, I'd like it for something more than the one dull phrase I ever came up with that has travelled the world, but I'm resigned to accepting that 'x is the new y' is the only phrase of mine anyone will ever remember.
 
In addition, I've always had issues of lack of confidence. I knew I could write, another reason to continue was because people liked it, and I thought then maybe they'd like me too and they'd see I wasn't really a bad person for doing bad things in my youth (smoking weed and falling out with my family to name the main two). Thirty years on I'm still angry and I still like showing off. Pathetic isn't it? You'd think I'd have grown up by now. Maybe there's a part of me that's scared if I stop being angry and wanting to show off I'll lose whatever it is that keeps me in paid work. I kidded myself for years that my motives were honourable but I'm the same as everyone. 
 
What does it take to become a writer? I don't know, I'm still working it out. None of the reasons I've given for wanting to write are especially honourable. But they're honest. Perhaps that's the most important thing. 
 
I'll leave the last word to Van, who for half a century has been writing words, putting them to music, recording then performing them around the world. In the last lines of 'Professional Jealousy', he answers that question in the most succinct manner:
 
"The only requirement is knowing what is needed,
And then delivering what's needed on time."
 
And just in case you didn't get that, he re-emphasises:
 
"The only requirement is to know what is needed
In doing the best you know how, deliver on time."
 
Twice.
 
"The only requirement is to know what is needed
Be best at delivering the product on time."
 

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