That’s passing it on as in hopefully giving it to someone. Not as in no, thanks, I’ll pass on that. Though it’s up to you whether you receive or give experience and we’ve all failed to take advice before post-rationalising that we learned more from making mistakes anyway.
Listen, four times this month the same thing has come up: four times people have called me very, very old. Okay, the words they used were euphemisms like “thanks for helping out a new writer” and each time it was meant as a compliment. But I didn’t need my world-class ability to disassemble and reverse engineer praise into criticism to see that what they all really meant was that I’m the old writer.
I don’t want to think about that: I haven’t done anything yet and an approaching Really Serious Birthday is just magnifying my regular terror that time is ticking by. When I’m in this mood then stopping to eat is annoying, relaxing is betrayal and going to bed at night is defeat.
But of course I’m going to help someone. If I know something they need, and they tell me, of course I’m going to help. I’m experienced enough to know, though, that what I do in this way and what I argue Birmingham and West Midlands writers do more than most, is not usual. Writing is an isolating job and it is to the media industry’s advantage to keep that true so what’s more usual is that we believe we’re in competition with each other.
Are we hell.
Okay, let me try that again. Are we bollocks.
I’ve been in situations where another writer was pitching for the same work as I was and that is the purest, most undeniable competition there is yet I deny it. It was poet Jean Atkin last year and we were both after a terribly interesting gig working with libraries but she walked in and even I thought yes, I’d hire her over me. I do think she’s a more powerful writer than I am, but it wasn’t a question of quality per se: we could both have done the job but we’d each have done it differently. And one of us would be more suited to the job than the other. That time it was her and if she hadn’t been picked, I’d have been disappointed in the whole process.
That’s the closest example I can think of to writers being in direct competition. Otherwise, it’s me pitching X and you pitching Y and the commissioners going bankrupt after choosing Z.
Otherwise, I do my thing and you do yours. I can learn from you but I can’t ever write like you and you can’t ever write like me. (You could have a go: say bollocks a few times, write ‘not so much’, mention OmniFocus and collapse into a stutter at the sight of dark chocolate. You got me.)
This is going to sound like I work for Hallmark Cards. (Wait, there’s another one: write ‘this is going to sound a bit Hallmark Card-like’ and be sure to say it in an English accent. You could play me in a movie now.) But honestly, I do believe that a rising tide raises all boats. If you have a great idea and something I do somehow helps that get made or produced or just progressed then that is in all ways brilliant. Of course it is: it’s a great idea and it’s yours, it’s you. I want to see what you do with it, I want to see or hear or read the final result. Hurry up.
There’s a thing in writing: inescapably, you reveal yourself through what you write. Even when it’s with fiction and different characters, even if it’s in a news story or an email. You can’t fake this: you are there on the page and astonishingly easy to see. If you can just put any idea of competition behind you, if you can please forget this idea of new writers and (especially) old writers then your writing and my writing and everyone’s writing becomes visibly the better for it.
You know the Yiddish word mensch, meaning someone who does a good thing. You also know that writing is a job, amongst all the many other things it is and that writers claim it to be, it is an industry. Helping new writers, refusing to accept that we’re old writers, supporting each other and working better: I think that makes writers and non-writers, men and women, all of us into a businessmensch.