No better time

This is going to sound so optimistic that you’ll think I’m auditioning to write for Hallmark Cards. But I mean it.

I mean this: right now is the best time there has ever been to be a writer.

Okay, just to get Hallmark off my back, I will also say that this is the worst time it has ever been to be a paid writer. Getting money for this is tough. But while I can’t and won’t discount the problems, the opportunities are astonishing.

I was doing a writing masterclass session at Birmingham City University this week where we discussed a couple of students’ work in detail. One of them was a short radio play and I’m blathering on about it when I realise that actually what this writer needs isn’t me.

She needs to make that play.

And she can.

Now, I’ve been in Birmingham City University’s radio studios and they are impressive: I presume she can book space there. And there’s a School of Acting around the place so I imagine casting isn’t going to be a great problem.

But as handy as all that is, the truth is that she’s got a phone. I don’t know what phone and I don’t know what recording apps she may have, but for pennies she can turn that phone into a recording studio.

She can even edit the audio on the phone and I’ll never get used to that. I don’t mean that as in I’ll never cope with doing it on phones, I mean that I edit audio a great deal and it is forever a delight what you can do now. I learned on giant BBC local radio desks and I was taught to edit with razor blades and chinagraph pencils. And, actually, I think sometimes you learn better from doing it physically, from doing edits where you can’t undo them with a tap or a click.

But then that’s really what I think about writing now. You have always been able to write but now you can see and hear how that writing works. Immediately. Pretty much.

I had lots to say to this student about her script and I loved that she and the whole room had lots to tell me that I’d missed in it. But ultimately I mean it: write something, make it, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work for you.

I don’t quite know how this goes for novelists but for scriptwriters, this is the best time there ever was. If only we could lick the money problem.

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

3330__hannah_and_her_sisters_(1986)movie_

That film poster was on my bedroom wall throughout the time I was a student. Where my friends and housemates had thrash metal posters, I had Hannah and Her Sisters but it was for a very sensible reason: it was my favourite film. Today I don’t have one. Not just one. It seems a weird notion to have only one. But back then – er, when in the hell would it have been? I’m lost – I believed the best film ever made was Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters.

Now, I don’t mean I believed that in some combative, argumentative way: I didn’t evangelise the film, I wasn’t shocked if you said you preferred Howard the Duck. It was just for me, just fact, just Hannah.

Yet this week it never entered my head when asked what 15 films have most stayed with me.

Well, clearly it did enter my head or I wouldn’t be talking to you about it. But I was tagged in this Facebook meme – if you haven’t been tagged yet, hello, you are now – and I rattled off this lot in a thrice:

Grosse Pointe Blank
Trainspotting
Bourne films 1-3
Boyfriends and Girlfriends
Mission: Impossible 1
The Cider House Rules
Three Colours Blue
Leon (aka The Professional)
Heaven Can Wait
The Shawshank Redemption
Capricorn One
Deathtrap
The Sting
Amelie
The Empire Strikes Back

Okay. The list is true enough, though Empire was a push to get it to 15, but nothing that I’d especially be wanting to tell you about. You know what happened next, though. Other people wrote their 15 and I kept seeing ones that I should surely have had. I think the biggest shock for me was that I’d missed off Twelve Angry Men. (Not ten days ago, I watched the Tony Hancock version on YouTube. It’s the one where he says “Magna Carter – did she die in vain?”.)

Nobody picked Hannah. So I have no idea why I finally remembered, but it was a memory with a punch. A flood. Can you have a flood of punches? Central Park in the autumn. The most gorgeous New York City bookshop – now long gone, I’m afraid, even before I managed to get to it, which just makes seeing it more precious. Woody Allen’s character is a producer on a TV show that is really Saturday Night Live and has a corner office with windows looking out across the city. Carrie Fisher looking amazing. Barbara Hershey melting my heart. The music. Oh, but the music. I have the soundtrack album on vinyl somewhere and haven’t played it in a decade but the very opening notes of this trailer are bliss to me.

At the time of release and the time of having that poster on my wall, I didn’t like Michael Caine in this film. There’s something just off, to me, something just a little forced. Now I think he’s okay but I’m not sure whether it’s because I’ve mellowed or because these days it’s Woody Allen who makes me uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, the film sticks with me and I can see how it has influenced my writing. (My version of the Wirrn in Doctor Who is clearly a homage.) Its poetry sticks with me too. I mean that literally, there is “the poem on page 112”. Actually, quick aside, it’s also because of Woody Allen that I came to adore Emily Dickinson’s poetry: he has a collection of short prose called Without Feathers and I learnt that this was a reference to Dickinson’s line “Hope is the thing with feathers”.

That one line buckles me.

But here’s the e e cummings poem on page 112, with that beautiful music, with the bookshop, with rundown New York still looking great, with Barbara Hershey and, okay, with Michael Caine and some subtitles.

Woody Allen regularly does that trick of dividing up the frame into slices by apparent chance of doorways and walls and shelves. It’s very intimate, somehow, it takes you into the characters when they’re isolated or here where Eliot is yearning for Lee.

I’m aware that I don’t appreciate film directors enough. It’s a kind of solidarity-based revenge for all the times directors ignore writers. And maybe you shouldn’t notice directors, maybe if you notice them then they have taken you out of the story. But there was one scene where I was so alert to the writing, the directing, the acting and the cinematography that I can still remember the pressure on my chest from the first time I saw it. It sounds tricksy: Hannah and her sisters are at a restaurant table and the camera must be on a circular dolly track very close by because it just orbits them.

All three women – Barbara Hershey, Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest – are talking. Naturally all have different issues and pressures, naturally they are all going to collide here. But the orbiting camera shows us one woman’s face in closeup and is then blocked by the back of another woman’s head. Then another face is revealed, another is hidden, over and over. And the effect is mesmerising. It’s these women hiding the truth and somehow losing that for moments, regaining composure for a moment, losing it again. You feel it building and building and yes, it’s all there on the page, it’s all in the script, but the combination of talents from writer through actor to cinematographer and director makes this infinitely stronger than any one of those could have done.

And thanks to YouTube, here it is.

And with half the film sliced up into clips there, I think I’m going to go watch it properly.

After all, it is my favourite film.