Talking and not talking

In the middle of a six-hour workshop yesterday, I stopped to explore a thought about an issue that had been coming up throughout the day. “I offer,” I said, “that it is the people who can communicate, who can write and talk, who find it the hardest to do.”

I think I’m right. I was running the workshop for the Federation of Entertainment Unions which means for members of the NUJ, Equity, the Musician’s Union and the Writers’ Guild. Something like 20 or 25 professional freelancers in London. I adore – no, I love – running FEU workshops because of these people. The only stock a freelancer has, really, is time and these people choose to spend a working day with me.

Now, whenever someone elects to spend time with me, I’m honoured. I just had a thing where someone came within a pixel of flying over from the States to see me. As much as I would’ve liked to meet her, I was immensely relieved when plans changed because I get anxious enough when someone crosses a room in my direction.

But with the FEU workshops and these freelancers, it’s a business decision. They want something the FEU says I can give them – yesterday it was about blogging – and they’re here to get it. No playing around, no messing, no idle thought about maybe one day doing a blog. I think of it as playing with live ammunition: they need something, I have to show them whether blogging does or doesn’t do it, then I have to get them what they need to start.

If I talked bollocks for the first hour, I expect all 25 to walk out. If I speak brilliantly but they realise blogging or whatever isn’t what they need, I expect all 25 to leave early and get back to their work.

And actually, maybe no more so than yesterday because this was a really impressive group. Grief. One guy has his acting career but actually he’s really focused on social issues like care homes. One journalist is a Libya correspondent. And one is the woman who made that documentary about suffragette Emily Davison which showed she didn’t choose to be trampled to death, it wasn’t a suicide plan. I got to shake hands with someone who owns the sash Davison wore in that gigantically important moment.

So this was a room full of talented people. Talented creative types, people who apply their talent and their skills all the time. People who actually I picture as being on their feet and in action even though we spent most of the day sitting down.

And yet the thing that kept coming up over and over was that each one of them finds it crippingly hard, paralysingly hard, to talk about themselves and their work. These are people who for a living talk or write or act or perform and this was a difficulty you could see pressing on their chests.

I don’t have a solution and I do have the same problem. But I didn’t quite tell you the whole quote just now. This is what I really said:

“I offer that it is the people who can communicate, who can write and talk, who find it the hardest to do. And that it’s the people who can’t, who won’t shut up about themselves.”

Please don’t point out that I’m writing a blog about one sentence of mine, one thought. This isn’t me talking about myself, it’s you and I having a chat because you’re exactly the same, aren’t yoU?

Fortune and glory, kid

I’ve only been thinking about this for two weeks. There was a book event at the Library of Birmingham and I was listening to the speakers, half wondering if I could steal how funny and charming they were, when a guy asks a question.

Actually, no, it was more that he stated a fact but added a question mark. He said to these authors: “But the point, the aim of it all is to write a bestseller, isn’t it?”

There are two answers to this and they are both no.

You can have the very short ‘no’ or you can have the longer, more considered, let’s have some tea, kind of no which you already know is what’s happening here. He stated this fact and every part of me thought no. It was that immediate, that certain, and it has not taken me two weeks to think about it. Because I haven’t finished thinking about it yet. I’m hoping that talking it over with you will sort out my head.

I think all that I’ve been churning over comes down to a split between people who write and people who don’t. There are two types of people in this world and they both intend to write novels. I suspect that when you don’t write and therefore don’t know what heavy spade work it is, you only ever hear about writers when they are interviewed. Writers are interviewed almost exclusively only at the point when they have a new book out. This would be because perhaps the only thing more boring than watching video of a writer typing is watching a video of the much longer periods where they aren’t.

But still, the result is that we see writers when they have something new out and inescapably, then, it looks pretty easy to have something new out. They were only on the telly the other day with the last thing, weren’t they?

Then because news wants facts and because there isn’t a gigantic amount you can ask a writer about their new work that won’t spoil their new work, we get the topic of money. This is especially true when the writer has earned some amazing amount.


It’s easy and they make a lot of money.

Maybe it’s natural, then, to think that the point of writing is to make money.

Now, certainly, I write for a living and I like to eat occasionally, I prefer sleeping indoors. And actually I have very often been described as a commercial writer because I like thrillers and Doctor Who and magazines. But I used the word ‘like’ there. I could’ve said “because I write thrillers and Doctor Who” but I said ‘like’. I am a commercial writer but it is because that is where my tastes lie, it is not because I have a spreadsheet saying these are more lucrative jobs than publishing five lines of poetry every ten years.

I do make a living and writers can still make a lot of money, even today, but the answer is still no.

If you go into writing to make your fortune, it is conceivable that it will work, but it is bloody unlikely. So unlikely that doing this for that reason is simply stupid.

Plus, it’s a funny thing, writing: your secret intent has a way of becoming very apparent to the audience. If you’re doing it for glory, we can tell. I interviewed Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight the other week and he was talking about how he as all these film and TV projects that mean a lot to him but there are also these many others where he’s been the writer for hire. But, he said, whatever it is, you have to do it as if it is the most important thing to you.

That’s not a definable thing. You can’t have a formula that says 10% more effort equals 10 times the success of a piece. Yet hack work stands out very clearly.

So you have to write what matters to you and you have to hope that it works out enough that you can survive.

Maybe the real barrier between writers and non-writers is that the nons can’t comprehend that anyone would be so stupid as to do this. They’re right. There’s no question but that writing is a stupid thing to do.

Yet I’m okay with being stupid. I’m used to it in everything else, I might as well enjoy it here. And it’s not as if I seem to have any choice in the matter, but I am glad that I am over here on this stupid side. Because it pains me, it actually causes me pain, when I hear someone being surprised that, say, JK Rowling has written another book. The genuine incomprehension you hear sometimes, the idea that she’s daft when she’s done all those Harry Potter books and made her fortune.

She is daft. We all are. Of course she keeps writing. How could you not?