Women and Mentoring

This isn’t about women, it’s not about men and it’s only a bit about mentoring. Clearly I just like a good title. Listen, I don’t care whether someone is a man or a woman, if they’re a writer then I think there comes a point when they want guidance or mentoring. Or if I’m wrong, then I’ve just had a weird run of coincidence from writers who have the same weakness I think we all do.

So this week I turned down a man who wanted to hire me to mentor him. I have done mentoring on specific types of work or for specific types of writers and he didn’t fit either so I turned him down because I wasn’t the right person for him.

I did suggest things he could look into, though, and there was one particular point of his that I thought I could help with. He wanted to know whether he was approaching writing stories correctly, if he were doing the right thing. I told him who cares? If you end up with a good piece, it doesn’t matter if you write it in crayon on every second Tuesday of the year.

Half a beat later, a woman writer joked that what she wants most is someone to look over her work every quarter of an hour and tell her whether it’s going well or not.

You know she wasn’t joking. I know she wasn’t joking. She knew she wasn’t joking. So I told her in all seriousness that this would be a Very, Very Bad Idea.

She thought I was joking.

It happened again this week with another couple of writers so it’s been on my mind but I think these first two reveal a remarkably similar issue. They both want someone else to tell them if they’re right. That means, then, that they both think there is a right way to do something.

There’s something else, too, and I’m struggling to describe this. Let me try this way and you can tell me if I’m making sense. I think both of these writers unconsciously think that writing comes out in a straight line. That you get the first paragraph right and then you write the second. That you can show the first page, say, to someone, and they’ll give you a pass/fail.

But writing is a mess. No, more than that, writing is a fight. I don’t want to sound all male about it and I don’t equate writing to violence nor expect all writing to be conflict. Yet it is always a scrap. How’s that? It’s scrappy. You’re pulling this idea over there and nudging or shoving or easing it into another shape. You’re kneading the words and you’re fashioning one single loaf out of countless ingredients.

Possibly you’re making a really rubbish analogy and stretching it out in the hope that somewhere along the line it will make sense. Fail.

I won’t read your first paragraph because there’s no point until you’ve finished the whole piece. Then if I read, say, your script, then I do know from page one whether it’s working or not. That’s not some brilliance on my part, it’s because it is very quickly obvious when something is a fail. The only writer who can’t see it is the writer who wrote it.

But good or bad, instantly obvious or not, it needs the whole thing there or all anyone can tell you is if you type well.

That man I turned down, by the way, wrote a very good email. He’s a writer. I’ve read pieces by that woman and she writes with verve and life and vigour. She’s a writer.

They just both have to get on with writing. So do I. So do you.

Food and whine

I can’t imagine this is still there and I definitely won’t look. But many years ago, I worked on the BBC Good Food website, in fact I worked toward the launch of it, whenever that was. I didn’t do much, don’t get me wrong. All I had to do was perform and record for the site’s audio glossary section: if you wanted to know how to correctly pronounce Chardonnay, you clicked on the name and my voice told you.

It’s likely that I also did food words as, even now, when I walk around a supermarket I will occasionally see something and feel compelled to say its name aloud and then again with each syllable separated out by short pauses. But it’s the wine I remember, though, because it tickled me that I don’t drink and so hadn’t remotely heard of half of the things I was saying.

The glossary was a good idea and it turned out okay: I remember feeling I’d got the content right but the audio wasn’t fantastic. Mind you, I also remember the launch party. It’s weird what sticks in your head but I can picture the entire room, the pillar I was leaning against, the man I was talking with, the woman who told us then that the idiot boyfriend who’d dumped her had just asked to come back. (They then got married, by the way, and I hope that fella now spends his days counting his lucky stars.)

I remember everything in this slice of that evening. Including the editor standing up to make a speech and quite laboriously thanking every individual who’d made even the smallest contribution to launching the site. I remember starting to think she could surely skip some of these people, when she did. She looked at me and she did not say my name. O-kay. Not getting a second commission, am I?

It did hurt, I won’t pretend it didn’t. I had been feeling proud to be part of this site, even in this small way, and then I felt shuttered. It was a lesson, too: thank everybody or thank generally, don’t do exhaustive-minus-one.

But the fact remains that BBC Good Food was an excellent site: I’m not a foodie but I could easily appreciate how well produced both it and the accompanying magazine were. And are: I use a cooking app called Paprika and having a quick scoot through the recipes I’ve collected in it, I can see a fair few came from BBC Good Food.

There was still the fact, though, that this was BBC Good Food and there is a completely separate site called BBC Food. Similarly, there is BBC Top Gear and there is TopGear.com. That latter and Good Food are actually the official websites of the magazines which are the official magazines of the TV shows which have their own websites. Of course they do.

It wasn’t confusing when you worked on them –– I actually did do a day or possibly just an afternoon on TopGear.com; I think my car reviews were light on engine performance detail, heavy on the sound quality from the radios –– but you knew. You knew this was a stupid idea and that it was going to confuse readers. But as long as all of these sites were really well done and were successful, that’s the way it was going to be.

It still is. Except for one thing.

BBC Good Food, which I’ve just decided I’m going call my old site – I did work on it, dammit – remains exactly as it was yesterday. BBC Food does not. At some point very soon, BBC Food is going to destroy 11,000 of the recipes on it. I should say delete but no, it’s destroy: that immense archive is going to be deliberately lost forever.

It’s part of the BBC’s response to the Government’s demands that it be more distinctive and save money. The usual bollocks, then. But this time the Corporation is being more distinctive by taking away a recipe archive that no other website will or perhaps could do. Not even BBC Good Food can touch this for the sheer volume of material and how it’s also tied to various cooking TV shows, how it’s a bit of a cultural history archive of what we ate.

There are whole swathes of BBC websites that are not updated and which tell you so: you’ll occasionally follow a Google search down into a site which has a nice note from the BBC saying that it hasn’t been updated since 1997 but is being left here as a record.

And this time the Corporation is saving money by destroying 11,000 pages of a website. These would be pages that had already been written and published. I suspect they do get updated: if you’re reading a Hairy Bikers recipe from five years ago, there’s a good argument that you could put a link to this year’s new series on there. You don’t have to and I don’t know that they did, but you could and so maybe the pages were updated.

But that isn’t necessary. So the only money that closing this site and this archive can achieve is by getting rid of the people who update it with the new recipes. Only, they’re still going to update it with new recipes. (The difference is that they’ll put on the latest BBC TV cooking show recipes today and then delete them in 30 days time.)

So no money is being saved and existing distinctiveness is being thrown away. The Government’s insistence on improvements at the BBC is, as ever, bluster from people trying to sound like they matter. And the BBC’s response is straight out of Yes, Minister: when Sir Humphrey is asked to do something about the high figures of civil servants, he does something. About the figures.

I think that makes both sides in this BBC vs Government issue seem like schoolboys who think we’ll believe their red-faced claims of the other boy did it or the dog ate the homework according to a particular recipe. Neither side would thank me for saying this, but then I’m used to that.