Doing and not doing

Don’t laugh now, but journalists are meant to be unbiased and impartial. They’re definitely not meant to get involved and do things.

It’s different with the kinds of feature articles I usually write but if I’ve written a news story and you can tell it’s me, I’ve failed. News is news.

Except of course it isn’t and while total disconnected impartiality is the goal, you know that’s not possible. It’s not possible in part because the very act of choosing what to cover is coloured by your own opinion of what’s important.

I’ve always also believed that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies to writing. That’s the quantum mechanics claim that you can’t measure something’s speed without affecting its direction and you can’t measure its direction without affecting its speed. Our act of looking at an event affects it.

It’s the old line: if you write about a terrorist attack, you are giving it the oxygen of publicity.

Nonetheless, the aim is detachment, the goal is impartiality, and I believe to this minute that this is right, that this is how it should be.

Except for three things that happened this week. One was simply that I listened to an interesting interview with a guy who has spent his entire career as a journalist covering a particular subject. The man is entertaining, he’s informative, but I came away feeling a little sorry for him. That’s all he’s ever done. Write about other people’s work.

Then I was recently asked to join Cucumber Writers, a producing writing group in the West Midlands and I’ve been talking with them this week about their future plans. But look what I did there: the first word describing this writing group was not writing, it was producing. This is a bunch of writers who have the same ambition of being produced that we all do, but they went ahead and produced themselves.

I swear they don’t see how great and rare that is. But it’s remarkable. I’ve shaken at writers who have huge dreams but won’t take small steps. And here’s this group that’s been producing new writing for five years now.

Strictly speaking, all of Cucumber Writers and this fella I heard interviewed spend their days writing. They’re observing events or human nature and communicating it to audiences through various forms of writing.

Yet it feels to me like Cucumber is actually doing something. It’s not a passive recitation of other people’s work, it is an act of creation.

Work that is created is surely work that is worth being described: I’m not going to knock the idea of coverage, of journalistic examination of a piece of work. I think about this far too much as I must’ve written 20,000 or more reviews of various things yet also my favourite films tend to be ones where I went in cold. Where I went in to the cinema having not read reviews.

I’ve also been reviewed a fair few times and that’s fascinating: you also learn how rare it is for a review to be worth reading, regardless of whether it’s a good or a bad one. The lack of meat, the lack of point in the majority of reviews is depressing. The – what’s the opposite of lack? Abundance? Thanks. The abundance of times a reviewer has said what I should’ve done with a piece is educational. Not because they’re right, but because regularly they don’t care about being wrong: they’re not examining a piece, they’re often advertising how much better they would’ve been. Yet they don’t go do anything, they just carry on advertising.

I believe that making is better than describing, though. I believe that it’s better to be crew than passenger. And in my most optimistic moments I believe that being both a writer and a journalist makes me better at both.

Mind you, the third thing that happened this week was that I read a quote saying “It’s better to walk ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books”. And I just thought, bollocks.

Ditchwater dull

I don’t know what I want to say. If you don’t mind, I’d like to noodle around a couple of points that have become a thing this week. There’s a connection, I don’t know what it is.

Yesterday I was in a Performing Arts school talking about journalism and at one point we got into a discussion about the dull things journalists have to do. A teacher made the suggestion that the amount of reading you have to do is, well, not dull, but a chore.

I worked it out in front of them: I probably read a couple of hundred headlines a day, maybe a hundred starts or standfirsts to the ones that intrigue me, then maybe just sixty full articles. But I couldn’t tell you which of that is for work and which is for pleasure as they overlap: these are topics I work in but they’re topics I’m interested in.

Then one 11-year-old said that it was the amount of writing. I’ve only this moment, typing that to you, realised that the first dull suggestion was reading and the second one was writing. I suspect I may have found what my point is: these people I spoke to don’t want to be journalists.

Only, there’s one more thing knocking around my head. As well as me, there were two BBC television news people talking to these kids. I’d say I’ve rarely felt so outclassed but actually there are times when I’m that outclassed daily. Really, though, these two had presence and you were just immediately drawn to them.

One told me about having worked in schools and universities plus then seeing how those pupils and students behave when they get jobs in television. She said that it was common to find them refusing to fetch props, get coffees or even to shadow someone doing the job they apparently want so much.

Maybe this really is my point: they don’t want to be what they think they want to be.

Few if any of the 120 or so pupils I saw yesterday will ever choose to become writers. That they’ve seen something about it all and can make that choice knowing gigantically more than I did when I was their age, that’s fantastic. That the school does many of these days giving their pupils access to all manner of careers is perfect. I wish I’d gone to this school or that my school had been anything like it.

But of those people in any school, any education establishment, who want to become writers and journalists, I am suspecting now that many of them actually want to be what they think the job is.

The television newcomers want to direct Panorama in their first week, that kind of thing. Some or maybe many would-be journalists and writers want to be journalists and writers who don’t write or read.

This could all be obvious, you’re nodding at me now, and I think I’m being slow. But these thoughts about yesterday are clicking together with one I’ve seen before. When I meet a new writer and they say something about wanting to be the next JK Rowling with all her millions, I know they never will be. I haven’t even seen a word of their writing and I know they haven’t got it. They don’t get what she did. What she does.

If someone wants to write because they’ll enjoy being a published writer, they won’t make it. I feel I’ve lurched off into some kind of patronising diatribe now and I’m pretty sure that’s not what I was trying to figure out with you here.

You have to see the necessity and the pleasure of the dull things. Maybe that’s it. Yet I’m so deep into this and I so love what I do that I am struggling to name a dull bit.

Well, the fact that I’m full of cold again and must now go deal with spreadsheets, that’s getting there.

You couldn’t make it up

You’ve seen this over and over again: Trump does something stupid, Britain realises yet another thing it failed to consider before Brexit, and someone will say that you couldn’t make this stuff up.

Of course you could.

The End.

Only, as well as just being wrong, I think this ‘you couldn’t make it up’ lark is a kind of marker post. It’s saying that over here is reality, over there is fiction. Actually, I think it really says that reality is better or sharper or harder or just more.

Okay. Except there are going to be Brexit dramas aplenty, there are going to be Trump biopics, and the faultline between fiction and reality will be examined anew every time. Writing will be tested, writing’s ability to convey real-life drama is going to be tested.

And it will fail.

As both a journalist and a writer, I can’t do creative non-fiction: to me it’s either fiction or it’s fact. As a reader, I want the same divide: I don’t want to come away believing that Napoleon was the leading Tetris player in his gang.

And when we get dramas based on real events, I think the audience is watching for the facts – or actually for the errors. If it’s a brilliant, searing, insightful piece of drama that wonderfully conveys the human condition, there will still be complaints that this person didn’t say that or this other person never wore the other. I’m minded of people who would come away from the Harry Potter movies saying yes, great, but they skipped chapter 11’s reference to ostriches. Or something.

Anyway, the dramas that we are going to get about anything real, anything political, are going to be rigidly factual and that will just reinforce this notion that we can’t make things up.

True, we’ve had a Nigel Farage piece that was a comedy but it was really just one good trailer-length joke and nothing else. We’ve also seen real-life events translated into science fiction but pretty simplistically. We’ve more often seen dramas that are as faithful as possible to the real-life events.

And I just don’t see the point of them.

That’s not drama, it’s a Crimewatch reconstruction. Granted, plenty of what’s happening now should be examined in criminal law courts but my need for a verdict is firmly, totally centred in reality: I don’t have a thirst to see justice done only to make a drama’s happy ending.

The word dramatised, by the way, means moved. From some non-dramatic form to another. You can’t dramatise a movie, for instance, because it’s already drama. The aim is to move whatever it is to another form in order to make something new, to create something that has value and worth on its own. It is not to fill in the blanks.

Drama documentaries do this and nothing else. They are a foul idea borne of a need to have something to look at when there’s no contemporary footage. So some historian will talk to some camera in some gorgeous house saying “And of course WIlliam Shakespeare lived on Lemsip” and it will be followed by portentous music, ancient costumes and actors trying to put emotion into Shakey telling Anne Hathaway: “I doth so adoreth it greater than Night Nurse”.

You can make it up, but you won’t.

This took me a very long time to realise but I got there and it’s become a staple for me: journalism is about facts and drama is about truth. It’s not the same thing.

There’s a thing I stick to in drama writing and specifically when pitching an idea. I’ll begin with what the story is about but then as fast as I possibly, conceivably can, I’ll ditch that and move on to this: what it’s really about.

Drama is about what really matters, what really is going on. Journalism is about who, what, where, when, why and how. Dramatised versions of real-life events are just pointless bores. Drama that examines why people do what they do, that dives into people instead of diligently copying news reports we’ve already seen, that’s just tedious.

You shouldn’t make it up.

The facts, ma’am, just the facts

Sometimes you have to say something before you realise that you think it. Consequently this may be very obvious and I’m definitely going to take a time getting to it, but I first realised it on the ring road near Damascus.

Follow. This week in Stafford there’s been a children’s event called Page Talk, produced by Hayley Frances for Writing West Midlands. It’s a writing event where a small group of 10-14-year-olds have worked with professional writers, journalists, poets and more.

On Monday, they had poetry with Stephen Morrison-Burke. Tuesday was journalism with Alex Townley. Wednesday was science fiction and horror writing with Alex Davis. Tomorrow they get taught performance by Cat Weatherill. (Seriously, what a week for these kids, eh? Stephen, Alex, Cat – I don’t know Alex Davis’s work as well as I do the others but the kids told me he was superb. I’d pay to see that lot.)

Today they got me and “Play in a Day”. Twenty kids wrote a play together from scratch. At 11am, we had nothing whatsoever. At 4pm, we had a play.

What I hope also happened is that they got to taste a little of what it’s like writing for real. Not in school, not to be praised for how clever you are. For real. I told them that I wouldn’t be giving out grades. I told them that if we didn’t quite manage to finish the play today then we needn’t have bothered starting.

(I can do that, I can play the this-is-real and this-isn’t-school card because it isn’t school and I’m not a teacher. I’ve only once been studied by Ofcom people and that was a mistake. I’ll tell you now, I came away from this Play in a Day feeling pretty good – but I could because today I’m in my office writing for 16 hours or so. No kids. No trying to teach anybody anything. I’m not even a parent. Truly, I am a civilian.)

Anyway. No near misses, I told them, no well done for trying, the job was to write a play and that’s what we were going to do. That’s what we did.

But I was also strongly aware that this was one day in a week and that they have been doing all these other types of writing. They were obviously going to see what the differences are but there are two that I particularly wanted and needed them to know from the start.

I think one of them is obvious and I’ve said it a hundred times. Scriptwriting is different to novels and short stories and journalism and poetry because the audience never reads the script. The script is there for you and everyone else involved to make something else: a play, a TV show, a film.

It’s the other thing that I hadn’t realised I really think and it’s this.

Journalism is about the facts.
Drama is about the truth.

Journalism is who did what, when, where, how and only in the most coarse way why. Drama is all about why and also why it matters.

I’m not convinced that I gave them a brilliant example but it popped into my head and I said it. Since nothing else has popped into my head since, I’m going to say it again.

I was working with a guy named Connor Evan so I pointed at him. “If I walked in here with a custard pie and slapped Connor in the face with it,” I said, “that might be a news story.”

You can see the headline: Prat Pies Producer. Connor would point out that he isn’t a producer but we’re talking 21st Century journalism here and alliteration goes a long way.

You can also see the news report. You can practically read it now. A reporter would get a quote from a witness, from Connor and from me about why I did it – “Well, I had this spare pie and…” but otherwise the whole news story is Prat Pies Producer.

Whereas drama would convey to us – not tell, never tell, always convey, always show – what it is like to be the victim of that pie. What it’s like to feel cold custard against your skin for the rest of the day.

It would also convey why I’d really done it – and it would’ve accepted the fact that actually, maybe I don’t know.

Drama is messy. Drama is people. Journalism is just the facts.