Writing is not for writers

A quarter of a dozen things happened this week – wait, nobody ever says that. It’s always a dozen or half a dozen. Look at you and me: we’ve been talking for five seconds and we’re breaking new linguistic ground.

Anyway, a quarter of a dozen things happened this week that in retrospect feel like they were all part of the same thing, the same issue. And it’s an issue that I think matters in general, but it definitely matters to me. I can’t tell you all of the details –– I think you just looked at your watch anyway, wondering how long each of the three would take –– and I will tell you now that the last one is really good. It’s a video, in fact, that I’d like you to see when you’ve got a minute.

Well, when you’ve got 42 minutes, anyway. Let me build to that.

The other two things were first, a rejection and, second, a project that had a hiccup. I get a lot of rejections and while I can think of ones that were like a knife to my neck, they hurt so much, the infinite majority are a shrug. I get acceptances too, let me quickly say that and there was a nice one this week, but as rejections go, the one I got on Monday or Tuesday, whenever it was, was a shrug.

Truly: I had to think before I could remember what I’d submitted to it. That’s how unimportant it was.

Not that it wasn’t important, you can just have things that are important and unimportant at the same time. It was a writing competition and I practically never bother with those, but this is a prestigious one and whenever I entered it, I’d just finished a short story that I thought happened to fit the frame. I’d finished a couple of short stories, that’s why I wasn’t clear for a second which one it was, but again, this is all a shrug.

I know it sounds as if it isn’t, I know it sounds as if I’m either being terribly brave or that actually I’m folding my arms like a little boy and really saying that this is rotten contest, I didn’t want to win anyway.

No. I wanted to win or I wouldn’t have entered, but the rejection so does not matter that not only wouldn’t I be mentioning it to you, I wouldn’t remember it enough to mention it to you. Except for the rejection email.

Those knife to the neck rejections. The one I’m thinking of most when I say that was a two-line email I got on my iPhone as I stood in line at a coffee shop. Years later, I can feel that wound, I can still rage at the decision given a head start and an extra strong coffee, but what I cannot do is fault that it was two lines long. I didn’t get the gig. What else is there to say? I think the producer gave me a little reason, but the rejection was nope, not going to happen, what’s next?

Whereas this week’s rejection email was a therapy session.

“You should probably sit down,” it didn’t say but might as well have. “Can I get you a tea? You’re looking pale. I’ve got biscuits.”

I can’t find the email now to count the words but it was about two screenfuls of my iPhone and most of that was a reassuring kind of tract about how gosh hard it is being a writer, before finally saying what had really been obvious for the previous 300 words or whatever it was. I didn’t get the gig.

It was insulting.

In their eyes, it seemed to say very loudly, I am a child who didn’t get the HomePod mini he wanted for Christmas –– okay, that’s a bit specific and revealing, but you have the idea. It simultaneously diminished me and tried to elevate them. This was a world-class writing contest, it thought, and I was a child without batteries. This is the gateway to writing success, it thought, and I should now go dream of one day being good enough to join them.

I fear that people involved in writing –– including writers, unfortunately –– can get into these bubbles where what’s being measured and what’s being a success are actually a bit out of kilter with reality. Winning this contest is not the goal. Using a win like this to help get my novel some attention, that’s the reason for entering.

Writing contests are not the end result. Writing is not about a pat on the back. Writing is not actually about writers.

Writing is about the reader, the audience. If it takes you a thousand years to write a short story and then you are lauded by every writing contest going, but a reader gets bored a quarter of a dozen words into it, there’s no point.

You have to be focused on writing in order to write, but you have to be focused on the audience for that writing to be of any worth. Dig deep inside yourself, most definitely, but if it’s to be anything more than well-typed naval gazing, it has to reach other people. Only connect.

I write for a lot of reasons, partly because it is my job and possibly mostly because it’s an illness that I cannot cure, but one definite reason is that I write to be read. I mean, there are so many reasons, but even writing this to you, I am writing it to you, I’m not trying to see how many words I know.

Whether it’s something like this where it’s just you and me, or it’s something like the projects where I’ve had three million readers, all of the steps between my text and an audience matter to me. I think about them all and I think about every person, every thing that is involved in the process. When you don’t do this, when I suspect you actually see writing as something more abstract and not actually a process for reaching people, you don’t see when you cause problems.

That’s the hiccup. A perfectly reasonable writing issue came up in a project this week, but it came up after the project was finished. If it had been thought of earlier, it would’ve been a trivial fix. As it was, things had to be pulled and redone. I think three people including me had to be involved in the fix and it took an extremely long time. You would not have liked me on Tuesday. You would’ve been glad that I also had a bad reaction to some medication and was being violently sick all day as I tried to get this sorted while doing everything else I was due to do that day.

I have no religion. But I have three beliefs. I believe the show comes first, I believe that it’s better to be crew than passenger, and I believe that we work best when we work together. Even though I’m on my own writing my novel, for example, my agent will be working with me soon enough and hopefully a publisher will at some point and so on.

Let me give you the good example of this, the one I said I wanted to build to. This week the Royal Television Society in the UK’s Midlands ran a media careers fair and, in conjunction with the Writers’ Guild, it featured writer Jed Mercurio talking about TV drama. I interviewed him and he was fascinating –– including about how as a writer who is deeply involved in production, he gets more of a say in how his scripts are filmed.

Television drama is collaboration and as free and as wild as writers need to be, the work is better when directors, producers, cast and everyone are working together. Here’s Jed Mercurio’s video interview.

 

Hung, drawn and quota-ed

Yesterday I was speaking at the National Youth Film Academy – a really good, highly practical filmmaking course – and the topic of quotas came up. Was it right, I and colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were asked, that there should be quotas for getting more women writing film and television.

And is it fair, continued the point, for women if they are only there because of a quota?

Writing isn’t fair.

And nor should it be. Not ever, not in any possible way. Film and television and radio and books and stage and games, and anything else you can think of, do not exist for writers. You do not get to write a TV drama because it’s your turn.

Instead, everything is always for the audience. It was ever thus, it will always be thus, and there has never been one moment when it should not be thus.

So of course the idea of a quota, the idea of anything that artificially changes who gets to write things ought to be wrong and we shouldn’t need it.

But we need it.

We truly, truly need quotas.

Not because we’ve got some issue and require certain percentages of shows to be by women, certain percentages by certain ethnic minorities or certain proportions of drama to be about certain issues.

We need something because we already have certain percentages and they are wrong.

Without any quotas, without any effort, we ought to naturally have a situation where everything is achieved through merit. If you’re a good enough writer, you ought to be getting to write.

So explain to me why only 14 percent of primetime UK television is written by women.

That’s the figure right now and we know it because the Writers’ Guild counted. It counted as the start of a campaign called Equality Writes and ultimately it wants to find out exactly how well or poorly represented every facet of UK life is on television and film. The Writers’ Guild started by counting women because it was possible to get that data.

Now it’s researching further, but to be honest, I’m surprised they can face it. As well as that 14 percent for TV, the figure for film is 16 percent.

Here I am stridently saying that writing isn’t fair and shouldn’t be, but tell me that 14 and 16 percent is the result of merit. Tell me that there really is just that proportion of writers who are women. While you’re at it, tell me how exactly that figure has been approximately just as low for every year the Writers’ Guild examined.

There is no possibility, not one single pixel of a possibility, that British television and film writing is by merit.

Instead, the current system is bollocks. And I chose that word carefully.

So some quota system, really some anything system, anything that changes this is necessary. Anything that breaks the system, just give me that.

I was the last of three to speak to this point yesterday and my colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were impassioned and eloquent. Representing the Writers’ Guild but also representing myself, I couldn’t really add any more to the points raised – but I also really could not just nod in agreement.

“I want quotas or anything that changes this,” I said, “because it’s right and because I care about the writers. But also because I am just so tired of seeing film and radio and television and stage all being written by boring, middle-aged white men. And I am a boring, middle-aged white man.”

You’d think in an audience of about 200 filmmakers that one of them could’ve said I was wrong about that last part, but seemingly not.