Rising tides

So I see this as my getting to talk to you. More natter than talk, I suppose, and you’re definitely the best listener I know. But if one wanted to get technical about it, Self Distract is a blog. And earlier this week, I ran a workshop for writers, actors, musicians and journalists on how to make blogging part of your creative freelance career.

I’ve done this many times and I don’t think I’ve mentioned it to you because we’re not here to talk about work. This once, though, I need to tell you. Not because, as it turns out, I can’t remember the last time I laughed quite so much over Zoom even as all my video lights were burning me a new headache. And actually not because it is the last one.

Solely to spoil any nicely-constructed drama plan I might have, this week’s workshop was the penultimate for me. Next week is the last one I’m ever doing for this particular organisation and I suppose I could’ve waited until that was done, but I want to write to you while it’s still going. While this company is still live and active and doing great things. Until next week for me and until the end of the month for everyone.

I want to talk to you while there are these workshops, not when there were.

The organisation is the FEU, the Federation of Entertainment Unions. If you were a member of the Writers’ Guild, the Musicians’ Union, Equity or the NUJ, you got free training from the FEU as part of your membership. And such training. Day-long intensive workshops on how to do what we all need to do as freelancers across these disciplines. Finance training, for instance. Where else do freelancers get trained in the finance knowledge we absolutely have to have?

I’ve attended countless FEU sessions in person, over webinars, through their online e-learning system, everything. And I’ve also developed and delivered a lot of them. Blogging, vlogging, email marketing, productivity, technology, I may have missed some out. Each one built to tell people specific, practical things that they will use.

That’s been the thing for me. Practicality. I like working on the theory of writing, for instance, with writers but every attendee of an FEU workshop was doing this creative work for a living. They were giving up time they could, would and sometimes really should be spending on their business. What I showed them had to be useful and it had to be useful right now, or people would leave. It was wonderful.

It is wonderful. For another week.

The FEU secured funding recently, for once getting funding agreed for a long enough period that it could concentrate on creating more of these workshops and continuing to make them free for members. Then the UK government went nah, forget what we said. Some chap needs a few millions for a duck pond or something, doesn’t matter what, chaps have got to stick together, goodbye FEU.

I hope to run my FEU workshops in some form through my own company. I have to imagine or maybe it’s just that I have to hope that the various unions involved will try to run something like this some time.

But for now, they are gone. Or going. Next Wednesday is my last and, as it happens, it’s again about blogging. This week’s had 27 people in and there were about as many more wanting to get on it, so I’ve been asked to do a repeat.

It’s said that you don’t appreciate something until it’s gone. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I know, for instance, that every day I walked in to work at BBC Television Centre I was conscious of the privilege. Same with BBC Pebble Mill. When I see a copy of Radio Times on a newsagent shelf, I’m proud to have worked on it and if I hadn’t appreciated it at the time, I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did.

Same with the FEU. I think, to be fair, that what I’ve usually been conscious of is each individual workshop and how buoyant it’s made me feel. Today I’m thinking back over something like five years of them, that’s the difference.

And if I sound a bit miserable that this resource is being stopped, I am. But I’m also profoundly conscious that it’s got me countless hours working intensely with musicians, actors and journalists as well as other writers. You get siloed, even in a broad area like writing, and that sparking interaction with other creative freelancers is incredible. That interaction has helped me at least as much as the subjects and topics I’ve learned through the FEU.

It’s lifted me, actually. In great times and brutally bad ones, working with the people who run the FEU and working so closely with the people who attended, made me happy. I have no faith and no religion but I do believe a few things and one is that a rising tide lifts all boats. When something good happens to you, I feel great. When you, me, and all of us work together, we all benefit.

So would you do something for me, please? I’d like you to raise a mug of tea to the Federation of Entertainment Unions. And let you and me clink those mugs together especially for the three people there I worked with and for the most. Frances Dredge, Kate Willoughby and Muriel McClymont. I’ll see them all again, just you – or they – try to stop me.

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.