Austen powers

Get this. Somewhere around 230 years ago, teenage Jane Austen wrote the name of someone she fancied on her pencil case. Okay, it was actually the names of two different someones but then it wasn’t a pencil case, she wasn’t at school. She was in a church and she filled out two proper and official marriage records saying she was the wife of these guys.

I like that while she’s still famous, the two men are so forgotten that nobody can tell now whether they were even real. And I just like imagining her doing this, giggling.

And as delighted as I was when this news was reported earlier in the week, it does not surprise me at all that she sounds like a present-day teenager

For a few years ago, BBC Radio 4 did a new dramatisation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and I think I was reviewing it for Radio Times. I’m not sure now: either I was reviewing it or I’d taken illicit advantage of having access to the BBC Radio Previews press site.

Either way, I was listening and getting into it apart from one thing. This particular production had decided to use a narrator and I twitch at narrators. Or at least I do when the narration is simply exposition, just trudging out the plot because it’s easier to say it than show it.

This time my bias felt especially right because although it was better than boring exposition, it was witty and entertaining – until the narrator was saying something far too modern. I can’t remember now what it was but there was no chance Jane Austen would’ve approved of it, there was every chance that it would mean I gave the show a bad review.

It was just anachronistic and enough so that I got out my Pride and Prejudice paperback to see how Austen wrote that part of the story.

Yep.

You’re right.

The narrator’s dialogue in this Radio 4 dramatisation was verbatim Jane Austen.

Two centuries after she wrote it down with, I don’t know, a quill pen, Austen’s words sound like she could’ve dictated it into Siri yesterday.

Two centuries.

Imagine writing anything that’s even remembered after two minutes.

I first read her novels starting only about ten years ago but I’ve admired, relished and loved her writing. So I’m just tickled to think she was also a naughty teenager defacing Church records for a laugh.

Hawaiian topping

Earlier this week, scriptwriter Phill Barron wrote online about what he called ‘the Magnum voice’ and how it was a tool he uses in writing. He explains why it’s needed but the short version of what it does is keep him conscious of what his characters are feeling when he may have written the previous scene a month ago.

He names his internal writer’s monologue after a technique I’d forgotten was used on screen in the 1980s US detective drama Magnum, pi. Nobody remembers the ‘pi’ bit of the title, incidentally, just as no one remembers the ‘medical examiner’ bit of the title Quincy, m.e.

Er, except apparently me. But even remembering title minutiae, I’d forgotten that after every ad break in Magnum, pi, the title character would give us a quick voice-over narration to remind us what was going on.

I think I’d forgotten that because I loathe narration. At least, I loathe narration that is there solely because otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on. Narration that does other jobs, most especially voice overs by unreliable narrators who are lying to us, I love those.

Thomas Magnum wasn’t lying in this show’s narration so I think I erased it from my mind.

But I’m disappointed that I’d forgotten the show because what looked like a glossy American drama from the roughly same era as Miami Vice was and is a rather remarkable piece of writing.

One reason that as much as I love novelist Jeanette Winterson’s writing but don’t really warm to her personally is that she once claimed to have invented what she called the spiral narrative. It’s when you leave one character to follow someone else for a bit and when you come back, the story of that first character has moved on. I read her saying this somewhere and before the end of the sentence I was thinking ‘but I saw that on Magnum years ago’.

In case I’m misrepresenting her, let’s call it the Magnum narrative instead. For it’s what was at the heart of this show and it’s why I think this detective series still stands up some preposterous 37 years after it first aired.

Let me say first that everything you might think Magnum, pi is, it was. Originally. Glen A Larson created a series, wrote a pilot episode and it was never filmed. Don Bellisario is brought in, keeps the name Magnum, the Hawaii setting and the two dogs, Zeus and Apollo, from that first script and starts again.

Incidentally, Hawaii was the one bit he would never have been allowed to change. The whole reason Larson got to pitch a detective show was that Hawaii 5-O had been cancelled and there were all these film crews and production facilities about to go out of business.

Maybe it was the setting that prompted Larson but his take on the show was seemingly more of a standard 1980s macho gloss kind of series. Then Bellisario turned it into a character piece. There’s still plenty of action but riddled through the entire 162 episodes are two rules.

One was that every third episode or so must be about the Vietnam background of the main characters. Lou Grant beat them to interesting explorations of that conflict, but Magnum made it part of the format.

More interesting to me and more why it’s worth still catching is the other rule. As far as possible, all of the plot of an episode must take place wherever Thomas Magnum isn’t.

So if he’s racing across Hawaii to find a suspect, he’ll get a flat tyre on the way and we’ll stay with him.

It did make for a lot of tension. I remember how it was deliciously frustrating but in retrospect, as a writer now, I get it.

When you focus on the character more than the plot of the week, that character has to be worth focusing on. He or she has to be interesting enough to keep us watching.

Character comes first. That’s why Magnum, pi, stands up, it’s why Columbo does, why The Rockford Files does. And it’s why Miami Vice doesn’t.

Poet time writer

Please don’t ever ask me who my favourite writers are because it would be about eight hours before I finally asked who yours are in return. Still, if you were nutty enough to enquire, then way up in the first ten minutes of mine I’d be saying Emily Dickinson, Suzanne Vega, Christina Rossetti and Dar Williams.

Spot what they’ve got in common.

They’re all poets.

Actually, I don’t know that Williams would say that of herself as she, like Vega, is a songwriter, but to me her finest work is exquisite poetry.

Only, I don’t know when it happened that I spotted that or when so many of my writing heroes turned out to be poets. I can’t write poetry. Not a single line. And while I’m reasonably half or quarter sure that my school must’ve mentioned poetry at some point, none of that went into my head. None of that made me like the stuff.

I can tell you that it was when a TV show called Head of the Class claimed you could read any Emily Dickinson poem to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas that I first heard of “Because I would not stop for death / Death kindly stopped for me”.

Then I associate Christina Rossetti chiefly with “and if thou wilt, remember, and if thou wilt, forget” which pops up in Alan Plater’s work. That is a chasm of a poem. I swear Rossetti sat down one day in 1862, cracked her knuckles and said right, I’m going to upset that William Gallagher bloke.

I can’t read it, can’t hear it, can’t even type that extract without feeling the centre of my body yanked down into the dirt.

That’s the other thing this bunch have in common: they upset me. Emily Dickinson does have that gleefully, joyously conspiratorially friendly “I’m nobody, who are you?” piece which balances out a lot of things, but still, on average she upsets me greatly.

There’s the one of hers that begins “Hope is the thing with feathers” and when that line, just that line, was read out over a scratchy tannoy at a breast cancer rally, I stopped and wept.

Dar Williams has You’re Ageing Well, which in its original version has seen me pulling over to the side of the road to let hot tears fall out of me. Curiously, she did a version with Joan Baez and I find that one a shrug.

Then Suzanne Vega has Tired of Sleeping which used to double me up in pain and can still be a blade in the gut.

I think you and I can also conclude that poets are really nasty people while I am a hard, macho man. But, grief, I yearn to write like them.

The show comes first

There are several things that I believe in, most recently the fact that if a hotel says nope, there’s no room at the inn, you should check their website and suggest that maybe they look again.

This is on my mind because I’ve just had the best night’s sleep of my adult life in a hotel that had taken one look at my exhausted face and had initially decided it would be fun to suggest I get back on the motorway and drive for another hour.

But that’s not what’s on my mind to talk to you about. Nor is this: I believe that it is always better to be crew than passenger.

The belief I actually want to natter with you about and which I’m delaying discussing at all, is that the show comes first.

Doesn’t matter what show.

Doesn’t matter what it needs or what I need or what I want. If I’m working on a thing, then I’m working on it and the job is to do whatever it takes. This is why I’ve never watched a clock when working: I suppose I’ve often enough been hired for certain hours but in my head it’s not 9 to 5 or whatever, it’s When I’m Needed until When I’m Not O’Clock.

This is so deep into me that this week the belief overrode all common sense.

I’ve been running a writing workshop series for Writing West Midlands and the Birmingham and Midland Institute. It concluded this week and for the last session, I wanted two things. One was a guest speaker to talking about what one needs when preparing writing for publication and one was to somehow cover editing and rewriting.

The guest was Katharine D’Souza who is also an editor and in an unrelated crime has been editing my collection of short stories.

So last Monday, I was planning this session and actually having a lot of trouble getting it right, getting it to be good. Katharine chooses that moment to let me know that she doesn’t like my stories. “It’s not all awful,” she didn’t say but nearly did. “They are typed very well.”

And my first thought is not a typical writer’s feeling of rejection, which takes many flavours but always adds up to ow.

Instead, my first thought is ooooh.

My first thought is that maybe we could discuss this in the session. She’s going to be there anyway, I’m going to be there anyway.

“Are you sure you want your writing ripped into bloody pieces in front of people?” she also didn’t say but I’m certain was thinking it. (Actually, I’m sure she did mention blood.)

“N – ye – no – yes – no – yessss,” I said, with total and instant certainty.

I say that to you as a joke but I did hesitate, just not over whether I was happy doing this in front of an audience. The hesitation, the thing that I think drove Katharine toward madness in that phone call, was that I vacillated over this point: whether it would be interesting for the workshop or not.

I also worried about how much time it would take: I needed something quite substantial, the session needed a really chunky, quite long piece. “Not a problem,” she didn’t actually laugh. “It’s ten stories, I could fill a month.”

So on the night, we took the starts of two of my precious new stories, the best things I’ve ever written, and examined why they are not the best things that anyone has written.

It was the right thing for the workshop, it was interesting and it got everyone examining text, looking at when to rewrite, when to give up writing and go home to a different career, William, and it so perfectly fitted in with the next part about publishing that I’m actually proud of that session.

Only, since this is just you and me here, I’d like to confess something.

It is true that my first thought was the show.

But my second was that it sounded like I was going to be destroyed here and if it were going to happen, doing it in a workshop was the safest thing. You know what it’s like when you’re presenting something, you’re in Performance Mode and I figured that no matter how excoriating the criticism I’d get was, I’d be playing the host and my concentration on the audience would mean the knives wouldn’t penetrate as deep.

Also, I’m less keen to admit this bit but it’s true and you’re looking at me like that, so here it is: I did think I’d look pretty good being willing to do this. I’d look like a mensch.

That bit didn’t work out.

But then nor did the criticism. Instead of this one editor, Katharine, telling me that I shouldn’t rule out moving to accountancy, I had something like 16 people telling me yeah, you should listen to her.

Or, to put it a slightly different way, I had a total of 17 talented writers improving the short stories that I care most about.

Bastards.

What Writers Need

I was asked this in an interview yesterday: what what do writers need or perhaps what do you need to be a writer.

Since it’s just you and me here, I’ll tell you that I don’t think I answered it very well. But 24 hours later, I’ve got it.

Writers need commissions.

It would’ve been smartarse of me to say that if only I’d been smart enough to think of it when asked, but it’s not as facetious as it sounds.

Okay, there’s the straight cash aspect. The only way I get to write better is to write more and the only way I can get the time to do that is when it’s paying enough that I don’t have to go do something else.

Only, the reason I want to think about this here with you is that I’ve long known one thing about it yet I’m just now forming a second and somewhat contradictory thought.

The thing I’ve long known is that commissions change you. I know that the saying is deadlines focus the mind and that is most absolutely true, but it’s at the other end where things first change. It’s the point when you’re commissioned.

The process of writing doesn’t change when you’re being paid but it feels as if it does, it feels as big a difference as if someone had gone back into your past and altered your timeline. Everything is now real. All of the thinking you do about writing, all of the opinions, everything. I was thinking that it’s like having someone say okay, then, prove it. Prove you can do this, if you’re hard enough.

But it’s worse than that. You’ve already convinced them you can or they wouldn’t be paying you anything. So really it’s someone expecting you to write well. Someone presuming you will. Someone unthinkingly assuming that this is your job. Because it is.

A lot of writing gets paid without a contract upfront but whenever you’re writing because you’ve been hired and you’ll be invoicing later, it becomes real in this way.

You’ll still hide from the job like only writers can and you’ll still find it hard to do, but playtime is over and you are part of something where you have to pull your weight.

So I’ve long known that a commission or anything where your writing is going to be paid for right away is essential for many reasons. Helping to keep a roof over your head is one, turning this from a hobby in the worst sense of that into a job in the best sense of that. The focus of reality can’t be beaten.

But it can also be a problem.

Today, for instance, I’ve got – bugger, let me count on my fingers for a sec. Right, if I bring in one client that I don’t really have to think about much for another few days, then today I’ve got eleven projects on. I reckon I’ve got to do some serious work on about seven of them right now and I can do some more over the weekend.

That’s all very nice: it’s a tiny bit daunting but I hadn’t counted until I wanted to tell you. And I’m a freelance writer, it is a relief to realise that I’ve got a lot of paying work on. Some of these eleven are big, none of them pay gigantically and I doubt I’ll see cash from many of them before May. But still, it’s work and you know that there are times when I’ve got nothing. At all.

Only, it’s obvious that when you’re busy with paid work you end up with no time to write things that aren’t going to pay now and that may well never contribute to your mortgage. When you are not busy with paid work, though, it’s even harder to do that kind of writing. Every moment you’re thinking about it, you’re feeling guilty for not looking for work.

I’ve always thought that this is how it works: you can’t write on these other projects, this other ideas, when you’re having trouble getting money in. But now I also think that when you do have paid writing work, it is far, far easier to go do that than these other things.

I can’t keep vaguely referring to other things. Let me give you the example that’s quite clearly pressing on my mind. I have accidentally written a book of short stories. For no reason other than it was in me and I had to get it out. I say accidentally because it’s only in the last six months when I realised that the best stories I’d written over twenty years had a common theme. It’s only in the last six months that I’ve consciously been rewriting those stories and writing more. All for me, all because at one point I was shaking as a particular tale came out of me.

Not only is no one waiting for any of this, not only will I never invoice anyone for anything to do with it, but nobody buys short story collections anyway. If you were setting out to write short stories for money, stop now.

Except you can say that about all writing. If you get money for writing, great. If you got into writing for the riches and the fame, I’ll give you a tip next time I see you working in McDonald’s.

I wasn’t kidding about having to get these stories out of me though. Now I’ve somehow got it written, I will work it like I do any other job and look for places to get it published, look for some way to get it out to people. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and my agent thinks yeah, whatever, short stories, soooooo exciting, please rush me a copy.

It’s easy when you are a paid freelance writer to say that every writer should aim to get commissioned. What’s harder, for me, is the realisation that as much as I need the reality of a contract, I’ve got to find time and space to write for myself.

So let’s decide this right now: today I don’t have eleven projects on, I’ve got twelve. God knows how I’m going to fit in time for working on these stories and actually I’ve no idea what I can do with them today, but I’m going to find out.

You do the same. We’ll help each other.

You couldn’t make it up

Long ago when I worked at BBC Radio WM in Pebble Mill, the sports department had a shelf of highlights on. Large spools of reel to reel tape with the recordings of famous local sporting events.

Only, I can picture that shelf now and I can remember being in that newsroom, looking at the reels and thinking well, er, no. These are not recordings of sports events.

They were recordings of radio presenters commentating on these events instead.

I’m not knocking the commentators, I’m in no way knocking the reasons for keeping the archive. It’s just that although it’s a slight difference, the tapes were regarded as the events themselves, not as the radio station’s commentary.

There’s something in that disconnection that I’ve been reminded of by all the writing about Donald Trump and Brexit. I keep hearing the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” and actually, yeah, you could. I think by now your audience would be a bit bored. They’d want some new characters, they’d be thinking we’ve got antagonists up our armpits, we need someone to be the hero. Anyone. Please.

I think the thing is that you wouldn’t make it up this badly. No matter whether you were commentating on events or especially if you are the poor sod who’s going to make a TV drama about all this one day, your very medium imposes certain things.

Commentators expect to be able to draw on previous statistics. TV drama writers inescapably want light and shade, they want pacing, they want to build to a conclusion.

None of that is available to us. It’s all dark, it’s all unrelenting and statistics are now alternative facts.

Hopefully this is just me but I can’t dramatise what’s going on. It makes me want to go write something else, to write about something or to create something that I can fashion, that I can explore, that I can convey something through.

We have the most visibly, publicly, proudly illiterate people in power that we may ever have had. Yet they are defying writers to comprehend them, they are controlling the disarray we’re in.

Maybe it will ultimately be good. Maybe this will shake us out of habits and patterns that we are used to, maybe it will make us – okay, me – writer better and deeper.

I don’t know about me and what I can do. But I do see journalism trying to fight back and I do see the writers of Saturday Night Live being on their best form in two decades because of it.

Maybe what I’ve been doing is trying to use writing to help me understand. Maybe I’ve been focused on the commentator’s tapes and really what I should do is go to the event.

Love is all around

Don’t look at me like that. If you’ve lived your whole life in the UK as I have, then a blog with the subject heading “Love is all around” can only mean one thing. Clearly, I’m going to write something about world events, about how there are eye-poppingly scary things happening but we should remember that we’ve always got each other.

No.

I got nothin’.

Not on that. In the meantime, if you lived in America at all, you’ve now got a song in your head. Love Is All Around is the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and this week its star died.

I could write you an obituary but people who actually knew her have done that. Instead, I want to focus on just that fact that in the UK you know her name but in the US she’s a deep-rooted part of the culture.

That does fascinate me, the way that we think of writers and actors as individuals but actually their talent and their reach is very much bound up in where they are. Mary Tyler Moore just isn’t as beloved in the UK as she is in the States. Mrs Brown might possibly not get the same reception in New York as in Britain.

Now, Brown is a character and Tyler Moore is an actor but you get it. As much as we try to move forward, as much as we try to create something new, to develop our choice of medium in new ways, we are very much bound to where we are.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is also an example of being bound to a certain time. This is a sitcom that aired 1970 to 1977 and the word hit just doesn’t cover it. Seven years, three spin-offs and there’s a commemorative plaque at the studio where it was filmed.

It wasn’t just popular, it wasn’t just funny, it was genuinely groundbreaking and all the more so if your ground was America. When the show began, Mary Tyler Moore was best known for co-starring in The Dick Van Dyke Show. More than best known for it, it was one of those cases where the actor is so successful in a role that she’s in danger of never working again.

If you don’t know The Dick Van Dyke Show then the quick way to describe her character, Laura Petrie, is to say she was the wife. For all the character did, when the show was over, Mary Tyler Moore was permanently fixed in the audience’s mind as the wife.

So here’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show where this actor is single, a career woman and joining a television newsroom instead of being a housewife. The writers wanted more: they wanted her to be a divorcee but there was absolutely no possibility that American television would allow that. They were skittish about divorcees in general but they were not going to let anyone think Laura Petrie had divorced Dick Van Dyke.

Today that seems ridiculous chiefly because it is. But it also seems ridiculous because we’ve grown up and if our television still doesn’t treat women as it does men, it’s better. And it’s better in large part because of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, created by James L Brooks and Allan Burns.

So here’s this gigantic hit which changes and develops US television, but it didn’t travel and it has never performed well in repeats, in syndication, even in the States.

There are other examples of this: a show called Murphy Brown was a smash from 1988 to 1998 but you don’t see it around now. Amongst everything else Murphy Brown did, though, it was replete with topical references and those date it considerably.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t do that. In theory any episode stands up today as it did on first airing. Its most famous one, Chuckles Bites The Dust, has no 1970s political agenda, hasn’t anything overtly tied to 1970s events. But still, the show belongs to its time and that would be fine.

Except for how it makes it harder to really appreciate the power this show had, the impact. Writing about it from another country and decades after it ended, I think I know, I think I intellectually know what the series meant, but I can’t feel it.

Except I can in one way.

I’m saying all this about the show’s impact on television and you’re quite reasonably assuming I mean American TV but you can trace a line from this four-camera, three-wall videotaped 1970s American sitcom to the grittiest of UK dramas today. It’s a line that affected me: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is directly responsible for the fact that I’m a writer even though I can’t have seen above a dozen episodes at the very most.

For you know how it goes, wherever there shalt be a hit show, so shalt there be spin-offs. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three and it’s peculiar what happened to them. There was The Betty White Show which you’ve never seen. There was Rhoda, which I’d say is better known in the UK than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And then there is Lou Grant.

Lou Grant is unique. It is the only one-hour, single-camera, film drama to come from a sitcom. Not only had it never happened before, it has never happened since.

I am a writer because of Lou Grant and how this was the first show where I recognised that drama was crafted, that it was made, rather than just being something on the TV in the corner.

But I wouldn’t have seen it and neither would anyone, really, if it weren’t for the power of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lou Grant was a character in that sitcom and he was so popular, the series was so very popular, that the network gave the Lou Grant show an on-air commitment for 13 episodes. Do what you like, make what you like but if it’s got actor Ed Asner playing his Lou Grant character, you’re on air for 13 weeks.

Well, okay, no, the network didn’t let anyone loose and if the show had bombed they’d have cancelled it halfway through the first ad break. But they paid for 13 episodes so cancellation is a tougher financial decision for them and this helped keep Lou Grant on for its first few months while it grew an audience.

Lou Grant, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show before it, was made by a production company called MTM and yes, that was named after Mary Tyler Moore. Even if you’ve never seen her show, even if you’ve never seen Lou Grant – come round to my place, we’ll have pizza and watch – then you still know MTM’s work.

For MTM went on to make Hill Street Blues and every single television police drama owes a debt to that. It’s the iPhone of cop shows: everything before it looked a certain way, everything after it looked like Hill Street Blues.

And that would not have happened at all without The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Her show was bound to a certain time and of course so is Mary Tyler Moore herself but both have impact that is so great that we feel it even when we don’t know where it came from. The makers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were trying to make a good, funny sitcom, they weren’t sitting there thinking that oooh, after Hill Street we could make St Elsewhere and change hospital dramas too.

They got on with what they were doing and they did their very best. So actually, maybe yes, maybe I do have something about the world today: let’s get on with what we’re doing and do our very best.

A Desire for More Cows

Previously on Self Distract… After a month’s enforced absence from you, I ran back last week with a babble about the film Arrival, the idea of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, and right at the last moment squeezed in how I believe that putting yourself in other people’s shoes helps you write better characters. Or write characters better.

This is just you and me talking, isn’t it? You must’ve told some people, though, because I had a lot of response to all this. Most of it stopped just short of using a phrase to describe someone joins metal together under a hot flame. (“Well, duh.”)

I think all of the response said that whatever your route into thinking about other people, other characters, whatever term you want to give it, you are not a writer if you can’t put yourself in other people’s situations.

So I’m not a writer.

That was a hard thing to say to you. It was a harsh thing to say about me, since it’s all I want to do and I’m effectively unemployable in any other capacity. (Look at my hands. Have these hands ever done anything but type?)

I can’t always see other people’s perspective, though. I can do certain things. I can see certain other points of view. For instance, take the countless number of times that I’ve been in a pub with male friend who’s annoyed. He’s doing that thing of recounting something his female partner did and concludes with: “I mean, explain that. It makes no sense, does it?” And I am required by the script, by politeness, pretty much by civilisation’s very rules, to nod encouragingly.

I can’t actually make myself say I agree because usually I completely understand his partner’s point of view.

In fairness, it’s usually a comparatively trivial issue as if it were bigger, they wouldn’t still be together. Maybe I can just do the comparatively trivial, maybe I am limited in just how much I can understand of other people’s perspectives, of their way of thinking.

For take this as another instant. Recently a friend told me she was heading home one night when a man walked by and called her a slut.

Get inside that man’s head. I am a man, both he and I started off as babies and as little boys, but he went down a line I cannot conceive. Well, I know the same as you do that he got off on saying that. I know that in every sense of the word that he’s a wanker and we both know that he’d have said that to any woman he passed. And possibly did say it to every woman he passed.

You, I and this friend of ours – you’d like her, I must introduce you – also know completely and thoroughly that there was nothing about her that incited or encouraged this stranger.

Yet here’s this smart, vibrant, exciting woman and still when she got home she looked at herself in the mirror and thought about what she was wearing. Some shite of a man affects her enough that she looks in the mirror. I can completely understand her – wait, that’s a bit grandiose, a bit too much, I mean that I believe I can completely understand. I know that I can put myself in her place, I know that I would’ve looked at that mirror too.

I can only hope that I’d do what she did next: she says that she went out the next day wearing pretty much exactly the same thing. She wasn’t saying bollocks to this type of men, but actually she was.

I get that and I’m as proud of her as I am embarrassed by the man. What I can’t get is him. I mean, I’ve said to you that he got off on this and you know he did, but that seems to me like all I can do is label him. I can see what he did and if this were a story I were writing, I could plug him into various situations.

Whereas I can feel for her.

That seems to me to be a huge difference. It seems to me that feeling for her is not a writing exercise, not an attempt to draw a character, it is an involuntary human connection. I do definitely see that I need to make that connection, to have that feeling and empathy instead of a collection of labels if I’m to be a better writer.

And I’m afraid if I’m not just to write about characters who make me feel things, if I am instead to be better able to create characters that make you feel things instead, I have to be braver. For I know that one reason I can’t get inside the head of that man is that I am afraid to.

You have to agree with your characters, even temporarily, even just to an extent. Your characters and that man all think they are right so for them to work, for you to really see them and to see the world as they do, you have to decide that they are right and examine them from there.

I’m never going to call someone a slut but my characters might. And if they do, you have to believe it’s them doing it and not my authorial voice deciding they will because I’ve labelled them as the tosser of the piece. You have to believe these characters are real.

I get very tired of writers being asked where they got their inspiration from as that suggests everything we write is based on something real and so anyone could’ve written it if they just happened to have that same experience. I get very tired of people concluding facts about writers because of what their characters are like. I get deeply annoyed when someone quotes a writer saying something foul when actually it was one of the writer’s characters and the entire book is setup to prove that bastard wrong.

Not everything is based on anything. Not everything is how the writer really feels. But I realise that everything has to be something the writer has felt or made themselves feel. Made themselves examine and explore. No matter how distasteful.

I”m working on it. For neatness and symmetry and structure and all the things that I unconsciously think of when writing to you, I should end now by saying that it’s true, I’m not a writer. I’m not sure I’m brave enough, though. So let me try saying it this way: I’m not a writer yet.

Writers and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis

I don’t think I’ve ever quite said this to you before but I regard it as a treat and a privilege that we get to chat. And I am especially conscious of this now as Self Distract has been dead for a month because of website problems. Oh, my lights, but it’s good to be back.

Now that we’re on speaking terms again – thank you A Small Orange internet service provider for rescuing the blog from the debris – I do of course want to talk to you about writing. It’ll just take a while to get there and I think along the way we’re going to explore something that applies to everything and everyone. Certainly to you and I.

At least certainly if you spend as much time thinking about words as I do. It’s not healthy of us, it really isn’t.

But one word that I particularly like is the German one ‘heimat’. There’s a famous German television drama of the 1980s called that and I never got around to watching it. What I learned about it, though, was that strictly speaking the word heimat means home. And, more importantly, that it really means much more than that – which English doesn’t have an equivalent to.

Then there’s the quote from Cervantes which goes something like this: “Reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry”. Isn’t that wonderful? Such a vivid, instantly clear, instantly obviously right way to explain that you can get the pattern but you cannot see the colour.

Only, this is a favourite quote of mine for one specific reason: Cervantes originally said it in Spanish.

So as much as I believe I understand the thought, as an English-only speaker I am perhaps only looking at the back of it, at the pattern of the meaning instead of its full colour.

It’s thinking about this kind of stuff that means I heard of what’s often called the Sapir Whorf hypothesis a long time ago. If you only recently heard of it, that’s because you’ve just seen the film Arrival. If you’ve never heard of it before right this moment, please go see Arrival. (The screenplay is by Eric Heisserer and based on a short story by Ted Chiang. For once, I urge you to see the film instead of solely reading the screenplay but right now that script is available online. It won’t be there for long: it’s online as part of awards season and will be taken down in a few weeks. If you miss it, tell me: I lunged at the screen to save a copy for myself.)

The film exaggerates or at least takes this hypothesis on further than Edward Sapir or Benjamin Lee Whorf did and apparently many people think their idea is bollocks anyway. I’m fine with a film using a bollocks idea and taking it to somewhere as gorgeous as Arrival does, but I also think the hypothesis is right because of Heimat, because of Cervantes – and actually because of radio.

Writ very short, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is that the language we use affects how we think, how we see the world. In Arrival, this is the start for a simply beautiful story and one so delicately drawn that it made me want to rip up all my own writing and start over.

But in Arrival and in the full Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the point is very specifically about a whole language, an entire language and not just a phrase book. If you speak French then your very thought patterns are subtly different to the way you think if you are a German speaker.

I am sure that’s true but I don’t know because I solely speak English and can’t compare anything. Yet I still think there’s something key about this idea even within my one single language. For instance, I suspect that writers think differently to, I don’t know, chefs. I was talking to someone once, for instance, who visibly could not grasp whatever small-talk subject it was until we found a way to translate it and use an example from his industry. That was an odd and somewhat long hour.

I am also entirely certain that I think the way I do because of radio. Tell me if this is you, too, but I can see that I’m shaped by having worked in radio. Specifically that my sense of time is different. There’s the time passing away for all of us but there’s also the time that you plan out for a show, that you plan out like time is a physical space.

So for instance even though it’s years since I worked in BBC radio, I still think in the terms top and bottom of the hour. I think of the first half of an hour as being an easy, downhill-fast run while the second half is an uphill climb. I can rationalise that by how you’re doing a show because you have something you’re excited to say and so naturally you want to get to it quickly. The start is easy because you want to rush in. The end is tough because you’ve got to pace out the piece, you’ve got to be sure you’ve included everything. But still, sod rationalisation: I think this so deeply that the top of the hour feels fast and easy to me, the bottom of the hour feels hard.

You do this in radio, I do it still in producing events and workshops, but I also just do it all the time. Like, all the time.

I do this and then I also think in terms of hard and soft items.

A hard item, if you’ve not heard it described this way before, is one that’s already prepared and has a fixed duration. Watch The One Show, for instance, and you’ll see a mix of interviews in the studio and little films, sometimes called VTs, sometimes packages. (VT is from videotape, when these things were played in to the show off a prerecorded tape. You’re too young to remember videotape and consequently I hate you.)

These video packages are hard items and the studio guest interviews are soft ones. It’s nothing to do with whether one or the other is hard-hitting, gritty journalism or light, cheery frippery. It’s that the hard one can’t be stopped where the soft one, the interview, can be as long or as short as you like if things have changed. You can wrap up an interview when you’re running out of time where you can’t stop a film package.

Actually, of course you can. I’ve not worked in this type of television but in radio you would distressingly often have to come out of a package early because something happened or you’d mis-timed when you should’ve started playing it in. Stopping a package early while not sounding like you just fell over the fader took skill: you had to listen live and listen for the right instant, the right moment when actually the presenter only paused but it sounded like it could be the end. Then you slam that fader shut and you start talking as if that were the end.

It’s called potting. You pot a package. Language is wonderful. The reason this is potting instead of, say, slamming-fader-ing, is that before radio desks had faders, they had round little knobs. They looked like teeny upside down pots. You can still see a million of them on music studio recording desks.

I think of potting, then, the same way that we talk about taping a TV show when really we mean marking it to record on our Sky or DVR box. We talk about videoing an event when we mean digitally capturing it on our phone.

More than the terms, though, more than the words I think in, knowing what potting is and having done it, I can always hear what I can only describe as a pot point. If I’m watching the news, I know when they could pot the item and move on. Sometimes you wish they would and that’s about time too.

What we do shapes us, that’s certain. What we have to think about shapes us, I’m sure. I’m conscious that I’m now thinking about this in obsessive detail because that’s what writers do, or at least it’s what I do as a writer. But having finally got us back onto the topic of writing, I offer this: Sapir Whorf gives us an insight into characters.

Knowing this, or at least believing it, has got to help us see into the characters we create and inhabit in our fiction and our drama. See how they think and you’ll know what they’ll do, you’ll feel what they feel.

Amongst everything else about this, I believe that the practice of trying to think how other people do is a good, hopeful and maybe optimistic thing in a time when we need all of that. Whether it’s the Sapir Whorf hypothesis or just my own special kind of bollocks, I think it means that we can change how we think by doing and talking and thinking about something new.

Listen, I’ve been waiting to discuss this with you for a month. Let’s go get a tea and maybe watch Arrival. Waddya say?

Perspective

A friend was telling me of someone he knew whose young daughter in America was grabbed between the legs by a young boy in their school. And – I’m afraid you know this is coming – that the boy said it was okay to do this because it’s what the President-elect does.

This is not the first such event and I’m ill that it won’t be the last, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get inured to it. We’re never going to become so used to it happening that it doesn’t feel sickening. I’d like to do more than shake and vomit but most of me doesn’t know what.

There is a part of me that I’m hiding away from that has an idea, though. It is a writing idea, since I am a writer, and while I’m trying not to think about it because it falls into this area of 2016dom, there’s more. I’ve been trying not to think about it because it is too hard.

Follow. Ever since I heard the story of this boy, I’ve been wondering what I would do if he were my son.

I don’t have children. I do have characters. So the next step in this chain I’ve avoided is to wonder what I would do if he were one of my characters.

I want to say I’d delete him and start again.

But he’s a human being and a character of mine who did this would have to be a human character. I mean human as in a full person, not a cipher or someone in the story for plot exposition, someone there to be the easy target of the foul, numb bile I’ve got.

And that’s where it’s hard.

That’s where I fail as a writer.

No, strike that: this is one area where I fail. If it were the only one, I’d take that and be happy. Well, reasonably happy. Well, miserable.

As a writer, I need to be able to write a character like this and make him real. I could do a fair job of convincing you I’d pulled it off by having a character do certain things, say certain things, but it would be a front. Ultimately you wouldn’t be convinced. I need to have him say and do things, yes, but the inner workings have to be right before the movement and the dialogue is both real and worth it.

I have to understand the character from the inside. Which means I actually have to find a way to like him. No, truly: we all think we’re right, that boy thinks he’s right, and we all find ways to justify what we do. Everyone else is a bad driver but it’s fine if I drink because I can handle it.

I have always, always had difficulty with the fact that I piddle about with text while in the real world women are being raped. So far I’ve managed to hide back inside that text but that’s just harder and harder now.

Even now, even here, even saying this to you, I’m conscious that this is a form of piddling about with text. I’m effectively saying that to become a better writer, I need to get inside these abhorrent characters. Like it matters to the world whether my writing improves. It matters to me, it matters so much, this talking with you matters so much, yet there must be something we could actually, actively do to counter 2016dom.

Except of course there is. I think there is. And it’s piddling about with text. Understanding abhorrent characters is a writing goal but understanding abhorrent people is maybe the only way we can change things for real.