Exactly what I said; Word for Word.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

The short and romanticised version of this story is that I badly sprained my ankle (walking on flat pavement in trainers) and in the moment before I hit the ground realised that living cautiously is completely pointless, because you may well fall anyway. Of course, the coherency of the thought came later, a sort of beacon of future productivity during the dull days of resting and elevating that followed, but that is essentially what was going through my mind as my foot gave way, followed very quickly by a moment of specific clarity:

Stop stalling. You have known what this book is for almost a decade.

But I don’t write short stories, hence the application for a place on a novel writing course, so it seems more appropriate to tell the long version, with all of it’s pauses and nuances that go some way to explaining why, although I began drafting this particular novel in the first months of my twenties, it has taken me almost ten years to reach a place where I can seriously dedicate the best of my time to it.

I have spent the past seven years writing musical theatre with varying degrees of success. Initially, I wrote musicals because I was inexperienced enough to believe that whatever people were offering to pay me for was what I should be doing. I was painfully aware that making money from writing was supposed to be difficult, and often wrongly accepted jobs that were not right for me because what if I was never offered another? I knew that I had to write something, and be put under artistic pressure if only by myself, to be able to write my novel, so for as long as I could without losing integrity, I carried on, and stockpiled all of the tricks-of-the-writing-trade, both consciously taught and serendipitously discovered, to be applied to the work that nobody was commissioning, but that kept my creativity intact.

Subconsciously, it was probably also because musical theatre writers are questioned about their work a lot less vigorously than they should be; the ridiculous and nonsensical are often skimmed over, because musicals are supposed to be entertaining and accessible to a mass audience above all else, and anyway, will anybody even notice if it doesn’t quite make sense? (Yes. That’s why so many people think they hate musicals). Essentially, I wrote musicals because they came easily, and they came easily because I could get away with never going too far, or too deep. I did not have to give the best of me, and in some ways that was encouraged - keep it light; keep it easy. But so begins a vicious cycle - you keep it easy because you’re scared of revealing too much. You’re scared of revealing too much because you’ve spent so long keeping it easy. It took me a long time to realise that if you're procrastinating through fear of failure, the thing you’re scared of failing at must be important.

My first show, The 8th Fold, was the only British musical to be accepted in to the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival, and for two months that Summer I called myself a writer because I had a festival ID card to validate the label. (It actually said ‘Playwright’, which didn’t feel like the right title at all, but I embraced it regardless). In the 4 years that have followed, there have certainly been times when I have worn that title comfortably, but the reality of living in London as a working class woman has meant I have always had to work full time to support myself, and whilst it often seems that almost everyone of my generation with creative aspirations has had to adopt the hyphen method of working in order to thrive, I simply did not have the confidence in my work to sustain myself as a writer-producer-usher-ticketing assistant-whatever else I was doing that week. To have any chance of success whilst living like that, you have to be absolutely sure of your artistic endeavours, and sometimes I was, but I learned very quickly that sometimes is not often enough. While there have been moments it felt like selling out, taking a 10-6 office job a few years ago rather than playing diary-tetris trying to fit in numerous small creative things has been revelatory for my writing. Earning regular money, knowing when my free time will come and managing that, and engaging my brain in a completely different way has meant that when I sit down to write, I can be all there.

I realised recently that, having dropped out of university for a theatre job (and because my course had very few practical elements which I found frustrating), I have never seriously invested in my own development. Until I do so, I have no business questioning why I have not been a conventional ‘success’, and on a somewhat selfish level, I work far better when I have accountability, be that to my tutors, my peers, or simply myself. This course is a significant financial commitment for me, and one I want to make in order to place responsibility on myself. Of course, making sure the work is done so as to not let down my tutors and peers will be a notable form of motivation for me to finish my draft, but beyond that I will not allow myself to commit with anything less than 100%, because to part with all of that money and not show up completely, both physically and metaphorically, is simply not an option. I will not be able to do this twice.

In 2017 I spent the summer working with the author Laura Jane Williams on her online course Don’t Be A Writer, Be A Storyteller. The course was structured around weekly lectures which lead to writing assignments and culminated in a short piece of peer-edited fiction. I initially registered for the course because feedback from someone working in publishing and therefore very aware of the things that work and don’t, for her at least, was something that had never been available to me before. It would be reductive of the quality of the course to say that I signed up simply because I wanted somebody to tell me if I was good enough (which is somewhat subjective anyway), but I honestly wanted a push, and a reader who did not know me to validate what I thought I knew - that the time was approaching to stop saying “one day” and just get on with it. The peer editing element of the course was interesting to me, as I had previously struggled to take notes without feeling slighted, or disheartened that my intentions were not translating in the ways that I had hoped. I learned very quickly that I had almost definitely encountered the wrong editors until that point, and that the relationship between myself as the writer and my partner as the editor, as well as vice versa, was personal and extremely specific, while simultaneously nothing to do with me at all. It was entirely about my work. The course also taught me the basics of reading critically, and giving notes in a way which I hope was encouraging and productive. As the assignments for the course were very precise I did not leave with a piece I wanted to further develop, but I got what I came for - the published author told me I had a voice, and for the first time I listened, despite it being the same validation, almost word for word, that friends and teachers had been giving me for 15 years. I stopped half-heartedly committing to theatre collaborations that did not excite me, took the pile of ten year old notebooks from the bottom of my wardrobe, and opened a new document.

My aim for this course is to finish a draft of a novel. Technically a second draft, given that the first happened and was lost to the graveyard of broken laptops somewhere around 2009, but I choose to see it as beginning again, because the woman who wrote that novel and the woman who is writing this are, in so many ways, fundamentally different people. Broadly, it is a Young Adult novel about teenage friendships, and the idea that for so many people those intense bonds are far more interesting relationships than first romantic loves. Specifically, it is about female friendships rooted in music fandom, the joy and suffering of shared obsessive love, and the idea that it’s easier, somehow, to confide in people just slightly out of reach, be that seeking comfort in the music itself or, far more interestingly to me, the other people reaching out for the same thing. Teenage music fans are renowned for having feelings in abundance, and an openness in expressing those feelings, which I have thought for a long time correlates perfectly with the almost fearless style of writing Young Adult fiction is so rooted in. The emotional truth of characters who are simultaneously terrified and so much braver than they could possibly know fascinates me as a writer, and that juxtaposition is so exciting to explore. Young Adulthood is also typically a point of change for so many people, which is thrilling in terms of character and plot - almost anything could happen.

I researched a few different options when I decided that a course was a sensible next move for me, including creative writing MA’s, much shorter programs, and other academies, but realised I was once again preparing myself to settle for options that did not challenge or scare me. Of course Faber was the one I wanted. It is practical, intensive, and will give me access to the best quality of tutors, publishing professionals, and fellow students. For six months, no matter what is happening outside of the classroom, I will be able to call myself a writer. I made myself close all of the other browser tabs and just start typing.

The ankle almost entirely healed, by the way. It still hurts when I’m tired, or hormonal, or feel like sitting down in the middle of a yoga class, but largely it’s fine. It also wasn’t as dramatic as I made it sound - that is exactly how it happened, but I was thinking about the novel anyway, as I often am these days. The thought and the falling might not even have been related. That moment of specific clarity might still have happened had I managed to stay upright, but it makes a better story this way.

A few years ago, I watched a video of Lin-Manuel Miranda giving a commencement speech at a university. He said, among many wise and wonderful things, that he thinks that everyone is a little bit of both: a little bit “wait for it” and a little bit “I am not throwing away my shot”. That, he said, was the key to success - finding that balance. Is that the mark of a successful writer? I don’t know, but it certainly made sense to me.

For the entirety of my twenties, I wrote on the logic that eventually I would reach a point where it was my turn; where the words I put in an order that meant something would mean something to me, and not just the people paying me to do so. I have learned so many things about being a writer in the past decade, and two months before I turn 30, I am finally ready to put those things in to practice.

I learned that while they don’t really care if your script makes sense, producers are a stickler for a vocative comma. Writing professional theatre was a better education in technique and style than anything I learned at school.

I have learned to edit myself, and to feel grateful rather than affronted when others edit me. I have learned to be a storyteller (not a writer) for the duration of a Summer course, and subsequently how to be both.

I have learned to write for an audience, be that a theatre of 2000 people, my 400 Instagram followers, or just one person at the end of a text message. (I have learned that everything I write is an opportunity to really write, to the dismay I’m sure of my colleagues, my friends, and particularly anyone I’ve ever dated).

I have learned there is nothing scarier or more wonderful than people who make you want to be exactly who you are, especially if who you are is a writer. That mentors are important. That peers are essential to growth, both personal and professional.

I have learned that growth is power, and that the older I get the more seriously I am taken.

I have learned that I like being taken seriously.

I have learned, perhaps most significantly, how important it is to always want to learn more.

To recognise opportunities to improve, even if they don’t fulfil you creatively. To recognise opportunities to create, even if they don’t serve you financially.

To acknowledge the moment when you can’t not do it anymore.

To wait for it, yes. And then to not throw away my shot.

(The above is, word for word, what I sent to Faber Academy earlier this year when applying for a place on their flagship Writing a Novel course. Along with a writing sample from the novel, this is what made them offer me a place, and I start next week. I'm crowdfunding to pay as much of my fee as I can, because it's expensive and it's a method that has worked well for my peers. If you have any spare pennies, please consider donating them here).

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