(This was also published by the Huffington Post)
Last night, I was on a panel comprising (in alphabetical order) Ivor Baddiel, currently scriptwriter for the X Factor… Helen Lewis-Hasteley, assistant editor of the New Statesman magazine… and Professor Joanna Woodall, art historian at the Courtauld Institute.
We were taking part in the third Storywarp erm eh meeting, conference, shindig? – Whatever it was/is. People talk to an invited audience about structuring ideas. This one was about the difficulties of telling “Other People’s Stories” and took place in the offices of the Made By Many agency in Islington. I am not quite sure what they do either.
I guess I was there because of three things.
And I shepherded, cajoled and edited 19 stand-up comedians who contributed short stories to the anthology Sit-Down Comedy. Quite a few of them had never written for print before either.
The last of those three was like juggling spaghetti in a high wind, but that is something which has always attracted me.
In preparing for the Storywarp panel, I realised that I had two relevant interests when I was a kid.
The first was that I was really interested in jigsaws.
You can only put together a jigsaw in one way. Later, I got into television production and editing, where there are a million different ways to put the component parts together. In a sense, writing is the same. You can write anything in any way. There is no single ‘right’ way.
The second thing was that, when I was a kid, I wanted to become a good writer. I did not particularly want to see my name in print. It was not an ego-driven thing in that sense. I just wanted to be a ‘good’ writer.
One of the people I admired was George Orwell.
I think George Orwell is an absolutely shit novelist… Nineteen Eighty-Four is a shit novel. The central female character is badly-written; the love scenes are absolute crap. Yet it is a great book, because Orwell is a shit novelist but a great writer.
He is great at communicating what is in his mind and that is what writing is about. Communication between two people. He is a writer of thoughts; he is an essayist; he is a journalist; but he is not really a novelist.
I thought I would quite like to have George Orwell’s technical ability: to be able to write clearly. So, I asked myself, How did he learn to do that?
I reckoned he learned to write simply by doing lots and lots and lots of hack writing: he was a journalist; he worked at the BBC; he worked in Room 101 at Broadcasting House which later became the Future Events Unit.
And I reasoned, perhaps bizarrely, one way to do that was to become what was then called a Continuity Scriptwriter. You wrote for the announcers on television and, to an extent, for the voice-overs on TV trailers.
You had to write for the announcers under tight deadlines and you had to write for the exact duration. There is no point writing a brilliant 35 second piece if it is for a 17 second slot. There were also the tight deadlines. The durations of local ITV continuity spots changed all the time as they sold or did not sell ad spaces and local and/or network programmes over-ran or under-ran.
You might also have two different announcers per day and different announcers each week plus different voice-over performers for the trailers – so you were writing for different voices all the time. They all spoke at different paces, so you had to write in different ways for different speech patterns and different characters.
It was very hack but, with luck, I ended up being able to write anything at the drop of a hat.
I loved jigsaws. I wanted to be a writer. And writing biography or autobiography – “other people’s stories” – is writing using facts and quotes about and from people like a jigsaw putter-togetherer on a grand scale.
But, then, all writing – all creativity – is putting together a jigsaw.