|From Wormwood, about Chernobyl, at the Traverse, 1979|
While chatting on a professional Zoom meeting the other day, I found myself suddenly articulating something that has been growing on me for a number of years.
Looking back over a long switchback of a career as a novelist, non-fiction writer and playwright, I can now see that almost every piece of advice I've been given about what to write and how to write it has been wrong.
Let me clarify. I don't mean editing. In particular, I don't mean the intense editing that looks at style and structure. As a playwright and prose writer, I've had some wonderful directors, publishers and editors. (I've had a few appalling experiences too, but that's another story!)
We all need a fresh eye when we are too close to a project to see the wood for the trees. But the best of them shared a quality in common.
None of them told me exactly what to do.
Instead, they asked a series of tricky questions. They invariably honed in on aspects of a project where I felt uneasily that something wasn't right. 'What did you mean by this?' they would ask. And 'Can you clarify here?' and 'This seems somehow clumsy' and 'Can you look again at the structure here?'
In addressing these issues I always felt that I had made the piece of work better and I was grateful to them.
I don't mean practical advice either. We need to know about being self employed, using business bank accounts, budgeting, sorting out our taxes and a hundred other things.
So what kind of advice do I mean?
I mean advice about what to write. What to do and what not to do with that writing. How to shape a career. The sad thing is that writing is a lonely job. So we crave help and advice. I'm craving it now. We never learn. We expect too much. As William Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade, 'Nobody knows anything.'
Many years ago, I had some success in a particular area of writing with what turned out to be a groundbreaking piece of work. And on the strength of it, I was approached by somebody in a related field, who wanted me to pick up that piece of work and run with it. Hesitant, suffering from imposter syndrome, I consulted a more senior colleague, who told me that it wasn't a good idea, pointing out all the drawbacks.
I took the advice and turned down the proposal. In retrospect, I can see that turning it down was entirely the wrong decision for me at that time. I was just too young and too easily swayed to see it.
I can think of many other occasions where professional people have confidently told me that 'nobody wants' this or that subject or theme or medium. They turned out to be not just wrong for me, but wrong in general too.
One of the very best things about the late, much missed David McLennan when he ran his A Play, a Pie and a Pint seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor - and for whom I wrote three plays - was the way he responded to so many ideas with cheerful positivity. He would point out that success would be great, but failure would be OK too.
It was the trying, the experimenting, the exploration that mattered.