Monthly Archives: June 2014

Enthusiasm, Brent Forrester and the 344 bus

“Sally Stott is more enthusiastic than experienced… and probably isn’t being paid very much.” This is what someone who is very experienced and not especially enthusiastic said about me when I first started reviewing theatre plays (although despite his concern about my supposed lack of income, he didn’t object to me buying him a drink). Years previously, I had failed to get a job as a literary assistant in a big agency. Why? Because, as I overheard the interviewer later say, I was “too enthusiastic.” It was, after all, “only a job.”

As time passed, I inevitably got more jobs and more experience, as pretty much everyone who lives and works in a city for a certain amount of time does. However, while I like getting paid to do cool stuff as much as anyone else, I intend to never become more experienced than I am enthusiastic. Even if I end up with so many interesting and well-paid jobs that I have to increase my levels of optimism to a point where no one can bear to be in the same room as me, I will strive to maintain this imbalance – because if you can’t be increasingly passionate about whatever it is that you spend most of your life doing, what can you be?

“You love everything,” people sometimes say when I like something that they don’t. “You hate everything,” I sometimes say when they dislike something I love. While they might feel that I am too free with my praise, I sometimes suspect they are too sparing with theirs; that their emotions have been dulled by years of trying to find what’s wrong with things rather than what’s right. It’s easy to dismiss enthusiasm as naïve and childish while applauding criticism – however unfounded – as the mature and adult response, one based on thought and analysis rather than low-brow emotions. And yet, emotions are a large part of what both art and life are all about.

In the UK, it sometimes seems like being cynical rather than enthusiastic is the default position. There is a driver on the 344 bus, which (when I’m not cycling) takes me from Battersea to Central London, who says “hello” to every person who boards. This may not seem unusual to anyone who lives in the north of England – where both he and I are from – but in London it’s pretty rare. You can see it on the confused faces of the passengers. “Please do not be alarmed that you have a cheerful and polite bus driver,” he said a week last Friday to the bewildered top deck, “You can write about it in your diaries.” Or blogs.

Later that same day, I go to a talk by American screenwriter Brent Forrester, organised by the BBC Writersroom for comedy writers and producers – and gate crashed by some of us script readers – where he talks about the importance of “relentless positivity.” It’s something he sees as invaluable for generating ideas when writing as part of a team, which he has done a lot of, having worked as a writer and showrunner (someone who leads the group writing process) on The Simpsons and the American version of The Office. He explains that while it’s useful to ultimately decide which characters and stories have potential and which don’t, “an over-developed critical mind can end up permanently destroying ideas.”

Brent has just returned from running a four-day residential for BBC Comedy writers where they have been working in small groups to come up with ideas for new shows. He observes that sometimes British writers can put one another down and sees this as a “cultural thing” that doesn’t help team writing. He later talks about how he has experienced working in “cold, quiet and serious environments” and how this doesn’t lead to creativity. He also highlights how executives who sit in on writers’ meetings create a formal mood that isn’t conducive to developing good work in a relaxed atmosphere (this causes a few uncomfortable glances around the room).

While the people left the 344 bus on Friday looking happier than when they got on, we script readers left Brent’s talk feeling more inspired and upbeat. “Great question,” we spent the afternoon saying to anyone who asked anything – great or otherwise – in our basement reading room, in the same way Brent had to everyone who put their hand up in his post-talk Q&A.

American people have a reputation for being constantly positive and while it’s something that’s easy to sneer at, it’s also pleasant to be around and – if Brent’s dazzling writing career and cheerful persona are anything to go by – leads to a successful and happy life. He is a hugely experienced writer, but it was his infectious energy that everyone was talking about for the rest of the day, rather than his CV. Having worked on numerous great shows, I imagine if someone said he was more enthusiastic than experienced he’d take it as the compliment it clearly is.

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Should writers ever give up?

“Never give up” is the kind of thing you often hear people say, whether it’s Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness or someone who likes your script but not enough to actually produce it. However, in real life, unlike the movies, when things don’t go to plan no subtle background music kicks in to emphasise that in half an hour’s time you will bounce back and achieve your dreams.

As a writer, you’re often left to get on with never-giving-up on your own, perhaps accompanied by the odd screenwriting book, which will also tell you to never give up – partly because its writer wants you to buy another book called Never Give Up on Buying Books About Never Giving Up.

I have a collection of scriptwriting books from the 1960s to the 1990s. I often wonder what happened to all the writers who used to own them. Did they never give up? One of the books Writing for the BBC (by Norman Longmate) had nine re-prints over 30-odd years. Thousands of people must have owned a copy. They can’t all have got commissions: if they had, there would be so many dramas, comedies and short stories on the BBC that there wouldn’t be room for anything else. Either these writers stopped writing or they continued with little or no recognition, perhaps for the whole of their lives. Is that sad? Or inspiring? Or a bit of both?

There are lots of stories about famous writers and artists who were initially rejected but persevered and went on to become very successful: Stephen King, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna are just a few. Jarvis Cocker was singing about waiting for his life to take off, back in 1992 after over a decade of being in Pulp. It wasn’t until 1995 that the band had a number one album. It would clearly have been a mistake for him to have given up, but of course it’s easy to say that with hindsight.

Never give up, never surrender,” characters in the comedy Galaxy Quest say whenever they face a seemingly impossible situation, as if a go-getter attitude alone can break down locked doors or blow up enemy spacecraft. However, in real life persevering against the odds can seem like a never-ending and not particularly fruitful process. David Ferguson sums it up brilliantly in an article for The Onion. “Find the thing you’re most passionate about, then do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life,” it begins, continuing: “…pursue those dreams when you only have enough energy to change out of your work clothes and make yourself a half-assed dinner before passing out.”

A while ago I asked agent Jean Kitson about whether writers should ever give up. She said this: “The absolute worst that can happen is that you’ll spend a chunk of your time doing something creative that you love, and for a lot of people it may never go any further than that. But if you don’t consider your writing a waste of time in itself, if it’s feeding a need in you, then it is not wasted.”

After entering the Alfred Bradley Award on three previous occasions, Ian Townsend finally managed to win its special Writersroom prize this year. I asked what had stopped him from giving up. “I always believed I was a writer,” he says, “it’s not just something I do, it’s who I am. I was determined to prove a lot of people wrong – and also a few people right! – and demonstrate what I was capable of.” Having things he wanted to say, rather than entering competitions for the sake of it – as he had in the past – also helped. “It focused my writing,” he says, as did getting feedback on his work. “Many people told me I could write, but it wasn’t until somebody told me what was wrong with my writing that I took a chance and grew, as did my confidence and self-belief.”

I imagine that most people who write scripts want to see them produced but, as Ian points out, getting a commission isn’t the only way to achieve this. “I self-produced and put on my own plays for years,” he explains. However, his journey hasn’t been easy. “I will be honest, the last two years have been a real struggle financially,” he says. “There have been low times of giving up and thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?'” Like most writers, he has sometimes doubted himself and his work. “I have stopped before,” he says, “then something has sparked me into life – an idea, a story, a glimpse of success – and then I’m off again.” Would he have carried on forever, even if he hadn’t been recognised by an organisation such as the BBC Writersroom? “I love writing,” he says, “In short, probably!”

Although it obviously helps, you don’t have to be produced, paid or even read to keep writing, if that’s what you enjoy doing. People might reject you but they can’t stop you. After not getting past the initial round of a recent Writersroom sift, a new writer called Emma commented: “I’m delighted! It’s my first ever rejection slip; in my mind, that’s an important milestone. It means I finished something. It means I submitted it. It means I exposed myself to scrutiny. It’s an achievement! I’m over the moon, and it’s inspired me to crack on with my next one…”

Perhaps the reason why there are so many films about heroes fighting to achieve their dreams is that their stories are far more appealing than ones about people giving up. Lots of Hollywood blockbusters would have us believe that you can have anything you want if only you work hard enough for it. Maybe that’s why writers, who perhaps battle with rejection more than the rest of us, keep creating them. “Do, or do not,” George Lucas has Yoda say in The Empire Strikes Back. “There is no try.”

Written for BBC Writersroom