In many ways, the image below this paragraph is the single most important thing I’ve ever posted on social media. I’ll be 40 in a few weeks time, and the prospect of leaving my 30s behind has been weighing heavily on my mind since my 39th birthday. As someone who is extremely competitive and end result driven, it’s taken me a long time to get to this point and to remember why I write.
I’ve been writing stories of some sort since I first held a pencil and could pull a sentence together. Writing, like reading, has been something I do since I started school at 4, so as an integral part of who I am. My Mum was a housekeeper for a Lord and Lady when I was young, and I spent school holidays at work with her, writing and drawing monster stories to give to her employers. When I was at first school I wrote an imaginary account of being a homeless boy in London, it was printed in the local parish magazine and I had to read it out at a school church service.
Years later, having moved on to Middle School, I was challenged to write a weekly story from the words in our class spelling test by my forward thinking English teacher Mrs.Moss. She also encouraged me to write poetry, thanks to her a poem I wrote about a stray puppy being drowned ended up being published in a magazine for teachers. I’m sure these days an 11 year old whose chosen writing topics were so down-beat would probably end up with their parents being called into the school, rather than praised for good work. The only thing I enjoyed as much as writing was acting, fuelled by drama lessons where you could improvise or write your own stories. I was writing a lot of home at this time too, mainly fan fiction based on books and TV shows I liked, including a full episode of The A-Team. I ended up being in a lot of school productions, as Bugsy Malone at 12 and once I’d progressed to Upper School playing Danny Zuko in Grease at 15. English and drama were my two favourite subjects through Middle and Upper school, by quite a long way. GCSE drama gave me the chance to write and perform short stories every few weeks, which fuelled my imagination and kept me focussed and motivated. Apart from a two year period where I wanted to be a stuntman, fuelled by The Fall Guy and Burt Reynolds movie Hooper, acting and writing were my two main career considerations. Actually being the world’s least talented comic artist, the world’s most squeamish vet and the world’s most unlikely Royal Marine or police dog handler also popped onto my radar for about a month or two each.
When I was a 6th former I was desperate to move to America, and for a while I was trying to go to University in the States to help me get closer to the film industry that I was starting to think about working in. In the end I applied for a mixture of Film, media and performing arts courses here in the UK, unsure whether I wanted to write for the screen or act. I totally messed up my audition for the Performing Arts course in Middlesex, I hadn’t learned the part of Death of a Salesman I was meant to perform anywhere near well enough, and I didn’t know enough about the history of the theatre, key figures in it etc for the interview either. I was told my work in the improvisation section was very good, my singing was passable and my dancing was truly terrible. Needless to say I wasn’t accepted onto the course, and in the end I turned down the likes of Sunderland, Kent and Huddersfield’s offers of places. If I’m being 100% honest with myself, I bottled it. I’d been brought up in a remote cottage in a very rural area, spending most of my time at home writing and reading, and the prospect of moving to a city where I didn’t know anyone was overwhelming. Almost as overwhelming as my crippling fear of failure, and not being as good as everyone else on the course. I needed a safer option.
I took a year out, and looking back I wish I’d found a way to travel, rather than simply working locally and in many ways wasting a year. For a number of reasons I’d decided acting wasn’t for me, and had begun to realise that writing was far more fulfilling and important to me. In the back of my mind I wanted to be a writer, but coming from a working class family I knew that I needed the safety and security that a “proper job” would give me. I also starting to think that teaching was a good direction to go in, mainly inspired by a succession of excellent English and Drama teachers over the years. There was probably a little part of me that felt safe in the school environment, and saw going to Uni to become a teacher, and then working in a school, as a way to avoid the real word of adulthood. English was the most obvious thing for me to teach, and the subject I was probably most suited to. My own results focus and competitiveness got the better of me however, and I deemed myself unworthy of teaching my favourite subject. I had As in both English Literature and English Language at GSCE, but having not put anywhere near enough effort in had only mustered a D in my English Literature A-Level. How could I possibly teach people to get As, Bs, or indeed Cs if I myself hadn’t been able to. In the end I want to Swansea to study Business Education, I quite liked Business Studies and most importantly to be twisted mind, I’d at least gotten a B in it. If I’m being 100% honest teaching was always a fallback career, something I could do later in life, after I’d done other things or something I could combine with writing (I told myself the long Summer holidays would mean one novel or screenplay a year for sure). Some personal problems meant I had to re-take my final teaching practice the year after my 4 year course ended, so following my year out it I finally graduated 6 years after leaving school. I think one of the reasons I’m slightly obsessed with achievement and making the most of every passing year is partly fuelled by feeling that I had lost two years where I could have gotten things done. I’d also, like many creative people, been acutely aware of my own mortality from a very early age, something which fuelled my early writing, just as it does today.
Those 6 years did involve a lot of writing though, lots of unfinished work in the main, first chapters of unrealised novels and the first 10 pages of incomplete screenplays. I did a little bit of supply teaching, but I’d realised that, although I enjoyed it, it wasn’t the right vocation for me at the time. I made the conscious decision to take on temporary or short term admin jobs, avoiding any lure of permanence or career progression as much as possible, to simply pay the bills so I could write every evening. I also attended Raindance in London in the late 90s, taking four courses with them. Writing the Hot Script, which was taught by Elliot Grove, Blockbuster Storytelling by John Truby, Dov Simens 2 Day Film School, and Directing for TV and Film with Patrick Tucker. I read every screenwriting book you could think of, and some you probably couldn’t, and took an evening NVQ class in Writing for the Media. My final assignment for the course was my first screenplay, a Western entitled “Restitution Day” (taken from a Jerry Cantrell lyric) and written in 2 weeks of evenings. To do this day I’ve never re-read it, and it’s sitting on an old floppy disk somewhere in an ancient version of Final Draft. I’d also bought that software and imported a load of US sized paper with special threaded tags so my work would look authentic.
In the final year of the 1990s I applied for the MA in Screenwriting at Cardiff University, did well at interview but was ultimately unsuccessful. My work showed promise, but was considered too commercial for the course. Through a colleague in one of my admin jobs I’d gotten to know TV writer Rob Gittens around this time, he’d been giving me feedback on my work and offering some great advice. I had the chance to write a spec Eastenders script at that time, as Rob was writing for the show, he was happy to evaluate it and pass it on if it was up to standard. 25 year old me was a heady mix of ego and low self esteem, and fear of not being good enough coupled with my eyes being on the big screen meant I never wrote the script he’d asked me for. One bit of advice Rob gave me, was don’t waste my talent by going into advertising, as so many creative people do. A year later I was working as a copywriter, so I wasn’t very good at listening either.
(To be continued….)