Opinion

ON WRITING

218 - Author

Publicity photo for my first book, How to Eat Well and Stay Single

This week, in Biblical* terms, I’ve reached seven years beyond my allotted span and yet I’m still going strong, creative writing juices flowing, new ideas bursting forth.

Diane’s cousin Lucy Clarke wrote on Instagram the other day that having handed in a draft of her sixth novel, she felt entitled to take a few days off. A couple of days later she said: “Having the loveliest affair with my journal, brainstorming ideas and characters for future stories. It’s my absolutely favourite part of the job—all the creativity and none of the grind.”

I concur. And by the way, congratulations to Lucy on writing five best sellers, with a sixth clearly on the way.

A draft screenplay has just been sent off to my producer for comment. Rather than anxiously awaiting approval or a general mauling from her, I’m happily engaged in devising new characters and how to mess up their lives for my next film. Writing, including having to think up credible characters and devious plots for screenplays, is what keeps my mind engaged and stops me from sinking into the Slough of Despond.

101a - Borax

A young journo in London

At the insistence of my beloved, I began writing Gentleman’s Portion back in late 2012, as a way to keep my mind occupied, even when there was no paymaster, after a lifetime of corporate, print and television scribbling. This is my 249th post, which at about a thousand words a column, means I’ve written around a quarter million words since the website launched. And you, kind readers, encourage me to continue by reading my prose. Out of the articles, my fourth book arose, linked to my television series, Market to Table.

Andy Rooney, who was most famous for his acerbic essays on the CBS TV show 60 Minutes, was still writing and appearing on television until a month before his death at the age of 92, in November 2011. My guess would be that writing kept him going.

He once wrote that there is a widespread opinion that writing isn’t real work. Canadian history writer and television personality, Pierre Berton, with whom I worked on several projects, used to tell an amusing story of being accosted at a cocktail party by a brain surgeon. “When I retire,” said the doc, “I’m going to write a book.” “What a coincidence,” Pierre replied, “When I retire, I’m going to take up brain surgery.”

208 - VW in White River June 16 1971

On the road

But Andy and Pierre knew, as do all of us who write for a living, that writing is very hard work. Whether writing lighthearted scripts for television, platitudinous speeches for corporate moguls, or press releases designed to make bad news look good, the journeyman writer makes the end results look meaningful. The path from concept to delivery is long and tortuous, and usually means many fingers in the pie before it is baked and consumed. (Wait a moment: is that a cliché, a metaphor or just a platitude?)

Writing for hire always includes the approval of others, and we just have to suck it up and take the re-writes. The most tedious chore of my corporate life (the seventh of nine careers) was executive speech writing. I didn’t mind that it usually started with a briefing from an associate of the executive, followed by several meetings to narrow down the content to a tolerable number of messages. I always believed in the mantra that a speech should contain no more than three points: the audience would undoubtedly forget the middle point, would probably forget the first point and, with luck, might remember the final point. My role was to convince the committee that it was a waste of everyone’s time to pack every corporate message in the book into the one speech, while dressing it up in prose that would ensure some benefit to the audience, who would only retain one message at a time. Did you remember? One message? Got it?

The most fun was when one of my allegedly overworked colleagues, or one of those procrastinators who left everything to the last minute, would knock on my office door (later the divider in my cubicle) and ask if I had time to help them with a speech since they were swamped (or struggling, as they say in the UK). Sometimes the deadline was less than a day away, sometimes the same day and once less than an hour away. In those exhilarating moments, I would happily bang out a speech without fear of interference – there simply wasn’t time for anyone to intervene, edit or even comment. My record was writing a seven-minute presentation in 10 minutes, typing literally as fast as I could think. I don’t imagine it was any good, but it got a colleague out of a jam and the executive delivered the words sincerely. That was one of the skills I learned back in my very early writing days, to be able to put down words with the voice of another.

With Rufus the cat B

Rufus helps with script writing

Today, that has become a very useful adjunct to screenplay writing, as I compose dialogue with the voice of a 35-year-old woman one minute and her 10-year-old son the next. Of course, others will re-write and edit my words before the camera even rolls, and I’m sure the actors, when cast, will have a go at their ‘sides’ too, if the director allows them. Nevertheless, my name will stand as creator in the credits, and on the pay cheque.

Writing isn’t all about the money, and few of us get to the bestseller ranks, where potboilers and thrillers sell in their millions. Most just hope to make a living. One of my favourite authors is Stuart Woods, whose books regularly top the blockbuster lists, and with whom I correspond occasionally. At the suggestion of his agent, he tells me, he now churns out three books a year, eliminating all other protagonists in favour of one hero. Recently, he has enlisted the help of others to assist with the writing chores. I hate to say it, dear Stuart, but that’s when I think greed has overtaken art.

Andy Rooney wrote about the presumption of editors in a collection entitled Common Nonsense, and imagines them sending suggested edits to Will Shakespeare or Abe Lincoln. The comments are very funny. But on the subject of commissioned writing, Rooney concludes with a note to an editor: “Do what you want. Just mail me the check.”

Sometimes the phone will ring and I am offered a few dollars to edit a presentation or cobble together some bits and pieces on one subject or another. After I send it off, and the piece is accepted, or re-writes are suggested, I am frequently tempted to quote dear old Andy.

There you have it. Another thousand words. My next story will be my 250th. I will be a year older. I promise it will be profound.

Jan 11 Costa Verde

Featured image: Travel writing in Costa Rica

*Psalm 90: The days of our years are threescore and ten.

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