Becoming A Professional Writer
To gain writing experience this time around I tried to avoid this sort of long-distance nonsense and enrolled on a history of short film course at the Cornerhouse; travelled to a workshop for writing radio drama in London; paid fifty pounds to get the inside track on an upcoming BBC sitcom from its producer; travelled to hear professional playwrights and TV writers; enrolled on writing, scriptwriting, and acting courses at the Oldham Coliseum; and on the back of a local Council-run course I got my first short theatre piece performed at the Bury Met.7 The greatest thing you can say about that was how the Mayor of Bury walked out on it: and he was there officially, chain and all.
I managed to get selected for a Saturday film writing course held at Bolton University and the short film script I wrote for that got picked up for production; although the greatest thing you can say about that was that it received its premiere at the Peter Kay Theatre.8 I turned up for it. It didn’t.9
Through commuting to work for three hours of the day during all of this, often whilst stood wedged up against someone on a crowded rush hour bus, and getting home so late that all I wanted to do was go to bed in order to be able to get up in the morning to repeat the same all over again, I can’t have been the only person in history to have considered that there must have been something better to do with life than that.
After getting one of twenty places on a more substantial film writing course in Liverpool, and with the prospect of another short film in the offing if I could write a script better than a roomful of other would-be writers, I suddenly decided then and there during a talk from a professional writer one Saturday to give up my job and actually become one.10
Or at least claim I was.
I had thought about doing this for a long time, in theory, but I’d never imagined that I would actually do it. It was one of those tiny decisions, taken on a whim, which changes the course of your entire life.11
I got over the hurdle of announcing this plot twist to my parents who seemingly accepted it a lot easier than I imagined they would, in another example of how accommodating they must be, and then on the Monday I sent off a work e-mail to my agency, having the last say, because dangling on a week’s notice for five years works both ways.
I confided my writing plans to a few work colleagues and told them that I didn’t intend to start slacking, sleeping in, or getting lazy, and that having benefited from my years of lunchtimes hanging around the nearby University refectory I pointed out that, even though I was no longer working nearby, I’d still be back.
I never went back.12
Working on rolling weekly contracts fills you with concern and worried uncertainty, to begin with, but after being trapped on them for long enough you kind-of go through the looking glass, turn a little bit peculiar, and then end up just not caring.13 The only upside of this half-life was that as it left me unable to spend money on anything big that relied upon continued employment – say a flat, a house, or a car: any of the ingredients for a normal life – and so whilst I was stuck living back at home I’d been saving money all that time and creating a fund which I imagined I could live off for a time if I ever did the unthinkable and told them to stick it. I reckoned that I’d saved enough to make it a year or two, at my calculated rate of expenditure, and in that time I planned to write a TV series and to join the world of paid writing.
Two years to sink or swim.
And so began my austerity lifestyle: cutting back on frivolous things which I could no longer afford, or no longer deserved; telling people that I was hibernating for the duration of the recession; and even the taxman wrote to me to ask if I’d retired. In my reply I mentioned that as the tax code calculations were based upon me working the whole tax year, and not just the majority, then it was surely now him who owed me.
I never heard from them again.
7 – A chance meeting between an elderly Russian jogger and a teenager who heard voices – espousing the new opportunities available to his generations: of scratch cards, alco-pops, and socially acceptable teenage pregnancy – who believed he’d wandered into a nineteen seventies Michael Caine spy film.
The script, although nothing to write home about, was trying to make something of a small opportunity and contained the line: “Well in my defence, all I did was find you sitting there like Piffy”.
Sitting there like Piffy: a local and nostalgic phrase, prevalent in my family as I was growing up, whose origins and exact meaning have been lost in the mists of time and which – my friend Christopher pointed out – I contrived to include in all my scripts. It was only subconsciously, until he pointed that out.
8 – I still can’t work out if – King of Bolton – Peter Kay actually went to Harper Green School, Farnworth, but he did apparently film a music video there, some months prior to my disappointed visit, with the Scottish band Texas for their 2006 song Sleep. But for one reason or another Kay got the theatre there dedicated to him and his name is all over the front of it in colourful letters.
9 – My film Three Minutes of Your Life (2006) – produced by the Liverpool company First Take who ran the parallel courses for writers and directors – ended up, after some unwarranted tinkering on behalf of the trainee director, with a running time of four minutes. However, with that whole calamity, running time was the least of my problems.
10 – I did write a better script, it was chosen for production, and the best thing you can say about that short film was that it went on to be commended by the jury of an international science fiction film festival. However as much as I can write home about the Delta Film Award I did also enter it into a Coronation Street-themed film festival held in a local pub, where you practically won one of their Ena Sharples statuettes just for turning up, and yet despite providing twenty percent of the films that night, and there seemingly being more award categories than films, I walked away with nothing.
11 – I had attempted more sane options first when on one of my many end-of-contract returns to the Job Centre I’d asked if they had a careers advisor so I could get some tips on using my qualifications to diversify out of weekly contract lab-based chemistry. The woman interviewing me said that yes, yes they did have a careers advisor, but no, no they wouldn’t allow me see them and offered up little more explanation than that I was “too qualified”.
Attempts to get lowly-paid work for BBC radio didn’t even get me replies and this only led me to persist after removing my hard-earned doctorate from my CV because I imagined that that was the bit which was putting people off. Too qualified. It did mean that I’d have had a tricky time explaining what I’d been doing for those five years but I figured that I could’ve just passed this off by claiming that I’d been in jail…because that was obviously preferable to qualifications for certain would-be employers. I just needed to work out what crime I’d have had to have committed, to have been released in that time; taking into account my good behaviour, obviously.
12 – Well not until after they knocked it down anyway which could hardly help the quality of their Victoria sandwich, could it now?