This won’t be news to a lot of people who read this, but every so often I’m reminded of it, so I end up saying something about it.
I’m not interested in writing.
I’m not interested in expressing a particular style or saying things in an elegant way. It is utterly mysterious to me how the idea of “being a writer” can possibly hold any meaning. Writing is a servant. It’s not about being rhythmic or punchy or, ha ha, making every sentence into a three clause list. It’s not punctuation, and it definitely isn’t vocabulary. None of that matters. It’s poetry, I think. A little bit. Because all it is is the art of constructing a lucid, meaningful model in a stranger’s head. I think Eva Wiseman is the master of this. Look at what she does, and you’ll begin to understand.
To some extent, it’s a question of taste I suppose. Descriptive passages that don’t actually say more than a picture are a turn-off to me, and there are entire books that amount to this, but a lot of people seem to love them. Tell me in words something I never thought those words could say and I’ll be impressed, but it’s very rare – and superficially mimicked everywhere.
Writing should always be a servant of comedy. People get caught up on the ‘writing’ of the comedy writing, as though they need notebooks or laptops to get anything done. People talk about using funny words, searching for the ‘funniest’ number for a joke. In the extras on Shaun of the Dead there’s a lot of discussion about finding the right line to describe the red ink that was leaking on Simon Pegg’s shirt. They went with “You’ve got red on you,” as the funniest turn of phrase, but it never had a hope, because there wasn’t a funny idea behind it. Funniness is suggestive, all about relatable moments, and frankly audiences need more than keywords. Well, some do. But keyword humour is mannered humour, funny only on its own terms, zany and cheap.
Writing is a meek, inferior servant of the real world and there’s no glory in it. Our writing is a thousand times better when we stop imagining it’s the very process of creation and start treating it as a convenient record of something much more important. Then it will become better because the thoughts the writing is filled with are better: there needs to be some stuff that it’s made of.
Writing scripts is the art of unlearning how to write. People who want to make it big in showbiz often seem to start by trying to write sitcoms, as if that’s the ultimate Writing, despite the fact it’s woefully unlikely a sitcom by an unknown beginner will ever be picked up by anyone. But the people who actually make it big, they start with stand-up, sketches, one-liners, smalltime radio shows. Actually they start with ideas. Writing them down is just a way of getting those ideas into a form that makes sense to someone else’s brain. Script writing is scaffolding; it will vividly expose the absence of ideas.
You can’t short-cut the ideas through some kind of special rhetorical writerly trick, that’s the thing. Scripts are lists of instructions, but before you can instruct you must have an idea of what the directions are pointing towards, otherwise you aren’t writing, you’re tangling. Writing is an expression of untangling. Don’t try to be a writer, and don’t fall in love with language, it will kill you. Just try to always say what’s true; that’s challenge enough.