ZOOM AND THE DEAFENING RISE OF THE QUIET WRITER

I have recently completed a week-long online sitcom writing course where for one hour a day for five consecutive days, 30 comedy writers logged into Zoom and together, under the guidance of comedian and comedy-writer Bennett Arron, we came up with the premise of a sitcom.

As someone who has done more writing courses than Katie Price has had failed relationships, this one was definitely different from all the rest, and not just for the obvious reason that this course was done via my laptop screen.

Democracy Rules and No Ice please

With the mute button an essential of any online meetings with this many participants, what was lovely on this course was how much more democratic this made the experience. Everyone got to contribute, via the chat button, if that’s what they wanted to do. If they wanted to sit back and absorb, that was an option also. No-one felt the pressure to say something, anything, just to not feel left out.

And no dreaded ice-breaking routine, the initiation ceremony of every writing class. As a writer who still carries awful memories of having to move around a room with a playing card lifted to my forehead as part of a ‘getting-to-know-you’ process, the ice-breaker can be the writing equivalent of a dentist’s injection of novocaine into an exposed gum – yes you can see the point of it but if there’s a way of avoiding it then sign me up.

The Loud-Mouth on mute

What the mute button also does is nullify the power of the, how shall we put it, ‘mouthier’ writer . Almost every course, workshop or seminar I’ve attended, has had the presence of the writer who likes to dominate the room with opinions or questions that can break the flow of the poor tutors carefully planned lesson.

Many have read all the writing books and attended, at great expense, at least one of the major script-writing gurus seminars, subsequently screen-writing psychobabble is their second language. However, as I’ve witnessed many times, talking a good script and writing a good script, are two very different things. Just ask any of those script-writing gurus still without a screen writing credit.

Quiet in good company

In a recent blog, the great comedy writer Ken Levine tells how Neil Simon was very shy and ‘not great in a room’, and cites others who were fantastic in a room but ‘couldn’t write a decent draft to save their lives’. Writers, generally speaking (or usually not speaking), are an introverted breed who have to raise themselves above this natural inclination to walk into a room of other creatives. Or anyone, for that matter.

A few years ago I met by far the quietest writer I’ve known, who, like myself was one of those selected to be a shadow-writer on the Channel 4 comedy-writer Shameless. So inhibited was he in meetings that he was, to all intents and purposes, anonymous. He found the meetings incredibly difficult and stressful, and contributed little; if anything, to them. On Twitter he described himself as a ‘socially awkward TV writer’.

But boy, could he write. Since then Mark Brotherhood has written for a host of shows including a later series of Shameless, Hollyoaks, Benidorm, became the lead writer on Sky One comedy-drama Mount Pleasant and is the writer/creator behind ITV’s recent series The Trouble With Maggie Cole. Zoom was made for the Mark Brotherhood’s of this world. I have no doubt he’ll be loving it.

So yes, for me Zoom courses are the way ahead for now at least, despite those instances when, via the chat button, you type in the comment you consider to be your most hilarious or insightful, only to watch it float away from the tutors gaze like a used condom in a fast flowing river.

Image by photographer Kristina Flour

ELTON JOHN AND MY BIG BAG OF BEAUTIFUL DREAMS

Dreams come in different shapes and sizes. And different packages. They can be private and low-key, they can be brash and bold. They can be sturdy and solid, they can be fluid or fragile. On one particular, crisp October day in North Audley Square in London, my dream came in a big red sports bag. I was 21, a fledgling songwriter and was about to have my first meeting with a music publisher – Elton John’s Rocket Records.

Contained in that sports bag was an envelope with a cassette of a song I’d written with my then songwriting partner Bob Mouat. God knows why I took a sports bag to house a cassette and a couple of sandwiches, maybe that was considered rock n’ roll chic at the time. If you’re willing to go with that rather unlikely explanation to replace the one I don’t have, we’ll go with that.

Impossibly early for my meeting, I’d been sitting on a park bench for over an hour. I was beyond nervous. Elton was the first artist I’d seen live and he and his lyricist Bernie Taupin were my main songwriting inspiration, so to have an appointment at his music publishers was spine-tingling, even if Elton and Bernie were oblivious of my existence and probably partying over in LA. None of that mattered. What did matter was that I was here, today, with my song.

Of course an essential element for any dream is how you envisage it panning out. This may have nothing to do with the eventual reality but that doesn’t matter at the start, you have to see it being glorious and exciting and everything you want it to be. I’d made this appointment weeks ago which gave me plenty of time to decide in my head how this was all going to work out.

How the Dream Meeting would unfold

I was going to play the song and the Publisher Man (the mists of time have left him nameless, so from now on Publisher Man is his new moniker) would nod approvingly, realising this could be a red letter day in his career. I’d be sitting here maintaining my cool; I knew the song was good.

Then the door would open and someone would step in. I presumed it would be another publisher but as I turned my head I would recognise the face. It was Elton.

He was dressed as casually as Elton John could dress at just gone 4 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, cutting a striking figure in feathered headdress and diamante suit. Publisher Man would acknowledge EJ (as in my head that’s how Elton would soon ask me to address him), and continue listening to the song.

EJ would ask who’s song was playing and Publisher Man would introduce us. EJ didn’t normally cover other people’s material but he would ask my permission to put the song on his soon to be recorded multi-platinum selling album. I’d answer casually that that I’d need to ask my songwriting partner but it shouldn’t be a problem. He’s then offer us a 3-year publishing deal and ask if I’d be willing to write some lyrics for him. I replied that I’d be happy to. At the same time I felt the warm, excited flow of urine trickle down my inside leg.

As he leaves the room he gives a respectful nod to my big red sports bag and the rest would be rock ‘n roll history.

How the Actual Meeting unravelled

Five minutes before the appointment I approached Rocket Records, sports bag in tow, and walked in. Either side of the receptionist desk with it’s huge Rocket logo hung various framed photo’s of Elton’s album covers, live photos and gold discs. My heartbeat quickened. I introduced myself to the receptionist informing her that I was there for my appointment with Publisher Man. She looked puzzled, then informed me that he wasn’t there.

In disbelief I explained how I’d phoned up two months before and made the appointment. She asked me if I’d written to confirm the appointment and I replied that I hadn’t as I’d taken the phone call as verbal confirmation of the meeting.

I asked if there was any other Publisher Person I could see and she explained they only had one other and he was out of the country. I was crestfallen, and she could see it. I told her that I’d travelled down from Liverpool for this one appointment. Her polite apology understandably failed to lift my spirits.

I turned and slowly walked out of Rocket Records, never to return. Elton didn’t ask me to refer to him as EJ and somehow his career stumbled onto multi-Grammy and Oscar successes, not to mention a Knighthood, without recording our song. Or using my lyrics.

The dream changes shape. Again. And Again..

I learned some important lessons from that rather naive first trip that rendered it more than just a useless and crushingly disappointing journey. First, always back up any appointment with a letter (this being the days before emails), and never go down with just one song and one meeting. We may never have hit the heights we originally aimed for but from then on we always got respect, we eventually got songs published and had many great experiences.

But some things don’t change; the constant and undying need for passion in that thing you love doing, for that fire to remain burning inside. Most importantly, knock-backs still serve a purpose if we are only big enough to learn from them, and adjust accordingly. Dreams are pliable, they can change shape when needed. Only submission to the disappointments can destroy them completely.

And if you allow disappointment to destroy your dream, then what else is left?