In a recent choice by my book group, the novelist held forth at some length on the general unpleasantness of writers, paying particular scathing attention to those swimming in the New York literary pond. As the only professional writer in the room, eleven pairs of eyes focused on me. I blustered, distanced myself as British, a playwright not a novelist, and as such, entirely unfamiliar with this sort of bad behaviour, before living up to the most prevalent of literary clichés by drinking my own weight in wine.
The next morning what bothered me more than the well-deserved hangover was the sensation that someone had just pissed on my fireworks. The only way to feel better was to own what being a writer meant to me. So, I started at the beginning and, with a growing sense of wonder, wrote how the entirely unlikely came about.
I can remember the moment as a small child, sitting at the top of the stairs at home, reading my story book out loud as usual, when something happened. A gear changed in my brain and the words went from a sound to a whisper, and then into silence, but I kept on reading. The story was in my head. It was coming from the page into me, and it was mine alone. It was one of the most exciting things imaginable.
I was an only child, wheezy and scratchy, who spent days and weeks off school with bronchitis until my parents finally heard my small voice saying how unhappy I was at the cruelly snobbish girls’ school my grandmother had insisted I was sent to, ‘because she is far too headstrong’. So, aged eight, I went down the hill to the village primary school where I spent the happiest two years of my education and never had bronchitis again.
I was still headstrong, but instead of humiliating or frightening me, the head teacher set me essays which fitted my crime. Wrestling was for fighting on the classroom floor and Mountain Climbing for swinging on the toilet door till it came off its hinges, to name but two. Knowing nothing about either subject I engaged the help of two of the most sought-after boys in the class. I’m not sure if that counts as research, plagiarism or collaboration, but it worked. I completed my punishments, which were read to the whole class, and ended up with two boyfriends.
From the time I could stay awake and quiet for two hours, I was taken to the theatre and ballet. The evening’s drama started with waving to Johnny Walker in his red coat, the statue dominating the concourse of Waterloo Station, followed by the windswept walk over Waterloo Bridge to the red plush of Covent Garden, Drury Lane. My parents recalled other theatre goers tutting at them for exposing a young child to ballets such as Miracle in the Gorbals, the plot of which involved not only prostitution, but suicide and murder.
Apparently, I leant on the seat in front, face raised towards the light, enthralled. I still am, by that shared miracle, side by side in the darkness, of suspended disbelief, of performance.
Then I hit puberty. I grew taller and ganglier than most boys of my age but unattractively mirrored them, being both slim hipped and flat chested, and so started to write. Derivative poems about love and war and what a waste it all was — killing off a generation of young men, you’re not kidding!
My parents had ambitions for me to work at the United Nations after a degree at Cambridge. This was never going to happen. I spent my last two years of school reading books, acting in as many plays as I could and, yes, writing bad poetry. This resulted in an A for English and very little else. But I got into one of the big six London drama schools! Me!
I wanted nothing more to do with exams or academic studies. I wanted to do it, feel it, experience it — whatever ‘it’ was. And doing it in the costume of someone else, a character with someone else’s name, made this possible. I think that safely sums up my twenties: pretending to be someone else, which I did in various theatres up and down Britain and upstate New York.
And all the time, I read. I never went anywhere without a book in my bag. Reading was, and still is, a life-saving escapist drug to me. If I had been told I could be anything I wanted, I would have said, ‘A writer’. But that wasn’t for someone like me. I had shimmered through my education, never went to university, I knew no writers, it was not a career for anyone, let alone someone like me. I wouldn’t dare. It would be ridiculous. Presumptuous. But then, at the beginning of my thirties, during a week’s holiday from the National Theatre, I took my dream in my shaking hands and signed up for a five-day course at the City Lit adult education college, because the brief sounded frighteningly true: ‘The only way to learn to write is to do it. By the end of the week you will have written a 15-minute radio play’.
On the last day of the course the tutor Bill Ash, himself a writer, told me I had a natural sense of the dramatic and that I should write plays for a living. The following month he offered me a commission for a lunchtime play at the Soho Poly just round the corner from the BBC. Bill became my unofficial mentor and friend, buying me lunches, seeing all my plays and taking me to those of other young writers he supported. When my purse was stolen many years later, I lost a worn piece of paper in his handwriting: ‘You are a born writer’.
Two lean years later, an actor friend introduced me to a director she knew was looking for a woman writer. Anxious not to be dismissed as an airhead, I presented as surly and aggressive. Despite this, Roger Watkins sat up reading my play and the next day suggested me for the position of writer for Theatre Centre’s newly formed Women’s Company. There I received a political education, together with wholehearted artistic support from the resident writer, David Holman, a generous man of enormous talent, and learned the art of writing for a specific audience. I had crucially discovered a reason to write plays.
I also met the director who would become the most significant person in my career. Gwenda Hughes knows the inside of my writing head better than I do and, combining our skills, we have produced work together that I could never have dared alone.
And it did take courage, to dare to change profession, to insist on being taken seriously as a writer and as a woman, to say yes to every opportunity, to have the confidence to approach total strangers and encourage them to share their experiences, to hold the faith that I would be able to tell their stories, to believe I was the sort of person who could create that shared magic. But that’s what I became. A paid, performed, published writer. A playwright. A screenwriter. With awards and everything.
And now I have been a writer – aside from the 10 years as an actor – all my working life and I couldn’t be more grateful to all those who have made this possible with their talent, their commissions, their support, encouragement, their temp jobs and their introductions, their edits, ideas, faith and love. I am and have been so lucky.
This is not to say of course that there haven’t been some – let’s be honest, several – nights of the long knives; of public humiliation; of terrible reviews and rejections; of fear of finally running out of money, of favours, of childcare. But I am a writer by trade, through love, luck and what I believe may be an inherited tenacity and, importantly, by early on refusing my consent to be envious of other writers. We are all different and I’m honoured to be among their number.
On reflection, I think ‘together’ is the crucial word that separates those reputedly embittered New York novelists from my own experience as a writer. We playwrights don’t do it alone. We work together with other creatives whose common purpose is to make our plays as good as they can be and present them to a live audience. It is an ensemble process, starting with the words of the playwright, ending in the arms of the audience, and it involves trust and a sense of playfulness. Hard work? Yes. Terrifying? Yes, like jumping off cliffs on a regular basis. But unsupported? No. Unfriendly? No. In fact, being silly with a cast in a rehearsal room at the end of a long week is, I believe, one of the greatest joys in this writer’s life.