To my students. I know how you feel when your work is judged
This academic year I’m teaching the new Open University MA in Creative Writing. I’m also doing some critical reading of the script materials. And like thousands of other writers, I’m trying to get my own work off the ground. When I wear my OU hat, I try to guide my students, offer support and constructive feedback when they want it. And sometimes when they don’t. But as a writer, I’m prepared to believe that the idea I’ve developed and lovingly shaped is complete shite if it’s rejected. Maybe less so than I used to – sometimes I go through old ideas and surprise myself at how good they are. I also remind my students that truly brilliant ideas have been turned down again and again by institutions who should know better. Caitlin Moran’s Raised by Wolves was turned down by the BBC because they apparently had their one sitcom with women in it already. And in 1974, Fawlty Towers was also turned down by the BBC
Last week, however, I girded my loins and asked for a meeting with a lovely BBC Producer to whom I’d sent some ideas. It doesn’t matter how many times ideas have been accepted, liked or commissioned. It really doesn’t. Because all I can ever remember are the ideas that were shot down in flames. Or even worse on one occasion, I came up with an idea, the producer liked it and asked for a few scenes, so I wrote and sent them and the producer sent them back within a few hours saying she didn’t understand what I was on about and she didn’t like them. And it wasn’t funny. As if not liking any of the scenes hadn’t convinced me of my worthlessness enough. I emailed her back saying, thank you for looking at it anyway
bitch, before putting my head down on the desk and crying. That was a bad one.
Since then I’ve had work commissioned, work rejected, and I’ve toughened up. I still feel that sinking gloom at a rejection and sometimes no contact at all – or – and I’m not sure what’s worse – flattery and faux friendship followed by the wheedling expectation that your work is meant to be free. To both proposals I say f*** you. If anyone thinks it’s reasonable for you to work for exposure tell them you’ll do it IF they can persuade your bank/landlord to let this month’s mortgage/rent go and in return they will tell all their friends what a fantastic organisation/landlord they are. Fair?
The producer I was to meet was having serious last minute casting issues on another play but agreed to see me anyway. We found a coffee house and had one of their medium sized cappuccinos (roughly the size of the English Channel). Then she switched off her phone, got out her big notepad and pen and listened. Horribly aware of the other pressures she was under, I found myself blundering over a pitch that sounded good on paper but was coming out as what Cady in Mean Girls would describe as Word Vomit.
It’s about this woman . . . who . . oh no . .hang on . . .what would happen if Mother Theresa was waiting in the green room . . (shit! Shit! She’s not laughing. Or smiling. She hates me. Definitely) and this woman . . bugger . . then what happens?
I took a breath, and pushed the paper with my neatly typed proposals across the table. Just read this? Please?
She did and she laughed and she liked them and we chatted about what was going to happen next. Possibly.
But I’m telling this story because I made many silly mistakes and even though it came out ok, it might not have.
Firstly if you email a producer/director with an idea and they get back to you suggesting a meeting, don’t email back going all bleuggghhhh on them. Which means – your first email is a polite, restrained and professional communication but your second goes all Girl Interrupted and you tell this person you don’t know at all that you have just broken up with your partner because he didn’t understand your writing passion and you were just about to give up and she’s like just saved you. Stuff that will tempt the producer to close down the email account because the formerly professional writer whose idea sounds interesting has just turned into a crazed stalker.
If you agree to meet at a well known chain of eateries make sure you know exactly which one. Don’t do as I did which was to arrive early and then wonder if I was at the right branch because there was another one nearby and if the producer emerged from the other side of the tube she might have gone to the other one . . .
. . . and then rush round the corner to see if there was another branch. There used to be another branch but it had since been turned into a hairdresser. I raced back to the first one, my table now gone, totally frazzled, so when the producer actually walked in, I was shaky and panting like the aforementioned crazed stalker.
Don’t apologise for taking up said producer’s time at least three times. (I’m so embarrassed by this) Instead say it once then shut up.
A meeting with a producer is a bit like a first date. You want to make a connection but not come over all creepily agreeable like a nodding dog. The best way to do this is to listen actively. People who know how to listen are always described as being good conversationalists.
So I’m saying to my students, on the BA and MA course – I know how hard it is and how nakedly fragile you feel when your work is exposed and picked over. And because I know what it’s like I think it makes me a more empathetic tutor.