Miss Read has been writing about her own experiences at university doing a scriptwriting degree, which has got me thinking about mine. I’ve had a roundabout journey in scriptwriting, falling into script reading on the way and giving up on this whole lark more than once in pursuit of a more “sensible” job. But it seems I just can’t keep away, ‘cos I’m still going… Let us know how you got into it in the comments section.
When I decided to become a writer, I was 18 and had dabbled with the creative arts my whole life. I’d done a journalism course; I’d written a very bad angsty novel; I’d done a photography course; I’d worked at a couple of newspapers and magazines on work experience. I was also pregnant and had lots of time on my hands, because there were not many places in my home town willing to employ a pregnant teen who liked to mope a lot and would only want maternity leave in three or four months. I also lived at the very bottom of a very leafy valley in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest bus stop three quarters of a mile away, so the more pregnant I got, the more difficult it became to clamber across stiles and fields in search of that elusive job.
My grandfather had an old computer with Windows 95 on it, so gave it to me. He wrote me a very patronising letter about how he got started at 14 as a barrow boy and rose to company director, regardless of all the hardship in his life at the time, but I got his point: just because I was about to be a single mother with no money and no job prospects didn’t mean I had to be on the scrap heap forever. I was lucky enough to have half a brain and some A levels, I should bloody use them.
When I told my parents I was going to university and taking the baby with me, they were pleased I was living my dreams. When I said I was going to Bournemouth to do scriptwriting, they were slightly less enamoured. No one in my family really knew what a degree in scriptwriting was; I don’t think even I did if I’m totally honest. All the writing I had done, at school and on the job, had been journalism. But I hated journalism; I had quit one post already when I’d had to interview a woman who had lost her son as the result of a bad tackle in a rugby match. Seeing her grief had made me realise journalism involved way too much real life for my tastes. What was more, the photographer with me had even delighted in the tears in her eyes in the photos he’d taken and that had disgusted me. Journalism was not the place for me.
So I had the baby. He was riddled with colic and for the first nine weeks he cried pretty much non stop and slept for ten minute intervals at a time. I thought I would die; if I hadn’t been 18, I probably would have. During this time and the six months that followed, I wrote fragments in notebooks – snatches of conversation, moments, advertising slogans, whatever took my fancy at that moment – and kept them for a rainy day. I had a difficult time with his Dad (loooooooooooong story) and a lot of what he said went in there as well (I can’t tell you how many antagonists in my specs say his words).
Fast forward a year or so; my boy had learnt to walk and I had started (but not finished) a selection of work; a crime story in which the twin sister did it (sigh); a space story in which it was all a dream (double sigh) and an interesting story that would later become the script I’m working on for my Writers’ Academy application, GRACE. UCAS time came round again and I had to put my application in for a university place. I had to write an audition script to get into Bournemouth. I had taken A Level English Lit, so was suitably inspired by Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. Somewhat predictably, I wrote three monologues – one had an “amazing” twist at the end that it was the dog talking, not a human. Wow.
Somewhat unpredictably then, I got an interview at Bournemouth. The guy there talked to me for an hour and half: he want to know my thoughts on continuing drama, particularly the fact Channel 5 had just acquired Aussie soap “Home & Away” at that time. What a gift of a question for someone like me! I waxed lyrical about my love of continuing drama, finding myself talking about Corrie, Emmerdale and of course my beloved Eastenders – then noticed he wasn’t taking any notes. Shit. I was blowing it. Feeling the doom surround me, I asked HIM a question: what did he think of British sitcom? As luck would have it, it turns out he’s written for sitcom, so HE waxes lyrical about the state of British comedy. Anyway, to cut a long story short, he says we’re done and did I want to start that September on the course? I didn’t hear him somehow and asked him when I’d hear. He says, very patiently, he’s just offered me a place RIGHT NOW; did I want it? I just squeaked, “Yes.”
So I started at uni and thought I’d be hanging out with artistes, but we were all just regular students who got drunk too much and wrote amazingly crap first drafts and jealously guarded them from each other in case our ideas got stolen. My grandfather’s computer had blown up by this point, so I’d spend most days in the library; I made the mistake of getting on the wrong side of one of the librarians there and she declared war on me, insisting most days all PCs were booked when no one was sitting there. When I’d point this out, she’d challenge me with proving it, to which I’d yell, “I CAN SEE IT WITH MY EYES!” This of course allowed her to throw me out for breaking the silence. I got my own back by smuggling an entire collection of Cahiers Du Cinema out of the reference section on her watch, then posting them back, one by one, to her supervisor.
As time went on at university, most of us began to realise we weren’t as fabulous as we all thought and became more receptive to each other’s ideas. Some of us even started to collaborate. I of course had to do *that* work experience placement at a literary agent as part of the course, which was how I fell into script reading. Time was moving on and I was getting better at writing, but more importantly decoding how scripts work thanks to the reading. I found myself meeting interesting people; some I’d heard of, most I had no idea who they were. But I still pumped them mercilessly for info and gossip; you never know when it might come in useful. And it has, even years later, but more of that in the next post.
I used my contacts with literary agents to get my appalling specs read and received some generous, excellent advice from most of those I sent them to, most notably on overwriting my scene description and on genre convention. I also spent a lot of time traipsing around offices, pretending I wanted to be such things as camera technicians, lighting people and development executives. My plan was simple: I would open my Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, pick a place – literary agent, production company, whatever – and write to them (a real letter, not an email). I would say I was a student and could they possibly help me with a project I was doing? I don’t know if it was the time and they weren’t that busy then, the tone of my letter or the fact they weren’t asked this much (or perhaps a combo of these), but take up on this was high. Of course, many didn’t reply, but I kept going. Even those that declined were very nice; some even phoned me and spoke to me. Others wrote letters back with advice. I still have most of them, in a little black box under the bed.
Anyway, I left university and found myself without a job again; I was doing a bit of script reading here and there, but it was not enough to get by. I had landed a script commission when I finished uni, but as always it was on deferred payment for an independent producer who still hasn’t managed to raise funding to make the damn thing. I managed to land some corporate writing work for the LEGO company, but again it was a few days here and there, not permanent; I’d tried to get a day job, but every time I got to the bit where it said: “Any dependants?” on the application form, I just knew the 22 year old WITHOUT a kid would get the job over me – and guess what: they did, because I flunked interview after interview for jobs I was madly overqualified for. I’d been offered a place on the MA at Goldsmith’s in Novel Writing in London, something I’d dearly have loved to take up but the fact I was a single mother with absolutely no money prevented me when the AHRB turned my application for funding down. I was still living in Bournemouth, but when my son lost his school place because of crazy-ass politics (another looooooong story), I found myself stuck in a one bedroom flat with no garden and a five year old with waaaaaaaaaay too much time on his hands. I also had bucketloads of mice in my cupboards and my cat wasn’t eating them fast enough; there was also the mad neighbour with forty thousand dogs downstairs and the barking was driving me crazy.
So I did what *anyone* would do – I moved. But not within Bournemouth, because that would have been too sensible; I decided to move to the Exeter region and do a PGCE and become a teacher. Sod this writing lark, I was only kidding myself. Time to earn some real money and get a real job…