From Write-Off to Writer: How 2014 Changed My Life
Life Several years ago, when I was a penniless student (as opposed to a penniless graduate with a mountain of student debt), I took part in an English Lit class led by none other than Germaine Greer. Memories work in mysterious ways – I’m afraid I can’t for the life of me recall now what the class was about, but what I do remember vividly is an off-the-cuff remark Greer made. She argued that the adjective “life-changing” has completely lost its power because it’s so overused in popular culture.
She certainly has a point. The media harps on about “life-changing” events that are anything but. Similarly, advertisers are quick to promise us that everything from toasters to anti-aging creams are “revolutionary” products that we can’t do without. And perhaps you, like me, reach for the mute button when reality TV show contestants bang on about their “dreams” and “journeys”. We’ve heard it all before. It’s clichéd.
But then again, a cliché wouldn’t be a cliché if it wasn’t sometimes true. I’ve come to the conclusion that this year, more than any other, has in fact changed my life. Heck, why not take a couple of clichéd phrases, throw in the adverb we all love to hate and say, “At the end of the day, 2014 has literally been life-changing”? In 12 months I’ve turned my world upside down (another phrase we hear too often) to become a writer.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write for a living. We didn’t have a computer when I was a kid, just a temperamental electronic typewriter (Let’s just say that Dad’s never wholeheartedly embraced technology. He only agreed to buy a colour telly about twenty years after everyone else, when I was three and Mum was complaining that I’d never learn about the different colours the Play School presenters kept talking about if everything on the screen looked greyish. Even then Dad couldn’t be persuaded to buy a TV with that new-fangled invention, the remote control.) I used to type scripts for EastEnders (as a hobby – I was neither a child prodigy nor on the soap’s payroll, sadly). My Gran and I would do kitchen table read-throughs of each script (I’d play Angie, she’d play Pat). I took it all a bit too seriously, even asking Gran to time the scenes so that we’d know whether I’d written enough for an episode.
A few years later (in the days when people still sent letters instead of squeezing everything into 140 characters), I wrote to an EastEnders scriptwriter, Christopher Reason. He kindly sent me a very helpful, thoughtful reply full of good advice. He also gently pointed out that twelve was too young to launch a scriptwriting career, no matter how keen I was… Hopes of writing a Hollywood blockbuster would have to wait.
Funnily enough, all the big ideas I had back then didn’t take into account the need to keep a roof over my head and put food on the table. By the time I was all grown-up, I found I didn’t have much spare time for creative writing anymore. I took a series of office jobs to pay the bills and, after a few years, became pretty depressed. At the back of my mind was a niggling worry that I’d ended up on the wrong track somehow and was in danger of letting my ambitions be written-off. I started to lose hope that I’d ever be able to make a career out of scriptwriting.
That was my frame of mind in January this year. I desperately wanted to make a go of scriptwriting, but didn’t know where to start. How could I balance a demanding full-time job with learning about the art of creating a decent script? I didn’t have the time, money or energy to take a scriptwriting MA, so surely the life of a writer was not open to me.
Little did I know that 2014’s life-changing superpowers would soon kick-in.
When my family suggested that I look for a part-time scriptwriting course, I was adamant that there would be nothing suitable out there. I consulted Google in an effort to prove to them that no such thing existed.
Me: Look, these search results prove it: there are NO scriptwriting courses that don’t involve studying full-time and racking up humungous fees!
Mum: Well, what about that one there?
I squinted at the screen.
Mum: Evening classes, designed to fit around the demands of your day job. That’s what it says.
My jaw dropped.
To cut a long story short (which is kind of what scriptwriting is about), I’d soon signed up to City Academy’s scriptwriting evening classes for beginners. And what fantabulous (yes, I thought I’d made it up too, but it’s actually a proper word) classes they turned out to be. In short, they made it clear that you don’t need to lock yourself away in a garret and wait for your muse in order to write for a living.
To ease everyone’s nerves during the first class, the tutor asked us to scribble down the most toe-curlingly awful dialogue we could think of. Stilted pleasantries, meandering conversations and heated debates about cheese sandwiches were the order of the day. When we read those scenes aloud to each other, though, something funny happened – literally. What we’d initially thought of as awful made us all laugh. Not award-winning comedy material, of course, but not completely without merit either.
The golden rule, the tutor pointed out, is that there’s no such thing as “bad” writing – just don’t expect perfection first time round. This gave everyone in the class a real sense of creative freedom – something that I’d previously assumed could only be gained from several months spent backpacking far, far away in order to “find yourself”.
That’s not to say that the classes were plain-sailing. I often worked late in my office and so would usually miss the first part of each class, and it was difficult to concentrate or keep my eyes open after a day of admin and meetings. What’s more, it wasn’t love at first sight between me and this proper, grown-up scriptwriting malarkey, with all its rules and strict format. If your dialogue isn’t positioned in exactly the right spot on the page, for example, your script won’t be taken seriously by the industry. I had (and still have) doubts about whether I’ve got what it takes to write a compelling script – the process of creating convincing plots, characters and dialogue is undoubtedly lengthy and challenging.
But by the third or fourth class, something in my head clicked into place. I started to understand what makes scriptwriting addictive and satisfying for many professional writers.
The Eureka moment came when we were each asked to read aloud some short scenes we’d written and the tutor suggested minor adjustments to them. I discovered that something as small as changing a word or adding a full stop can alter the whole meaning of a scene, giving your script greater depth and clarity. Writing a script is rather like writing a poem, in that respect – economical use of language is essential. You have to keep pushing yourself to say more with less and always show, never tell.
By the middle of my second scriptwriting course (more evening classes, held at Sadler’s Wells, no less), I knew that not only was scriptwriting a passion, I was starting to think of it seriously as a career option. Was I brave enough to take the plunge and try to make a living as Writer of Scripts and Random Stuff (ooh, elegant job title)?
By my 29th birthday in April, I’d made up my mind. I was going to take a risk and go for it: I resigned from my office job. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, and it was with regret that I said goodbye to a lively, warm-hearted group of colleagues – not to mention a regular income. There were other drawbacks too: over the next few months, I had to give up my flat, the ability to meet up with some of my closest friends regularly, and the pleasure of living close to all of the art and culture that London has to offer. By the end of the summer, I’d cleared my desk, packed my bags and disappeared off to the middle of nowhere (where the air is cleaner and the rent cheaper!).
I also changed my name, choosing to call myself Liz Lockhart, having decided that alliteration is where it’s at if I want a memorable pen name. I now share my Gran’s name – as a tribute to the person who helped me to take my first steps in scriptwriting.
Looking ahead to 2015 and (shock, horror!) the start of my thirties, I know two things for sure:
1. I will start lying shamelessly about my age;
2. I will try my hardest to produce good scripts for good people, even if I don’t end up with a shelf full of awards or my own production company.
If you’re reading this article on New Year’s Day 2015, worrying that what you want most in life will forever be out of your reach, don’t give up hope. What’s happened to me this year shows that you don’t have to write-off your ambitions – you just need to be brave enough to step out of your comfort zone in order to fulfil them.
You can follow Liz on Twitter @LizLockhart1985.