Friday, 15 April 2011

Mentors, Guides and Gandalf [Grand Elf for the illiterate]

I posted this comment on the excellent service offered to writers, and I have taken advantage of what is on offer so I speak from experience, by BubbleCow, and it seemed to me a point worthy of wider interest:

My personal gripe from my former career (advertising copywriter) is I miss the Traffic Manager, Hazel, for that was her name - we followed each other from agency to agency. She knew me, could buck me up when down, kick me when lazy, and keep me on the rails generally. A personal mentor who takes no shit but understands my moods would be my lottery prize.

Hazel was the most unflappable individual I have ever met. Her only fault was that she would insist on telling me her dreams from the previous night. As far as work was concerned, she could coax a stone out of blood. And invariably it would be a gem (I'm not blowing my own trumpet, but I was good).

Now that I foolishly throw myself on the sword of my own angst in an effort to write something trully original, I miss her. I need Hazel to tell me when I am doing good and when I am just indulging in pathetic, creative tantrums. A good slap would not go amiss, though Hazel would never slap but just recount her latest dream. It was enough.

She should have gone into publishing were it not for the fact she was not hugely motivated by literature.

I suppose there are two points arising: every writer needs a mentor; and I should get in touch with Hazel again.

I ought to add Hazel became the Production Director of a number of agencies so was no light-weight.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Whither Confidence?

Let's start, like all indifferent news articles, with a platitude: personal confidence is as wobbly as a jelly set before a gang of children at a street party to celebrate a royal wedding. [ I expect a call from one of the tabloids any minute now after such a well extended, topical metaphor. Hello? The phone's ringing.]

If you follow any sport, you will hear trainers, coaches and managers as well as the individuals concerned constantly referring to this mysterious quality described as confidence. You will watch a team of talented individuals either dominate or collapse and so celebrate or scratch your head. Certain individuals seem to be able to instil confidence in others, Sir Alex Ferguson being the exemplar. Indeed, the measure of a good manager in any sphere is one who can inspire confidence in those he or she manages.

But what is confidence?

For those who know no better and have no experience to prove otherwise, confidence frequently emerges as arrogance. Ugly but forgivable in the young. Less attractive in those who are older. But it is a fine line that exists between an overwhelming sense of self, of one's superiority, and the comfortable knowledge of what one is and what one can achieve. This is not to say confidence is the recognition of one's boundaries in the sense that one knows how far to trespass but the recognition of what binds you and how much further you must push. It is at this point that one becomes wobbly and self-belief is your only ally. You can see the circularity of the argument. Pushing further means placing yourself in a position where you have no experience, where, like the young, you must rely again on naked belief in your abilities. How easy it is for the circle to crack and for you to doubt the talent that brought you to this point.

It happens to individuals who play team sports; the multi-million pound striker you goes game after game without scoring a goal. It infects whole teams who find themselves unaccountably losing after reigning supreme. And most especially it paralyses those who rely on their wits to produce.

I have yet to define confidence, only the situation that anyone who writes will recognise. Confidence is like water. It trickles away between the synapses without you being aware until you find yourself dehydrated and depressed for no obvious reason. The situation is made no easier by the fact that the motivation for some of us who write is to assert ourselves, to express our individuality through words. I make this distinction of a writer who writes to push boundaries from those who write for more obvious commercial reasons not to say that one is better than the other but that the latter is more amenable to being motivated than the former.

Given a brief, the objective is clear so the writer who struggles can be encouraged. Given no brief but the desire to bring to the surface some ineffable idea, who can rally? It is this ambition that makes certain authors famously difficult. The struggle they face is with themselves and out of that struggle the work is created - if and when it is.

If this were a well-rounded article, I would now offer the magic solution. Bang and the dirt is gone.

I have this vague belief that a lapse in confidence for a writer is similar to a stitch for a long-distance runner. You have to persevere; run it off. But it is a rubbish metaphor. You never notice your confidence draining away. It is only when, like me, you are trying to write a letter for a part-time job that has your name all over it in embossed lettering and you cannot string an opening sentence together after three days of banging your head against the screen that you discover jellies look positively concrete compared to you.

Having said that, this is a dreadful warning for anyone with aspirations that are out of control: an interview with Tony Hancock, one of Britain's most brilliant radio comics, which took place in 1961 - though according to Wikipedia it was in 1960 - with John Freeman on Face to Face and just before his break with his writers, Simpson and Galton, and subsequent rapid decline into alcoholism and eventual suicide in 1968.

Anon: Fequently on radio and television and nine films you play artists and intellectuals…

TH: Yes

Anon: Does this mean you would like to be one?

TH: Well actually, I think I am deep down. It's never been appreciated entirely but I think it's there. I think I can safely say that. It's only a question of time.

Anon: Before what?

TH: Before it's recognised.

Correction: The quote is not from Face to Face: I've  just watched the original interview on YouTube and though fascinating the above does not feature - I got it from BBC Radio Extra Bollocks (the link will only last for a week). However, the Freeman interview is well worth thirty minutes of your time, be you a fan or not. Part I, Part II, Part III.