I’m pretty sure it was Dumbledore who first said that being kind is a seriously underrated quality.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. The longer I spend writing, the more I realise that I’m developing a private ‘code of conduct’. It’s a sort of informal, unwritten set of rules that I’ve come up with to help me make decisions, both about my writing itself, and some of the practical things that go hand in hand with trying to forge a career out of it.
Do other people do this? I have no idea. But hey, I’m a big fan of lists, and also they’re a really handy format for blog posts.
When I started trying to put these ‘rules’ down on paper, I noticed a recurring theme. Loads of them these days can be filed under ‘being kind’.
1. Be kind to your audience
This might be personal preference, but when I read a story or watch a play, I don’t really want to feel like I’m being bludgeoned over the head by someone who hates me.
Most of us will have been part of an audience that has felt like we were under attack by the person on stage. In my experience, it kills the room. Now, I’m not saying ‘Don’t get angry’. Lots of people do angry really, really well. Look at Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s fantastically furious Fleabag, which is mad as hell at all kinds of stuff, but brings you along for the ride.
But for me, I usually find that I’m better off channelling the reason for my anger into something gentler. One of the early drafts of a scene in my play 7 Veils, basically went like this:
Mata Hari: (to audience) Hey you lot – especially you MEN. Look at you, WATCHING THIS PLAY and JUDGING WOMEN. History is fucked up because of YOU. TIME TO FEEL REALLY FUCKING GUILTY.
Luckily (and thanks to my savvy collaborators, Annika and Laura), that version never made it in front of an audience. In fact, we made it a rule (see how much I like rules?) that, however angry she got, our Mata Hari would never take it out on her audience, because we wanted them to be on her side. We thought that if they liked her, and cared about her, we’d actually get our point across about how history has treated her much better.
2. Be kind to other writers
I’m talking in a critical sense – I don’t really care that much whether you hold doors open for them or not.
Most of the time, I actually really love giving feedback on other writers’ work. But what has only dawned on me relatively recently is that, to give a better critique, I need to focus on what is useful for the other writer, even if that means holding back some really clever and insightful comments.
At Playwright School, they used to get the writer to lead their own feedback session, by asking the group only the questions they wanted to know the answers to. In my current fiction writers’ group, it’s the opposite; there’s an unspoken agreement of shut up and take it on the chin, mate, even if we all say your story made us throw up repeatedly out of sheer embarrassment for you. (I might be exaggerating. A bit.)
I think maybe the approach I want to aim for now is somewhere in between. Harsh criticism can be necessary and important, but I try and remind myself that this isn’t my piece – I don’t have to feedback absolutely everything I would do differently.
3. Be kind at events
This one’s obvious, and can be filed under ‘Don’t be a dick’. If someone invites you to read at an event, and you agree, then be nice about it. Say nice things to other performances if you liked their stuff (I get horribly shy about this, but I give it a go). Wait til you get home to slag off the ones you didn’t like. Thank the organisers when you leave, and don’t make in-jokes on the microphone, or get drunk and run way over your time limit.
And if you’re an event organiser – be bloody lovely to your performers if you possibly can. Make an effort to learn how to say and spell their names, and if in doubt, clarify what they’d like to be billed as. Thank them and congratulate them on their performances, unless they were so dire that your expression of horror and bemusement will only give you away. It’s tough, I know. But it’s your job – and you kinda brought it on yourself.
4. Be kind to yourself
The thing I hear most often around Manchester’s delightful literature scene is this: ‘I feel so bad about not going to… [insert event title of your choice].’ Even if it feels like all your friends and everyone who matters in the whole universe went to something that you were too ill/burnt out/busy with your wife’s science fiction themed birthday party to go to – the world won’t end. The great thing about living in such a creative city is that there’s so much to choose from, you couldn’t possibly get to everything.
Same goes for deadlines. I work full time, and I also try to have a life. The trouble with that is that sometimes things get in the way of STUFF I REALLY SHOULD DO IF I’M SERIOUS ABOUT THIS WRITING THING – things like having a drink with a friend in need, or my grandparents dying. These things matter too. It stings if you miss an opportunity or deadline that mattered to you, but sometimes you just have to breathe, and let it go.
5. And, just for good measure, try and be kind to the other people in your life who love you.
Especially the ones who aren’t writers. Dear god, you’re gonna need them.
NB: There are, of course, times when ‘being kind’ is not the order of the day. For each of the rules above, I could probably have added a caveat of ‘(but don’t take shit from…)’. Sometimes you’ve gotta be a warrior rather than a peacemaker. But that’s a subject for another blog post…
Stuff coming up
I’m about to launch myself into a pretty busy and exciting autumn. Here are some highlights:
- First Draft, the cabaret night I run in Manchester, has two pretty exciting events on the horizon. On 17th October, we’ve got our Crush event at The Castle Hotel, and for Halloween we’ll be getting spooky at the marvellous Chetham’s Library. Find out more and come and join us!
- I’m about to go back into rehearsals with my theatre company Faro Productions to develop 7 Veils – my play about exotic dancer turned spy Mata Hari. We’ve got a fantastic new creative team on board and I can’t wait to see how the next phase of this project turns out, so watch this space!
- I’ll be performing something animal-friendly at Cheers in Chorlton on Saturday 1st October, at brilliant looking event organised by RSPCA Manchester and Salford branch. The spoken word section is organised by wordsmith Dave Hartley and there’s music and comedy too. Come along!
- I couldn’t possibly say who the next guest on my writing pal Dan Carpenter’s Paperchain Podcast is going to be. But, y’know, you might wanna check it out…