Whatever You Say (How not to ask a writer for advice)
Jack is not his real name. He has a wife and children and as much as I know they all lived in London for the twenty three years until moving to Brighton a year ago. Brighton is not the actual city. Twenty three years ago I was featured in a project which he directed. The people in that project were young people in care of The Social Services. He was in care. It was a campaigning project and I always looked up to him. He was older and I rudderless searching for direction with only battered instinct as guide. The project was groundbreaking at the time and sparked off a national debate which continues until today.
Recently I received an email from Jack asking if I’d look at his autobiographical manuscript to which I agreed. It is not easy looking at manuscripts from people you know so I’m prepared “how do you want my critique?” I replied “light or for real?”.He wants it straight up he says. I ask for a small manageable selection of the manuscript. A day later I receive four hundred pages and two prefaces. My heart plummets.
True to form the manuscript is over written. I needn’t read it all. I can’t read it all.In truth it’s painful to read because there are so many cul-de-sacs. “Hey come to my city. I have just built it.” So I go to the city but there is only rubble. Walking around the cityare drug addled builders with no parents and no home. There are holes in the roads. There are no buildings just mounds of bricks and mortars. There is a sign that says THIS ISA CITY but it doesn’t feel like a city and it doesn’t look like a city. Not even a city that has been bombed. It is just a place with rubble and broken signage and no Danger signs, no warning signs. It is treacherous.
So I call Jack. “You need help with The City” I tell him. “You need a city planner.... I know you can build it....” I say “but there’s alot of work to do... Let’s start with the street map.... I know a planner who under your direction can help mark it out.... in fact there are a couple so I’ll do a little research if you like... ” there’s a pause “...this is all part of the process of writing...” I say there’s another pause “Did you read it?” He asks “I didn’t need to” I replied “The first ten pages were enough and really that is all I asked for but I got four hundred pages and I asked for a small section.”
There was a silence.
“You have no idea what I have been through to get this script to where it is” he says “no idea at all”
Oh shit. He talks at me in a manner that disallows dialogue. Each sentence locks me out and at the same time drags me in and kicks me in the ribs. This is his city. The manuscriptbecomes less and less relevant in his rant under his struggle to write it. It's an old story.
I reminded myself that both of us were brought up in care. It’s a horrible phone call and continues for thirty minutes until eventually he runs a little lower on steam. I maintain my initial advice. I will find the editors to work through the Manuscript with him and I will send him their details. The phone call ends.
I am proud of myself that I stayed calm and didn’t rise to his aggression, that I empathised with a shield and that I did give the advice I thought best. I see him walking through the rubble kicking stones dust rising around him. Ranting at me. The next day I receive an email informing me not to bother researching for editors. I sent an email back that said Dear Jack, Whatever you say. Best Wishes Lemn Sissay.