Five things writing has taught me about life

I’ve been writing, in one way or another, for over fifteen years now. It’s been an incredible, varied journey of intense highs and lows. I highly recommend writing, but it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about writing. And writing has also taught me a thing or two about life:

Nothing is ever wasted

In writing, a huge amount of time is spent re-writing. Before a play makes it to the stage, I might have completed eight or nine drafts in total. In some cases, almost none of the original dialogue or ideas survive to the final script. Is it a waste of time? Not at all.

Every draft teaches me something about the play and about how to make it better. 

Like chapters of your life, each draft has good and bad points. But just because they didn’t last, it doesn’t make them a failure. I’ve learned from that to view phases of life as drafts. Sort of. Or at least, to understand that life is a constant process of trying to be better. 

Figuring out what the characters want, or why the scene isn’t working. 

Which brings me to my next lesson…

Don’t be afraid to make changes…or mistakes.

It’s really important in writing to be able to kill your darlings. That is, to change something that you’re really proud of, or afraid to lose, when you know it just isn’t working. 

In that situation, it’s about seeing past your emotions, not letting attachment to something unhelpful hold you back. It’s important in writing to be ruthless and get rid of anything that doesn’t benefit the bigger picture.

I’ve also done the same in life; written out a character (a destructive friend or two), changed the setting (moved house) or created a new storyline (got a new job). It’s quite liberating sometimes, to press the ‘delete’ button on something in your life and look at a blank space.

There might be something or someone that you can’t bear to part with. But you really should, because the story might better without them.

And writing has taught me not to be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes can be corrected in a piece of writing, of course. Sometimes you have friendly collaborators to point them out to you. Sometimes not-so-friendly critics. 

It can be frustrating to make mistakes (trust me, in writing I’ve made some significant ones!). But sometimes only making a mistake can lead you to get it right in the end.

Nothing will ever turn out exactly how you expect it to

Writing plays is a particularly peculiar, but rewarding, experience. 

I’m always the first person to watch my play. Literally. As the actors perform it on opening night, I’m the only person who has seen it before. I saw it for the first time perhaps two years ago in my living room as I tapped away on my laptop. Scene One

People often ask me if the production was how I imagined it would be. The answer is always – no. 

Naively, when I first started writing plays I expected the eventual performance to be exactly as I’d seen it in my mind. The actors would look exactly as I’d imagined, they would speak as I imagined and everything would just be so.

But of course, that’s not possible. And that’s not the point. And once I realised that, the process of writing plays became even more fascinating. I found freedom in not being sure how parts of it would turn out in performance. Being open to different ideas and approaches. 

And I found that letting go of a plan is sometimes the best way to make something happen – in its own way.

The best things in life don’t have to be free – but they should cost you 

Very few people are fortunate enough to make a living doing something creative, let alone a good living. Most of us accept that the financial rewards are limited, in exchange for the huge emotional and spiritual rewards of creativity. 

Or not. Let’s be honest, sometimes being creative isn’t even satisfying.

It can feel like a miserable, thankless struggle to get anything done or any appreciation for your efforts. Some people claim they enjoy that struggle, and money simply corrupts their creative purity.

I think that’s dreadful virtue signalling. It’s perfectly fine to make money from creativity and to enjoy it. But most of the time, you won’t.

Sometimes, more financially-motivated friends ask me why I pour time, energy and effort into a project that won’t make me any money. Why it might actually cost me to be involved with it in the first place. And why I would make myself tired, overstretched and socially unavailable. 

I usually feel a secret smile play across my lips as I consider how to answer. Which is hard, because it’s impossible to put into words what I get out of it. The enormous thrill in watching an audience experience something that came from your imagination. How enriching the process of getting to that point can be, with all its trials.

The best things in life don’t have to be free. But I think anything that’s really worth experiencing or learning should cost you in some way. So that you know you really deserved it.

You don’t have to explain or defend who you are

Being a writer, or any type of creative person, is about choosing an identity. A lot more so than deciding to be a physicist or a chef or a librarian. People understand why you might want to be any of those things. Or they just don’t give it any thought. 

But a writer? It’s a choice that, at certain points in life, you’ll have to explain or defend. Artistic lifestyles are seen as indulgent and living in thrall to your emotions. But in my experience, it’s the exact opposite. Artists have to be incredibly tough and in command of themselves to survive the attritional nature of creativity.

It’s all about listening to your inner voice. People will constantly question your choices, and persuade you that it’s an infantile pursuit you ought to grow out of. 

But is it their life? No. Unless you believe in reincarnation (I don’t, so it’s all about the here and now) you only have one chance to be you. And that’s the you that you’ve chosen to be. 

When people question your choices, they usually want to take something away from you. But if the drive to be you is strong – whatever you that is – it will always come back.