Trust me, you know Abi Morgan. You may not know it, but you have seen her work. Shame, Iron Lady, Birdsong, The Hour? Any of this ringing a bell? No, she wasn’t in them, she wrote them. I didn’t realise her extensive and brilliant CV until I arrived at Theatre Royal Haymarket for her Masterclass. To me, she was the writer of Lovesong that I saw at the Lyric Hammersmith and rather liked. Needless to say, when she walked onto the stage, she had my full attention.
She opens her talk with “I Know Nothing”. No word of a lie, “The one thing I know is that I know nothing.” She moves on and sets up an analogy, this bit is important because it will come up a lot. Morgan sees herself as strange, as a young child she talked out loud. As time went on, she became aware of the looks and invested in a dog and Bluetooth headsets to look like she was at least talking to a living thing. The talking was white noise, but from that white noise came something, a high pitch frequency, a story that came with urgency. She called this the dog whistle. In everything she writers, she searches for the dog whistle, a self-regulating driving force of any play, television screen or film script that she may grace.
Morgan had a background that I’m finding more and more writers have; inescapable artistic talent. Jonathan Church for example, back in December, spoke about being in theatres since puberty. Morgan was brought up by an actress and a director, her sister is an actress, she’s now married to an actor. Her decision to be a writer almost makes her the black sheep of her family. No doubt, she was brought up in an environment that encouraged creativity and the arts, no matter how many times you have to go behind the sofa looking for change.
Morgan’s journey was not a simple one; she spent a good ten years as a caretaker during the day and a waitress at night. She also spent those ten years being 20, an age of questions, discovery and more immediate gratification. Not a good work ethic if you want to be a writer, still this gives me hope. I have another 6 years of being 20, getting things wrong and to finish something. It is the questions and discovery that can turn a woman that knows nothing to a writer with a story. One of her early dog whistles was British Nationalism, resulting in Skinned in 1998. Morgan is always on the quest for the whistle blowing elephant in the room.
She is a text book writer, she craves structures, rather daringly comparing it to mathematics. She believes in thorough research, first person accounts and using truth to fuel her fiction. In meeting a grieving mother, she found her dog whistle for the television drama Murder, in meeting a gentleman with a sex addiction craving a connection, she found her dog whistle for Shame. At her core, she is modest and dedicated. Despite all she has achieved, she has walked away from projects that do not grasp her, but she has also been dropped. Morgan is honest about the industry, especially television and film.
Again, using a brilliant analogy, she compares the writing process to pregnancy. If you are writing for the stage, it is your baby, you are central to all. Directors and producers will fetch you those strange midnight cravings and help you all the way through the terrible twos and rebellious teenage phase. In film, you are a surrogate. As soon as a pitch is spoken and your plot or characters find themselves in the void between you and the producers, the thing is no longer yours. You’ll still get credit and money, but you have given birth to something you cannot solely own. How many times have you seen a film on the name of the director? How many times have you seen a film on the name of the writer? Stage and screen are worlds apart.
What did aspiring writers take away from all this? Quite a lot. We certainly know the difference between a writer and the writer. For screen you are a writer, for stage, you are the writer. I’m in no hurry to copy her writing schedule of waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning, but I’m all for fake deadlines and telling trusted friends you’ll get it to them by that deadline. Keep networking and find yourself a champion, someone to sing your praises. If you do show work, invite literary agent’s assistant, they are the true driving force. Enter all the competitions, keep doing it. as well as reading plays, read screenplays. Find a film you admire, see how they got that wonderful visual thing on a sheet of paper and copy it. Send an uncorrected draft before you’ve had a chance to reread it, shame and embarrassment will fuel your self-criticism. Arthur Millar famously kept one sentence on his typewriter as he wrote to help focus his work. Find that sentence, harness that whistle and go for it. If you can’t pay the bills, there’s always the back of the sofa.