Before I became a novelist, I enjoyed an unsuccessful career as an actor in London. For almost ten years — from the age of 18 to the age of 27 — I was convinced that the stage was my vocation. I went to drama school after University, I graduated, and then proceeded to make no money as an actor apart from sporadic stints as a TV and film extra.
And when I say, ‘I enjoyed an unsuccessful career as an actor,’ I really mean it. I had a great time. I genuinely enjoyed the process of being an actor e.g. the auditions, being on stage and being an extra on set, even though I wasn’t very good at it. The constant strain between trying to have the time to create art and earn enough money to survive was something I enjoyed markedly less.
By the time I reached my late twenties, it was the latter which made me quit the profession, not the profession itself. I was simply tired of the hustle. But in reflecting on why I was so unsuccessful it occurred to me that acting wasn’t right for me and I wasn’t right for acting. I felt intellectually unstimulated by the profession and bored by it at the end.
Other areas of my life were not developed because acting is all consuming and I wanted to do things like political activism and writing. What I most enjoyed as an actor was “working” (I didn’t get paid, but it sure as hell was work…) as an improv comedian. I produced a show wherein myself and a team of other actors would create an hour-long play from scratch with no script.
In retrospect what I enjoyed about this whole process was the storytelling rather than the acting. I drifted into producing my own work and writing because I wanted to engage with the whole story rather that just a single character I was employed to play. Being able to manage the whole story is something actors don’t often get to do, but novelists always get to do.
I was also engaging with the work of an actor on an intellectual level i.e. let’s analyse the script from a literary perspective — and that’s not what the end product of acting is about. I was not treating the art the way the art needs to be treated for an actor to be successful. In other words, I had chosen the wrong artistic medium for myself.
Still longing for a creative outlet, I turned to writing — surely now I would be successful and finally get the personal satisfaction I wanted as well. Guess again! My first writing attempts were not novels, they were screenplays. My first screenplay was so bad — I looked at it recently and, frankly, I’m embarrassed that I actually showed it to people.
All my attempts at writing screenplays failed. I know when my output is shit. There are technical considerations when writing a screenplay that I didn’t feel compelled enough to learn. Not only that, but a film is a collaborative product. Once a writer completes the screenplay, it gets handed over to a director and the script in many ways becomes the foundation of someone else’s art.
I had chosen the wrong artistic medium for myself again. I am an introvert and I prefer to work alone. I prefer to explore the emotional depth of the characters I create through words rather than visuals. I prefer to manage my creative output completely from start to finish. That’s not something a writer can ever do with a screenplay.
I know so many creatives who start out in one field but find success in another. My advice to budding artists would be — think carefully about what art really suits your personality and your way of working. Think incredibly hard about what you want to explore through your art and what is the best medium through which to explore whatever that is.
If you’re a painter and you hate waiting for your paintings to dry — paint with acrylics rather than oils.
If you’re a photographer and you love being outside — concentrate on landscape and wildlife rather than portraiture.
If you’re crafty but you hate getting your hands dirty — don’t choose painting or pottery, do embroidery instead.
These things may sound obvious, but a lot of artists create art they don’t like because they think it’s the art they should be creating or it’s the most worthy art to create. They don’t ask themselves basic questions like: does making this make me happy? Did I enjoy the process of making that? Ask the questions. Do the introspection and do the work. Be the artist you want to be.
To be a great artist, you must know yourself well. When choosing what medium to work in — selfishly cater to your own satisfaction. For me, that only came with maturity, repeated trial and error and many, many, many failures. But it was worth it
This article by David H. Freedman really touched a nerve with me this week. In it, Freedman argues that valuing intelligence over all other desirable human traits is affording an unearnt privilege to an already blessed stratum of society. Worse still — Freedman notes — is that contemporary society has created structural barriers that hinder the less intelligent, when they are the very people who may need encouragement the most.
Society has become increasingly academicised, and I would argue that this is a profound social ill. Jobs that are unrelated to academia e.g. day-to-day childcare, are now more and more unattainable without degrees (and the costs they incur to get them). Not only is it irrational, but it’s a sad reflection on society that employers value academic achievement over all other characteristics. I don’t know a single parent who would prefer their Nanny to be smart and qualified, but cruel, over someone who is of average intelligence but warm, considerate and kind.
I also don’t know many Graduates who would consider a career as a Nanny desirable. The only person I know who has worked as a Nanny, is someone without a degree. The over-valuation of possessing an academic degree has made the careers that traditionally didn’t need one seem second-best, no matter how vital they are. The people who would rather have a vocational career than scale the corporate ladder have been tossed onto the same scrapheap.
Such a large amount of effort has been expended to make non-academic professions fit into an academic hole one must ask: “but why?”
The drive towards academicisation has been spearheaded by social progressives in spite of the fact that making pricey degrees a prerequisite for employment inherently works against poorer people who are less able to achieve a flashy academic record. Academia is the realm of the Left. This insistence on everyone attending University/College has a lot more to do with Leftists wanting to filter and assimilate the young and impressionable through their own Left-wing institutions, regardless of whether it is in the long-term best interests of the student, than they will ever admit.
But there’s another aspect to this too. As society has become more secular, we have become more used to relying on science and we lean on objective measurements. It’s comfortable to rely on and value intellect as it is something we can measure. However flawed they may be, IQ tests tell us something objective. The trouble is that everyone I know who has ever bragged about their IQ and/or Alma Mater has turned out to be a first rate twat.
And there’s the rub.
A massive downside of society becoming more secular, is that we have lost moral leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. (though they were often not religious leaders), and other people in public life who emphasised humane qualities and values. Nowadays “professional intellectuals” like Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson have huge followings despite striking me as crass, insensitive, and combative — whatever the merits of their work. Their fans often glory in their abrasive take downs of those with whom they disagree.
Human characteristics like kindness, warmth, empathy, humility, self-acceptance, integrity, good character, consideration for others, and humour, are things that can’t be measured and that poses a temptation, not just to employers, to pretend they don’t exist — but try having a work place or personal relationships without them!
Amongst my most intelligence acquaintances are:
A graduate of Oxford University who is banned from the state of China for committing impersonation and fraud. When I knew him, he was a corporate lawyer who liked to brag that he earnt the annual national minimum wage every month after taxes. This individual had a nasty habit of picking on the young women around him and bullying them until their self-worth was so diminished he could get whatever he wanted from them. Sometimes he didn’t even want anything, he would just do it for fun.
There was also a former prospective parliamentary candidate who I began chatting to the first time I went to a political party conference. I was so enamoured by her that I let her manipulate me to further her own ends just because I liked her and so valued her obvious intelligence and competence. I wilfully ignored that her and her partner had cruel nicknames for just about everyone in their immediate social circle and that she was manipulative, domineering, and only kind when it suited her. She was also obese thanks to a marijuana addiction she’d had in University. She didn’t seem to have any friends that she couldn’t use in some way. As soon as I refused to be used — I was no longer a friend.
Ah, and then there is the American Academic who used to like to go on “business trips” with younger male members of staff. Unbeknownst to these unsuspecting young men, he would only book a single room and tell them the hotel was — sadly — fully booked. A quick chat at the reception would soon reveal that to be a lie and another room would be hastily paid for on the company credit card to avoid a(nother?) lawsuit.
I have slowly deleted these people off my social media and out of my life. I don’t want to be around any of them for any part of my day.
Some of the smartest people I know have been amongst the most cruel, dysfunctional, manipulative and immoral. Some of the least academically able have been amongst the kindest, healthiest, righteous, and most decent. The huge emphasis contemporary society has placed on academisation has crowded out the other ways we measure human worth. If the definition of societal good is to build a meritocracy — I hope the definition of merit is broader than merely excelling in the IQ/career/qualifications arms race.
Thankfully, Martin Luther King Jr. left a sermon that can offer some guidance on this issue:
In this speech, King warns all who would listen that a desire for importance can lead to “snobbish exclusivism” — indeed!
One of the most frequent sh*tty reactions to sexual harassment stories in the Press, including but not limited to the #MeToo furore, is the inclination of some folks to sit back and say, “why are the victims only speaking up now?” In the minds of some people, a sexual crime is diminished if there is a lengthy period of time between the event happening and the victim speaking out.
This is totally irrational and rarely true for other crimes. If a murder was committed twenty years ago, and the murderer was still alive, no one would so much as hesitate to put them in prison.
To this, I plead for humanity and compassion to be shown towards alleged victims. Just because an incident of sexual harassment happened in the past does not mean an allegation is less valid, serious, or due process should be any less thorough. There is still stigma and shame attached to sexual crimes. Times change, but they don’t change quickly. Perpetrators aggressively try to discredit and silence their victims. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, the threat of actual violence appears to have been very real.
Sometimes the process of bringing people to justice may be so unpleasant, that vulnerable people come to conclusion that it’s just easier to move on from their experiences.
I have a great deal of empathy with victims of sexual harassment, having witnessed some particularly aggressive sexual harassment whilst working in politics both in the UK and USA. In the particular case I mention in the link above, the women I know pushed on every door they could to try and deal with their harasser, and only chose to start ‘speaking out’ publicly when every other option had been exhausted.
Unfortunately, I also empathise with victims of sexual harassment who fail to speak out because of something I witnessed as a child, and made the choice not to talk to anyone about it.
When I was sixteen, in the first year of my A-Levels, I was acting as a stage hand for a school play. The incident took place during a rehearsal. Behind the scenes, the stage was dark, and there weren’t many people around. Only present were a handful of other students and a couple of teachers milling about and minding their own business. I was carrying props back to their starting positions when I saw a male teacher touch a female student.
He had his hand on the back of her head and had pulled her closer to him. The touch looked like a caress. The female student did not seem phased by his attention. His face was close to hers — only just not close enough for them to be kissing. Once he saw me, he stood straight upright and let go of her. He looked alarmed. She didn’t turn around. I carried on walking.
I’ve thought about this incident many times in the past fifteen years — and the question I ask myself most often is this:
Why didn’t I speak out?
Here are the reasons — not excuses — I didn’t speak out, presented with no judgement.
I didn’t trust the adults around me to believe me and treat my word as more valid than/just as valid as that of a teacher’s word.
To this day I have serious questions about the integrity, sensitivity, and competence of the teacher’s at my secondary school for a plethora of reasons. I simply do not believe that I would have been considered a credible witness.
This teacher had also had cause (and I would say irrational cause at times) to discipline me over the course of my school career. I felt that this teacher really didn’t like me. I was worried that any allegation against him, however true, might be perceived as a vindictive act on my part.
To this day I am not sure what I saw.
What did I see? Was it sexual? Was it merely platonic/if somewhat misplaced affection? If it was sexual — Was it welcome? Was it exploitative? I have no idea what the nature of that incident was. I know that she was facing him and that he pulled her into him by the back of her hair. I don’t know anything else. It was dark. It wasn’t that dark. What exactly did I see? I don’t know. And I don’t feel like I can ask either of the other parties involved.
By the time my juvenile mind had processed the confusing thoughts and emotions surrounding the incident, it was too late.
By the time I came to the correct conclusion that a grown male teacher should not be touching an unrelated fourteen/fifteen year old girl in any way, the metaphysical statute of limitations on this act had passed. Rationally or irrationally, in mind, the “right time” had well and truly passed. I just inherently felt that any claim would be diminished because of the time that had passed between the act happening and me convincing myself that it, whatever it was, was wrong.
The teacher was popular. I was not.
Secondary school was the hardest phase of my life to date. I was neither popular with other students nor the teacher’s who considered me a trouble maker and a non-conformist. Despite being a more than able student, I struggled daily to conform to their ideals. I sensed that teacher’s wanted something from me and I just couldn’t fathom what the right answer ever was. Intellectually, physically, and emotionally: I was isolated and alone.
The teacher in question, however, was considered one of the “cool teachers”, he was generally well-liked by his colleagues and my peers. A lot of my peers considered him to be their “favourite” teacher. I have mutual friends with this teacher on Facebook, as he’s one of the rare few teachers a lot of my friends wanted to stay in touch with. I was intimidated by his likability and this added to my sense that I wouldn’t be believed.
Not speaking out was the easiest, simplest, best thing for me.
Without any certainty, I decided the most rational thing was to keep shtum (until telling a world of strangers on Medium fourteen/fifteen years later…). No consequences for them, but also no consequences for me. What if the encounter was sexual and welcome? Then she may have lied to protect him. Then it would be the word of two people against me. But by staying quiet there were no questions about my integrity. No being interviewed with a sceptical eye by teacher’s I already didn’t trust. No disruption to my own already troubled school career. No further isolation from my peers.
The trouble with not speaking out or dealing with sexual harassment at all, however, is it leaves the perpetrator free to carry on business-as-usual. Or worse — more confident in their faith that they will always be able to get away with their behaviour.
The consequences of me talking about this could have been that I destroyed someone’s career on a false assumption. I’m strangely confident that I did not let an aggressive paedophile get away with anything, and yet I still have enough doubts about wether or not I did the right thing to prompt me to write this article.
I know the names of both the people involved. I’ve looked them up on Facebook. We have mutual friends. Both of them appear to have fairly ordinary lives. If there’s anything haunting their consciences, they haven’t spoken about it either.
The purpose and message of this article is this: be kind to alleged victims, but also fight for due process. This is a world of shades of grey. Nothing about sexual harassment is black and white. I am someone who always thought they would be strong enough to speak out, but when I had cause to, I did not.
I know I would be strong enough to say something now, but I didn’t always have that strength.