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