Monday Writing Motivation: My life in writing

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

I fell in love with reading when I was in a rehabilitation hospital recovering from polio.* No sooner had I escaped, than I tried my hand at writing but, as I remember it, failed abysmally. Later, in my teens, I tried again writing a string of stories and half-finished novels featuring adventures  set in exotic locations. One, I recall, concerned a journey through the Bornean jungles. To get the details right I turned to a one-book encyclopaedia my family owned. The entry on Borneo was no longer than a page or two…

At senior school I discovered marketing. I wrote a series of racy short stories which I typed and bound and rented out at thruppence a go.

Looking back now on my early career as a writer, my greatest regret is that I had no one to turn to for advice. I knew nothing about story construction, less about character development. School essays consisted for the most part of bland responses to such scintillating prompts as: Write an essay on your summer holidays, or, A day at the beach. Not one of our teachers ever broached the subject of story at all.

I studied English at university. Perhaps I’d hoped that at last somewhere among all the text analysis I’d find clues that would help me tell the stories that were still bubbling inside.

Ah, fond hope.

Of course, I’d always read voraciously, from the days after I was discharged from my long stint in hospital. When I exhausted the children’s books in our local library, I was allowed to forage in the adult section.

So books became my mentors. Want to know how to structure a story? Read The Old Man and the Sea. Want to learn how to write sparkling, laugh-out-loud dialogue? Read any of the Jeeves books. Want to immerse yourself in irony, dip into any of Jane Austen’s novels.

And so on and so forth.

So, by trial and error I slowly made my way through the labyrinth, experimenting with form, with character, with story structure.

To earn a living, I turned away from daily journalism, in which I’d worked for three or four years as writer and sub-editor, and to television, because it seemed to me that tv offered me a chance to stretch those creative muscles in a way that was denied me by the strictures of reporting. For a couple of years I learned the nuts and bolts of scriptwriting churning out industrial documentaries, training videos and commentaries for television doccies.

In time, one producer I worked for asked me whether I thought I could write comedy. My thoughts instantly flashed back to P.G. Wodehouse. Surely all that absurd humour I’d absorbed reading Bertie and Jeeves’ adventures – not to mention the Rumpole stories, or the comic novels of Peter de Vries – would have helped me develop a funny bone?

“Of course,” I said airily. “No problem.”

And proceeded then to write a series of short sitcoms set in a restaurant with a cast of five. And somehow succeeded in provoking a little laughter in the audience the show attracted.

But then I got my first real chance. Having demonstrated my chops on that little series – each episode was only twelve minutes long – I was invited to work with the cast of a brand new half-hour sitcom called S’gudi Snaysi – township lingo for “It’s good, it’s nice”.

The central character was to be called S’dumo. He was a lodger in the backroom of a house belonging to Sis May, whose niece, Thoko, was an actress, and whose curmudgeonly neighbour Louisa instantly took against S’dumo.

Together with the cast, we brainstormed stories for the first season. I then wrote the episodes which we in turn read aloud at sessions around the producer’s table. It taught me about the enormous strength of collaboration. It also taught me that the weaknesses in a piece of writing – especially writing intended for the screen – is revealed instantly when it is read aloud. If it doesn’t sound funny, if it doesn’t smell funny, if it doesn’t feel funny, then however funny it might have looked on the page, it simply isn’t funny.

Over the next five years I wrote seventy-eight episodes of what became the most popular television programme in South Africa. I won awards and ecstatic newspaper reviews. But of course, since my scripts were translated into Zulu, my largely English-speaking circle of friends were, by and large, unimpressed.

“S’gudi what? Is that something I should be aware of?” someone would say over a dinner party table, and I’d murmur something about the show being directed at a Zulu-speaking audience, and the conversation would drift on.

But when I had encounters with the show’s intended viewers, and they learned that I was the author of their favourite show, they’d be at once confounded (“A white guy wrote S’gudi Snaysi? Come on!”) and somewhat in awe.

Of course I basked in the adulation, and shrugged off the indifference. It seemed metaphorical of the contradiction of South Africa itself.

In due course I went on to head-write a number of different soaps – sometimes, to impress ourselves, we’d call them “daily dramas”.

And then, in 2006, with Jo-Anne Richards and my partner Trish Urquhart, whom I’d met on the set of one of those soaps – she was the head of the art department, I the head writer, it was a typical soapy romance – we founded All About Writing.

Now, there were a number of reasons for this career-changing decision. Two weighed most heavily for me.

Firstly, Trish and I had just bought our narrowboat in the UK, and an online creative writing business seemed the perfect fit with the peripatetic lifestyle we’d planned crusing the rivers and canals of England.

But, much more important for Jo-Anne and me, was our determination to give other writers the help with scenes and structure and dialogue, the bare bones of story creation, that I certainly wish I’d got all those years ago.**

Happy writing,

Richard

*  If you’d like to read a more detailed account of the start of my love affair with books, here’s a link to the Monday Motivation I wrote about it.

** Which is why we devised our flagship Creative Writing Course. It contains everything we wish we’d known when we were starting out as writers. This means you don’t have to spend thirty years learning to be the best writer you can be. We’ve just given the course a refresh and we’re now offering a streamlined more affordable version that includes live Writers’ Circle sessions. So why not short circuit the learning process and join us to master the essential skills of creative writing. £199 / or from ZAR 695 p/m

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