Why I don't feed the monster

12 Jul

Words can be beautiful, and they are all around us, so why is that we feel so...bad?

As part of journalism training, I spent time in newsrooms, looking for stories and suggesting them to the editors. Around that time, it became very clear to me - if you give something attention in writing, and especially in mainstream media, you are giving it credibility. You are saying 'This matters.'

Even if you write in the most damning way about someone, the fact that you bothered to put it in print has given them credibility. Think about the acres of newsprint wasted in the Nineties, warbling about Jeffrey Archer, and numerous other celebrities we have now forgotten. A worthwhile use of time and paper? I don't think so. Print is power, and we should use it carefully.

A few years ago, I was a new comedy screenwriter. Focused on learning my craft, I constantly sought opportunities to work with other creatives and put my work in front of audiences. A friend suggested I send in some gags to a broadcast show well-known for using new writers' work.

Their jokes were always about news and political events. I didn't want to send them anything - even though I often wrote about contemporary themes. 'I don't want to feed the monster,' I said.

It is important that a writer thinks about the subjects, themes and businesses they work with: there are ethical considerations with every possible opportunity.

Who - or what - was the 'monster' I referred to, in the context of political comedy? I'm not averse to joking about politicians (my past scripts are proof), and, generally, I think they do deserve our attention: at best, a politician's role is one of public service, and not always a well-rewarded one, so why not engage with them?

What I balked at was an excessive interest, what could feel like almost monopolised coverage, and concerning only a handful of individuals, when Westminster's machinery is extensive. This was not the fault of the comedy show, either - it was a product of round-the-clock news coverage and social media, not the traditions of comedy and broadcasting.

Still, I did not want to add to the cacophony. In addition, only a few years have passed, and none of those men, then in the most senior positions, are in power. Two of them are no longer in political roles at all.

Today, my meaning, when I say 'feeding the monster', has evolved. It is putting pen to paper to react to peripheral or distant events, or contributing to a disproportionate response. If you have skills and talent as a writer, there are many ways of using them, but not all are worthwhile.

At the beginning of this piece, I wondered how it is possible for the words around us to make us feel bad.

Have you seen any of the following, recently?

a) The Toddlers: A surfeit of writing which is purely immediate and emotional response, not led by thought or research.

Some immediate response can be wonderful, but there is no way to turn down the volume on social media. The result is an endless and poorly executed kerrang that drains your resources.

b) The Firestarters: Writing intended to spark negative, e.g. angry, responses.

Some popular commentators are the absolute kings and queens of this. If you don't like them, ignore them. Response is their oxygen.

c) The Salesmen: Hard selling that is not targeted or relevant to you.

d) The Confessors: Long form writing that is overly self-absorbed.

Some things are best kept for the private journal. The exception is probably memoir and autobiographical stories, because the reader has intentionally opted in - books are rarely picked up or downloaded by accident. Think about being more reserved with forms readers can stumble across, or at least hire an editor.

e) The Soapboxers: Writing to berate the public at large.

Boy, are you mad, and now everyone is going to hear just how mad you are.

I can understand why the soapbox might be tempting, and not just because it is cathartic: as a newer writer, it is generally true that if you care about a topic, you are going to write more persuasively and powerfully about it. When you realise it sounds a bit better, you might decide you will only write about topics that make you really angry or passionate. But this doesn't make you a better writer, only a more prolific one. Is 'strident' the only voice you want?

Know that you have a choice about how and when you write. Think about your intentions. Why are you doing it? You should know the answer to this, because even if you have only one reader, your words still have an impact.

Photo credit: Gantas Vaičiulėnas on Pexels 

* The email will not be published on the website.