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Careers Clinic: Is stand-up hindering my ‘proper writing’?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I started doing stand-up gigs between acting jobs and, as of last year, was able to get enough paid work that doing comedy-club sets has now become my main survival income. Being on stage three or four times a week easily beats the food delivery job I used to do, but I don’t want to lose focus on my acting.

Various people, including fellow comics and some playwrights I know, have suggested that a way to link the two types of performing would be to write a themed solo show for the festival circuit.

I was well up for that, but after a few weeks of trying I’m finding ‘proper writing’ a lot harder than stringing 20 minutes of gags together.

I start a draft but, after a page or two, realise what I am writing is absolute tosh and chuck it away.

I’m supposed to be doing my first preview at the end of the month, but unless you can help me get going properly, the only thing getting previewed will be me crashing and burning before I even get to festival time.

John Byrne’s advice

I don’t think your main problem is that your first drafts are ‘absolute tosh’. In nearly three decades of writing I have rarely seen a first draft that wasn’t dreadful. I’m not just talking about my own scribblings but also early versions of various plays, broadcast projects and solo shows I have script edited, often for established writers and performers.

In fact, it could be argued that it is the ‘job’ of every first draft to be terrible. The ‘playing it safe’ option usually means you’ll simply turn out a carbon copy of whatever you have seen work for other people. That’s not going to enhance your reputation for stand-up or acting.

It’s great that you have friends in the business who are encouraging you to do this show, but don’t make the mistake of feeling you have to turn out something amazing first time to justify their enthusiasm. We should always be open to feedback and pushing the boundaries of what we think we can do, but if we stray too far into doing things primarily for the approval of others, we can end up stifling our creativity, or simply second-guessing ourselves into a corner.

There’s not a lot we can do about other people judging us, but we can tell our own inner critic to pipe down

There’s not a lot we can do about other people judging us, but we can certainly tell our own inner critic to pipe down at the first-draft stage. Another thought that might be causing the current blockage is that you seem to think ‘proper writing’ and how you normally create your stand-up material are two different things.

For many people, ‘writing’ conjures up a picture of staring at a blank page or screen, but if you already have a process that works for you, trust it. I know lots of creatives who ‘write’ not by sitting down in the traditional manner, but by physically acting out improvisations and then recording or transcribing the dialogue, or by using Post-it notes or index cards to capture random scenes to be reordered later. Whatever method works for you is perfectly correct to use.

My final tip to get you started is: get started! Set your phone alarm for 15 minutes, and start writing, creating and improvising until the bell.

Don’t worry if what comes out is gibberish. Just keep going. Hopefully, by the time the alarm does go off you’ll have let go of your inhibitions and built up the momentum to continue for another 15 minutes.

Keep it up until you have your draft finished. Then you can start rewriting, correcting and even judging if you absolutely must.

Best of luck with your solo show and, whether it takes a week, a month or longer, I look forward to seeing the polished version on your opening night.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne

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