Reading too many biographies can be bad for one's self-esteem. I've now finished reading about John Lennon. I know his story so well, I think I can summarise it in much less than 800 words. Here goes: born in Liverpool, Dad left, Mum died, lived with Aunt Mimi, School, Skiffle, The Quarrymen, Art School, Rock n' Roll, The Beatles, Hamburg, The Cavern, Parlophone, secret wife, George Martin, Beatlemania, Bigger Than Jesus, No more touring, drugs, great albums, Yoko Ono, Bed Peace, split, primal scream therapy, Imagine, New York, Visa problems, more albums, lost weekend, house-husband phase, Double Fantasy, shot by a nutter.
What's scary is that, aside from the house-husband phase onwards, Lennon had done all of that stuff by the time he was my age. And he only had three and a half years left, poor thing! Now, I'm not John Lennon (though I am working on the hair and the beard), and I'm really not going to start moaning on about quitting again, I promise. I have reconciled myself with the fact that I'll never write for Skins. But the feeling that you've missed the boat is is a natural emotion, and will occur at some time to anyone trying to catch a break in any business as youth-obsessed and hard to get into as the business of show.
Screenwriters as a breed – unlike, say, actors - should worry least about these kind of things; a writer can, after all, keep going until he or she's too frail to hold a pen anymore. And even past that, there's always dictation ( if it worked for Barbara Cartland...). But writers wouldn't be writers if they didn't want to leave their mark on the world. Why else write things down? Success isn't measured in fame or money, but audience. Every writer's got some sort of audience, but every writer would like more of one: every day that that goes by searching for that audience, is a day less getting the word out there, making a mark.
Does any of this matter, though?. If one enjoys the process, indeed if one is compelled to continue with writing no matter what (as is the case with pretty much every writer I ever meet), then would a wider audience make that much difference? Is Emily Dickinson's poetry any less good because hardly anyone saw it during her lifetime? Do good writers sometimes toil away and never find that audience? Is there such a thing as undiscovered talent?
I've always believed that undiscovered talent is a myth, and that true aptitude will very rarely get completely missed by the world, if accompanied by the requisite - and much more important - effort to develop it. I don't know much about Dickinson's life, but from what I do know I believe that it was her own choice not to attempt to publish the huge amount of work she was producing. As proposed in the book I've moved onto, Malcolm Gladwell's erudite and wonderful Outliers, talent is largely mythical anyway. Talent is just a word we have for enthusiasm combined with many hours of hard work combined with the right conjunction of circumstances.
Hmm.. What started off as a moan about getting older but still not having anything on the telly has ended with me dismissing the idea of talent altogether. Can anyone be a writer? Maybe. Anyone - crucially - that wants to, and is willing to put in the hours, has a good shot. As Piers noted last year, the magic number in the research that Outliers references is 10,000 hours. If you haven't done that much, then, in the words of the almighty Moz: you just haven't earned it yet, baby! In the book, Gladwell shoots through the mysticism of 'child prodigies' and 'overnight successes' with some persuasive examples that show that, through luck or through perseverance or both, anyone who's made it big has gained those hours, and anyone pretty impressive is on their way to that total. Lennon and the rest of The Beatles put the hours in playing in the dodgy bars of Hamburg for eight hours a night.
What's the moral of this story? It's all about choices. There's at least 16 waking hours per day: some of them will be used for other important things like day jobs, and family, and chores, and travel. Protect whatever writing time you have left, but accept that however few hours you can put in per week you're doing yourself good. You will envy your peers who have lots more free time than you, and seem to be on the fast track, but that's all just choices. If it's going to take longer to get to 10,000 hours, accept the slow path and enjoy the scenery as you go.
It would be nice though, to be able to read a biography of someone who took their time, and made their mark later in life: any suggestions gratefully received, at the usual address!