If I could offer one single word of advice to any aspiring writer it would be not to come to me for advice. Having got that out of the way, I would say, ‘Never write the same thing twice,’ because someone said that to me once and I always liked the ring of it. Sound advice, I am sure you will agree, but advice, none-the-less, I find myself increasing unable to heed for the simple reason that I can never remember what I have written about before and, more to the point, I have decided that life is far too short to check. I am sure that once-upon-a-gag, some wise man – Bernard Manning probably – postulated that there are only six jokes known to man and womankind: the trick is in finding a different way to tell them. (Likewise, I think – I can’t be sure: the Magic Circle is a closed and locked cabinet to me – there are only six magic tricks: the one with the sleight of hand; the one with the distraction; the one with the stooge; the one with the smoke; the one with the mirrors, and the one where the magician discovers that the upstage trap-door doesn’t work properly.) Anyway, who am I to argue?
I do not know what the six jokes are. I know one of them, but I fear that political correctness being what it is, I dare not tell it for fear of being sued by every chicken between here and the other side of the road. The problem with jokes, however you tell them, is that they tend to have a butt and being a butt is never comfortable. To avoid causing offence, you make yourself the butt and that works even better when the joke doesn’t – work that is. There’s no wonder that comedians are, by and large, such a morose bunch. Except that they’re not you know. I’ve met a number over the years – although not as often as I’ve been called one – and most of them have been quite jolly. Not all of the time, of course – that would just be weird – but normally so. I never met a comedian who didn’t want to laugh – which can’t be easy when you already know all six of the jokes that other people are telling you. (I’ve never met a magician, although it stands to reason that they must know at least one gag per trick for when it all goes wrong. I did watch a magician once whose tricks all went spectacularly wrong. He had no ‘patter’ outside of his sweat as it fell to the stage, but the audience thought that the whole thing was hilarious. He was decidedly unamused, and I was just relieved when he decided against sawing his assistant in half.)
It is the stock in trade of comedians to tell the same jokes night after night, for magicians to make the same stuff disappear and for singers to sing the same old songs – Greatest Hits tours are the most popular of all – but a writer is never really allowed to plunder his own back catalogue (much less somebody else’s) for reuse at a later date. I cannot imagine that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, would have been allowed to reuse an old plot on the grounds that everybody liked it last time around. Most people will read a treasured book repeatedly, but will put it down the moment it reminds them of something else (particularly if it is a Shake ‘n’ Vac advert). I do wonder if there are only six novel plots: I once attempted to read a Jeffrey Archer novel in a hospital waiting room and I think that he must have had all six of them in there somewhere – God knows where – and I have attempted to read James Joyce so often that I am certain he manages perfectly well without any at all, thank you very much.)
Of course, repetition, in itself can be amusing, but it is never surprising. Life is all about repetition, and most of it much closer to a failed illusion than a Billy Connolly rip-snorter, but every day we wake up ready for more of it. There is something in the human spirit that says ‘OK, I’ve had ninety nine attempts without getting the rabbit out of the hat, but today’s the day.’ And we try again. And if, by some fluke of fortune, we succeed, then we believe that we will always succeed.
I am always intrigued by those who manage to keep – and even more puzzling – publish a diary. Do they leave out everything that happens again and again, day after day or, do they just invent stuff? Perhaps the successful diary is just a novel with the writer as the hero. Or maybe interesting things do happen to other people. Is it just me that goes around and around? I have tried to keep diaries many times, but they are so tedious. I very quickly start making things up. Do you think that Samuel Pepys really buried his cheese whilst London burned? Did Captain Oates really say ‘I might be gone for some time’ or is that just something that Scott put into his diary after giving him the wrong directions to the toilet in order to break the monotony of a whiteout? Most of the time, life is only brightened by hindsight.
In written dialogue we always edit out the repeated phrases that litter real life conversations. Any story that runs beyond twenty four hours in real life, will feature repetition. We treasure routine: the same breakfast, the same parking spot, the same sandwich, the same journey home – so startlingly routine that it is normally impossible to recall getting there. We are only happy that a day is complete when it is just the same as all the others – real life is not great for the telling.
Anyway, having given it due consideration, I believe I might have changed my mind. If I could offer one word of advice to an aspiring author, it would be to never be tempted to dip into real life, in case you can’t find your way out again.
Mind you, it won’t be the same tomorrow…