Lynn chimes in first...
|Photo by Alan Wilkinson|
Officers Quarters at Fort Robinson,
where retreat participants were housed
and many lively discussions ensued.
Thirty seconds into my first conversation with Alan Wilkinson during the Storycatcher Workshop at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, I said to myself, Oh, I've got to hear more from this guy.
Alan is a Brit, and his sly humor, self-deprecation and wry perspectives on American culture made for a lot of interesting chats. He's a good listener, too, and naturally curious. Alan wandered the grounds at the old fort, taking photos and examining plants. He joined me at dusk in watching the bats as they spilled from the eaves of the old Officer Quarters and dispersed into the night.
Alan was a "featured writer" at Storycatcher. During his talk, titled "Making a Living as a Writer," Alan scrolled out his long and varied working/writing life. And I thought I had had a lot of jobs!
I've never been a rat catcher. Alan has. He's also worked as a freight train guard, ghostwriter and sugar-beet factory hand. He has scripted soaps. That's just for starters. Along the way he developed an ear for dialogue and can capture the verbal cadence of a North Yorkshire farmer or an old Nebraska rancher and put their voices on the page.
Of interest to us here in Wyoming, Alan developed, early on in his life, a love of the American West. He has made twenty road trips in the last thirty years, crossing the region from east to west and north to south.
I came home from the workshop and promptly read The Red House on the Niobrara, Alan's delightful-to-read but difficult-to-describe book (memoir? travelogue? culture and landscape study? all of the above?). Even though I was born and raised in Niobrara County (just over the Wyoming/Nebraska border from the book's location), I learned so much that I didn't know. Sometimes it takes a furriner to show you your own place, you know?
And if you are bemoaning the fact that you can't lock yourself away in a turret and write 24/7, read on. Alan shows us what's possible if we just keep on writing, and learning, and living.
Without further ado, let me introduce you to Alan Wilkinson...
A Jobbing Writer
I adopted the term ‘jobbing writer’ some time ago. I never really gave it much thought, but when Lynn told me that she’d rarely heard it used in the USA, I realised that it’s not very common in the UK either. Over here, every second writer you read about is ‘an award-winning novelist’. They all seem to live in ‘London and Tuscany’. They are young and good-looking.
In my early forties, with a young family to support, and a yen to write quiet, introspective prose, I concluded that I was never going to be one of those cosmopolitan authors whose photos I saw, framed by French doors overlooking an acre of sunlit lawn. I mean the type whose partner has money, or a tenured academic post.
In 1993 I had a half-time lectureship, an MA in Creative Writing and a half-baked PhD. I knew what I was - a bloke who needed to make a living, this month, next month, every damned month - but who couldn’t imagine not writing. So I settled for being a hired hand: an echo of the time I operated as a jobbing gardener around town, one of several dozen jobs I had in my 20s and 30s before I surrendered to my fate.
|Cheers! from Alan Wilkinson|
‘Jobbing’ means I never turn down a paying proposition. Twenty-five years ago I was supplementing my modest academic income with book reviews, feature interviews, literary short fiction, and articles about my travels in the American West. I taught recreational writing classes, and I laboured on a novel.
Later, when the academic door slammed shut in my face, I put aside the novel and wrote corporate histories. Sure, I had to sit in boardrooms listening to men in suits blowing their own trumpets; but most of the time I was interviewing former staff in their 80s and 90s who had responded to my press releases. Did they have stories to tell, these sons and daughters of toil? You bet they did. And memories of their parents, who’d worked in horse-and-cart days before World War I. Towards the end of my visits, as we sat drinking tea, they’d tap me on the knee. ‘Now don’t be putting this in your book, young fellow-me-lad…’ And out came the confessions - furtive abstraction of merchandise, the scandal of the chairman who died in a sleeping car en route to London, in the arms of one of his shop assistants. Some stories made it into the books; some I logged away for future reference.
When the corporate research dried up I found my way into TV, writing voice-over scripts for documentaries, fleshing out the narrative in ten- or twenty-second gaps between scenes. At three syllables per second, you learn about concision - and, in an industry characterised by last-minute changes, speed. The courier would deliver the latest edit at 5 p.m. - and they wanted my script by 9 next morning. I generally had it done by midnight.
While I was in TV, I had a stab at drama. I submitted a script and spent eight months at Britain’s number two soap opera. I learned a crucial skill that had never been in my armoury, that of creating conflict. And then I got the hell out. Loved the money, hated the product.
I went through a fallow period, working a winter in the sugar-beet factory. I never resented that. I’d long ago come to the conclusion that all artists should stop work from time to time and experience what to most people is real life. I took on a bar job which would pay dividends ten years later when the proprietor’s husband wanted to write the story of his micro-brewery. He knew who to ask – and we go to press in October. So there’s another plus: do whatever comes your way and things will happen.
I’ve dwelt on the jobs that paid well. There were others I took because I couldn’t afford to refuse them. There was the bridegroom who rang me on a Thursday evening asking if I would write his speech for Saturday. An hour later, after thumbing through a book on wedding etiquette, he had his words and I had my £75 ($100).
Later I got to hear of a Chinese billionaire who spoke no English but wanted to write a novel which might become a Hollywood blockbuster: a truth serum is delivered to earth by alien invaders, on an asteroid. I quoted an outrageous fee, suspended disbelief, and delivered 90,000 words. While he was pleased with the result, he told his interpreter that he would have liked ‘more explosions.’
I’d surely crossed a line with that one: things could not get any weirder.
Oh, but they could. In 2003 I got a call from a stand-up comedian who entertained the crowds at summer festivals as a sky-diving Elvis impersonator. Could I help him write a script for TV? I gave it my best shot, but after several weeks – and no money – he disappeared. (I was tempted to say he went to ground.)
I got over that: I’d already been approached by an agent about a ghost-writing project with a rural copper who wanted to write his memoirs. We did seven books together and made decent money. It was here that I realised just how valuable all that other experience had been, and how everything that happened added to my store of material.
The copper’s brief for each chapter was to outline a scenario and tell me about the characters he’d worked with, or arrested. As we got into volume three, four and five, we would have calls that began with me asking,
‘So tell me about this guy.’
‘Oh, he was an amazing character, just amazing!’
‘And the incident?’
‘Incredible, mate, absolutely incredible!’
So I made it all up – settings, characters, dialogue. I’d learned to listen to speech patterns in my many menial jobs as younger man. The copper handled the procedural aspects. I drew on my own wide experience of people, their stories, and the countryside we were writing about. He found himself being sent on long walks to places he’d never visited. Later, when I wrote his childhood memoirs, they bore a strange resemblance to mine.
For a few years, ghost-writing became my main source of income. I wrote books with an international drug-smuggler, then the brewer, and am currently completing one for a Brit who was a bounty hunter in the USA for twenty years.
But what of that novel started in the 1990s? What of my hopes of being a literary presence in the world, of giving utterance to my unique poetic vision? I think it has benefited from being left aside for twenty-plus years while I polished my skills through practice, practice and more practice. Last year I had a three-month fellowship at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos and re-wrote it, radically. It scrubbed up pretty well, and I have an offer from a UK publisher.
I have lived one part of my dream – namely, being a writer for twenty-three years. And as I look to work on the personal projects I’ve had on hold all that time I feel I am far better prepared, as a writer, thanks to a long and unusual apprenticeship.
Alan Wilkinson lives in Durham, in the north of England. He has published around twenty books, numerous travel and feature articles, a handful of literary short stories and one radio play.
When he’s not writing to order he writes about the American West. Among his recent books are The Red House on the Niobrara, about his six-month retreat in a hunting lodge in western Nebraska, and There Used To Be A Guy… But He Died, the story of Alan’s solitary bike ride across Nebraska.
You can read more about Alan's adventures at his blog http://walkinonnails.blogspot.co.uk/ and via his website: http://alan-wilkinson.com/.