I am helping a woman write a play. Or rather I am trying not to not help her, if that makes sense, which it may not.
I am not a playwright. I have written a few scripts for a local theatre - kids' shows, monologues, a circus extravaganza - but only because we needed something. None of them will swim down the gutter of time. Nevertheless the same fundamentals apply to all forms of writing and it's nice to try to help someone else go about it.
She wrote a few pages on a whim one evening and was surprised by the joy she found in it. But then she read her words the next morning and decided they were no good. It's a common mistake. Next morning is a lousy judge. Next morning comes to the words with too much familiarity.
A few days later is a far better judge. And sure enough when she reread her words a few days later she liked them again. But she is a modest woman, only too eager to doubt herself, so when she showed me what she had written she did so hesitantly, urging me to tell her why it wasn't any good.
I didn't. I told her I thought it was fresh and light and funny and touching, and I believed in the characters, the principal woman especially.
"She's me," she said.
"Of course she's you," I said. "But the principal man is you as well, as will be every character you ever write. In the words of old Whitman, 'I embrace multitudes'.
"Shakespeare," I went on, "invented hundreds of characters: murderers, kings, saints, thieves, lovers, braggarts, cowards and he was all of them, as are we all."
"It was great fun to write," she said.
"Which is why it's good," I said. "You haven't writhed over it. You haven't forced it. You've entertained yourself. Yes, it could be better because everything could be better, but I'd love to see you work it up into a full-length play and then, who knows, perhaps we could stage it here at…"
"No," she said, appalled and yet excited.
"Why not?" I said.
She gulped. That doubt again. That modesty. "But …"
"But nothing," I said. "You're as qualified as anyone on earth to write a play that's true and funny and good. You've lived and loved. That's all requirements met. That's all the boxes ticked. Now go ahead and write it. Woo hoo."
And, of course, that put the mockers on her. Because what had been a pleasure now became a chore, a job to do, a duty. The fun dried up. She found herself unable to "recapture" - in the words of the sometimes-brilliant Browning - "that first fine careless rapture".
"Forget I spoke," I said when she told me. "I put too much on you. Just go and have fun again. What's the worst that can happen? That it doesn't work and we forget it. Nothing lost. Go entertain yourself again."
And she did. A few days later an email arrived with a script attached. "Ideas keep coming," she said.
"Excellent," I replied. "I'll get back to you in a couple of days."
But within a couple of hours came another email. "Dump the last version," it said. "I went out walking and had a brainwave. THIS is the version to read."
"Excellent," I said, "you are discovering one of the great truths of writing. 'A poem,' said Paul Valery, 'is never finished; only abandoned,' and the same is true of a play, a novel, yea even a newspaper column. And you have to be willing, in the words of dear old Arthur Quiller-Couch, to 'murder your darlings'.
"You may yet discover that you have to ditch everything and start again because only now have you found the shape in the marble, the pattern of what you want to say. And remember that the last thing you'll find out, to quote the incomparable Pascal, 'is what to put first'.''
"I never knew this writing business was so weird," she wrote when she sent me the next revision.
I haven't read it yet. I hope it's superb. But even if it isn't it's been lovely to see someone excited by the thrill of putting words on paper, even though it's a mug's game.
'No one but a blockhead,' said Samuel Johnson, 'ever wrote for anything except money.'
I haven't told her that. Yet.