Ed Harris is a playwright, radio dramatist and poet. A regular on BBC Radio 4, his alternate reality war-time thriller The Resistance of Mrs Brown recently won the 2013 Gold Sony Award for best radio drama. We asked him about the way he works.
Was there a specific moment that made you follow the path you’re on? An inspiration? A revelation?
Like a lot of things, this ‘I’m going to be a writer!’ moment was probably the coming together of a few otherwise unrelated things — life events, trains of thought, realisations etc — but, whether it’s true or not, there is a memory of the ‘decision’. The memory is me, at age nine or 10, sitting in a gloomy room on a gloomy day, and feeling beaten by something – and going:
Right! That’s what I’ll do. I’ll write.
I’m dyslexic so, at this age we’re talking about, I was beginning to realise I could never catch up enough with my classmates to equal their academic successes. This scared me, because I was slipping ever further behind.
I realised I had to play a different game from them and my rather academic family, in order to feel I was good at something.
I’d always been overwhelmed by language, and it panicked me. But I liked stories. I’d always drawn comics with ongoing characters and monsters, and acted out drawn-out, year-long plots with my Lego characters, and that kind of thing… I just loved inventing. Making things that didn’t exist, exist.
So I think this moment I remember — this gloomy day — is the moment I decided, with a kind of hubristic tenacity, that my dyslexia wouldn’t stop me from writing. To put it passionately, I looked at both ‘dyslexia’ and ‘language’, and went — not only won’t I be beaten by you, but I will understand you, learn to use you both effectively, and I will make you my friends, and my passion. Put more prosaically, I spotted my goal and knuckled down.
How do you write? Do you have a specific routine or approach you take?
I do three to four units of writing per day. Each unit is usually 40 minutes to 80 minutes long. In between units I try to do something that frees me up from what I’m writing. For example going for a run, or walk, or reading something unrelated. On the average day, I do three units; when I push it up to four-a-day I notice my overall energy and interest levels drop significantly, but sometimes this has to be done to meet deadlines.
My routine is tedious, but it grew organically. I spent several years observing how I usually got the best out of my imagination, and how I best managed my stress levels (which are a constant nag, and obviously a great inhibitor to play and imagination).
I’m not a flighty writer who gets mad and drunk and splashes brilliance all over his or her pages, and then does nothing for four days. I envy them.
I tried it. I was good at the drunk bit, and the nothing bit, but my writing bit suffered.
Is there a book, article or story that you turn to time and time again? What does it give you? Why do you like it so much?
I keep coming back to Daniil Kharms, who was an absurdist Soviet writer who wrote tiny half-pages of stories. Not quite stories, even. Roughly translated, he called them ‘incidences’.
Stalin believed writers were ‘the engineers of the soul’, and so banned Daniil from being published — because it wasn’t a depiction of their beautiful, pioneering socialism. Meadows and factories twinkling side-by-side etc.
But Daniil kept on writing and in the end was sent off to a gulag for it. He knew, in his lifetime, he’d never be published. Came back from the gulag, kept going, and they locked him up in an insane asylum in Leningrad, which is where he died: Hitler’s armies invaded Russia, and all the orderlies fled, leaving the inmates to starve to death.
Daniil’s stories only survived because, when his flat was bombed, his friends rushed and salvaged everything they could.
That’s a bloody writer! That’s tenacity. A brightly inventive, intelligent imagination – trapped, but persistent. The writer who writes even without any hope of publication.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned over time that you wish you knew when you started out?
Wanting to write is a ridiculous idea.
Inexperienced writers often put their hand to their forehead exclaim “Oh my god how indulgent am I? – Why should other people be interested in me?”
And the truth is, other people aren’t.
They couldn’t give less of a shit about you and your wry observations or pithy philosophical quips. But, if you’re any kind of writer, you are interested in them. And they, if they read, are also interested in them. In each other.
Maybe if you die in an interesting way, they’ll be interested in you. But only because they’re actually interested in themselves. (And each other.)
So, I suppose, what I’ve learned over time is to believe in people, and to start to get over myself… or try to.
If somebody asked you for tips on becoming a better writer, what’s the one thing you’d tell them?
In general, optimism’s a real time-saver.