The secret to success (well, some thoughts anyway…)

I once heard an anecdote from a famous literary agent’s assistant that made me laugh:

‘Every author wants a publishing deal. The authors who are critically acclaimed want to be commercially successful, and the authors who are commercially successful want to be critically acclaimed.

‘Every author is desperate to win an award. And those authors who win an award are most miserable of all, for they see the award as an albatross around their necks and fear nothing they ever do will scale those heights again.’

(Basically, every author is miserable!)

People definitely compare themselves upwards. None of these authors were thinking ‘It’s so great I have an agent!’ They were taking that for granted and wishing they were more successful. So there’s definitely something to be said for being extremely grateful for where you are now in life, rather than always striving for more.

Ariane Flowers.jpg

But if I had any advice for achieving your goals, it would be along the following lines:

Work out what you want to achieve. You can’t aim for a target you haven’t set. I know many people who want to lose weight, but that’s such a nebulous goal that it doesn’t focus the mind. In contrast, a goal to lose 4 stone is specific and measurable, and you know when you’ve achieved it.

Figure out the steps between you and your goal. Break it down into manageable chunks. For instance, today I weigh 12st 4.2lbs. To get down to 8 stone, I need to lose more than 4 stone, but right now I’m aiming for a ‘Club 10’ target of 12st 2.5lbs, which means I’ll have lost a tenth of my body weight since joining Slimming World. (SW is good like this – it rewards you at least every 7lbs.)

Recognise that you’ll fail before you succeed (especially true of weight loss). You’ll take two steps forward, one step back. If we’re talking creativity, everyone gets rejected at times; everyone has to produce more than will ever be published or used. Just think of all the many drafts of novels. Remember Samuel Beckett’s quote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Keep going. You’ll fall down, but make sure to keep getting up and attempting to succeed. You’ll be amazed by how many people fall by the wayside. The person who succeeds is often the last (wo)man standing. There have been so many times when I’ve thought, ‘Fuck it, maybe I’ll just stay fat!’ but I also know that won’t make me happy. So keep your goal in mind when things get tough.

You never know when your luck will turn – when you’ll come to the attention of a gatekeeper who could change your life, or just get an exciting opportunity. Last week, I was headhunted for a role. It wasn’t right for me, but at least that person now knows I exist.

I also got invited to debate Brexit on Good Morning Britain. They went with another guest in the end, but I wasn’t expecting the invitation, and the randomness of it cheered me up. (Though I was also slightly relieved at being stood down to be honest – pretty sure Twitter would have been unusable for me for about two days afterwards thanks to angry Brexiteers!)

Writers: remember to preface harsh feedback with ‘in my opinion’. I’ve been told before by a literary agent that I can’t write. It floored me; I had to remind myself I’ve written endless columns for the Guardian, and lots for the Spectator and the Sunday Times. That knowledge helped to reframe this person’s opinion as ‘in my opinion, you can’t write’. And, in less polite terms: fuck ’em. Feedback should be constructive, and that wasn’t. Metaphorically kick them in the fanny and move on.

People who aren’t gatekeepers will also be shitty about your achievements. Look at the comments section of any comedy article. You’ll find ‘This isn’t funny’; ‘That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back’; ‘I can’t believe [publication] pays for this crap.’ That’s cool: you got paid and credited and you aren’t the person wasting your life leaving negative comments. Put it down to jealousy and don’t let it bother you. The publication wouldn’t have run the article if they didn’t like it.

Realise that you have to adapt to life’s changes. The Guardian stopped running me regularly in 2010; it hurt as it was the paper I grew up reading, and I still love it. I’d write for it again in a heartbeat, but if not, other publications are available. I also really enjoy writing for the Daily Mash and writing books for Little, Brown.

Sometimes things change because of you, not your employer. I realised I wasn’t enjoying writing for television in late 2007, and made the leap to journalism after six years of telly. I used to love going into the BBC and being the youngest person in writers’ rooms, but now I go into the BBC as an occasional commentator and am sometimes the oldest person on the panel, and that’s OK too. Life changes and you have to change with it rather than be depressed by it.

Oh, and lastly: never self-deprecate! As someone wiser than me once said, ‘People accept the value you place upon yourself’. Keep telling people you’re rubbish and they’ll eventually believe you.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Ariane face

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 41

Me: 12st 4.2lbs (total loss in 41 days: 10lbs)

I need to keep going.

John: 14st 4.75lbs (total loss in 41 days: 2.75lbs)

John’s doing well again!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.

Rewards start from just $1 a month for my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but I’m even more open in it (if you can imagine that!)

My former life as a cartoon writer

In 2006, when I was 25, my flatmate Zarina Liew was a very talented aspiring illustrator, and as two Asian girls, she and I decided to produce a range of greeting cards for girls with the tongue-in-cheek name Love You Long Time. The venture was emphatically not a success, and I think I lost around £4,000 altogether trying to get it off the ground. It was the first of my three failing businesses. (Remind me never to start a business again!)

BeautifulThing

Then my lovely journalist friend Michael Shaw put a cartoon strip we created forward for a slot in his newspaper, the Times Education Supplement. Our bid was successful, and our cartoon All-Time High ran for six months in the magazine that came with the paper. We used the weekly £150 payment to replenish the £4,000 savings I’d lost on the greeting card business!

Each week, I would script the cartoon and send it to Zarina, and she would produce the strip. Here’s my favourite of our efforts:

TES - 'Definitions'.png

This next strip was based on my experiences at school, as teachers’ default positions seem to be that kids have a great relationship with their parents:

TES - 'Mother's Day'.png

And here’s another one I quite liked:

TES - 'Mendacity'.png

I really enjoyed scripting All-Time High, but the editor at the TES who was responsible for commissioning it (who has now left the paper) wanted to exert more and more control over it. At first everything was fine – we’d just deliver the cartoons each week – but then she wanted to see the scripts before they were inked; next she wanted to agree the topics before they went to script stage; finally she was vetoing everything I suggested. Eventually it became impossible to continue, and I quit in fury, thinking she was being thoroughly unreasonable.

Having been a journalist for many years now, I’ve yet to encounter this kind of control freakery again, so I think I was probably right. It’s a shame though, as it was a fun gig and I would have liked to carry on.

I can’t draw like Zarina, but I dabble from time to time. I wrote a little children’s book which never got published, about a hippo who wanted to be a supermodel, and I drew this illustration as part of it:

hetty.jpg

Here was the text:

Hetty the hippo and the supermodel dream

As Hetty the hippo
Lay dreaming in bed
A wonderful vision
Swam into her head

Of walking a runway
In beautiful clothes
Fine frocks on her figure
High heels on her toes

She leapt out of bed then
To tell all the land
About her ambition
So epic and grand

“A famed supermodel’s
What I want to be!”
Brave Hetty confided
To friends over tea

Alas, she was faced
With both laughter and scorn
At first, Rae the rhino
Sighed, tossing her horn

“What makes you think
You could strut like a star?
A massive fat hippo
Is all that you are!”

“She’s right!” chimed Pandora
The petulant pig
“Like me, you can’t model
We’re both much too big!”

“I won’t let that stop me!”
Het cried, undeterred
“Who cares what my size is?
That’s truly absurd!”

“We care,” hissed Camilla
The sleek and mean cat
“The whole of the world thinks
You’re simply too fat!”

Poor Hetty felt crushed
And her dream now seemed bleak
A single large tear
Made its way down her cheek

She stumbled away
Through the forests and streams
Vowing to give up
Her big fashion dreams

“Hey,” came a voice
“I don’t know who you are,
But your figure’s amazing
I’ll make you a star!”

Hetty turned round
And a jackal stood there
“I’m Jen,” she explained
“What great curves! What good hair!”

“But there’s no time to waste
Let’s not stand here and talk
My show’s in an hour
Please say that you’ll walk?”

Hetty was thrilled
Soon she donned fancy clothes
Sashayed down the runway
And strutted and posed

“This is the life!”
Hetty smiled, “It’s a doddle!”
For Hetty the hippo
Was finally a model.

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 39

Me: 12st 5.4lbs (total loss in 39 days: 8.8lbs)

Back on the wagon today.

John: 14st 5.5lbs (total loss in 39 days: 2lbs)

John is plugging another of his books.

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.

Rewards start from just $1 a month for my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but I’m even more open in it (if you can imagine that!)

My first ever (technically illegal) job

On Twitter recently, there was a trend for people to list five jobs they’d had. I’ve had some truly crazy jobs – and that’s before we get to TV sitcom writing, journalism and broadcasting. Here’s my tweet:

My first ever job as far as HMRC are concerned was being a cleaner at McDonald’s in 1996, aged 16, which I wrote about for the Guardian in 2008. But a year before that, in 1995 when I was 15, my dad employed me for six weeks.

My dad was often a physically violent, emotionally abusive, utterly deranged monster. I still have regular dreams (nightmares, really) about escaping from him and my mum, running from the house and never looking back.

But he could also be kind, funny and encouraging – and he and my mum were always very generous with money. So when I couldn’t get a job aged 15, he agreed to ’employ’ me for £4 an hour, writing sticky labels for videos.

dad

[Dad and me in 1982, when I was 18 months old. I was slightly older than this when I wrote the video labels.]

My dad taught at the University of Westminster (which was called the Polytechnic of Central London for the first half of his career). He was Course Leader or Lecturer on each of three degree courses – Film & Television, Media & Communication Studies and Journalism – and it doesn’t take a Freudian to point out that these are all the areas I ended up going into as a writer. Excuse me while I get the brain bleach!

Dad lectured several future celebrities, a couple of whom I now know – Charlie Brooker and Jon Ronson – and I ended up going to the same university for my own first degree (a BA in Commercial Music). Sadly or happily though, depending on how you look at it, Dad didn’t give me any contacts in the media, and he didn’t help me get into university either. I had to graft and do all the hard work myself. I got into television aged 21 after entering a BBC scriptwriting competition I found in a leaflet in HMV, and got into journalism at the same age after applying to do work experience at the NME.

When I was a kid, Dad would occasionally take me into work with him, and I once disrupted a lecture aged four by screaming ‘Daddyyyyy!’ after I got my leg stuck in a chair. My dad had to stride down the theatre aisle and rescue me in front of hundreds of laughing students.

23

[Me aged four. My parents were not the best at framing photos.]

Anyhow, my dad had amassed what I believe is technically called a ‘shit ton’ of video tapes. For over a decade, he’d illegally taped films off the telly to show in his seminars – every day, he circled all the films he wanted to record in the Guardian TV guide – but all these black cassettes were in blank cardboard VHS cases with yellow Post-it notes on.

Post-it notes aren’t very sticky after a while, as I’m sure you know, so my dad wanted me to transfer the information on them to proper white adhesive labels to stick on the sides of the videos. He could have done it himself – he certainly had lovely neat, precise handwriting. But it was a menial and boring chore, so he delegated it to me, even though my handwriting was very scrappy indeed. And he actually paid me 25p more per hour than the £3.75 I subsequently got at McDonald’s for cleaning toilets!

So I spent the summer I turned 15 holding a squeaky marker pen in the Film & Television department of my dad’s university, hunched over a roll of sticky labels, writing titles like ‘The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock, 86m).’ It was very dull, but school was very dull too, and at least I got paid for this.

Age 14.jpg

[Me aged 14, when I didn’t have any jobs at all. I did, however, have a horrible bag.]

My dad was forced to retire from the university in 2003 when he turned 65. It was truly sad to watch, as he was crushed by not feeling needed anymore. Ironically, it was a bit like the film About Schmidt, as Dad kept on going into the building unpaid until he was told he was no longer welcome. He threw himself into researching his family genealogy for the last 13 years of his life instead – I think it was a suitably academic task that made him feel needed again.

Still, I bet somewhere in a dusty library in the University of Westminster’s Film & Television department are several thousand illegal videotapes of films off the telly, recorded by my dad and labelled by 15-year-old me.

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE

Behold my toes, resplendent in neon orange varnish! I even partly waxed my legs for you, before I got bored and stopped. Don’t say I never spoil you.

Day 4

Me: 12st 10.6lbs (total loss: 3.6lbs in four days)

Hallelujah! Praise the Gods of weight loss. Yesterday I was downcast, but today it’s all turned around for me.

John: 14st 5.75lbs (total loss: 1.75lbs in four days)

IMG_3645.jpg

I am now doing over twice as well as John! Will he be able to catch up? Stay tuned…

This post has been made possible by my Patreon supporters Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. Rewards start from just 85p ($1) a month.