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Finding my feet (Nonesuch autumn 2016)

David Nicholls (BA 1988, Hon DLitt 2016) © Hal Shinnie

7 November 2016

Author and screenwriter David Nicholls (BA 1988, Hon DLitt 2016) returned to the University earlier this year to receive an honorary Doctorate. Speaking to Catherine Prior (BA 2016) after the ceremony, Nicholls reflected on his student years.

Something I’d never expected

When I was young I didn’t really understand what university was, how you got in or what you did there. I used to watch University Challenge every week and that was my only real clue – and I thought it looked great.

Living with fellow drama students, there were a lot of acoustic guitars flying around, a lot of debates, a lot of late nights and high emotions. And a lot of candles setting fire to curtains. At that time I’d never expected that I would work in fiction or be a novelist. I think for a lot of the English tutors it was slightly frustrating that we were always running off and doing plays when we should have been reading Middlemarch.

I dipped my toe into directing, but I wasn’t very good at it. I preferred stand-up. I was in a double-act with my friend Matthew Warchus (BA 1988, Hon DLitt 2010), which I really loved doing. When I left university I would have stuck at it, but Matthew was committed to the idea of directing and I wasn’t very funny without him. I wasn’t particularly funny with him, retrospectively. And so I gave it up.

The one thing I didn’t do at all was writing. The emphasis of my course was devised work and physical theatre. I think it would’ve been considered a bit eccentric to come in one day with my own script, so I didn’t actually write anything that you could call a play in all the time that I was at Bristol. I wish I had, though. It’s quite rareto have people around you who are prepared to try new things; it would have been a great laboratory for writing. But you need a special kind of confidence to impose your words on people at that stage of life.

I found the years after graduating really tough. Some people come out of university like a rocket and they just know what they’re doing. They’re very ambitious, clear-headed and principled – but I wasn’t at all. I’d have taken anything I was offered and I wasted a lot of time.

My way into writing was through letters. Studying acting in New York, gradually realising that it wasn’t my thing, I would write to friends with tales of awful dance classes and terrible singing sessions. Watching me in plays, my friends would say: ‘Well done… but maybe you should write.’

Back to Bristol

I found it surprisingly affecting, coming back to a graduation ceremony. There’s something really hopeful and fretful about this time of life. I always resist giving advice except what I would say to recent graduates is: don’t panic. It’s rare for people to fall into something they’re good at straight away – and by straight away, I mean within three, four or five years. You’ve got loads of time to think and try new things, perhaps work in areas you wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. You’ll find your feet eventually.