I recently received a request from a lovely French lady called Vanessa Jaunet. She asked if she could interview me for an article as part of her studies which would include translating my English into French. Vanessa’s questions were interesting and she’s allowed me to post the first part of our exchange here for you to read if you fancy it…
For how long have you been writing plays ?
I’ve been writing since I can remember to be honest. I have a peculiar memory where I remember smells, moments and feelings rather than huge swathes of my childhood. So I can remember very clearly the moment I spelled the word, ‘holiday’ all by myself. When I was at primary school we were very oversubscribed with students so our teachers didn’t have enough time to spend with us on the subjects we found difficult. They would tell us to go and do something we enjoyed so I always ended up writing or painting. I would end up writing the stories that the teacher would read to us in the afternoons. So I’ve been writing since I was very young, but I suppose I’ve been writing theatre seriously since 2008.
What inspired you to write plays?
For me the idea of a story being performed in front of you live is thrilling. My university degree was three years of Scriptwriting For Film and Television and to be honest I was fed up with writing screen. It felt very limited and I wanted to have a more freeing experience of bringing it to an audience. I wanted to be in the rehearsal room to see what was working and what wasn’t and to help untangle the story and shape it with others.
Also I wanted, and still do, to bring in a different audience to the theatre. It still has the ‘middle-class’ stigma attached to it and it’s something that I want to dispel. We can learn a lot from theatre like we can from any media. But the power of theatre is that it is in front of you, anything can go wrong. There are no multiple attempts to get the scene right, no pause button – it’s all there for you to experience and I think that is admirable. I also think it can have more of an effect because it is immediate and as an audience member you can see another human being portraying a story with all the guts and glory that you cannot hide from.
I saw on your website that you use boards. I would like to know how you use them. For example do you use them just when you have got an idea or do you develop you plays?
Ah, my whiteboards! I love them. I’m a firm believer in writing down and talking about ideas. Our brains are very clever in quashing an idea before it’s fully formed so by writing it down (even if it doesn’t work) we’re narrowing the chances of figuring out what does work. It’s a simple case of elimination. With whiteboards you can erase things quickly so it doesn’t hang heavy on you if you’re struggling with an idea. Also the physical act of writing does wake up the brain even if you write absolute rubbish. It’s a bit like breaking down the barrier, brushing off the cobwebs, before you then hit your stride and before you know it you’re writing your idea and you wonder why it took so long to get on with it.
I have four large whiteboards hanging on my walls. I usually have at least one with fragments of ideas or snippets of dialogue that I’ve either heard or thought. I’m writing a play at the moment which needed a lot of research so I used all the whiteboards including a fifth one that I have resting against my desk. I think it helps to be able to see everything at the same time so you can tell if you’ve missed something or if a part of the plot doesn’t work, or maybe doesn’t resurface again.
How would you describe your method of working? Are you a ‘‘junkie writer’’ or an organized writer? For example are you someone who sticks to 9-5 routine or do you write when an idea comes to you even if it’s a middle of the night?
I used to write in the middle of the night when it was quiet and no one would disturb me. I would write from 12am till about 5am. But then that would ruin me for the next day. I also needed to be awake for work so I had to stop doing that when I got a full time job. Finding time to write can be hard, but essential. Some writers work from 9-5 but I find it depends on what you’re working on. If I’m writing a commission for someone else then I schedule time because someone is expecting a draft for a particular date. If I’m writing my own ideas then I tend to be more relaxed about it and organise it around my work. I work freelance as a Film Festival Distributor so every week is different. Some weeks I’ll be working on a script for a few hours in the evening and sometimes just a weekend. The important thing for me is that I’m enjoying what I’m writing. If I’m really enjoying a script and I have a busy week then I will wake up at 5am to do some writing before work. If you enforce a strict writing method it can sometimes backfire and you don’t get any work done.
I’m definitely more level-headed than I used to be. I’d start several projects in one go and spend weeks getting very little sleep. But now I have to consider my sleep for my work which earns me my living. I’m much happier now than when I was writing at university and I think that’s because I’m allowing ideas to formulate rather than forcing them.
What do you feel when you write?
I feel knackered from having all these new, and sometimes not particularly nice, people in my head. But I also feel like I’m a problem solver and that rejuvenates me. Because you’re using your brain to separate different characters and travelling through time, in a literary sense obviously, it can be quite disorientating. You can get so engaged with what you’re writing that hours can fly by and you don’t realise. That’s when you know you’re on to something good. When you’re counting the minutes until you can do something else, that’s when you have to worry.
Which kind of emotions do you experience?
It can be quite emotional finishing a play, and sometimes even a draft. You do become very aware that these people you’ve pinned to the page would not have existed if it hadn’t been for all your hard work. As a writer you’re conjuring people from thin air and adding layers to their life so they are real, so the world they exist in is as real as you can make it. So of course it’s tiring always having to think and second guess what they’re going to do and how to get them through the story. You often hear writers say, “I’ve become too close to the story” and it’s easy to see why. You’re having to drop yourself in the middle of lives and explore and mine for the story. It can play on your mind when you’re out shopping or talking on the telephone and sometimes cloud your judgement. All the thinking you do away from the page is just as important as the words you order on the page.
What do you need to write? Which kind of atmosphere?
I can drown out any noise by being focused. I come from a very noisy house so have become good at tuning it all out. But what can cause my attention to waver is if the television is on or if someone is talking to me. I think it’s a visual thing. I think if I’m staring at the computer screen then I still acknowledge I’m doing work. The moment I start watching a film or television then it completely takes my attention off what I’m trying to do. Which is probably why I don’t watch television and for me, to watch a film is a treat. I don’t always use my laptop. At the beginning of my writing career I wrote everything by hand and typed it up. If it’s a sunny day or I need a change of scenery I’ll resort back to my trusty pen and paper. I listen to music sometimes – I like putting on an album that I know like the back of my hand because if it gets to the end and I’ve noticed I’ve hardly listened to it, I know I’ve been working hard. It’s a good gauge of how invested in the project I am.
As much as I would love to be more focused on my work I also need stimulus in other areas to get me motivated. Twitter is a good one for me because I can dip in and catch up with folks and also moan about having to write. It’s a typical writer thing to do, moan about having to write. I know a lot of other playwrights and authors on there so it’s good to have a chat and a laugh. Making tea is always a good stimulus for me too, I use it as a goal. ‘If I can just finish this scene then I can have a cup of tea…’ that kind of thing. And most of the time it’s a good excuse to step away from a play and sit with my dog for a bit or bake. I do a lot of baking because it’s something I can do on autopilot and allow my mind to wander. You’ll find that just as you think you’re relaxing and taking your mind of your play, the answer you’ve been searching for tumbles into view.