Tag Archives: advice to writers

Take inspiration and above all, endure….

I recently spoke with a friend who said she was blocked, jaded, depressed, and unmotivated – and it was not just the results of the EU referendum which had made her feel this way. Her once beloved project was now languishing in a pile of unread research books and unsorted receipts for her tax return. She said she couldn’t understand her lethargy, her lack of interest in a writing career she had worked very hard to establish. I comforted her as best I could, and then sent her a link to the post, below, written soon after I started writing this blog. She said it helped. Just looking at Frank Hurley’s haunting photographs of Antarctica engaged her; they seemed a worthy metaphor for how she was feeling about her writing (and Brexit): stuck, like the ship Endurance, in ice. She suggested I repost it, commenting on how I haven’t written ‘advice’ pieces like this for some time. I explained this was because I had received no response to the posts, so presumed they were of no interest. ‘Put it up again,’ she encouraged me, so I have. Let me know if you would like to see more of this kind of content.

Touched Up no sharpening

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working….

Years ago I wrote a radio play for BBC Radio 3’s then experimental strand, The Wire. Lives Out of Step was set in Antarctica and used actual wild track recorded on the continent from the BBC sound archives. The play juxtaposed excerpts from the letters and diaries of the early Polar explorers with a fictional narrative highlighting the contemporary exploration (and exploitation) of this frozen desert for oil.

During my research, I became consumed not just with Ernest Shackleton’s South, his extraordinary account of making his way back safely – with all his men – from a glorious but disastrous attempt to get to the South Pole, but also Frank Hurley’s haunting photographs of The Endurance, the expedition’s ship, caught fast in the Weddell Sea, eighty five miles from their destination.

Long after the play was broadcast and the project was filed away and all but forgotten, the images lingered on in my mind. I made copies of Hurley’s iconic images and blu-tacked them above my desk, not quite sure why. As someone who makes their living through being creative, I have learnt to trust my often illogical-seeming impulses, knowing the process is sometimes instinctive and the reasoning will come through, eventually. It was only many weeks later when going into my study with a friend that I saw this overly-familar place afresh, with all its superstitious objects and clutter and mountains of capsizing books – and on the wall above my desk a potent visual metaphor of the process of writing. And enduring. And, despite all the odds, surviving.


At risk of inviting hubris, I have to state I do not believe in writer’s block. Like Russian-American director/actor Michael Chekov, I believe that the potential of the imagination is infinite and as such, can be endlessly resourceful. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. It needs to be developed and harnessed, fed and nurtured, alternatively shaped and let grow wild.

In my interactions with writers experiencing this ‘block’, it has inevitably been caused by several possibilities, some of which I list, below:

Tiredness. We need to rest and feed our imaginations just as we have to rest and feed our physical bodies. After a period of intense activity, our energy and stores are depleted, so we need to input as well as output. But before I start trying to stoke the fire of my imagination with further fuel, I rest it by having a day looking…. at a horizon, whether seascape, landscape, or cityscape; at art (my personal favourite is to sit in the cool, dimly-lit environment of Rothko’s gallery at the Tate); at a huge cinema screen; at some other vista which seems to satisfy my hunger for seeing and absorbing. Find your own panacea, but be truthful in how long you need to rest. It is possible to rest for all of your creative life.

Research. Or lack of. The one common criticism I’ve heard from directors working with new writing is they feel playwrights don’t research their characters or the world of their play enough. I’ve also found when mentoring writers who are writing naturalistically, if they have come to an apparently insurmountable block and have begun to doubt themselves, the solution invariably lies in the work, as that is where the problem is, not in the writer. A few choice questions about the rules of the world, or the needs, motivations, or backstories of the characters often illicit a loosening of the obstacle, a thawing of the ice, with fresh material to pursue.

But this research needs to be carefully handled. Chekov warns: “Dry reasoning kills your imagination. The more you probe with your analytical mind, the more silent become your feelings, the weaker your will and the poorer your chances for inspiration.”

Chekov’s advice is to actors and embodied imagination, and so needs to be adapted for use by writers, but the overall sentiment holds true.

I think we need to keep juice in our work, especially during the dehydrating process of revising and rewriting. We mustn’t cook it so dry our work becomes unappetising or inedible. It’s wise to leave the work alone for a while when the material becomes too familiar, as we all know familiarity breeds contempt.

But most of all, my advice to writers is never give up.

Shackleton and his men were assumed dead, lost at sea or in the Antarctic wilderness…

Take inspiration, and above all, endure.


For Frank Hurley’s photographs and Ernest Shackleton’s memoir, see links below:




Writing is all about rewriting – but one thing at a time….



I was recently teaching a writing workshop in India, when one of the participants asked me about revising a draft. ‘Writing is all about re-writing,’ I said with great emphasis, ‘but only concentrate on one thing at a time.’  It may seem obvious, gnomic even, but it is a piece of advice so often overlooked. When revising work, focus on one thing at a time. The conversation that followed prompted me to go back, fillet and revise an earlier piece on this very subject.

Revising and redrafting a script can be a chaotic and ramshackle activity. After finally stumbling through to the end of an early draft, hopefully realising what the play or story is actually about (which may not be what we thought it was about when we set out…) it’s time to revisit and refine.

So often in my early experience and more recently, with those I dramaturg or mentor, revising can end up resembling the carnage of a kitten caught up in a ball of wool. It is not cute, pleasant, or the stuff of chocolate box covers, despite its many cliches. The combination of tender inexpert claws and fragmenting strands of wool is choking and potentially deadly. Likewise for the enthusiastic or inexperienced playwright whose imagined elegant and ordered combing through of the various strands of a script can result instead in a cat’s cradle of knots, unintentional dread-heads and a confused and despairing writer.

It’s easily done. I  begin reading a first draft and see some improvements I could make in the flow of dialogue between the characters, so mid-read I begin the revision, only to get distracted by the layout, which surely should be indented and double-spaced? (yes please). So I start doing that, but wait, surely that’s a saggy bit there in the middle and the stakes aren’t nearly high enough? So if I just reintroduce the character I cut halfway through the first draft and have her explain – but no, wouldn’t that just make her a cipher? And that’d be telling, not showing – which seems to be what’s happening in that section there – so maybe, maybe if I changed his motivation in that beat and therefore introduced rising action there, I could…. and there I am, hopelessly lost and demented, script dismantled about me, trussed up in my narrative threads like a turkey on Christmas morning.

We have to be ordered in our approach.

Try and work through the full draft, focusing on only one thing at a time. One read-through you may be looking at the journey of each individual character – and don’t try to do several in one reading to save time, as you won’t. Focus and comb through that strand, separating it from other considerations, and really pay attention. Then another read-through may be taking the dramatic temperature of the whole – the presence of tension or pace or rising action. Another read may be looking at effective dialogue – and so on.

It seems simple and obvious advice, yet somehow most of us manage not to absorb it. We try to be economical with time, but end up instead squandering it, giving ourselves headaches and small crises of confidence.

In redrafting, be specific and focus on only one thing at a time.

Be patient and calm.

Above all else, enjoy.

Your inner kitten will thank you for it.

20 Questions…. Alison Jean Lester

Alison Jean Lester. LHLH PHOTO

Alison Jean Lester. LHLH PHOTO

I first met Alison Jean Lester at the Singapore Writer’s Festival in November 2014, when we immediately fell into a strong friendship around writing. I gave her a play to read, she gave me a book – the sublime Lillian on Life, which will be published in January 2015 (details, below). I was delighted when she agreed to participate in my ’20 Questions…’ series, when I ask writers of all descriptions, plus a plethora of other creatives (directors, composers, live artists, choreographers, novelists, burlesque dancers…) the same 20 questions, so we may read, compare and contrast responses, enjoy, and hopefully learn. 20 Questions: Alison Jean Lester….

What first drew you to your particular practice?

When I was 19 I moved to Beijing to study Mandarin for a year, and it was a huge shock to the system. I was so uncertain of my environment that I didn’t leave the dormitory for a week. Once I did leave, though, I became so full of accumulated impressions that I carried a notebook at all times and took notes. Then every two or three days I wrote those notes into a letter to my parents. Interpreting the world around me and trying to express it to others became I habit. I think that was the beginning. I’m pretty sure it was.

 What was your big breakthrough?

Of course getting an introduction to my agent was life-changing, but I know that if I hadn’t been introduced to the writer Alicia Erian (The Brutal Language of Love, Towelhead) way back in 1999, he probably wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic. I was focusing on writing short stories, and my brother, who was then an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, knew of a short story writer he thought I would enjoy. Alicia and I communicated via email and phone (she was in Brooklyn, I in Singapore), and she read every story I worked on. I’d email them to her, and she, incredibly generously, would print them, comment on them in pencil, and FedEx them back to me. Her comments were both very challenging and very encouraging, and she told me things I remember to watch out for when I write now. We also had this seminal conversation:

Alicia: Are you okay?

Me: Yeah. Why?

Alicia: Well, look at what you’re writing.

So the breakthrough was both an opportunity to work closely with a mentor, and an opportunity to consider how much pain I wasn’t admitting to feeling.

 What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

Finding the right objective correlative. (T.S. Eliot: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”)


 Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

What comes to mind is actually a movie: Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously. I was at college in Indiana when I saw it, and I remember being deeply stunned when I walked back out of the movie theater into the campus of cool gray limestone. First off, I’d never seen nor imagined anything like the Indonesia it portrayed. Neither had I seen or imagined anything like the character Billy Kwan’s activism, bravery and energy. And there’s a bit in the film where Mel Gibson’s character, neophyte journalist Guy Hamilton, gets told by his editor to stop sending such hyped-up emotional pap back home and start telling hardnosed stories. It was about Asia, and it was about principles, and it was also about writing. It caused me some internal plate tectonics.

 What’s more important: form or content?

This question is making my brain fizz.

 How do you know when a project is finished?

I know that when my mind spends more time on something I’m newly imagining than something I’m actively working on, it’s probably best to put the latter down for a bit. It might be finished then, but not necessarily.

Ask any published author how it feels to read old works, and they’ll tell you they’d like to do some rewriting if they could. We evolve. When we publish, the work can’t evolve with us. I’m not sure if that makes it ‘done’.

 Do you read your reviews?

My husband reads them first, and then we decide if I need to.

 What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

Two things. First, if you’re just at the ‘dipping a toe in’ moment, write what you feel like writing on the back of an old envelope or supermarket flyer. Don’t give it the power to make you judge it by the standards of a document right away. And second, don’t wait a long time before getting several opinions. One opinion is not enough. Show your work to a few people you respect. If they don’t agree on how your writing is going, you’ll be reminded that others can be very helpful, but they are only partial guides. Sift through their advice. But get advice.

 What work of art would you most like to own?

There’s a work called “Zetsu #8”, by Japanese ceramicist Nishida Jun, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was described in an article by Sebastian Smee this way: “In a darkened and dramatically spotlighted room, three monolithic ceramic slabs are displayed chest high in separate vitrines. All three were fired as one massive piece. They subsequently fractured, and now coexist as silent but highly charged evidence of some untraceable past event. They are part freak geological accident, part gorgeous human ruin.” When I viewed it last summer, I burst into tears. It hurt my heart to look at. The feeling was no doubt heightened by having learned that Nishida had died at 28 in a massive kiln explosion in Bali.

A ‘gorgeous human ruin’ looks like an alien. An alien behind panes of glass that reveal it much too intimately.

I  wouldn’t like to own it. I’d like to be able to visit, though. Or to know it’s nearby, even if I didn’t visit.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

I think it might help me to know the answer to this question.


 What are you working on now?

Promotion! I recently finished a draft of a second novel, and it is now in the hands of my editor. While waiting to see how much work she thinks still needs to be done, I’ll be doing what I can to raise the visibility of the first one. Part of my mind is on a third novel, though. I love thinking about it, and I’m making notes.

I’m also reading the novels-in-progress of two writer friends, to see if I can be of any help.

 What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Lark Ascending’ are neck and neck.

 What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

That I was too simple to understand what the people who sent me rejection letters were saying, and I needed to read them a bit more slowly and not put them away so quickly.

 What’s your greatest ambition?

I’d like to see my book in people’s hands on public transportation. Wouldn’t that be great?! I’d like to see feeling on their faces as they read. But I think my greatest ambition, after living in an apartment for all my adult life, is to be in a position to buy a house that the whole family could reunite in. I’d like to be with my spread-out family more. I’d like a garden. I’d like a view of nature when I write.

 How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

I remind myself that whatever I write doesn’t have to be final. I take a trial and error approach, which embraces the existence of error and doesn’t make it a dirty word. I’ve done this often enough, successfully enough, to know that I can carry on and get to something that feels right if I keep trying. Also, I get opinions, and I see how I react to the opinions. I see what I’m willing to let go of, and what I fight to keep.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

I sent a short story to a venerable editor who told me the voice wasn’t in the least organized. I didn’t know what he meant, because of course it all made sense to me. Eventually, though, I learned that all feedback is a gift. Negative comments are welcome. Sometimes especially welcome.

 And the best thing?

That it upset them.

 If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

Your brain is the worldwide web, and every day that you live you are uploading more video, more sounds, more conversations, more everything. When you create, you are doing a search that comes up with pages and pages of hits for you to luxuriate in. You surf around. You expand your search; you refine your search.

Why are we so surprised at what we can find on the web, when computers mimic the associative way our own brains work?

 What is your philosophy or life motto?

“Wait. There’s more.”

 What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?


(Question: Does missing the end of your left middle finger make it difficult to type?)

Further information on Alison can be found at her website: http://www.alisonjeanlester.com


Lillian on Life will be published by Putnam in the United States on 13 January 2015 and by John Murray in the United Kingdom on 29 January.

Smart, poignant, funny, and wholly original, Lillian on Life is as fresh and surprising as fiction gets.

This is the story of Lillian, a single woman reflecting on her choices and imagining her future. Born in the Midwest in the 1930s, Lillian lives, loves, and works in Europe in the fifties and early sixties. Once she settles in New York, she pursues the great love of her life. Now it’s the early nineties, and she’s taking stock.

Throughout her life, walking the unpaved road between traditional and modern choices for women, Lillian grapples with parental disappointment and societal expectations, wins and loses in love, and develops her own brand of wisdom. Lillian on Life lifts the skin off the beautiful, stylish product of an era to reveal the confused yet vibrant woman underneath.

Advance Praise

“Lillian on Life is a quirky book with a very deep heart and soul. I found it full of life and full of wisdom.” – Erica Jong, #1 New York Times best selling author of Fear of Flying

“I absolutely loved Lillian on Life. It was a delight. The style of it so fresh and clever and subversive and there’s something very brave about it.” – Kate Atkinson, #1 New York Times best selling author of Life After Life

“In this remarkably mature first novel, Alison Jean Lester has channeled the worldly yet wistful elegance of Colette to portray an unforgettable heroine. Lillian’s provocative reflections on love, vanity, sexual intimacy, and surviving as an independent woman over half a century are deeply moving.” – Julia Glass, National Book Award Winner and author of Three Junes and The Widower’s Tale

“I’ll never forget Lillian on Life. Looking backward, she’s brutally honest about her needs, her lovers, her parents. Salinger could have invented her…Roth would have loved her…and so will you. A rare book, a little raunchy, but very rich and very real.” – Ilene Beckerman, author of Love, Loss, and What I Wore

Lillian+on+Life+UK+Cover“What a splendid book! By turns acerbic and warm, urbane and homespun, Lillian On Life is – like its protagonist – charming, funny and unabashedly smart. But as slender and enjoyable as this book is, it’s much more than simply a lark. Each elegantly compressed chapter leaves us luxuriating in thought: about the snippets of experience so vividly depicted, and about those that have been, with perfect art, left out.” – Leah Hager Cohen, author of The Grief of Others and No Book but the World

“A beautifully written, deft debut; edgy, elegant Lillian will stay with you.” – Adele Parks best selling author of Spare Brides and Husbands


In a remarkably confident debut, a woman’s life is revealed through fragments and meditations hinting at a life of great daring and unrealized dreams. … A slim novel that feels just perfect—each thought measured, each syllable counted, a kind of haiku to an independent woman. – Kirkus

If the thought of reading about a post-menopausal woman’s one-night stands doesn’t sound all too appealing, you’re not alone. Yet first-time novelist Alison Jean Lester manages to make such an untraditional narrative seem endearing—even illuminating. The 24 vignettes found in Lillian on Life leap through the eras (‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s), touching on Lillian’s lifelong reflections and hopes for the future. The novel is a cleverly executed feminist bildungsroman that you could easily share with your mother, sister, friend, or, probably most appropriately, life coach. – Yasmeen Gharnit, NYLON

Lester’s novel about a tenacious, well-traveled heroine of a certain age is replete with the profound and comical observations of a vivacious spirit. – O, The Oprah Magazine

Living Well is the Best Revenge…. Things I Wish I’d Known When Starting Out….


I’m currently working as a dramaturg with the Intercultural Theatre Institute in Singapore, engaging with fascinating emerging practitioners from across the world – Malaysia, Bolivia, Italy, India, Hong Kong, and beyond. At a benefit evening earlier this week, I got into conversation about what advice I would give to the students about to graduate. This then broadened into a conversation about writing,  prompting me to go back to an essay I was commissioned to write for LiteratureTraining some years ago. So – as promised to my dear friends, about to emerge from their training into what I hope will be long careers – and for all other creatives who may stumble across this:

What I wish I’d known when I was starting out:

A career doesn’t have to be in one geographic location. A writer is mobile; our work doesn’t have to be tethered.

One of our main tasks is to find the people who love our work, as they will eventually make it.

We live in a large world, full of possibilities, so it’s essential to broaden our view and keep informed. This is not just about changes in personnel, funding, opportunities etc, in the business – it’s also about keeping alive and fresh as people and artists.

Directors won’t come knocking on your door, so get your work out there – go for every initiative and competition you can. Apart from providing useful deadlines and seeding new projects, it means there’s always something ‘out’ and therefore hope.

Keep as many irons in the fire as you can, it takes dexterity and good management, but some will eventually get hot.

Know your market.

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Imagine that you are creating a library of your work – enjoy it, be the best you can. It takes the same amount of time to make something good as something bad, so go for quality and longevity.

Evolve, grow, keep asking questions, keep learning.

Good writers work on their strengths, but great writers work on their weaknesses.

Keep alive your curiosity in styles, aesthetics and developments in the arts.

Know trends, but don’t follow them.

Take up new challenges and try not to always play it safe – fortune favours the brave.

Life, like food, can be sour or sweet, it depends on how you want to season the pot.

It is within your gift to live a good, happy, enjoyable life, despite the profession’s frustrations and unfairness.

Living well is the best revenge.

The above is from a longer essay, Fortune Favours the Brave, but Chance Favours the Prepared Mind, which I was commissioned to write for Literaturetraining as part of a wider series, HOW DID I GET HERE?

HOW DID I GET HERE? is a fantastic series of essays, with case histories and advice from a broad range of writers and literature professionals, from crime writers to publicists, poetry therapy to gameswriting.

Sadly, Literaturetraining has since bitten the dust, but the material, alongside The Writers’ Compass, a bulletin of opportunities and courses, is now available through NAWE, National Association of Writers in Education.

The essays are available as pdfs you can download at:



On the dangers of believing in ‘writer’s block’…

I’ve just been asked by a magazine to give my thoughts on the terrible condition called writer’s block. I’m afraid I gave them short shrift.

I don’t believe in it. I’m frustrated when this excuse is peddled as a way of excusing poor preparation, or tiredness, or the need to do further research, or rest, breathe, look at the landscape or generally put more ‘food’ in the ‘cupboard’. We need stimulus, we need new experiences and sensations, we need change and to be active, and we also need to rest. This is natural, and I believe all humans need it. What I get perplexed about is when this malaise is wheeled out to explain why someone is not working. I have seen people grind to a halt (or not even start) and remain there for months and even years, saying ‘writer’s block’ as though that’s it, the end, and there’s nothing to be done but wait until it unblocks itself in its own sweet time, if ever….

This is not to be confused with burn-out, or lack of confidence, or an overly-active critic in the head who murmurs endlessly about how crap you are, or a host of other debilitating conditions we also have to get over in order to do what we do… And after blasting the poor editor with my thoughts about how we indulge notions of writer’s block to the benefit of a burgeoning self-help industry, but to the detriment of the profession (it adds to the fantasy of the tortured, suffering artist and lets lazy writers get away with it), I became superstitious and wondered if I was inviting hubris….

I have never had writer’s block as I see writing as a craft and profession, as well as one of the greatest joys and solaces of my life. In the past when I have failed to write it was because I needed rest, or stimulus, or discipline, or a few quiet nights in and less out on the tiles – I needed to research more, to plot better, to be more spontaneous, or less jaded – I just needed to get on and do the bloody work. I started seeing the difference between a writer and a would-be writer as the latter talks about it, endlessly, whilst the real thing just applies the seat of the pants to a chair and gets on with it.

When I teach I have a series of timed exercises I encourage writers to do at home to start afresh, or change direction, so instead of falling into that big hole in the manuscript they are making bigger by boring their eyes into it, they might find it less intimidating by approaching from a different place.

I have never found a problem with writing that couldn’t be solved by writing.

And then I found other writers felt similar to me – wonderfully successful and talented writers, whose words might make be feel less superstitious about inviting hubris when I write ‘I don’t get writer’s block.’ I can’t afford to come to a stop with a show going into tech’ in Taipei art Festival and another starting rehearsals in the UK this week, and a short monologue to write for Agent 160’s Fun Palace…

So over to Philip Pullman….

“Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don’t feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn’t find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!” he said.

Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.”

Fabulous. No-nonsense and to the point. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Now I’m off to write that monologue….

Talent is not the most important thing… William Faulkner.

“At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.”

 William Faulkner. University of Virginia, May 1957.

I’m currently deep in revision – not for an exam (or is it?), but reworking a would be novel. In the midst of this process, for solace and encouragement, I’ve been looking over my collection of quotations from the great and the good.

This Faulkner quotation, above, is refreshing, especially in the light of recent debates about talent and whether writing can be taught (and, yes, I’m talking about you, Hanif  Kureishi  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi)

Faulkner’s assertion seems both generous and also insightful – we can train and teach ourselves. It spurs me on to edit, to question, to wonder, to mull…to try and to try and to try until it comes out right.

Something to put on the wall above my writing desk, I think…

starting to write…research, creating materials and scratching out the territory

It’s that exciting time – researching, imagining the territory, scratching out the first traces of what may develop into a character’s voice, journey, temperament, discoveries… I’m starting out on a new play, creating the anarchic, formless, sprawling mosaic of half-monologues, author’s questions and asides, indications of dynamic and interaction in snatches of dialogue, hastily written notes about place and action which eventually come together to create an image of the world of the play…

As a playwright, I’m not a planner. I know all the tricks and approaches, the theories and proposed practices. I’ve read the books, been to the seminars, taken and led the workshops. I know how it’s done and am known for my skills with dramaturgy and structure, yet my own process at the start of a new play is deliberately chaotic and to a planner’s eye, undisciplined. I give myself free rein to follow any wild association that pings in my head, to research in unlikely places so long as there is a chord resounding in me, to scrawl pages of notes and questions and one liners and ‘what ifs’ and scratching outs and a) b) c) d) versions of what may happen and whose emerging voice it may be and what this might really be about…

I read widely and eclectically – a medieval Welsh myth in translation, a misery memoir on abduction and a Victorian botanical primer (with delicious, delicate hand-painted illustrative plates) in the past four days alone. I’ve read about stamens and ovules; the flora and fauna of the New Forest; an American Survivalist’s blog on going off-grid and an Austrian’s guide for surviving trauma. I’ve seasoned this with playlists of new-to-me musicians and composers selected by my nephews and images from photographers’ blogs on remote places and abandoned buildings.

I’m immersing myself in whatever snags my interest or resonates for the perceived journey ahead. I’m not being selective or critical. I’m dipping in like a swift tips the surface of a lake, sampling, trying, flying on, keeping moving. I’ve learnt how seductive research can be. I know how it can engross you, consume you, and become either yet another form of procrastination, preventing you from getting down to the job in hand – writing – or it can weigh you and the project down, words research-heavy, too dense to soar.

I carry my diverse and immersive research lightly, although I abandon myself to its pleasures for a short time. This I think is where experience comes in – knowing when to stop both the task at hand and the whole process itself. It is also important to learn how to notate, to skim off what is of interest and potentially of use to your project, keeping always a little distance from what you are engaged in, however addictive. It is also essential to capture the thoughts that flit across your imagination before they dissipate in the air.

Have always a notebook or computer nearby. Don’t con yourself. You will not remember. Jot it down, and now, and see if the thought can be expressed in the character’s voice – the character not yet invented, nevermind realised – this is our paradoxical task but one which can’t be avoided or put off. Send away any inner critic and don’t worry how and what you write so long as you let the impulse flow through you and into the pen/keys; shake yourself out of research pleasure, which ironically often manifests in idleness. Try shaping into scrawled notes that shapeless thought clouding your mind. Get it down and keep moving – you can come look at it again, later. Travel fast, travel with curiosity and an open mind, travel well.

More on my process of starting to write will follow….


New beginnings and first drafts…. and in praise of rural touring…

Woman of Flowers. Kaite O'Reilly for Forest Forge Theatre Company

Woman of Flowers. Kaite O’Reilly for Forest Forge Theatre Company

As the new year approaches, I have a new project: a commission from Forest Forge to write a play for their 2014 national tour.

I first worked with Forest Forge theatre company in 2011, when the artistic director, Kirstie Davies, had the inspired idea of producing my play ‘peeling’ and then touring it to village halls in rural areas. ‘peeling’ is a metatheatrical exploration of acting, eugenics, soup recipes, disability and Deaf politics and ‘The Trojen Women’, performed by one Deaf and two disabled performers across a variety of theatre languages… It’s a set text at various universities in Europe, Japan and elsewhere in the world for its radical politics and experimental form.

What I love about Forest Forge and Kirstie’s vision is alongside their national touring, they bring plays into the heart of a rural community – places often overlooked for cultural provision, many miles from building-based theatres and arts centres. What I particularly love is Kirstie’s decision to bring what might be perceived as ‘difficult’, or challenging plays. She doesn’t patronise her audience and well understands how people living outside cities have as broad a taste as those living within, and have just as strong a desire to see ‘edgy’ work. I’m always frustrated by the capital’s assumption that the ‘important’ work happens in the city, when with companies like Knee High, and the National Theatres of Wales and Scotland, some of the most innovative and risk-taking work has been taking place for years very far from the metropolis.

There is also an assumption I’ve come across in city-based theatre circles that rural audiences are somehow less adventurous or ‘able’ for work that pushes the boundaries. As a theatre maker, and someone who lives rurally, I couldn’t disagree more. Back in 2011, when I visited the production when it was touring, performers Ali Briggs, Kiruna Stamell and Nickie Miles-Wildin all spoke of the astonishing response to the work from the audience.  Roger Finn, an audience member wrote on the Forest Forge website: This is what I want from theatre – to be taken into new territories; to experience deep, human contact; to have my brain tickled and to discover new places in my heart. A true joy to go on this bold adventure. http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/peeling

As a playwright, and as someone who lives an hour’s drive from the nearest ‘cultural centre’, it feels a real privilege for my work to be brought to the audience in their communities – but we really need to challenge the assumption the edgy or important work happens only in cities.

And so to my burgeoning new play, set far from a city, on the edge of a forest… Woman of Flowers is inspired by the story of Blodeuwedd, from the ancient Welsh treasure The Mabinogion – a story I have known for decades, since before moving to live in Wales, and one which has captured my imagination.

I’m only starting out on this process, but the script won’t be an adaptation of this great classic, I’ll simply be taking themes and ideas from the original and try to give it a contemporary twist. So far my Woman of Flowers is a stylised telling of desire, duty, adultery, murder and revenge set in an isolated, rural household on the edge of a forest. The production will be presented in spoken and projected English with theatricalised British Sign Language. I will write about the process when the work is sturdy enough to bring into the public gaze, so until then… Good luck with all your writing and creativity….

20 Questions… Clare George.

Continuing my series of questions about creativity and process with writers, choreographers, poets, directors, sculptors, theatre practitioners, novelists, burlesque performers and other artists…. Novelist Clare George takes the helm. I first met Clare in Exeter some years ago when she was writer in residence, co-ordinating a large project supporting and guiding writers. I’m delighted to introduce her response to 20 Questions…

Clare George

Clare George

Clare George is the author of two novels, The Cloud Chamber (Sceptre, 2003) and The Evangelist (Sceptre, 2005). Having completed a Masters in Creative Writing at University of East Anglia, she had a short story, Snapshot, broadcast on Radio 4 in 2006. She taught creative writing at City University London from 2007 to 2009, and was Writer in Residence at Exeter University from 2009 to 2011, where she led an outreach programme for writers across the South West exploring visions of the future. She is currently working on a third novel.

What first drew you to your particular practice (art/acting/writing, etc)?

–       When I was a pre-schooler we lived in a small village where a library van visited once a week. It was the most magical place. The first story I remember making up, long before I was able to write it down, was about a girl who went into the library van and opened the most beautiful and exciting book in the world. It came to life around her. That’s still why I write.

What was your big breakthrough?

–       Getting an agent. The first book I sent her wasn’t published, and neither was the next one, but the third was, and the fourth, and she’s still my agent now.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

–       Starting a novel. So much material is needed, and it takes so many false starts: in the case of my most recent novel, Things I’ll Never Tell You, about twelve years’ worth.

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

–       Go Dog Go by P D Eastman, which was my favourite book in that library van. 

41YMQHTM4SL._SY445_What’s more important: form or content?

–       Content is everything. Form is everything. The best times writing are when they stretch one another. But in fiction there’s also story, which crosses the boundary between the two and is more mysterious than either. A story that gives and denies, enlarging our wants and our expectations, is a devastating thing.

How do you know when a project is finished?

–       At the point when my improvements start making it worse.

Do you read your reviews?

–       Damn, yes! I think the writer who doesn’t read his/her reviews is an admirable creature from a slightly different species to my own.

 What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

–       Read, read, read, read, read. But only for fun. And get out more.

What work of art would you most like to own?

–       Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi, outside the British Library. Luckily, I do own it, sort of.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

–       The attitudes I most dislike are the exclusive ones, such as that a writer needs to be a particular type of person, or that ‘literary’ works are intrinsically superior to those written within a genre.

4108H0N4KYL._SY445_What are you working on now? 

–       I’m trying to get started on a novel about a telepath. It started out as an exercise I set myself in using free indirect style after writing the last two novels in the first person, and has gone on to become an exploration of how dysfunctional it is to be constantly trying to examine people from the inside, which I find can get in the way of actual living.


What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

–       Ode to the West Wind, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I’m a Romantic.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

–       I wish I’d had a Kindle, so that I didn’t have to be confined to British tastes in books. I got reader’s block for a long time.

What’s your greatest ambition?

–       To become a better writer and enjoy myself while trying.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

–       I think patience is the answer. I’m not very patient.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

–       People are entitled to their own opinions. But one review of The Evangelist pointed out that I’d used the wrong terminology when my narrator talked about someone ‘getting a hat trick’ instead of ‘taking a hat trick’ (or the other way around). Getting it wrong was a betrayal of my cricket-loving narrator.

And the best thing?

–       A review of The Evangelist in The Independent on Sunday: ‘Few authors possess a grain of Clare George’s intelligence, even fewer manage to splice a regularly amusing, often moving narrative with ideas of the range exhibited here.’ I quote it whenever possible. Especially on the school run.

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

–       It’s like drugs. The side-effects are horrible but the highs are irresistible. You can give up but you will never be free.

What is your philosophy or life motto?

–       Try really hard. Try not to try so hard.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

–       I’m not sure there’s much of a distinction between the creative life and other types of life. I find that I have at least as much in common with those pursuing other disciplines for their own sake, such as science or sport or even business.

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

–       What is actually happening to our brains when we consume stories? I don’t have the answer, but it would be great if there was someone out there working on it because I WANT TO KNOW.

Further information about Clare and her books at:

Anne Lamott on writing…..



In general…there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.

-Anne Lamott

A wonderful quotation to focus the mind….