Tag Archives: process

new year, new production – richard iii redux

Shakespeare’s Richard III: Bogeyman. Villain. Evil incarnate. Or is he? What if he is a she? What if the “hideous… deformed, hobbling, hunchbacked cripple…” is portrayed by someone funny, female and with the same form of scoliosis?

This is the premise of my forthcoming collaboration with Sara Beer and Phillip Zarrilli of The Llanarth Group: richard iii redux OR Sara Beer is/not Richard III will take a long, hard and not completely serious look at this infamous figure, evil personified, and raise questions both about Shakespeare’s hatchet-job on what historically appears to be a good and popular King, and the interpretations of this formidable role from actors ancient and modern.

The posters arrived…waiting to be sent out to the venues for the opening in March 2018











The first two days of development begin tomorrow – and I can’t wait. We have researched the subject fairly comprehensively, read books, seen documentaries about the royal body in the carpark and scrutinised celebrated productions of Shakespeare’s play…  I’ll be documenting the process as it happens, here….






Pain and truth and learning…. the playwright’s progress…

So what really goes on when you’re writing a play? So often I see narratives that miss out on the difficult bits – those moments where, in my experience at least, the learning happens. In these sanitised versions the play somehow falls, fully formed, onto the page and thence into the mouths of actors in the rehearsal room… Where’s the sweat, the not-knowing, the doubts, the sudden moments of clarity and certainty? Creativity comes from problem solving. I move on as a writer when I’ve struggled with something – and if not learnt something new, have found the strength to let something go.

And so onto the blogs by dramaturg and playwright David Lane. I featured some of his earlier blogs on first idea to final draft here. David emailed me again today with an update on his ACE-funded writing process public engagement blogs. ‘I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences more widely,’ he wrote, ‘particularly the painful and truthful ones!’ Which are the rare ones – and the ones I like to read, to absorb, recognise, and hopefully learn from.

So with David’s permission, I share them with you….. Painful and truthful blogs on the writing process…..













Guest dramaturg and playwright: David Lane

I received a lovely email from the playwright and dramaturg David Lane this evening, inviting me to share his fabulous blogs on process.

David wrote:

Knowing your love of a deeper analysis of playwriting, I wanted to send you a link to this most recent blog post titled Paralysed by Process: Writing off the Grid (number 4 of 10) that is part of my public engagement promise to ACE, after they funded me with a personal grant for writing a play.

The 10 blogs are reflecting on my funded process from idea to first draft, and this fourth one made me think of you as it’s reflecting on some creative collisions between wearing the dual hats of playwright and dramaturg.

I’m afraid the blogs are crack cocaine to a process and creative junkie like me – I recommend them, but warm you, they can be highly addictive:

Blog 1: Finding Your Writing Voice
Blog 2: Asking the Best Questions of Your Writing
Blog 3: What Happens After Playwriting Research?                                                         Blog 4: Paralysed by Process: Writing off the Grid

It’s always a delight to share work and analysis of a process which often seems mystifying and mysterious.

Many thanks to David for sharing.

Inspiration comes with the breath

I love the fact that the word ‘inspiration’ has its roots in breath – ‘being breathed upon’ in one online etymological source – as though artists were blessed or touched by some form of supernatural or divine grace. A thirteenth century source is even clearer: ‘immediate influence of God or a god.’ www.etymonline.com.

However, this lovely but romantic notion promotes the myth that we create through an external inspiration – a fickle force, sometimes favouring us, sometimes not – as though it is something other than the potential within each of us. Such persistent but old fashioned ideas suggests some people are creative and others not, and we must wait until the muse or inspiration strikes. It promotes being passive rather than active and making our own luck, our own inspiration, our own work.

I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the difference between writers and would-be writers (or artists and makers), is one gets on with it, whilst the would-be sits around talking about doing ‘it’ when the time is right and inspiration strikes, bringing the idea. I can be very scathing of this, calling it a form of laziness, an avoidance of doing the actual work. In kinder moods I know it can be the result of fear – of failing, of succeeding, of committing to oneself as a creative being, of finally taking on ‘the dream’ only for it to reveal itself as a nightmare… How much easier to put the responsibility outside ourselves. It’s something we can all be complicit in, Nietzche believed, rather than the reality of hard work and the lengthy creative process:

‘Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.’ Nietzsche.

It’s the most common question I get asked by taxi drivers and hairdressers: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ My answer is long-winded and Evangelical:

From the ether, from life, from over-heards on the bus, from anecdotes we’re told, from newspaper headlines glimpsed on the train, from memories, from idle thought, from documentaries or articles, from received stories and pre-existing sources, from visual art, from going for a walk, from dreams, from anything and everywhere. The trick is in recognising the tug of interest and gathering up the stimulus or noting the idea before it goes, for it will. We will never remember those fleeting thoughts – they need to be notated before they evaporate.

We have to be like magpies – open eyed and curious, ready to dive down and snap up any bright, shiny thing that catches our attention. We often let the seed of an idea or inspiration pass, as it is simply a stirring, not a fully-formed plot, or an immediate understanding of what to write. In my experience that is inevitably a later phase, requiring considerable thought and effort, like heating and beating metal into pliancy and shape. The important task is to recognise the initial call and to understand it will take effort to make the oak from the acorn.

I don’t give too much thought to my selection of cuttings, images, essays, art gallery postcards and other miscellany which could be labelled roughly under ‘research’. It’s often completely instinctive – a tug in the gut and I’m buying that postcard, photographing that abandoned house or strange gully, surreptitiously tearing that article out of the decade old magazine in the dentist’s waiting room. I usually will not understand why I’m attracted to an image or a cutting or a phrase – I just know that it has spoken to my imagination in some way and so must be gathered, acknowledged. What this initial stirring turns into, if anything, is a different story….

Words emerging from a living mouth: read your work aloud


Some years ago I was asked what I, as a writer, actually did all day. I was in the process of revising a script, so I answered truthfully: I spent the whole day talking to my imaginary friends.

Writing can be noisy work. Performance writers are creating dynamic, pace, tension and flow. All that, plus characters, plot, aesthetic, and the world of the play is created through dialogue. Owing to this, I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing how your words move when spoken aloud – how they feel and emerge from a living mouth – what your work sounds like when uttered in a room.

It is often only in a read-through of a script we become aware of any tongue-twisters or difficult sentences we may have inadvertently created; it is there we note if a line sounds stilted, histrionic, or chimes false. Sudden unexpected little rhyming couplets emerge and accidental puns or double entendres. It is alarming how often what we thought we knew so well can surprise us – even ambush us. Reading the dialogue aloud when you write it is one way of avoiding this.

I find I can identify sections that are ‘flabby’ or need attention simply by half-murmuring the lines when I read the play. I can also find the sentences that jar because there are too many syllables in them, or not enough – and all this impacts on the greater whole.

Plays are written to be spoken. It makes sense that we should check the rhythm and flow by saying those words aloud. It helps us to check whether the dynamic between characters moves in the speed and pace we want at that moment. I often compare writing to composing music – it’s good to check each section follows the patterns and has the energy appropriate to the atmosphere we are trying to create at any point.

I’ve worked with writers who are bewildered as to why a scene which they know should work doesn’t. They’ve honed it, included all the necessary components of plot, rising tension, good characterisation – and yet it still doesn’t have the desired impact or emotional effect. We have then edited a few lines – perhaps changed the length or rhythm of several – and suddenly, to their astonishment, the moment works.

A speedy staccato back-and-forth may undermine and destroy a tender moment, or one with tension and gravitas – but that dynamic leading up to a slower, more evenly spaced section can help heighten the moment by contrast.

Movement of text has an impact on the audience and how it receives the information. Try and ensure you use the appropriate dynamic, flow, vocabulary and interaction. Reading the text aloud will help this.


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

The writer’s mind is in conflict with itself….

‘The writer’s mind is in conflict with itself – there is a knowing technical side and a dreamy side. The technical side is endlessly censoring.’         Rose Tremain

This quotation came to me this week via Mslexia‘s ‘Little Ms’ – and chimed immediately with the content of the masterclass I was fortunate to attend with Paul Muldoon at the Singapore Writer’s Festival a fortnight ago.

Muldoon spoke about each individual being a ‘team’ – we are both the writer and the first reader; the creator and the critic; the unconscious mind and conscious mind; chemistry and physics. (For more about this workshop and Muldoon’s take on chemistry and physics in the process of writing, read my blog here). We have to separate out these elements, otherwise we will never progress, as each part is ultimately in contradiction and potentially conflict with the other. As Muldoon put it, we have to ‘be open to whatever comes down the line’ in the initial creative part – having a fussy critic picking at what ‘comes down’ won’t help anyone to get words on paper, never mind enjoy the process.

I think the same principle has shaped my decision to ask writers I am teaching or mentoring to try and do one thing at a time, and when creating raw material, to send that inner critic off on a tea break. If we are watchful or critical too soon, we can sabotage our thoughts and so abandon or destroy the seed which may be insignificant in itself, but when watered and cultivated, may lead to a bloom.

Schiller describes this process I feel, in his response to a friend complaining of a dry period in his creative process, saying it is not good for the intellect to examine too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates:

 “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude. You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.” Schiller

I’m taking on this advice myself as I continue to revise my first novel – trying to identify the moments when I need to be creative without judgement, and when to let the critic loose. My impulse is to try and do both at the same time – breaking my own advice. I know it is counterproductive to try and edit as I write, yet the impulse is hard to resist. Perhaps now after the Muldoon workshop and these timely reminders from Tremain and Schiller I will proceed with more ease. I’m reminded of the Taoist saying: ‘The teacher teaches what s/he most needs to learn.’ Time to learn, O’Reilly, what you preach…