This month, playwright James Graham was the subject of some social media abuse over his decision to write a drama (Brexit: The Uncivil War) covering recent political events. Not over the content of the drama — no one had seen it yet — but over the fundamental question of a writer’s right to dramatise contemporary issues of their choosing.
Though I have never received abuse for my work (though I’ve learned male critics really, really hate it if you use the word “feminist” in your marketing blurb), it struck a chord. One of the most essential things for any writer is to learn to trust their own voice, and it’s one I’ve struggled with.
When I started writing my first play in 2014, I barely knew what a playwright was — I only knew there was a story I desperately needed to tell. I can see now how flawed and unsophisticated that play is, but it had a passion and an authenticity people responded to, and that play (while still unproduced outside of rehearsed readings and festival performances) brought me to industry attention and kick-started my career. An enormous privilege, but that attention brought with it pressure and censorship. When you are “emerging” (especially if you are female, young, disabled, from a minority background, etc.) everyone wants to tell you how to write, and what to write. It’s hard to balance feeling you should be grateful (is this a uniquely female thing?) that your olders and wisers are taking an interest, with the overwhelmment of other people’s often unsolicited opinions.
Some examples of things I’ve been told as an emerging writer:
*Don’t ever try to write more than one play a year, because not even the best writers can write more than one thing a year without the quality suffering.
*Never work on more than one thing at once.
*You’re Jewish — why are you not writing Jewish plays??
*You need to write at least some male characters into this [all-female] play or people won’t connect with it.
*You should turn [comedy play] into a straight drama, because mental illness is a serious subject. [In a playwright development programme, from a director who kept telling the cast to “work against the text” in front of me.]
*Write about disabled people!
*Don’t write about disabled people because you’ll get pigeonholed.
*Don’t write about disabled people because you don’t look disabled.
*You can write about disabled people I guess, but not characters with disabilities that are not your disability.
*You should only portray disabled characters positively, because disabled people get enough stick already.
*Don’t try to write two-act plays yet, you’re not experienced enough. Stick with 60-80 minute one-acts for now.
*You need to give the men bigger roles, because the male characters come across as quite under-written [about a play that intentionally had men in non-speaking walk-on roles only].
*We assumed you’d write something naturalistic?!
*We assumed you’d want to write a relationship drama?
*We assumed you’d want to write a one-act?!
*Realistically, never write for more than three characters.
*Don’t try to write about ‘ethnic issues’ because you look white.
*Why are you writing about queer women?
*Why are you not writing about queer women?
*This play you wrote about LGBT characters doesn’t have any real physical intimacy; you’re portraying lesbians as sexless!
*This other play you wrote about LGBT characters has a cunnilingus reference; you’re portraying lesbians as sex-obsessed!
*Try to write for studio spaces because as a woman you probably won’t be able to stage bigger plays.
I mean, yeah, some of that is just notes, and some of it is fellow creatives having a valid opinion over work they were collaborating on, but it’s still depressing. And if I wasn’t in my thirties with a bolshiness won from decades of life experience, if I was young and trying to figure out who I was, I’m not sure if I’d be strong enough to anchor my own voice within a storm of well-intentioned but undermining advice. (And that’s not even mentioning critics.)
None of this remotely compares to the firestorm created by Brexit: The Uncivil War of course, but Fergus Morgan’s beautifully articulated review contrasts the authenticity of fiction with the “fact”-based anger of critical response:
“What is most depressing about the responses to Graham’s drama, from those screamed out on Twitter to those dashed off by media commentators, is that so many […] mistake Graham for a reporter rather than a writer, and his TV show a documentary rather than a drama. That so many of them can’t find it within them to trust a writer. […] Only a fool would think his drama was attempting to hoodwink people into swallowing a rewritten version of history. He’s trying to do what he’s always tried to do. To fiddle and fictionalise the world around him to drive at something deeper. To discard the truth, in search of the truth. To make people think about the world around them.”
I’ve always written. I’ve written my entire life since I was a small child, but I’ve never shown anyone by writing before (or maybe felt too scared/insecure/unworthy). Writing has always been an intensely private thing; a form of catharsis and a way of accessing some tiny authentic space deep within myself. I found my own truth through writing. Becoming a “professional” writer overnight, where suddenly truth was less important than commercial appeal, having that private space cannibalised, commodified — reviewed! — was psychologically destabilising. Then the year before last I landed my first and second commissions. One wasn’t taken past first draft because I wrote a crazy avant-garde dsytopian sci-fi and they wanted contemporary naturalistic drama, and I left the second – adapting a memoir – over lack of creative control. In frustration I decided to write and self-produce a play at a fringe festival (to take back control #irony), but I underestimated my commitments and wound up putting something on stage long before it was ready. These are the pressures and choices all but independently wealthy artists struggle with. Writing for commission curtails freedom, but it’s hard to devote adequate time to a project when no one is paying you.
After three failed shows I really didn’t know what to do and (coupled with some personal issues), I didn’t write for six months. I seriously questioned my future as a writer. Then out of the blue, immediately after the worst personal trauma of my adult life, I got an email saying I’d been selected to be one of eight who would work with James to create a collaborative stage production, Sketching, for Wilton’s Music Hall that autumn. What followed was one of the most personally and professionally life-changing experiences.
Sketching could have been a nightmare. Nine competing voices, nine competing egos in one room? Trying to write a full-length play in a matter of weeks? Yet somehow nine merged into one to create something extraordinary, and credit has to go to the profoundly nurturing environment of true creative expression and unconditional support (without an atom of the weird cultural Svengalism that so often creeps in when established men mentor emerging women) which James created. It was a singular experience, one we all benefited and learned from. For me, such untrammelled artistic support was key. Creating a stage production always involves compromise, but I never felt pressure to change or alter my voice or my intentions. It was truly the first time that I’ve been made to feel, unreservedly, that my voice mattered. That my voice deserved to be heard. That my voice didn’t need a ton of experience or fancy academic qualifications to be valid. That my voice was good enough. That I didn’t need to justify my truth. If only all artists were accorded such respect.
In a Stage article about Sketching a few months ago, James wrote of the need for theatre figures to “intervene” to help emerging writers, using the metaphor of a pebble dropped in a river. Something about that visual — the passive rather than active influence of a tiny object disrupting the vast flow of the status quo – both tickled and moved me. But I don’t think only emerging writers need support to empower their voices, I think everyone does. I’m very grateful that James was my pebble. I hope and try to be that for others, too; now and in the future. #BeMorePebble.