How I Write… by W. Sydney Robinson

To celebrate the official release of Speak Well of Me today, we’ve been chatting to its author, W. Sydney Robinson, about how his day-to-day life as a writer looks… it’s not all book launches and agent lunches you know!

Writers seldom discuss their working practices. The reason is simple: nothing is more unglamorous or depressing than a writer’s routine. This is not to say that authors lament their lot – far from it – but the pleasure they derive from this most dreary of pastimes will always be a minor mystery for the happy, well-rounded multitude.

The first illusion to demolish is that we spend most of our time writing. Over the past decade I have completed three biographies, but only a small fraction of this time has been devoted to the actual process of writing. What takes infinitely longer is the task of hunting down information: in libraries, archives and – most exciting of all – among the living. Only once a great deal of undigested material has been assembled does the outline of the book begin to take shape – and then one can actually begin.

W. Sydney Robinson

When I reach this stage my daily routine is unerring. I wake up as early as possible – sometimes four or five o’clock in the morning. I quickly review what I did the previous day, making any changes which seem necessary, before sketching an outline of whatever I hope to achieve that day – sometimes as much as a whole chapter. This planning stage is crucial. Out of the mass of materials, I try to link together a story, usually sticking quite rigidly to the chronology, but departing from this when a particular event or anecdote seems part of a more general theme. Wherever possible I will allow the subject of the biography to tell the story for himself, as there is nothing more tedious to the general reader than the biographer commenting upon events or documents in the manner of a narrator. They have come to hear Johnson or Nelson or ‘LBJ’ – not Boswell, Southey or Robert A. Caro. That may be an old-fashioned view, but it happens to be my own.

Once the day’s paragraphs have been sketched out, I take a short walk or, sometimes, a run. This moment contemplating the dawn of a new day is vital for me. To see the sun beaming down on empty fields, or men and women hurrying to their places of work, helps keep my self-appointed task in perspective. For nothing is more destructive to a writer’s readability than to forget that to the world at large his output very likely means nothing at all.

Having cobbled together the bare bones of the paragraphs I take myself to one of my preferred cafes to commence work. In my early days of writing I had a romantic notion that small, independent coffee houses would be the most congenial places for this. I soon learnt, however, that there is little a purveyor of delicious homemade carrot cake detests more than a writer. So instead I sip my small latte in a Costa or a Nero for several hours, and before I know it the morning is over – and most of my day’s work complete.

This is when the early start begins to pay dividends. With six or seven hundred words safely in the iCloud, it is possible to peruse other people’s books. I know that some authors swear that they never read a line not written by themselves until their task is complete, but I can envisage no way of writing that was not at least in part derivative of what has come before. To be unconscious of this would be to allow one’s style to be dictated by Steve Wright, Homes Under the Hammer, The Big Bang Theory, or whatever other scraps of culture one may pick up around the house on a normal day. For my reading I tend to stick to what I know best: the classics, as well as the innumerable books by authors I happen to have written about. Over the past four years this has entailed reading through the scores of plays, novels, biographies and histories composed by one of our greatest of living authors – Sir Ronald Harwood – but I still derive much inspiration from my previous literary subjects, especially Sir Arthur Bryant, Dean Inge and the Titanic’s most curious victim, W. T. Stead.

In the early evening I finish the last of my writing before reading it all the way through again, just as I commenced the day. This helps ensure that there is no ‘break’ or deviation in the chapter. On some days I earmark the entire new section for destruction the following morning – a writer must not be too precious about these things.

And then, if I am lucky enough to still have someone who is willing, I find a friend with whom to pass an agreeable evening discussing other things. For however large, however important and however great the subject may be, the writing of another person’s life is no substitute for a life that is lived.

Speak Well of Me is published today and is available to buy online here, in all good bookshops, and can also be ordered into your local bookshop on request. 

If you enjoyed this insight into a writer’s life, let us know, we would love to expand this blog into a mini-series, featuring more of our writers. You can also check out How to Be a Writer for more on how professional writers organise their working day. 

Guards at the Taj @ Bush Theatre

Love this review of Guards at the Taj, which is available here for those who are intrigued – http://bit.ly/2qVJDJG – and how cool to host a special bloggers’ night?!

Hayley Sprout

On Wednesday, I was very kindly invited to a Blogger’s Night at the Bush Theatre for a performance of Guards at the Taj. Directed by critically acclaimed Jamie Lloyd and written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph, the show follows two guards who are keeping watch as the Taj Mahal is built in 1648 India.

Before the show, there was a talk by Stewart Pringle. Stewart is an acclaimed theatre critic who had written for publications including The Stage, The Guardian and Time Out, the body of work one only dreams of. He is currently the Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre and was telling us about the new, exciting elements to the Bush Theatre since it’s renovation. As well as the 200 seat main stage, there’s a new studio, a gorgeous Reading Room & rooms for writers to work on their work. Stewart is incredibly passionate about new writing…

View original post 352 more words

Playwrighting Top Tips: Part Three

Part three of our Top Tips series comes from Nina Steiger, Senior Dramaturg at the National Theatre. This series is inspired by the book Dramatic Writing Masterclasses and here, Nina talks about writing for digital media and the unexpected route her own career has taken. 

You started your career as a playwright. So, why is it that you do what you do? What was the trajectory of that?

Nina Steiger: I think the first ten to fifteen years of any career are about the balance between trying to find your feet, make money and get as close as you can to what you feel is the heat source in the room. For me, as a writer, I was like, “Oh my god, I like people who make theatre and it’s fun to take things from page to the stage”, and that was the heat for me as a writer, as well as a way to express my intelligence, problems and creativity. As I carried on, it became more about directing as that heat source felt stronger. It was as though it was the next level of authorship and a different level of control and interpretation. It was one that was creative, exposing and deeply connected to my interests and issues.

Then I started working at a theatre that worked with new writers, and I discovered that what I really loved was not the nuts and bolts of directing. Because from the time a play got cast and the script was locked, I pretty well lost interest, which is not a good thing for a director. Also, by the time the play had opened, I not only had lost interest, I wanted to leave. I actively never wanted to see the thing again or the people involved, and I took that as a sign that I was not meant to be a director. I’m joking of course, but what I mean is that from the time the script was locked, I felt the heat begin to diminish. For me, the magic was around the tussle for story and style and the possibilities in that.

Another sign early on was that I was often told when applying for jobs in theatres “Please don’t have aspirations as a writer or director yourself.” I very willingly dropped those aspirations to take on some really great jobs working with and for writers, and I didn’t significantly regret that compromise.

I feel that writing will always be there for me. I feel that expressing myself verbally and through images and ideas is something I adore. But I think that’s what helps me work with writers. I discovered that the greatest heat, for me, is understanding the soul of a play, what it could become, starting from this fragmented pencil written recipe that arrives on pages and is turned into a live event – to me, that is the ultimate excitement. That’s how I discovered what I was.

Nina Steiger

Do you have some examples of times where that’s worked well?

Nina Steiger: There are examples of where my talent-spotting, which is a big part of my job, has worked well. I have seen people soar into successful and secure careers, and quickly.

For example, one of the first writers I worked with at Soho Theatre was Matt Charman who had never written a play and was working as a valet sorting cars out, and he wrote a wonderful play about that. His writing has taken him to the top of the game. That’s a sign to me that I put the right person in the path of the right opportunity.

When I think it’s the best is when a piece of theatre has gone from a conversation with an artist over a coffee to something that really catches fire and begins to change the culture. One of the pieces I’m most proud of that I’ve worked on is by Bryony Kimmings, called Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model. It’s not a traditional play but very much a piece of theatre about the dearth of appropriate role models for young women and girls in our society and the way they’re sexualised. It’s the least didactic and preachy kind of evening.

That to me was one that went from “This is what I care about the most” to, within a year, it being on and changing the world around it. So, that’s a great example for me.

How does that theatre work link to digital media?

Nina Steiger: A lot of people who I work with in theatre don’t know that I’m wild about the convergence of dramatic writing and digital media. It’s not something I bring to bear every day in my job, in my work with various theatre companies or with artists. But I think it’s the most brilliant marriage. I always start with this question when I do workshops on this area: “How many people have been on the internet today? How many people were on the internet before they left their house to come out? How many people were on the internet before they got out of bed?” Now

some people are going to be like, “Isn’t that a bad thing?” And, that’s not what we’re debating, but it is a bad thing obviously.

However, I believe it’s also a really cool thing. I then will ask “How many people have one smart device on you right now? Two? Three?” There’s usually three or more – I’m talking about your phone, your iPad and your laptop or something like that. Because it’s not unusual that ordinary old us are wired up from the minute we wake up in the morning and, ready to go, we’re available. To me, that suggests something very interesting about the way there are performance spaces embedded in that – we are getting stories all day long and it’s a space that isn’t totally owned by artists yet but there’s an amazing opportunity there.

Then there’s this other side of it, which is, if that’s your life, it’s also the life of your audience. I feel I want to say “get in there you artists, and populate that really interesting over-inhabited but under-explored space”. So one of the things I thought was that, in theatre and in storytelling, we are so amazing at liveness and uniquenesss and experience, there is a real opportunity to bring the two together.

That’s how my interest started. What I hope my Masterclass exposes is that I’ve learnt a lot about theatre and storytelling and liveness through exploring what happens when digital media is part of it. I’ve learned a lot about what digital media can do through trying to apply what I know about theatre to it. That was the purpose that I thought I should bring to the fourweek investigation with the students, and what I’m going to talk about in my Masterclass.

Thanks to Nina Steiger and Jennifer Tuckett for their contributions to this blog. For more Top Tips, follow this blog over the coming weeks and months, and pick up a copy of Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters.
You can still read parts One and Two on our blog. 

No regrets – a biographer’s celebration

We’re all told not to speak ill of the dead, but what about the living? When award-winning biographer and book reviewer W. Sydney Robinson began tackling a living subject for the first time in his career, he found it an altogether more lively experience! Robinson is the author of Muckraker: the scandalous life and times of WT Stead, Britain’s first investigative journalist, and The Last Victorians: a daring reassessment of four twentieth century eccentrics. He lives in Northamptonshire and teaches full-time.

“It is a truism among biographers that one must wait until a subject is ‘nice and dead’. However, when I was given the opportunity to write the authorised biography of Sir Ronald, I did not hesitate. Nor do I, at the end of the four year journey writing the book, have any regrets.

Sir Ronald Harwood in his study

I appreciate that in many ways I was extremely fortunate. Firstly, Sir Ronald could not have been more generous in his terms. As well as granting me over ten hours to interview him, he also threw open all of his papers and gave me unrestricted access to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Secondly, once the book was completed he did not demand any cuts or alterations that were not of a purely factual nature. When one reads the horror stories of biographers unable to publish their books because of objections of a more subjective nature, it is impossible not to feel incredibly grateful – and lucky.

W. Sydney Robinson

Yet the main reason that I am delighted to have been able to write the Life of a living subject is more personal. For a long time it has saddened me to be told by people ‘in the know’ that one must write about famous authors and journalists from years ago – one agent insisted that yet another biography of Charles Dickens was the ideal way to follow up on my first books about Victorian and post-Victorian public figures. And there are many professional biographers now combing archives and newspaper databases for material about writers of even lesser quality – when we have many great authors alive and well.

Sir Ronald Harwood’s oeuvre stretches from the dawn of the 1960s, when he wrote a novel about Civil Rights in South Africa, to 2012, when he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his poignant play Quartet. In between these impressive milestones he has done a plethora of novels, plays, films, and an excellent biography of Sir Donald Wolfit, who provided the inspiration for his most enduring work of drama, The Dresser.

If Speak Well of Me succeeds in charting these achievements and capturing the spirit of Sir Ronald’s lively and engaging personality, then I will happily endure the slings and arrows of those who remain obstinate that one can never write a satisfactory biography of a living subject. For what is a biography if it is not alive – be the subject living or dead?”

Speak Well of Me is available to order now from the Oberon Books website. For your chance to win a copy signed by both W. Sydney Robinson and Sir Ronald Harwood, email your name & postal address to info@oberonbooks.com and we’ll enter you into the prize draw.

Playwrighting Top Tips: Part Two

In this part two of our Top Tips mini-series, Philip Shelley, who founded the Channel 4 screenwriting course, chats about the artistic side and the business side of a writer’s life. This series is inspired by the book Dramatic Writing Masterclasses, and we’re grateful to Philip Shelley and to Jennifer Tuckett for their help with this blog.

What do you believe writers need to know about script editing and writing in general?

Philip Shelley: This is what I’m going to talk about in my Masterclass. There are so many different areas to writing. I think there’s the whole craft side of it but there’s also the business side of it, which isn’t talked about so much in this environment. I think it’s very important.

The business side is something I’ve learnt a lot from doing the Channel 4 course as we have a huge number of entries and it is very hard to get onto the course. Inevitably, when we choose the twelve writers we choose, we love their scripts. Their scripts are fantastic but some writers do better off the back of the course than other writers.

That’s generally not to do with their talent because they’re all incredibly talented writers. It’s more to do with how they run their careers as a business, how they conduct themselves as a business, how much research they do about work they want to do, how much television they watch and how they get on working with script editors, producers and directors in quite a pressured environment.

If you could give one piece of advice to a writer, what would be the one thing you’d say?

Philip Shelley: Probably just “be persistent and be determined”. That’s two things. You’ve just got to stick at it really because you only need one person to like your work. If you write a script and it’s rejected by fifteen people and one person takes it on, that’s all you need. You do get a lot of knock-backs. That’s one of the things on the Channel 4 course we learn about writing. When you’re working with a script editor for the first time and you’re not used to that, it’s hard. We ask a lot of questions that writers don’t want to be asked about their work. Some people thrive in that environment and some people find it difficult.

Philip Shelley

In any production, if you’re working on a show that’s in production, it’s difficult because there are very tight deadlines that you can’t miss. The script has to be to a certain quality by a certain time and there’s no way round that. It is tough but you need to have sufficient passion for the craft and for writing that you can ride those bumps and enjoy the process. I think the best writers do it because they love writing. It’s a question of making sure you enjoy it.

You can find more information on Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters HERE.
You can read part one of our Top Tips series HERE.

Black Lives, Black Words

Black Lives, Black Words premiered in Chicago in July 2015. This international project has since explored the Black diaspora’s experiences in some of the largest multicultural cities in the world, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Toronto and now London. Over sixty Black writers from the UK, USA, and Canada have each written a short play to address Black issues today. This blog is taken from the introduction to the book, written by Madani Younis, the Artistic Director of The Bush theatre where the pieces were performed last month.


It’s on us. It’s always been on us.

From Claudia Jones to Michael X, from Frank Crichlow to Darcus Howe to Doreen and Neville Lawrence, there is a rich and fierce tradition of resistance that has defined the past century in this great city.

2016 was a significant year in the UK. Following the Brexit vote to take us out of the European Union, few of us could have predicted the steep rise in racially motivated hate crime, or the vitriol that was unleashed on the ‘immigrant’, a term which became a dangerous and charged catch-all and scapegoat. And a term that, in the eyes of the dominant right-wing media, is almost always defined as non-white. That exists outside the bubble of privilege and power occupied by wealthy, white Europeans.

It has been a 12 months in which our world seems to have shrunk around us, to have become smaller and more insular. Many of us who had always called this country home, suddenly began to question what home really meant.

Eight years ago, when the first presidency of an African American was in its infancy, many looked forward to a new horizon, to a post-racial reality. Instead, the list of Black lives violently ended, of justice miscarried, has only grown longer and more terrible. Against this backdrop, we’ve seen a rise of right-wing thought in both volume and acceptability, from the anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant rhetoric of a new breed of populist politician through the proliferation of the Alt-Right, to the very different president now squatting in the White House.

Black Lives Matter is different in both form and function from the civil rights movements of the past. As Jeff Chang notes in his extraordinary book We Gon’ Be Alright, this was not a movement which formed around one forceful, charismatic male voice. It was started by three women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. It is an insurgent movement; a reaction; a disruption. It has a sense of urgency, of crisis and of place. It represents the latest form in a continuum of struggle that stretches back as far as slavery, a new, horizontal, open source resistance.

It speaks to an American reality, a 21st century reality, to the prison-industrial complex, urban poverty, and the frustration of an underclass who found themselves left in limbo and threatened by systemic violence even under Obama.

I have been struck by how the media perception of the Black Lives Matter movement has seen it framed as a negative force for change, and I would fervently argue that instead it gives a voice to the voiceless in political debate, debate no longer centred on New York, Washington DC and the Houses of Parliament. That it opens up a creative space for Black activists and artists to fashion and articulate a response.

In a year in which the Bush Theatre has been nomadic, in which we’ve spent the last 12 months working in and alongside the lives and communities of West London, it seems appropriate that we return to Black Lives Black Words. Initiated in 2015 by poet, playwright and producer Reginald Edmund, Black Lives Black Words is a conversation held across continents, where we come together to speak to the vital question of what is the value of Black lives in America, the UK and across the world.

Madani Younis, Artistic Director of The Bush theatre

I was 15 years old when Stephen Lawrence was murdered, a Black British teenager killed in a racially motivated attack. The ripples of that watershed moment in media and public perception of Black lives in the UK flowed through my late teens and my early 20’s. The Macpherson Report, the growing awareness of institutional police racism, the killing of Christopher Alder, and of Mark Duggan, and the subsequent 2012 London riots. Since 1990, a tenth of identified deaths in police custody were people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. There is a concussive effect of turning on the news each day and seeing men and women who look like you portrayed so negatively, and violently. There is a concussive effect to daily reminders that in the eyes of some, you do not belong, and your voice is not welcome. So it is no surprise to me that we have seen the emergence of our own Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and across Europe, as a vital shared form of resistance to a conservativism that is wrecking lives and silencing dissent.

As a theatre, we have always existed in Shepherd’s Bush, on one of the country’s most multicultural roads, but also a place of extreme contrast, where some of the city’s greatest deprivation exists a street or two away from its most valuable housing. And these are extremes which so often break down across racial and class lines.

When we first welcomed Reginald and Black Lives Black Words to our theatre, where together with Artistic Directors of the Future they brought these vital voices to the UK, we felt a kinship with their concerns and their strategies. So it seemed only appropriate that now, as we prepare to re-open our building on the Uxbridge Road, that we should mark that with a statement about the kind of work we want to enable, the kind of voices we want to amplify, the kind of world we want to live in. To return to the words of Jeff Chang

The horizon towards which we move always recedes before us. The revolution is never complete. … All that signified progress may in time be turned against us. But redemption is there for us if we are always in the process of finding love and grace.’

– Madani Younis, March 2017


You can find out more about Black Lives, Black Words HERE, and more about Black Lives Matter HERE. With thanks to Reginald Edmund and Madani Younis.

 

Playwrighting Top Tips: Part One

Last month, Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters was published, providing access to the leading industry writing training for the first time.
This blog is the first in a series of ‘Tops Tips’ inspired by the book that we’ll be bringing you over the next few months. Part one comes from Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director of Tamasha theatre and founder of Schoolwrights.

Fin Kennedy: It has been a privilege and a pleasure to be one of the ten ‘Masters’. The combination of giving free reign to industry tutors to set vocational tasks alongside academic rigour is unique, while being able to research and develop with students new creative forms in a ‘Lab’ format each and every year is of real practical value to our company. I am delighted that some of this learning is being disseminated further with this book.

 

Can you tell us more about your dramatic writing teaching?

Fin Kennedy: I’m currently putting plans in place for the writers’ group that I’ve started in-house at Tamasha. There will be craft-based training about different aspects of playwriting, but I also want to start to train that group up as artist-producers able to take responsibility for curating, project-managing and particularly fundraising for their own projects.

It’s been a bugbear of mine over the last ten to twelve years that the traditional relationship between writers and organisations renders writers essentially passive. We’re almost entirely excluded from the infrastructure of theatre-making, which is weird given that everything starts with us. We’re where the ideas come from. We decide whose lives are worth putting a frame around.

Outside of the odd residency programme, you don’t get writers running theatre companies. You’re always freelance. You wait for the phone to ring. You wait to somehow come to a literary manager’s attention. When you do get a commission you’re told what the play you’re writing is or ought to be and sent away to write some drafts on your own. It’s disempowering. My experience started with the knockback I got for How To Disappear being rejected by every theatre in London, and having to fall back on my own resources and go “Actually, I can’t make a living out of play commissions, how else am I going to use my skills?” I think writers’ skills are applicable in lots of different contexts, but particularly in a community context. That’s something I’m passionate about training other writers up to do.

Fin Kennedy, photo by Phil Adams

What do you believe writers need to know about working in schools?

Fin Kennedy: I do a whole module on this. Amanda Stewart Fisher is an academic at Central School of Speech & Drama who writes a lot about community applied drama and she talks about the writer in residence role in the community context as being a temporary, shamanistic role. What she means by that is that it’s not about you. When you get a commission from one of the big companies like Soho or the Royal Court, it is about you and your voice and your vision and your name in lights. It’s not like that when you go into schools. This is not only because it’s less glamorous and there is not the same infrastructure but also because the close-up work that you’ll do is very collaborative.

You might have a group of young people for whom you are the workshop leader as well as the writer and gatherer of the material. That involves a channelling kind of process where you’re trying to capture their voices, their concerns, their worldviews and spirit and energy. Then you take all the fragmentary material that they’ll generate with you in sessions, take it away, give it your professional polish but hand it back to them in a form that they’ll recognise.

It’s self-effacing in that respect. I enjoy that process and I enjoy taking myself out of myself. I think it’s made me a better artist – it’s broadened my palate about the kinds of worlds and experiences I can write about with legitimacy. It’s about keeping a stake in real life. It’s easy when you’re a fulltime freelance writer to be holed up in your home/office/garret pontificating about how the world works without actually taking an active part in it.

I’ve not had a ‘proper job’, in terms of being at the office every day from nine to five, for a long time. I’ve got one now with Tamasha but before that I hadn’t had one for ten years and it’s easy to shed a lot of stimulus and experience that way. So I think it’s important for writers to use their skills in a very worldly way.

Thanks to Fin Kennedy and Jennifer Tuckett for their contributions to this blog. For more Top Tips, follow this blog over the coming weeks and months, and pick up a copy of Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters