Embrace the joylessness (a few thoughts on playwriting craft #4)

Even strangers will tell you that doing something creative must be amazing. Writers can hear it often enough that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Not just to write amazing things but to feel amazing while doing it. If the brain surgeon and the removalist at the party said it must be amazing, then who are we to argue?

The problem with that is, that a lot of the act of writing feels joyless. When we deny this reality and encounter the mundane in the act, we want to. give up. We don’t finish.

And by joyless, I don’t mean disappointing or catastrophic. For example, I’ve had reviews that have suggested that I burn my manuscripts. That’s actually pretty exciting apart from disappointing – because, while everybody wants a bad review, there remain reviewers who actually use the word “manuscript”! I laughed about that one for days. I felt alive.

No. Joy evades many tasks.




Sitting in a theatre and watching a technical rehearsal. Believe me, for a playwright the tech run is anaesthetic.

I began writing this post while doing some shopping, dictating it to my phone. I’ve been going through the results, adding punctuation and correcting words. I could have left it all alone and posted the pig’s breakfast.

But I’ve embraced the joylessness of sitting down and fixing it. Making it legible.

Just because a violin can sound great doesn’t mean that every moment that contributed to it making a great sound is great in itself. Musicians practice. Listen. Tune-up.

Likewise, a lot of playwriting technique involves doing really boring things.

For example, when I rewrite a play (that is, write the next draft) I need to both read the whole play through, but also read the play all the way through from one character’s perspective, and then the next, and so on. You discover gaps and holes and problems that often only require small nudges. But you don’t discover them without the very slightly varied repetitions.

The myth of the play that is written in a blaze of inspiration or anger over a couple of days conceals years of false starts. My first mainstage production, Post Felicity, I could claim to have written the text of in two and a half days. That’s sort of true, but I had been trying out version after version after version of the core idea – a man so absent-minded that he’s shocked when he hears that his daughter has died, mostly because he’s forgotten that he had a daughter – over around four and a half years.

What allowed the blaze to catch fire was the deadwood of fifty to sixty false starts, half-finished scenes, scenarios and character descriptions. Attempts at different playwriting exercises. The odd mind-map or two. For a long time, this work was drudgery and annoyance.

But one day, a news story caught my attention and sent me to my x386-powered PC. It gave me just enough spark to make the rest catch alight.

I’d love to tell you that I’m a genius struck by inspiration, but I’m embracing joylessness too closely to let you think that.