"I read somewhere you wanted to write it for ten years?"
"But why then?"
"Well there was this TV gig and it didn't work out…"
"So, I had a gap."
"So, you wrote it then?"
"But, why did you write it then?"
So, went a recent conversation with a pal, who'd been to see my play Beginning which has just opened at the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre. He was unsatisfied by my answer that an opportunity, or space to write, had merely presented itself to make the thing in autumn 2015 and so I had. And reflecting upon his persistence I had to admit he had a point. I've written all sorts of things in the ten years since I first day-dreamed about a play beginning with a man and a woman looking at each other.
I think the honest answer is that life happened and I realised that I knew the characters in a way I never had before and I had two flesh and blood people in my head. Now, what comes next is something of a warning underlined, in bold and in italics. The play isn't about me. The play isn't about my life. I'm not Danny. My partner isn't Laura. As a lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck College, I often warn students against indulging in biographical fallacy as they critique their peers' work and for good reason. It's a deadening and narrow way of viewing and exploring fiction of any kind and in truth Beginning, like most plays, is a mixture of sources of inspiration. Graham Whybrow, a former literary manager at the Royal Court, said to me once plays are a mixture of "primary experience (or experience at first hand), secondary or observed experience (or things you've seen, heard, or found out about) and imagination (the stuff you just made up)".
David Edgar says, one of the responsibilities of a writer is 'to bring the news in from the streets'
There are bits of me in Danny and Laura, and I'm never likely to write a character who supports Spurs, and not West Ham. But much more of the impulse to write Laura and Danny came from things I saw and people I met, and the experiences of people I know, as our early thirties started to knock on our forties.
I went on a course over summer 2013 and I met a bloke who hadn't seen his two daughters for three years. He was peeled raw by his experience and his agony was compounded by the need to explain he wasn't a nutter with a restraining order; just a man whose marriage and subsequent divorce had gone very badly wrong. I knew a number of blokes who had found adjusting to being single again, not with the relish of a long-suppressed shagger or deep down confirmed bachelor, but with fear, sadness and a sheer lack of awareness of how to go about life now, let alone meet someone new. Much easier to crack open a beer and sit in front of the football when the weekend comes.
And I met lots of Lauras. When I found myself on my own and starting again, after a long relationship and a failed marriage I was completely clueless about what to expect from the mid-life dating game. In my naivety and not having really been single since I was 24, I had a ludicrously unrealistic idea of what it might involve. Perhaps, fuelled by my movie-going, TV-watching, reading and discussions within the liberal social media circles in which I mix, I expected dating to be a scary whirl of app-enabled casual entanglements, internet-inspired new kinds of relationship and something akin to a twenty-first century post-1968 love-in.
Young dramatists often think there's a career path to follow
But, in reality, what most of us are looking for, myself included at the time, is just to fall in love with someone you feel you can walk through the rest of your life with. And for the overwhelming majority of the women I met that also meant an openness, if not a commitment, to trying to have a child. Of course, I know Laura's story isn't the only story there is to tell. I've a number of female friends who are on their own, fulfilled and happy; and where life doesn't involve a partner or children, or both. It's up to all of us to feel free to make a shape out of life we can fit in and be happy in on our terms, and without feeling we must conform to any straight cis norm if we don't want to. But as playwright David Edgar says, one of the responsibilities of a writer is 'to bring the news in from the streets' and I could only write what felt true to my experience.
Playwrights and students of playwriting can often now believe that writing is all assimilation of craft, and often people like me who teach a bit can be responsible for that misunderstanding. Young dramatists can now often think that there's a career path to follow arcing smoothly from writing course, through mentoring and attachment scheme, to the Court Upstairs, the NT and then Broadway. When in reality no such career path exists. A writing life is far too precarious, and random to ever resemble a career. Really, as it always has been, writing is about living a bit, picking your moment and doing your best to apply what you know as you begin.
Beginning runs at the National Theatre until 14 November.
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