TOOLKIT #2- Where Does It Come From? by kimber lee

It is important that we bring compassion and understanding to the situation we find ourselves in. This continues to be a tremendously difficult time for theatre and the artists who make it. If we are going to recover from the experiences of the past 12 months, we are going to need playwrights. That is a remarkable endeavour and a huge responsibility – something for which we all have the utmost respect and admiration at the Bruntwood Prize. That is why we are always striving to find ways to support playwrights and encourage people to have the courage to write.

Whether you have been able to be creative or not, we want to try and find ways to support you to continue to be engaged with the craft of writing for performance, engaging with an audience, telling stories and taking people on journeys. We truly hope that this series of on-line workshops – will inspire and support you to be creative and to find new possibilities for your work to be realised.

This week our first International Bruntwood Prize winner kimber lee checks in with us all and offers some exercises to get back to writing.



I wish we could be in a room together with mugs of tea and scones for this chat. We would all say our names and where we live and a little bit about what brought us to the room on that day. And I would be able to find out a little bit about you, get a small glimpse of what makes up your daily life at the moment. I would be as respectfully curious about you all as time permitted. And all of that sharing would then be opened into a discussion about this thing we call writing, for lack of a better word. But here we are peering at each other through this digital page on the Bruntwood website, so we’ll make do with what we have, yeah?


Almost every single time a person is kind enough to talk to me about my writing, they start with a version of the same (very fair) question: “What inspired you to write this?” And I then retroactively construct a story of how I wrote a thing; an origin story that is not a lie but also not quite what happened, because assigning meaning to past actions is always a slippery slope and we humans are story-making machines. It’s a curious, layered
thing, making a story about the origin of a story. Very layered. Very curious.

So this question of “inspiration” and where one finds it and how to get some when it feels scarce and how one knows it has struck, etc. — makes me nervous because it all relates to my main concern when ever I am asked to facilitate a workshop, which is: First, do no harm.

So this is the point where, if we were in a room, I would lean in (so you’d know I really
mean it, lol) and say: There are processes that occur deep within a human being who has a desire to work with words, and these mechanisms are as endlessly various and individual as all of humankind and they are triggered by similarly various and unpredictable stimuli. And it is my belief — earned through four painful years of writer’s block — that these mechanisms are not to be fucked with.

So, in the most essential of ways, your processes are none of my business.
But also here’s a thing:  I propose to you that if you are currently alive, these mechanisms are already in motion at  any moment of your living life, working away at depth in some corner of your being, and that visible products such as number of pages written are not always an accurate
reflection of the quality or amount of work that is actually being done. Typing is not proof of writing. Bean counting is not proof of value. (Come for me, Defenders of Beans and Counting — I will gladly have this argument with y’all lol) There are any number of stages or states of being that should count as “writing” but are not recognized as such because we live in a culture addicted to late-stage capitalism where process and product have been mashed into one machine which is supposed to reliably spit out polished pages. There are of course further discussions to be had about
necessity and deadlines and actually putting food on the table, but we’d do that in our next session. Here and now, let’s try to get as free as we can, just for this moment, of having to “produce something good.”

Sooooo, I would say (as we all got our 3rd mug of tea and second scone), because I believe these processes which we call “writing” that fall outside of generally accepted definitions are innately individual and therefore have requirements unique to an individual, I’m sharply conscious of not wanting to assume anything about anyone while also offering something to work with, a few things to try, some ways to crack a window in your inner
space if you find yourself in a place where you could use some fresh air.

We are in a time of syncopation, the rhythm of life rounded with vast silent empty spaces where school, jobs, loved ones, and daily routines used to be. So many of us have lost so much. Taking time and space to acknowledge what is missing is necessary, to mourn, to honor the silences. And if it is helpful, maybe we also can find ways to wedge ourselves into those empty fissures and push up, like a wildflower through a crack in a sidewalk.

For me the idea of being inspired in this time of absence has felt alternately impossible and ridiculous, and I’ve tried all sorts of things to keep myself afloat. The things I’m sharing here may or may not be of any use to anyone besides me, so if any of this feels more like a whip than a friendly outstretched hand, toss it. You know yourself better than anyone else ever will. I trust you.


Exercise #1:

Are you breathing deeply and evenly? Good. Breath is life, y’all.
Where ever you are in this moment, either close your eyes or just quiet your eyes to a single place where your gaze can rest.
See if you can name every single sound in your immediate vicinity.
Do not feel a need to rush through this.
Spend time soaking in the sounds, with them all at the same time, then focus on one or
Are there any sounds that are usually there that are missing?
Are there any sounds you’ve never noticed before?
Are humans connected to the sounds, or are they from nature?
This is writing.
Then after a while.
Get a pen and paper (no laptop) and write down every sound you hear. Give a little context, like: “The city workers are pounding on the wall of the building next door, it sounds like they are pretending to pound (I’m sure they’re not pretending to pound), like they’re worried that the boss will come and see them not working, so they are pounding a lot of extra pounding, it’s clangy and offbeat.”
Don’t feel any need to be clever or correct, just let it flow, go fast, don’t stop to think.
This is also writing.
Repeat this exercise but do it with your eyes.
Find a place where you can be still and let your eyes roam freely.
Spend time absorbing the details of what you see, the shades of color, the texture, how your eye slides along the angles and slopes or is stopped by a line edge.
Write your list of what you see, spend a little more time on the things that seem to draw you in, the curious things.
You can do this with photographs, though for some reason I feel like it works best with actual photos, not digital ones.
After you reach a resting place with your lists, take a pen or highlighter or color pencil/pen and let your eyes roam the page, circling or underlining or highlighting words or phrases that catch your eye.
(Also writing.)


Exercise #2:

Do you keep a notebook?
Not necessarily a day planner, though if your day planner has space for random scribbles, that could work.
What I’m talking about is a place where you can non-judgmentally collect bits and pieces of things: quotes that ring in your head, passages from novels or poems, website addresses for photos of abandoned buildings, names of writers or books to read, bits of things that pop into your head (might be a person, or a place, or a situation, a quality of light or movement, anything).

It wants to be the type of notebook that has coffee or tea stains, bits of teriyaki sauce, and dog-eared pages, highlighted words, stickers from satsumas eaten for lunch — anything and everything that you encounter, that sings to you, that puzzles you, that you want to save somewhere. It does not need to be fancy or expensive — I’ve got some notebooks that are just pages stapled together and folded in half.

Even and especially the things that come to you, sometimes repeatedly (maybe especially the ones that repeat?) and the tiny hater in your brain goes “Nahhhh, that’s so stupid, it’s useless, throw that away” — those bits. Tell the tiny hater to chill and scribble them down, not for any perceived marketplace value, but because it came to you, it’s your curiosity, your wondering.

So when you have a notebook, keep it somewhere out in the open, ready to grab at any moment. And start collecting.

If you can, resist the urge to demand these scribble things be potential plays. Collect for the joy of collecting; collect because you’re a sentient being in a sensation-ful world. The time for sorting and evaluating and structuring and shaping — all those type of ings can
wait. Let your mind roam as widely as it pleases.

This is writing.

All of it. The notes, the scribbles, the single word, the circle with an arrow pointing to a sun, the quote from an astro-physicist, the snippet of what someone said — all writing.


Exercise #3:

An exercise in being enough, in the things that we all carry with us everywhere we go.
Write a letter.
You can work on a laptop or with pen and paper.
Release from any idea that this thing will be a Thing; let it just be an unassuming and lowercase thing, something only for you, private and not meant for other eyes.
It does not have to be in a formal “Dear _______,” style — it can just be you talking to this person, someone with whom you have left some things unsaid, someone who is missing from you at this time. Or if you like, you can really utilize the formal trappings of a letter.
If the person you’d write to rises up immediately in your mind as you read this, trust that.
Go with it.
If you want a little more prompting, think about someone: a close friend or family member, a roommate, co-worker, etc. Maybe you haven’t seen them in 10 years, maybe it has only been a week.
But when you were last with this person, you had words burning in your mouth and you couldn’t or wouldn’t speak them. For whatever reason.
Write to that person. Speak to that person. Say the burning words.
Note: Burning words do not always have to be angry words; burning could have been caused by love or other conditions. :)


Contained in this letter exercise is one of my personal beliefs about writers which is: you are enough. You bring everything you need. You can learn tools and techniques sure, and this is good, but the core requirement of writing is the self of the writer. Whatever the subject matter, or genre, or situation, or characters, the spark that turns it into a unique narrative is you. The particles of your perception, life experience, emotion, understanding — components of your being attach to the thing as it passes through your narrative filter, as it is poured into the container shape you have built, and then it is there in front of you. A completely unique thing. From Anything, to This Thing. In my experience, this bringing of the self and going from Anything to This Thing needs one main thing to get going: Trust. And this is a tricky one because the trust that is required is not trust of an institution, or a teacher, or an Artistic Director, or another playwright, or an actor, or a dramaturg, or a critic, none of the structures we have been conditioned to trust. You have to trust yourself. Your instincts, your taste, your curiosity, your unique view of the world, your intention,
your determination, your joy, your fear, your loneliness, your celebration, your every every every day, the everyday-ness of you.

Tools and techniques are good and helpful, and can be learned and practiced. Advice and teaching are also helpful to growth and deepening of a writing practice. Of course we learn skills, of course we hone our work, of course we gratefully collaborate with a creative team of amazing people to make the play on a stage. But this matter of how to write, why to write, and what to write belongs to you, this exists already in a part of your being accessible only to you, and requires no explanation nor justification. It is enough that it exists in you, that it is you.

Sooner or later, we put in work, yeah? But we can start by knowing that we are enough and the freedom of the theatrical imagination is that anything is what you say it is: the chair is a boat, the floor is the sea, the wall is a door, and your heart,
your heart,
your heart,
your heart is the world.
(heartbeats stolen from the great poet Joy Harjo and her poem “I Give You Back”)
Blessings on y’all.


Plays include Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play, to the yellow house, tokyo fish story (South Coast Rep, TheatreWorks/Silicon Valley, Old Globe Theater), brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Humana Festival, LCT3/Lincoln Center, Long Wharf Theatre, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Moxie Theatre, Shotgun Players), and different words for the same thing directed by Neel Keller (Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre). Her work has also been presented by Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference, Lark Play Development Center, Page 73, Hedgebrook, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Great Plains Theatre Conference, Manhattan Theatre Club, Southern Rep, ACT Theatre/Seattle, and Magic Theatre. Lark Playwrights Workshop Fellow, Dramatists Guild Fellow, member of Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and recipient of the Ruby Prize, PoNY Fellowship, Hartford Stage New Voices Fellowship, BAU Institute Arts Residency Award, and inaugural PoNY/Bush Theatre Playwright Residency in London. MFA: UT Austin.

Published on:
31 Mar 2021


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