I started writing The Almighty Sometimes five years ago as part of my Masters degree at Goldsmiths. I’d spent most of the year writing a different kind of play, and two weeks before deadline, I found a book that inspired a complete change of direction. Written as a guide for parents, this book listed various mood and behavioural disorders and described how they manifest in children. It’s fairly evident that some children do suffer from severe and debilitating psychiatric disorders, but it worried me that the thresholds for these were so flexible that intelligent, difficult, stressed or traumatised children could also find themselves caught on the compass. I began to wonder what happened when these children reached adulthood: did they continue on with the medication or abandon it? And then Anna’s voice – this witty, abrasive and incredibly complicated young person – began filling my head with her various worldviews and demanded to be written down.
I spent the next two weeks holed up in the Goldsmiths Library (which thankfully was operating a 24-hour service). Fuelled by Red Bull, takeaway falafel and sheer panic, I knocked out a rubbishy first draft just in time for deadline. At this point, I probably should have continued on to write another six or seven drafts, but the end of my MA coincided with a series of rejections for various playwriting developments and opportunities, which really knocked my confidence. Convinced I was a terrible writer, I decided to take a break and focus instead on the many arts administration jobs I was holding down. Two years later, I was overworked, underpaid, and feeling pretty miserable about everything, so some friends took me to a pub and staged a mini-intervention. “Why did you come to the UK?” they asked. “To write plays,” I replied. “Are you working on a play now?” – “Kind of” – “So why don’t you finish it then?”
Easier said than done, of course – especially when you’re living in your third flat-share for the year, with a ceiling that occasionally collapses and an indestructible family of zombie mice who manage to regenerate after every visit from Pest Control – but the biggest challenge, by far, was learning to take myself seriously enough to carve out the time needed for writing, and then to protect that time from any and all distractions. I began writing on the weekends, early mornings, evenings and lunch breaks; and because I gave this time the value it deserved, my friends, family and work colleagues began to do so also – tiptoeing around and offering cups of tea with near saintly reverence. After finishing another draft, the next challenge was finding someone who would be willing to read and possibly stage the play, and this is where the Bruntwood Award came in – another much-needed intervention!
Receiving this award genuinely changed my life. I was able to quit my job, I found an agent (or rather, she found me!), I’m currently on attachment at the National Theatre Studio, and for the time being, at least, I’m working as a full-time writer. Manchester Royal Exchange, in addition to their support with script development, also provided a matchmaking service of sorts; they introduced me to director, Katy Rudd, who has become the play’s most persistent advocate. We’ve just come out of a weeklong workshop together, and the thrill of seeing the script in other people’s hands, exploring the possibilities of what it might become, is a wonderful reminder that what I do is no longer a solitary endeavour.
I recently introduced myself to one of my favourite playwrights, and when I told her what I fan I was, she struggled to accept the compliment. She explained that she was in the middle of rewrites and was convinced she was a terrible writer. This playwright wasn’t terrible at all – far from it! – but it was a relief to realise that other playwrights (even established ones) experience moments of self-doubt. My Dad – the Australian Confucius – who can’t let a life event pass by without attempting to moralise it – texted me this message as I battled through my own set of recent rewrites: “The birds can flap around your head, Kendall, but don’t let them get stuck in your hair.” I only realised today – as I was writing this article – that Dad didn’t actually come up with this saying. He’s paraphrased it (and badly) from Martin Luther, a 16th century German Protestant theologian, and its original context had more to do with ignoring lustful thoughts than silencing your inner critic, but I think the sentiment still stands.
Ignore the birds. Protect your writing time. And most importantly, finish your play.