A welcome to the ‘Letters to Fellow Writers’ series by Chinonyerem Odimba
In an introduction to a brand new six part series in partnership with tiata fahodzi @TiataFahodzi Artistic Director and Chief Executive Chinonyerem Odimba to invites us…
My dear colleague,
Sorry that I’m only just getting back to you. When you introduced yourself to me at the press night aftershow party and said you wanted to write plays and asked if I had any advice to give you, I was not annoyed. Slightly miffed, yes. You asked me just as I was about to grab the last turkey burger off the tray of a passing waiter. Also, whenever I’m asked this question I find that the older I get the more I have to think about it before answering. I believe in Hemingway’s comment, that a writer should write what they have to say and not speak it. But since I’m writing this letter to you, I guess that’s a moot point.
In any case, I’ve picked up a lot of things during my writing career (You call it a career? Some people can deceive themselves). I’ve also dropped a lot of things. Discernment isn’t my strong suit, so it’s likely the things I picked up were things I should have dropped and the things I dropped I probably should have held on to. In this respect, I’m like the cleaner who tipped an artwork into a bin, thinking it was trash. You know what they say about another person’s meat (veganism, here I come).
The first thing I’d advise is to know your worth. The theatre cannot survive without your creativity. Yes, when you get your work produced you are part of a team but you are integral to the team’s success. Your job isn’t finished as soon as you hand over the final draft (there’s no such thing). Your ideas shaped into a play have currency. So when your collaborators try to twist your play into shape, ask yourself if it’s the shape you imagined and want it to be. Your collaborators are creatives too, they can’t help it. But sometimes you have to take the Suge Knight approach to negotiating your vision, even though it may land you in jail. Some things are non-negotiable for an artist, or else why are you an artist?
Don’t be ashamed to call yourself a writer/artist/theatre-maker. There are many people who will see you as a joker, as not having a proper job, and that includes our very own government, although they gladly receive the taxes that our sweat generates. If anyone tells you that what you do is not as important as, say nurses, tell them to live without the arts for a day. You are worth every minute of your life and looking after yourself is important. You are putting your work out there for people to criticise, critique, dismiss and disparage. Your work and your self will be seen as indistinct and your humanity will be questioned just because you put words in a character’s mouth. And, indeed, you cannot help but leave traces of your self on paper. That goes with the job. Embrace it and love yourself, warts and all.
Unless your name’s Richard, don’t be a dick. I’ve seen lots of young writers who let early success go to their heads. You work in a collaborative field, and even though earlier I told you to stand your ground artistically, I’ve never known a writer’s work to deteriorate by not listening to others. I personally have always enjoyed rehearsals, working with the artistic team bringing words on the page to life. I’ve worked with a dramaturg on nearly every play of mine that’s been staged.
I encourage you to be a student of the theatre. In this age where experts are dismissed with a soundbite, it is important that you know what went on before you. I’ve met many young writers pontificate at gatherings about how they’ve written this play which no one else has written, only to have a few old heads point out to them the many writers who have dealt with their themes and subject matter. Learning is important. Widen your skillset, read plays, go to see performances of all genres, and see how they shape your worldview and your writing style. Studying the past is your biggest leg-up.
They’re bringing out more turkey burgers. Got to run.
Oladipo Agboluaje is a playwright, writing tutor and visiting lecturer. He has taught playwriting, creative writing and post-colonial drama at several universities. His plays include The Estate, Iya-Ile – The First Wife, The Hounding of David Oluwale and Here’s What She Said To Me