Editor Jennifer Richards reflects on writing a play where the subject matter’s close to you heart, looking at how to look after yourself when delving into personal experience.
The ‘write what you know’ cliché is often tossed around in articles about learning to be a writer, but sometimes creating a play about a personal experience you went through isn’t as easy as just following the cliché.
When I was writing my play All In Your Head, it was the first time I had written about my own experience, reflecting on the OCD and depression I suffered with as a teenager. I discovered the hard way that reliving negative experiences can take a lot of energy, both physically and emotionally.
If you’re thinking of drawing on personal experience for your next play, here’s what I learnt about looking after yourself in the process:
1. Don’t be in the eye of the storm
There was no way I could have written about my mental health experience if I was still had OCD or depression. I needed to feel enough distance from the subject matter so that my emotions wouldn’t cloud my judgment as a writer.
Even if the story you’re writing is a representation of you, it’s important to remember that you are still writing a story. And you want it to be best story it can be.
That means you have to look at what you’ve written objectively, and decide if each piece of dialogue is really beneficial to the play.
I wrote a very emotional scene that included dialogue lifted straight from a conversation I had years ago with my dad. And though I remember this as a significant conversation in my life, when I read it back, I realised that it didn’t move the plot on and was unlikely to be of any interest to the audience. So I had to cut it.
Remember when you do have to cuts dialogue or even scenes, this doesn’t mean you’re rewriting what you went through.
2. Be as honest as you’re comfortable with
You can write something that’s based on your experience without ever telling anyone it is. Very few people in my life knew the extent to which I suffered with OCD and I was nervous about saying that the play was based on my experience, and opening myself up in this way.
You shouldn’t feel any pressure to share personal information if you don’t want to, it won’t make the story any worse or better if you do.
It was actually only after completing All In Your Head that I decided I wanted to tell people it was a reflection of the mental health conditions I used to have. I realised that, through that play, I want to open up the conversation around mental health and also wanted to be a part of this conversation myself.
That’s why I decided I was comfortable enough to share the truth behind the play, but there may be times in the future when I don’t want to share that something I’ve written is based on things I’ve been through – and both reactions are absolutely fine.
3. Take someone to see it
This point isn’t just about bringing someone you know to see your play as a way to drum up audience numbers (though it all helps!), it’s actually about ensuring you’re taking care of yourself.
Seeing experiences you lived through acted out on stage can be quite emotional, and it can also bring up memories you long thought you’d dealt with and moved on from.
Be prepared for this, and bring a close friend or family member to opening night who is aware that the play is personal to you, and will consider how you feel first and foremost before they talk about whether they liked the play.
Asking the director to come along to a few rehearsals is also a good way of dipping your toe in the water and gradually introducing yourself to seeing such a personal piece.
4. Reviews don’t invalidate your experience
This is another reason that it’s important to have distance between yourself and what you’re writing about. No matter how much work you put into your show, unfortunately someone is bound to not like it. And if you see a negative review either in a publication or just on Twitter, it can feel like a reflection on you when the story on stage is your own.
Remind yourself that the person is commenting on the fictional account on stage, they are not commenting on what you went through, and they are definitely not invalidating your experiences. No matter what anyone says about your play, that shouldn’t change how you view yourself or what you’ve dealt with.
Ultimately, be kind to yourself. If you’re writing about something personal, you shouldn’t be punishing yourself if you’re struggling to finish a scene, or if you’re perhaps not in the position where you want to share the piece yet.
Taking care of yourself should always be a priority, which is something we’re sadly not taught enough about in the arts. But as long as you do this, writing about something personal can in fact be a cathartic, positive experience.
Though you may be making yourself more vulnerable, that vulnerability translates to authenticity on stage, helping audiences to connect with the piece more, which theatre is all about.
Jennifer Richards’s show ALL IN YOUR HEAD is running at the Faversham Fringe from August 26th to 28th.