In this guest post – an example of how committed writers can make the most of challenging circumstances – Tamara von Werthern explains how she managed to complete a play on a tight deadline on a family holiday.
I put the phone down with a mixture of elation and dread. The good news was that the Arcola liked my idea for a play about ghost bikes, roadside memorials for cyclists who have been killed on the street. The theatre wanted to accept me into their writers’ group and stage The White Bike at their writing festival. The bad news? The script needed to be in just three weeks’ time and I was about to go on a much-anticipated holiday during which we planned to drive through Germany and France with a tent and our eighteen-month-old daughter, Marlene. Aaaargh!
Despite having done a lot of thinking about what I wanted to write, I had not even put pen to paper yet. To make it worse, this was a subject that made me feel anxious and worried as I cycled to work every day and was terrified of not coming home myself one day. So it would not be easy to switch between working on the play and having a carefree time camping. How on earth could I do both, get a good script in and enjoy my holiday without ruining it for everyone by stressing about my deadline?
We set out early by Eurostar and DB trains and arrived at my dad’s place near Frankfurt in the afternoon. The journey was quite productive. James read books to Marlene while I took half hour writing sessions, interspersed with talking with James, playing with Marlene, picnicking and changing nappies. To avoid abandoning my family completely, I stuck to these short time-slots and made the most of the time we were spending together during my breaks. Initially, I just wrote as much as possible: not the actual play, but around it, collecting ideas, writing down what I was worried about, what should happen, who should be in it.
The next morning I got up at 5.30, sat in my dad’s empty kitchen with a strong coffee and put in another two and a half hours. By the end of this, I had decided on a structure and the main characters. Just in time for the holiday to begin! We loaded up my dad’s old bus, with a mattress and a camping table in the back and set off, towards the French border. James drove. Marlene sat between us in her child seat and I had my notebook on my lap and started writing scenes as we drove.
The characters became clearer to me as I started to write scenes putting them in action. Even so, I hated most of the early scenes. I knew they were not yet as good as I wanted them to be, but it was still good to write, to have to produce material, and quickly, as I didn’t have the luxury of just putting it to the side and forgetting about it. Marlene slept a lot while we were driving and James and I spoke about what I was writing in the intervals, which helped me enormously as it freed me from being trapped too much in my own head with the play.
Our first stop was at a camp site just over the French border – where, incidentally, we left my daughter’s beaker, a slightly traumatic event, which only came into full force 200 km further away at bedtime. But aside from missing beakers, we managed to have a lovely time. We ate croissants, swam in rivers, had a lovely meal at a French restaurant for my birthday, assuming Marlene would sleep all the way through in her buggy, but she woke up as the starters arrived and participated heartily to the amazement of the couple on the next table: ‘Elle mange! Elle mange tout ca!’
At the campsite, my notebook got fuller, and I started to see more clearly what needed to be in the play and what was superfluous. I did a lot of highlighting and scribbling notes into the scenes I already had on paper and I began to work on shaping the piece as a whole, thinking of it as a puzzle that needed to be solved. What would come first? How could this scene flow into the next? The idea of a journey through my own neighbourhood emerged. I wanted to convey how, when cycling, everything you see sparks a memory of something else, an association – and that is quite similar to seeing your life flash before you.
Meanwhile, I was determined not to skip my holiday, or let this amazing opportunity turn into a source of stress. Even though the project was always in the back of my mind I made it a point to unplug and enjoy the moment. We went for walks, had wine outside our tent in the evenings, and travelled through the Dordogne valley to the amazing sand dunes behind Bordeaux, where we also managed to fit in dinner with university friends and met their children.
In Bordeaux, I got a message that I needed to send the blurb to the Arcola immediately, so we wandered up and down dusty market streets until we found an internet café where I spent half an hour trying to condense a half-written play into three lines, then press send.
By limiting the writing to driving times, I managed to get a lot done in the hours that would otherwise have been dead time, and I was helpfully forced to stay in my seat. It was sometimes challenging, but I managed to enjoy the holiday, and felt that writing the play actually enriched my time away. It also led to interesting and quite deep conversations with my very supportive partner James, who willingly served as a sounding board, which we might not otherwise have had.
I submitted the play on time, and it was staged at the Arcola six weeks later. I also feel the nature of writing it as part of a journey has made its way into The White Bike, which has had its own journey since then – we are just about to present the full-length version at the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling, and hopefully we’ll manage a full production of it later on.
The experience I had working to this difficult deadline has definitely carried forward into my everyday writing habits. It’s shown me that if I can finish a play under these circumstances, I can definitely fit writing into my busy life as a working mum, even if it means squeezing in a scene before the school run or during my lunch break at work. As writers, we rarely get the perfect circumstances to work but by seizing moments to write whenever we can spare them, it is possible to finish a play with a very full schedule – or even while keeping a toddler entertained in a van in France.
Tamara von Werthern is a writer and director/producer. Her work has been performed at the Royal Court and the Arcola Theatre. She is currently working on a production of her play THE WHITE BIKE, which will be shown at The Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh this June. Her crowdfunding campaign is live until 8 May at https://www.kickstarter.