Pursued By A Bear: “I’m struggling to finish my first play, should I just give up?”

Pursued By A Bear is our new advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.    

“I’m writing my first full-length play, and IT’S SO HARD.  I’ve made it about halfway through, but I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, and I don’t know how to finish it.  I’m not even enjoying writing it anymore.  I’m trying not to get too bummed out about it, but it’s starting to make me really depressed.  Does this mean I’m not meant to be a playwright? – Sam C.

Is anyone meant to be a playwright? I doubt it.

To an outsider it seems like a pleasant enough occupation; sit around thinking for a bit, jot some ideas down, spend a couple of hours typing, pop along to a rehearsal and flirt with some attractive actors, collect your Olivier Award, sell the film rights, retire to an island paradise.

In my limited experience, it doesn’t always happen that way.

If I were to sum up my personal writing process it would go something like this:

Think of an idea for a new play.

Get a bit excited.

Realise it will probably be shit.

Start planning it anyway.

Run out of steam.

Stop planning it.

Decide to start writing, assuming it will work itself out.

Bash out a promising first act.

Run out of steam again.

Begin hating the play, myself and all of humanity.

Keep writing but despise every second of it.

Consider quitting and moving to Malaysia to pursue a more rewarding career as a crocodile wrestler.

Quit but stay at home hating my life.

Pick up the play again months later and discover it actually wasn’t that horrendous.

Decide to finish the play.

Wake up three days later in the foetal position in my shower clinging onto an empty tequila bottle.

Walk it off.

Finish the play.

Rewrite the play ad infinitum until someone physically beats me to the floor and rips it from my unconscious grasp.

Get another idea.

But that’s just the way I like to work. I’m sure other people have their own variations, but they’re probably pretty similar overall.

I like to think of playwrights as being like those insane salmon that swim upstream to lay their eggs even though the rushing water literally rips the flesh off their bones and they die slowly in excruciating pain, struggling every second of the way.

We’re all idiots.

But don’t let that stop you. Because once you’ve finished the play you might feel good about it. Probably not, but maybe.

All joking aside, don’t get depressed about not being able to finish your play. No writer ever really finishes anything, if it was down to us we’d just keep rewriting and editing forever because it hasn’t reached that level of perfection that only exists in our twisted minds. I’ve already rewritten this answer eighteen times, and I’m still tweaking it.

The most useful piece of advice I can give you is to force yourself to keep going. Keep reminding yourself that it’s a first draft and it’s going to have a lot of problems. You can probably see some of those problems already, but just ignore them for now. It’s the only way you’ll get through.

Think of every great play you’ve ever seen in your life.

I guarantee you that none of those were first drafts. Not one.

The key is in the word first, implying that there are others to follow. This is your first draft of your first play. You should be congratulating yourself for getting halfway through. You’ve done better than a lot of people.

Even the most talented and accomplished writers have insecurities about their work. If there was a pie chart showing the percentage of people from various professions who have enjoyed at least one stay in a mental institution, that would be the biggest slice of pie most writers are ever likely to get.

Because once you’ve finished the first draft you enter the rewriting stage.

And that’s where it gets really painful.

You’ll then have to keep reading over the garbled nonsense you wrote before and trying to make sense of it. You’ll have to twist it and carve it and squash it into some kind of shape that you’re able to show to another human being without branding your soul with indelible shame.

This part is the equivalent of our poor, dead salmon being revived by scientists and kept alive in a tiny fish tank full of mirrors with nothing to eat but its own eggs for what feels like a thousand years.

The key thing to remember through all of this is that you wanted to be a writer. And this is what being a writer is all about; insecurity, self-loathing and deep, deep despair.

Only joking.

Being a writer is about writing stuff.

Don’t go insane over your first play. If you stick at this writing thing, it will not be your best work.

That may sound negative but I genuinely mean it to lift a weight off your shoulders.

This play could well turn out to be awful.

But if it does, who cares? It’s your first ever play.

How much training do you think Muhammad Ali put in before winning the World Heavyweight Championship the first time? He didn’t just wake up that morning and think “Maybe I’ll give boxing a go.” He started training at age twelve and won that belt at twenty two. After ten years of hard graft. And yes, he won a hundred amateur fights prior to becoming the champ, but even he still chalked up five losses during that time.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to equal Death of a Salesman on your first go. You’ll be overwhelmed with feelings of inferiority and never get to the end.

I think of everything I write as another step up the learning curve. This takes away a lot of the pressure and allows me room to be creative without feeling like what I’m writing isn’t good enough. Think of this play as part of your training and it will give you forward momentum, whereas striving for perfection at this stage will just keep you tweaking and rewriting and never getting to the end of that first draft.

So when you do get to the end of this play, if you’re not happy with it, just call it a practice and start writing another one. Then write another one, and another one, and keep going until you write something you’re really proud of.

And then write more.

Writing plays isn’t easy, just as anything worth doing isn’t. But it does get easier. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that writing is something you’re either born to do or not. Yes, it requires a certain amount of talent, but just like any other art form, a large part of it is down to training and developing the necessary skills.

Ali didn’t float out of the womb like a butterfly, he did ten years of skipping and shadowboxing to perfect that footwork. I’m not saying you need to spend ten years jumping rope and fighting imaginary opponents in front of the mirror. I’m saying you need to give yourself a chance to get started before you give up.

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5 thoughts on “Pursued By A Bear: “I’m struggling to finish my first play, should I just give up?””

  1. Great post. It is a daily, never-ending battle against “insecurity, self-loathing and deep, deep despair.” Everyone falls off the horse; my assumption is that the only way to become a writer is to keep getting back on.

  2. It took me ten years to even accept that I was even going to take myself seriously as a writer. It took me three years from having the initial idea to start writing what became the first draft of my first play. It took me 2 years to actually finish the thing, and my process was remarkably similar to the one outline above. However, I finished it in October 2016. Since then, I’ve written two others, polished up the first and second plays (on their fourth and third full drafts, respectively) and am three weeks and five scenes into my fourth script.

    Self-doubt, I think, is probably a writer’s constant companion. For me it’s a case of waiting it out or writing through it. Always assume that the nagging voice telling you you’re no good is wrong, even if sometimes it seems to have a point. Write like there’s nothing you can’t fix in another draft.

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  4. Virginia J Rose

    Adam’s post, and Gabe’s and Ashley’s replies, are so refreshing and reassuring – and funny! Thank you all – knowing that we all suffer in much the same ways is fabulous – helps take the weight off. I too have experienced much the same as everyone above, and know that the only way to keep going is to keep going – eventually. And it’s amazing how much better even a truly unsatisfactory draft can look, when you’ve left it alone for long enough, and worked on another play instead. I love Adam’s solution for the purgatory of endlessly rewriting – have someone else snatch the latest draft from you. I find that deadlines for competitions or classes sometimes serve this role. I love the blog’s title too – who can resist ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’?

  5. As my husband says when I am in the middle of wallowing in my deep, deep pool of self-doubt, artwork is hard work. I take comfort in his acknowledgement of the difficulty in writing, pour myself another cup of coffee and get back to the task at hand. I always feel better when I write something, even if it is just revising something I have already written. Just keep writing.

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