How I write: Rebecca Lenkiewicz

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Rebecca Lenkiewicz – photo by Sarah Lee for The Guardian

To help inspire, encourage and reassure you, we’ve asked some fantastic playwrights to share their thoughts on writing.

First up is REBECCA LENKIEWICZ who won a BAFTA in 2015 year for co-writing Ida, which also won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Her plays The Night Season and Her Naked Skin both premiered at the National Theatre, where the latter was the first original play by a female writer to be premiered on the larger Olivier stage. Other plays include Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, The Invisible and The Painter. She won a Fringe First for her play Soho: A Tale of Table Dancers.

When do you write?

I often think I should enforce a routine, but it’s never happened. I can write in the mornings but tend to have sorted other stuff and settle in to write in the afternoons. I used to love writing at night time but that’s faded a bit. I don’t manage to write every day.

Do you remember the first time someone described you as “a writer”

I can’t remember the first specific time but I’m sure it would have made me feel both elated and embarrassed. I felt very shy about the description for a few years; when I was first paid to write that was a wonderful shock and I felt I could start to contemplate calling myself a writer. An irritating cow at the National came up to me decades ago before a readthrough of my first play there, and I was very nervous and she stroked me like a cat and said “Hello Mrs. Writer” which really annoyed me – she’d always known me as an actress before that. In the bar I could have shrugged it off, but in front of a whole table of people I felt rage. I didn’t show it. I just sat there with a fixed expression.

Where do you find inspiration?

I find a lot of inspiration in true stories. I always think I should keep a notebook of ideas and never do. Just hearing people talk snippets of something I can enjoy and I think I’ll do something with that although I rarely do. People’s acts of bravery I find inspiring.

How much do you use research?
I love research, to the point where I can become far more involved in the research than I have to. But it is a wonderful life blood and such a beautiful tangent to the writing itself. When I write period pieces I steep myself in the language of the time. When writing about real people I need to feel them breathe before I can dive in and that usually entails a lot of books and internet surfing. It’s great.
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Toby Jones in The Painter (Arcola Theatre)

Do you ever abandon a writing project?

I suppose I have abandoned plays that are seemingly finished but could do with another draft and I haven’t felt the volition to improve them. I’ve not hugely abandoned projects midway through. I might write a scene and think it might be the start of a new play and then abandon it as I can’t bear to reread it.

But if I know I’m on a project I will try to see it through to the end unless it’s a disaster. I took my name off a film once as I’d written the script and then the director mostly improvised the whole piece. But it was far more his film than mine, his idea, his own story, so I didn’t feel like I’d abandoned it, just jumped off ship to almost everyone’s delight.

How do you organise your writing time?

I don’t. I just try to hit deadlines and dodge bullets and hope that I can stay out of trouble at the saloon bar. It often feels like the last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid except I’m at my kitchen table in Leyton.

Where is your favourite place to write?

My kitchen table is a good height. I like writing in bed sometimes. I rent a portacabin from Rift theatre company in Tottenham, it has far less distractions than at home, and vibrant and lovely people working around the place who are part of Rift. Cafes can be good; trains if my brain says yes.

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Hannah Hutch and Amanda Bellamy in Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern

Do you procrastinate, and how do you combat it?

I do, a lot, but finally a piece needs to be written and it will out, so these days I see it less as procrastination and more as a necessary irritant to the writing process – a weird fidgeting ritual of not being able to sit down and simply Write quite a lot of the time. I try not to worry about it. The nicest distraction is a walk or a swim, which is never truly a distraction but a vague and beautiful meditation.
What do you do when you feel stuck?
I often feel a bit stuck. It sometimes depresses me but I’m trying to embrace the rhythm of work more and realise that stuck is not necessarily quicksand – it’s simply a refusal to move in a certain direction at that time.
If I can’t write then I’ll try and watch some brilliant films or just get away from the world of words for a while until I feel the hunger to go back in. I’ve never taken a huge amount of time off and often juggle a few projects and I want to do less of that and see what happens when you only have two pieces to ponder, or even one. Or none for a while… my fantasy is to finish all my various projects and to have a blank space and see how that feels. I suspect it would feel wonderful. And then take some time and just start again.
How do you know when a play is finished?
A reticence to change any of it is the closest I can feel to “it’s finished.” It’s a lovely feeling, rare but very satisfying. AIt might change a bit in rehearsal with the director’s and actors’ input, but it’s great when you know that the scenes are in the right order and that it adds up to a whole that means something. When you’re moved by it and you don’t want to change it, it’s a good guide to down tools.

Read more of the How I write series.