How I write: Jessica Swale


Jessica Swale‘s plays include Nell Gwynn, which transferred to the West End following it’s Shakespeare’s Globe premiere; Thomas Tallis and Blue Stockings. She has also adapted several books for the stage including Stig of the Dump, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Secret Garden and Sense and Sensibility. Jess is also a successful director, and has written a number of popular books of drama games for use in rehearsals and drama lessons.

What time of day do you write?

All the time! Mornings are my most productive, but they’re also the best time to go for a run or to a yoga class – both of which help me think, so it’s always a bit of a toss up. I often snatch bits of writing time in the cracks of the day – on train journeys, for half an hour in a cafe before going out somewhere. I focus well in small windows of time.

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

No! I was a director for the first ten years of my career, so even thinking of myself as a writer took a bit of getting used to. I didn’t have an ambition to become a writer, per se, though I did a bit of stealth writing – editing, adding bits to old plays, messing around with texts. So the beginning was a bit of a blur, like so many good things in life!

Nell Gwynn at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo by Tristram Kenton.

Where do you find inspiration?

Originally, everything I wrote came from somewhere in my own imagination – or my own experience, so an idea might grow from a thought about a situation, from a line in a novel, from visiting somewhere, a titbit in an article, a question or a surprising fact.

Blue Stockings, my first play, came from a detail in the research I was doing on another project entirely. I was reading about the life prospects of women in the 1800s to help an actress with her character [for Out of Joint’s production of Andersen’s English, when Jessica was assistant to Max Stafford-Clark] and I stumbled across the fact that women at that time weren’t given access to University. The whole thing grew from there.

Now, however, I sometimes work on commission, so I might be handed a germ of an idea by someone else, and then allowed to run with it, which I find thrilling. ‘Can you write a film where the backdrop is Abbey Road?’ for example… that’s my next project. It’s like someone giving you a bag of ingredients and then saying ‘cook what you like.’ It works slightly different muscles.

Do you ever abandon a writing project?

Not yet, but I’m sure I will.

How do you organise your writing time?

When I’m very organised – not a lot of the time! – I set my alarm for 52 minutes, turn off all internet, phone lines and move out of the kitchen into my study, and sit and work till the alarm goes. If I think of something outside the writing, like an email that I have to send, I write it on a piece of paper so I don’t get distracted.

It sounds silly, but there’s some research which says that splitting your day into 52 minute concentration periods with 17 minute breaks optimises your focus. I have no idea whether it’s true, but it helps me get the work done. More often than not, at the end of 52 minutes, you’re in the middle of something and carry on… but it makes it seem doable. Less than an hour. Short, sharp bursts. Then I go to the park, watch the ducks, walk around a bit, then come back and do some more.

Far from the Madding Crowd at the Watermill, Newbury. Photo by Michael Wharley.

Where is your favourite place to write?

My gift to myself this year was to make our tiny lodger’s room into a study. That works well for me. But, because of the business of life, more often than not I’m out writing in a cafe or on a bus. I’ll write anywhere. My kitchen table is my favourite spot as it’s South facing so it feels like Summer even in Winter. And the kettle’s at arms length.

Do you procrastinate, and how do you combat it?

Yes. All the time. Sometimes I combat it using the 52 minute method that I describe. A lot of the time, I don’t. A lot of good ideas come out of procrastination. I used to get told off for day-dreaming at primary school. I realise now that meandering thinking like that is often the way that you solve problems. If I’m stuck on a character or an element of plot, often leaving it, then sloshing it around my head on the bus, leads me to solve it. Sometimes in the oddest places.

How much do you use research?

I read a great deal of research. I try and find out everything I can, then I process it, make notes, spend lots of time thinking about it, then throw it all out. Anything worth remembering I’ll remember. My job is to write story – I’m not a documentary maker, and despite the fact some of my plays are set in specific historical contexts, it’s important that character and story drive you forward, not slavishly recreating a museum of the past.

What do you do when you feel stuck?

Lots of writers clean… I don’t. I probably should. I go to the coffee shop. Phone my granny. Do some yoga. Fill in email questionnaires about How I write.

How do you know when a play is finished?

They never are. I used to think it was the first day of rehearsals. Wrong. Then press night. Wrong. Then the end of the run… wrong – sometimes the play comes back and you work on it again. At the moment I’m rewriting my first two plays as film and TV projects, so they’re still not finished. Probably when I’m dead. Although even then…

Read more of the How I write series.