How I write: Simon Stephens

HOW I WRITE Simon Stephens.jpg
Simon Stephens. Photo by Kevin Cummins.

Among Simon Stephens‘ many plays are Song from Far Away, Birdland, Three Kingdoms, Punk Rock, Harper Regan, Pornography, Motortown, On The Shore of The Wild World, Herons and Country Music. His translations include The Threepenny Opera, The Cherry Orchard and A Doll’s House, and his hugely successful adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time won both the Olivier and Tony awards for Best Play.

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

I remember being asked my profession was when I registered at a new doctor’s in 2000, and I was resident dramatist at the Royal Court and I said “writer” and that felt great.

Where is your favourite place to write?

I can write anywhere. At the moment I am enjoying writing in my kitchen with my puppy at my feet.

What time of day do you write?

An ideal working day would have me writing from about 10.30 after getting my daughter to school and having a cycle and a swim and a coffee, but this rarely happens.

My day is constantly interrupted by meetings and rehearsals and other traffic. I can, though, write pretty much any time and any where. The earliest I have ever started is about 7. The latest I’ve ever worked to until about 3.30am. So apart from between 3.30 am and 7 am any time.

Three Kingdoms (Theatre NO99, Tallinn / Munich Kammerspiele / Lyric Hammersmith, London)

Where do you find inspiration?

All over the place. The people I meet. The things I’ve done. The books I’ve read. The places I’ve been. The films I’ve seen. The music I’ve heard. The plays I’ve watched. The art I’ve engaged with. Actors I’ve worked with. Stages I’ve worked on. Audiences I’ve encountered. Directors I’ve worked with and other collaborators.

Do you ever abandon a writing project?

Only film and TV stuff, and thats not me its the idiots running that unpredictable industry. I’ve never, so far, abandoned a theatre project. I normally spend enough time thinking about them before starting work to know whether the idea has substance or not. The problem with a lot of beginning writers is that they start their work too soon.

How do you organise your writing time?

I am a scrupulous project manager. I know exactly what I am going to be working on for the next two years. I know exactly when I need to start working on plays to hit the deadlines I’ve set myself. Planning them. Researching them. Structuring them. Writing them. Re-drafting them.

If I get four hours a day solid work on these plays I should be absolutely fine. Sometimes that’s not so easy to find.

Do you procrastinate, and how do you combat it?

I realised a short time ago that actually procrastination was a fundamental part of the job. I set myself rigorous deadlines and compartmentalise the objectives of each working day strictly according to meet those plans. I know what I want to achieve each day.

I can procrastinate as much as I like as long as I hit those objectives. Sometimes the objective might be writing a number of scenes. Sometimes refining a plan or doing a redraft. But I never miss the objective.

The National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

How much do you use research?

A lot. But its not just an academic researching a subject. I might be researching the form. Or the tone of a play. Watching films, reading plays , looking at art, listening to music is as key part of the research as interviewing somebody or going somewhere. But travel and interviews are a fundamental part of the work too.

What do you do when you feel stuck?

Check that I’ve planned properly. Often being stuck is because I’ve not thought enough about my intention. I kind of think writer’s block is an invention of people who want to think of themselves as writers but not do any work. The closest they get to being a writer is having “writer’s block” because they’ve heard thats what writers have. It can be avoided by thinking and preparing properly.

How do you know when a play is finished?

You never do. Thats why deadlines are essential. They stop you from tinkering and force you to commit.

Read more of the How I write series.