How I write: Stella Feehily

Stella Feehily. Photo by Miriam Nabarro.


Stella Feehily’s plays include This May Hurt A Bit which took the temperature of the NHS; Bang Bang Bang about two human rights observers in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Dreams of Violence, O Go My Man and Duck – all produced by Out of Joint in co-production with a number of leading theatres. She co-wrote Catch for the Royal Court with other female playwrights, and was co-winner of the 2006 Susan Smith Blackburn Award. She has written radio plays, and has also been an actor.

What time of day do you write?

Usually after the 10 o’clock news and then through to the early hours. I’m often close to a state of dreaming. I’m not sure how helpful that is though. Sometimes I fall asleep…

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

No, but I remember getting the type-set proofs of my first play from Nick Hern Books. It was very exciting. It was the first time that I felt like a writer.

Where do you find inspiration?

Mainly from the news, perhaps something in the editorial section of a newspaper. Recently I saw a programme on the National Geographic channel that gave me an idea.

Do you ever abandon a writing project?

Only once. A play called Swimming In Tel Aviv. Usually you can salvage something from abandoned plays, but not from that one. I chucked the whole play, it was terrible!

Elaine Symons and Ruth Negga in Duck (Out of Joint & Royal Court). Photo by John Haynes.

How do you organise your writing time?

I review what I’ve written the day before, but try to refrain from endless tinkering. Then I eat some cheese, and sketch out a new scene, and then I eat more cheese. However I would never attempt to sit down and write a scene that I hadn’t already imagined.

Where is your favourite place to write?

If I have an idea for a scene then I can write anywhere, though I prefer to be at home at my desk.  It’s quite nice to write on a long train journey, provided you’re not near the dining car or the loos.

Do you procrastinate, and how do you combat it?

I often give in to procrastination but give myself restrictions. So, for example, I will only read three of the ten Guardian leading news stories before I start work. I’ll answer one email but will not get distracted by funny videos on You Tube no matter how silly they are… I’ll review what I’ve already written but if I’ve got a distance to go I won’t allow myself to edit – I keep going.

I try not to have too much cheese in the fridge.

Plus, I sort of believe in procrastination. Sometimes an idea pops up when you are unnecessarily dusting the skirting boards.

Natalie Klamar in This May Hurt A Bit (Out of Joint & Octagon Theatre Bolton). Photo by John Haynes.

How much do you use research?

I use research a lot. The trick is to subsume the research so that your audience can only detect the editorial voice if that’s the actual nature of the play. Sometimes you can fall in love with the research to the detriment of the play.

What do you do when you feel stuck?

Despair. Doesn’t everyone? I imagine what other job I could do and wonder, is it too late to retrain? That’s when it’s time to read plays or delve into a stimulating novel. Samuel Johnson said that before you write a book you should read a library!

I also take comfort in watching writers talking about writing on Youtube. Aaron Sorkin said he spends an awful  lot of time thinking “How the hell am I going to write this thing.”

How do you know when a play is finished?

When your actor says ‘I don’t want anymore lines’.

Read more of the How I write series.