How I write: Suhayla El-Bushra

how-i-write-suhayla-smallSuhayla El Bushra’s adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide was staged at the National Theatre. Other plays include Pigeons (Royal Court), Cuckoo (Unicorn Theatre) and The Kilburn Passion (Tricycle Theatre). She has written extensively for TV and is developing a screenplay with Neon Films.

Where do you find inspiration? 

Previous inspiration has come from teenagers I’ve worked with, my dad, my mum, my upbringing, history books, Greek tragedies, fiction, cinema. Some music videos I find really inspiring. Listening to music while running. Eavesdropping on conversations on trains and buses.

I don’t think it’s ever in the same place twice. If it is then you’re probably just rewriting the same old thing, in which case you should stop.

What do you do when you feel stuck? 

I try and write through it. I go ‘off book’ and write around the script. I try stream of consciousness writing in character, or write scenes that I know aren’t part of the story I’m writing but that help to unlock the characters a bit more for me. Sometimes I like that stuff more, and it ends up going into the final piece. If all that fails I go out for a walk, or a run, or go and watch a film or a play that might trigger something.

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

No but I remember the first time I felt I could describe myself as a writer when someone asked what I did for a living. I think I was working on the TV show Doctors. I felt very pleased with myself.

Do you ever abandon a writing project? 

Sometimes, yes, but the ideas behind them tend to come out later in other projects.

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The Suicide, at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson.

What time of day do you write? 

I have school age children, so I tend to write solidly from 9-3 every day, and then grab another hour or two in the evening – or more if there’s a deadline looming.

How do you organise your writing time? 

Time is limited because of family commitments, so I have to be quite strict with myself. Also – and this is really boring and uncreative – I have to work out how much time I can afford to spend on something based on how much money is coming in. Which is not to say that something that pays well takes up more time – a well paid project can mean I can afford to spend time writing something else for very little – but it’s something to take into account.

Where is your favourite place to write? 

At home, by the living room window, when there’s no one around.

Do you procrastinate, and how do you combat it? 

I’m addicted to Facebook. It can be a nice break if you work from home as it’s the equivalent of having a chat around the water cooler, but you can end up staring at the screen numbly scrolling, or wasting time and energy arguing with people you don’t know very well about contentious political issues or what the best Bananarama single was.

How much do you use research? 

A fair bit. I’ve written a few historical things, or stories set in other countries, against a particular political backdrop. It’s important to have an understanding of the world you’re in so you can write freely.

How do you know when a play is finished? 

You can tell when a draft is finished. That’s usually when you feel you’ve done all you can for now and you need someone else to cast a fresh eye on it. But I don’t know that a play ever feels finished. Sometimes you’re there in previews writing away, and then it’s press night and you just have to let it go and move on to the next project.


Read more of the How I write series.