It might seem like an obvious place to start.
What playwright doesn’t write, at least at some level, from their own personal lived experience? It’s a lesson I’ve heard over and over again: write what you know, so the words seem authentic and full.
For me, writing from a place that I’m familiar with is a source of great pleasure. I’d even go so far to say that it’s the reason I’m compelled to write.
My favourite thing in the world is hearing stories from my friends and family – stories so starkly real that no writer could come up with them on their own.
Hearing personal tidbits that range from quirky to hilarious to heartbreaking makes my brain light up with wonder and empathy: like listening to my friend recount the time her teenage nemesis spilt butter chicken on her camping chair at a Scouts jamboree; or hearing a story from my Mum about a great aunt who spent all the money from next year’s crop on lavish parties and dresses for her daughter.
These tales possess a magic that utterly captivates me.
So I burrow them away like a bowerbird, jotting them down in my latest notebook, just so I can pore over them later, and maybe embed them like magic jewels into the plays that I write.
Memory is the other place I begin.
I love to shape my own memories into new stories. Being able to write and re-write your own past is both nostalgic and cathartic. I love to twist together my own re-imagined past with the treasured stories given to me by my family and friends.
I’ve done this in Blueberry Play, which played as part of Batch Festival at Griffin Theatre Company this April and returns again in the Red Line Underground season at the Old Fitzroy.
The play is a monologue from the perspective of a 17-year-old girl whose coming of age is shaped by her father suffering bipolar disorder and prostate cancer. It explores growing up when a parent is struggling with both mental and physical illness, and it’s set in a familiar but unnamed regional town in New South Wales.
I drew strongly on my memories of being a teenage girl growing up in Newcastle. Blueberry Girl is a character experiencing an overwhelming numbness because of the impact her dad’s illness is having on her formative years. This stemmed from my own experiences at that age. I felt a similar numbness in my late adolescence, as I suffered from an eating disorder.
The way the illness shaped my teenage years is something I explore indirectly through the monologue. I still find that time very difficult to talk about explicitly in my playwriting.
And, in a way that I wasn’t totally conscious of until much later, the stories I’d heard from my boyfriend’s experiences wove their way deeply into the heart of the play. His father has been living with a dual diagnosis of bipolar disorder and cancer.
Blueberry Play came together in a kind of alchemical way, and the writing of it let me reconcile my own experiences with those of someone I love. The way my own ideas and memories combine with those I have heard first-hand to create a new play is mysterious and magical.
Writing from the heart is more than a cliché or a buzzword. It’s the act of accessing a secret place in your head, swimming around in it, and finding a release valve so it flows onto the page.