My Life as a writer
When did you first realise you wanted to write for a living?
I’ve always wanted to be a playwright. I wrote I don’t know how many plays but as much as I tried to kid myself I knew I hadn’t got a real voice. Even the best things I wrote sounded like someone else’s work. I wasn’t good enough. Then I got a job as a Head of Drama and I tried to get Arts Council money to employ a writer for a community play. We didn’t get the money so I had to write it myself. For the first time I was working as a writer, getting the job done, finding the most effective way to tell the story, solving problems, working out how to best use a cast of 120 ranging in age from seven years old to the mid-70s. The play worked. I knew it was good. I wrote more for the community and the kids at the school and in doing so I found a voice. I knew then that I could make a living and I was going to make it happen. Slowly my work crept out of the slush pile and I began to be given the small opportunities that gradually led to a full commission. Working with the community and kids at a college in a North Nottinghamshire ex-pit village stripped me of my pretensions and taught me how to write plays that work.
Which writer, past or present, do you most admire?
I’m going to have to name the three I regularly turn to when I start wondering what I’m doing, when I feel lost in a project that isn’t working, Beckett, Brecht and Shakespeare. Beckett for the rigor and precision, Brecht for the sense that rules are there to be broken and that only honesty can stand up to scrutiny, and Shakespeare for absolutely everything. All three of them move me, make me laugh, make me gasp at the audacity of their talent, and help me to understand a little of the complexities of being human. If pushed to name one it’s got to be Shakespeare, far too clever for his own good that man.
What was your first published (or performed) credit as a writer?
Discounting very early stuff and articles for everyone from Derbyshire Today to the Times Ed it’s Female 29, G.S.O.H. A one-act play performed in October 1997 in the Studio at Derby Playhouse in the company of two others, Sarah Phelps and Linda McLean.
Which piece of writing work are you most proud of?
Until recently I’ve found it hard to acknowledge I felt proud of my work. For years I believed that if something worked it was blind luck and if it didn’t it was all my fault and only what I deserved. Then I would have given this question a glib answer. Now I’m probably going to say too much but I believe that if you have a sense of what you can do it makes it easier for you to be both more adventurous and more objective. It makes you realise that what you achieve isn’t down to blind luck but hard work and an understanding of your craft and you can build on that when the work isn’t going well.
I’m proud that the 16-year-old who hitched to Stratford to sleep in the Memorial Gardens to queue for tickets the next morning worked for the RSC.
I’m proud that Warrior Square, a play about the consequences of ethnic conflict, and my second commission, the one that allowed me to leave teaching, has been produced in Sarajevo and Croatia.
I’m proud of my latest play. A Girl With A Book is the second time that rejection by the Arts Council has ended up serving me well. We went for ACE money and were turned down. I was determined that it went ahead. With support from Andrew Breakwell, my director, and Nottingham Playhouse, I wrote it and performed it. I asked myself if this might be seen as an act of unbelievable hubris, or jumping on a bandwagon. But I believed I should do it. It’s had 30-odd performances over the last year, taken me back to acting, and at the moment there are five productions playing or scheduled in Germany and Austria.
Who or what inspires you to write?
Things I see. Things I hear. Things I read. People I meet. Places I go. My eyes are open all the time. It’s a cliché but it’s true that even in quite difficult situations there’s a part of your brain that’s sifting the moment for possible material. Stuff that makes me angry. Stuff that makes me laugh. Behaviour that inspires me. Behaviour that appals me. Anything that calls out for a response. Then ultimately – the deadline.
How do you switch off when you’re not writing?
Family. Friends. Books. I love live music. I used to climb, now I cycle and walk.
Which one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Do what you really believe in. Don’t wait for the one brilliant idea. If you have a germ of something in your head pursue it. And start writing. Don’t try and hone your first page into a polished jewel, get the words down and the ideas on paper. It doesn’t matter if you write rubbish, when you reread it there’ll always be something there that will take you forward. You can rewrite rubbish, you can’t rewrite a blank page, and rewriting is the best bit.
Why are you a member of WGGB?
Why wouldn’t I be? I’m a writer. It’s the union for writers. The Guild is there to negotiate our rates of pay across all the disciplines, it’s there to help us with our own individual problems. Membership was an acknowledgement of my professional status. I belonged. It’s a duty and a privilege to be a member. The first time my name appeared in Members’ Upcoming Work I saw a few lines above me was Harold Pinter and I knew I was a part of a serious union. That made me proud.
Nick was an actor, a freelance journalist, and a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. Recent commissions include Nottingham Playhouse, Crucible Theatre, Hans Otto Theater, Potsdam, Eastern Angles, Radio 4, Theatr Iolo, Thalia Theater, Hamburg and the RSC. His plays have been produced in the USA, Canada, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Germany, Austria, Bosnia, Serbia, Luxemburg, Korea and Switzerland.