Iain Finlay Macleod | A Conversation with David Greig
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A Conversation with David Greig

A Conversation with David Greig

I led a week long course for writers and non-writers at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye a while back. As part of this we were very lucky to be joined by Scottish writer David Greig. He has written plays such as ‘Outlying Islands’, ‘Dunsinane’ and ‘The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart’. Ten writers were present and we started off with some questions from myself, then opened it out to the floor.

David is a great teacher, not just because of his eloquence and knowledge, but he also tells us his doubts and some of the difficult learning he has done himself.

When he started writing plays, he didn’t feel confident writing certain Scottish accents and so pretended he was writing in translation – setting his plays in an unnamed central European country. This allowed him to write in his own voice and gave him a freedom. This approach also came out of the plays he himself was interested in such as those by Brecht, which he said he has only ever accessed in translation. He also touched on, in the early days, copying the styles of writers he loved.

This then led to a discussion of method, and his belief that as soon as you think you have cracked a method, that is when it stops working for you! He let us in on his current working method of using cards to build up scenes, then picking them at random and writing what comes, then reconstructing the cards and finding an order. With some editing of the material he can make a large step towards a first draft.

This importantly also stops the staring at the blank page and the difficult first lines. You might of course be writing the first lines, you just don’t know it at the time.

David has a lot of techniques to avoid the first empty ‘blank page’. To start, he’ll just write. Simple as that. He tries to ‘open the channel’. He writes a lines of dialogue, not attributed to a character. This demands a response of course. And then he lets it, without judgement, continue. This dialogue then starts to move and hopefully starts to bubble.

The main thing is to allow yourself to write without too much stressing and judgement, he says. David also sets two hour portions aside where all internet is off, for his writing.

We discussed other areas such as the importance of need in a character. Without need, there is nothing, he says. Sometimes a character isn’t going anywhere and he tries changing it about – changing it from a man to a woman. He also stated that he had a sort of rep company in his head, about ten actors of different types, that he wrote for.

He also writes a number of scenes debating what the play is about – some of which finds its way in to the actual play. He believes that you should attack it head on in a play, or else you’re not giving the audience what they want. This also relates to the place of the taboo in theatre, and we had a discussion about this, David stating that this is what people want to see when they go to the theatre – that if it was something we could just discuss in polite society – we would discuss it in polite society!

He introduced us to two critics he created which live in his head – a caveman who he must explain a story to, and a pushy Hollywood film mogul who doesn’t believe in writer’s block. 

David mentioned the fact he has an office for writing in Edinburgh, partly so that he can avoid going to the office and go and write in cafes where the background noise lets him zero in easier. There are multiple ways he has to trick himself into writing, even discussing the fact that there’s nothing like the posters being made to spur someone on to write.

He interrogates the play with ten questions he always asks. For example, what is the question this play asks and do I know the answer to it? (If the answer is yes, maybe he doesn’t need to write the play). What is the title and what does it say? Where is the music? Are you really interested in the subject? 

What I really like about David is that he seems to spend a lot of time thinking of the process of writing, how to trick himself into writing and silence his inner critic. He develops methods to interrogate what he is doing.

It freed the group up and hopefully began the process of allowing them to start constructing their own methods. David never said ‘this is how to do it’, rather he laid out for us how he has done it in the past and how he tries to do it now, and that although he’s David Greig, writing is still bloody hard work. Very inspiring.

Finally, David said if you get to the end of a play, you are ahead of 99 percent of other people who have said they want to write a play. And that once one gets to the end, often something happens. Not always, but often. 

Hopefully this short blog about the approach of this great writer will hep start you on that journey.

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