William Butler Yeats, Lindsay Lohan and a miniature schnauzer puppy walk into a bar…

What sort of joke could possibly come out of this sort of premise? Only one that I – schnauzer-lover, celebrity gossip and Yeatsophile – would want to write.

What is the role of individuality, or perhaps eccentricity, in the plays that you write? How can you include in your theatre writing the oddness and quirkS that make you such an interesting human being?

There is no cookie-cutter mould by which you write a play. You know those scientific studies that tell you there’s only so many story ‘types’ existing in our world, and playwrights just write a variation on one of those stories every time they sit at their desk? That might just be true. But the way we write that story – the flourishes, the flavours, the schnauzers, the Yeatses – well that’s where it becomes uniquely your own.

That famous adage of “write what you know” is true – but in my opinion, often misunderstood.  It doesn’t mean that if you’ve never fallen in love, you can’t write about love. How limiting that would be! Only astronauts and heart surgeons could write racy plays about space travel and emergency rooms, and the rest of us would be writing about things like “my coffee was a bit too hot today” or “that cat looked at me funny”.

I think “write what you know” means writers need to personalise even the most generic story trope (for example, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy is filled with regret) by adding the references, inspirations and guilty pleasures that make your heart sing.

An example of this is my short film being highlighted on this website at the moment – Bat Eyes. Given the task of writing about first love – a trope that’s really had the life flogged out of it by every Disney teen rom-com – I had to find a way to write about it that was unique to me. Here’s where the poem came in.

W.B. Yeats’s When You Are Old was a poem that I immediately connected with the idea of first love, particularly from the vantage point of an older person looking back. The poem is all about regret, yearning, the inability to express one’s true feelings for fear of rejection, and the feeling of reflecting with a sense of wistfulness and melancholy. It was the perfect backbone to the story I wanted to tell of Adam and Bat Eyes – and it was a marriage of poem and story that only I would have wanted to write.

Similarly, I have gained much creative joy lately from exercising my funny bone and indulging in another obsession – celebrity gossip, and particularly the life and times of Lindsay Lohan. I’ve ended up presenting solo works in Sydney and Canberra, including a series of letters that tell the chronological or otherwise (yet still comprehensive both biographically and emotionally) story of Lindsay Lohan’s life, in the hope of wrenching her – whether she likes it or not – into a more successful future.

What I’m getting at here is the following:

A knowledge of play structure, types of stories, and ideas like tension and dramatic action are a toolkit that will help you to write a solid play. But they do not make a great play alone.

It is so important to find ways into a work to make it uniquely your own. While learning at ATYP’s National Studio, a writers’ intensive in 2010, I took a master class with an excellent dramaturg, Francesca Smith. Smith calls this stamp of uniqueness “territory”; your list of ten or so words, phrases, images and feelings that you would like to tattoo onto your heart, as yours.

They can be general, like love, melancholy or intimacy. Or they can be specific, like bichon frises, jonquils and bannoffee pie.

Next time you sit down to write, why not try and ask yourself the following:

What is it about that image I love, or that poem I know by heart, and the feeling those things give me, that I want to replicate for other people to feel?

How can I appropriate that particular guilty pleasure in my own unique way into one of the tropes or stories that will best carry it to the audience it deserves?

How can I make this play an ideal mesh of recognised structure and individual quirkS?

So many things that you never thought were important can find their way into the formation of your work. Poems stumbled onto in the back of an old bookshop, flowers that smell inexplicably like butter or your grandmother’s last pot of chicken soup. And they’re the things that stick in your audiences’ hearts and minds.

As a playwright, it’s your job to make yourself receptive to these ideas and images, by recognising their role in your unique style and artistic territory. It also means you need to let yourself enjoy your obsessions, rather than relegating them to the pile of ‘guilty pleasures’!

And once you’ve claimed your territory, tattooed it on your chest and embraced the inner quirks… boy, will you have some fun…

Next week: Joanna Erskine’s short film Boot.

Image credit: waferboard