A Way with Words: Briar Grace-Smith

by Briar Grace-Smith / 20 June, 2017

Briar Grace-Smith.

Playwright Briar Grace-Smith tells of the inspirations for her latest work.

Story ideas present themselves to me often. Most have little substance and disappear quickly. The ones that stay, I pursue.

When I wrote the play When Sun and Moon Collide, I’d been driving every day from Paekakariki to Massey University in Palmerston North. That meant a lot of time on the road. On the journey, I noticed several things: a skinny girl who sprinted across the paddocks every morning at half past eight, a deserted tea room and a sky that consumed everything. These observations, and the questions they raised, became the beginnings of a play.

I remember complaining to my mother-in-law, Patricia Grace, about how I didn’t have time to write because I had children. In response, she – a novelist and mother of seven – shrugged and told me I should “just get on with it”.

So I wrote at the kitchen table while the kids were eating, at the park while they played on swings and on the steps while waiting for kohanga to finish. I handed in pages stained with food. I would circle the stains with a biro and write “this is only Vegemite” so the readers didn’t think the worst.

Now, it takes more than sage advice to get me into the writing zone. The blank page and the deadline loom, and ritual has become an important way of easing my way towards the keyboard. The day starts with a latte, delivered to me in bed by [partner] Himiona (yes, I am lucky), and I spend the next hour surfing the web. I do the dishes, hang out washing and sigh a lot. Then, armed with a barrage of research and often music and images, I sit down to write.

The first draft of a play or screenplay is the hardest. I know that if I break for too long, I might lose the story at the end of my line, so if I come up against walls, I make myself push through them. With a story question in mind and Storm the dog at my side, I tread the beaches and hills of Paekakariki. It’s rare that the expanse of sea, sky and land doesn’t provide me with answers. “You’re using the wrong protagonist,” they sometimes scream.

At this stage, the producers I’m working with (who know me well) call. Their presence reminds me that other people are involved and that there will be an end and ultimately an outcome. These conversations keep me grounded.

At some part of the pushing-through stage, I understand what my story is and I become that young-mother-writer again. The work becomes an immersive experience, and the momentum is so strong, I’m not distracted by the notion of stopping until it’s done.

I write on either side of meetings. I write on planes and in trains and cars. When my 12-year-old tells me about her day, she stops mid-sentence to say, “Mum, you’re not listening. You’re thinking of your stupid script. This better be over soon.” And when it is over, I feel tired and raggy, but happy.

Then the next idea steps forward.

Briar Grace-Smith’s When Sun and Moon Collide, which is directed by Rawiri Paratene, is at the ASB Waterfront Theatre from June 20 to July 6.

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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